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Disc golf. Board games. Ax throwing. BYOB (bring your own bow) archery shoots.

These may not be your typical church events, but they pepper the calendars of many local congregations.

River of Life Church's Jessica Anderson planned a drive-in movie night in the church's Elk River parking lot, with hot dogs, popcorn and "Wreck-It Ralph" on the big screen.

"I think of things that I want my family to experience," said Anderson, communications director and ministry development lead.

Like Anderson, many Twin Cities religious leaders are pumping up the fun fellowship to reconnect with and revive congregations that aren't returning to Sunday services at pre-pandemic numbers.

Nationally, in-person church attendance among those who say they typically worship has been stuck at 27%, Pew Research Center found in March. That's up only slightly from last September.

"I would say most pastors and churches I talk to aren't numerically where they were pre-pandemic," said Jeff Olson, lead pastor of Catalyst Covenant Church in northeast Minneapolis. "There's no one reason. There's probably a myriad of small reasons."

Some regular churchgoers now tune in online instead of attending in person. Others have stopped participating altogether.

"This is a struggle for all churches," said Rose Lee-Norman, formation pastor at Sanctuary Covenant Church in north Minneapolis. "It's truly something that we're seeing across the board. So, that was an encouragement to know that we're not alone in it. We can reimagine and do new things in this season also."

Those "new things" have included free pre-service breakfast, monthly barbeques and secular-style activities, no RSVP required.

As Labor Day approaches, many Twin Cities church leaders say those extra events have had a positive impact in the pews. Others have decided that even if attendance numbers never bounce back, it's worth keeping plenty of "non-Sunday" fun on the calendar.

Reconnecting BBQ by BBQ

As the weather warmed this spring, leaders of Sanctuary Covenant Church realized they needed to do more than hold the annual summertime barbecue.

"We knew that we needed time and effort and space to allow for our church community to just gather and connect with each other where everyone felt comfortable, as well as to build new connections," Lee-Norman said. "We had newcomers over the pandemic who are joining us online who had never actually been in our church."

So, they had a barbecue every month at parks across the metro area — from the Wabun Picnic Area near Minnehaha Falls in Minneapolis to St Paul's Como Park — booking a DJ, hosting games with prizes and serving barbecue chicken.

"Because engagement and connection was such a focal point and value in this season, we actually pressed pause on a lot of our other regular programming," Lee-Norman said. "We knew that we just had to help re-engage and connect with people so that we can invite people into serving again and rebuild and reimagine ministry programs."

The tradeoff seems to have been worth it.

"We have definitely seen an increase on Sunday mornings," Lee-Norman said. The church, which had gone down to one Sunday service during COVID, is making plans to return to two soon.

Low stress, low overhead

Olson has hosted ax throwing events in his own backyard. He's enlisted a church member who loves board games to host regular outdoor game nights. And every few weeks, he throws dozens of Frisbees in his trunk for a disc golf outing. Anyone who shows up is welcome.

He and other leaders of Catalyst Covenant have come to rely on "low stress and low overhead" events to reconnect with church members and their friends.

For summer, the church moved its regular Sunday services outside to Central Park in St. Anthony and is giving out free breakfast — scones one week, donuts another — beforehand.

"Anything we can do to help create relationship and community, we've worked really hard on that," Olson said. "When you move a service outdoors, it becomes a little less formal. And that's pretty helpful for a lot of folks who maybe over the last year or two haven't plugged in anywhere. It's a little more approachable."

While attendance is up at Catalyst Covenant, it hasn't rebounded to pre-pandemic levels. Yet, Olson has been heartened to see how the nontraditional activities have resonated with members of his congregation.

"I think I think we're seeing signs of connection and vitality than we've probably seen in two years," he said.

For her part, Lee-Norman thinks the pandemic-related lack of connection goes beyond houses of worship.

"I really don't think people truly understand how their habits were formed and shaped during COVID," she said. "I think we're just beginning to see the depth of its impact on all of our lives and our communities."