Worshipping Together: How to Include "Animal People" in the Life of the Church

By Sarah Withrow King

My friend and colleague J. Nicole Morgan recently wrote an article on how a church can be more accessible and welcoming to people of various sizes. Since imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, I don’t feel too terrible about reading it and thinking, “Hmmm, I should write something like that about animals and church!”

So here we go.

I was Christian long before I was vegan and, except for a few spurts here and there during college, have been an active member of a church congregation wherever I’ve lived since, well, birth.

That time my kid ran up on stage and picked his nose a little during a live-streamed worship. <3 <3

That time my kid ran up on stage and picked his nose a little during a live-streamed worship. <3 <3

Unfortunately, many Christians who care deeply about animals, adopt plant-based diets, or become vegetarian or vegan are ostracized from their church community, either subtly or overtly. I cannot tell you the number of people I’ve spoken to in person and online who slowly drifted away from the life of the faith after becoming concerned with the way the world treats animals today. My own full participation in church congregations has been difficult at times, so I understand why some men and women choose to check out. A few examples of things that have been frustrating:

  • Sitting through an extended sermon illustration about the pastor’s participation in the slaughter of a goat.
  • Showing up to fellowship dinners at which there were no substantial meat- and dairy-free options (fruit is great, but it’s not dinner).
  • Spotting glue traps in the church foyer.
  • Watching an announcement slideshow that included an image for stakeholder meetings that used a photo of flesh on a fork (steak-holder, get it? ha).
  • Attending fellowship gatherings that are pig-pickins.

The church has a long history of animal protection, and today’s Christian leaders and lay people speak up again and again about the moral imperative of caring for animals as fellow creatures of God. But many other church people consider “animal rights” to be an entirely secular cause; and when “animal people” show up to church, they and their ethical concerns are dismissed as unimportant, overly emotional, tragically misguided, or even satanic.

Here are a few things pastors and parishioners can do to ensure that people who live with, work with, and/or do not eat animals feel welcome in your congregation and community:

In the Life of the Body

  • If food is being cooked and provided, be sure there are plant-based options available. Keep soy- or coconut-milk creamer in supply for coffee hour, offer a veggie burger or veggie dogs at summer cookouts, and cook a pot of meat-free sauce for the spaghetti fundraiser. Then, be sure the church’s bulletin, newsletter, and website includes the availability of veggie options. Vegans are used to doing a lot of internet research - so show them that they’ll feel welcome with you.
  • Potlucks are a great opportunity to include the whole community:
    • Invite newcomers to bring their favorite dish to share.
    • Lay butcher paper (unfortunate name, hugely helpful paper) on the food tables and provide markers so that cooks can make special notes about the food (i.e. “gluten free, vegan, contains eggs, etc.).
    • Invite people with special dietary needs to help themselves first.
    • At my community’s last Love Feast, there was a special table for vegetarian dishes and the host made an announcement requesting that folks who were not vegetarian allow those abstained from meat to have first dibs at the veggie selections. I felt incredibly loved and cared for. Something similar happened at a conference I attended last fall, so I hope this is new trend.
  • When a beloved pet dies, let parishioners know that you feel their pain. Offer to visit; offer a memorial ceremony. Ask about their experiences.
  • Veterinarians, farm workers, and shelter volunteers often see the worst that humanity has to offer, facing abuse and death each day. Ask about their experience; listen to their stories. Consider holding a special day of appreciation for those who work with animals or in animal protection.
  • Reconsider your church’s participation in events that use animals. Lobster boils, pig wrestling, pig pickin’, and rodeos in the sanctuary could all be red flags to potential partners in your church ministry.
  • When the church collects or distributes food to hungry people in the community, include pet food.

From the Pulpit

  • Let visitors know that there are vegan and vegetarian options at fellowship events.
  • Avoid using language and analogies in sermons that perpetuate negative stereotypes or myths about animals. (i.e. “stupid as an ox” “filthy as a pig” “bird-brained” etc.)
  • Consider learning about animals, their personalities and abilities, and including that information in sermons. Start with Marc Bekoff’s work and go from there.
  • Tell stories about meaningful or redemptive encounters with animals, like the time a puppy taught you patience or a bird brought you joy.

The scripture tells us again and again to love strangers and neighbors, and to bring the Good News of Christ to every person. While the population of vegans and vegetarians are growing, they often feel isolated at church, even if they’ve been an active member for years. Try asking church members about how animals fit into their lives. They might even have some new ideas about how to share hospitality and the good news!

This video is a little cheesy, but I also love it for the way it demonstrates the possibilities of worship in the world. Maybe it will help you get into the spirit of including all creatures in the life of the church.

A beautiful arrangement of this classic hymn by Fernando Ortega. A wonderful reminder of the creativity of God.

Leave more ideas for how you might include animal people in your church in the comments section!