SALT LAKE CITY — The start of the school year has seen the advent of pandemic pods, small learning groups to help kids manage the online environment — coincidentally adopting a longtime and familiar feature of religious life.
But amid the global pandemic, the practice of small group worship and study in private homes has grown as meeting at traditional houses of worship has become risky. While some in-person “prayer pods” or “worship pods” are helping brick-and-mortar churches survive this period, it’s paradoxically prompted others to call into question the place of the institutional church in spiritual life.
The Deseret News spoke to individuals and institutions in Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Texas, Colorado, Oregon and California about the small group worship they have either created or participated in since the pandemic began. While the majority are Christian, one institution was Jewish.
In many cases, institutions are encouraging or facilitating so-called prayer pods but, in other instances, they are popping up spontaneously. And adherents to the house church movement report that while they’ve lost many of their regular participants, they’ve gained new members to replace them.
Do these trends foretell a lasting shift in America’s religious landscape that could foster or threaten the institutional church?
Church with no name
Andy Hogue started his house church north of Austin, Texas, five years ago. Though he sometimes calls it the “Leander Home Church” so people can find it on Facebook, the place doesn’t have a name. The group of 12 — which includes evangelicals, a Wesleyan, a Catholic and “brand-new Christians who wouldn’t darken the door of a church” — also rotates to different members’ homes.
Hogue says membership has shifted since COVID-19 hit. As some worshippers moved, sheltered in place or took to virtual services, new ones have replaced them.
Early on in the pandemic, Hogue and the core group tried virtual services but found them lacking. “A lot of us really couldn’t handle the concept of just not being able to take the Lord’s supper together or not seeing each other. We’re all on the politically conservative side, so we just decided to start meeting in person.”
Their weekly session consists of dinner and Bible study. Hogue says they haven’t been wearing masks but they are sitting apart out of concern for the immunocompromised and those who work with the elderly. “So far, we haven’t had any problems,” Hogue says. “We’re taking the risk as a family, which is what we see ourselves as.”
Hogue — who is also an associate pastor of a small, evangelical church — prefers the intimate setting of a house church because the “institutional mindset” places too much emphasis on the church as a building and a pastor as a central figure.
“A church is people,” he says. “(Some Christians) are absolutely addicted to the edifice they are worshipping in. ... They feel a connection to (the building) and they center everything around it.” Too many denominations, he continues, “build walls (around) the gospel. … We’ve created this prison for our Christian spirituality.”
Hogue also feels that many people are “hooked on the idea of the central figure of the pulpit” and that virtual worship maintains that centrality.
But he predicts COVID-19 has the potential to upend this.
The changes in worship that have taken place recently are “planting a seed,” Hogue says. “When people are expressing their Christianity outdoors ... they are learning that they can have a meaningful experience without listening to people talk for an hour.”
While some small groups call into question the need for the institutional church itself, other prayer pods are essentially keeping the larger institution afloat.
In Missouri’s early days of reopening in May, the Family Church of Lake Saint Louis utilized the pandemic pods that congregants had formed on their own as prayer pods— balancing safety concerns with the desire to worship in person.
Jen Johnson, the wife of Pastor Lesh Johnson, explains that people who had quarantined or homeschooled together returned to church together, sitting in their small groups, 8 feet apart from the other surrounding pods.
Additionally, the small groups affiliated with the church are continuing to meet — as is the case with a number of other congregations across the country. Johnson feels that this doesn’t threaten these institutions. Rather, she says, prayer pods are keeping the congregants’ link to the brick-and-mortar church alive even if they aren’t attending services there.
This is true for Brandy Long of Adairsville, Georgia. About a month ago, Long and her sister began a Bible study that includes their husbands and children, who range in age from 11 to 18. Now their children often bring friends to the group, which meets on the weekends and usually numbers 15.
She says that her relationship with God has deepened in these days and has become more intimate. Before the pandemic, Long only called on God in times of crisis; now, she says, she finds herself including God in all areas of her life. “You know how you pick up the phone to call your mom or best friend to tell them something good? Now I find myself standing in my kitchen and talking to him about the good and the bad and everything in between.”
This change has only reaffirmed Long’s commitment to her local, brick-an-mortar church, which she will begin attending regularly again after the pandemic is over. In well times, Long explains, she felt nourished by the sermons she heard there. Still, she believes in doing “anything (spiritual) that you can do. ...It’s not like your relationship with God begins and ends on Sunday.”
Rosh Hashanah pods
In Denver, the Hebrew Educational Alliance — a conservative synagogue — is encouraging members to create prayer pods for the Jewish High Holidays that begin this month. In well times, 2,000 people attend the services, much more than the 300 who usually gather for Saturday services.
But social distancing guidelines would mean only 35 people could enter the sanctuary for High Holiday services. “Who are we going to let in?” asks Shira Teed, director of engagement. “We didn’t want to disappoint anyone.”
The alliance will broadcast the rabbi and cantor as they conduct services in the sanctuary. Those who would usually attend are encouraged to gather in small groups and tune in together. That way, Teed says, “You won’t sit around on the couch in your pajamas — there will still be some intention around the holidays.”
Cultivating small group worship, she adds, is a key component of “relational Judaism,” which emphasizes the centrality of community members’ connections to one another.
“It’s something that actually we learned from churches,” Teed reflects. “When you have a small group that you can count on, you feel like a part of the community.”
The future of institutional worship?
April Oristano, a co-pastor for Eugene, Oregon’s First Christian Church, is conflicted about prayer pods, explaining that even in well times, she is concerned about the delicate connection between the institution and congregants.
“A church can rally or break around a million things,” Oristano reflects. “We depend upon that relationship and that shared moment (in church.)”
Now, with no way to be together in First Christian — which remains closed — some have begun to question the “moral obligation” of attending church at all, Oristano says.
In hopes of keeping the personal connection to one another — and to the church itself — alive while keeping members safe, First Christian has been holding services in a local park every Tuesday. Sitting in socially distanced circles with masks on, no one can hear each other’s voices.
These weekly meetings amount to “a ministry of presence,” Oristano says. “It’s very challenging to lead beyond (that.)”
Prayer pods, Oristano adds, have been keeping the church afloat. Now she and other religious leaders are asking themselves, “What can be done in individuals’ homes that will help them stay connected to the church?”
A double-edged sword?
Oristano isn’t alone in questioning whether the same structures keeping churches afloat right now have the potential to undermine them in the long run.
“What happens ... if (congregants) realize they don’t need pastors anymore?” muses sociologist Richard Flory, senior director of Research and Evaluation at the University of Southern California and co-author of the new book “Back-Pocket God: Religion and Spirituality in the Lives of Emerging Adults.”
To some extent, small group worship offers people the idea that they can tap into the supernatural on their own, Flory says, adding, “It’s a weird thing to maintain authority but democratize access. It’s a tension all these groups are living in.”
Church attendance, particularly in these days, resembles the free market economy. “If what (religious leaders) are doing isn’t meeting the needs of the person — whether it’s online or in person — then they’re gonna go somewhere else,” Flory says. “There are so many options.”
Now, many congregations are trying to adapt their “organizational infrastructure,” Flory says, “to meet the emerging problems or opportunities.”
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints began that process years before the pandemic with its shift in emphasis to home-centered, church-supported worship.
“Two years ago (church leaders) released a program called ‘Come, Follow Me,’” says Andy Lustig, a stake president in South Florida who oversees 10 congregations of Latter-day Saints. Lustig explains that the program puts “the entire worldwide church on the exact same lesson for a week at a time.”
The lesson ultimately begins at home with the weekly “family home evening,” Lustig says. Sunday services, which were accordingly reduced from three to two hours, then reinforce the studies that took place in the living room.
Reflecting on the way this format has helped congregants weather the current storm, Lustig marvels, “The church somehow knew how to prepare us.”
- Jeremy Bravo and Matthew Watkin lock hands while praying after receiving communion inside Andy Hogue’s home in Leander, Texas, on Sept. 6, 2020. Patrick Meredith, for the Deseret News
- Andy Hogue leads a church service inside his home in Leander, Texas, on Sept. 6, 2020. Patrick Meredith, for the Deseret News
- Katrina Hogue bows her head in prayer during an in home church service inside her home in Leander, Texas, on Sept. 6, 2020. Patrick Meredith, for the Deseret News
- Andy Hogue sings a hymn during a church service in his home in Leander, Texas, on Sept. 6, 2020. Patrick Meredith, for the Deseret News