Blessed are the…Couch Surfers?

Date Posted: 7/27/2016

Growth, innovation – and a surfing ministry -- has followed since Central UMC Galveston relaunched with the mission mantra of “church different.”
Although surfers are not mentioned in the Bible, the disciples and Jesus certainly spent significant ministry moments together on water and shorelines. Since the often-barefoot campus pastor Michael Gienger arrived in Galveston, Central has worked to find unorthodox and innovative ways to do ministry on the island. One of those innovations has been the creation of the Couch Surfers.
“The Central UMC Couch Surfers emerged from months of cultural exegesis. “Biblical exegesis,” he explains, “is a process pastors use to prepare sermons that involve drawing out the meaning of a scriptural text in accordance with its original cultural context and intent of the author, setting aside the agendas or biases of the interpreter. Cultural exegesis works the same way. Setting aside any preconceptions or presuppositions, we honestly asked, whom has God brought together here?”
The gathering space on Sunday mornings includes a mix of chairs, pews, and couches, so the name, Couch Surfers, seemed like a perfect fit. The Sunday crowd draws a diverse audience including University of Texas Medical Branch students and faculty, artists and musicians, and members of the LGBTQIA community. “We were recently surprised, however, to discover a quiet community of surfers in our midst. Some, like Hank Cornelius and Greg Stickline, had been surfing Galveston waves for several decades. Others, like Tyler Zaker and Chris Gariby, were accomplished surfers only in their mid-twenties.” Adds Michael, “Still others expressed a desire to learn, but had little to no experience. Since we recognized this unique and underutilized skill set of our people, we started the Central Couch Surfers about two months ago.”
The completely free publicity plan consisted of social media posts and personal invitations. Each Tuesday, the new ministry group gathers at the beach off of 29th and Seawall at 6 pm. Attendees take turns leading a devotional and time of prayer. The next two hours are spent in the waves. Notes Michael, “Our youngest surfer is six years old and our oldest is in his early sixties. Some of our surfers attend church regularly while others do not. Amidst the diversity is a unifying love for the next big wave.”
Michael surfed some in high school, but this new community has encouraged him to pick it up again. The group has folks who have been surfing their entire lives and others who have never been on a board before. “There is teaching and instruction for folks who want to learn,” he adds, “as our more experienced surfers are always excited to share their passion with others.”
The coast is a natural background for ministry moments. “Surfing is replete with imagery and experiences that help one grow spiritually,” Michael observes. “Throughout the scriptures, water is symbolic of life, deliverance, and God's presence. The ocean is a place that is constantly alternating between stillness and activity, transforming your small piece of fiberglass into a sanctuary for contemplation and meditation. The hugeness of the ocean, when compared with your own relative smallness, helps you simultaneously find and lose yourself. Buoyancy and grace often feel synonymous.”
Doing Church Outside the Church
While Central was founded in 1885 with membership ultimately growing to almost 900, the trauma of Hurricane Ike on the island dropped those numbers dramatically into the single digits. Watershed UMC has helped re-launch and revitalize the church through innovative leaders who are focused on relationship building and integration within the community.
Michael admits that surfing is certainly an unorthodox approach to ministry, but is quick to add that it's working.  He suggests it has created space for alternative means of discipleship and relationship building. Leaders at Central realize people are looking for new, creative ways to experience the gospel. Shares Michael, “The difficult reality that churches and leaders need to face is that if people wanted to be in your church, they would be there already. We need innovative, alternative ways of doing church if we're going to reach new people. For Central, the way to reach new people has involved picking up a surfboard once a week. The message is the same. We've just repackaged it in sand and saltwater. We've been forced to step outside the walls of the church building and address our addiction to convenience and comfort head on.”
Leaders at Central hope that the Couch Surfers will continue to be a means of creative spiritual growth for both the people of Central and those who happen find themselves on Galveston's beaches. Children's Director Laura Beth Lagassee, and Worship Leader Brandon Williams come out regularly, along with many of the key lay leaders and congregants.
Shares Michael, “Rev. Chap Temple once told me that ministry is really what happens when you're on your way to do ministry. The Couch Surfers emerged from a short conversation with one of our newer congregants, while I was on my way to do something else.” The domino effect is already underway, as this new ministry space has already begun to inspire discussions about a "surf-style" VBS for next summer.
Learn more about the Couch Surfers in The Galveston Daily News and the church via: