Church in the Pines is perhaps one of the most unique and iconic structures on Lake Martin. Built on the shorelines of the lake waters, this non-denominational church draws attention from visitors all across the country. It is not unusual to see all 800+ seats filled during the warm weather months, or guests pulling up by boat to catch a Sunday service.
With its distinct, open-air structure and dramatic backdrop of the Kowaliga Bridge, it’s really no wonder why Church in the Pines is a treasured icon at Lake Martin.
The Story Behind Church in the Pines
Originally built in 1953, Church in the Pines is easily one of the oldest churches (and perhaps one of the first) on the shores of Lake Martin, AL. It started as a small, pine straw covered arbor, where weekenders could catch a Sunday service without having to leave the lake and head back into town for church.
You see, in those times you didn’t skip church on Sunday morning – especially after a few rowdy weekend nights. As to not be seen as “heathens at the lake,” folks with cabins decided to build a church locally. This way, instead of rushing home at sunrise to catch church in town, they could hear a Sunday teaching at Church in the Pines and catch a few extra hours at the lake!
Another perk to building Church in the Pines was that it was located on the water, which opened up the opportunity for people to come to church by boat. Many times, people would simply anchor their boat in the harbor and listen to the teaching without ever stepping ashore. This was a very casual approach to church and looked down upon by some. But nonetheless, the practice stuck and has become one we have fondly embraced over the years.
Over the next couple years, Church in the Pines began to grow in popularity and in 1956 it transformed from the original pine straw arbor into the large, A-frame building we now know it as today.
However, there were struggles to find preachers in the beginning days. It’s been said that the well-known, “big city” pastors were hard to come by, as they were usually teaching at their own congregations on Sundays and were often times leery to come down to the lake.
Then came along Rabbi Eugene Blachschleger. He became the first staple preacher in 1954 and led Sunday service at Church in the Pines for 10 years, alongside the first organist, Alfred Sidney “Sid” Jay. You can see both of them honored on a plaque near the altar of Church in the Pines, along with the founding members of the church.
Over time however, it became easier to persuade guest preachers to spend their Sundays at Lake Martin. They were said to be well-fed and entertained at the lake “cabin”, making an invitation to teach at Church in the Pines suddenly a coveted opportunity.
In addition, payments to the preachers were made as undisclosed offerings in brown paper bags from the congregation. As time went on, these bags became “heavier” to say the least. As word got out about the brown paper bags, it suddenly it wasn’t so hard to get guest preachers to Lake Martin on Sundays. Stories have it that preachers would compare the weight of their brown bag to others for bragging rights, as the heavier the bag usually meant more people attended their service. Kind of a funny story when we look back on the history of the times!
Church in the Pines Today
Since that time, Church in the Pines has grown into the wonderful, non-denominational haven many of us come to enjoy today. It also continues to host guest preachers every weekend, as well as visitors from all across the country. You can check out their calendar of guest speakers here.
Church in the Pines holds services every Sunday at 9AM. During the warmer months, you can often expect to see all 800+ seats filled with people under the shade of the A-frame roof, as well as sitting on blankets stretched all across the surrounding hill.
And yes, the tradition of pulling up by boat still lives on to this day. On warmer Sundays, especially when the lake water levels are up, it is not uncommon to see the shores next to Church in the Pines filled with boats anchored and eager guests ready to catch a teaching.
Weddings at Church in the Pines
For anyone who loves Lake Martin, Church in the Pines is a dream wedding venue for your big day.
With its open-air structure and dramatic backdrops of the Kowaliga Bridge, Church in the Pines is one of the most beautiful and iconic wedding ceremony options available. Plus, your venue rental includes a $250 donation to Children’s Harbor, who offers programs and services at no cost to seriously ill children and their families. You can read more about using Church in the Pines as a wedding venue here.
Popular Services at Church in the Pines
Along with weekly Sunday services, Church in the Pines is known for “packing the house” so to speak for the big holiday weekends. It is famed for their Sunrise Easter service, Memorial Day service, and even a Christmas Eve service during warmer Winters.
However, if I had to pick a favorite, a particularly popular service is the 4th of July.
Members of the congregation always look forward to the tradition of hearing a teaching from John Ed Mathison, a preacher from Montgomery, AL. He famously jokes every 4th of July that, “whomever comes forth with a fifth on the fourth, may not come forth on the fifth.”
To add to the lighthearted fun, John Ed Mathison also has a brother, George Mathison, who usually preaches the Memorial Day weekend service. They often tease about who had the bigger crowd in attendance at their Church in the Pines sermon… almost like bragging rights. It’s funny how some things never change!
We take pride in the Lake Martin community on how close Church in the Pines is to our hearts, and cherish the traditions that have come from the years of gathering there. The roots of the church were formed for people to stay a little extra time at the lake, bond with friends and family, and create memories that last a lifetime.
In the words of Ben Russell himself, Church in the Pines and the people were “the backbone of today’s great Lake Martin community” and can be credited for why the lake is the way it is today.