Tattoo ministry: a fresh expression of Christian commitment

OCALA -- A tattoo parlor is hardly the likeliest place that Christians would be found on a Saturday morning studying the Bible. 

Krista Olson gets the cross and flame tattooed to her forearm
Krista Olson is one of about 12 Wildwood UMC members to get a United Methodist cross-and-flame tattoo.  Photos from Wildwood UMC.

But nearly 40 members of Wildwood UMC did just that Saturday, meeting at Fat Kats Artistry in Ocala. As Bible study got underway, about a dozen members, including Pastor Michael Beck, stepped aside to get the United Methodist symbol - the cross and flame - inked onto forearms, hands and, in at least one case, a foot.

Beck got his tattoo on his hand.

"It's just part of our culture. People get tattoos a lot," says Beck, who became the church's minister about two years ago. "But we thought, ‘What if we could get tattoos that glorified God and became an evangelism tool?’"

Tattoos can stir controversy, especially among some traditionalists who point to a ban against the practice in Leviticus 19:28: "Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves: I am the Lord."

But Wildwood UMC is a church focused on finding ways to reach out to unchurched people or those who drifted away from traditional churches that no longer seemed relevant to their lives. Old Testament rules and policies from thousands of years ago were never meant to be permanent, Beck says.

"God loves us, God healed us, and we are Christians in the Wesleyan tradition who want the world to know that," writes Beck in an email. "It is my belief that Christianity has been irrelevant to the majority of this generation for too long. We have to find new and innovative ways to get out where the people are and get in relationship with them. We have to engage the culture and transform it for Christ." 

Nicole Pennington shows off her foot tattoo
Nicole Pennington of Wildwood UMC shows off the cross and flame she had inked to her foot.

The Wildwood congregation is embracing a new perspective from Fresh Expressions, a worldwide Christian movement that seeks to create "fresh expressions of church" in places outside the traditional church setting. It began in the United Kingdom about five years ago.

The Florida Conference is exploring partnering opportunities with Fresh Expressions US, based in Virginia. Beck serves on a task force working on this issue.

"I am grateful for the heart that the Wildwood UMC has for the people of its community, men and women we often do not see or reach with the gospel," says Florida Bishop Ken Carter in an email to Florida Conference Connection.

"And I give thanks for Rev. Beck’s enthusiasm in bearing witness to the saving grace of Jesus Christ in this way.”

Those who got tattoos -- ranging in age from the 20s through 40s -- say the markings will help them be witnesses to their faith.

Krista Olson chose to put her tattoo inside her forearm. "I feel like it is a way of celebrating and commemorating God's grace in our lives," she says. She hopes people will see her tattoo, ask questions and give her a chance to talk about her faith.

"It's an attraction rather than a promotion," Olson says. "That's important, to let them know I'm passionate about it and why I'm passionate about it."

Bible study at the tattoo shop is not the only way Wildwood UMC is reaching out to the community beyond its church walls. On Sunday evenings, a Bible study group called Bibles and Burritos meets at a local restaurant.  

Krista Olson, left, and Brittany Evans wait at an Ocala tattoo shop for other Wildwood UMC members to emerge with cross-and-flame tattoos.

Wildwood UMC members show their tattoos in a group shot
Wildwood UMC members sporting new cross-and-flame tattoos, from left, Jeff Evans, Brittany Evans, Michael Beck, Trisha Lipshaw, Greg Pennington, Krista Olson and Matthew Olson. In the center is Nicole Pennington.

With a blended family of eight children, Beck and his wife, Jill, are encouraging greater participation of families in the church's life. Sunday sermons are designed to include children who work on activities related to the sermon's message. Afterward, they make a presentation to the congregation.

A free breakfast is served on Sunday so that families can sit at tables and be together. The church also participates in a food pantry and soup kitchen ministry with other local churches in the area.

Beck openly acknowledges his path to addiction recovery and shepherds two Celebrate Recovery ministries, one at Wildwood and another at New Covenant UMC in The Villages.

Wildwood UMC, founded in 1881, is one of the oldest churches in the North Central District. But Beck says the past two decades brought a significant drop in church attendance. It has had four pastors in the past three years.

In the past two years, however, a congregation that had dwindled to about 30 worshipers on Sunday now has as many as 150 filling the pews.

"My main point was that God was telling me to reach families," Beck says. "I'm always constantly trying to bring people in."

Olson joined about two years ago after her future husband invited her to a Sunday service. She attended the Catholic church as a child but had not been to church since grade school.

"It's a ministry where people are accepted just as they are, whether brokenhearted, hurt or feeling marginalized," Olson says. "That was me three years ago. I believed in God, but I didn't feel I had any way to fit."

Nicole Pennington joined Wildwood about a year ago.

She picked purple, pink and orange for a small water-color tattoo of the cross and flame, delicately etched on her foot. It is one of several tattoos she has gotten over the years, including a butterfly, flower and feathers. All of them, Pennington says, are spiritual expressions of her faith.

She is beginning to see some people who usually attend the traditional service trickling over into the contemporary service.

"It is really geared toward having an experience with God, not just going through the motions," Pennington says. "We want to really break right through the walls and meet people where they are at, no matter what." 

-- Kathy Steele is a freelance writer based in Tampa. 

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