Church on the Island: Worshipping God outdoors in the summer
Strolling along Rt. 48 in Baldwinsville, NY, just before 8 a.m., on a summer Sunday morning, few sounds are heard. The traffic is very light. Shops are not yet open. Once you reach the lock on the scenic Seneca River, a small sign directs you to Church on the Island. It simply reads “CHURCH ON THE ISLAND SUN. 8 AM.” Adults and children of all age ranges, carrying lawn chairs, turn at the sign, and walk behind the Red Mill Inn toward Paper Mill Island.
Paper Mill Island is a popular live music spot in the summer. There is an outdoor amphitheater and a park with benches and a few picnic tables. How did such a venue become a spot for a church service?
In the fall of 2015, Dennis Sick, a Baldwinsville businessman and owner of the Mohegan Manor and other local establishments, and the Rev. Patti Walz, the Associate Pastor at Baldwinsville First UMC, were brainstorming ideas. Dennis mentioned, “Wouldn’t it be great if there was a chapel on the island?” While there isn’t an actual chapel on the island, Rev. Patti’s thoughts transitioned to, “Why not use the amphitheater as a chapel and run Sunday morning church services in the summer?”
Dr. Larry Lundgren, Sr. Pastor at Baldwinsville First UMC, took Patti’s proposal for Church on the Island to the Village Town Board and they approved it. Many village businesses supported the idea, allowing Rev. Patti to hang posters in their businesses. Several businesses offered gift certificates to be used to help raise funds for the sound equipment and keyboard that Rev. Patti would need to run the service.
Church on the Island is now one of 55+ New Faith Communities currently being planted by United Methodists in the Upper New York Conference. Many of these New Faith Communities are being planted by existing local churches that are trying to reach new people by creating a “new place for new people” somewhere in their neighborhood. Many churches are discovering that if they offer a new worship or small- group experience in a public space (where unchurched people already gather for other reasons), new people feel safer, and are more apt to come to see what is going on! In this case, the pastors and leaders of the Baldwinsville UMC are experimenting with a new way of reaching people in their community with the good news of Jesus Christ
The first Church on the Island service took place on July 3, 2016. The 30-45-minute service has continued every Sunday at 8a.m. and will run through August 28.
Rev. Patti Walz leads the worship service. She is a piano player and leads the service with a digital piano and microphone. The services use a range of local talent, including musicians, actors, and artists. One Sunday, Rev, Patti had a talented T'ai Chi instructor, Randie Lynn Hughes, perform T'ai Chi to a praise song that Rev. Patti played on the digital piano. Rev. Patti has also had a saxophonist perform, a flautist, and many different singers. The Sunday after Vacation Bible School ends at Baldwinsville First UMC, she hopes to have some of the children perform.
The July 24th service is one example of what people can expect to find on a Sunday morning at a Church on the Island service.
The Paper Mill Island Park is peaceful with only the sound of seagulls. A dozen house boats are tied up to cleats on the other side of the lock. A group of 30-40 people, including 12 who are youth-aged, gather in their lawn chairs or at picnic tables. Rev. Patti explains, “It’s always nice and quiet for this service and we keep our voices low so we do not disturb anyone who may be sleeping on their boats.”
A picnic table is set up with breakfast pastries, coffee, and water. (Janet and Chuck Brooks pick up coffee donated from Canal Walk Café, and set it up every Sunday before the service).
Rev. Patti opens the service by playing “I Sing Praises” by Terry MacAlman.
Gathering words are from Psalm 105 and then the attendees sing three lines from “I Sing Praises” four times.
I sing praises to your name, O Lord
Praises to your name, O Lord
For your name is great and greatly to be praised
For your name is great and greatly to be praised
Following the worship song, there is a moment to share joys. Debbie Mott-Lundgren shares that she spent a weekend with her grandson. Others chime in that they will be experiencing the same soon. A voice from the back of the crowd praises God for Camp Casowasco. Rev. Patti responds, “My kids went there and several other family members have as well. Let’s see a show of hands of who has gone to Camp Casowasco for summer camp.” Nearly half of the crowd raises their hands.
After prayers, including a time for silence, Debbie Matt-Lundgren reads a monologue by Jan Boers, called “Come and See.” The monologue is based on the parable of the woman at the well from John Chapter 4. Debbie’s voice is powerful; this monologue represents the voice of the woman at the well and the feelings she felt, realizing that she was talking to the Messiah. A portion of the monologue, reads:
Instead of shooing me away, he asked me, real polite-like, “Will you give me a drink?”
It was easy to see why he’d be askin’. The sun was hotter than blue blazes, his clothes were sweated up like he’d been walkin’ awhile, and he was empty-handed. He needed me! I had the upper hand for a change! He needed me to draw him some water.
The July 24th service ends with Amazing Grace and the attendees gather together to share delicious pastries and coffee.
The response to Church on the Island has been noteworthy this summer. Attendees include current Baldwinsville First UMC members as well as new faces, including a Presbyterian couple, for example. The 8a.m. time slot appeals to many; it is an intimate service and very healing. The shorter service is often just what people need to serve and praise God.
This summer, Church on the Island, has been an experiment. Rev, Patti expresses that she is going with the flow and enjoying it. She is already brainstorming what may come of this service after August.
Whatever the future holds, it will surely include finding new and creative ways to reach new people and make Disciples for the transformation of the world.