The Gathering at Sandestin celebrates its sixth anniversary on Nov. 5 with an outdoor worship service and catered lunch in the Market Shops at Sandestin.

The Gathering at Sandestin has its roots in the Seaside Chapel, where David Seering was asked to fill in one Sunday by a new preacher holding a service there in 2005. He just kept on playing and singing, being joined by his wife, Lori, and some others, including Don Kupski on the keyboard. A year later, I joined the group when some of the other musicians left. After three years, The Seaside Chapel outgrew itself by having capacity crowds of over 300 every Sunday, so the musicians and the preacher and many regular attendees moved to a barely used church building on County Road 393 South, known as Crosspoint. It was owned by a defunct Baptist church.

We never missed a Sunday after leaving Seaside and after meeting at Crosspoint a few weeks, made a deal with the owners to merge and take over the building. We spent money to fix it up and crowds began to build there as well for the next three years. Our preacher had to leave, so an interim one took over, and David left to pursue other interests for a while. They hired another musician to take over the program and many of our regulars scattered to other churches, but some stayed there. Then, one day, David made a historic phone call to me, and the saga of The Gathering at Sandestin began.

At this point in 2010, our musicians and some of our congregation had been at Seaside Chapel, then moved to Crosspoint Church on CR 393S, then scattered around local churches. David Seering was entertaining on cruise ships and at a marriage retreat facility in California, run by the famous pastor Rick Warren. In the summer of 2011, David was in California, but kept feeling a tugging back to Destin. So, one day he called me on the phone.

He said, "Jay, you have always talked about needing a church in Sandestin. Do you think we could start one there?" I said, "Sure, let me see what I can do." So, I went to the general manager of Sandestin, John Russell, and told him that Sandestin had everything a resort could want, but it had no church. I asked John if we could start one. After a few conversations, Sandestin agreed to rent The Gathering a room for our regular Sunday services. The only problem was, we had no musical equipment, no altar cross or candles, no money, no congregation, and no preacher.

So, after all the arrangements were made with Sandestin, The Gathering held its first service in the same room where we meet now, the Terrace Room, on Sunday, Oct. 31, 2011. We all made a special effort to inform our friends of the service and urge them to support us while we built a congregation. Many of them were friends whom we had met at the Seaside Chapel or Crosspoint Chapel. About 50 people showed up. Some of those included some familiar names to you ... Beth and Bob Coppedge, Jim and Brenda Radtke, Fran and Teddy West, Joe and Betty Mustachio, Sharon and Ed Jenkins, Jeff and Joyce Iovino, Rick and Karen Saunders, and several others who came for the first service or two, just to help us build a crowd, like JD and Kate Johnson and Gail and Dude Klutz. The musicians were David Seering, Don Kupski, Lori Seering and me.

All of the musical equipment, including the piano, the amplifier, the microphones, the cables and the speakers were lent to us by various people or were surplus that people gave us or let us use. At one of the first services, I mentioned that and asked that anyone who had some equipment who didn’t need it could donate it to The Gathering. (By the way, the name “The Gathering” was suggested by Lori Seering). After the service, a man approached and asked what the amplifier would cost. When he was told about $350, he wrote a check on the spot.

That act of generosity has been replicated many times. Although The Gathering does not have an annual budget, pledge cards or organized giving, its attendees have always been very generous with their offerings. We have never asked for money other than for some very specific giving plans, such as the floods in Baton Rouge, the tornadoes in Oklahoma and the hurricane in Texas. Along the way, we have contributed to just about every charity, particularly those involving children, in the local area.

When the first services began, we had no regular minister. David Seering would read a sermon from Rick Warren, or we would find a local retired or visiting minister to give the weekly message. Since we had a different minister just about every week, you never really knew what to expect, and we have had some interesting ones, to say the least. But, the people kept finding The Gathering and kept coming and kept contributing, so it could buy more musical equipment and more church supplies.

The altar we use today is a prime example of this. One of the couples who came regularly in the beginning was Sharon and Ed Jenkins. They built a cross out of seashells and donated it to The Gathering. Sharon designed and furnished the candle holders. Those are still in use today. My wife Ann and I purchased some lace during a trip to Germany and it sits under the cross. A beautiful antique silver chalice for wine was found in a shop on Royal Street in the French Quarter in New Orleans and is still used weekly for communion.

One of the local ministers who came to The Gathering and preached a couple of times was a well-known local man who had a missionary focus, Billy Gray. Billy traveled around the world and took the story of Jesus to people who had never heard it. Everyone enjoyed his sermons and we kept asking him back. Finally, looking for someone to preach on our first Easter Sunday in 2012, I asked Billy if he would do it. He agreed.

At a local Bible study group before that Easter, I asked Billy to consider coming to The Gathering full time. He demurred, saying he had resisted other churches calling him to preach full time and he wanted to keep up his missionary work. I said he could do both with The Gathering, and after lots of prayers and conversations, Billy agreed and I announced his agreement to serve as our minister at that Easter Service.

Since we have no membership rolls, The Gathering has a very mixed, but loyal group of people who love it. Most of the work of the church is done by volunteers. There is no office nor paid staff. The professional musicians, David Seering, Amanda Holmes-Rippert, and Don Kupski, provide some of the best Christian music in the entire area. The bulk of the congregation comes from Sandestin, but many reside along 30A, or live in the surrounding area. One couple comes almost every Sunday from Freeport and another from Panama City Beach. Snowbirds have made it their church home when they are in town, and many people who have second homes in Sandestin wait till after church on Sundays to start their trip back to Atlanta, Birmingham, New Orleans, or other surrounding cities. The attendance averages about 100 each Sunday and we have had more than 700 at our annual Easter service held in the Exhibit Hall in Sandestin. The Gathering maintains an email list of more than 350 addresses, and they get mailed to each week to let them know what is going on at the church and in Sandestin.

Today, The Gathering at Sandestin still meets weekly in the Terrace Room of the Linkside Conference Center in Sandestin. However, we sometimes meet in other rooms because of weddings or conferences that need the room. Sandestin Investments, led by Tom Becnel, has pledged to build a chapel for Sandestin, and is nearing the approval needed by the county to start construction. We expect to be the first tenant of that chapel.

The Gathering has a website, and a Facebook page. Every service is videoed and placed on our website to be viewed by our out of towners or those who missed the service that week. Although we do not have an office or staff, information can be found by calling Jay or Ann Stone at 850-622-4714. Mail is received at 1126 Prestwick Place, Miramar Beach, FL 32550.

Jay Stone is chairman of the board at The Gathering at Sandestin.