A redefined ‘church’ will emerge from pandemic
This pandemic will end. Ben Pickett is sure of it.…
Early in the pandemic, Matt Dabbs found himself preaching a message he never thought he’d preach: It’s OK not to go to church.
Well, not the church building anyway. The congregation for which he ministered, the Auburn Church of Christ in eastern Alabama, had moved its in-person worship services online, just like countless other churches across the U.S.
In the months that followed, COVID-19 flipped the conventional wisdom of church growth on its head. The 2,000-member megachurches that so many congregations yearned to be now were super-spreaders of the virus, too dangerous to attend.
And struggling rural congregations — with large buildings and declining memberships — suddenly had ideal locales for socially distanced worship.
As Dabbs recorded sermons for the Auburn church, he had a thought: If the 400-member congregation couldn’t meet in a building, “what about 10 to 15 in our yard?”
Backyard Church was born. It began as an outdoor gathering of a few families from the minister’s subdivision, spaced apart and masked. A few were members of the Auburn church. Most weren’t.
Among the visitors was Daniel Tulibagenyi, who had worshiped with one of the city’s large community churches before COVID-19 and was in a ministry training program.
He had visited the Dabbs family’s home before — to inspect it for termites as part of his day job with a pest control company. Dabbs and his wife, Missy, learned about his faith and invited him back for dinner, pre-pandemic.
As the world began shutting down, Tulibagenyi, a native of Uganda, said that he had a dream, a vision, of himself bowing before God in an outdoor space.
“And when I looked up I saw all these people, worshiping,” he said.
Days later, Dabbs invited him to Backyard Church. Nearly a year after that invitation, Tulibagenyi serves as prayer team leader for the small congregation, which Dabbs now serves full time. It has grown to about 40 members and focuses on discipleship and “the priesthood of all believers,” Dabbs said.
Whether they meet in person or online — as house churches or as Bible classes within a larger church — small gatherings have become a big deal in the lives of many Christians during the pandemic, serving as vital sources of connection as houses of worship have closed their doors.
Now, as vaccination rates rise and infections begin to dip, some Christians envision a stripped-down, simpler church post-pandemic, with fewer formalized programs and less structured worship.
“Small groups are having an interesting resurgence,” said Jeff Walling, a longtime minister who directs the Youth Leadership Initiative at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif. “More and more people are asking the question: ‘Is this more what God intended than 1,000 of us all standing in an auditorium, all staring in the same direction?’”
The idea of small, simple churches meeting in (or outside of) homes predates the pandemic by some 2,000 years.
“It think it’s time to evaluate what constitutes assembly and why we do it.”
“I think that the first century church often followed the home model,” said Kenneth Fatula, an elder of the 50-member Berwick Church of Christ in Pennsylvania. “It seems that larger congregations must be careful to identify members by name as individuals, not just as numbers and revenue sources.
“It think it’s time to evaluate what constitutes assembly and why we do it,” Fatula said. Churches do not “gather to worship,” he added, but are instructed to “live lives of worship,” as the apostle Paul urges in Romans 12:1.
Two millennia after Paul’s exhortation, movements of “microchurches” have sprung up across the U.S.
Rob Wegner is the founding leader of KC Underground, a decentralized network of small groups in Kansas City. In the first months of the pandemic, he wrote a piece for Exponential, a ministry that provides resources, training and seminars to help churches multiply.
“This pandemic demonstrates the absolute (necessity) and power of the microchurch,” Wegner wrote, “which provides an adaptability, an embodiment of community and invulnerability that larger, more organized expressions will struggle to realize.”
Yet many established churches that met in buildings pre-pandemic have adapted well, often through the use of small groups, church members told The Christian Chronicle.
“The small group became our church within a church,” said Lisa Leichner, a member of the Blacksburg Church of Christ in Virginia. Even when the 150-member congregation resumed in-person worship with social distancing and masks, the services “felt less impactful to my spiritual growth than did the small group’s service together.”
Going forward, churches need to find new ways to engage people of all ages outside the formal worship setting, Leichner said. She’s inspired by the innovative ways her fellow Christians have reached out to each other, online and otherwise, in tough circumstances. Such efforts “helped me develop tighter relationships with the people who stretched and grew in order to stick together.
“Let your creatives lead and shine. Let all of God’s gifts among your church members show the way. I think that’s probably true whether we’re in a pandemic or not.”
If the church is one body with many parts, as Paul writes a bit later in Romans 12, Jordon Brown is pretty sure he’s an elbow.
“As an introvert, I’ve never been part of a successful home church, small group Sunday night life group,” he said. “It seems I always get placed with other elbows, so the body doesn’t function properly.”
Brown now worships with the largest congregation he’s ever been part of — the 600-member West-Ark Church of Christ in Fort Smith, Ark. He describes his role there as “third-string sound guy” and said he’s happy to be “serving with my God-given talents to the best of my ability.” He understands that others may feel unseen in larger congregations and opt for small home churches.
“I believe different Christians need both,” he said, “and God is OK with that.”
Many churches that meet in brick-and-mortar facilities started as house churches, including the Harvest Field Church of Christ in Omaha, Neb., which launched in spring 2018 in what Travis Heppner described as “a nice garage.”
As the church grew, “we had some decisions to make,” said Heppner, one of the founding members. “Do we continue staying in a house, divide and plant other house churches or move forward together?
“The clear answer was ‘move forward together.’” The church leased its first building in late 2020.
“Numerous times people would tell us they were not comfortable coming because it met in someone’s house,” Heppner said. “We struggled to get visitors to attend.”
That doesn’t mean the church has given up on home-based meetings.
As the pandemic subsides, members plan to launch a small-group program called Wednesday Night Connect. Groups of five to 15 members will meet in spaces where it’s easy to be seen and to invite others to join — coffee shops, public places or, perhaps, homes — and join a teacher online.
Related: The Post-Pandemic Church
“We’ve perfected how to do this through the pandemic,” Heppner said, “as some families meet at home and join remotely and others meet in the building. … We seem to be on our way to figuring out how to think big but act small — and stay connected as we grow.”
About one week before the pandemic lockdowns began, Matt and Missy Dabbs attended a conference in Orlando, Fla., hosted by the Exponential church planting and multiplication ministry.
“We went away from it thinking, ‘That’s not for us,’” Matt Dabbs said.
Soon, they were planting a church in their own backyard.
After the initial lockdowns lifted in summer 2020, members of the Auburn Church of Christ who had been worshiping with Backyard Church returned to their home congregation. But the new church kept growing, and in October Matt Dabbs talked with the Auburn church’s elders and made the prayerful decision to step away from the pulpit. He now focuses on Backyard Church full time in addition to his duties as editor of Wineskins, a faith-based publication.
He’s not sure what will happen next. The congregation is determined to not buy a building, he said. Perhaps they’ll plant new churches that multiply across the backyards of east Alabama. The pandemic has taught them to not cling too tightly to future plans, Dabbs said, and to be open to the opportunities God provides.
“This is a community, and I believe God wants us to be a community.”
The church already has an international mission. Tulibagenyi, the prayer team leader, makes regular trips to his native Uganda to serve children with special needs — many of whom are neglected and treated as outcasts, he said. Now he sees more and more children finding acceptance in Uganda’s churches, he said.
On his most recent trip, Tulibagenyi took notes of encouragement for the children he serves, written by members of Backyard Church.
When the church asked him to join, “my answer was ‘yes’ because God had already prepared me,” he said. “This is a community, and I believe God wants us to be a community. It’s not about big churches; it’s about our commitment. Small churches can make a big impact all over the world.”
He’s seen that through what he called his “little experience” with Backyard Church. “I can’t wait to see what is going to happen next.”
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