A recent family conversation nostalgically recalling good times spent together at a nearby drive-in movie theater gave rise to another memory, a long-forgotten but nonetheless unique part of my own pastoral resume: you see, I once served as guest preacher and worship leader at a Sunday morning drive-in theater… church.
To the uninitiated, let me say at the outset that this kind of venue for worship is not as odd as it might sound; during the 1950’s and 60’s there were actually quite a number of “come as you are in the family car” congregations that came together at local drive-in theaters across America (in fact, the late Rev. Robert Schuller, the infamous pastor of the Crystal Cathedral, is said to have begun his ministry preaching in just such a “sanctuary” in California). In Houlton, Maine, where I served as a student pastor in the early ‘80’s, this had been for many years a summer worship opportunity sponsored by a local Baptist Church as a way of enticing vacationers and tourists to a more relaxed “act and attitude” of worship; and as I remember it now, it was fairly well attended… and, I might add, kind of fun.
I was placed behind a makeshift “pulpit” on a raised platform just underneath the huge movie screen (where just a few hours before a double feature of “Flashdance” and “48 Hours” was shown… which is a pretty bizarre thought in and of itself!), and then was given this huge microphone from which my voice was broadcast through those clunky speakers hung on the car windows. I then led the gathered faithful – some sitting in their cars, others outside on lawn chairs enjoying the morning sun – in a time of prayer, reflection and the singing of a couple of guitar hymns (yes, even then, always the guitar in hand!); all this as church leaders ran around bringing everyone coffee and donuts. It was what today we might refer to as an “alternative” service of worship, a low key and wonderfully “low church” approach to Sunday morning; and afterward, as I also circled about greeting the congregation I discovered that it was both meaningful and much appreciated by those who were there. As it turned out, even there at the drive-in, God was very much in attendance; and so this was indeed a sacred place and time.
Leading Sunday worship has always been my favorite part of being a pastor, and over the years I’ve had the privilege of doing so in a wide variety of settings: standing in pulpits built high in spacious cathedrals, or sitting in a circle of chairs arranged in a nursing home chapel; singing hymns of praise together with hundreds sitting in pews on a Christmas Eve or Easter Sunday, or praying amongst only a very few of the “faithful remnant” who turn up for a mid-week devotional. Some services have by their nature been loud and noisy and wildly chaotic (a few Children’s Sundays and VBS come to mind!), while others have been so quiet and deeply emotional that cathartic tears of true lamentation seemed the only adequate and faithful response to what was happening. And quite honestly, from my own perspective as pastor, as many weeks as everything in worship comes together beautifully, there are also sometimes days that things just don’t seem to click; the sermon isn’t quite right, I stumble through liturgy that ought to have more power, or that new hymn I chose simply doesn’t go over well with the congregation and choir (and trust me here, if the choir hates it, you’re sunk!). But even then, in one way or another – usually despite my best effort (!) – by grace the Spirit moved in ways I could not have ever predicted.
It’s all part and parcel of the pastor’s life – what a colleague of mine refers to as “the pesky, perpetual, predictable and persistent return of the Sabbath” – and even after all these years, I still love it; because all these varied experiences of worship have had at least one thing in common: the presence and power of God working in and through it all. Certainly there is no less meaning in “two or more” gathered in an outdoor chapel to quietly know Christ in some broken bread and a common cup than there is for an entire congregation to sit in a church sanctuary in a fully realized service of “Word and Sacrament,” and prayer has no less eloquence whether it’s led by the pastor or shared in the beautiful silence of many kindred hearts. Simply put, while you and I might decide to “come and worship” on a given Sunday morning, it’s the presence of the Lord in whatever happens to be our sanctuary that day that makes our worship real.
After a wedding in our sanctuary this past weekend, one of the bridesmaids came up to me to thank me for the service and to remark that from the moment she’d walked into the church, it had immediately felt to her as though ours was a welcoming and vibrant place. I thanked her for saying so; and agreed that yes, this is a great church with a congregation full of faithful and loving people who are, as I like to say, “the real deal,” and as a pastor I feel very blessed to be here.
All of which is correct; but in retrospect, what I should have added in my pastoral boasting is that in the end what really makes East Church a vibrant place is God’s presence on all the proceedings; because whether it’s a wedding, a funeral, a Saturday night bean supper or singing a silly song during the children’s ministry on Sunday morning, it’s God who makes it a sacred time and place.
And thanks be to God for it.
c. 2016 Rev. Michael W. Lowry