By Michael Alison Chandler and Arianne Aryanpur
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, June 4, 2006
After Sunday dinner at Joe Rodgers's Rockville 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.
A growing number of Christians across Washington and 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 that 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 alternatives are attractive to those who want to deepen their relationships with God and one another, and they also suit Americans' growing taste for flexibility and control of their schedules, he said.
Although many Christians still participate in their old churches while trying out a new one, Barna predicts that over the next two decades, traditional churches will lose half their "market share" to these alternative start-ups.
His estimates far exceed the best guesses of home-church networks. The Orlando-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 that 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.
With next to no overhead, home churches are easy to set up. Dawn Ministries has been sending missionaries, or "coaches," to establish home churches around the world since 1985 and now has about 2,000 volunteers working in about 150 countries.
The model has been less successful in the United States -- until recently. Responding to the growing interest in home churches, over the past year the organization has increased the number of coaches working in North America from about five to 70, mostly in the Midwest, California, Texas and Colorado.
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. 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."
But Kisker said that a growing home-church movement could be good for traditional churches by encouraging them to foster small breakout groups, something he agreed is necessary for people to feel connected.
Many traditional churches do have midweek Bible study groups or cell churches. For some, these can be a first taste of home church, said Greg Windsor, a real estate developer and a member of the Rockville congregation that meets in Rodgers's home.
Windsor, 48, became interested in home churching almost 10 years ago while he was attending a megachurch in Montgomery County.
"The person sitting next to you in the pew could be close to dying, but people don't really know one another," he said. By abandoning the steeple, the pastor and the crowds of people, Windsor said, his tiny congregation is trying to live according to the New Testament.
"A lot of embellishments happened over the centuries," Windsor said. The modern Christian church is "like a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy," he said. "It starts getting distorted and changed."
Windsor and his wife started reading about home churches and broke off from a bigger church to meet with a group in northern Maryland. After several years, that group grew too large -- about 30 people -- and the couple broke off again, starting the home church in Rockville.
Stripped to its most basic elements, he said, his group can focus on developing "deep friendships" and "helping one another grow spiritually."
The service changes from week to week, depending on what members are going through or thinking about; they might organize a Bible study or discussion around managing their finances or overcoming depression.
On a recent Sunday, they watched a film by Focus on the Family that chronicles the lives of early Christians and their attempts to convert the Greeks. Afterward, they talked about how those experiences compare with challenges in spreading the faith today.
They sang hymns and put money into a small cardboard box, to be donated to homeless programs and victims of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. As the Communion bread and wine were passed around the circle, music played while others swayed and whispered "Oh God" and "Merciful God."
By about 9 p.m., it was time to go home. But Windsor said church does not end when the service is over. Members might meet several times during the week, and church can continue over coffee at Starbucks or during a biblical discussion at a family barbecue.
For them, church is not tied to a building or confined to a couple hours a week, he said. "It's a way of life."