WASHINGTON – After Sunday dinner at Joe Rodgers’ Rockville, Md., home, guests adjourn to the living room for church.
In his makeshift chapel, wooden kitchen stools and a floral print couch act as pews, a portable keyboard substitutes for an organ and the host, an electronics technician by day, serves as pastor.
But just as there is no formal name or dress code for this church, there is no sermon or pastor-led prayer. When it came time to bow their heads on a recent May evening, each of the 10 adults in attendance had something to contribute: One man prayed for success with his new fitness program; another sought guidance as he prepared for his upcoming marriage.
The worshipers have different faith backgrounds, including evangelical, Episcopalian and Catholic. What they share is a dissatisfaction with traditional church services.
“You can’t ask questions in most churches. You might make an appointment with the pastor, get in his daybook for a quick lunch,” said Rodgers, 50.
Apparently a growing number of Christians around the country are moving to home churches – both as a way to create personal connections in the age of the megachurch and as a return to the blueprint of the Christian church spelled out in the New Testament, which describes Jesus and the apostles teaching small groups in people’s homes.
Estimates vary widely for a movement that is by design informal and decentralized, but the consensus among home-churchers is that they are part of a growing trend.
George Barna, a religion pollster, estimates that since 2000, more than 20 million Americans have begun exploring alternative forms of worship, including home churches, workplace ministries and online faith communities. Barna based that figure on surveys of the religious practices and attitudes of American adults he has conducted over the past 25 years.
“These are people who are less interested in attending church than in being the church,” said Barna, who became a home-churcher last year.
The Orlando, Fla.-based Dawn Ministries places the number of home churches in the United States in the tens of thousands, based partly on the size of online directories and attendance at home-church conferences.
Home churches are usually nondenominational and consist of a dozen or so friends or family members who often meet without an ordained pastor.
They have historically proliferated in countries with repressive regimes. In China, millions of people have converted to Christianity in unauthorized home churches over the past half-century. But the United States has seen only intermittent swells of activity.
The free-form style of fellowship got a boost in this country during the 1960s and 1970s with the hippie Jesus Movement and the Charismatic Renewal, a worldwide movement best known for embracing speaking in tongues and other emotional expressions of faith. Those movements downplayed hierarchy and emphasized broad participation.
The more recent rise of home churches has been facilitated by the Internet, said John White, a Denver-based coordinator for Dawn Ministries, one of several organizations that helps plant new home churches.
White said that when he tired of the “endless” church administration meetings and quit his job as a Presbyterian minister to start a home church eight years ago, it was difficult to find anyone to join. Now he has an e-mail list of more than 800 people nationwide who receive his postings about practical issues of home churching – addressing such matters as how to organize child-friendly services, how to handle tithing, and what to do if the church gets too big.
With more access to religious information online, people are realizing they don’t have to rely on a pastor with an advanced degree to lead them, White said. Instead, they can learn how to create an alternative in a few steps. The result is an overall “flattening of the church,” White said.
This is in keeping with God’s plan to have a “kingdom of priests” in which everyone participates in his or her religious life, he said.
Critics of the home-church movement warn that by meeting only in small groups with lay leaders, Christians could become disconnected and stray from orthodox beliefs.
“We human beings are prone to error; we need each other,” said Scott Kisker, an associate professor of evangelism at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C.
He said that even the early home-based churches were connected through the apostles and that “many books of the New Testament are letters from the apostles calling churches to more faithful doctrine.”