Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

From bike shop to drive-thru prayer, churches try thinking outside the pew

The emergence of many congregations from the comfort zone of their own sanctuaries often comes down to this: Change, or close. A study found that nationwide, more than half of all churches have fewer than 100 people in attendance for weekend worship,

Pastor Scott Roth, right, assists 12 -year-old Paul Reichley, center, and his dad Zeke Reichley, left, select his new bike from the Bike and Sol shop in East Greenville.
Pastor Scott Roth, right, assists 12 -year-old Paul Reichley, center, and his dad Zeke Reichley, left, select his new bike from the Bike and Sol shop in East Greenville.Read moreBRADLEY C. BOWER

Ed Hofstaedter pulls up in front of St. John's United Methodist Church in Northampton Township for a quick drive-thru prayer.

A Richboro business analyst, he wants to send up a thank-you because his son scored in the top 6 percent on his medical school admission test. Reaching out the window of his gray Lexus, the 52-year-old Hofstaedter grasps hands with prayer team member Sue Uzelmeier and her 13-year-old grandson, Aaron, and bows his head.  Within minutes, he's on his way.

For a Catholic whose church attendance has been "come-and-go" but who petitions the Almighty regularly and describes himself as "spiritual," the Methodists' prayerful pit stop is made-to-order. For the 55-year-old Bucks County church, it's a hopeful strategy for connecting with people who increasingly pass by houses of worship without ever stepping inside. St. John's offers the pray-as-you-go amenity in its semicircle driveway every Wednesday from 4:30 to 6 p.m., spring to fall. But that is only one unorthodox idea among countless others being conjured up by congregations likewise fearful of shrinking away in a new cultural landscape.

A pastor at St. Paul's Lutheran Church in Doylestown sits at a coffee shop table every Wednesday with a sign advertising "Free Prayer."  The placard quotes Martin Luther: "Pray, and let God worry."

In Ardmore, Bethel A.M.E. Church used a health education grant to fund a "Fitness Sunday" service in June, with a DJ spinning pumped-up Gospel music and members exercising in the pews.

The pastor of First Baptist Church of Pitman and his wife use their family-owned South Jersey coffee shop to host play groups, book clubs, and a Christian open-mike night.

Perkiomenville Mennonite Church in Montgomery County started a bike shop as a community ministry.

"I don't think that we, as believers, should be sitting in our churches on Sunday morning waiting for people to come into our buildings for us to tell them about Jesus and show them a better way of life," said the Rev. Scott Roth, who not only helps shepherd the Perkiomenville flock but runs Bike and Sol in East Greenville. Believers, he said, should focus on ministering as Jesus did, in the "streets and public spaces."

The emergence of many congregations from the comfort zone of their own sanctuaries often comes down to this: Change, or close.

In recent decades, churches, particularly mainline Protestant, have seen their congregants age and die off, with few young people replenishing the pews. Nationwide, more than half of all congregations have fewer than 100 people in attendance for weekend worship, according to a 2015 report by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research. It was the first time the figure had risen above 50 percent since the institute began its "Faith Communities Today" research series in 2000. A 2012 study by the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life found that about 46 million Americans have no religious affiliation, an increase from just over 15 percent of the adult population to nearly 20 percent in the last five years.  One-third of those 46 million are under age 30.

Young people feel little loyalty to the institutions of their parents, said Scott Thumma, the Hartford Institute's academic dean. They find traditional worship to be boring, absent of meaning and out of sync with an online-influenced lifestyle in which there is increasing competition for their time and attention.  Nonetheless, studies show many of them believe in God and describe themselves as "spiritual but not religious."  Their nontraditional faith lives have impelled churches to seek nontraditional methods to reach them, causing services and ministries to become increasingly niche-oriented. Worship has been tailored for cowboys (country music and sawdust on the floor) and bikers (dress code: leather), said the Rev. Karl Vaters, who writes a blog on innovative leadership in small churches for Christianity Today magazine.

Among the pioneers are the Rev. Randy Van Osten, of First Baptist Church of Pitman, and his wife, Tina, who opened the Treehouse Coffee Shop & Cafe in Audubon 14 years ago as a way to get to know and become part of the community. Unlike a coffee shop, he said, a church has an "invisible wall" that can keep people out: their own belief that the church will judge them or just wants their money.

"If you go out and build relationships," he said, "that's how you'll reach the next generation."

At Bethel A.M.E., in a historically African American neighborhood in South Ardmore, the congregation is grappling with questions of church identity as the surrounding community becomes increasingly Latino, and booms with residential development that includes luxury apartments.

At a recent regional A.M.E. conference, the denomination's area leader, Bishop Gregory Ingram, encouraged local congregations to embark on innovative programs. Bethel A.M.E., with an average attendance of 70, has hosted a play reading and a "Fitness Sunday" worship service. Members are wondering "How do we plug into that millennial group. What does a spiritual connection look like to them?" said the Rev. Carolyn Cavaness, the first female and, at 34, the youngest pastor to be appointed to Bethel in its 121-year history.

Studies show that millennials often express their spirituality by participating in community service and volunteer projects. So Roth, of Perkiomenville Mennonite Church, has expanded his ministry beyond church walls, opening the congregation's bicycle shop in 2012. He said at least one family he met through the shop has joined his congregation, which has an average Sunday attendance of about 220. Christianity doesn't get the hard sell at Bike and Sol. There are no Bible studies, no proselytizing. Gunnar Zaengle, a 12-year-old who doesn't attend church and says he's not spiritual and declined to say if he believes in God, works there as an apprentice to Sam Reichley, 18, who grew up in the congregation.

The Rev. Thomas Rusert, co-pastor of St. Paul's, has also taken his ministry to the street, or more specifically to Starbucks. He rotates his visits among a Panera Bread and two Starbucks cafes (one near the Bucks County Courthouse, the other about a mile away in the Doylestown Shopping Center).

Every Wednesday morning, he spends three hours at a table, sipping coffee, honing his Sunday sermon, and offering prayers to passersby — including a doughnut shop owner requesting divine assistance for her store, and a schizophrenic woman asking for God's help because she had visions of a witch.

"I try to be invitational without being irritating," said Rusert, who prays just loud enough so that the person who asked for prayer can hear. "Everyone who walks into the coffee shop is carrying something — a big question, big grief, or big excitement — and something cool and sacred happens when people sit down. It's like all of a sudden we have this sacred soundproof space."

A county away, Hofstaedter was one of two drivers — three being the usual Wednesday turnout — to pull off Almshouse Road into St. John's parking lot, seeking prayer. He was met by a team of eight members sitting on garden chairs beneath an awning.

"We know only about 35 percent of Christians go to church, but everybody needs prayer," said pastoral associate Ruth Portzline, "This is nonthreatening. We don't preach to them or ask them to come to St. John's. We just share the love of God."