First Baptist Church West Blocton held a unique service March 19. Not only did church members and many from the community attend, but there were also a number of four-legged friends.
Pastor Kyle Hodges has challenged the congregation to find out-of-the-box ways to relate to its community since he began serving there more than a year ago. Recognizing the importance of pets in our culture, this year they added an unusual activity that had tremendous success: “Paws in the Pew – the paw-fect setup for a community play date.”
Hodges and his wife had been brainstorming new ideas for community outreach when a lightbulb went off.
“We tried to think of things that are important to people, and their pets came to mind so we figured why not bring your pet to church one day? When we presented the idea to the church, they were actually very excited about it and immediately jumped on board to support it,” Hodges said.
FBC West Blocton held a pet-friendly worship service and other pet-centered activities between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m., all held outside. The church hosted several community partners who participated by selling or donating items. There was also a food truck.
In spite of the unseasonably cold weather, Hodges said that the event was a “roaring success.” There were between 35 and 40 animals with owners plus others without pets. The focus wasn’t on how many attended, however; it was what happened while they were there.
Many dedicated their lives to Christ, which was the ultimate goal. Uniting church members, as well as connecting church members to the community, were wonderful byproducts.
“The casual nature of the outdoor church service and having your favorite pet with you seemed to break down a lot of church barriers,” Hodges said. “The excitement of having your dog and seeing other people’s animals made it easy for everyone to engage in conversation as it gave them a topic to start off with.”
“People were noticeably more comfortable, expressive and willing to hang around,” he said. “Joy was the main expression that marked everyone’s faces that day.”
Hodges made the sermon interactive, involving both pet owners and pets, and spoke on love in relation to animals.
Not only were the attendees more engaged with each other than during a typical Sunday morning, but they were also more engaged with the sermon, even with the distraction of the animals.
“This event provided a unique opportunity to come together and fellowship with the community and with our beloved, furry friends — to help testify to God’s unconditional love for us,” said Madison Jennings from FBC West Blocton. “I believe that the message this past Sunday was a wonderful example of the unconditional love that God has for us.”
“I wasn’t sure how some people would respond or think about it,” said FBC West Blocton member Heath Smith. “But God created the earth and every creature on it, so if the church can use a pet as a way to possibly reach a lost person, then why not?”
“With that said, God absolutely showed up and showed out Sunday with an awesome outdoor service with clear blue skies overhead. I think everyone got a blessing from it,” Smith said.
The church spent about four months planning for the event.
The major hurdle to overcome was deciding how to best handle the animals, and some members were a little concerned about possible chaos. Another concern was the weather. Organizers also wanted to promote the event and needed to consider the involvement of community partners.
Promotion started with a paid social media ad. Church members also handed out fliers at schools, businesses and their food pantry. They encouraged church attendees to spread the word and generate excitement within the community.
The fliers and other promotional information included the guidelines for pets and “rules” for the event, like “Pick up animal waste. Animals must be on a leash at all times. Animals must get along with other people and animals. If they show signs of aggression, please remove the animal,” Hodges said.
Hodges is hoping to not only do this again, but also to have it become a twice-a-year event.
“I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings,” Hodges said, quoting 1 Corinthians 9:22–23. “We must not be afraid to push the envelope of our comfort zones. I am not the most pet-loving person, yet I am beyond willing to embrace an event like this to demonstrate that I value what others find important. I want everyone to know that God loves them and will go to great lengths to ensure they know that.”
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