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Drive-in Movie Ministry Closes Door

Manitou Beach, MI

The Devils Lake Drive-In was an unusual, if not unique, Christian ministry.

Every Saturday and Sunday during the summers from 1952 to 2007, evangelical Christian films were shown on a 60-by-40-foot screen at the outdoor theater, right in the midst of the Devils Lake resort area. (The drive-in actually opened on July 4, 1951, but the first summer it featured all preaching, no movies.)

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Admission was free except for the last weekend every summer, when a donation of $3 per person was requested at the entrance.

In 1964, the drive-in ministry expanded to St. Petersburg, Fla., with another outdoor movie theater. When that property was sold in 1999 for $3 million, the windfall was used to buy mobile units that traveled in Ukraine, Nigeria, Mexico, and Guatemala, showing The Jesus Movie to thousands of people at a time.

At the Devils Lake facility, the main attraction included such non-blockbusters as Deadly Choice, Lay It Down, and Like a Roaring Lion; Billy Graham-produced films such as Road to Redemption and Oil Town USA, and apocalyptic Christian B-movies like A Distant Thunder and A Thief in the Night.

Up to 500 people - mostly vacationers who rented or owned cottages in the popular resort area an hour north of Toledo - crowded onto the grassy area that had previously been a corn farm.

The moviegoers coated themselves with bug spray and sat in their cars or lawn chairs, or stretched out on blankets for a summer night's entertainment under the stars.

Before the films began, a local performer would sing a gospel song or two and the Rev. Terry Lytle, founder of the drive-in ministry, or another area minister would give a sermonette.

As the decades passed, the Devils Lake Drive-In became more and more of a throwback to a bygone era.

The popularity of drive-ins in the United States fell from a peak of 4,000 in the 1950s to just over 600 today, according to the National Association of Theater Owners, but the Devils Lake Drive-In stayed true to its mission of movies and evangelism.

The drive-in was a labor of love for Mr. Lytle and his wife, Olive, who met when they were students at the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago.

They were in their early 20s when they started this movie outreach, just two years after Terry was ordained a Baptist minister.

"I thought this might be a way to tell people about Jesus," Mr. Lytle told me a few years ago. "We thought it might last a year, maybe two."

Each spring, I would get a letter in the mail from the Lytles that would include a list with dates of the summer's features, a map and directions to the theater, and a wallet-sized card with the schedule and other pertinent information ("Snack bar and rest rooms toward back of screen; films begin at dusk.")

My copy always included a hand-written note from Olive to her "friend" in the media.

This year, the letter arrived with a shocking P.S.: "By the way, Terry Lytle will not be with us this year. … God took him to be with Himself April 1, 2008."

Mr. Lytle died in Florida at age 80 after a short illness. But Olive planned to continue the ministry at Devils Lake.

Then, on May 20, three weeks before the summer movie season was to start, Olive was working on the drive-in's grounds when she suffered a heart attack. She died the next day at age 81.

The two people who had been running the ministry for 58 years, and who had been married 60 years, died within seven weeks of eachother.

"My Dad's passing was a shock but not as much as my Mom's," said Dennis Lytle, of Clearwater, Fla.

His parents were wholly committed to the drive-in ministry because everything they did in life revolved around spreading the Gospel, he said.

"I can't tell you how many times as kids me and my sisters were embarrassed because our parents would witness to everybody," Dennis said. "We'd pull into the gas station, back when they used to pump your gas, and my father would start telling the attendant about Jesus."

Volunteers from Gadson Street Baptist Church in nearby Jackson, Mich., and West Rome Baptist Church in Manitou Beach had hoped to carry on the ministry for at least this summer, but ultimately were unable to keep it going.

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