UNIONVILLE, TENNESSEE - The idea of the drifter is as old as America.
The mountain man, the gunslinger, and real life folk heroes like Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett made a name for themselves by roaming and exploring this country when giant portions of it were blank spots on a map.
But these lonely adventurers weren't the only ones to brave the wilds of North America.
Protestant Christianity spread westward across the frontier, thanks in large measure to the tireless efforts of so-called circuit riding preachers. Lay pastors in many instances, they traveled by horseback to conduct church services in small towns and isolated pioneer outposts.
For rural Americans these days, living off the beaten path often means limited access to all kinds of needs: medical, financial, and spiritual.
God's Word on the road
And meeting spiritual needs is where Pastor Dan Sweet comes in.
Today, he is leading services at tiny Zion’s Hill United Methodist Church in Unionville, Tennessee. He is one of a growing number of lay pastors serving Methodist churches, primarily in small, rural congregations just like Zion’s Hill.
During the week, Sweet works as the director of contracts for a large engineering firm specializing in government projects. He says both of his jobs are full time positions.
“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 a labor of what God has asked me to do,” he said.
Barbara Waterson has been attending Zion’s Hill church most of the year since the 1960s. She’s now one of just about twenty or so people still attending the 150-year-old congregation.
“I’m just a small church person," she said. "I love big churches, but I just love the fellowship of the small churches. Everybody’s just a loving, spiritual family. Everybody gets along.”
As soon as services are over at Zion’s Hill, Pastor Sweet jumps into his jeep and rushes ten minutes cross-country to another small church where he conducts his second service of the morning.
Methodists have been worshipping at Hickory Hill United since before the American Civil War of the 1860s. Sweet is doing his best to help them keep the doors open, a calling that seems to surprise even him.
“Early on in my life," Sweet said, "I did not attend regular worship services and actually it wasn’t until about ten or twelve 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.”
Fewer churches, fewer churchgoers
According to the Pew Research Center, the number of Americans who attend church services on a regular basis has been slowly declining for some time. The trend is especially pronounced in the nation’s older, more traditional, so-called mainline Protestant churches.
Duke University sociologist Mark Chaves researches faith trends in the U.S. He says other Christian denominations should be watching the Methodist experience for lessons on what they’ll likely face in the years to come.
“Lately, evangelical churches, denominations like Southern Baptists for example, have started to show signs of decline as well," he said. "So what will be interesting to watch in the next period of time is whether the Evangelical patterns start to look like what the Mainline patterns looked like…just delayed by a couple of decades.”
Pastor Sweet acknowledges that unless his small churches can attract some new members, they may eventually be forced to close their doors, but he remains optimistic.
“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,” he said.
Sweet is familiar with the Methodist history of circuit riding pioneer preachers. He says he’s served more than two churches before, and would be willing to do so again, but he’d really prefer to stick with four-wheeled transportation.
“You won’t find me on a horseback, riding around with a satchel," he admitted with a laugh, "but I’ll get in the Jeep and I’ll go to churches. I think it’s awesome. I really truly do.”
The United Methodist Church, headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee, wasn’t able to tell VOA just how many lay pastors currently serve its congregations, but does say the number is growing.