'Doing church' at home

In my work with The Christian Chronicle, I have enjoyed following the growth of simple/house/organic churches -- pick the term you prefer, please -- over the last few years. This is the lede on a piece I wrote five years ago:

NEW YORK - Jared Looney doesn't put on a suit and tie to go to church. He's more likely to sport shorts, a T-shirt and sandals as he settles into a futon in a Bronx apartment, joining a small group of believers in prayer, Bible discussion, communion — and usually a potluck or pizza.

Across the state line in Bergen County, N.J., Ben Cheek worships in a house with young professionals who dig into bagels and sip coffee before singing, sharing concerns and studying the Scriptures. The Lord's Supper typically follows lunch, and then everyone goes to the park, watches a game or just hangs out.

Looney and Cheek — domestic missionaries supported by Churches of Christ — are part of a growing trend that a leading pollster suggests could change the face of American religion. Some call it simple church. Others refer to it as organic church, house church or micro church.

Whatever the term, the idea is much the same: Reach new believers and people disillusioned by institutional religion by creating faith communities small enough to meet in a living room, coffee shop or break room.

Late last year, ABC News featured Looney in a report on the movement. A friend passed along the link and suggested that the Chronicle might follow up on it. I replied that we had covered this "new trend" four years earlier. In fact, I have written about other house-church "planters" in Vancouver, British Columbia, and East Hollywood, Calif.

In a GetReligion post last summer, Sarah critiqued stories on the house-church trend by the Denver Post and The Associated Press. Sarah's basic complaint: The notion that simple churches are a new thing in the United States. Several readers provided excellent comments and insight on that post.

I mention all of the above as a prelude to discussing a pre-Easter feature published last week by USA Today. Here's the top of the story, also distributed by Religion News Service:

This weekend, Jeanne O’Hair, her friends and family will raise their voices in Easter hymns “as the spirit leads us,” she says, in her “house church”—O’Hair’s living room in Brea, Calif.

In a metal outbuilding at a shuttered horse track near San Antonio, Jeff Bishop says he will celebrate at his “simple church” under a rough-hewed cedar cross, with “folks who speak `cowboy’ like I do.”

In Washington, D.C., at the Saturday night Easter Vigil, “we’ll keep it casual and focused on Christ,” says William D’Antonio, a member of a network of Catholic-style house churches called “Intentional Eucharistic communities.”

No matter what you call them, house churches, or “simple” or “organic” churches, have long thrived in Third World countries where clergy and funds for church buildings are scarce. Now, however, they are attracting a small but loyal following across the U.S.

The USA Today piece puts an Easter twist on a story that, obviously, is not breaking news -- that "Now, however" reference to the contrary. While it's not new, though, the trend does appear to be picking up numerical steam. To its credit, the story provides some relatively new statistics:

A January 2011 survey by Barna Research, the Ventura, Calif-based company he founded and later sold, finds 5% of Americans, about 11.5 million American adults, say they attend a "house church or simple church, which is not associated in any way with a local, congregational type of church," at least weekly or monthly.

That's up from 4%, about 8.8 million adults, in 2006. Although the increase is slight, its clearly "more than a passing fancy. It has staying power," current company President David Kinnaman says.

One question that I have -- and one unanswered by this story -- is the extent to which evangelical Christian denominations and large churches have embraced simple churches as a form of proselytizing. Are all these house churches really the result of grassroots efforts by those disillusioned by institutional religion? Or is institutional religion using this method in some cases to reach a generation less likely to walk into a traditional church setting?

This is the only paragraph in the story that seems to hint at that question:

Traditional churches have taken note of the growing desire for more simple ways to worship. "Every large church I know is looking for ways to get small, to provide intimacy that may be missing," says Kevin DeYoung, senior pastor at the 500-member University Reformed Church in East Lansing, Mich., and co-author of Why We Love the Church: In Praise of Institutions and Organized Religion.

What say ye, GetReligion readers?

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