DAYTONA BEACH SHORES — A new building is rising amid the grassy terrain of the Daytona Beach Drive-In Christian Church, a landmark where worshipers have assembled in their vehicles for nearly 70 years.
The $2.2 million project is a new multi-purpose Friendship Hall that will replace the outdated existing hall, a repurposed concession stand and projection room that’s a remnant of the property’s long-ago history as a drive-in movie theater, said Melissa Frantz, the church’s associate pastor.
It’s a positive development for a weekly congregation that ranges from 500 to 800 members and visitors, depending on the season, said Frantz, who has been a church member for more than 30 years.
On Sundays, worshipers park their cars and trucks in the field in neatly arranged rows, as they have since 1953 when the property was the Neptune Drive-In Theater. They tune in to a radio station that broadcasts the sermon of Rev. Robert Kemp-Baird, prayers and songs by the church choir.
Since the construction started about a year ago, it has inspired a few worried phone calls to the church office about a potential change in the unique outdoor setting across State Road A1A from the Atlantic Ocean, Frantz said.
There’s no need for concern.
“We are not becoming an indoor church,” said Frantz, addressing a frequent question. ”We’re keeping the services outside.
“What I like to tell people is that it’s a traditional church experience in a non-traditional setting, and that is not changing,” she said. “We’re just adding space to do more.”
The 7,000-square foot fellowship hall will include space for church offices, an assembly room for church and community events, a kitchen and a small chapel area where some worshippers will be able to watch a live-stream of Sunday services that the church broadcasts on Facebook, Frantz said.
The church offices will be a big improvement over the current ones, which require visitors to navigate a steep flight of stairs to the second-floor of the church’s so-called “Altar Building,” where the minister and choir present the Sunday services, Frantz said.
“We cannot wait,” Frantz said. “It’s a hike up those stairs and we want to be accessible to anyone who comes to see us.”
To keep the property’s expansive green space intact, the church entered into a development agreement with the city of Daytona Beach Shores that allowed it to be exempt from some zoning regulations that would have required adding a large paved parking lot on the grassy, nearly 11-acre property.
As part of the agreement, the church will add four handicap-accessible parking spots and the city will erect a commemorative marker to document the property’s role in Daytona Beach Shores' history, Frantz said.
The new building is part of a series of improvements based on a master plan formulated about five years ago, Frantz said. Before construction began on the hall, the church completed a new entrance on A1A. Future plans include improvements to the Altar Building where services are presented.
The current fellowship hall dates to the opening of the drive-in movie theater, which screened its first features in 1950, according to the website CinemaTreasures.org. Three years later, the site began hosting church services organized by First Christian Church Daytona (Disciples of Christ), according to Larry Nickles, board chairman of the Drive-In Church.
Over the years, national TV networks and publications have featured the drive-in church. It also was the subject of a short documentary film in 2017. More important, Frantz said, the church has never lost its welcoming attitude to anyone who arrives.
“Our members are a melting pot of different denominations, people who wind up here for various reasons and keep coming back,” she said. “We have a lot of families who make Daytona an annual destination and make attending our church part of their vacation.”
For Nickles, a congregation that includes local residents as well as tourists in swim suits is part of the church’s appeal. He and his wife often are accompanied by their Shih Tzu, Oscar, who considers the day’s sermon from a perch on the front seat.
“One of the nice things about the church is that it allows you to have whatever level of involvement you want,” Nickles said. “You can just stop at the gate and talk to the greeter. You can go inside and visit with people. Some people in the summer come in their bathing suits ready to head across the street.”