Texas Preacher Drives Home Sermon in Parking Lot

Dashboard Jesus gets new prominence as pastor moves services to parking lot.

Aug. 30, 2011 — -- On a Sunday in Lucas, Texas, churchgoers didn't file into pews. They pulled into parking spots.

Vans and trucks drove into the parking lot of Lovejoy High School to be part of "Sanctuary Under the Sky," Rev. David Ray's new drive-in church.

"The sound is transmitted over the car radio so they just tune into the frequency that it's set to. They can hear, they're encouraged to participate. Everything that the congregation is asked to do is printed in the bulletin," said Ray.

Ray, pastor of Presbyterian Church of the Master, stands in the parking lot conducting the service as churchgoers watch through their dashboard windows.

Ray started what he's calling "Sanctuary Under the Sky" this past Sunday. This is the third drive-in church that he's launched. He's previously led one in Pasadena, Calif., and another in Jackson, Miss.

"It has been an effective way to reach people who are very skeptical about religion. I recognize that there's a uniqueness factor to it that grabs their attention. I'm not particular as to the reason why a person attends...my desire for them to be present overrides everything else," he said.

On Sunday's inaugural service, church attendees told ABC Affiliate WFAA about choosing the drive-in church service because they wanted to wear shorts or preferred to be alone than sitting in a group.

Ray, who is in his seventies, said that a drive-in church allows people to worship who might feel uncomfortable in a more formal church setting.

"It makes attendance possible for some folks that would find it difficult or impossible to attend a church service...a special needs person or couples with special needs children, persons who are grieving and not ready to get back in a crowd yet, people going through temporary emotional problems...people not accustomed to church or they've had bad experiences at church," Ray said.

Ray said that it's a way for people to test the waters. He also holds a more formal church service indoors an hour after the drive-in service.

Drive-in churches are not a new phenomenon. In the 1940s, Florida pastor Wallace Hamilton had loud speakers placed outside of the church in what he called "Radio Park," giving the elderly and the infirm a way to listen to the services happening inside the church.

Drive-In Churches Giving Way to Online Church Services

Robert Schuller, founder of the famed Crystal Cathedral, launched the Garden Grove Community Church in the 1960s which allowed 500 cars to drive-in and participate in services.

"The first popular drive in theater was Robert Schuller's. I think he experienced great success. He was doing that right on the heels of …the building of the superhighway system under Eisenhower, fast cars, malls and the rise of the megachurch," said Randy Frazee, pastor of Oak Hills Church in San Antonio.

"He used the drive in theater as an entry point for someone that was kicking the tires on the concept of faith and God and Jesus Christ and they piped it in from the main church service…it's intent was to be an entrance point," Frazee said.

Frazee said that drive-in churches, once ground breaking in their unique way of worship, have given way to other modern ways of experiencing church.

"It would appear to me that this was a really good idea as a way to lead people in a safe environment to check out the Bible back in the 70s, but it seems to be an outdated idea for 2011," he said.

Frazee's megachurch members can watch services being live streamed on their computers or iPhones or watch a free channel on a Roku box.

Back in Texas, Ray said that some pastors aren't supportive of his belief in the drive-in church.

"It has been my experience that not a lot of churches are interested in this kind of approach. Some may not feel that it's spiritual enough," Ray said.

Ray conceded that people aren't able to kneel and won't always be able to hold the hand of their neighbor if they are in their cars, but he said that sometimes different approaches are necessary.

"The church is for people. It's not a museum," he said. "My emphasis is on a practical, workable everyday faith and how people can be helped in day to day living and dealing with the frustration, the problems, the challenges they face."