A vivid, early-morning sun rising over the ocean greeted those assembled at 6:45AM last April for the Holy Spirit Lutheran Church (HSLC) Easter Sunrise Service on Juno Beach Pier. Many in the crowd had attended before, and others were first-timers. HSLC members filled chairs next to those from other churches, while area residents sat alongside seasonal visitors on the shoreline as surfers paddled in closer to listen.
Since Easter 2003, the 990-foot Pier has provided a safe, familiar setting for those who wish to congregate closer, while the adjoining beach draws people together for a service accessible to everyone. Often, when ocean conditions are right, small boats hover below the bustling Pier to join in the gathering.
Currently celebrating its 20th year, the Pier Service has become integral for the church and its surrounding locality. A worship practice and outreach endeavor has become a cherished tradition, with two services every Easter morning celebrated consecutively on the Pier.
AN IDEA OF FAITH
In 2002 Rev. Frank Wagner, who served 27 years as HSLC’s pastor before retiring in 2021, had the idea for a community outreach effort to spread the message of the church.
With the support of church leadership, Pastor Wagner set several goals: Create a service to put the church’s name out into the community; provide a unique worship opportunity for people who do not regularly attend church; and offer a safe, public space for those not comfortable in a conventional religious setting.
Overall, the aim was to spread the Gospel–and give people a chance to hear it–in a new way, surrounded and amplified by the natural beauty of Juno Beach.
EVOLUTION & GROWTH
At the first Pier Service in 2003, there were about 350 attendees, necessitating a move from the middle to the end of the Pier to make more room in subsequent years.
Originally, music was supplied by HSLC’s Organist/Choir Director Jamie Bryan, leading a choral group of five high-schoolers accompanied by a keyboard.
In future years, as news of the Pier Service experience spread, more people from other churches came and encouraged others to come. Even some area pastors attended before leaving to hold services in their home congregations later.
More and more residents and seasonal visitors joined the scene. When the crowd and participation increased, the presentation grew larger, including the band, “Doctrine,” which has led HSLC’s contemporary services since the late 1990s. “What better day than Easter to spread the message of the church out into the community?” says band drummer Gary Miller, a member of HSLC with his wife, Cindy, since 1999.
Eventually, people were hired to set up a raised stage–making the clergy and band members more visible to the crowds–and to run the sound system, with added speakers at the end of the pier, pointed out towards the ocean so that the Pier Service could be heard on the beach.
PLANNING & PREP
With HSLC doing the outreach, the actual coordination of all elements to create a service of this kind also involves the surrounding community. This includes: the Loggerhead Marinelife Center, who manages the Pier; Palm Beach County Parks and Recreation Department; The Town of Juno Beach, including law enforcement and lifeguards; and from 45-50 volunteers.
Managing much of the ground work and directing of resources leading up to and during these Pier events (which now include two evening Christmas services), is HSLC Events & Community Engagement Coordinator Cara Rucker. She has handled the process since 2019, stating, “[For Easter] the preparation starts when the Christmas services end, up to the day of the Easter services; and, for Christmas, we start planning in August.”
She continued, “There is a permit and application process, including a commitment as a church to leaving the pier and beach cleaner than we found it, and we also commit to paying a $1 fee to the Loggerhead Marinelife Center for each person who worships on the pier, as rent and courtesy.”
In conclusion she added, “We follow conservation guidelines during Turtle Season, which are no white lights before daybreak; instead, red lights are permitted for use as we set up Easter morning.” The day before, Loggerhead Marinelife staff and volunteers inspect the beach to make sure there are no vulnerable turtle nests that might be disturbed by the crowds.
Event set-up starts at 11 a.m. the day before the worship services, including two outside contractors for sound and stage equipment. To physically prepare the Pier for each service, generators are required, with 10 to 15 speakers lining the Pier to reach everyone.
A stage is put at the eastern “T” of the pier, and 200 folding chairs, the crosses and 10 numbered communion stations are put in place.
On the morning of service, communion servers set up on the beach with crosses in the sand to designate where people line up. Staff and pastors arrive at 6 a.m., with volunteers manning stations at 6:15 as gates open to the public. After the last service ends, a clean-up crew breaks everything down to return and store for next time.
Over the years, the number of attendees has continued to increase. This includes part-time Singer Island resident Debbie G. who said, “My family and I have been attending the Easter sunrise service for the past 8 years, and there is no place I want to spend my Easter morning other than the beautiful Juno Beach Pier.” She continued, “The music, the service and the rising of the sun is the greatest way to praise the Lord on that special day and shout, ‘He has risen!’”
Even when recent safety concerns lowered participants on the Pier to around 900, they were bolstered by nearly 1500 on the beach. Area hotels have noted that seasonal guests often check when booking to see when the service is happening that year.
Participants encompass those people who have either stopped attending official church services, or who have never been at all. With the ocean venue, this has included the dripping-wet woman surfer who approached Pastor Wagner one Easter morning to tell him that the service had greatly impacted her, that she felt she had been saved, and that they were, “truly instruments of God.”
CHRISTMAS EVE EVE
With the initial success of the Juno Beach Pier Easter service, the first HSLC Christmas service was held the evening of December 23, 2005, with two consecutive services now held regularly on this night.
Although the temperate climate does draw many people out to participate, there are fewer attendees than the Easter service, due to time of day and darkness. With similar logistics to the Easter Service, the Pier set-up and breakdown time-table for the evening service is adjusted accordingly.
It is interesting to note that neither the Easter nor the Christmas Pier service has been canceled due to inclement weather in the past 20 years. (During the initial time of COVID, virtual services were filmed and available online for Easter and Christmas 2020.)
In a time of declining church attendance and increasing online worship, Holy Spirit Lutheran Church has created a successful and valued tradition with its popular Easter Sunrise and Christmas Services on Juno Beach Pier.
Over the years, service attendance has ranged from 800-1500 on the Pier and close to 1500 on the beach. Top attendance figures for the early Easter Pier service totaled 3,959 in 2019 and 3,715 in 2018.
Current HSLC Pastor, James (Jim) Graeser, Jr., who joined the church in 2021, has recognized the value of the Pier Service stating, “I think the success of the event has been a commitment to quality preaching and music, and the dedication of our volunteers. We regularly see new visitors at HSLC who identify the Pier Service as the reason for coming to check us out on our campus on Sunday mornings.” He continued, “I think it is important for churches to go out from their buildings and be ‘The Church’ where people already are; I love that these services give us a chance to be The Church outside our four walls.”
Pastor Graeser now leads the Pier services along with HSLC Associate Pastor, Joshua Pontious, with the next one scheduled for April 9,2023 at 6:45AM & 8:45AM.
For further information on Holy Spirit Lutheran Church, visit: hslcjuno.org.
To learn more about Juno Beach Pier, go to: https://marinelife.org/conservation/shield/pier.