When the Rev. Tom Eggebeen took over as interim pastor at Covenant Presbyterian Church three years ago, he looked around and knew it needed a jump start.
Most of his worshippers, though devoted, were in their 60s, attendance had bottomed out and the once-vibrant church was fading as a community touchstone in its bustling neighborhood.
So Eggebeen came up with a hair-raising idea: He would turn God's house into a doghouse by offering a 30-minute service complete with individual doggie beds, canine prayers and an offering of dog treats. He hopes it will reinvigorate the church's connection with the community, provide solace to elderly members and, possibly, attract new worshippers who are as crazy about God as they are about their four-legged friends.
Before the first Canines at Covenant service last Sunday, Eggebeen said many Christians love their pets as much as human family members and grieve just as deeply when they suffer — but churches have been slow to recognize that love as the work of God.
"The Bible says of God only two things in terms of an 'is': That God is light and God is love. And wherever there's love, there's God in some fashion," said Eggebeen, himself a dog lover. "And when we love a dog and a dog loves us, that's a part of God and God is a part of that. So we honor that."
The weekly dog service at Covenant Presbyterian is part of a growing trend among churches nationwide to address the spirituality of pets and the deeply felt bonds that owners form with their animals.
Traditionally, conventional Christians believe that only humans have redeemable souls, said Laura Hobgood-Oster, a religion professor at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas.
But a growing number of congregations from Massachusetts to Texas to California are challenging that assertion with regular pet blessings and, increasingly, pet-centric services, said Hobgood-Oster, who studies the role of animals in Christian tradition.
She recently did a survey that found more than 500 blessings for animals at churches nationwide and has heard of a half-dozen congregations holding worship services like Eggebeen's, including one in a Boston suburb called Woof 'n Worship.
"It's the changing family structure, where pets are really central and religious communities are starting to recognize that people need various kinds of rituals that include their pets," she said. "More and more people in mainline Christianity are considering them to have some kind of soul."
The pooches who showed up at Covenant Presbyterian on Sunday didn't seem very interested in dogma.
Animals big and small, from pit bulls to miniature Dachshunds to bichon frises, piled into the church's chapel to worship in an area specially outfitted for canine comfort with doggie beds, water bowls and a pile of irresistible biscuits in an offering bowl. There were a lot of humans too — about 30 — and three-quarters of them were new faces.
The service started amid a riot of tail-sniffing, barking, whining and playful roughhousing.
But as Eggebeen stepped to the front and the piano struck up the hymn "GoD and DoG," one by one the pooches lay down, chins on paws, and listened. Eggebeen took prayer requests for Mr. Boobie (healing of the knees) and Hunter (had a stroke) and then called out the names of beloved pets past and present (Quiche, Tiger, Timmy, Baby Angel and Spunky) before launching into the Lord's Prayer.
At the offering, ushers stepped over tangled leashes and yawning canines to collect donations and hand out doggie treats shaped like miniature bones in a rainbow of colors.
‘I’ll be back’
Donna Lee Merz, a Presbyterian pastor at another Southern California church, stopped in with Gracie, her 14-month-old long-haired miniature Dachshund. The puppy with ears soft as silk was overcome by the other dogs and wriggled across the floor on her belly, quivering with excitement. She finally calmed down when Merz held her in her lap.
"She knew it was a safe place and a good place to be, a place to be loved," Merz said, gently petting Gracie after the service. "I'll be back."
Emma Sczesniak came to Covenant for the first time, lured by the promise that she could worship with her black Lab, Midnight, and her wire-haired Dachshund-terrier mix, Marley.
Marley sat on her lap during the service, while Midnight checked out the other big dogs and sat patiently waiting for his biscuit. Sczesniak said the dog-friendly service came at the perfect time for her: she's been thinking about getting back to church, but wasn't sure how or where to go.
"I don't have any kids, so my pets have always been my children, so it does mean a lot," she said of the dog-inclusive service. "I haven't been to church in a long time and this may push me into it. I'm getting older and I've been thinking about those things again."
But Midnight, Marley, Gracie and the other pups probably had something more important on their minds as Eggebeen intoned his benediction and the service drew to a close: Just where could they find more of those delicious treats?
For Eggebeen, the night was a spiritual success — and the rest is out of his hands.
"It's important for a church like us just to do good things. The results, we'll just have to see," he said. "Ultimately, that belongs to God."