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Seeking the living word -- in their living rooms

It's how the church began, say small Christian groups that forgo clergy and ritual.

July 23, 2007|David Haldane | Times Staff Writer

Jason Kilp had a short commute to church one recent Sunday. He walked about 15 feet from the bedroom of his Anaheim apartment to a small worship service in the living room.

"It's intimate," the 24-year-old graphic design student said. Unlike gatherings he and his wife have attended at a 4,000-member mega-church in Irvine, Kilp said, "this is like a conversation. It's somebody talking to you."

The couple are part of a growing movement, mostly among evangelical and born-again Christians, that, depending on who's talking, represents either a second Protestant reformation or a sellout of biblical principles.

The trend goes by several names: house churches, living-room churches, the underground church, the organic church, the simple church, church without walls. Although they disagree on whether it's a good thing, proponents and detractors say that going to church in a home has the potential of forever changing the way Christians worship.

"We are at the initiation point of a transformational shift," said George Barna, author of the book "Revolution," about the changing nature of worship, and founding director of the Barna Group, a Ventura-based research firm that tracks religious trends.

A 2006 survey by his firm -- tracking developments for use by researchers and the media -- concluded that 9% of U.S. adults attend house churches weekly, a ninefold increase from the previous decade, and that roughly 70 million Americans have experienced a home service.

Those most likely to attend house churches, according to phone interviews with more than 5,000 adults nationwide, are men, families that home-school their children, residents of the West and nonwhites, while those least likely to attend include women, people older than 60 and Midwesterners.

"We predict that by the year 2025, the market share of conventional churches will be cut in half," Barna said. "People are creating a new form of church, and it's really exciting."

Some have doubts

Not everyone shares Barna's enthusiasm for the phenomenon, however. Some argue that the growth of home worship simply shows the failure of the mega-church, rather than a spiritual breakthrough. One of the harshest critics of house churches is David Wells, a professor at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary near Boston and the author of several books on modern Christianity. He describes the movement as "empty of biblical substance. This is not real Christianity."

Proponents counter that it's how the church began.

In Christianity's early years, Bible historians say, most worship services took place in homes. That was due to the church's small size, its lack of structure and, perhaps most significantly, that it evolved when religious gatherings had to be conducted away from the watchful eyes of repressive authorities.

"There were no church buildings in the first 300 years of church history," said Dan Hubbell, a former Southern Baptist minister in Winnsboro, Texas, who now "plants" nondenominational house churches worldwide. "The early church was basically a gathering from house to house."

As the church grew, so did its structure, evolving into the mega-churches of today. But somewhere along the way, adherents say, something valuable was lost.

The house church movement, they say, satisfies the craving for a more intimate worship experience lost in the mega-church maze.

"People can get a lot closer to each other than in a formal church setting where everyone sits with their heads facing forward," said Milt Rodriguez, 54, whose nondenominational ministry, the Rebuilders, has started five "first-century style" house churches in Colorado and Missouri since 2002. "It's not just one person preaching with everybody following. Everyone has a function, and everyone shares."

Barna believes the growing appeal of house churches stems from the heightened acceptance among U.S. churchgoers of what he describes as the "postmodern mind-set," which places primary value on relationships and shared experiences.

"We're finding, increasingly, that that's the case," he said, "particularly among young adults. People are feeling disconnected, and when they attend conventional church services, there's not much there to connect them to others present" and to God.

House churches, Barna said, regain this intimacy by meeting in groups of 10 to 20, usually weekly, in members' homes. Their tendency to depend on spontaneous leadership instead of formal clergy, he said, encourages fuller and more personal participation.

"All through his ministry," Barna said, "Jesus never asked anyone to go to church. He asked people to be the church."

Roger Finke, a professor of sociology and religious studies at Penn State University, says this grass-roots approach explains the phenomenon's primary appeal to nondenominational Christians.

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