Waves of nervousness washed over Andrew Hellmers during Sunday service at First United Methodist Church of Watauga on July 2. At the beginning of the service, the melody of “America the Beautiful” filled the room, as congregants sang along with the piano. When the song was over, Hellmers stood at the pulpit.
A round of applause greeted Hellmers at the stand. Before delivering his first sermon, which he dedicated the previous six weeks to preparing, he announced it wasn’t the only “first” he experienced that day.
“It’s not only my first day as a pastor here. It’s my first day as a pastor anywhere,” Hellmers said during service. “I’m looking forward to getting to know everybody.”
Hellmers became First United Methodist Church of Watauga’s pastor as the church works to rebuild its in-person attendance in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. In-person attendance hovers at about 50 people, which is 15-20 fewer people than before, Hellmers said.
“The church has not always been a reflection of the community because Watauga has continued to grow and yet the church has not continued to grow,” Hellmers said. “That’s been difficult for the church because people of faith equate numerical size and what’s in the coffers to faithfulness.”
The dwindling number of people in attendance echoes a nationwide trend. A June 2023 study by Gallup, a global analytics firm, showed that U.S. church attendance has shown a “small but noticeable decline compared with what it was before the COVID-19 pandemic.”
From 2016 to 2019, an average of 34% of adults said they had attended a church, synagogue, mosque or temple in the last seven days. The average number of adults attending in-person worship services roughly from 2020 to 2022 was about 30%, according to Gallup.
Though those numbers are lower than what they used to be pre-pandemic, a March 2023 Pew Research Study showed that in-person attendance has made a slight rebound and leveled off. From July 2020 to November 2022, the percentage of U.S. adults who said they attended religious services in person within the last month jumped from 13% to 28%.
It is not entirely clear if the COVID-19 pandemic directly caused the decrease in nationwide attendance numbers, the Gallup report states. Hellmers said that several congregants have passed away but he wasn’t aware of any members passing away directly from the virus.
Betty King has been worshiping at First United Methodist Church of Watauga since 1982 and now serves as chair of the church’s council. She said that the COVID-19 pandemic changed a lot about the church.
“Everything was so different. We couldn’t really have committee meetings and organizations like we used to,” King said. “There would be people who just didn’t come back for one reason or another.”
The church records its sermons and publishes them on its Facebook page. King said she tries to keep in touch with those who aren’t physically able to come to service but can watch online.
“In the midst of things, it was easy to get down,” King said. However, she said she is remaining hopeful with Hellmers as the new pastor.
“We’re getting back to it, and we’re feeling a lot of enthusiasm about the future. We’re really looking forward to what’s in store for us,” King said.
Despite the church’s size, Hellmers said, the percentage of congregants who are actively doing ministry work inspires him.
“Eighty percent of the congregation is doing real work out there, walking the walk,” Hellmers said.
Hellmers wants to focus on bringing more structure and organization to the church by creating a plan to connect with newcomers and building a space for youth to connect outside of services. He said that the church is also forming multiple volunteer teams, also called “missions,” which will have community events and service opportunities.
“They are already doing this stuff already in their own religious lives. This is just putting it into a more visible church structure,” Hellmers said. “I have no idea how long I’ll be here. I would love to be here for years and years, but if I’m here for two or three years, and then I move, this church will go on.”
He also said that he wants to bring congregants a sense of comfort and stability.
Hellmers’ faith journey started in his hometown of Slidell, Louisiana, where he was exposed to church but said he never had an active faith or got into a church.
“I saw the hypocrisy that Christians have,” Hellmers said, “at least the churches that I was exposed to at the time, and that led me to resenting the church.”
Hellmers began to explore his faith more as a mass communication studies student at Louisiana State University. He said he made Baptist friends and prayed with them, which, he said, changed his perspective.
“I had never prayed in that way, or perceived God in that way,” Hellmers said. “I felt connected with everybody, and I felt humbled. And I felt immediately that I am not different from these Christians.”
Hellmers then pivoted his studies to focus on history, English and religious studies at LSU. He later went to Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and got two masters degrees, one in marriage and family counseling and one in Christian education.
“I felt called to love people and even to lead in that way,” Hellmers said.
Hellmers is shaping his new role as a pastor with his previous experience as a counselor and first-grade teacher, as well as a volunteer coordinator for First Street Methodist Mission, an emergency relief organization affiliated with the First United Methodist Church.
Hellmers said he also plans to start taking seminary classes at Brite Divinity School at Texas Christian University in 2024.
“I’m now putting together a faith that is emotional and thoughtful and even intellectual and personal,” Hellmers said, “Where we use our brains to love one another and to relate to God.”
Marissa Greene is a Report for America corps member, covering faith for the Fort Worth Report. You can contact her at email@example.com or on Twitter at @marissaygreene.
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