By Lonnie Wilkey
FRANKLIN — In the late 1950s and 1960s drive-in movies were the rage across America. By the end of the 1970s, the outdoor theaters began to close at a rapid pace for several reasons including the advent of VHS movies you could watch from the comfort of your own home.
But some survived and now they are being used by churches to share the gospel when churches are forced to not meet due to the coronavirus pandemic.
By most accounts, there are about 13 drive-in movie theaters still in operation in towns and cities across the state including Watertown and Elizabethton.
First Baptist Church, Watertown, and Calvary Baptist Church in Elizabethton took advantage of the technology in place in their towns to meet corporately while having safeguards in place to protect their members.
Don Mathis, pastor of First Baptist, estimated there were about 40 cars with two to five people at the Stardust Drive-in Theatre for the worship service which also was aired via Facebook Live.
“It was a very safe environment to hear the gospel,” Mathis said. “We had older folks who don’t use Facebook who were there. They could still worship.”
Mathis said he received a lot of positive feedback on both the location and the message he preached about hope and not panic. “We are in a unique situation and the church must find unique ways to minister to people during this time,” Mathis said.
The Watertown pastor expects the church to use the drive-in again. The owners have said the 11 a.m. slot is ours, he noted, adding that the church will make the decision “week by week.”
“It’s a unique opportunity,” Mathis said. “Not that many towns have drive-in theaters.”
Pastor Jacob Guinn of Calvary Baptist Church, agreed, noting there are only about 400 such businesses across the country. The town’s State Line theater is owned by church members Andy and Jenny Wetzel who offered the use of their facility.
Guinn said the church recorded a full worship service on Saturday to broadcast on Facebook for people who couldn’t attend in person. They used the recorded worship music for the Sunday morning service at the drive-in theater.
Approximately 250 people attended the worship service at the drive-in, 80 percent of whom aren’t connected to the church, Guinn said.
The church also offered a simple invitation and encouraged people who prayed to receive Christ to talk with Guinn at the drive-in or call or e-mail the church to connect with him later.
The Calvary pastor stressed that the church took appropriate safety measures.”We asked everyone to stay in their car and greeters kept a distance. We took special precautions and it worked well,” he said.
“We’re already looking forward to next Sunday and toward Palm Sunday and Easter,” Guinn said. “We’re talking about doing services at 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. on Easter.” B&R — Article includes reporting by Tobin Perry for Baptist Press.