COCOA BEACH, Fla. (BP)–Ryan Harris brought his best friend and a skim board to his baptism.
Harris, 14, had made a profession of faith but was holding out on baptism, his mother, Lisa Harris, said.
“He talked about being baptized but held off. I think the idea of being in front of a lot of people intimidated him,” she said.
All that changed when the Harris’ pastor, Rodney Gage, announced the date for a beach baptism. Gage, pastor of seven-year-old Fellowship Orlando, held the church’s third beach baptism on Sunday, April 20. Ryan Harris and 20 other new believers invited friends and family to witness their baptisms at Cocoa Beach.
“We have tried to find ways to make baptism more celebratory,” Gage said. “We believe that’s what baptism is -– the opportunity to allow people to demonstrate publicly what Christ has done in their lives.”
Last year, Gage suggested a beach baptism as a less formal way to celebrate the ordinance. The response was overwhelming, with 40 baptisms during the first beach service and 20 more again last fall.
“We have about 600 [in worship] on any given weekend. A lot of times people struggle with being baptized in front of so many. Having it on the beach can also be an easier place to invite your friends to,” Gage said.
It’s also a more natural setting, which is important to some. The entire Willsey family -– Alan and Shirley and their children Amy and Ben -– were baptized at Sunday’s gathering.
“We’re Floridians. We love the beach,” Alan Willsey said. “Being baptized at the beach, in public and in nature was exciting for us.”
The public baptisms also have led to one surprise baptism, Gage said.
“At our first beach baptism, we had the opportunity to share the Gospel with a woman and lead her to Christ,” Gage recounted. “That public witness of baptism is the ultimate expression. When you’re at the beach with a crowd, you have the walk-bys, the people who are intrigued by what you’re doing. The person being baptized doesn’t say anything to the onlooker. It’s the picture of the death, burial and resurrection of Christ that speaks for itself.”
In addition to the beach and the traditional setting of a church building, Fellowship Orlando’s baptisms take place in swimming pools and at lakes.
“We try to do things uniquely to keep it fresh and give people different opportunities and ways to participate. We build baptism up as a big celebration,” Gage said.
Last year the church baptized 101 people -– many of them at the beach an hour away from the church building. This year, the goal is to baptize 200.
Fellowship Orlando began seven years ago as a church plant of First Baptist Church in Orlando. Fellowship has been on its own for more than five years.
“We’ve been a portable church from the beginning,” Gage said. “We finally got a semi-permanent place two years ago.”
The congregation settled into a 16,000-square-foot building in a strip mall, tucked between Leslie’s Pool Supplies and Planet Fitness. It’s Gage’s first church plant, after spending 14 years as an itinerant evangelist.
“I saw the opportunity to reach a whole new generation of people. I saw the long-term potential of impacting people’s lives through the local church,” he said. “I love it. It’s been the greatest journey and the greatest ride of my life.”
Sherri Brown is a writer based in LaGrange, Ga.