When COVID-19 and its ensuing shutdowns hit the State of Washington, Pacific Keep Church in Spokane became homeless. Renters of the art-deco style Bing Crosby Theater, this church community was no longer permitted to gather in the space where it was accustomed to worshiping each Sunday. So, the church turned to its small group leaders and asked them to meet on Zoom during the shutdown—it would be a prelude to a new way of doing church at Pacific Keep.
Even as shutdown restrictions eventually loosened, Pacific Keep still wasn’t able to meet in the theater, which prompted lead pastor Boris Borisov to look at a church model that had been on his mind before: the microchurch. A microchurch could be considered a small group on steroids, as Borisov puts it. “The small group becomes the place where church happens in all of its forms,” he says.
Borisov asked his small group leaders to consider evolving into microchurches. Some did while others decided to merge with other small groups.
Planted in 2015, Pacific Keep began as a daughter church of Pilgrim Slavic MB Church, geared toward 20- and 30-something young adults. The church’s pre-pandemic attendance numbers were hovering around 120 per gathering. According to Borisov, attendance is similar post-pandemic, with four microchurches meeting in neighborhoods around Spokane and two additional emerging microchurches.
In Pacific Keep microchurches, small groups of people safely meet together in homes on a Sunday morning for worship, community and missions. In some cases, they even meet over Zoom. The microchurch watches a recorded message from Borisov and each microchurch leader guides the group through a study guide. Borisov checks in with the microchurch leaders each month, providing leadership and accountability.
Recently, Pacific Keep found a church space to rent on Thursday evenings where it hosts its Fellowship Gatherings.
“It’s like a service for believers with traditional worship and a sermon, but we’ve also created a third space for testimonies about what’s happening in the microchurches,” Borisov says. Many of the leaders attend these gatherings.
Since implementing the microchurch model, Pacific Keep has seen five people make first-time decisions for Jesus.
Model is mission minded
Microchurches as a model are very much missionally minded, which coincides well with Borisov’s missional vision for Pacific Keep.
“We’ve always had a missional vision for the church,” Borisov says. “Everybody has a place in God’s story. We help people find what that is, grow in their calling and share their mission based on their calling. We want people to share Jesus in normal rhythms of life.
“Pre COVID-19, we implemented this through the traditional church model,” Borisov says. “People could find their place through Sunday morning church. They could grow in small groups and share that by volunteering in one or two or three missional initiatives. COVID-19 has forced us to reach into that on the granular level. So, we can’t go to church services, but there are still ways to find God’s calling on your life. COVID made us move away from your traditional church planting model, but the overall mission remains the same.”
Borisov says he asks his microchurch leaders at their monthly meetings what they are doing to own the lostness of their neighborhoods and engage in problem solving. In his own microchurch, Borisov says all sense of community has been lost thanks to COVID-19, so his group is taking steps to start a neighborhood garden and host block parties to in turn share the love of Jesus with neighbors.
The microchurches at Pacific Keep have been trained to listen and look for the needs of their group and their neighborhoods, which is why the missional component of each group looks different. For example, one microchurch took a woman with chronic mental health issues under its wing while another microchurch identified foster children in need to bless with warm clothes and gifts at Christmas.
Kristin Wilkinson, a microchurch participant who was involved in helping these foster children, recalls the blessing of the way her own children were able to participate in the missional activity. To her, the microchurch is a fantastic way to give children a voice in the church. A mother to 8- and 10-year-old girls, Wilkinson says she loves watching her daughters engage in the microchurch.
“That’s been one of my favorite parts,” she says “My oldest shares prayer requests just like the adults. She has experienced the rest of her church family praying for her by name. She’s part of the discussion and loves to share her insights.”
Wilkinson says she also really enjoys the openness of the microchurch. “People bring friends without relationship with Christ and it’s not overwhelming and doesn’t seem like a different language. I think it’s really a beautiful bridge between worlds,” Wilkinson says. “We check in with each other and are known.”
An alternative system
Borisov is quick to deflect credit for the church model. He says he learned about the concept when he read the Underground Network by Brian Sanders.
Jeremy Stephens, one of the original Underground Network founders, says microchurches are an alternative system for the organizational components of church and the organic parts of church to interface and coexist. He says it is designed to obey all of the New Testament and addresses authority, money, heresy and organizational construct.
According to Stephens, micro-churches are done to local calling but he says every microchurch has to have worship, community and missions.
“They don’t have to be perfect, but they have to be aspiring toward those things,” he says. “How do we be missional, love each other in community and work in mission. What purposes is God inviting us into?
“The whole ecosystem of the microchurch is based on people praying and discerning what God is asking them to do,” Stephens says. “People are going to be human and make mistakes but because we give Jesus space to speak, he convicts people.”
So, what constitutes a church to Pacific Keep? According to Borisov that is: First, the worship of Jesus as Lord, which entails the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus as ruler over all of creation. Second is the Great Commission—going and making disciples—and third, the Great Commandment—loving your neighbor as yourself. Borisov admits the microchurch isn’t perfect.
“There are people who have left because they want the traditional thing,” he says. “We’ve lost people because of the switch, but we’ve gained people too, and they’re the unchurched and dechurched. We have to change our metrics of what success looks like,” Borisov says.
While the microchurch is a great fit for Pacific Keep, Borisov also hasn’t ruled out returning to a larger gathering when possible, but likely with a different twist.
“We think there is still huge value in having a public gathering of all the saints,” Borisov says. “What COVID-19 has taught us is that in terms of resource allocation 80 percent went to Sunday morning and 20 percent went to small groups and discipleship class. This made us realize that we really should be shooting for a 50/50 split. Both should be elevated at the same time,” he says.