Room at the Drive-In : Carloads of Viewers Flock to Church’s Live Pageant in Poway


An amazed Mary accepts the word of the angel Gabriel that she is with child even though she has not known a man. The people in the vans and station wagons watch and listen and then move on.

Mary and Joseph and their donkey set off to Bethlehem but are turned away at the inn. The vehicles inch forward in the chilly night air.

The shepherds have a revelation from God in the fields, a babe is born in a manger, and the evil King Herod plots his death.


The passengers in the cars gaze intently and then drive slowly to new scenes of biblical significance set up in the church parking lot, culminating in the cross and the empty tomb and John 3:16.

Welcome to “Journey Thru Christmas,” a drive-through retelling of the Christmas story enacted each holiday season by the First Baptist Church of Poway. The church’s upbeat, cowboy hat-wearing minister is determined to bring the message of Christ to those who lack the time or inclination to leave their cars and sit in a pew.

“We consider this our missionary outreach to the community,” said Ron Hansen, the church’s business administrator who co-directs the production.

Dr. Ronald Shepard, the minister, is convinced that Jesus would heartily approve of linking the automotive and the spiritual.

“I think he would love it,” Shepard said. “Jesus was a real contemporary person. Contemporary doesn’t mean throwing out tradition and heritage. Contemporary means taking the message to people where they are. That’s what he did and that’s what we’re doing.”

Now in its third season, the free admission pageant is more popular than ever among the faithful and the curious of northern San Diego County. Last year, about 1,500 people came to look and learn during the six-night run.


The production, which lasts from 7 to 9 every night through Friday, is not some thrown-together, last-minute affair. It has grown each year and now encompasses 65 actors--including three Josephs and three Marys--eight scenes, music, elaborate costumes, colorful sets and real donkeys, sheep and a goat.

One year, a donkey got carried away with his role, stuck his snout inside a car and let loose with a loud bray and a wet snort. Try getting that kind of religious experience at a production of Handel’s “Messiah.”

In single file, the cars move slowly around eight sets--each one about 32 feet long, 16 feet deep and separated from the others by plywood. Each scene has its own recorded music and narration, with the actors, who are members of the congregation, providing lip-sync and pantomime.

In theatrical terms, every seat is front row, a proximity that the car-bound audience members enjoy. An arch of red lights, “Journey Thru Christmas,” beckons drivers from Midland Road.

Alex Ornellas, 10, in a van with his parents, liked the smoke that attended the arrival of the angels to reveal God’s presence to the shepherds. “Keen special effects,” he said.

Robert Horn, in a car with his wife, Carol, appreciated being close enough to experience the sound and smell of the animals and the smell of hay.


“It made it very real,” said Horn, who recently moved to Poway from Missouri to take a job at Wal-Mart.

Each scene takes a minute or longer and is watched out the driver’s side windows.

After a scene is finished, the floodlights in the parking lot go off, and two dozen traffic controllers with flashlights guide the cars to the next scene, moving forward along a tight oval, three scenes on each side, one scene at each end.

All eight scenes are done at the same time, with a master controller in a tower inside the oval keeping everything flowing smoothly. The full religious vehicular experience takes about 15 minutes.

As the cars leave the parking lot, volunteers from the congregation offer each car’s occupants a flyer about the church and its candlelight Christmas Eve services.

As modern and novel as the drive-through approach may seem, a drama lecturer at San Diego State University says the movable festival has links to the earliest drama when English theater first came out from behind church walls and into the streets.

Then, the religious scenes were mounted on the backs of wagons drawn by horses, Dianne Holly said. The audience stayed put and the drama moved on wheels. Now, the scenes stay put and the audience moves, but the intent is the same.


“It (the Baptist pageant) is really very much like the medieval and early Renaissance fairs,” Holly said. “It’s for families, for children, for everybody who might feel uncomfortable inside a church but still wants a dramatic Christian experience.”

The drive-through celebration in Poway also has similarities to a variety of folk traditions, including the Mexican tradition of Las Posada--a re-enactment of outdoor scenes from the Nativity drama at Christmastime, Holly said.

Shepard, who got the idea from a more modest undertaking by a Baptist church in Northern California, said “Journey Thru Christmas” could be one of those “California ideas” that spreads across the nation.

The idea has at least moved two miles down the road to the Creekside Covenant Church in San Diego. For the first time, the church, an evangelical Christian gathering, is offering a 15-minute Christmas drive-in play this year.

Along with improving the sets next year, Shepard is thinking of expanding the effort to include other parts of the Christian story.

“Easter,” he said. “I could see us doing Easter.”