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Daytona Beach Church Offers Drive-in Experience

November 27, 2013 | WMFE--Americans are used to grabbing a burger at a drive-through restaurant, and, not so long ago, the trend extended to drive-in movie theaters. But, what about a drive-in church? One Daytona Beach congregation worships that way.

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[Photo by Amy Kiley]

Daytona Beach Drive-in Christian Church is on State Road A1A, a picturesque merger of Florida weather and coastline, running past the Sea Dunes Apartments and the Fantasy Island Resort.  The church is on a grass lot across the street from the Atlantic. 

An usher steps out of what looks like a parking attendant shack.  She says dogs are welcome here. They get treats upon arrival.  Human parishioners get worship aides and plastic ramekins of wine with tiny rectangles of bread under the lids.  Those are for Communion.

The relaxed atmosphere is intentional.  Disciples of Christ leaders began services here in the 1950s to lure people who disliked “Sunday dress.”  It was also a way to embrace the era’s drive-in fad.  A handful of other denominations tried the approach, but the Daytona Beach church is one of the few congregations that survived.

The church looks like a drive-in theater, and, in fact, it was one once.  The congregation began Sunday services when the Neptune Theatre still showed movies the rest of the week.  Eventually, the church bought the land, replaced the screen with a so-called “Altar Building” and converted the concession stand to a fellowship hall. 

At most parishes, Communion is a time to for the congregation to join in song, a procession toward the altar, and consumption of bread and wine.  At the Drive-In Christian Church, parishioners eat and drink from the previously mentioned ramekins at the appropriate moment of the service.

People who want to get closer to one another can sit on lawn chairs or head to the fellowship hall.   It offers free air conditioning and table seating with a window view of the Altar Building. 

When the service ends, people “clap” by honking.  Then, they congregate in and around the hall, attracted to a Christian tradition that transcends even locked cars: donut hour.

That’s when snowbird Brenda Askey chats with fellow parishioners and walks her dog, Paco.  She says he loves church because he knows he’ll get treats on the way in and during the collection.

Leslie and Bob Seay remain in their top-down, red convertible after the service.  He’s refurbishing the car and hasn’t yet repaired the radio, so they have a portable one on the dash.  They say they like to bring their bikes to church and head to the beach when the service ends.

Other parishioners say they like open space for their antsy children, easy access for the elderly or what church-goers everywhere often praise about their parishes – the pastor.

Rev. Bob Kemp-Baird was recruited from Cincinnati two years ago.  He had concerns about the church’s style at first, but that he came to believe God is present even in a community that worships in separate cars.  Now, he says, he feels uncomfortable entering a traditional church building.  Yet, indoor gatherings are the parish’s solution to the isolation of vehicles.  In addition to donut hour, the Altar building is where leaders organize Bible studies- and where the parish offers Sunday School.

Youth Ministry Director Melissa Frantz took over Sunday School teaching from her late mother and says the drive-in approach to church is all she’s ever known.  She offers a tour of the Altar Building.  Looking out at the lawn that serves as a sanctuary, it’s clear Daytona Drive-In Christian Church is not a typical parish – and that’s just the way its congregation likes it. 


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