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April 29, 2001
ILBRAHAM, Mass., April 22 — For the last 12 years, David Ketchum dragged his wife and four children to one church after another in a fruitless quest for the ideal congregation.
"Every time the new Yellow Pages came," said Mr. Ketchum, an elementary school teacher, "I would open it up to `churches' to see if there were any new ones I hadn't been to yet."
For now, the Ketchums' search has ended in the living room of Wayne and Charlene Wilder and their three children, on a suburban street of ample homes outside Springfield. There are no pews here, no choirs and no ministers — only couches and easy chairs, two guitars, and four parents who say they are seeking the kind of intimate Christian fellowship they never found in institutional churches.
A growing number of Christians across the country are choosing a do- it-yourself worship experience in what they call a "house church." While numbers for such an intentionally decentralized religious phenomenon are hard to pin down, as many as 1,600 groups in all 50 states are listed on house church Web sites.
And house churches are not solely an American phenomenon. Missionaries and church leaders say there are thousands of them in countries where Christians are sometimes forced to meet clandestinely, like China and Vietnam. House churches are also popular in England and Australia, where the numbers of evangelical Christians are growing.
House churches have recently multiplied as more and more disillusioned churchgoers find one another over the Internet, according to religion scholars and participants in annual home church conferences.
Some are rebelling against the contemporary culture of the megachurch, in which even midsized churches have adopted marketing campaigns, multimedia Bible studies and Sunday services as choreographed as Broadway musicals.
Others say they have been alienated by pastors who hoard power, or by churches that experiment with doctrine and styles of worship. And many are parents who say they grew to question the custom of dropping off their children in a Sunday school classroom instead of worshiping together as a family.
"We've gotten so far away from the believers who met in the first three centuries, when they were sharing one another's lives on a daily basis," said Michael Wroblewski, who started a house church in Portsmouth, R.I., where he is a mechanical engineer for the Navy. "You need to be interactive with the other believers, not just staring at the back of someone's head listening to a single pastor speak."
Prof. Nancy T. Ammerman, a sociologist of religion at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut, said: "These are for the most part people who want to strip faith down to its bare minimum. They don't want to have to support a big building and staff and insurance policies and advertising campaigns and fixing the roof, because all of that seems to them to be extraneous to what they understand a life of faith to be." (Some house churches, however, do take up collections for charity.)
But with the rise of home worship has come an increase in complaints from neighbors about noise, traffic and parking problems. Several local governments have tried using zoning laws to bar house church meetings, or to limit the frequency and size of the meetings.
No official permission is required to create a church in the United States, an incubator of religious experiments where the government does not license clergy members or tax congregations, as the governments of many other nations do.
"If you want to call yourself a Roman Catholic church, you may have to answer to some authority," Professor Ammerman said, "but if you want to call yourself the neighborhood church, nobody's there to say you can't do that."
Two families who were prohibited in the last two years from holding prayer sessions in their homes — one in Denver and one in New Milford, Conn. — filed lawsuits contesting the zoning decisions, and won the right to continue.
So far, the house church here in Wilbraham is about as disruptive to neighbors as a Sunday brunch. The Ketchums arrived midmorning this Sunday in jeans and khakis, and 18- year-old Rachel Wilder greeted them wearing slippers. The house smelled of the lasagna cooking in the oven.
For the first hour they sang quietly, a mix of contemporary Christian songs and Scripture set to music. Rachel played an unplugged electric guitar, alternating with her father, who strummed an acoustic guitar and read the lyrics from handwritten song sheets. One chorus dissolved into whispered prayers by both fathers, who spontaneously shut their eyes and raised their palms, while the others bowed their heads in silence.
There was no predetermined liturgy and no appointed leader, as is common in many house churches. Many other home church participants across the country said in interviews that they had quit churches with overly authoritarian clergy or elders and were seeking more participatory forms of worship.
"We had one pretty heavy-handed pastor," said Mr. Wroblewski of Portsmouth. "You weren't working for the Lord, you were working for him."
Herb Drake, who runs a house church Web site from Northern California, said: "Normally a house church does not allow authority figures to rise. When they rise, bad things can happen, like the Jonestown thing, or Waco, Tex. There is a danger whenever groups meet for religious purposes that they're going to drift into heresy. The institutional church at least has seminary-trained people. House churches don't."
Many pastors of large churches, aware that they cannot effectively minister to congregations that increasingly number in the thousands, are organizing their members into smaller "cell groups." The groups usually meet on a weeknight to discuss the previous week's sermon or to study the Bible or an assigned book.
"The challenge for any large church today is how to grow large and grow small simultaneously," said Carol S. Childress, director of information for the Leadership Network, a foundation in Dallas that works with 5,000 large churches. "The research today shows that if you haven't made two friends and you don't have some kind of small- group relationship within six months, you'll be out the back door."
But sometimes the strategy backfires when the cell groups become hatcheries for house churches.
"Once we were in the cell group, we discovered that this is where it is at," said Ron L. Brown, a therapist at a home for troubled youths in Cochranton, Pa. Last year, the members of his cell group cut their ties with their Baptist church and reconstituted themselves as an independent house church.
"The nice thing is, everybody brings something — a song, a hymn, a message, a God-answered prayer — but God could want you to drop everything and minister to an individual need," Mr. Brown said. "It would be hard for me to go back to a traditional setting."
In Wilbraham, the fathers did most of the speaking and the teenagers said little, despite many gentle invitations to participate. Mr. Wilder, who in professional life is a computer specialist in an insurance company, offered his interpretation of the Scripture passage for the week, in which Jabez calls on God to "enlarge my territory."
"We each have our own little territory," Mr. Wilder said softly, while five finches and three parakeets chirped upstairs, "and we tend to keep to ourselves. What we need to learn to do is to allow our territory to be expanded, in the sense of letting others come into our lives, and we can become one in the body of Christ as we're supposed to."
Mr. Ketchum said he interpreted this as confirmation of his efforts to reach out to other disaffected Christians. He shared a copy of the letter he had sent to 30 families inviting them to join the Ketchum and Wilder families in home-based fellowship.
"God is calling us to take all the dirt and rocks that have fallen where God's church is supposed to be, and to clear it out and repair God's house," Mr. Ketchum said.
Ten-year-old Sarah Wilder wanted to know how they would fit so many families into their living room. "We could knock out this wall," her father joked, pointing at a family portrait behind his head.
"We could meet in the backyard," said Gail Ketchum, a schoolteacher. "The yard is really big."