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Worshippers make Boat Church their port of call

Church member Frank Lott steers his boat to the Lake Blackshear docks for the Boat Church services, a ministry of nearby Warwick (Ga.) United Methodist Church. The informal outdoor service is held on a vacant lot next to the lake, and worshippers listen from their boats or sit in lawn chairs by the water's edge.
UMNS photos by John Gordon.

By John Gordon*
Sept. 5, 2007 | WARWICK, Ga. (UMNS)

The Rev. Dorsia Atkinson Jr. preaches at the Boat Church service.

As boaters pull up to a dock on Lake Blackshear, the Rev. Dorsia Atkinson Jr. checks a tool bag he'll use as part of his sermon and the minnow buckets that will serve as collection plates.

"You come in your bathing suit, come in your T-shirt, come in your shorts, come in your flip-flops, and you’re not worried about looking like someone should look to be at church," says Atkinson.

He's describing the Boat Church ministry of Warwick United Methodist Church. For the past six years, he has led outdoor Boat Church services on Sunday mornings on a vacant lot beside the lake. Worshippers sit in lawn chairs by the water or listen from their boats.

Children and pets are welcome. Atkinson promises no pretenses at Boat Church.

"I try to create sermons where I interact with the people," he says, reaching into his tool bag for a prop to accompany a message about using the right tools for a job.

"I've brought bicycles out here. I've brought my golf clubs out. I have brought a steak out here and grilled it."

His object lessons are remembered by Boat Church members.

"He did a series one time on 'Gilligan's Island' characters," recalls Frank Lott, who has a home on the lake. "And he had the big cardboard cutouts of all the characters."

Lott's wife, Mitzi, enjoys the beauty of the lake setting. "It's the prettiest sanctuary in the world," she says.

Outdoor sanctuary

Attendance at Boat Church has steadily grown. Some services draw more than 200 people.

Worshippers listen to the sermon from their boats.

"It speaks to me because I am an outdoors (person). I'm a tree hugger, I guess," says member Amy Carter.

"Dorsia has been a shot in the arm for us," says church member Pam Campbell. "He has brought passion to the church."

The challenges of an outdoor service are different from preaching inside a sanctuary with stained-glass windows. Atkinson sometimes is interrupted by quacking geese, swarms of gnats or a passing air boat.

"Some of the things that work here at Boat Church won't work at other churches. But some of the things that work at other churches won't work here," he says. "You have to find what you're good at."

Boat Church meets outdoors through September. The informal services move indoors to a building at Warwick United Methodist Church during the fall and winter months.

Atkinson was a plant manager for a textile company before changing careers to become a pastor. He acknowledges his unconventional style sometimes draws questions.

"Not only have we had the traditionalists from our own church say things about it," he says, "we've had people from the denomination, or the district that I work in, say, 'Well, you can't do that; you can't get away with that.'"

But Atkinson does not plan to change his style or the relaxed setting of Boat Church.

"Too many churches try to be everything for everybody," he says. "I think churches need to be great at some things. They need to be a great, nurturing church."

Unconventional style

Robby Smithwick, a Lake Blackshear resident who has visited Boat Church several times, enjoys the style of the services.

Attendance at the summer outdoor services has grown steadily over
six years.

"It's unconventional," he says. "But I really do enjoy it, more than other churches I've been to, because of the atmosphere and the people you meet."

Addine Harrell, another lake resident, enjoys bringing her Labrador retriever, Jessie, to church.

"We can't figure out how she distinguishes Sunday from any other day of the week," says Harrell. "But when we get the boat key, she's waiting at the back door."

Carlysle Sullivan, a lake resident who has attended the services since they began, calls the lake setting the "perfect place" on Sunday mornings.

"The beautiful part is that we're out on the water and I use the cliché in the morning, I thank the Lord for sharing heaven on earth."

*Gordon is a freelance writer and producer in Marshall, Texas.

News media contact: Fran Coode Walsh, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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