Motorists accept Marietta minister's invitation to drive-in service
Crunching down on a bowl of cereal may not be good form in church, but it wasn't a problem Sunday for Betty Tippens.
Under a blue June sky filled with intimations of unseasonable heat, Tippens sat in her Volvo in the parking lot of New Hope Methodist Church in Marietta. She watched the Rev. Norman Markle preach from the steps under a white, postcard-perfect steeple and listened to his voice on her car radio at 1640 AM.
"I am going to come in my pajamas and eat my cereal and praise the Lord," Tippens had quipped earlier.
Although she wore jeans, she lived up to the rest of her promise as she emerged from her car at the end of Markle's sermon about defining a successful life with something more than money.
"Praise the Lord!" she said, drawing chuckles from other drive-in worshippers.
In a region where commutes are described as hellish, Markle has lit a candle rather than curse the darkness.
He is reaching out to the car-addicted crowd that can be seen daily eating, conducting business by cellphone or applying makeup while behind the wheel.
Drive-in spirituality is a logical next step, Markle figured. Come to Jesus in the comfort of a bucket seat.
Markle pondered the idea of a drive-in church for a couple of years. Sunday was the debut of his 8:45 a.m. drive-in service, which he hopes will augment the regular sit-down services.
"With my little church, which is 153 years old, we have a good church, but a terrible location right now," he said.
Pincers of highways and byways have pressed in on the shady patch of pine trees, oaks and marble gravestones that define the chapel's boundaries. Nearby warehouses and neon-lit fast-food joints have long outnumbered yards full of playing kids.
You know, Markle notes often, the Rev. Robert Schuller, whose Crystal Cathedral in Southern California claims 10,000 members, got started this way.
To hit that number, his little congregation of 88 needs to add 9,912.
He is optimistic and has done his homework. There are more than 50,000 people in the Marietta area who don't attend church, he points out.
"Right now, I thought we could get some new people to come out and see what the word of God is on Sunday," he said.
He bought a low-power AM transmitter. The church printed and posted yard signs along Cobb Parkway.
"Worship in Your Car Just as You Are. New Hope Drive In Church."
Apparently, even the Lord's directives must give way to city ordinances. A city employee pulled the signs up and warned Markle he was in violation.
In a small pique of civil disobedience, Markle reposted the signs on Wylie Road Sunday morning.
"If a city employee has nothing better to do with his time than come by and pull up these signs, so be it," he said.
Before Marietta put the kibosh on the drive-by invitations, Chuck Allen, a nearby Chrysler dealer employee, saw them. He and his wife, Rebecca Ash-Allen showed up in a green Chrysler convertible Sunday.
They faced the dashboard and sang to the strains of "Amazing Grace" and "How Great Thou Art," drifting in over the radio, listened to the sermon, and closed their eyes during the prayers.
They are between churches right now, Chuck says, and decided to give the drive-in a try. Why not?
"I just wonder what they are going to do when it rains," Rebecca said.
Nine other cars joined them, most with members of the largely older congregation, some in pearls, ready to come again for the 11 o'clock service.
Dow and Carolyn Chamberlain, from Spring Hill, Fla., stopped for the night on their way north at a nearby RV park.
Dow, a retired former Methodist minister who used to hold beach side worship on Lake Michigan, was tickled to find a flier advertising the service.
"This is what the church is going to have to do," to reach those not in touch with traditional services, he said, standing in shorts and sandals.
Carolyn Chamberlain pointed out an obvious benefit.
"This way, we didn't have to dress up," she said.
Markle was relaxed after the service and not disappointed. He figures it will take a while to catch up to Schuller. He and the congregation are committed to the services until at least the fall.
"We are excited," Betty Tippens said. "This is [Markle's] dream, and we all want to see it come true."