In the early years of American life, traveling religious workers called preachers helped to spread Protestant Christianity westward as the territory of the United States expanded.
Many of these preachers traveled on horses to lead religious services in small towns and places where only a few people lived.
Today’s traveling preachers arrive in rural communities in cars.
It is Sunday morning in Unionville, Tennessee. Dan Sweet is leading services at the tiny Zion’s Hill United Methodist Church. It is 150 years old.
Sweet is one of a growing number of pastors who travel to small Methodist churches in rural areas of the United States.
During the week, Sweet works at a large engineering company that designs and builds government projects.
He says he has two full-time jobs.
“I do this job seven days a week. The other job is five. The other job pays a whole lot better and it pays the bills. This is more a labor of love and it's a labor of what God has asked me to do.”
Barbara Waterson has been attending religious services at Zion’s Hill Methodist Church since the 1960s. She is now one of just 20 remaining members.
“I’m just a small-church person. I love big churches, but I just love the fellowship of the small churches. Everybody’s just a loving, spiritual family, and everybody gets along.”
When the religious service ends at Zion’s Hill, Sweet drives 10 minutes to another church, Hickory Hill United Methodist Church. He leads another service there.
Methodists have been worshiping at Hickory Hill since before the Civil War. Sweet is helping them keep the church alive. He says he is surprised by the role he is in.
“Early on in my life I did not attend regular worship services and actually it wasn’t until about 10 or 12 years ago that I started where God really impressed upon me that it was time. He’d let me goof-around, goof-off long enough and it was time now to start doing His will.”
The Pew Research Center says the number of Americans who attend church services regularly has been slowly decreasing for many years. The decline is especially sharp in the country’s older, traditional Protestant churches, like the Methodist churches Sweet visits each week.
Mark Chaves is a sociologist at Duke University. He researches religious trends in the U.S. He says other Christian churches should pay attention to what is happening to attendance at Methodist churches.
Chaves says other Christian groups, such as Southern Baptists, could see a similar decrease in attendance in the future.
Sweet says that unless new members join his small churches, the churches may have to close. But he says that it is not something he can control.
“I’ve only been facing it with them for about two years now. They’ve been facing it for quite a while, a longer while, and God always seems to bring in new people.”
The United Methodist Church is based in Nashville, Tennessee. It says the number of traveling preachers serving Methodist churches is growing.
I’m Marsha James.
Words in This Story
pastor - n. a Christian clergyman serving a local church
bill - n. a statement showing the cost of goods sold, services performed or work done
fellowship - n. friendly relations between people
gets along - v. to be or remain on good terms
worship - adj. of or related to religious services
goof around - v. to spend time doing playful things
trend - n. something is currently popular
decline - n. a drop or decrease in something