On hot summer days, Pere Marquette Park is a beachgoer's paradise. Draped along Muskegon's west side, the park features acres of fine sand, swings and slides for the kids, and a view of Lake Michigan that rivals any tourist brochure.
Early one Sunday last July, while the morning shadows were inching across the sand and before many people had come to spend the day, a hundred or more worshipers gathered on blankets and beach chairs near the water's edge. Some were members of Celebration Community Church, a new church being planted in Muskegon. Some were invited guests. Others were curious onlookers.
Clad in a blue T-shirt and Bermuda shorts, Celebration's pastor, Don Ridder, stood in front of the assembled congregation, Bible in hand, and announced the beginning of a very special—and very public—baptism service.
"Today we will baptize eleven people into the family of God," Ridder shouted so that all could hear. Some in the back moved forward. "We have been bold. We have gone out. Now these dear ones have received the gift of grace."
Celebration's praise band, comprised mostly of young men playing guitars, led a few familiar praise songs and choruses: "Lord, I Lift Your Name on High," "You Are My All in All," "Amazing Grace," and "Step by Step." Hands reached up; eyes pinched tight; faces turned skyward. While the sun shone and the water lapped at the beach, believers worshiped in God's open-air sanctuary.
That July morning, those who were baptized ranged from little Autumn Chorney, who turned one year old on her baptism day, to beefy John T. Rice, a linebacker for the Fruitport High School football team, to Danny DeBoe, whose battle with alcoholism nearly claimed his life only months before. There were twins Jennifer and Megan Rose, June Bishop, Tammy Rice—John TVs mother—and others. Little Autumn, squirming in her dad's strong arms, was sprinkled. The others were immersed in lake water a hundred or more feet from the shore.
Most had invited friends or family members to wade in and help lay them down in the water and lift them out. "1 always encourage the person being baptized to bring people along who have significantly helped them get to know Jesus," Ridder says. "Almost always I'm in there with two, three, maybe ten other people—maybe their whole small group goes in the water with them. We all baptize them together, saying this is a corporate activity.
"Of course, we are able to do that outdoors in the lake a little easier than in the little baptismal tank," he adds with a grin.
Celebration Community Church started meeting in Hile Elementary School, near the Muskegon Airport, about three years ago. When the annual Muskegon Air Fair came to town and closed off the street leading to the school for an entire weekend, church leaders considered their options.
"We couldn't use the building because of the congestion and noise. So we said, What should we do? Should we just cancel church or try to do it later in the day? How about another location?" Ridder recalls.
At the same time several people wanted to be baptized, and so the inconvenience was turned into an opportunity. The church decided to hold an open-air baptism service at Lake Michigan.
"The first year we baptized nine people in the lake. That was a wonderful experience for our church," Ridder says. In 2002, the church returned to the beach for three baptism services.
The members of Celebration Community are comfortable "doing church" in front of passersby. In fact, it's part of the DNA of this new church. They hope that onlookers will be attracted by their witness.
"Whenever we've had the opportunity, we go out there and be the fire in the darkness that everybody is drawn to because God's presence is there, and people want that," Ridder says.
Karen Stralcy, a founding member of the church who previously attended a more traditional church in Muskegon, agrees. "We are a seeker-oriented church. The more we can be out in public with our witness the more people are going to hear and be touched. I am not the least bit uncomfortable having such a public witness," she says.
Guests who attended the beach baptism in July seemed content to leave pews and pipe organs behind, at least for one service.
Retirees Harold and Marie Zoerhof, living in Holland, Michigan, attended the service at the invitation of a friend. Although the setting was quite different from their usual place of worship, Marie Zoerfhof was not dismayed.
"The fact that it wasn't in a church building wasn't that important," she reflects. "Being at the lake brought to mind what it was like when Jesus went around with his disciples. Jesus preached right outdoors. People were sitting all around him on the grass.
"We are supposed to let our light shine. How can we do that if we keep it inside a church building?" Zoerhof asks.
Zoerhof's question goes to the root of what prompts Celebration Community Church to hold worship services in the public arena.
"Jesus taught by the lakeside. Paul preached in public forums," Ridder says. "That's behind our church's vision. If we want somebody to meet Christ, we have to go to them, where they are, when they are there, and on their terms, rather than always expecting people to come to us."
The church uses a variety of "fishing pool" events during which members seek to interest unchurched people in the gospel. Ridder considers worship to be a primary "fishing pool" event. "Worship is the purest expression of our relationship with God, but also it's authentic, contagious, and exciting." And so it should be made available to people who have no connection with God or the church.
The leaders of Celebration Community Church take their cues for public worship from the book Worship Evangelism by Sally Morgenthaler (Zondervan, 1999). The church instinctively holds worship services in public settings because "our approach to worship is evangelism," Ridder says.
"Authentic worship has to be evangelistic because we are truly meeting our heavenly Father, face to face and experiencing his love, grace, and forgiveness, and growing in our faith as we study the Word."
Ridder often reminds the congregation that the building where the church meets is just that—a building and nothing more. The sanctuary is nothing special, he says, until the Holy Spirit is there and until people are seeing God's face and helping others do that.
This is one reason the congregation decided to meet for worship in a movie theater last year. The service launched a sermon series on "Hollywood Meets the Ten Commandments." "Where else to have such a service than in a movie theater?" Ridder asks. "We used the opportunity to publicize the summer-long series."
A Picnic in the Park
The leaders of Celebration Community Church encourage other churches to use creativity and originality when combining worship and evangelism. Unchurched people expect the church to do things as they've always been done. "When the church does those things, unchurched people are not surprised," Ridder says. "They don't even take notice of it. But when the church uses creativity and surprises people, then they stop and wonder why."
For example, Celebration Community holds summer church picnics in the park. Rather than ignoring others using the park, they invite all the people in the park to join them for a meal and games. In December, the church offers vacation Bible school on the three Friday evenings before Christmas, enabling parents to drop off their children and go Christmas shopping at the nearby mall.
"We take great care of the kids, tell them the Christmas story, and their folks get a couple hours of free time." Half of the children who came last year had no church home; several of those families now attend Celebration Community regularly.
Karen Straley encourages people to explore what churches are doing to combine worship and evangelism in creative ways. "Go to those churches, feel what it is like, ask questions, and have a very open mind to see what is going on."
Marie Zoerhof may have said it best when she reflected, "We've got to get out into the world and let our light shine wherever we are. The beach service was a great witness, not only for the Celebration people, but also for those who wandered by."