A grey and a white cat.

Photo by Fuu J on Unsplash

Cats and church growth

December 13, 2023

In a recent article in the Christian Citizen, Travis Norvell suggested, with delightful grace and gentle wisdom, that we can find a new, creative metric to quantify the work of church growth.

Namely: how many dogs did you meet this week?

For Travis, dogs are a useful reminder that work in the world puts you in the streets, in the parks, and moving around your neighborhood in ways that put you in contact with people who walk their dogs, also gives you an opportunity to connect to people around you. And, perhaps most importantly, Travis’s work serves to highlight something we often miss about church growth: it’s about joy. Connecting with your community and expanding your work in the world is an opportunity to hug a dog. How marvelous is that?

But as I was reading this piece, I found myself thinking of some other stories of animals I meet, in different ways and times, and how these meetings often differ from the meetings you have on the street corner or on your church steps.

You don’t meet a lot of cats in the park, for instance. Not a lot of people are going to take their cat for a walk by the church offices. And while you can certainly meet a dog on their “bad days,” when they are tugging on the leash and their owner hasn’t had time to put on much more than a sweater and some pajamas, everyone out for a stroll with their pet has had to give some thought, however brief, to their public presentation: how they dress, how they are, how they live.

Inside their homes, where the demands of “putting on a show” can sometimes fade, it can become more fraught. Parks are where we walk, but homes are where we live. We may grow our churches in the public square and on Sunday morning, but we become the church in our homes, precisely in those times when our artifice is punctured by the laughter, tears, stress, and satisfaction that can all emerge in the interiority of our private lives.

How do you quantify that work? Simple. How many cats did you meet this week?

Once every week or so, I make the drive across town to visit some friends. We gather dice, paper, pencils, and our imaginations, and we play a short game of tabletop roleplaying. While I’m there, I always have a chance to pet Blooper and Higgs, two cats with their own unique personalities. Higgs is a little scamp, jumping on the table, knocking dice around, and generally making his presence known. Blooper is quieter, but likely to surprise you with a rub against your leg when you least expect it.

And at least once or twice a year, I find a friend calls me with a moment of supreme trust: I’m out of town for the week, or two. Would you take care of my cat? In this way I’ve met many cats over the years, most recently Squeak, a shy, elder animal who needs a bit of encouragement to eat, and Banksy, a playful loudmouth who likes to lie on his back and dare you to have the bravery to touch his belly.

Just like meeting a cat when they make you break out in hives, meeting people where they live, where they grow, where they love—in the sacred interiority of their homes—is not an endeavor without risk. But it is in these spaces where we move from encountering the world and expanding the reach of Christian community, into what it means to make and build and sustain and nurture the relationships on which a truly redeemed world relies.

Sometimes you meet a cat by way of a photograph on the mantelpiece, a photograph framed not by wood or metal, but by the profound, capacious emptiness of a food bowl in the corner, empty and untouched, whose owner hasn’t yet found the strength to pass the bowl on to someone who needs it.

In the process, I learn more texture about the lives of those I love—and what does the church claim to be, if not a community of love? As I arrive to my friends’ homes for the day, I see who has been harried by a crying baby. I can see as someone who normally arrives to game night with five baked goods and a pitcher of mimosas is suddenly empty-handed and with red, streaky eyes.

And before you say, “I have allergies,” I should tell you: I do too. I don’t keep cats at home, for that reason, and I’m a proud “dog person.” This isn’t about cats being better than dogs. It’s about risking becoming a sneezy mess for one another. It’s about taking on the burden of itchy eyes and a runny nose to show up for those who need us.

Just like meeting a cat when they make you break out in hives, meeting people where they live, where they grow, where they love—in the sacred interiority of their homes—is not an endeavor without risk. It brings a chance for grief. It may require extra days spent not meeting any animals at all, as you recover and treat yourself gently as you prepare for the next sacred work that presents itself for you to do.

Because this sacred work, what we do at game nights, helping out friends while they are away, or sitting quietly with the grief of those whose lives we are bound to cherish—those things do not look especially valuable to the world we live in, a world awash with entrepreneurship.

Startups, metrics, disruptions, productivity, content, deliverables, value, product pipeline—the words we use to try to quantify and comprehend the many ways society urges us to measure our value are nearly inexhaustible. This secular conception of value spreads to church work too, and the growth of our communities becomes a numbers game of dollars in the plate and people in the pews. The tide of metrics and quantification and data-driven discipleship begins, in time, to grate. Where is the room for the spirit of the living God in this rush to make the numbers go up?

If we were being “productive,” we would record our gaming sessions and make a podcast. If we were “growing,” we’d be playing in a park and inviting people to join us, not sitting quietly with them as they share stories of the cat that is now nothing more than a photograph beside a small urn. If we were truly disrupting, we’d be figuring out an app that lets you gigify pet-sitting, and turn an act of human kindness into an opportunity for economic transaction.

I’m not sure what my friends and I really accomplish in these gaming sessions, with the cats on our table and under our feet. We usually share a meal, a lot of laughter, occasionally a few tears. What do we produce? Very little. The stories we tell are ephemeral, they are not written or recorded. They will fade as memories always do, and eventually be borne away in the ever-rolling stream.

Instead, we just laugh. And we pet the cats.

But it is in these spaces, meeting animals who don’t take walks three times a day, where we move from encountering the world and expanding the reach of Christian community, into what it means to make and build and sustain and nurture the relationships—the friendships—on which a truly redeemed world relies.

And that’s worth a few sniffles.

Madison McClendon obtained their M.Div. from the University of Chicago Divinity School in 2012. They are the Vice Moderator of North Shore Baptist Church in Chicago, Illinois, and serve on the boards of BJC and the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America/Bautistas por la Paz, in addition to previous service on the board of the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists. They live in Chicago with their fiance, Todd, and a sweet Staffordshire terrier, Moira.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

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