In the summer of 2019, my family spent a few days at a friend’s house on Ocean Isle Beach in North Carolina. It happened to be the same week that a pastor I used to work with in Nashville was vacationing with his family. They went to Ocean Isle almost every summer so he knew more about the goings-on in the area, including a Sunday worship service held near his rental house. He invited our family to park in their driveway on Sunday morning to walk to the spot on the beach where the service would be.
The worship service was hosted by Shallotte Presbyterian, which has been doing weekly summer worship on Ocean Isle since 1966. Five plus decades later, their beach service continues to be a ministry for both their own church members and also vacationers to Ocean Isle. In fact, there were people from all over the east coast in attendance the Sunday we were there. We were excited to be first time visitors, but some of the vacationers in attendance had been worshiping at Shallotte’s beach services for dozens of summers.
The service was short, maybe 30 minutes. It was just a couple songs, a children’s moment, and a brief sermon. There were 100 or so people in attendance. Some were dressed up in beach casual attire, but most of us were already in swimsuits, sunglasses, and hats—heading straight to a day of beach play immediately following the service. Greeters from Shallotte welcomed attendees with song lyrics, juice, coffee, and donuts. As my family worshiped from the back of the crowd (so our kids could build sand castles and run back and forth to the donut table), a question kept coming to mind…
“Where is our beach?”
While working together in Nashville, my pastor friend and I had spent many hours studying and discussing Missional Theology. It’s difficult to put a quick definition to missional thought, but perhaps the best short summary I’ve seen comes from Mission-Shaped Church, a Church of England document:
“It is not the church of God that has a mission in the world, but the God of mission that has a church in the world … God is on the move and the church is always catching up with him. We join his mission.”
(Mission-Shaped Church, Church of England, 2004, 85-86).
For over five decades, Shallotte Presbyterian has made the effort to meet God where God already is … at the beach. Instead of only inviting people to come to them, this church has invested significant time, energy, and finances to meet people where they are.
[Shallotte Presbyterian’s beach worship service, Ocean Isle, North Carolina]
“Where is our beach?” I just couldn’t shake that question as my family worshiped with sand between our toes. How do we join in God’s movement and mission in our own neighborhood?
The next morning I was sitting at the same beach spot where we had worshiped the morning before when a news story popped up on my phone. A large county ballpark, just two miles from the small church where I serve as pastor, was hosting a softball tournament with 90 plus teams and 4,000 players, family members, and friends. Some of these teams would be arriving from as far away as Texas and Massachusetts to compete in the USA Softball Junior Olympic Cup.
What if our church hosted a worship service at the park for families and friends attending tournaments? Perhaps, like vacationers to Ocean Isle, some of these players and families would love the opportunity to worship while away from home and their own congregations.
If we believe that the Spirit of God is active in the world, and that God also invites us to participate in that work, then among the most important and energizing of questions we can ask as individuals and communities of faith is: “Where is God moving in our neighborhood, and how can we join in God’s work?” Since sharing that beach worship experience with our congregation, I’ve suggested that our church might think and pray on that question in this way: “God, where is our beach?”
Our church in upstate South Carolina is a three and half hour drive to the coast but that ballpark does have a giant sandbox at its sprawling playground. And although the Atlantic ocean is over 200 miles away from our church sanctuary, that nearby park also boasts a massive splash pad.
Our beach might just be a big baseball park. Where is yours?
Want to read about a Midwestern example of something similar?
Check out Church By the Lake.