Boat church

Youngsters listen to Thackston during the children's lesson at boat church.

So they pulled their boats up on shore, left everything and followed Jesus.” – Luke 5:11

Ever hear of the “summer slump”? Most pastors have. In June, July and August, church attendance goes down – way down. Parishioners go on vacations, attend family reunions, take the summer off from worship services. Some families have trouble getting everybody cleaned and pressed and motivating them out the door to go sit in church on a muggy Sunday morning.

Countless churches know that problem. This is not one of them.

This is “boat church,” a growing, casual congregation of worshippers who gather in their boats on Lake Marion each Sunday morning from Memorial Day through Labor Day. More than 600 people in 108 boats attended the first service this season, and an average of 400 show up each week to take part in this 46-year-old tradition on South Carolina's largest lake.

The Rev. Dr. Reginald Thackston, a retired United Methodist minister now in his 16th summer leading boat church, says that the year before he started preaching at the services, attendance averaged 98 people a week. Now, the number of boats can exceed that.

“Families come to stay on the lake in the summer, and when they have visitors come stay with them, they bring them to boat church, because they say, 'This is what we do – we worship on the lake,'” he says.

Thackston, who was senior pastor at John Wesley United Methodist Church on Savannah Highway from 1981 to 1991, is quick to note that despite its popular name, boat church is not a church at all, and doesn't want to be. “It's a nondenominational Christian worship experience,” he says. He and the church's board aren't out to establish a permanent congregation or lure people away from their regular memberships at other churches.

They just want to do what boat church has done so successfully for so long: provide a casual way for people to worship while staying at the lake, and serve as tools in the hands of God to help their neighbors.

The boats start trickling into the Wyboo Swamp area at about 9 a.m., half an hour before the service starts. Loudspeakers and a simple pulpit are already set up on the expanse of lawn under shade-giving willow oaks and towering pines. Pontoon boats, ski boats and personal watercraft glide up to the seawall at Boyle's Point, coasting onto a crescent of sandy beach. Volunteers greet visitors and hand out a one-page order of worship.

As the arriving boats are joined landside by people in golf carts, in cars, on bicycles and on foot, Thackston walks along the seawall greeting worshippers with a broad smile. “I'm always easy to pick out,” he says. “I'm the only one wearing a tie.” Indeed, most of those on boats and on land are in shorts, T-shirts, flip-flops, even bathing suits. A good number of boaters bring their dogs.

The service starts at 9:30 and always lasts 35 minutes. After a few words from Thackston, the crowd sings a short opening “theme chorus” as Elaine Budden, a member of Manning United Methodist, accompanies them on the electric piano.

After a prayer and a hymn, Thackston invites the youngsters up for the children's sermon. While the kids jump from tied-up boats onto the beach and scamper across the grass to sit at Thackston's feet, volunteers collect the offering – not easy when most of the worshippers are spread out in boats, but boat church has found a way: Two volunteers putter out in a johnboat and use an empty gallon milk jug with a hole cut in the top to collect the offering from boaters, while other volunteers collect offerings on land.

“We used to have a young man on a Jet Ski take up the collection,” Thackston says. “But he went off to college.”

Following the offering, there's another hymn, then Thackston gives a sermon that lasts about 15 minutes. After a dedication chorus and final blessing, the service concludes.

Week in and week out, worshippers are drawn to boat church. Attendance on July 5, for example, was 553 people, with 89 boats and 28 golf carts, plus a number of cars and bicycles. A handful of folks listened from the ends of docks around the cove. In addition, the service is broadcast on FM 90.1 on boat radios within range of Boyle's Point, so it's hard to tally exactly how large a crowd hears Thackston's message each week.

Boat church started about 46 years ago when a group of friends who spent summers at the lake decided to get together on someone's front porch on Sunday for a casual worship time — a time they could share God's word while staying on the lake rather than making the long drive back to Manning or Sumter or Summerton.

Thackston says that at first the group got together just on holiday weekends, but the gathering eventually became a weekly service, and Boyle, one of the organizers, offered the use of his property. Hence boat church's formal name, the Edwin Boyle Santee Summer Ministry.

The ministry was at one time affiliated with Aldersgate United Methodist Church in Sumter because many of its original members belonged to that church, says Thackston. Today, boat church is self-supported and is governed by its own nine-member board of directors, who come from a range of denominations and professions.

Thackston says Boyle's daughter, who now owns the property, has allowed boat church to continue to meet there. Ministry supporters have contributed to site improvements such as the seawall, irrigation and landscaping.

The organization's primary focus, in addition to the Sunday services, is mission work and support for charitable efforts, mostly in Clarendon and Sumter counties. Among the agencies and programs the ministry assists are the United Ministries of Clarendon and Sumter counties and the Crosswell Home for Children in Sumter.

Boat church also has held a Habitat for Humanity Sunday, with the offering going to that organization and the ministry adding more funds from its treasury. And on July 12, boat church hosted more than 125 teens, young adults and staff members from the Salkehatchie Summer Ministry, a group of high school and college-age students who were in the area to repair substandard housing. Boat church worshippers not only welcomed the group for the morning service, but also served them lunch and used their own boats to provide the visitors a fun afternoon of tubing and relaxation on the lake.

Thackston, who grew up in Fort Mill, went to Wofford College and was planning to go into journalism, but felt the call to the ministry. He's been preaching 60 years, including service at churches in Hemingway, Conway, Columbia and Marion in addition to his decade in Charleston. He officially retired in 1997 from Trenholm Road United Methodist in Columbia.

At boat church, he says, his sermons are shorter than those he used to give in traditional church settings. “It's easier to talk longer when you're in a comfortable, air-conditioned setting,” he says. “My preaching at boat church differs from my preaching at my United Methodist churches (in) not having to promote 'church' projects or denominational issues. I also try to focus on Jesus and how he meets our needs. There is no denominational bias at boat church.”

He says, very simply, “At boat church I preach about God as I understand Him, and I invite people to let God make a change in their life.”

And when the summer ends and boat church winds down for the year, Thackston knows what his parting words to the worshippers will be. “My message at the last service is the same every year,” he says. “It is: 'Now you go back to your church and do this.' That's exciting to me.”