More Americans seek God on their terms, and in their homes

The Rev. Tom Caiazzo calls it The House of Grace, but it’s also the house of Reverend Caiazzo himself. The congregants who gather in this Boston-area residence twice a week for prayer and preaching hope to someday establish their evangelical church in a more public space.

Meanwhile in Austin, Texas, the people who gather every other week at the residence of internist Cecilia Schulte to talk about God generally agree they’ll never find a more suitable setting.

These represent two faces of a growing trend toward religious life that occurs in the most humble of sanctuaries: the home.

In some cases, the groups are nascent churches, perhaps fledgling global movements. In others, they’re more akin to a book club where informality is the glue that holds a group together for discussions of divine grace.

But the bottom line is that for many Americans, worship is no longer centered exclusively under a steeple. In an era of long commutes, overloaded schedules, and made-to-order spirituality, religious experience increasingly means venturing into someone’s home for refreshments and a taste of God on far more personal terms.

In the trend, some see the danger of renegade religion. Others see a host of potential benefits – as long as the movement doesn’t go too far. “Home is a very comfortable, safe environment. It’s not institutionalized,” says Diane Bennett, director of small group ministries for Vision New England, an evangelical network. “People want friendship and relationships. It makes sense to try to create it at home.”

Though religious life beyond traditional walls is too decentralized to track precisely, some indicators suggest a rising trend:

• About half of the nation’s observant Christians participate in small group ministries that meet either at church or in parishioners’ residences, according to Gallup Poll research.

• Over the past year, followers of “Conversations with God” author Neale Donald Walsch have launched 162 home-based “Humanity’s Team” gatherings nationwide.

Neale Donald Walsch

Neale Donald Walsch is a New Age author. His theology does not reflect the teachings of historic Christianity

• Organizers of the Alpha Course, an introduction to Christianity, are currently recruiting hosts to offer an environment “less threatening” than the institutional churches.

Reasons for religious pursuits in the living room range from the practical to the theological. In some cases, home-based observances aim to provide a complement to gathering formally on a holy day. Park Street Church in downtown Boston, for instance, encourages suburbanite members to discuss sermon-based questions, posted weekly on the preacher’s website, at a church member’s house.

In others cases, groups become substitutes for other religious affiliations. At least 15 Jewish fellowship, or “havurah,” gatherings in the Boston area have become independent congregations over the past 30 years, according to Mark Frydenberg, National Havurah Committee Chairman. Although most havurah groups remain connected to an established synagogue, he says, some have gone further to quench a thirst for community.

“People have wanted a more participatory form of worship than they could get at the synagogue” where the congregation follows a rabbi’s lead, Mr. Frydenberg says. For example, he said women who face restrictions in Orthodox congregations sometimes find a home-based congregation more accepting when they wish to take part.

Indeed, many seek refuge from organized religion in the safe confines of informal settings, says Caiazzo, whose group meets in Danvers, Mass. “You can have your pain addressed better in a small, familial environment.”

Seeking God in a private gathering is hardly a new religious endeavor. For millenniums, Jewish families have joined over dinner tables to begin Sabbath observances. Early Christians worshipped secretly under a Roman Empire that regarded them as outlaws. And today in countries where religious minorities face persecution, home-based worship is the norm.

In 2004 America, devotion in the den reflects not so much necessity as personal choice. The preferences of those gathered dictate the agenda, whether it be to pray for loved ones, to hold one another accountable to agreed-upon moral standards, to discuss philosophical questions or to make music. “We’re coming together and sharing our deepest beliefs about who we really are and who God is,” says Ms. Schulte in Austin, whose group is part of Humanity’s Team.

Churches ambivalent

For established churches, intimate meetings in private residences can help members internalize Sunday messages by providing a setting “where people are a lot more likely to open up and tell the truth,” according to Eric Reed, managing editor of Leadership, a journal for church leaders. As an added bonus, he said, the gatherings keep costs down in lean times. “Instead of spending on a second building that’s all classroom space, you can do that function at home and spend your money on things other than tables and chairs,” Reed said.

Despite their encouragement, established churches still watch closely. House gatherings that break off altogether from established churches can be become both unfaithful and unhealthy, according to Vision New England’s Ms. Bennett.

“People are [sometimes] disgruntled with the church for some reason, and they decide they’ll start their own. I don’t think that’s positive,” Bennett said. “Scripture calls us to meet together as a corporate body for worship. Not every place has great teaching.”

Breaking doctrinal bounds

Some who worship within the comfort of their own four walls, however, have come to feel that righteousness actually depends on independence from churches driven by rules. Paul Pappas founded a church in his Methuen, Mass., living room after disappointment with the doctrines of Greek Orthodox, Presbyterians, Baptists, and Pentecostals.

“We [in the home congregation] have a wide range of beliefs, but our core is in Jesus Christ crucified,” Pappas says. Many come to the group from born-again backgrounds. “People can believe however they’re led,” he says, as long as they don’t they insist that only their understanding is right.

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