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Churches in Knoxville, Tenn. are experimenting with ways to draw young people back

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

American Christianity is in the midst of an identity crisis. Attendance, especially among millennials and Gen Z, is in steep decline. They say traditional church services don't speak to their lives. And in response, religious leaders are scrambling to stay relevant. NPR's John Burnett reports on three churches in Knoxville, Tenn., that are experimenting with new ways to offer meaning in people's lives.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: At a community garden, a small group huddles around a fire pit under the limbs of an expansive box elder tree. Church is about to start. And it's cold.

CHRIS BATTLE: God our father, we are just so thankful for this time that we have to share this morning. And, God, we really thank you for fire that keeps us warm even as we sit up under this tree. We just pray that you will bless our time together.

BURNETT: Three years ago, Pastor Chris Battle walked away from more than three decades leading Black Baptist churches and started Battlefield Farm and Gardens in Knoxville. They grow vegetables and sell them at a farmer's market. They also collect unsold produce from around the city and once a week deliver it to people in public housing. Why did he leave? Battle, a big man with a pipe clenched in his generous smile, had noticed that more and more people were turned off by the sermons, the pitches for money, the Sunday morning formality of it all.

BATTLE: So I said to myself, maybe we need to begin to do church differently. But what does that look like? And I didn't know until I got to the garden.

BURNETT: The people who come to Battlefield Gardens on Sunday morning are mostly refugees from traditional religion. Battle delivers a brief sermon on the teachings of Jesus. They talk about it. Then, instead of altar calls or Holy Communion, his congregation, such as it is, tends to the 50 raised beds of kale and eggplant, string beans and squash, tomatoes and greens, as well as the chicken coop and compost pile.

BATTLE: People - when they come to garden, they'll have conversation with you. But you tell them you're a pastor. The conversation changes. OK. They had their liquor. They quit cussing, you know? I mean, everything changed. But you tell them you're a farmer, and they start telling you what color their thumb is. And I'm like, wow - meeting people, developing relationships with people in the garden. And it's not happening in a church. People are running away from the church.

BURNETT: Indeed they are. Last year Americans' membership in houses of worship fell below 50% for the first time since Gallup started its authoritative religion survey. In 1937, the year the Gallup poll began, 7 out of 10 Americans attended church. In 2020, before the pandemic, only 47% of Americans said they belonged to a church, synagogue or mosque. It's been trending downward since 2000. Put another way, millennials and Gen Z are rejecting organized religion.

KELLY SAUSKOJUS: Genuinely, I'm here because I want two things out of church.

BURNETT: Kelly Sauskojus is a 27-year-old Ph.D. candidate in English who comes to the garden on Sundays and delivers veggies.

SAUSKOJUS: I want time to, like, sit down like we do on Sunday sometimes or around the fire and, like, pray and recenter and figure out what we're about in the world because the world is very noisy. And then I want church to be a place where you, like, get [expletive] done with your community and for your community.

BURNETT: Again, Pastor Chris Battle.

BATTLE: We were trying to create this community that people who learn to love each other and ultimately love the world and transform it through collard greens and okra (laughter).

BURNETT: This impulse, this urgency to do something different, is being felt throughout the Christian church. Once booming, evangelical churches are worried. But for liberal mainline Protestants like the Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians and Episcopalians, the hemorrhaging of members has become an existential question. Consider Knoxville's Marble City United Methodist Church. The stained glass windows are still there. But now the structure houses an architectural firm and the Golden Roast coffee shop.

(SOUNDBITE OF COFFEE FOAMING)

BURNETT: The church closed a couple of years ago because worshippers stopped coming and tithing. Now people have returned, this time to the altar of caffeine.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Honey latte.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Thank you, ma'am. Y'all have a great day.

BRADLEY HYDE: Every year we close anywhere between two and five churches - every single year.

BURNETT: Reverend Bradley Hyde is a Methodist pastor in his 25th year in the ministry. From his seat on the regional Church conference in East Tennessee, he's watched the pandemic drive even more people away.

HYDE: I think people were already wanting to leave church, and COVID gave a great opportunity for people to say goodbye. I'm not the only pastor who has noticed that, but a lot of people have just not come back.

BURNETT: Hyde says he did focus groups among his parishioners, and he heard the same thing over and over. The church needs to do a better job of connecting with the community. So now his church, Bearden United Methodist, does its version of Chris Battle's okra and collards ministry. They collect unsold produce from local vendors and then, once a month, bring it back to the church parking lot.

HYDE: And our community is finally getting the word that we offer high-quality produce that they can come and get for no cost. And it has been a game-changer for connecting with our community.

CAROLINE VOGEL: So just because you leave organized religion doesn't mean the hunger to connect with the divine is going to cease.

BURNETT: Reverend Caroline Vogel is a priest and director of the Center for Spiritual Learning and Practice at the Episcopal Church of the Ascension in Knoxville.

VOGEL: It's how we were created. We need food. We need shelter. We need clothing. And we also have to feed our souls in some way. And so I think there's this challenge of, OK, we've been doing it like this for so long, and it's just not working for people in a way that meets them in a holistic way.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Ha, ha, ha.

BURNETT: On this Sunday evening, it's Breathing Under Stained Glass. About 30 people, mostly folks who don't attend regular church, sit on yoga mats on the terra cotta floor in Ascension's stately, hushed sanctuary.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Ha.

BURNETT: Vogel and another priest in workout clothes direct these breathing exercises from the front of the church.

VOGEL: Your human breath is infinitely connected to the divine breath so that, as you breathe, you are being breathed by the holy.

BURNETT: On other Sunday nights, they offer a Celtic service, a book group and something called Tools of Aliveness. After Breathing Under Stained Glass, I approach Jamie Hampton, a 44-year-old Tennessee state employee. She and her husband stopped going to a traditional church about six years ago because it wasn't doing anything for them. Now she comes to Ascension's Sunday night events.

JAMIE HAMPTON: I was raised Independent Baptist, where you don't even wear pants in a church. So laying on a yoga mat in the floor was a little weird but wonderful. The breathing linked with feeling the spirit is really important to me. And it just - it stays with me more than just a sermon and some hymns.

BURNETT: Back at the fire pit at Battlefield Garden, Baptist pastor Chris Battle says he used to measure the success of a church by what he calls the BPs.

BATTLE: Butts in pews, bucks in the plate, baptisms in the pool and building programs. The BPs - that's how you grow a church, right?

BURNETT: When he was senior pastor, the question used to be, how can the church change the culture? Today, it's, how do we change the culture of the church? John Burnett, NPR News, Knoxville.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.