‘Worship on Water’ reaches summer lake dwellers

July 25, 2018

By: Karla Hovde

Minnesotans love summers, and Minnesotans love lakes. Some churches struggle to reach people who prefer to be at the lake on summer weekends. Why compete with the allure of the water? Just worship on the lake!
That’s exactly what Grace UMC in Paynesville decided to do. Every Saturday night during this year’s summer months, Rev. Bob Kandels stands on a pontoon boat in a bay of Lake Koronis and people anchor their boats all around. Kandels opens with prayer, preaches the sermon he will use on Sunday morning, and closes with a blessing. The whole “Worship on Water” experience takes 20 minutes.
“People honk their horns instead of saying Amen at the end,” Kandels said.
Why worship on water?
In addition to being a pastor, Kandels is a water fanatic. He water skis, wakeboards, and does “barefooting.” Most people he water skis with have summer homes around Lake Koronis. Some of them rarely or never attended church. Because church is a big part of Kandels’ life, he often brings it up in conversation.
“I once asked if they would ever go to church,” Kandels said. “One guy said ‘we spend a lot of money and effort on these vacation cabins, so when we come to the lake for the weekends, we want to spend that time relaxing at our cabins or in our boats.’” That got Kandels thinking about combining water and worship. With this group, he came up with the idea and format for the service. Kandels asked the same friend if he’d attend a 20-minute service on the lake, and he said, “I’d give you 20 minutes in a heartbeat.”
The Grace UMC’s men’s group started brainstorming and praying about launching the new service. They went through extensive research and trials to find a sound system that would work from a pontoon boat on a lake. They decided on a quiet bay free of weeds near a lakeside resort.
The church printed door hangers with the time and location for Worship on Water, and told people to bring their boats and anchors. An engineer in the church mapped out walking routes to every cabin around the lake, and 40 members of the congregation went out during Sunday worship to talk with people, distribute the door hangers, and invite them to the new service. Going out on Sunday morning meant they mainly met those who didn’t already attend church on Sunday—the exact group they wanted to reach.
The local newspaper, the Paynesville Press, published an article the week before the worship service began. The nearby resort owner informed all his guests about the new service as well.
In an unusual move for a new church ministry, Kandels asked current church members not to come. “I told the congregation, I don’t want to see you there unless you are bringing an unchurched person!”
Preaching their language

Kandels preaches from a pontoon boat on Lake Koronis.
The first service was on Memorial Day weekend, and 56 people showed up in their boats. Since then, it has averaged 38 attendees. Only a small handful of them have ever been to Grace UMC. There’s no offering at this service, people wear swimsuits and drink soda, and one family always brings a dog.
“I try to greet every boat that comes to the service,” said Kandels. I’m sure to always greet the dog too…People are so eager to attend. When we had to cancel for bad weather, a number of boats came to the meeting spot before we even had time to spread the news.”
Tom Deadrick, a member of Grace UMC, helped plan Worship on Water but has never attended. The new service “shows the community that we are an active church serious about spreading God's word,” he said.
Dan Welter, who regularly attends and helps with the technical side of the service, is drawn to it for the relaxed setting, welcoming atmosphere, and because it’s not in a church building. “People out on their boats can just swing by and check it out,” he said. “You get past all the stigmas of a traditional church.”
Kandels is aware that this kind of service isn’t going to fill the pews come fall.
“We know that these people will go back to the cities the rest of year,” he said. “This is a way to reach people who wouldn’t go to church in the summer, or maybe anytime.”
Kandels encourages other churches to not be afraid of starting out-of-the-box ministries. He attributes part of the success of Worship on Water to the fact the lake is a setting in which he’s so comfortable.
“I am most at home on the water,” he said. “When I’m on the water, I preach these people’s language.”

 Karla Hovde is the communications specialist for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.

Photos by Michael Jacobson of the Paynesville Press and Dan Welter.

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