Like many churches coming out of the Covid-19 pandemic, we’ve invested a lot of time and energy at St. Matthew’s into re-evaluating everything we were doing before lock-down, before we simply go back to “normal” – whatever that is. To do that, we set a three-fold filter in place that all events and activities had to flow through: 1) how does it reach people in our immediate neighborhood; 2) how is it relational; 3) how does it lead to making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world?
As we lived into that reality, we evaluated doing a “Blessing of the Animals” event, normally held in early October. It seemed like it would meet all three criteria, but to take it a step further I reached out to a nearby no-kill animal shelter and invited them to set up a table/tent to provide resources and information to pet owners. Due largely to their impressive social media following, an event that would normally draw 8-10 families, drew about 30 families. Some of those four-legged fur-balls were in the last stages of life, and for their owners it was a powerful moment that I could offer a word of comfort to their pup (and them).
While we were there, I handed out postcards to see what interest, if any, there was in having similar events in the future. Several of them were interested, so I scheduled a “visioning” meeting for late October and had a total of about 15 people that came, most of them attendees from the event, and a few others connected to St. Matthew’s. A “Pet Ministry” was born as we threw around potential ideas to reach the community with future events and supporting the work of the shelter.
In the midst of that conversation, someone asked if we could have an outdoor Christmas service that people could bring their dogs to. I paused. I wasn’t sure if they were serious. What does that even mean? So, with great hesitation, I responded, “well, would you come to it?” which was met with a resounding “Yeaaa!” … and, with that, “Puppy Church” was spoken into being.
We had our first outdoor Christmas service on a Sunday afternoon in mid-December (it was of course windy and cold!) and had about 30 people in attendance, along with 12-15 puppies, most of whom had no connection to St. Matthew’s. The service was very casual, relatively short (15-20 minutes), and was often interrupted by barking, or laughter at a dog deciding to pee on something or someone, but that wasn’t the point. For those that came, we did church. We prayed. We sang Jingle Bells. I gave a short devotional. And we bundled into our cars to head home to warm up with some hot chocolate. I was sick for 3-4 days after that, but it was worth it.
In 2022 we’ve already held several “pet ministry” events in partnership with the shelter – a vaccination clinic where the shelter partnered with an animal hospital and offered 100 free vaccines (we had a line wrapped around the building) to those in the community; a micro-chipping event to help pets find their way home if they get lost; an adoption event to find some of their puppies new homes; a fish-fry fundraiser to raise much-needed funds; and, of course, Easter “Puppy Church” (at which one of the people who had been a part of our “pet ministry” offered to be one of our musicians!)
Some who’ve attended these events have now connected with the life of the larger church, either to a small group, a specific ministry, or have come to worship with us on a Sunday morning. Others just wait for the next event, or ask when the next “Puppy Church” is going to be. I’ve been able to build relationships and have conversations that I otherwise would never have had. It’s opened doors to some great conversations. For many of them, they may never come to a “traditional” church building on a Sunday morning, but this has become their church community.
This ministry is only about 8 months old, so we’re still figuring out what a pet ministry is, and I’m really not sure what Puppy Church is yet, but we’re having a lot of fun doing it, and love supporting the work of a great organization down the road who have made it their mission to rescue dogs, bring them healing and peace (and lots of love), and find them a new forever home…which isn’t so different from what churches seek to do with humans when you think about it.