The face of Christianity is gradually changing across America as the first decade of the 21st Century moves toward closure. One striking example of this change is the growing popularity of house churches. Congregants of house churches meet in member’s homes, rather than a centralized church building.
“I am more fulfilled and feel much closer to God,” said Agnes Stanford, a house church member from Birmingham, Alabama. “When I used to go to a standard church, I felt like I was anonymous, just one of a huge crowd. I never had the opportunity, even in Sunday School Class, to discuss the issues I felt were important. I always had someone else telling me what I needed to study.”
Stanford was not a member of a mega-church, although her comments would lead one to believe that she was. Prior to joining a local house church, Stanford attended a Baptist church with an average weekly attendance of 125. Her house church has only 22 members.
“If things get too big, we just break off and start another congregation,” continued Stanford. “Right now, we don’t let it get any bigger than 30 to 35 members.”
Small numbers and more spiritual intimacy are the strong selling points of the house church movement.
“We are a close knit group and try to keep it that way,” said Arnold Stratton, pastor of the house church attended by Stanford. “We are like an extended family and try to support one another in whatever way is needed. We also like to keep things as simple as possible.
Recent research reveals that there are close to 100,000 house churches meeting in the United States at present, and this number may be conservative because many house churches are not affiliated with any national organization. Members of house churches consistently feel that this type of set up allows for more in depth spiritual study and closer fellowship. Further, members tend to take their spiritual development more seriously.
“The people who join us want more than the spiritual fare they receive at larger, traditional churches,” said Stratton. “That’s not a criticism of the traditional brick and mortar church. Those churches do a lot of good, but they are not really set up to help people walk the Christian walk at a deeper level. What we do is try to provide what they are not able to provide. Most of our members say they won’t go back to a standard church again.”
The trend toward revamped worship and study experience is not a new phenomenon. For some time now churches have been seeking new and more relevant ways in which to feed its existing members, while at the same time, bringing new seekers into the fold. Striking an appropriate balance between these two priorities is not always easy.
“I ended up leaving my former church for more than one reason,” said John Starbroker, a 55-year-old insurance salesman. “It was the toughest thing I ever had to do. I had been going to that church since I found the Lord when I was just 16 or so. Everything was great until about five years ago.”
Starbroker went on to tell a tale of increasing strife within the congregation between the older members and the younger believers. It was a disagreement that escalated into a conflict and finally erupted into what Starbroker called “guerrilla warfare.”
“It finally got so bad that people who had loved each others as brother and sisters for years got at each others throats in a big way,” related the insurance salesman. “My wife Gail and I talked it over and decided to hit the bricks before someone threw us under the bus as well.”
Starbroker said that the church eventually fired its pastor; hired a new one; fired him within five months; and then underwent a split in which life-long friends no longer spoke to one another.
“This isn’t what the Lord had in mind,” quipped Starbroker after a service at the house church he now attends.
“I love this place because people genuinely care about each other,” said Gail Starbroker, John’s wife. “It’s not that we don’t have conflicts, we do every now and then. But we get it out in the open and get it resolved before it grows into something worse. Our members here, there are only 16 of us, care about unity more than our personal needs. Sometimes it is better to be kind than to be right.”
Most experts on church growth agree that the house church movement is gaining momentum at a dramatic pace and will become, as the century progresses, one of the new, popular faces of Christianity.
(c) L.D. Turner 2008/All Rights Reserved