OCEAN CITY, Md. -- As Julie McKenna biked through the Frontier Town campground on a recent Sunday morning, she heard what seemed like an out-of-place sound in this resort community: prayer.
Though she is not particularly religious, McKenna decided on a whim to join the 35 or so people worshiping at the nondenominational outdoor service for tourists, which had been organized by Southern Baptist missionaries. Soon, the mother of three was tapping her feet to the exuberant prayers and pledging to attend church services more often.
"This is what I think church is all about," said McKenna, 34, a nurse from Easton, Md. "I belong to an Episcopal church back home, and it's, well, a little stuffy. Seeing this service makes me want to get closer to God."
Although many Americans have often gone to church while on vacation, these days it's increasingly the churches that are going after the vacationers -- reaching out to surfers on the beach, skiers on the slopes and families lolling around Walt Disney World.
Lynn Davis, director of the Southern Baptist Convention's Central Atlantic Leisure Ministries, which runs missionary programs at resort locations in Maryland and Delaware, said people are more receptive to religious messages during a vacation because they're searching for a sense of inner calm.
"People are often suspicious of missionaries back home and might be uncomfortable with religion," Davis said after the prayer service at Frontier Town. "But when they're on vacation and camping, they're much more open to new experiences all around."
The Southern Baptists are just one of several missionary groups and religious organizations in Ocean City and across the country that are expanding their outreach to tourists in resort communities.
At the northern tip of Ocean City, a Catholic parish has converted a meeting hall into a summertime church to accommodate tourists. The 500 mauve stacking chairs that fill St. Andrew's Catholic Center give its services a decidedly informal air. So does the usher wearing jean shorts and a blue "Mighty Ducks 3" T-shirt.
Jim Sunderhauf, 51, a marketing manager from Sewell, N.J., showed up at a Saturday evening Mass wearing a bathing suit, green T-shirt and flip-flops.
"I've never gone to church in flip-flops before, but I didn't bring any nice clothes on vacation," said Sunderhauf, who attends church regularly back home. "It's nice that they make it relaxed enough that I can come like this."
The Rev. Edward Fahey, an associate pastor at the parish, said it is continually trying to reach more tourists. The parish advertises the schedule for weekend Mass in hotels and businesses throughout the area and on giant signs that dot the Coastal Highway.
Fahey said there's something about relaxing on a beach that causes even nonreligious people to think about God. "You find with being near the ocean that there's a lot of new beginnings," he said. "It's almost like people want to bury some of their sins in the sand just like they want to bury their feet in the sand."
Some religious groups try to appeal to tourists by offering programs that at first seem entirely secular.
On a recent Saturday night, about 100 teenagers and young adults showed up for a film on the beach advertised on signs throughout town that said only: "Free! SURF MOVIE 8:00 PM." Most attendees were surprised when they realized that the main film featured evangelical surfers talking about their relationship with Jesus. Tables on the boardwalk offered free suntan lotion, "JESUS LOVES ME!" stickers and a "Surfers Bible New Testament."
Tom Clarke, a founder of Florida-based Everlasting Rock Ministries, which organized the event, said he didn't want to scare people off with an overtly religious message in the advertising.
"I don't want anyone to think that we're the Jesus freaks," said Clarke, 39, of Cocoa Beach, Fla., as he sat on the boardwalk. "We're not trying to shove religion down anyone's throat. We're just trying to encourage a positive lifestyle."
Some groups criticize such advertising as deceptive. "They are using stealth strategies to try and suck people in," said Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, a Wisconsin-based group of atheists and agnostics. "They know if they advertise religion, then people won't go. You really do have to question the ethics here of what they are doing."
She said most people are offended by the notion of missionaries focusing on tourists.
Of course, many vacationers attend houses of worship without prodding. About a quarter of adult travelers in the United States go to a religious service while on a long-distance trip, according to a 1998 study by the Travel Industry Association of America.
Jason Kessler, 29, who is Jewish and lives in Scarsdale, N.Y., said there was never any doubt that he would attend a synagogue for Saturday morning services while on vacation in Ocean City. He prayed at Ahavat Shalom, a synagogue that is part of Chabad Lubavitch, a worldwide movement that has sent more than 4,000 emissary families who have opened centers in various countries to reach out to observant and nonobservant Jews.
"Our role is to be here for all Jewish people," said Rabbi Noam Cohen, an emissary, known as a shliach in Hebrew, for Chabad in Ocean City. "We want to be open to them and to welcome them and teach them about the Torah."
On a mission
When Davis and her husband were first assigned to open a church in Ocean City about a quarter-century ago, she said the Southern Baptist Convention put little emphasis on missionary work to vacationers.
Davis said she quickly realized that they had to come up with fun activities that didn't seem threatening to tourists. The Ocean City missionaries began offering children's programs with unassuming names like "surf and sand" clubs. They also distributed water and Gatorade to fishermen and started pickup basketball and volleyball games with tourists, in the hopes of initiating conversations about God.
The Southern Baptists' Association of Resort and Leisure Ministers has more than 175 members across the country and is continually growing, according to Marc Johnston, the national resort missionary for the Southern Baptist Convention's North American Mission Board.
Although the group has no statistics showing how successful it has been in making U.S. vacationers more religious, it has been asked by the convention to send missionaries to resort communities overseas, including in France, Venezuela and Argentina.
But some missionaries in resort communities are content to stay right where they are.
Randy Hofman, 53, an evangelical preacher, has made enormous sand sculptures just off the Ocean City boardwalk since 1981.
Last weekend, crowds of bikini-clad women and shirtless men gawked at four scenes, each the size of an oversize camping tent: the three wise men, Moses receiving the Ten Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus carrying the cross.
In front of the sculptures, visitors were offered a free 32-page pocket Bible. Hofman said he has given away more than a million of them in the past quarter-century.
Alexis Himmelberger, 20, a real estate transaction processor from Boiling Springs, Pa., who was in Ocean City on her honeymoon, was one of many visitors inspecting the sculptures and snapping photographs. But Himmelberger, like most tourists interviewed, said the sculptures were unlikely to have an impact on her religious views and practices.
"I'm not here on a deep soul-searching mission," she said. "I'm here to enjoy myself."