Pastor seeks tattoo shop to bring church as people get inked

December 18, 2021 GMT

ALLENTOWN, Pa, (AP) — Instead of waiting and hoping for more parishioners to show up in an era of declining church attendance, an Allentown pastor plans to bring prayer and Bible study to the community — through local tattoo shops.

“People aren’t coming into churches,” Rev. Kathryn Dinkelacker-Swan of Emmanuel United Methodist Church said during a recent phone interview. “There’s church trauma — people don’t feel comfortable with all the churches and the liturgies and prayers.

“I feel like church isn’t confined in the walls of a building, and I can bring church anywhere,” she continued. “God’s love is anywhere.”

By taking her work directly to residents, she hopes to meet people where they are, reaching those who would likely never set foot in a traditional church — all while getting some tattoos.

Now, the 31-year-old pastor just needs to find a tattoo shop in the city willing to host what she calls a “low-key bible study,” with parishioners getting tattooed and sharing their faith and experiences with God.

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“We think that everyone deserves to hear healing and God’s word, and you shouldn’t have to step into a church for that,” she said, explaining it’s part of the Fresh Expressions movement in the church, which aims to get leaders into local businesses with their congregants. “It’s mainly just us going into the communities, really getting to know everything about the community — you can’t just plant yourself in a community that you know nothing about that you don’t really understand.

“It’s all about, as a pastor, where our passions are, and how we can reach people in different ways.”

Fewer people are going to church than ever before.

Last year, only 47% of Americans said they belonged to a church, synagogue or mosque, down from 50% in 2018 and 70% in 1999, according to results of a Gallup poll released in March. U.S. church membership was at 73% when the polling company first measured it in 1937 and remained near 70% for the next six decades, before beginning a steady decline around the turn of the 21st century.

The decline in church membership, the organization argues, comes from an increase in residents who express no religious preference alongside population change. As younger people get older, they’re less likely to have the same religious affiliations and fervor of their parents and grandparents.

At the same time, the number of people with tattoos is increasing.

Results of an Ipsos poll published in 2019 showed 30% of Americans have at least one tattoo, an increase from 21% in 2012. Forty percent of those ages 18 to 34 and 36% of those ages 35 to 54 have at least one tattoo, while the same is true for only 16% of those 55-years-old and older.

“I feel like you can heal through getting tattoos and sharing our stories,” Dinkelacker-Swan said. “And as a great conversation starter like, ‘Oh, this tattoo, where did you get it?’ And you just say, ‘Oh, at church.’ ”

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Dinkelacker-Swan, who describes herself as “obviously very progressive,” started at Emmanuel UM in June 2019, switching careers after spending seven years as a social worker and dropping out of medical school, where she studied to become forensics. Adopted from Romania, she grew up going to a Methodist church, a mainstream Protestant sect.

“I think that the church needs to progress, as the time does,” she said. “And I think that a lot of people are turned off from the church, and I think that we need to be the change.”

And Dinkelacker-Swan is very open with her parishioners about her own mental health struggles, which included hospitalizations, suicide attempts and more than two decades of self-harm — she even calls herself “the borderline pastor” in an attempt to break down stigmas about mental health.

She has more than a dozen tattoos herself, with plans for more, explaining that part of her work is to break down stereotypes casting religious leaders as strictly older, white men.

“When I get to come up at the pulpit, and I have tattoos all over my arms and everything, I think that is eye-opening,” she said. “And honestly, my congregation has learned to love me. They have said that they didn’t expect a tattooed female pastor, but the fact that I can show up when they need it — it’s breaking barriers and showing that we can do stuff and you don’t have to be an old white male following by the book that is so outdated.”

The goal, she said, is to find a tattoo shop willing to allow a group of parishioners to sit in a lobby or waiting room, talking about God while some get tattoos.

“It’s not supposed to be full of liturgies and prayers,” she said. “I think that it would be perfect and ideal if we could find a tattoo place that we’d be willing to work with us and really talk about how your faith is and just your life.”

Sharing her passion for God and tattoos with the community could help forge new connections with residents, she said, spreading a message of unity and hope.

“You don’t have to be alone,” Dinkelacker-Swan said. “So, if I can share my story and give hope, that’s all I can do. That’s all I want.”

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