United Methodist pastor hopes to buck attendance decline with Topgolf, brewery meetings
'We gotta go where the people are'
There’s no denying it: fewer people are attending church on a regular basis, especially among older Gen Zers who are now in their mid-20s.
While many congregations within the United Methodist Church are faced with declining attendance numbers amid theological turmoil, one Tennessee church is hoping to buck that trend by meeting with people in unconventional spaces.
Bearden UMC in Knoxville has expanded its ministry into new territory, with a men’s ministry at Topgolf and plans for a monthly meeting at a local brewery.
Although Bearden UMC still meets at church on Sundays, the Rev. Bradley Hyde told The Christian Post the church has branched out to develop relationships and meet the needs of the community in the hopes of stemming a sharp decline in attendance.
“I know that when people would move into a community years ago, they would look for a church, and when people who may not have been churchgoers would move into a community, they would meet people who went to a church, and they would find the church and they would go to a church, and that’s just not the culture anymore,” Hyde said in a phone interview on Thursday.
He pointed to a general narrative among “some media venues” and in popular culture where people have simply “developed a bad taste for church.”
“Just because we sit here doesn't mean people are going to show up,” he added. “People just don’t do that anymore.”
With over two decades in ministry and a role on the UMC’s Holston Conference, Hyde said the unconventional outreach ideas came during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, as he read about “getting outside the walls of the church.”
Hyde said he worked with a number of young adults in their 20s and 30s who were “already just leaving the church and didn't really want to come to ‘organized religion.’”
“I can’t tell you how many times I heard that,” he added.
As the pandemic slowly subsided, he began taking one-on-one meetings with people in restaurants, coffee shops, and, yes, breweries, which started Hyde thinking about doing ministry differently.
It wasn't until he moved to Bearden in March 2022 and heard from members of the church that his plans began to take shape.
“I decided once I got here, after doing a lot of listening to this congregation the first few months, OK, we’re going to jump in, we’re going to do things differently,” he said.
After conducting a number of focus groups with his parishioners, the need for better community outreach was clear.
In response, Bearden launched a number of new initiatives, including collecting unsold produce from local vendors and give them away at the church.
But it would be the men’s ministry meeting at Topgolf and a meeting at Knoxville’s Albright Grove Brewing Co. that really had people talking.
Hyde had long noticed that the Church, in his view, doesn’t do a very good job at reaching men, so in what he described as “just one of those ‘Aha’ moments,” he launched the meetings at the brewery in early January 2022.
Since then, Hyde said the event has drawn not just men back to church, but also new people who he's never seen before.
“Some people used the pandemic as an opportunity to just leave church, and I think that’s across the board,” he said. “I know it's very specific here at Bearden UMC for a lot of different reasons. ... and so, the act of intentionally getting in front of people and meeting people … that’s been crucial.”
In addition to those outreaches, Bearden UMC also launched a “blessing box” ministry where local residents can both donate and receive canned, nonperishable foods and fresh produce.
That strategy could explain why Bearden UMC has maintained a “healthy” attendance on Sundays, even as the UMC as a whole has faced a divisive debate over whether the denomination should change its official stance opposing the blessing of same-sex unions and the ordination of noncelibate homosexuals.
After leaving its original building and merging with another UMC church due to declining membership, Bearden UMC continues to face challenges even as it broadens its outreach.
Last November, nearly 250 churches comprising about one-third of the congregations belonging to a regional body of the UMC left the mainline Protestant denomination amid its ongoing debate over homosexuality.
For Hyde, the challenges facing UMC and the Church as a whole should translate into a new approach for a nearly 2,000-year-old institution.
“We gotta go where the people are and we gotta present what I believe to be the living body of Christ, the Church, we gotta present that differently where we go,” he said.
Since early 2022, a number of congregations have left the UMC and joined the recently launched Global Methodist Church, a theologically conservative alternative.
In November, the Texas megachurch White's Chapel voted overwhelmingly to leave the UMC, although it has not chosen whether to affiliate with another denomination.
"Today, we are experiencing the UMC as a broken institution. As well, the alternatives we have been given don't seem to align with our context or our theology. These are reasons we are exploring a 'realignment,'" White's Chapel stated in a document about the discernment process.
"We hope to align with other Methodist churches in a cooperative manner in both mission and ministry. We envision a new form of connectionalism, defined by shared ministry, equal accountability, and practical governance."
A few months earlier in June, the UMC North Georgia Conference announced that 70 congregations had disaffiliated. In August, more than 30 North Carolina congregations threatened legal action to disaffiliate from the UMC. In October, an organizer of the Global Methodist Church told The Carolina Journal he believes over 200 congregations will leave the UMC North Carolina Conference.
Ian M. Giatti is a reporter for The Christian Post. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.