Every other Friday in D-List SaintsLuke T. Harrington explores one of the many less-than-impressive moments in Christian history.

By now, it’s the stuff of legend, which probably means it’s at best half-true: In the 1920s, Camden, New Jersey, native Richard Hollingshead Jr.’s mother was too heavy to fit into the seats at the local movie theater. If this had been your mother, you might have recommended that she simply seek out a new form of entertainment, or possibly wait for the invention of the multiplex and its creepily named “love seat–style seating,” but that’s because you’re not from New Jersey—where every problem has a solution that both makes your mom happy and involves the inhalation of at least two kinds of toxic fumes.

Schuller’s drive-in church proved popular with vacationing families looking to pay their respects to Jesus on the way to sacrificing their children to the dark mouse god (that’s how Disneyland works, right?).

Hollingshead began experimenting in his driveway, mounting a sixteen-millimeter projector on his car hood and nailing a sheet between two trees as a screen. Then he put a radio behind the screen and kicked back in his car’s driver’s seat with a bucket of popcorn. “Say, this is mighty fine!” said Hollingshead, because it was, again, the 1920s. “I bet a lot of dames and fellas would pay good money for this experience, see?”

And that was how Richard Hollingshead came up with one of the worst ideas of all time.

Please understand that when I call drive-in theaters one of the worst ideas of all time, I’m speaking from direct experience. I spent the past decade living in Tulsa, Oklahoma, home of not just drive-in theater, but the drive-in theater: the Admiral Twin, where several scenes in Francis Ford Coppola’s iconic coming-of-age drama The Outsiders were filmed. I went to several screenings there, and all of them were miserable (and not just because several of the movies involved Jennifer Lopez). The humidity, the mosquitoes, the cigarette smoke, the car exhaust—watching movies outside isn’t fun. Sure, you can bring the kids without worrying that they’ll disrupt the screening—but if you have kids, you’ll also have a car that’s sticky inside and smells like poop. The nostalgia for drive-ins is deeply misplaced.

I guess I shouldn’t tell that to mid-20th–century America, though, because within a few decades of Hollingshead’s patent filing, drive-ins had become ubiquitous. It was, of course, a different time—cars were new, and Americans have never met a shiny new technology that they didn’t expect to solve all of the world’s problems, even if the problem in question is just having to share space with someone who crunches his popcorn too loud. And soon the drive-in model was being applied to everything—including (sigh) churches.

While drive-in churches popped up independently in a lot of different places following World War II, the man generally credited with popularizing the idea—almost by sheer happenstance—was the Rev. Robert Schuller, who in 1955 founded the Orange County, California, congregation that would later be known worldwide for the Hour of Power and the Crystal Cathedral. The Reformed Church in America had ordained him, given him 500 bucks, and essentially kicked him out the door with orders to go plant a church in SoCal; the first order of business was obviously to find a venue for worship. He looked into several, only to find all of them were already in use on Sunday mornings—all except the Orange Drive-In Theater.

Obviously, this made sense—what use to anyone is a drive-in theater in the daylight?—and the theater proved to be surprisingly adaptable to a church service: Rev. Schuller simply stood on the roof of the theater’s snack bar and preached to congregants through those tinny little speakers hanging on their windows. Serendipitously, Disneyland had just opened a couple miles down the road, so Schuller’s drive-in proved popular with vacationing families looking to pay their respects to Jesus on the way to sacrificing their children to the dark mouse god (that’s how Disneyland works, right?). Attendance quickly ballooned.

The selling points of a church like this were clear: the congregation’s early marketing materials announced that it was “where even the handicapped, hard of hearing, aged and infirm can see and hear the entire service without leaving their family car.” (One wonders how the Church ever managed to welcome the handicapped, hard of hearing, aged, and infirm before the car was invented.) Probably just as big a factor was the sheer novelty, though: as one parishioner put it, “Smoke and be in church at the same time, at a drive-in during the daytime. What a trip!”

It was enough of a success that when the congregation finally built its first building (not the Crystal Cathedral yet), they built it with an indoor/outdoor balcony for its pulpit so that parishioners could still choose to sit in the parking lot for the service. And, of course, imitators were springing up coast to coast. A revolution was in the making!

Or, y’know, not.

Since you’re reading this in the 21st century or so, you’ve probably noticed there aren’t very many drive-in churches around anymore—even Schuller’s congregation gave up on the model when they opened their iconic campus, the Crystal Cathedral, in 1980. So what happened to America’s drive-in churches?

If I had to hazard a guess, I’d say pretty much the same thing that happened to its drive-in theaters: the novelty just wore off, and people stopped coming.

As I mentioned, there’s a certain uniquely American logic to the drive-in: “People like these shiny new movie things, and people like these shiny new automobile things—why not put them together?” Our technology rarely manages to maintain its initial romantic sheen, though—as anyone who’s ever bought a glittery new iPad, only to find it smeared with greasy fingerprints an hour later, will tell you. If you actually use your car—and particularly if you watch movies and eat snacks in it—it gets gross. Once the cup holders are full of dried soda and the floor is covered in popcorn crumbs, why would you want to spend more time in it than you have to? (While a multiplex theater can be just as bad, at least it’s a change of scenery.) No matter how shiny and trendy we make our technology, we can’t escape the fact that we’re forever tied to these bodies that eat, and stink, and ooze fluids, and poop. (I mean, at least, mine does.)

Maybe this is why traditional Christian worship forces us all into a room together (until recently, without pews between us, even). To worship with the Church is to worship with the Body—and the bodies. Even the screaming kids and the guy with terrible B.O. and the cancer patient who’s lost her hair and the old people who can barely stand. Maybe this is why Christ left us with not just sermon notes, but with a meal to share together.

Because cars get dinged up and scratched, and iPads shatter and break, and film stock wears out, and drive-ins eventually succumb to the weather and the weeds.

But the body?

A baptized body will live forever.

1 Comment

  1. You’re on the right track, but remember up until the 70’s or 80’s attending church literally meant putting on your Sunday best. Going to a drive-in church negated that requirement in the 50’s. For those who didn’t own nice clothes for them and their children, this unofficial dress code was a real barrier to participating in church life.

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