Services at a Daytona Beach, Florida drive-in church are much like any you’d find at a Christian house of worship. But instead of congregants filling wooden pews inside a building, worshippers at the unorthodox church park their cars on a sprawling lawn and turn their radio dials to a frequency that broadcasts the sermon.
DeFlilippo, who grew up in Florida, said she’s long grappled with the idiosyncrasies of her home state.
“Florida is a weird place full of flip- flops, alligator-skinned old ladies and bad tattoos, but when people mock it I can’t help getting defensive,” the filmmaker wrote on NYT.
During a recent visit to Florida, DeFilippo said, she happened upon the Daytona Beach Drive-In Christian Church and decided to make it the focus of a short film that serves as a larger reflection on spirituality in the high-tech world.
“At first the idea of sitting in a car to go to church seemed deranged to me,” she wrote. “What could be more vacant of spirituality and human connection than going to church sealed off in the most alienating of American inventions, your car?”
The Daytona drive-in church isn’t entirely anomalous. Drive-in churches can be found in several other states, including Texas and Michigan. There’s even a drive-in church in the Dutch city of Veenendaal ― a creative response to an outbreak of bird flu that hit the Netherlands in 2015.
With declining church attendance in the U.S., the drive-in worship format is appealing in its apparent novelty. But the Daytona Beach Drive-In Christian Church has actually been around for more than 60 years, and the reasons congregants are drawn to it might surprise you.
“Many of them had very personal motivations for attending a church like this,” DeFilippo wrote. “Some were debilitated by illness and found the easy accessibility of the space a plus. Others had lost a loved one and wanted privacy as they mourned. A few more just wanted to attend service with their pets.”
For congregant Shirley Oenbrink, who beat stage 4 cancer several years ago, the drive-in format offers her privacy to process everything she’s feeling.
“It’s the time to let the tears flow and you don’t get questioned,” she told NPR in 2014. “I don’t like for people to feel sorry for me. And when I cry, my eyes get big, my nose swells up ... I need to stay in my car.”
Toward the end of the pastor’s sermon in the documentary, the parishioners celebrate Communion by eating tiny morsels of bread and drinking wine from plastic ramekins handed out at the entryway to the lawn. As the pastor says his final “Amen,” engines start and the cars begin to inch their way out onto the street.
“For me,” DeFilippo wrote, “the drive-in church represents a microcosm of what we each struggle with every day: trying to connect with one another and with our environment despite our increasing, technology-fueled isolation.”
Check out the DeFilippo’s documentary, “Drive-In Jesus,” above.