MANITOU BEACH, Mich. - Noting that attendance at his two Devil's Lake-area churches was flat even during the busy summer tourist season, the Rev. Terry Lytle decided to try something new. Instead of preaching in a traditional church setting, he would hold services in an outdoor drive-in theater.
“I thought this might be a way to tell people about Jesus,” Mr. Lytle said. “I tried to get people to come with me and they thought, `This guy is crazy!' I couldn't get anybody to be on my board or even let me use them as a reference.”
He and his wife, Olive, who met while they were students at Moody Bible Institute, went ahead with their plans despite the skepticism, converting a church member's three-acre cornfield into a drive-in theater.
The drive-in, located about 60 miles northwest of Toledo, opened July 4, 1951, but that first season it was more of a church than a theater. No films were shown; the Lytles or guest ministers simply preached under open skies.
“We thought it might last a year, maybe two,” Mr. Lytle said with a gleam in his eye. “Here it is 53 years and still going strong.”
The second summer, they added movies, and the crowds got larger, with up to 500 people each weekend night sitting in their cars, in lawn chairs, or on blankets spread out on the grassy lot.
From that modest start, Drive-In Ministries, Inc., has become an international organization that shows evangelical Christian movies around the world.
The Lytles soon added theaters in Florida, Alabama, and California, and more than 20 years ago opened one in Mexico. In 1999, the ministry expanded overseas with a truck-based mobile movie unit in the Ukraine.
“We now have three units in the Ukraine, two in Nigeria, one in India, one in Guatemala, and three in Mexico,” Mr. Lytle said.
The movies at Devil's Lake, which always carry a strong salvation message, include such titles as A Distant Thunder, A Thief in the Night, Image of the Beast, and Prodigal Planet.
Either after the movie or during an intermission, Mr. Lytle or another minister gives a brief gospel message and invites audience members to accept Jesus Christ as their savior.
“It's not an altar call,” Mrs. Lytle said. “We just ask people to turn in a response card.”
The Lytles, who live in an apartment on the grounds during the summer and spend the rest of the year in St. Petersburg, Fla., let youths play Nintendo video games on the drive-in's 60-by-40-foot screen after the movies are over.
“It's one of the most consistent ministries I've ever seen,” said Kraig Cole, 29, of Devil's Lake, who used to drive vans full of church youths to the drive-in.
“The kids really love playing video games on that screen. The movies, well they could use some improvement in that area. But the owners are really sweet people.”
Keri Smith, 23, of Swanton said she went to the drive-in and sat on the grass to watch the film.
“I thought it was fun. Everybody had a good time. I don't remember the name of the movie, but it was about being left behind.”
Drive-In Ministry's overseas expansion was made possible by the 1999 sale of some prime real estate that the Lytles had purchased in St. Petersburg in the 1950s.
“A company you may have heard of came calling, wanting to buy the property,” he said with a wink. “Their name is Wal-Mart.”
The retail giant offered $1 million. Mr. Lytle said that would be stealing, the lot was worth at least $3 million. Wal-Mart officials said thanks but no thanks, they'll look elsewhere.
“I told them God wasn't making any new prime real estate on U.S. 19,” the city's major thoroughfare.
Four years later, Wal-Mart knocked on the Lytles' door again, $3 million check in hand.
“I told them they were supporting Drive-In Ministries' efforts to spread the gospel,” Mr. Lytle said with a smile. “They said they had nothing to do with that. I told them they did too, whether they wanted to or not.
“I haven't seen one cent of that $3 million, and neither has my wife,” Mr. Lytle said. “It all goes into the ministry.”
The Lytles, who have three children and became great-grandparents for the first time this week, are supported financially by churches of various denominations that donate to their nonprofit organization.
Drive-In Ministries is governed by a 12-member board of directors, and Mr. Lytle said everything is in order for the Rev. Mike Jones of Prattsville, Ala., to succeed him when he retires, although he has no plans to step down.
Mr. Lytle said he's been using the $3 million windfall to purchase mobile units, at a cost of $90,000 apiece, and ship them overseas. The ministry is ready to buy more but first must find the right people to run them.
The Lytles shipped the first mobile movie unit to Lagos, Nigeria, in 2002, with plans to show films and preach every other weekend. The demand was so great, with up to 4,000 people attending every show, that they now hold programs every two or three days.
The mobile units are equipped with fold-out 16-foot-wide screens for the movies and carry their own generators in case the city's electrical power goes out, which it often does in Lagos.
The Jesus Video, an accurate depiction of the Gospel of Luke commissioned by Campus Crusade for Christ, is usually shown on the overseas units because the movie has been translated into more than 700 languages.
When Mr. Lytle first traveled to the Ukraine, he said he was warned by local officials not to give an altar call or he could be arrested.
“Now I've been giving invitations my whole life,” the feisty minister said. “I decided that if I have to go to prison for the rest of my life, I'm going to give an invitation.”
He gave it, scores of people responded, and nobody was arrested. Drive-In Ministries has since helped start 68 churches in the Ukraine, and 5,000 people have been baptized, he said.
Counting the responses from all of its events over the decades, more than 500,000 people have accepted Christ through Drive-In Ministries' programs, Mr. Lytle said.
An ordained Baptist minister, Mr. Lytle said he became a Christian when he was 7 years old and attended a revival at the White Spot Tavern in Jackson, Mich.
“After that it became the White Spot Mission,” he said.
He said Drive-In Ministries is just another way to reach people who ordinarily would not step inside a church.
“I'm a preacher,” he said. “I have one purpose: I want people to hear the message of salvation and get a chance to respond to it.”
Devil's Lake Drive-In is located at 740 Manitou Rd., Manitou Beach, Mich. Movies are shown at dusk on Saturdays and Sundays through Aug. 31. Tonight and tomorrow will feature `Lay It Down' and `Prophecy Series - Five Years Later.' Admission is free except for the last weekend of the year, when a $5 donation is requested. Information: 517-547-5657 or online at www.drive-inconcepts.com.41.97183 -84.30994