If Kristin Kirby is being honest, there was a lot to like about “home-centered church” in 2020.
When church meetings were temporarily canceled last spring due to the growing COVID-19 pandemic, the Latter-day Saint wife and mother of five felt an excitement about being home together as a family, spending extra time with her husband, the bishop, and doing something different.
“I enjoyed the intimacy with my family and I’ll never ever forget watching my two boys pass the sacrament in my own home,” Kirby said. “That was one of the most special things I’ve ever been able to experience. To be honest, I wasn’t quite sure how I felt about going back to church because I enjoyed it so much.”
But even with fewer members, face masks and a list of safety guidelines, there was something equally “special” about returning to church a few months later.
“While I do miss and still love some of the weeks that we get to have the sacrament at home, there’s nothing like gathering with the Saints,” she said. “You can feel that when you are together.”
The Kirby family, of Lehi, Utah, took time to reflect on the global coronavirus pandemic and how it has affected religious practices for members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 2020. They embraced the church’s study curriculum and the reality of a home-centered, church-supported experience. Members of the global faith have experienced two virtual general conferences and saw the closing and gradual reopening of temples. There have been changes to missionary work, unprecedented humanitarian efforts and worldwide fasts.
“We’ve grown a lot spiritually. We’ve grown a lot closer as a family because of the situations we have been in. We’ve gained a deeper appreciation for the church,” said husband and father Ryan Kirby. “We’re grateful for inspired leaders who chose the Book of Mormon as the course of study this year because it seemed to parallel a lot of what was going on in our personal lives ... and provide peace and solutions for how to navigate the world that we are living in.”
The concept of a home-centered, church-supported approach to worship was introduced to Latter-day Saints in 2018.
Last March, the spread of COVID-19 forced church leaders to suspend all church meetings and activities. From March to May, Latter-day Saint families like the Kirbys studied together with the “Come, Follow Me” curriculum and administered the sacrament in their homes.
The Kirbys created a routine where each member read the assigned chapters individually before coming together at the kitchen table to discuss what they learned. One lesson that stood out to 11-year-old Trevor Kirby was the story of Alma the Younger’s remarkable conversion.
“The story is just super powerful,” he said.
Although family members occasionally dozed off, with time they benefited from consistent efforts. Daughter Camree, age 9, drew pictures, made handouts and created little stick figures to make the lesson more interactive.
“We were having personal and spiritual experiences with the scriptures on a weekly basis,” said Ryan Kirby, who also serves as the bishop of their Lehi congregation. “The nice thing is we’ve maintained that even now the church has started again. ... It’s still an important part of our worship every week.”
Older sons Mason, 17, and Jacob, 15, each gained a greater understanding of the sacrament ordinance by participating in it at home.
“It took on a whole new meaning for me,” Mason Kirby said. “It’s not just something we take each week, but it should be something we think about every day.”
In a year where COVID-19 made home worship more common, an international study by BYU’s The Wheatley Institution, titled “Religion in the Home,” examined the effects of home-based religious practices. Jason S. Carroll, the associate director of the Wheatley Institution, said the study found that highly religious individuals, couples and families that engage in home religious practices feel a deeper sense of connection and love for each other and to the divine.
“My sense is while that is valuable at all times, it’s especially valuable in times of turmoil, difficulty and uncertainty. It’s probably been a particular anchor to people in these last several months,” Carroll said. “That being said, I would add that I think many that participate in religious communities have also found renewed appreciation for the value and meaning in their lives as they have returned to shared worship. There’s a deeper appreciation, perhaps not taking that for granted like perhaps they might have in the past.”
On the morning of March 18, Utahns along the Wasatch Front felt a 5.7 magnitude earthquake that even knocked the trumpet from the Angel Moroni statue on the Salt Lake Temple. The iconic temple was in the first year of a major four-year renovation.
Ryan Kirby rushed home to check on his family, then drove to West Valley City to check on his mother. What he remembers most is how shaken everyone was. They were already rattled by the pandemic. The earthquake served as a wake-up call.
“We needed to look at what we’re doing both from a spiritual and physical preparedness standpoint and make sure everything’s in order,” he said.
A few days before temples were closed, a friend invited Mason Kirby to attend the Draper Utah Temple. Looking back, he’s grateful he did. He was shocked when he heard the news that all temples around the world would be closed.
“I was humbled that I got to go and do baptisms one last time,” he said.
They weren’t closed for long. On May 7, temples began opening in the first of a four-phase plan, allowing individuals to receive living ordinances in the early phases with proxy work returning when conditions are safe for larger gatherings.
Of the church’s 168 operating temples, two temples are in Phase 3, 121 are in Phase 2 and 25 are in Phase 1. Eleven have temporarily paused, eight are closed for major renovations and one is still closed.
Virtual general conference
For the first time since World War II, a general conference was held without public attendance. For April’s 190th Annual General Conference, music was prerecorded. That weekend, 16.5 million Latter-day Saints joined in commemorating the bicentennial celebration of the First Vision. President Russell M. Nelson announced a new church symbol and introduced a Proclamation on the Restoration. He also called for the second of two worldwide fasts. The first invitation to fast was on March 29.
On both occasions, the Kirbys stayed in the same room for two whole days, Kristin Kirby recalls. The spiritual messages were timely and reassuring, the family agreed.
“I felt so much peace,” Kristin Kirby said.
Participating in the fasts was memorable. The Kirbys posted about the fasts on social media and friends of other faiths responded with questions.
Each family member fasted, including 5-year-old daughter Carly.
“It’s probably the longest we’ve ever fasted together as a family,” Ryan Kirby said. “The spirit I felt when we broke the fast was powerful. I was expecting the virus to just immediately go away. More importantly, I think we felt a lot of peace and comfort that maybe we hadn’t been feeling up until that point.”
The spread of COVID-19 resulted in substantial numbers of missionaries returning home for self-isolation with the option of returning later. Some missions ended early, some missionaries were reassigned and the church closed all Missionary Training Centers. New missionaries began training virtually in their homes.
One missionary from the Kirbys’ ward was in Albania and unable to come home. He remained in the field and comes home three days after Christmas, having completed his mission.
“It was interesting to read his letters and hear him talk about being quarantined in Albania, with military trucks enforcing curfew and different things he experienced,” Ryan Kirby said.
Kristin Kirby was impressed by two sister missionaries serving in the Lehi area during the summer.
“Nothing was going to stop these missionaries from doing the Lord’s work,” she said. “I’m in awe that they just keep working.”
At one point, arrangements were made for two missionaries serving from their ward — one in Washington and another in Kosovo — to Zoom in together from their respective locations and interact with the youths in the ward.
“It was amazing to watch these young men and a neat experience for our youth to see that,” Ryan Kirby said.
Return to church
The First Presidency introduced a two-phased plan for returning to church based on local COVID-19 guidelines in mid-May.
The Kirbys returned to the Eaglecrest 3rd Ward in June and attended meetings every other week. In September, the church announced that members could resume weekly meetings or view a broadcast of the services, with a virtual second-hour meeting.
“Now that we’re broadcasting sacrament service, it’s been neat to watch people who were feeling lonely and disconnected from the ward to feel more connected,” Ryan Kirby said. “That’s been a positive thing for our ward.”
The family has become accustomed to wearing masks everywhere and hustling home from church to join their individual Zoom meetings. The children hop on with their primary chorister and sing songs.
Mason and Jacob Kirby wish more of their peers would join their meetings.
“It’s kind of sad, it’s been hard to get participation,” Mason Kirby said. “But at the same time, there have been some really cool experiences that have happened over Zoom meetings.”
One thing Kristin Kirby has learned from having church both at home and in the chapel is that it’s possible to grow spiritually no matter where you are.
“It’s helped me to realize we can be anywhere and feel the spirit and our testimonies can grow,” she said.
President Nelson’s call for gratitude
In the days leading up to Thanksgiving, President Nelson encouraged people to flood social media with a “wave of gratitude” and the hashtag “#GiveThanks” while offering daily prayers of thanks to God.
Kristine Kirby said President Nelson’s message on the healing power of gratitude was a turning point for her and came just in time — during a divisive election and after the whole family had tested positive for COVID-19. She remembers thinking, “The stress is more than my body can handle.”
“We were all taking care of one another, but it was just heavy and kind of dark,” she said. “I will never forget sitting on the couch that day with Jacob watching the prophet, listening and immediately feeling peace. Everything changed. Since then, I’m like, ‘We can do this.’”
Not only that, but she’s even had the thought, “I don’t want the year to end.”
“I feel like we’re kind of ending on a high,” she said. “It’s been a hard, interesting year, but so much good has come from it and things that I never ever thought we would learn or go through have just changed us. And so yeah, there’s a little bit of my heart that’s like, ‘I don’t know. I’m feeling good right now.’”