Church on a pier? SC churches are thinking outside the steeple to reach new members

Campers worship at pier church in Myrtle Beach

Worshipers gather at the Apache Campground Pier on Sunday mornings for a church service as waves break beneath and fishermen cast their lines.
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Worshipers gather at the Apache Campground Pier on Sunday mornings for a church service as waves break beneath and fishermen cast their lines.

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Surrounded by beachgoers, fishermen and the Atlantic Ocean, Cat Baynes hands out church bulletins as more than 100 vacationers and residents look for seats under the awning on the Apache Pier.

Worshippers can be spotted wearing sunglasses, hats, flip-flops and Hawaiian shirts as the chaplain delivers his sermon.

Baynes has been living on the Apache Family Campground and attending these weekly services for more than two years, and her mother was one of the ministry’s first members.

The unique location allows her to see and feel God’s wonder while she prays, she said, such as the waves and occasional breeze.

At a time when traditional Protestant churches are losing thousands of members each year and dozens of them are closing their doors across South Carolina, some churches are meeting in unconventional places and trying new approaches to achieve their age-old mission: reaching people with the Christian gospel.

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Worship by the water

On this particular Sunday, Baynes was enjoying the warmth of the sun, but she always feels the warmth of her fellow churchgoers, she said, and the ministry’s longtime chaplain, Richard Jenkins, is like family to her.

Jenkins said he was originally hired full-time to run the campground’s services in 2002, but left about five years ago when he and his family moved to the Greenville area. But he couldn’t stay away for long and now travels back to Myrtle Beach almost every weekend, occasionally relying on an assistant to handle services when he can’t make it.

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Peter Copeland, associate pastor at the Apache Campground Pier church delivers a sermon to his congregants as fisherman cast from the pier in the background. July, 17 2018. Jason Lee jlee@thesunnews.com

Jenkins, who plans to eventually relocate back to the area, has organized members as Church of the Bad Sheep, in cooperation with Happy Camper Ministries, because people are all wandering, but God comes to get us, he said.

Services average about 250 attendees in the summertime and 125 during the off season.

The history behind campground ministries stems from local churches sending out lay people to perform services because they found that vacationers often didn’t bring dress clothes to the beach, Jenkins said.

Now, Jenkins said most campgrounds hire their own chaplains and operate nondenominational services.

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Raised in a Southern Baptist church with Pentacostal grandparents before studying at a Presbyterian seminary, Jenkins said he feels adequately prepared to work with people across the religious spectrum.

Nondenominational churches have become the norm throughout the Grand Strand area, and Jenkins theorized that people have just gotten tired of playing the political games that sometimes come into play within denominational churches.

“I think people want to get to the heart of what gospel is about, instead of rules,” he said. “Some churches only love people just like them. There’s more acceptance in a nondenominational setting.”

Baynes, raised Baptist, said she recalls a lot of finger pointing in her former church, but she’s always greeted with open arms on the pier.

“It doesn’t matter where you worship,” says Ray Jackson, who has been attending these services for 20 years. “We’re all together in the House of God.”

Come to Jesus — in a tavern

New Brookland Tavern is as different on Saturday nights and Sunday mornings as, well, night and day.

Once a month, the gritty West Columbia venue known for its metal and punk bands transforms from a Saturday night house of rock to a Sunday morning house of worship.

With ears still ringing from late-night jams, late-morning brunch-goers pass by the open bar door while inside, a few dozen people ranging from kids to seniors sip coffee and play pool before gathering in front of the band stage for worship singing, prayer and preaching.

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House church leader Chris Garduce preachers during a service for The Church at West Vista inside New Brookland Tavern in West Columbia, SC. The Church at West Vista is a house church network which meets at separate homes during the month except for the last Sunday when they go to New Brookland Tavern. Gavin McIntyre gmcintyre@thestate.com

When people hear about having church in a bar, “Everybody just goes, ‘What?’” said Jody Ratcliffe, pastor of the 2-year-old Church at West Vista. “And then they think and go, ‘Wait a minute, that’s really cool.’ ... Our model meets the needs of folks who have ever been hurt in the past and they just don’t want to go to church ever again.”

Ratcliffe had been a Southern Baptist preacher who sensed a desperate need for change in the church he led. But by the time he drew up his ideas for what he’d like to see change, Ratcliffe realized he was dreaming of a whole new church.

“The traditional church has the mentality that everyone knows we’re here, and if we just open our doors, people will come if they want,” he said. “Millennials don’t value legacy. ... A lot of our older churches, they’ve been relying on legacy for decades.”

Once a month, the church meets at West Columbia’s New Brookland Tavern to worship together. The rest of the month, members meet in smaller groups in several homes across Columbia and Lexington County.

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Family and friends bow their heads in prayer during a meeting for The Church at West Vista at the home of Pastor Jody Ratcliffe in West Columbia, SC. The Church at West Vista is a house church network which meets at separate homes during the month except for the last Sunday when they go to New Brookland Tavern. Gavin McIntyre gmcintyre@thestate.com

The house/bar church is a place “for people who have had negative religious experiences who are looking for a place to search and explore and doubt,” Ratcliffe said.

‘You’re less intimidated’ in a movie theater

The plush reclining chairs at the Columbiana Grand movie theater are, arguably, a step up from the hockey locker room at a nearby indoor sports complex — smell-wise, at least.

OneLife Community Church moved its weekly meetings from the gym to the Columbia movie theater two years ago.

“You’ve never been to a church with a more comfortable chair,” joked Derrick Boatwright, a member of the church’s leadership team. “We feel like it’s a safe space. ... You’re less intimidated than you’d be walking into a typical cathedral building. ... It fit the culture of our church.”

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Chris Rao laughs during a sermon for OneLife Community Church as he leans back in his seat at Regal Columbiana Grande Stadium 14 in Columbia, SC. Gavin McIntyre gmcintyre@thestate.com

If someone’s comfortable going to the movies, they should feel comfortable walking into OneLife, Boatwright said. (They even have popcorn!)

The church has worked to create an environment that offers the comfort of a high-quality experience with the intimacy of close-knit relationships. Those are two things that don’t always go together in a church, Boatwright said.

For now, the church relies on video preaching from the national Life.Church network. But OneLife is searching for a full-time pastor to preach on-site every Sunday.

“I think people are looking for authenticity,” Boatwright said. “And I think you have an advantage of being authentic when you are in person.”