Six million jobs in the U.S. economy involve work in the outdoor recreation industry. This includes paddling, climbing, and hiking. Sundays can be the busiest day for people who work or play on the water but one United Methodist pastor is finding a way to be sure they can also worship on that day. See how this congregation is rethinking church and traveling outside church walls.
Locator: Bryson City, North Carolina
(Voice of Anne Connolly) “I don’t think of myself as a church person at all. Nature is God. This is God, the trees, the river.”
(Sound of rafter) “Whoo!”
It’s Sunday morning, on the Nantahala River in western North Carolina.
In this community, many people are more comfortable in a canoe than a church pew.
Sarah Ruhlen, Nantahala River Guide:
“What our generation is about it’s about going out there and living with God.”
Since 2007, hundreds of paddlers, guides and young adults…
Pastor Wayner: “Are you gonna paddle with us today?”
…have found refreshment, and relationship, in this riverside brew pub turned chapel. Former U.S. National Team paddler Anne Connolly is a regular.
Anne Connolly, Former U.S. Kayak Team Member:
“There is no experience like it. I drive two-and-a-half hours to come to church here.”
Pastor Wayner: “Welcome to the River of Life!”
Pastor, and former Olympic paddler, Wayne Dickert and his congregation at Bryson City United Methodist Church provide this waterside worship service.
Pastor Wayner: “God’s Kingdom is present.”
Many in the rafting community come to the mountains because they feel like outsiders. They relate to Wayner, as he is known to this crowd, because he is a fellow paddler.
Pastor Wayner: “One of the best ways in this community is just to be out on the water with folks and just connect with them on a personal level.”
Sarah Ruhlen:“He doesn’t say you need to be perfect. He’s like, ‘I know a lot of what your heart is feeling because I’ve been there.’”
Nineteen-year-old river guide Sarah Ruhlen is thankful the church comes to the river where she works many Sundays.
Sarah Ruhlen: “There are a couple of little churches but it's not like there signs that say ‘Hey come to this church. We love you, raft guides.”
Pastor Wayner: “You have to make this decision, do I go to church or do I make money to live on?”
Cricket Barnett also works in the outdoor community where Sundays may be the busiest day of the week.
Cricket Barnett, River Church Regular: “They can go to church in the morning and then go to work in the afternoon or go for a paddle and still have a full day on the water.”
(Group sings: “Amazing Grace”)
Anne Connolly: “It’s just a place where people can come together and be exactly who they are and accepted and loved.”
River church is an open worship experience, including traditions like sharing “God Sightings.”
Church member: “I saw God through the face of my daughter and grandchildren.”
Anne Connolly: “I see God every day and I have for the past four years. (weeps) I was homeless and had 100 dollars to my name. Now, I have a car, I am in school getting my Master’s degree and I’ll graduate in a year. I want to thank you for helping me through the hardest time in my life.”
(Pastor hugs Anne) Wayner whispers: “Amen.” Anne whispers back, “Thank you, love you.” He says “Love you, too.”
One-hundred-percent of the offering goes to a cause that matters to this group, clean water projects.
Pastor Wayner: “We just put in our 16th well in Haiti.”
After church, it’s right to the water.
Pastor Wayner: “Here comes Trey.”
Pastor Wayner: “This is the perfect marriage of worship and recreation and re-creation and having that opportunity to have new life breathed into them.”
Anne Connolly: We are church people, kayakers and rafters and people that get on the water. Nature is our church. The river is our church. But it sure is nice to have someone to pray with once you are out there.”
Rev. Wayne Dickert and Bryson City United Methodist Church host River Church every Sunday, from Memorial Day weekend in May through September.
This video was first posted on August 26, 2015.