The Surfer Church

Bibles and the beach fit perfectly together for this coastal congregation.

Jesus did some significant ministry at the beach. According to Mark 2:13, a "multitude" gathered beside the sea to hear Him teach. He also selected four of His disciples while He was walking the shore of the Sea of Galilee—fishermen Simon and his brother Andrew, and fishermen and boaters James and John, also brothers (see Mark 1:16-20). Each of them made their living from the ocean, meaning they likely lived there too.

Coastlands Church of Pacific Beach, Calif., near San Diego, believes the same concept is good enough for them, too. Taking Jesus' example to heart, they make use of the popular nearby beach and surfing spot to minister to their community. Several times a year, the congregation moves a few blocks from the local elementary school where they normally meet and holds services next to the ocean. The church's "four walls" are replaced with the sun, sky, sand and waves of the Pacific Ocean, where the waters also serve for baptisms.

Coastlands is a church marked with a beach and surf culture, according to founding pastor Evan Lauer. Though surfers comprise a large part of the congregation, Lauer rejects the label of Coastlands as an exclusively "surfer church." He and Kelley, his wife, opened the doors to the church in 1996, a year and a half after they began a Bible study in their home for friends. "It was our desire to reach our friends who were either burned out on church or who just hadn't been in a long time," Lauer says.

An avid surfer and a San Diego native, Lauer feels a kinship with people who call the beach communities home. In California's beach towns, residents typically fall into one of two types, he explains: Some are rich enough to own the million-dollar-plus homes in communities such as Pacific Beach ("I'm not one of them," he says), and some live at the beach for the amenities but are far from rich.

Beachwear and sandals are the usual dress of the close to 100 people who attend Coastlands, which meets at Bayview Terrace Elementary School. Since property is expensive on the beach, Lauer found a home for his church in the nearby school. The school and church enjoy a sort of symbiotic relationship. The school provides meeting space for the church, and members help with the upkeep of the school buildings.

Worship services at Coastlands are similar to those found in many other congregations. Music is a part of the service, and Lauer shares weekly messages. Children's church is held in the back of the worship area. Though you can almost hear the ocean's waves from the door of the school, and the water is a natural part of life for the parishioners, Lauer says he tries not to overemphasize the surfer aspect of the church.

It does play a role, however. Coastlands and several other churches in the community sponsor an annual surfer contest that draws almost 100 children and teens—and some adults. In addition, surfing celebrities such as pro surfer Skip Frye and industry legend Larry Gordon either attend regularly or help out with special church events.

Coastlands also participates in Faith in Action—a four-week campaign that encourages members to cultivate an outward focus. The event culminates on a Sunday when regular services are canceled and the entire congregation engages in service projects.

More than anything, Lauer says, the expectation in the church is authenticity—a faith that actively changes lives for Christ. Says Lauer: "Our goal is for God to move on the lives of our people."


A journalist for more than 30 years, Paul Wahl writes and resides in Eden Prairie, Minn.

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