The house is tucked away in the rolling hills of Southern California. It is located in a neighborhood, but beyond the backyard pool the barred gate reveals a peek of the natural beauty that remains amid the surrounding areas that have been developed into suburbs.
Inside, the floor plan is open. From the moment you step through the front door, high ceilings and a staircase to the second floor greet you. The entrance flows into the living room and then into the den which connects to the kitchen. Even the furniture is positioned to be welcoming. The rectangular dining table is wooden and long, accommodating for at least a dozen people. Rather than chairs, the table is enclosed with two benches that have no arm or back rests, simplifying the process for people to slide in and out.
This is the home the Keach family moved into just before the pandemic, after completing the purchase in October 2019. They initially bought the house because their previous one-story home was becoming too small for their three kids, who, in the next few years, will be preteens and teenagers. Kristen Keach, the mother, noted they also wanted a larger home to host gatherings and have space for the kids’ friends to come over.
But what they didn’t anticipate was a pandemic just a few months after they moved in — and their home becoming a church every other Sunday at 12:30 p.m.
Before the other families arrive, Kristen, her husband, Brandon, and their three children are busy transforming their home into church. It’s a team effort. The kids take out the trash and put the cats somewhere the other children — who will eventually show up — can’t disturb them. Kristen carries boxes of cupcakes and sets them on the kitchen counter. Brandon restocks the minifridge with La Croix. Bella the Boston terrier runs around, hoping to be pet. Eventually more people will arrive and so will the catered Mexican food that is collectively paid for by those who attend.
For a handful of young Christian families, the Keach home has become an oasis of connection in a physically isolated world.
“Hosting doesn’t feel like a burden,” Kristen said. “It just takes a couple hours of cleaning in the morning and pressing into our own family relationships to make sure we’re all good so we can overflow to the other families.”
The idea of having church in their home stemmed from the pandemic lockdowns that began in the spring of 2020. Their previous church, Vineyard Community Church in Laguna Niguel, decided to go online in the spring when California Governor Gavin Newsom issued his first stay-at-home order.
Marcia Webber, a close friend of Kristen’s and fellow attendee of Vineyard church, said it was her idea to have a home fellowship group. She told mutual family-friends of the Keaches, Robin and Ryan Hulett, that they should host something at their house. Soon, all three families, the Keaches, Huletts and Webbers, were talking about how they could do something to create more opportunity for connection between families despite the pandemic.
“We were on a family trip to Montana and I just remember texting in a group chat with the Huletts and the Webbers that we couldn’t not keep gathering. Church on the TV wasn’t enough,” Kristen said.
The Huletts held the first gathering in their home on May 31, 2020 — Pentecost Sunday.
When they started out, they were concerned about what would happen if someone contracted COVID-19. Everything was unknown. What was the disease like? Would the neighbors complain? Would local officials tell them to stop?
So the Huletts talked to their neighbors beforehand about the gatherings at their home.
“One of our neighbors is Christian, so they didn’t really mind we were having church at home. Our other neighbor just told us to make sure the kids stayed out of his front yard,” Robin said.
One of the Keach’s neighbors lent them drums and even joined an occasion to participate in worship.
“We want to love our neighbors,” Robin said. “If one had complained, we would’ve had to pray about what to do next, but so far no one has said anything.”
The families said there has never been a coronavirus case linked to their gatherings, which entail no social distancing or mask wearing.
Almost a year later, the Keach and Hulett families continue to take turns hosting church in their homes every week.
“We originally thought it would be just a summer thing. Both of our homes have pools so we thought it would just be something where we gather, worship and let the kids swim,” Kristen said.
“They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people.”
Mark Mann, professor of theology at Point Loma Nazarene University, commented on the similarities and differences between the house church movement of today compared to that of the early Christian church as depicted in the book of Acts. He said for three centuries Christians lacked financial resources to own a building and had no choice but to worship God in their homes. Mann added there is an increased craving for connection in today’s church that existed before the pandemic, but has been amplified during the crisis.
“We were created for a small community,” Mann said.
“Anytime people get disconnected they’re going to want a small community. The craving for community is also the craving for God.”
The worship begins an hour and 15 minutes after everyone has arrived, giving enough time for people to eat and socialize. Without coercion from the adults, children all the way from infants to junior highers congregate with their parents in the family room — and enjoy it. To most of the youngsters, family church at a home is preferable to a regular kids’ service in a traditional church. After worship, sometimes the kids stay for the message, other times some of the parents take them to a different part of the house for a bible study or walk to the park. It depends on the day.
“It’s a lot more comfortable sitting on the couch,” Hope, age 10, said. “You get a full lunch and don’t have to starve through a regular church service.”
Jeremiah, age 7, said, “It’s fun to play outside with my friends and jump in the pool. Worship is also interesting.”
Five-year-old Sadie noted “praying for people during worship” was one of her favorite parts about having church in a home. That, and getting two desserts at the end.
Each child is given a notebook during worship so they can record things they feel like God is saying to them. Even the ones who can’t spell just yet are given notebooks to draw pictures. Sometimes those illustrations are cats, other times it could be Jesus riding a dinosaur.
“Everyone is family. Sometimes it’s hard and doesn’t feel restful to have kids running around instead of dropping them off at kids’ church,” Kristen said. “But they’re powerful and they contribute like the adults. They’re the ones always ready to share good news and pray for people.”
The ability to have a community made of multigenerational families has turned out to be a long term vision. Vineyard Community Church has been open for outdoor services for several months now, but the movement these families started as just a COVID-era substitute for traditional church is becoming a permanent expression of faith for them. Their home church ministry continues with full momentum and half a dozen families nearly a year later.
“This feels real, like how church is supposed to be,” Kristen said. “I don’t think I can ever go back to regular church.”
By: Jen Pfeiler