The act of surfing can be a spiritual experience, a chance to be one with the nature that God has created. This is true for Mark Johnson, a surfer and former Next Gen pastor at Wrightsville Beach Baptist Church.
Inspired by his attraction to the ocean and his unwavering love for Jesus, Johnson became convinced that his two passions would go well together. “God put it on my heart,” Johnson said, and he started asking around to see if there would be any appeal in some sort of surf community.
Around the same time, Matt Beacham, regional director of Christian Surfers and a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, held an interest meeting in hopes of creating something along those lines. The two eventually reunited and the Wrightsville Beach Surf Church was born.
Led by volunteers made up of local ministry workers and Christians from across the community, the non-denominational group meets early every Sunday morning at Crystal Pier to surf and fellowship, with the sunrise as a backdrop.
James Connolley, the current Next Gen pastor of Wrightsville Beach Baptist Church, has been one of Surf Church’s informal leaders since its inception in the spring of 2020. Connolley explains that the original intention was to reach surfers with the gospel.
“Wherever there’s a wave breaking on Wrightsville Beach, we want a surfer in the lineup who can be a light to Christ,” says Connolley.
The group also holds a weekly Sunday Bible study and devotional time, which has grown far beyond surfers.
“It’s not just about surfers, it’s people from all walks of life,” says Christian Rutherford, director of youth and family ministries at Harbor United Methodist Church in Wilmington.
Word has spread that Surf Church is a welcoming and relaxed event; Current weekly attendance averages around 110.
Wrightsville Beach resident Theresa Kramer loves surfing and looks forward to participating in the Surf Church scholarship afterwards. She appreciates that the message is brief and often delivered by people eager to share their testimonies. His 21-year-old son Gibbs Kramer was a recent speaker.
“You just got into your wetsuit and you’re good to go,” Kramer says. “There is a certain charm to it.
Getting together outside at the height of the pandemic when many church services were canceled was also a plus.
Area businesses, including Sweetwater Surf Shop and Donut Inn, have stepped up to help by providing supplies or weekly coffee and donuts for free or at reduced prices. The group met at Jerry Allen’s Sports Bar & Grill during the winter season for their “Inside Edition” surfing church.
The message resonated so well that a new Carolina Beach Surf Church began in May.
“It’s just a cool, easy to access environment,” says Rutherford. “It’s real, authentic and relevant. And you don’t really have to pull someone by the leg when you say, “Hey, come and love it at the beach.” “