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A ‘different’ church: Waters Edge

Waters Edge becomes official congregation after five years of unique, judgment-free outreach

By Jessica Connor

LADY’S ISLAND—Deep in the Lowcountry, nestled in a quiet riverfront town in the heart of the Sea Islands, a different kind of church began to worship five years ago.

Drawn to the no-judgment, we re-not-perfect outreach, they gathered in a movie theater for that very first service. And instead of Church As We ve Always Done It, they found something new and unusual. Something refreshing. Something so tough to categorize that no one quite knows whether to call it traditional  or contemporary  or revival  or just plain different.

And they liked it.

Now, half a decade later, Waters Edge United Methodist Church has received official recognition as a mission congregation. As of Dec. 18, they can receive members and be a true conference-connected church.

Everyone feels like there is a purpose now “ we re not just creating, but doing,  said the Rev. Mel Arant, senior pastor of the congregation. With each passing day, we hope we change more and more lives. 

It s so exciting,  said Susan Clark, chair of the Waters Edge Staff Pastor-Parish Relations Committee, who has been a part of the church since that very first Sunday, when she and her husband responded to a postcard they received that said God doesn t care about your past flops and failures, and neither do we. 

Five years later, the church is poised for its next evolution, Clark said, The world is our oyster. 

A long road rife with challenges

With a congregation of roughly 250 people and an average age of 37, the multiracial, mission-oriented Waters Edge is located in a blended community of retirees, military families and nonmilitary locals who have quickly come to consider the church an extension of their family. They dine together, take beach trips, go camping and head to the movies as one big happy group.  They love each other as they are.

We consider ourselves a relationship-based congregation, and we want people to be drawn to us by our relationship with them,  Arant said. So we go where they are, interact with them, enter into relationship with them, and they follow us back to church and back to God. 

But from the start, Waters Edge has faced unique challenges that could have been a fatal blow to the fledgling church.

Foremost is the fact that the church is located in a transient military location. Lady s Island had been on the S.C. Conference s radar screen for a while as a prime location for a new church start, said the Rev. Rusty Taylor, conference director of congregation development. While they knew there were three nearby military bases, the area also had a sizeable population of retirees and local families, so they proceeded with what is typically the most difficult way to start a church: a parachute drop, where they drop in  a pastor and start a church from scratch.

Very quickly, they learned they didn t fully understand the unique dynamic of Lady s Island and surrounding Beaufort.

We never imagined the core population would be military,  Taylor said. It s a tremendous mission opportunity, but it s a transient population. ¦ It s been an adventure, to say the least. 

After all, in the military, families are used to plopping down for a few years and then being reassigned elsewhere, typically every three years.

Twice a year we lose military people getting orders to other towns, so we re continually trying to get over the hump,  Arant said, noting they usually lose 30-40 people a year and occasionally 70 or more. Once we lost 73 people in one month because they got orders. … When you lose 70 out of a congregation of 240, you feel like you re starting all over again. 

There is never a chance to catch your breath, he said “ they are always recruiting and training, recruiting and training.

We joke that every time we get a new person trained, the general sends them new orders and they have to go somewhere else.  Arant said. But at the same time, that also in some ways carries a blessing, because that keeps the ideas fresh. There s always an influx of ideas, of people. 

A ˜saving grace

Another challenge has been starting the entire church from scratch. Initially, Arant felt he was not the right person for the job. Having been a pastor in the conference since 1992, he knew how hard it was to start a church from nothing “ the legwork, the marketing, the research. What style would they be? What kind of music? Where would they worship?

He accepted the challenge, albeit reluctantly. And soon, he realized he was where he was supposed to be. With the help of five other couples and valuable insight from retired pastors living nearby, especially the late Rev. Chad Davis and the Rev. Ben Barnes Sr., the launch team drafted a plan for a different kind of church. It would be the kind of church Arant and some of the others had grown up in: exciting, prayer-based and relationship-oriented, with strong and soulful music and a loving, fun atmosphere.

They eventually settled on a revival format for Waters Edge, fusing elements from old-fashioned camp meetings with contemporary elements. They sought to become a church that honored traditional Wesleyan roots while embracing what was good in the contemporary movement and beautiful in the traditional past.

They also realized they had a unique opportunity to serve what they discovered was an entirely left-out demographic that hadn t been reached by the traditional or the contemporary congregations in the area. These were often unchurched people who sometimes shied away from church because they felt judged or didn t feel a connection with fellow members.

So they intentionally marketed Waters Edge to those people. With T-shirts, the God doesn t care about your past flops  postcard, participation in community events like the annual Beaufort Water Festival and other targeted outreach, they slowly began to draw people in, building worshippers and honing their style.

They participate in anything that goes on in the community, Arant said, and they heavily utilize modern media: Facebook, Twitter, a website updated daily, Flickr photostreams, YouTube videos and Vimeo. Arant said this has been key for them.

I don t think there s a teenager at the church who hasn t befriended me on Facebook,  Arant said, which helps him know what is happening in the lives of his young parishioners “ and reach out when things are not going so well.

He said one of his adult members was reluctant to use Facebook at first, but now has become somewhat of a substitute mother to many young military mothers who are so far from their own families. I really don t think churches realize what kind of an impact it can have,  he said.

Ironically, their church signs have become their biggest asset, Arant said. While they are only up for three hours every Sunday outside Beaufort Academy, they are strategically designed to attract the people they want to reach: different ages, races, genders, with the website and the church name. Arant said of the 40 newest families who have joined Waters Edge, all of them said the signage brought them in.

By the time they became official  Dec. 18, Waters Edge had drawn congregants from a variety of lifest
yles: retirees, military and nonmilitary families with children, men and women, newcomers and natives.

Walterboro District Superintendent the Rev. Ernest Etheredge said it reflects what the kingdom of God should look like. 

They outgrew their meeting space at the movie theater early on and began to rent space in the Beaufort Academy gym, which requires a full set-up and tear down every Sunday. They have a full band “ drums, guitars, keyboards “ every week. The band plays older hymns with their own unique spin, such as a bluesy twist on It Is Well With My Soul,  as well as contemporary tunes deemed theologically appropriate.

They also have a strong emphasis on deep prayer, with a prayer chapel in their office complex, a rustic pine straw prayer labyrinth, a prayer team and heavy Sunday morning prayer.

And it is working: As of Dec. 18, Waters Edge has had 68 professions of faith. They did 12 baptisms (nine adults) that Sunday, and another 14 baptisms in the weeks leading up to Dec. 18.

Today, Arant said, people recognize the name Waters Edge, know it to be an active church. It has changed the lives of its members “ and changed its pastor, too.

It hasn t been easy. For me personally, I had to change my way of thinking. I am not the same minister I was six years ago, not the same person I was six years ago. ¦ I really consider my appointment at Waters Edge to be a saving grace,  Arant said.

After all, he said, it is so easy to become locked in to what you ve always known, to do the same things you ve always done in church and in general.

This forced me to look beyond my own comfort zone,  Arant said. I d been preaching for years trying to get people to stay outside their comfort zone, but I d stayed inside mine. ¦ Had I not been forced to look at things differently, then I would have been content to continue to do things the way I had always done them and would have been left behind by culture and society very fast. 

˜Everybody cares about everybody

For others, Waters Edge has been a saving grace by providing the connectional, real church family they had never known.

Waters Edge brought us back to the church,  said Clark, now SPPRC chair. After that very first church service, when she and her husband responded to the flops and failures postcard after a time of heavy church-searching, they were hooked.

When you walk into that church on Sunday morning, there is something palpable in that room,  said Clark, who now never misses a Sunday at Waters Edge unless she is out of town or sick. It s like being wrapped in a big old warm fuzzy blanket. And I think everybody feels that way. You re so accepted. 

Member Melissa Mandell, daughter of the late Rev. Davis, noted the genuine feeling people get when they walk into church on Sunday and know people are happy to see them. It keeps people coming back.

You don t want to miss Sunday morning because you miss your people. You feel God s love,  Mandell said. We take you where you are and love you into being better. It s a phenomenal place, it really is. 

Andie Skillings, a military spouse with three boys, was forced to relocate last year to 29 Palms, Calif., but she misses her church family at Waters Edge so much that she listens to the sermons online and is orchestrating how she and her family can move back to Beaufort.

I pray every day: How soon can we get orders back there?  Skillings said. It s an amazing group of people “ you just knew God had brought us all together. Everybody cares about everybody, whether you re a new member or been there since the beginning. You don t feel like you re new. They make you feel like this is where you ought to be. I cried the whole way cross country. 

Skillings said every week the church does something fun together, so excited to hang out with their new best friends.

I miss Waters Edge, and that s not even close to describing it,  Skillings said.

Now what?

Since their official recognition as a mission congregation Dec. 18, Arant said they have had to put more and more chairs out every week.

He and other Waters Edge leaders are now hoping to raise enough money to construct a church building so they will not have to pay $25,000 a year in rent and spend hours each week setting up and tearing down for worship. The conference owns 10 acres of land nearby, which houses Arant s office, so that would be an ideal spot, he said.

But they know their church is more than a building, more than a name. The congregation is geared up, and the future looks bright.

Waters Edge is where life begins,  Arant said. We don t see this as reaching the goal but where we can start. 

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