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Wrangling South Carolina worshippers in unconventional settings

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When Pastor Randall Derrick arrived at Macedonia Lutheran Church in Prosperity 39 years ago, he was prepared to be “a fisher of men,” as Jesus implores his followers to be.

Little did he realize, though, that his ministry would extend to being a fisher of fishermen — and Sunday morning water skiers.

“I’ve seen folks drop a fishing line during the sermon,” he says. And he’s also witnessed water skiers drop their rope and glide in to his church’s lakeside service on Lake Murray.

And while no one tracks religious institutions' unconventional efforts to reach their flocks, Macedonia is far from a single case.

'People in pajamas and bathing suits'

Take communion on your boat? Not a problem at Macedonia, where youth ushers in waterproof sandals will wade out to deliver the sacraments at the 8:30 a.m. service.

“That can take a little longer,” he admits. “We can have about 200 people who either come off their boat to our outdoor service or we come to them. Sometimes they anchor out there, anywhere between five and 25 boats.”

For those who do venture off their boat, jet ski or even their water ski, Macedonia’s lakeside worship services are held in an open-air chapel, a simple shelter structure built in 1995 that seats about 155 people. But the services have been a Lake Murray fixture since June 1970, eight years before Pastor Derrick arrived.

His predecessor, the Rev. Clarence Richardson, recognized the unconventional opportunity to reach summer lake visitors who might not otherwise venture to a worship service. He was riding the wake of ministerial colleagues at Salem Methodist Church, which began holding services at Johnson’s Marina in 1969, on the other side of the lake.

“The fact that our church is situated on the lakefront and that we have this natural beach area and a grassy area for boaters to pull up means we’ve got a really pretty spot for a worship experience that is not as structured and more casual. Lutheran services are liturgical, and can be a little high church, you know.”

For those who prefer more formal worship, the 10:30 a.m. traditional service is held in the historic 1930s-era sanctuary.

Loud speakers broadcast the service out to the lakefront. A praise band plays once a month, old-time gospel tunes and Lutheran hymns (including the old standard, “Lord, You Have Come to the Lakeshore”) are included, and a small electric organ provides accompaniment for the full drive-up outdoor worship—either by boat or car, so it’s convenient for infirm people too.

“We’ve had people in pajamas and in bathing suits. We do baptisms, weddings and have even done funerals out there. It’s pretty cool, seems to fill a niche, to fill a need,” adds Derrick, who had early experience leading ecumenical outdoor worship services as a minister in Yellowstone National Park in the 1970s, during a seminary summer.

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Today, he and Macedonia’s summer interns from Newberry College or Columbia Lutheran Seminary go over to nearby Dreher Island State Park to invite park guests to join their lakeside service. “We welcome folks from all church backgrounds and all walks of life,” he says.

For longtime church member and Lake Murray resident Elizabeth Carter, the lakeshore service is an effective outreach. “I think it's wonderful and pulls in a lot of people who wouldn’t go to church otherwise,” she says. “They can sit in their boat or car, and don’t have to get dressed up. Sometimes just riding by on their boat and they stop and join in worship.”

Is smaller (and different) better?

Some suggest that what appears to be a rise in unconventional worship experiences, such as Macedonia’s lakeside service, may follow a broader trend away from larger, mega-church environments to smaller, more intimate worship experiences, according to bloggers and religious trend observers Carey Nieuwhof and Thom Rainer, among others.

Myrtle Beach has a Christian Surfing Federation whose website says its mission is "to positively impact the lives of local surfers with the love our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ." It meets Tuesday evenings in Garden City.

In Cottageville, there's a different approach. David Stanfield, a former defense industry professional, says ministering to guests and neighbors at his Cowboy Church is just part of following God’s call.

“All I ever wanted to be was a preacher,” he says.

After retiring and embarking on a second career as a horse farm and campground owner at Horseshoe Lake Farm, 40 miles outside of Charleston, Stanfield created his own decidedly unconventional worship opportunity for campers, horse enthusiasts, and “whoever wants to show up.”

Cowboy Church is held year-round on Sunday evenings at 6:30.

“Come as you are — in shorts or a tank top,” he says. The evening hour allows people to attend their regular church in the morning. “I don’t want to interfere with anyone’s other church service,” Stanfield says. Nor does Cowboy Church take up an offering or request any financial support of attendees.

“I don’t ever want it to be said it was done for a dollar,” he adds. “I just have a love of people and a desire to share a message of love of Jesus Christ. It’s pretty simple — just about loving your neighbor and loving your God. And because I have a reputation for riding horses, the cowboy theme just fit.”

Stanfield’s country-style gospel band, “Chance” provides the music for Cowboy Church services, which are about “half music and half preaching,” Stanfield says. “We’re just here to serve the community and help people in any way we can.”

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