The latest Christian worship fad – in National City

Gimme that drive-in religion

“We started out with a canopy-covered wagon, which had been used as a parade float."
  • “We started out with a canopy-covered wagon, which had been used as a parade float."
  • Image by Robert Burroughs

Rev. Paul Veenstra is wrestling with his umbrella. The wind has the umbrella and the umbrella has Veenstra and he is being pulled upward. Rain is whipping around him. He is standing on the back platform of the official red, white, and blue Harbor Drive-In Worship truck, which is parked between an empty movie screen and 50 cars. The cars are all pointed toward Veenstra waiting for the truth, and Veenstra can’t control his umbrella.

"When that usher walks up to the car, everybody puts something in the cup."

"When that usher walks up to the car, everybody puts something in the cup."

“Isn’t it good we don’t have to be inside?” he cries. Someone in one of the cars answers by turning on a windshield wiper.

“Somebody asked me if angels have wings. It doesn’t make any difference to me if angels have wings," he belts out, pulling at the umbrella, which is flapping, batlike, above him. “In a world with so much pain and so much need, it doesn’t matter if angels have wings!"

Two drive-in churches have been established in San Diego County: the Harbor Drive-In Church in Chula Vista and the Community Reformed Walk-In, Drive-In Church in Escondido.

Two drive-in churches have been established in San Diego County: the Harbor Drive-In Church in Chula Vista and the Community Reformed Walk-In, Drive-In Church in Escondido.

Veenstra is really getting into this sermon. He has tight blond curls, a square head, and he’s wearing one of those heavy plaid suits with the pocket pattern turned in a contrary angle to the rest of the suit. He exudes sincerity. Up there on the truck bed, he can’t depend on the in-car speakers to do complete justice to his sermon. His message has to throb up and out of him and leap across the space, through the windshields, and carom around inside the vinyl compartments.

Paul Vecnstra is convinced the drive-in medium contains an element of intimacy that allows a person to feel the minister is talking only to him.

Paul Vecnstra is convinced the drive-in medium contains an element of intimacy that allows a person to feel the minister is talking only to him.

He’s preaching a populist sermon. He’s saying that people are going to put you down, judge you, make you wonder if indeed you are odd, try to make you conform to prefab standards; they will, in short, insist that angels have wings (and, by inference, that the only holy way to worship is like they do, in churches with stained plexiglass windows and solemn airs).

A blast of wind turns his umbrella inside-out.

“We are like plants tied to stakes for support. We depend on the people around us for our commitment to our spirituality. We need that sense of comfort we get every Sunday when we look around and recognize the cars around us . . ..”

In one pickup truck, a teenager has his arm stretched across the seat back. The boy's hand is fondling his girlfriend’s hair, but the girl is sitting as far away from him as she can get. There’s a time and a place for everything; this may be the place, but it’s not the time.

“Then one day you look around and you miss a car or two," Veenstra throbs. “You don’t recognize the car next to you. Your stakes are pulled out. You haven’t sunk your roots down deep yet, and it scares you. But none of us can really depend on the car next to us. We can’t depend on anything around us. We have to sink our own roots independently...."

In the back of the truck, the piano player starts thumping, the guitar player steps out, and Veenstra beats the umbrella; he tears it down from above him, folds it up, wet, against his chest, and throws it into the truck. And he never misses a beat in his sermon. Out in the field of cars, several pairs of headlights have been turned on. This is the way his parishioners acknowledge him.

Paul Veenstra established the Chula Vista Christian Reform Church in 1960. (The Christian Reform Church traces its roots to the 16th Century Calvinist movement in Europe.) Like many members of his congregation, he grew up in the Midwest. He was raised in Wisconsin, Michigan, a small, Italian, Polish, and German village. “I was the only Dutch child in town, so I’ve been prepared to be different, to look beyond narrow religious views.” He says the Christian Reform Church in which he was raised “promoted a negative self-image. Christianity tends to be that way. But Jesus didn’t mean for it to promote negativity. He didn’t condemn; he accepted."

With this idea in mind, two years ago Veenstra convinced his board of directors to invest in what he hoped would be an outreach method that would give comfort to those people who had little respect for established churches; he especially hoped to reach the counterculture. He then received permission from the Harbor Drive-In Theater to use its lot on Sunday mornings for a non-denominational service. The only expense would be a union sound-man.

“We started out with a canopy-covered wagon," Veenstra remembers, “which had been used as a parade float." Seventeen people came to the first service. During the first year, $5,000 was spent on movie-page newspaper advertising, which took up nearly the entire budget. Today, an average of 150 people attend the drive-in service each Sunday, and the advertising budget has jumped to $10,000. In contrast, Veenstra’s walk-in church, which serves three or four hundred people, operates on a budget of $120,000. Commenting on the relative economy of the drive-in service, he is quick to point out that the walk-in church has additional aspects, like Bible classes and ten-hour self-improvement seminars with titles like, “Your Child’s Self Esteem,” “Zero In on Your Potential,” and “How to Handle Your Emotions.”

What began as an outreach for unchurched youth gradually changed into something else. The natural market for the drive-in turned out not to be youth, but middle-aged, middle-class people who felt rejected or hurt by the more institutional walk-in churches. “We have a lot of divorced couples who have been judged wrongly by their fellow church-goers,” says Veenstra. To him, a drive-in church is more than a McDonald’s of the Spirit. “We have people who drive down here every Sunday from Santee, Lakeside, La Mesa. One family drives 45 miles from Del Mar. So it isn’t convenience that they’re seeking; it’s something more substantial.”

Two drive-in churches have been established in San Diego County: the Harbor Drive-In Church in Chula Vista and the Community Reformed Walk-In, Drive-In Church in Escondido. Across the nation, there are approximately 50 thriving drive-in churches. They have propagated and survived during the age of Witches’ Rune Stickes, Practical Divination, Manifest Wisdom of the Great Pyramid, Palmistry and the Tarot, Inner Tennis, Cargo Cultism, EST, ESP, Orgasmic Union, Pathway Vibrations, Karma Cleaning, and the Sufi Choir. In the midst of the Third Great Awakening, a holy host of hologram-like religious visions— flickering prophecies that dance and are gone—drive-in worship has lasted for 22 years.

The patron saint of drive-in churches is Dr. Robert H. Schuller, whom Veenstra often quotes. Schuller is the founder and senior pastor of Garden Grove Community Church in Los Angeles, not far from Disneyland. In 1955, Schuller was sent west under the sponsorship of the Reformed Church of America. With only $500 in his pocket, he couldn’t rent a building, so he rented the Orange Drive-In Theater. On his first Sunday, he stood on the roof of a refreshment stand and preached to 48 cars. It worked, possibly because the idea fit nicely into the Screen Age, the Technology of Visions. The screen loomed behind Schuller like a great white parabolic receiving antenna, scanning for a Voice from Beyond. Each Sunday, there was a longer single-file line of Chevys and Oldsmobiles, Kaisers and Packards, rolling toward the Great White Screen.

Since then, the Garden Grove Community Church has experienced what Schuller would term maximum growth potential. Garden Grove now has enlisted over 7,000 members, with nearly 80 full-time staffers, a yearly budget of at least 1.5 million dollars and a multimillion dollar drive-in, walk-in, dual-purpose church planted on 22 acres. Currently, Schuller is involved in erecting a ten million dollar “Crystal Cathedral” which, as described in a statement by the church, is a “money-generating factory” with “4,100 income-producing seats.” (Pieces of the cathedral can be purchased, by the way, for as little as $500 a section. Included in the $500 price is a free inscription of the donor’s name or his choice of a name in memorium.)

Schuller has written eight books, and he broadcasts a television ministry. Hour of Power, which is carried coast-to-coast over 60 stations. The architecture of his church allows him to preach not only to drive-in parishioners, but also to a walk-in congregation and 2.5 million television viewers.

Schuller’s theology' is packaged into neat, concise phrases like “Find a need and fill it, find a hurt and heal it,” and “Turn your scars into stars.” His economic policy is to “borrow all you can to do all the good you can as fast as you can.” The lecture he uses to convince small churches to expand is called “Preaching to Pack the Church with Unchurched People," and the first point is: “Don’t preach, create an experience.” For several years, he has been conducting seminars at which ministers from all over the country learn how to conduct their drive-in churches, and grow, just like him.

Rev. Veenstra attended one of these seminars when he was starting his Chula Vista drive-in ministry. He saved a taped record of the seminar, and it provides some insight into why the drive-in churches have survived, and why they create such excitement among the ministers. Along with reaching the unchurched, the recurrent theme among the ministers was the free publicity which rubbed off on the walk-in churches that sponsored the drive-in services. Rev. Dave Galloway of the New Hope Community Church of Milwaukee, Oregon, related that during the first year of his drive-in service, he was on television news shows five times. “I’ve been in the ministry ten years and haven’t been on television until this year.”

Rev. Donald Collier, of the Riverside, California Faith Reform Church, calls drive-in worship the “greatest arm of evangelism this world has ever seen." Collier’s drive-in church received an entire page of free publicity in a local paper when he spiced up one of the services with “the largest antique auto show Riverside has ever known.” Collier also sent a direct-mail advertisement to 300 doctors. “We told them they could come to church with their beep-alerts and not worry about bothering other people.”

While Veenstra’s Harbor Drive-In Church has limited its broadcast methods to the standard drive-in theater in-car speakers, several drive-in worship services have rigged up portable radio broadcasting transmitters. Collier reported that his transmitter broadcasts as far as three miles, which was bending the law a bit, but who was going to object? “You need some ingenuity,” he added.

“One of the greatest things,” Galloway injected, “is you get more offerings than you do in regular church. When that usher walks up to the car, everybody puts something in the cup. It’s a gimmick, let’s face it.” People attend drive-in churches first because they’re curious, he said. “They see an ad in the paper for drive-in worship and they laugh, or they drive by the drive-in theater and there’s my sign out there: New Hope Community Church, Dave Galloway, Pastor, X-rated films. Gets them talking about it, and eventually they attend a service.”

As a method of reaching and recruiting people who would not normally come to church, the drive-in approach has worked better than any other method, according to the ministers who have embarked on that course. And most of them seem to sincerely believe that they are offering a meaningful worship service on neutral ground to the people who endure the most spiritual pain.

Rev. Paul Peterson of the First United Methodist Church in Winache, Washington, conducts a drive-in service to reach “the recreation crowd.” He told a story he feels is symbolic of the need for drive-in worship: “One Sunday morning during the service, a fellow drove up in a big white Chrysler Imperial, which was all battered up. He came roaring in and drove way to the rear and backed his car around with the rear window pointed toward me. One of the ushers went up and offered to plug in the speaker system and asked him if he wouldn’t like to turn his car around. With a four-letter word, the driver informed the usher that he wouldn’t. Anyway, he went ahead and listened, most of the time with his head in his hands. Just about at the close of the service we were deciding to go see what we could do for him. But he started up the car, went out the back exit and crashed through the gate. He obviously didn’t want anybody talking to him. But at least he was there. We’re hopeful that something that morning touched his distressed heart.”

Paul Veenstra is convinced the drive-in medium contains an element of intimacy that allows a person to feel the minister is talking only to him.

Defining intimacy is the crux of the theologic controversy over drive-in churches. For six years several San Diegans have been publishing the Wittenberg Door, a seriously satiric magazine of theology. The publication has 10,000 subscribers, mainly ministers, throughout the country. Even though the Wittenberg Door carried a lengthy interview with Schuller several years ago, last January the magazine awarded him the "Loser of the Month” award for gradually turning his church into a “money-making factory.” In addition, the magazine awarded its monthly “Green Weenie” prize not to Robert Schuller, but “to those of us who have silently stood by and watched him lose touch with reality ... who have marveled at his achievements, flocked to his seminars, and by our silence contributed to the construction of Robert Schuller’s empire.”

Co-publisher Wayne Rice believes a church's desire to reach out to the unchurched population through techniques like drive-in worship can be the beginning of the end of a congregation’s fellowship: “Our objection to drive-in churches is that, scripturally, the church is supposed to be a gathering of the koinonia, which is a Greek term for fellowship, the gathering of saints, the Body. I go to a little church out in Lakeside which meets in a VFW hall. To me, that’s what Christian fellowship is supposed to be: getting to know people, visiting families, looking at people’s faces instead of at their bumpers." Rice says people who attend drive-in worship are assuming it’s just another inspirational entertainment, “like G-rated films."

The Wittenberg Door lumps drive-in churches in with a long list of other “Great All-American Contributions to the Church," including fiannelgraphs, “bus pastors,” Dial-a-Prayer, Bingo, Bob Harrington, Pat Boone, Athletes in Action, Honk If You Love Jesus, the Berrigans, The Late Great Planet Earth. The Exorcist, “Jesus Rock," cassette ministries, attendance contests. Jesus Christ Superstar, Campus Life, the Gospel According to Peanuts, Carl McIntyre, and the Easter Bunny. The last item on the list is the Wittenberg Door itself.

Last September, the magazine made its own suggestion for a new twist on drive-in worship: Closed-Band Church, “The Drive-In Church of the Big Sky. Now you can call in your conversion on your CB radio. During the invitation the preacher, ‘Brother John,’ will be monitoring all 23 channels with his CB scanner. He will be listening for any breakers wanting to rag chew with him about ‘Big Daddy.’ ”

For at least one church, Schuller’s “borrow as you grow” philosophy eventually translated into ten cents on the dollar. A Grand Rapids, Michigan drive-in church recently declared bankruptcy. But that doesn’t worry Paul Veenstra, and neither do the critics, whose prejudices, he feels, have more to do with architecture than religion. He continues to get excited every time he gets up on the bed of his truck and looks out across the congregation of cars.

After all, who is to say that when God reveals Himself, He might not pick the highest hump on the Magic Mountain rollercoaster from which to speak His New Sermon on the Mount? Who is to stop Him from suddenly appearing on the Great White Screen behind the minister? Why wouldn't He pick those sanctuaries of our dreams, in order to hide out, and wait for us?

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