Stephen M. Koeth: Drive-in church is a 1950s throwback — and may be the future of religious practice

Summary: And as quarantines linger parishioners are longing for a greater sense of community than can be experienced online. One solution may be to retrieve a religious practice rooted in the 1950s: the drive-in church.

Stephen M. Koeth photo.png
Stephen M. Koeth photo

Although some pastors have garnered media attention for defying social distancing orders by holding in-person services, the vast majority of America's religious communities have found innovative ways of continuing their worship and ministry while abiding by public health guidelines established to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Like so many businesses, schools and even therapists and doctors, churches have turned to the internet and to video chat to continue offering congregants pastoral outreach. Priests and ministers are live-streaming Masses and services on church websites and Facebook pages, and faith-sharing and bible-study groups are meeting virtually. The Office of Campus Ministry at the University of Notre Dame has even provided its students, now scattered across the country, the opportunity to participate in online spiritual retreats. Once again, religion and religious rituals are adapting to changing social circumstances.

But, as the current crisis is highlighting, not all work can be moved online. Just as certain essential services and medical care can only be provided in person so, too, some religious rituals require the faithful to be in the physical presence of the minister. And as quarantines linger parishioners are longing for a greater sense of community than can be experienced online. One solution may be to retrieve a religious practice rooted in the 1950s: the drive-in church.

After World War II, as car ownership expanded and the suburbs boomed, denominations struggled to find facilities in which to launch new churches, and ministers feared losing the faithful to suburban recreation. Rev. Norman Hammer of Emmanuel Lutheran Church in North Hollywood, California, thought families were skipping services because they didn't want to get dressed up for church before driving to the beach for the day. So Hammer began holding the nation's first drive-in worship services on an empty lot near his church in July 1949.


In 1955, when Rev. Robert Schuller was establishing a church in Garden Grove, California, the only space he could find for a temporary sanctuary was the Orange Drive-In theater where he preached from atop the concession stand. As his drive-in services attracted more members, Schuller was able to build a small church and more traditional-minded congregants argued for the end of the drive-in services. But Schuller believed that drive-in services spoke to America's mobile and suburban culture offering comfort and convenience. They made the church more accessible for elderly and infirm members and they were a low-commitment entree for hesitant seekers still uncertain about full membership in the church.

By 1969, Schuler had employed architect Richard Neutra to design a new church that accommodated both walk-in and drive-in congregants. On a 22-acre campus near Disneyland, the Garden Grove Community Church's glass curtain wall opened so that drive-in worshipers could see Schuller preach from an elevated indoor-outdoor pulpit while listening to a broadcast of the service on their car radios.

Protestant worship, focused as it is on preaching, was easily adapted to a drive-in setting, but even liturgically oriented traditions like Catholicism occasionally employed drive-in churches in this period. On Long Island, St. Anne's Catholic Parish began holding Sunday Masses at a drive-in theater in 1955. St. Anne's had been a small country parish until postwar suburbanization led to a massive increase in parishioners. Its tiny chapel held just 275 people and on Sundays over 2000 people attended one of the parish's five overflowing Masses.

So the pastor, Fr. Thomas I. Conarty, arranged for two, and eventually four, Masses to be held at the Fifth Avenue Drive-In in Brentwood. Volunteers constructed a three-sided shed in front of the movie screen from which a priest celebrated Mass. Ushers passed out missals as cars entered the lot and took up the collection as they departed.

Families with children, sometimes still in pajamas or wearing swimsuits for an afternoon at the beach, remained in their cars listening to Mass over speakers hung at each parking spot and walked up to the shed when it was time to receive Holy Communion. Although some parishioners had been skeptical, Conarty reported that opposition dissolved after the first Sunday. Still, he envisioned the drive-in church as a temporary solution for the summer of 1955. In fact, St. Anne's continued to hold drive-in Masses until 1968 when the theater was sold and the parish was finally able to finance construction of a new church.

Despite Schuller's predictions, drive-in churches were never more than an expedient or novelty.

The Reformed Church in America, for example, had only about a dozen drive-in churches across the country by 1971. Then the oil crises of the 1970s changed how cars were designed and used, and drive-in theaters and churches largely faded away. But the drive-in church had lasting effects on American religious practice, as the history of Schuller's ministry makes clear.

Schuller began televising services from the Garden Grove Community Church in 1970. The popularity of his "Hour of Power" telecasts helped him raise $26 million through small donations from viewers nationwide and in 1980 Schuller built his iconic Crystal Cathedral.


Designed by famed architect Philip Johnson, the Crystal Cathedral was said to be the largest glass structure in the world and, in a nod to the church's origins, included two 90-foot glass walls that opened so attendees parked outside could view the pulpit. But the new church accommodated 3,000 congregants inside and was so technologically sophisticated, with state of the art sound, light and projection, that it was essentially a television studio. Indeed, at its peak in the 1990s, Schuller's "Hour of Power" had more than 20 million viewers in 180 countries.

Although Schuller failed to popularize the drive-in church, he was deeply influential in inspiring the televangelism and megachurches which grew out of the drive-in church. As communications scholar Erica Robles-Anderson has argued, the drive-in church was a merging of religion and worship with cinema and entertainment that paved the way for the elaborately produced worship service of the megachurch. Today there are more than 1500 megachurches in the U.S. each attended by more than 2000 worshipers every Sunday.

As the nation prepares to lift quarantines it still faces a prolonged period of social distancing that will limit the possibility of in-person, indoor church services. Some are already seeing the possibilities of reviving drive-in religious services. In some localities this has raised church-state legal issues. Last month, a federal judge overturned a ban on even drive-in church services in Louisville, Kentucky, and in Greenville, Mississippi. Justice Department lawyers questioned the neutrality of that city's ban on drive-in worship while drive-through restaurants and liquor stores remained open. In many more jurisdictions, however, drive-in services have met with approval from public health officials and religious leaders alike. In mid-April, Catholic News Service reported that Bishop Peter Baldacchino of Las Cruces, New Mexico, was the first Catholic bishop to reopen his diocese's churches. To conform with CDC guidelines and accommodate as many people as possible, Baldacchino encouraged parishes to hold outdoor and drive-in Masses and other bishops are following suit.

And so it seems that while churches will continue to innovate through online forms of ministry, to remain a vital force in American life in the era of COVID-19, churches may also rely on a form of ministry dismissed as a fad in the 1950s: the drive-in church.

Stephen M. Koeth, C.S.C. is a Catholic priest and PhD candidate at Columbia University researching the history of religion and suburbanization.


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