Growing movement of Christians skip the sermon, worship in small groups at home

To get to church on a recent Sunday morning, the Yeldell family walked no farther than their own living room to greet fellow worshippers.

The members of this "house church" are part of what experts say is a fundamental shift in the way U.S. Christians think about church. Skip the sermons, costly church buildings and large, faceless crowds, they say. House church is about relationships forged in small faith communities.

In general, house churches consist of 12 to 15 people who share what's going on in their lives, often turning to Scriptures for guidance. They rely on the Holy Spirit or spontaneity to lead the direction of their weekly gatherings.

"I think part of the appeal for some in the house church movement is the desire to return to a simpler expression of church," said Ed Stetzer, a seminary professor and president of Lifeway Research, which is affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention. "For many, church has become too much (like a) business while they just want to live like the Bible."

House church proponents claim their small groups are sort of a throwback to the early Christian church in that they have no clergy and everyone is expected to contribute to the teaching, singing and praying.

They are more commonly seen in countries where Christianity is not the dominant religion. Organizers say they're just starting to take off in the U.S.

A study by the Barna Group, a firm specializing in data on religion and society, estimates that 6 million to 12 million Americans attend house churches. A survey last year by the Pew Forum found that 9 percent of American Protestants only attended home services.

"The only consistent thing about house church is that each one is different," said Robin Yeldell, who, in 2006, left a traditional church where he was a missions committee chairman.

The gathering at the Yeldell's home is a lively, sometimes chaotic event, with noisy and mostly happy young children flitting about.

After a time of fellowship, everyone gravitates to the kitchen table to observe the Eucharist with prayer, pinched-off pieces of sourdough bread and red wine in plastic cups. There's grape juice for the kids.

The celebration continues with a potluck meal. When they return to the living room, one member picks up a guitar to strum praise-and-worship songs that others softly sing.

Sparked by a previous discussion about whether they should start collecting an offering for the needy, Yeldell shares a Power Point presentation he created about "corporate giving" on his big screen TV.

The majority seems averse to a regular offering, preferring to take up a collection only when a need or charitable cause arises.

As if on cue, Sean Allen, a laid-off welder who is now homeless with health issues, joined their gathering late. The soft-spoken 39-year-old said he had been sick and struggling to pay some bills.

"I'm just here," Allen told fellow worshippers. "Do what you want. Let the Lord lead your heart."

Allen, who recently converted to Christianity from Islam, said a friend at a traditional church introduced him to the house church, which he prefers and occasionally attends because "they're more down to earth."

A few people agreed to write checks directly to the companies Allen owes while some debated whether money is the best way to help the man. A couple with five young children told him they couldn't afford to assist financially but he was always welcome to join them in their home for meals.

"I'd say the vast majority of house churches we know are Christians honestly trying to live 24-7 for Jesus," said Tony Dale of Austin. He and his wife, Felicity, are pioneers in the American house church movement which is also referred to as home church, organic church or simple church.

There aren't any signs out front so house churches are difficult to find. Prospective worshippers usually locate them by searching the Internet or through word of mouth.

Members rotate the services from house to house and take turns facilitating the gatherings. Anything more than about 15 people and the small group loses its ability to interact with each person, churchgoers say.

When they get too large, they divide and multiply.

"We view it as natural to grow, flourish and disband into three or four new ones," Dale said. "Not everything multiplies. Sometimes it shrinks and dies."

Sometimes congregations with diverse religious backgrounds break up over doctrinal issues or personality conflicts, moving on until they find or create a better fit.

In Texas, home to several megachurches, the house church movement is beginning to catch on, judging from the chatter on social networking sites and interest in a national house church conference organized by House2House Ministries held in the Dallas area in recent years.

"Often when you see a trend (like the growing number of megachurches) you see a counter-trend, like the proliferation of micro-churches," Stetzer said.

The Dales are among those actively working to bring mega- and micro-churches together.

Tony Dale cites the Apex Community Church in Dayton, Ohio, and The Austin Stone Community Church in Austin as examples of the complementary approach. They operate a network of dozens of small house churches, which can band together to become big.

Some who embrace the concept "have become kind of disillusioned, maybe bored with what's going on in traditional church and looking for a way to be more passionate in church," said Dale, who co-founded House2House magazine.

Bill Benninghoff of Arlington, a former pastor of charismatic churches in Texas and North Carolina, has been attending house churches exclusively since 2005.

"You get to know people in their good and bad times," said Benninghoff, a software engineer. "You get to pray with one another and have an incredible sense of camaraderie and community."

Benninghoff said he and his wife "felt lost in the big church on Sunday."

Reggie McNeal, a church leadership consultant based in South Carolina, said many people experimenting with house church have been doing so "under the radar," especially in Bible Belt states.

"It's kind of seen as an alternative or radical kind or approach," he said. "An increasing number of people are saying that they don't want to go to (any) church so there better be a way for church to just be where people already are."

Although house churches emphasize shared leadership and lack hierarchy, there doesn't seem to be a backlash from accredited seminaries devoted to training clergy to take leadership roles in traditional churches.

Dr. Nancy Ramsay, executive vice president and dean of Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth said interpreting Scripture for people of faith is an important responsibility but they respect those who see it differently.

"I wouldn't want to say that we feel threatened by that," Ramsay said. "We are concerned."

She stressed that a greater challenge for various denominations is being able to financially support a full-time religious leader during these tough economic times.

House church advocates say that's not an issue for them because they don't have paid professional leaders.

"You don't have to be dependent upon someone you hear at church to translate for you," said author Neil Cole, who directs Church Multiplication Associates in Southern California, which has helped start hundreds of organic churches in the U.S. and abroad.

"God is capable of speaking your language and talking to you where you live and I think that's attractive to people," Cole said.



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