Reel Faith: How the Drive-In Movie Theater Helped Create the Megachurch

The startup origins of the Crystal Cathedral

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The interior pulpit of the Crystal Cathedral (Wikimedia Commons)

The Crystal Cathedral rises like a spaceship out of an impossibly green lawn in Garden Grove, Orange County, California. The structure is neither crystal nor, technically, a cathedral, but it's acted as an archetype for a 20th century phenomenon: the Christian megachurch. From the church's soaring, sunlit pulpit, the charismatic preacher Reverend Robert Schuller spoke to a sea of worshippers -- not just to congregants in the cavernous room itself, his image amplified by a JumboTron, but also, eventually, to a much wider audience via the church's iconic Hour of Power reality show. If Christianity exists to be spread, the Cathedral has existed to do that spreading. It's been at once a place of worship and a TV studio. 

The Crystal Cathedral has been in the news most recently for its financial troubles -- culminating in bankruptcy, a controversial shift in the the church's leadership structure, and, finally, the sale of the Cathedral itself to a neighboring (Catholic) diocese. Today, the church ministry announced that the congregation will be moving its services a smaller building, a currently Catholic church, a mile down the road from the Cathedral's compound. In that, the Cathedral also seems symbolic of its times.

But if a church is a kind of technology -- of media, of communication, of community -- then it's fitting that even a megachurch would have a humble startup story. And the origins of the Crystal Cathedral, for all its shine and swagger, are more garage than skyscraper.

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In 1955, the Reformed Church in America gave a grant of $500 to Reverend Schuller and his wife Arvella. The young couple were to start a ministry in California; for that, they needed to find a venue that would host their notional congregation. While making the trip from Illinois, driving on Route 66, the reverend took to a napkin and listed 10 sites that could host his budding ministry. Researching the matter further, however, Schuller discovered that the first nine of those options were already in use for other purposes. So he set his sights on the tenth: the Orange Drive-In Theatre.

The efficiencies of the venue were obvious: For cinematic purposes, the drive-in was useful only in the darkness, which meant that it could play an effortlessly dual role, theater by night and church by day. The architecture and technological system built for entertainment could be repurposed, hacked even, to deliver a religious ceremony for the golden age of the car. An early advertisement announced the new ministry's appeal: "The Orange Church meets in the Orange Drive-In Theater where even the handicapped, hard of hearing, aged and infirm can see and hear the entire service without leaving their family car."

As the Schullers embraced their makeshift new venue, the congregation, in turn, came to embrace them. Disneyland had just opened a couple miles down the road from the Orange, in Anaheim; the entire area was developing rapidly. Each week, Reverend Schuller led a growing group of car-confined congregants from the tar paper roof of the theater's snack bar; you can see him mid-sermon below thanks to an Orange County Register photographer. Arvella provided music for each service from an electronic organ mounted on a trailer. Worshippers listened to them via portable speakerboxes mounted to their vehicles. Church rubrics, the guidebooks for services, included instructions not only about when to sing, speak, and stay silent, but also for mounting the speakers onto car windows.

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Orange County Register.

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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