Micro-churches spread to cul-de-sacs, driveways, homes in Twin Cities during pandemic

Amanda Newhard didn’t have to go far to get to church on a recent Sunday.

It was in her in garage.

“We call it the Church of the Cul-de-Sac,” said Newhard, as 12 worshippers pulled up their lawn chairs to watch church services on a TV screen. “This has simplified church so much. People feel connected.”

Wooddale Church in Eden Prairie authorized the pop-up church in the garage as an adaptation during the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s proving surprisingly successful.

It’s one of many micro-churches sprouting across the metro area. The organizers are so happy with the services that they plan to make them a  permanent part of worship.

“Micro-churches are reaching people the mega-churches are not reaching,” said Trent Redmann, who founded a chain of micro-churches in Woodbury and four other cities. He has big dreams for small churches.

“What if we could see,” he asked, “1,000 churches of 10 to 15 people across the metro area?”

CHURCH MEMBERS ON THE DECLINE ACCORDING TO POLL

The micro-church movement comes at a difficult time for religion.

Membership in houses of worship dropped below 50 percent for the first time ever, according to a 2020 Gallup Poll.

Last year was tumultuous for metro-area churches, synagogues and mosques. In 2020 about 57 of them closed or merged with others, and 26 new ones were established, according to the consulting nonprofit City View.

COVID gave an advantage to small churches, said City View director Rev. John Mayer. Small churches found it easier to practice social distancing, in small groups.

“Small churches had trouble adjusting to technology, but many of them didn’t lose people,” said Mayer.

‘A GREAT EQUALIZER’

When services switched away from in-person to online, the churches tended to look the same. A large church’s majestic arches and stained-glass windows don’t inspire the same awe when viewed on a computer screen.

“COVID was the great equalizer for churches,” said Mayer.

Micro-churches, he said, are a way for houses of worship to rebound.

“People miss going to church. They are craving it. Churches can come back and thrive,” said Mayer.

Pastor Redmann was perfectly positioned for the micro-church trend.

Four years ago, he quit his job as a pastor of the River Valley Church in Apple Valley and kicked off the Crowded House Church.

He set up churches in Woodbury, Rosemount and Minneapolis, then kept growing right through the pandemic. He added an Oakdale church in 2020 and a Duluth church in March.

MEETING AT HOMES

The churches meet at the homes of their sponsors, with membership capped at 15. Sessions begin with a check-in, where everyone gets a chance to tell how they are doing.

“It allows people to be known,” Redmann said. “It’s hard to be part of a micro-church and not have deep friendships.”

They study one passage of the Bible. There is no pastor and no sermon.

“Instead of one person preaching, we are all asking questions and applying that passage to our lives on Monday,” Redmann said.

The budget is almost zero, he said. There’s no church building, no professional staff and no utility bills.

They never ask for money. People who want to give can do so on the website. “Our goal is to give away 90 percent of what we collect,” said Redmann.

His said he expects growth will continue, even when COVID withers away. Redmann said two other families have approached him about starting churches in their homes.

‘YOU NEED SUNSCREEN’

Wooddale Church was hammered by the COVID shutdown in March 2020. That’s when Pastor Kyle Robinson was approached by a parishioner who wanted to start satellite services at her home.

He loved the idea.

“Followers of Jesus have been doing this for 2,000 years,” Robinson said.

Wooddale’s off-site churches parallel an international movement, he said. “In Asia, there are no big church buildings. They meet under trees, in fields and at home,” Robinson said.

Newhard was the first micro-church sponsor. She would move the services depending on the weather, meeting in the street, in backyards or in her garage.

“We learned you need sunscreen if you are going to church,” said Newhard. “This seemed natural to us. We used to live-stream the Vikings-Packers games in the driveway.”

For services, she rolls out a 40-inch flat-screen TV with an extension cord. Attendees often bring coffee and snacks.

SUBURBAN MISSIONARY

Sometimes, someone brings up a particular need in the community, and the church has a “compassion offering.” These collections are not for the church but are spontaneous outpourings of generosity for one good cause.

She said most attendees were not members of Wooddale — which makes the garage church a kind of suburban missionary.

Wooddale Church is so enamored with the idea that it is now training 20 micro-church facilitators.

Crowded House’s Redmann is thinking big about small churches.

“This is so rewarding, so personal and so engaging,” he said. “I feel guilty about how much fun this has been.”

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