CLEARWATER, Fla. (Christian Examiner) – For the first time in the history of baptizing new converts in the Gulf of Mexico, a drone overhead captured footage of Calvary Church's bi-annual "beach baptism."
Beaming smiles of 107 dripping people emerging from the water were compiled into a video showing pig-tailed young girls, men grizzled from years of living near the beach, happy teens, exultant mid-lifers, pregnant women, gray-haired women and men of indeterminate ages.
Pastor Willy Rice said the Sept. 7 Sunday afternoon event took place on what formally is known as Clearwater Beach, but what locals refer to as Sand Key.
Family and friends gathered with those to be baptized and onlookers drawn to "the stirring of the waters" asked questions, though none followed through with believer's baptism.
That has happened in the past, but not this time, the pastor said.
"It's not uncommon for us to do a large number of baptisms on the beach – 70, 80, 90 – but this was bigger than most," Rice told Christian Examiner. "We'd had a big response toward membership, and a large number of them needed to be baptized."
Calvary Church had a four-week membership thrust this August for the increased numbers of people participating in Sunday worship. The church saw a 782-person increase in Sunday morning worship in 2013, and more during the first 10 months of this year.
"There were many people who hadn't joined," Rice said. "We felt it would be good to teach our membership class over four weeks.
"A lot of that was evangelistic," the pastor continued, referring to people's need to make a personal commitment to follow Jesus Christ in all aspects of their life, and to serve others as Jesus would serve them.
On the fourth Sunday In all four of Calvary services—two at the Clearwater campus and two at the East Lake campus, all featuring messages from Rice – "We had an unusual call to membership," the pastor said. "We said, 'If you've never received Christ, this is your day to go forward.'"
The beach baptismal services feature some counseling at a tent, to make sure each person being baptized is fully aware of the commitment they're exhibiting by participating in believer's baptism, which symbolizes dying to the old life, and rising to walk in a new life with Jesus.
About five minutes of guitar-led worship music on Sept. 7 was followed by a five-minute talk by the pastor.
"We have family members and friends, present, and people who just walk up to see what's going on," Rice said. "It's a good time to share the Gospel."
After Rice spoke, several of the church's 21-person staff spread out in the gentle surf to welcome those who wanted to be baptized. In addition, some non-staff baptized those they had led to the Lord or discipled.
Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God's people and members of God's household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus Himself as the chief cornerstone – Ephesians 2:19-20 NIV – is the scripture Rice uses to encourage the benefit of church membership.
"You're saved into a family; you are saved into the body of Christ," the pastor explained. "There's a reason you should formally identify with a church family. The mission of the church is to make disciples. We want them to know, 'You've got to be a part of that.'
"We're a family because of our faith; Christ saved us," Rice continued. "Our purpose is the Great Commission; our strategy: commitment; doing together what God has called us to do."
Sept. 7 was a special day for Calvary Church in Clearwater for a second reason. It was the tenth anniversary of Rice's arrival Sept. 12, 2004, as pastor of the church he had grown up in.
He spoke in a 45-minute message of the struggle and sacrifice of leaving a successful pastorate in Pensacola, Fla., to answer God's call to Calvary, and how that obedience cleared the way for God's blessings to shower on the church's ministries.
More than 2,100 people have been baptized in the last 10 years at Calvary, and 3,000 people have been added, boosting the membership roll to nearly 9,000, he said. Ministries and missions have multiplied; numerous properties and buildings have been purchased, and within three years, Calvary Clearwater expects to be debt-free.
The church anticipates adding five additional campuses over the next 10 years, as well as establishing a church planting leadership training center and planting 10 churches across America, the pastor said in his tenth anniversary message.
"We didn't do anything specific" that drew increasing numbers of people to the church that resulted in nearly 800 new participants in Sunday morning worship, Rice told the Christian Examiner.
"Our folks are inviting people," the pastor said. "We're trying to help them live on mission. They invite their friends and other people they meet. And besides, there's a whole lot of lost people in Clearwater."