Attention former or current religion-beat professionals: It's time for a moment of candor. Raise your cyber-hand (in the comments section) if you are familiar with the term "microchurches." Yes? No? Sort of?
I am rather embarrassed to say this, but you can put me in the "no" category. This is strange since I read all kinds of materials related to the broadly defined world of church growth theory and I also work in urban Washington, D.C., which a new Associated Press report portrays as the kind of place that should have "microchurches" blooming everywhere. In fact, I know people who attend small, niche, congregations that sound like these so-called "microchurches," only I've never heard anyone use that term to describe them.
Strange. So here's a pivotal chunk of this report from Waterloo, Iowa, which ran with a nail-that-trend headline that said, "Parishioners Flock To Microchurches For Worship."
OK, I hear you already, asking: "If they are flocking to these congregations, why are they called "microchurches"? Hold on to that thought.
Microchurches have been around since New Testament days but have become more popular in the past decade. Though the groups differ widely in their practices, the majority serve less than 100 members, typically don't own the building where they meet, often practice nondenominational evangelism and intentionally offer believers a worship atmosphere unlike that of established churches. Many of the groups wish to remain small and will plant a new congregation if numbers grow too large.
"People are yearning for a more intimate type of fellowship that they, in many cases, did not find in the very large church," said Carol Childress, founder of FrameWorks, a church consulting firm based in Texas. "In the course of one generation, as a culture here in the United States, we made a 180-degree turn -- from valuing strong individuals to searching for a sense of community."
Interest in traditional churches started to wane about 30 years ago, said Pastor Brooks Hanes, who helped create the Kaio Church three years ago. The group was started by a handful of individuals who worshipped in devotees' homes. Today, the congregation's 50 members rent a Cedar Falls Baptist church for Sunday evening services and hold monthly discussions at area coffee shops and bars.
"Since the early '80s, churches have been losing people," Hanes said. "I'm learning that we need to go out into the community, out into our neighborhoods, to reach people. You can't just expect people to walk in and enjoy church. They're looking for something different."
The story includes plenty of interesting information about Americans and their vague relationships with institutional religion, the kinds of numbers that typically show up in reports on the growth of nondenominational churches and what scholars have started calling a "post-denominational age." Clearly, the Baby Boomers and the generations following in their wake are not big on institutional loyalty. They change churches all the time, shopping for the right fit.
All of that is well and good, as things go in this kind of story.
However, these kinds of numbers do not automatically point toward some new phenomenon called a "microchurch." In fact, it's clear many people -- in big flocks -- continue to cruise on over to their local post-denominational, nondenominational, even postmodern "we don't do business as usual" megachurches.
So this story left me very confused. Why? What, pray tell, is the difference between a "microchurch" and a "house church," a term that has been around for several decades? Can a "microchurch" simply be a "cell church" plant that is connected to a larger congregation or an established denomination? This seems to be the case, in the body of the story.
What about all of those tiny, declining congregations linked to the oldline Protestant denominations here in North America? I've seen statistics that 80-plus percent of Episcopal congregations struggle to find 85-125 active, participating members -- a crucial hurdle if you want to pay the full salary and benefits for a pastor. Do all of those tiny oldline churches have the potential to become hip "microchurches"? Why not? They are churches and they are, well, micro in size.
One more set of questions: What about the clergy? Are they, as a rule, so-called "tent makers" who receive part-time pay for their church duties while holding down other jobs? Who ordains these men and women? How are they trained? To whom are they accountable, should something go wrong? How are they paid?
Tell me, once again, what exactly is a "microchurch"? That's a rather important fact to nail down in a trend story of this kind.