By Joy Allmond
When Bobby Owings first came to what was then known as Surf City Baptist Church in 2010, there was just one person in the youth ministry—a 17-year-old boy who was the grandson of long-time members.
The next youngest person in the 50-person congregation was a 47-year-old woman who had been at the church her entire life.
“And in the most extreme case, I believe there might have been 24 in the building one Sunday early on in my time there,” Owings adds.
Throughout a season when they had two interim pastors over the course of just two years, there had been discussions about closing the doors of Surf City Baptist and selling the property.
But there was a handful, Owings says, who felt closing the church doors was not why they had been placed on Topsail Island—located on the southern coast of North Carolina.
“There was sort of a resignation on their part if something didn’t change they were going to die,” he says. “And that made it easier to do what I refer to as ‘rebirthing.’ We had to create something new.”
Owings says “rebirth” is possible for any congregation, but he offers two cautions: “It’s harder than you think and it won’t look like what you think it’ll look like.”
One of the first changes in the rebirth process was changing the name from Surf City Baptist Church to The Gathering.
The Gathering, one of two year-round churches on the island today, attracts tourists in the summer—and is located less than 20 miles from Camp Lejune, a marine base.
“We needed an identity shift,” says Owings. “We still hold to the same constitution, but most people who come here now don’t know we were ever Surf City Baptist Church.”
The “identity shift” comes in part due to the people The Gathering serves. He says the word “gathering” is something everyone can relate to—especially if they don’t relate to the word “church” very well.
“When folks come here, it is often in an effort to shed some other sort of identity,” says Owings. “Marines aren’t looking for recognition; they just want a place where they can worship with their families—even if it’s for just two or three years before they are reassigned to another base.”
And he says the tourists who come through Surf City have a similar idea.
“Temporary residents come and go, tourists come and go, surfers come and go, and military personnel comes and goes,” says Owings.
“Our strategy in something as major—yet as simple—as a name change is creating an environment where anyone can show up.”
The former environment, he says, was somewhat restrictive and could be perceived as less than welcoming.
“I’ve heard of occasion where people (who no longer attend The Gathering) would tell others sitting in the pews they weren’t dressed appropriately for church,” says Owings.
“In hindsight, what they were attempting to be was a rural suburban church in a resort tourist town. They saw the tourists as a mission field—which was a good thing—but they didn’t seek to reach the community that was already here. The marines would visit, but they wouldn’t stay.”
The Gathering didn’t just change their name—they changed their priorities.
“If what we were doing didn’t align with two things—loving God and living Jesus—we stopped it,” says Ownings.
“When you give people a simple understanding of who you are as a church—they recognize it’s not about all the complicated stuff we’ve created around our faith. They want to be part of something simple, something meaningful.”
Today, The Gathering has around 500 in attendance at its four Sunday morning services.
“They come from every background under the sun,” says Owings. “We’ve even baptized 80-year-olds in the ocean. We’re running out of space, but looking for spaces to grow.”
JOY ALLMOND (@joyallmond) is managing editor of Facts & Trends.