River church offers unique worship

Published 5:34 pm Wednesday, August 10, 2011

River Church, a ministry of Clanton’s First United Methodist Church, takes place every Sunday morning, from Memorial Day through Labor Day, at the Higgins Ferry Park pavilion on Lake Mitchell.

There are many places in which people practice worship — small country chapels, large cathedrals, stadium-size auditoriums, and sanctuaries lined with padded pews beneath ornate, stained-glass windows.

But one could argue that perhaps there’s no better place to worship the Creator than out in creation.

The annual phenomenon of River Church began in 1969 on the roof of the Rev. Johnny Trobaugh’s boathouse near what is now Higgins Ferry Park on Lake Mitchell, located in east Chilton County. The basic idea was to give people spending a weekend at the lake an opportunity to participate in a worship service on Sunday morning without ever leaving their boats.

The practice soon became a tradition, and the tradition stuck — Clanton First United Methodist Church holds weekly River Church services each summer between Memorial Day and Labor Day, beginning Sunday mornings at 8:30. Each service lasts approximately 30 minutes.

“It’s such a beautiful place, and it gets you in touch with nature,” said church Pastor Larry Anderson, recalling his first River Church service: “I marveled at the uniqueness of it. With the scenic beauty around it — it was a delightful experience.”

Out by the lake, there’s not much room for the devices one might expect in a modern-day church service. Hymnals are passed out and everyone is invited to join in the singing.

The weekend of July 4 sees perhaps the highest attendance, as the church’s Chancel Choir performs.

“On July 4 weekend, we can have hundreds,” Anderson said.

The services draw a mixture of people using different modes of transportation to get to the park. Some participate from their boats, while others sit in and around the pavilion or even roll their car windows down and stay in their vehicles.

The congregation includes members of FUMC and other churches who drive from Clanton and surrounding areas, as well as lake-goers from out of town and people who own vacation homes on the lake.

“It’s almost non-denominational,” said Anderson. “It often draws locals who normally go to other churches.”

Even after Rev. Trobaugh’s passing, the tradition is still going strong, and the Lord seems to look down favorably upon it — considering the fact that, in more than 40 years, not a single service has been rained out.

But that doesn’t mean River Church has been without its moments. At times, the wind threatens to carry notes away. Also, Trobaugh encouraged people to give paper money during the offering:

“He didn’t want to have to jump in the lake to retrieve change,” Anderson joked.

Added Anderson, “If it’s ever rained out under my watch, I’ll never hear the end of it!”

Those involved in the services include Judge Sibley Reynolds, who led singing for many years and passes out hymnals.

Several other volunteers do this and welcome those in attendance. Currently, Kenny Hall leads music and Trudie DeLoach plays the keyboard. Anderson and Associate Pastor Brian Dovey typically deliver the messages, occasionally sharing the pulpit with a lay speaker.

“We appreciate those who have volunteered their time,” Anderson said.

This year’s River Church started the Sunday of Memorial Day, May 29, and will continue four more weeks through the first Sunday in September.

The late Tommy Carter was remembered during the May 29 service.