Living Room Liturgy

Jan. 9, 2007 — -- Every Monday night, Meredith Scott and eight of her friends get together at one of their homes in St. Paul, Minn. They cook a meal, share what's going on in their lives and pray together.

But Scott and her friends don't call this a Bible study or a support group -- they call it a church. They are part of the growing number of Americans who are shifting from traditional churches toward more informal, intimate settings, dubbed house churches.

"How do you form a community in a church of 4,000 people?" asks Scott, who used to attend a megachurch in St. Paul. "Sometimes it's hard to get really connected. What I've really been looking for is community."

And so are many others. The number of adults attending house churches in the United States has grown substantially over the last decade, according to George Barna of the Barna Group, a Christian ministries market research firm. Though official numbers are hard to pin down due to the nature of these churches, Barna says a conservative estimate is that 5 million adults attend a house church every week.

Forgoing pastoral leadership, formal liturgy and, most often, tax-exempt status, house churches redefine what it means to be a church.

"People are asking, 'What did Jesus say?'" Barna tells "We made all this stuff up -- the priests, the building, the programs … none of that is in the Scriptures."

Looking for Community and Depth

At first blush, the term "house church" may conjure up images of an underground movement of believers in Cuba or China, worshiping in secret away from a government that doesn't allow freedom of religion. But believers in the United States have different reasons for meeting in their homes.

Barna's research shows one reason for the growth of house churches in the United States is the desire for more spiritual depth. The baby boomer generation, he says, has grown frustrated with the "spiritual lite" of traditional churches.

Tony Dale, founder of House2House, a nonprofit organization that provides services to house churches across the nation, describes traditional sermons in which one person dispels wisdom to the group as "rather infantile."

"It's very clear that the early Christians didn't move into buildings with paid professional leaders," says Dale, who explained that he formed House2House to give house churches the opportunity to connect to one another, although the organization has no membership. It does publish a periodical that goes out to 15,000 subscribers.

Dale says some house churches form for a different reason: evangelism. By meeting to discuss their faith in houses, office complexes or the local Starbucks, believers can reach out to friends who are intimidated by the traditional church.

"It's a lower barrier to entry," says Dale, who has started eight to 10 house churches over the past decade. "The discussion isn't around theology … but is focused on what's going on in each of our lives today. It's intensely personal and very real."

Younger believers turn to the house-church model to get a more "relational" experience out of church, says Barna.

Many megachurches have tried to provide this experience by holding small-group meetings, such as biker groups, new dad groups or singles groups, that draw on shared interests of the members.

But Scott says the small group experiences she's had felt forced, and that the singles groups "can sometimes feel like a meat market." Instead, gathering together with her good friends gives her group the opportunity to be vulnerable with each other, she says.

It isn't just Christians who have moved to a house-church model. Independent Jewish communities have formed online and gathered together in members' homes to hold minyamin -- prayer communities -- that might feel more personal and meaningful.

Kol haKfar, a minyamin in New York City, meets twice a week to celebrate the Jewish Sabbath in an "egalitarian, traditional atmosphere," according to its Web site. And Muslims, Hindus and other religious groups living outside major cities -- where there may be no mosques or temples -- often meet together in homes out of necessity.

Traditional Churches Respond

Barna's research has shown that 20 percent of church attendees go to both a house church and a conventional church, while 5 percent attend only a house church.

Catholic leaders do not report observing house-church development among their congregants. They say weekly mass attendance is much more embedded in the Catholic DNA.

"Gathering for Mass is central to what we're about," says the Rev. Gregory Sakowicz, a Chicago-area pastor and host of the radio program "Catholic Communities of Faith." He says his concern with house churches is that they divide the faith community and lack qualified leadership.

It's a problem Scott says her house church recognizes. While three of the nine members of her group have college degrees in biblical studies or seminary training, she says house churches have to be careful not to lose focus. "How do you make sure that there's not a person who's leading the group in a heretical direction?"

Some evangelical megachurches that see members forming house churches try not to fight the trend but build on it. Steve Gladen, a pastor of a small group network at Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., says that meeting together in homes and at a central campus is important.

House churches and traditional churches "don't have to be enemies of each other," says Gladen.

Randy Frazee, a pastor at Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Ill., leads an effort to restructure the church's small group programs toward more holistic church experiences centered in homes. Frazee's neighborhood life program consists of small groups called "tables" that, like house churches, meet in members' homes to eat, pray and worship.

But Frazee says the difference is that the tables still connect to Willow Creek through 21 area pastors who oversee the groups and provide guidance when necessary. In the year and a half since its inception, the neighborhood life program has grown to 7,000 members. So far, Frazee says the program has not detracted from Willow Creek's Sunday services, which average 20,000 attendees each week.

"Churches can become like a castle with a moat around [them]," says Frazee, who sees the house-church movement as a backlash to the way suburban communities have formed in the last 60 years. "People are tired of getting into a car to drive to one set of relationships, and then getting into a car to drive to another set of relationships."

How to Grow

For Dale and Scott, keeping free of traditional churches on Sunday is fine. But could a house church morph into a traditional church if it grew too big?

Scott says her group often worries about how to grow, but there is no plan to make their house church into a traditional one.

Dale says house churches don't grow, they multiply.

"It's like an extended family getting bigger," he says.