Before the COVID-19 pandemic, minister Matt Dabbs might have spent his Sunday mornings before church straightening chairs and vacuuming the carpet.
Today, he gets out his leaf blower to dry the dew off the grass in his backyard—because that’s where the church meets.
“My neighborhood is my church,” he said.
At the start of the pandemic, Dabbs was minister of Auburn Church of Christ in Alabama, a congregation that saw more than 300 worshippers each Sunday.
The pandemic, of course, closed the doors of the church building for a time, and Dabbs began recording his sermons ahead of time to distribute to the congregation digitally.
But then something unusual happened. Dabbs inadvertently launched a new church.
“We decided all the isolation wasn’t really good for us,” he said. “And we had a number of neighbors who were interested in meeting on Sunday for worship.”
Backyard Church was born.
The first gathering of people in Dabbs’s backyard consisted of about a dozen neighbors. People wore masks and socially distanced. But then the gatherings started to grow.
Some neighbors heard the church singing, or they heard the messages from their own backyards. Some signs went up in the neighborhood pointing the way to Dabbs’s house. Dabbs let the homeowners’ association know what was going on.
“We were kind of noticing as we put the church in the neighborhood, it drew neighbors, which was great,” he said.
The church grew to such a point that Dabbs opted in October 2020 to resign his position at Auburn Church of Christ to lead Backyard Church full time. The Auburn church was just getting back into the pews, but Dabbs’ heart still was with the church in his backyard.
To shutter the latter likely meant many of those folks would be left without a place to worship. They weren’t the types to gather with an established congregation.
“We would be leaving people behind,” Dabbs said.
Today, 60 to 70 people attend Backyard Church each week, with 40 to 45 regulars.
The church has established itself as a nonprofit organization, and it has raised funds to keep operating.
A friend who had just taken a class in prospectus design organized the church’s fundraising prospectus, and another friend who teaches a college class about such things offered to design it. Another person offered to do the church’s 501(c)(3) planning for free.
“It’s pretty cool to watch how God lines things up,” Dabbs said.
Now, Backyard Church is looking to expand, hoping to add a second “backyard” or two this year. The goal will be to keep each backyard gathering relatively small.
“We really value participation,” Dabbs said.
Each church service is interactive, with discussion questions sprinkled in here and there. The bigger the gathering gets, the less participatory it can be.
Looking back, Dabbs said he is glad for the change in perspective God has given him through Backyard Church.
“My whole life, I’ve driven by homes to get to church,” said Dabbs, who also serves as editor of Wineskins.org. “Now I don’t do that. Church is here.”
He said his neighborhood and his church formerly were separate things. Relationships in one didn’t necessarily bleed over into the other. But now they do.
“There’s a whole harvest of people living around me,” he said.
“God is so powerful. Put him to the test. Don’t hold back on the vision,” Dabbs advised. “Even for a more established church, God has all the means. It has really been touching how God has backed us up.”