At each end of Muddy Gut Road sits a church.
At one end of Muddy Gut Road, near Tappahannock, VA, sits a brick church building the likes of which are visible along rural roadsides across the country. At the other end of the uniquely-named-road is a church, the likes of which are not often seen.
There is no building – only a wonderful view of the Rappahannock River. A group of folks commonly referred to as the “River Church” (full name “River Community Church”) gather here on Sunday mornings from Memorial Day to Labor Day. There are anywhere from forty to one-hundred people gathering each week, most driving up in golf carts.
Nita May, an ordained Baptist minister and 2006 seminary grad, didn’t set out to start a church. For years, she and Wayne, her husband, had been teaching a young couples’ class at Lyndale Baptist Church in Chesterfield, Virginia. One weekend each summer Nita would invite the young adults to their cottage on the Rappahannock River where they would go out on Sunday mornings, tie together three pontoon boats on the water, and worship.
The sounds of worship traveled across the water to the neighbors who began to ask, “Next time you do that, could we come?” So in 2006 they invited folks in their neighborhood, to worship on the water – right on the river banks.
Some of their participants are active in their local church during the non-summer months. Many are reconnecting with church for the first time in decades. And many are making a first-time decision to follow Jesus. Twenty-nine people have been baptized in the Rappahannock River through “River Church.” Twenty-nine!
Randy and a Little Girl
After Randy and his wife’s first visit to River Church, Randy stopped to talk with Nita. “I do not go to church,” Randy told Nita, with an emphatic gesture. “We’re friends, but I want to be clear about that. I don’t go to church….But I want you to know that I will be at River Church every Sunday to hear you preach.” True to his word, Randy joined the others who gathered at the river every week.
At the end of the second summer, during the week, Randy pulled up in his golf cart alongside Nita as she was walking through the neighborhood. “Do you need a ride?”
“No thanks,” Nita said. He drove away and circled back again.
“Are you sure you don’t need a ride?” “No, thanks,” Nita said.
Then Randy revealed his intent. “Well, really, I need to talk with you,” he told her. “I’ve decided to be a Christian. I know it’s too late since we aren’t having service anymore this summer. But I want to be baptized.”
“It’s not too late,” Nita assured him. She baptized Randy in the Rappahannock River the next Sunday. Over one hundred folks gathered to see this first baptism into the River Church.
On another day, a little girl asked about the church. “Does church cost anything,” she asked? After hearing about worship, the little girl ran outside and shouted down the road to her mother, “Mom, there’s this thing called church. It’s free! Can we go?” Sometime later Nita baptized that little girl.
Some of the most common questions about fresh expressions of church are about money: “Do people give offerings? And where does their money go?”
Well, the people of “River Church” do give offerings…and they take up the money in an orange bait bucket. (What else would you use for offerings on a river bank?) Those offerings go to support several local ministries, including ministries to battered and abused women and children. They also paid for a walk-in freezer for the local food bank and helped support an international mission trip by a local doctor and his wife.
Where from here?
River Church is in a riverside neighborhood of summer homes called Rappahanock Shores. About 80% of the residents live there only during the summer. (Nita and Wayne are among those who live there year-round.) Now Nita and Wayne are wondering what to do with the non-summer months.
The owner of a pizza restaurant located seven miles from Rappahanock Shores has offered his banquet room free for use by the church. Nita and Wayne are trying to decide if they should move to that venue during the non-summer months with the idea of engaging a circle of people larger than their neighborhood. While seven miles is not far, and though several people eat there, Nita realizes that the move would change the character of the church. When the people gather this summer she is going to seek input from the participants.
As with many new forms of church, the plan is constantly unfolding.
“As You Go”
One of the recurring themes in this Fresh Expresssions movement is that, like Nita, many of these pioneers didn’t set out to start a church. As they invested in their communities and lived out there faith these new forms of church naturally unfolded.
In the Great Commission, Jesus said, “As you go…make disciples.”
River Church is a result of Nita and Wayne May being open to God’s Spirit “as they went.”
Travis Collins is Pastor of First Baptist Church, Huntsville, Alabama, and Director of Mission Advancement for Fresh Expressions US. He holds a PhD in Christian Mission and is the author of From the Steeple to the Street and Fresh Expressions of Church.