Americans are increasingly designing their lifestyles in ways that meet their needs more efficiently. This is true even in the spiritual realm, as evidenced by the rapid growth of participation in house churches across the nation.
Whereas most people continue to think of “going to church” as attending a service at one of the many church buildings located throughout their community, a new study from The Barna Group shows that millions of adults are trying out new forms of spiritual community and worship, with many abandoning the traditional forms altogether.
The new study, based on interviews with more than 5,000 randomly selected adults from across the nation, found that 9 percent of adults attend a house church during a typical week. That is remarkable growth in the past decade, shooting up from just 1 percent to near double-digit involvement. In total, one out of five adults attends a house church at least once a month.
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Projecting these figures to the national population gives an estimate of more than 70 million adults who have at least experimented with house church participation. In a typical week roughly 20 million adults attend a house church gathering. Over the course of a typical month, that number doubles to about 43 million adults.
While many religious professionals say they are unaware of such activity, it might be because the house church is in its “ramp- up” phase in the U.S. One consequence is that millions of Americans are intermittently engaged in a house church, alternating back and forth between house church and conventional church. (For clarity, the survey distinguished between involvement in a house church and participation in a small group that is associated with a conventional church.)
The Barna survey revealed that of those who attend a house church, 27 percent attend on a weekly basis, 30 percent attend one to three times per month, and 43 percent attend less than once a month.
The study also discovered that church attendance patterns are being reshaped. Among those who attend a church of some type, 74 percent attend only a conventional church while just 5 percent attend only a house church. Another one-fifth (19 percent) attend both a house church and a conventional church. (The other 2 percent attend a small group that was not considered to be a house church.)
The people most likely to attend only a conventional church were women, people 60 or older, residents of the Midwest, and evangelicals. In contrast, the people most likely to attend a house church but not a conventional church were men, home-school families, residents of the West and nonwhites.
The study was directed by George Barna, whose book, titled Revolution, estimates that this trend will continue over the next two decades, substantially reducing the share of adults who call a conventional church their primary spiritual community.
“The house church now appears to have reached ‘critical mass’ in the United States,” said Barna. “Analysts typically find that once a new tool or institution reaches 15 percent market penetration, and has evidenced a consistent or growing level of affirmation for at least six years, that entity shifts from fad to trend status. At that point, it becomes a permanent fixture in our society.
“Today, house churches are moving from the appraisal phase into the acceptance phase. We anticipate house church attendance during any given week to double in the coming decade, and a growing proportion of house church attenders to adopt the house church as their primary faith community. That continued growth and public awareness will firmly establish the house church as a significant means of faith experience and expression among Americans.”
Barna noted that this change is already reorienting the nation’s faith dimension.
“By necessity, the transition from a nation exclusively offering a conventional church experience to one that offers a choice between conventional church and other forms of spiritual experience is changing the rules and roles. New leaders are emerging to represent and guide house churches – people whose names are unfamiliar to the bulk of the country, but whose ministries will become more mainstream and well-known as time goes on. A new body of spiritual resources is being developed and utilized by the expanding house church community. House church adherents make greater use of Christian radio, Christian books and online faith experiences than do people engaged solely in a conventional church.
“In addition, new patterns of faith participation are being implemented. The traditional ways of thinking about and experiencing ‘church’ are rapidly being revolutionized by a form of ‘religious choice’ in which people are taking greater personal responsibility for their spiritual experience and development.”