ALCOA, Tenn. -- The Rev. Danny Nettleton was encouraged when worshipers who came for Easter 2022 stayed around for subsequent Sundays, although he tried not to get too excited.
“We’re really cautious, because sometimes it’s like one step forward, two steps back” when it comes to church growth, he said.
However, when a couple recently came forward to join Bridle Creek United Methodist Church as new members, neither the pastor nor the other members tried to retain their joy.
“It was a real shot in the arm,” said Nettleton. Located in Independence, Virginia, his church has about 60 on the membership roll and about 30 to 40 in worship attendance.
“If we get over 40, we’ll have a pizza party,” Nettleton said.
While a few pastors may be trying to lead members away from The United Methodist Church through disaffiliation, others in Holston Conference are seeing opportunities to welcome new members to their congregations.
After two years of distanced worship brought on by the pandemic -- complicated by tension and division in the denomination -- some clergy said there is enthusiasm for being part of an in-person community again in the local church.
“We still have plenty to learn about reaching out in Christ to the community and growing as disciples, but we’re energized. We feel the Spirit guiding us, sometimes pushing us,” said the Rev. Paul Seay, pastor of Abingdon United Methodist Church in Abingdon, Virginia.
This year, Abingdon has added 13 new members, including eight through professions of faith.
Although total membership numbers for 2022 so far are not available, the last decade in Holston Conference has not been a picture of growth. Holston Conference finished 2021 with a total membership of 151,982 present in 842 local churches.
For all but one of the last 10 years, membership dropped by 300 to 2,200 annually. In 2012, Holston’s total membership was 165,489. “The decline in membership does include deceased members in those year-end reports,” said Donna Hankins, database administrator.
Yet, in Holston’s Clinch Mountain District, some local churches are seeing revitalization, said the Rev. Jane Taylor, district superintendent.
“We are in a unique position because this is the first year we are recovering from the pandemic,” Taylor said. “People have a new sense of the importance of community, and that is expressed in church membership.”
Among the Clinch Mountain District churches logging in new members this year are Abingdon (15), Emory (8), John Wesley (7), Pleasant View (5), Alexander Memorial (4), Hunt Memorial (3), Blackwell Chapel (3), and Madam Russell (2). The new members included confirmands (typically youth who have completed a class series) and transfers from other churches, as well as persons who were baptized or professed their faith before taking their membership vows.
Taylor noted that at least two of the churches with new members in her district are small in numbers while serving marginalized communities. Hunt Memorial has an urban ministry for unhoused persons in Bristol, Virginia. Alexander Memorial serves an isolated mountainous region suffering from high addiction and poverty rates in Bandy, Virginia.
“This certainly is positive news in light of all the negative we hear these days,” Taylor said.
In Holston's Three Rivers District, the Rev. Michael Lester has served his church since January 2022. During that time, Jonesborough United Methodist Church has welcomed 25 new members, while worship attendance increased from 125 to 185.
“We’re working hard to close the back door so that no one is leaving,” Lester said, “but also to open the front door for new people to come in. Whatever is happening is working.”
The pastor attributed the influx to transfers from other United Methodist churches and retirees who moved to the historic town, as well as the return of former worshipers who liked what they saw and decided to officially join the church in Jonesborough, Tennessee.
“They needed someone to guide them through healing, hope and wholeness,” Lester said. “It’s been energizing and renewing for me, too.”
Shea Fisher and her family are among those who took their membership vows at Jonesborough United Methodist Church this year, after hearing about the new pastor and finding a “warm and welcoming” place to settle down.
“We prayed for not only a church, but a church home,” she said. “I love the way the Methodist Church is gentle in the delivery of each message. A lot of that has to do with how Pastor Michael Lester delivers directly from a God-given place. You can see and hear Christ through the words he speaks and through his daily walk.”
First United Methodist Church in Madisonville, Tennessee, is also enjoying membership growth coinciding with a new pastor. The church received 12 new members in 2022 -- 19 total since the Rev. Chris Black was appointed in July 2021.
Black says it’s not him. “I honestly believe that this has less to do with me as a newer pastor in town and much more to do with the deep hunger for in-person fellowship that all of us were feeling, and are still feeling, after we were closed for the pandemic,” he said.
First Madisonville’s new members are largely transfers from other churches either locally or from other states, Black said. “We have also had a few new professions of faith which have been very exciting to celebrate as a community.”
In Abingdon, Seay said the pandemic led his congregation to host outdoor activities which made the downtown historic church more visible to the community. In addition to starting a monthly block party called “Wednesdays Without Walls,” Abingdon United Methodist Church filled flood buckets, packed food for a homeless ministry, and hosted vacation bible school on the church grounds.
"We had people walk right off the street and eat with us, which is exactly what we wanted,” Seay said. “… The new approach has changed the heart of the congregation, opening us up and helping us rethink a lot of things.”
Abingdon United Methodist has about 40 new people joining worship regularly in 2022, says Seay, who was appointed to the church in July 2021.
Other churches reporting membership increases include Broadway United Methodist Church in Maryville, Tennessee – with four so far in 2022 and 12 last year. “The 12 members that were received in 2021 was a big boost to the congregation, especially during COVID, and was the most numbers received into the church in some time,” said the Rev. Ron Fisher.
First United Methodist Church in Knoxville, Tennessee, has welcomed seven new families this year (12 adults and 9 children), which the Rev. Troy Forrester attributes to several factors.
“In short, I would say we work hard to be a church that is known more for who we are for, than anything we are against,” he said. The church has also engaged new people through its preschool and availability as a riverfront wedding venue.
When people become members of a United Methodist congregation, they profess their faith in God, desire to live as disciples of Jesus Christ, and commitment to join with the church community to keep the vows of their Baptismal Covenant.
Although the ultimate purpose and mission for United Methodists is to “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world,” welcoming new members into the fold is nevertheless a high point in the church, pastors said.
“It’s a unifying experience,” said Black. “This step can be life giving and encouraging for the whole congregation, the staff, the pastors, the new folks, and any other visitors in the pews. This public act can also serve as a tangible reminder of our common mission as Methodist Christians, and the deep spiritual bond that we share, or at least ought to share as a people.”
In the summertime, Nettleton is known for wearing Hawaiian shirts when he preaches at Bridle Creek United Methodist Church. When Gary and Laurie Bolt stood up recently to take their membership vows in front of the congregation, the pastor ceremoniously placed flower leis around their necks.
“It’s kind of our aloha welcome to our ohana,” Nettleton said, referring to a beloved line from the movie, “Lilo & Stitch.” “Ohana means family, and family means nobody gets left behind or forgotten.”
Sign up for a free weekly subscription to The Call. Holston Conference includes 842 United Methodist congregations in East Tennessee, Southwest Virginia, and North Georgia.
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newsletter.