COLORADO SPRINGS, COLO. — Kites and Christmas lights drape from the ceiling. Denver Broncos banners hang on the walls. Paper plates and canned soft drinks grace a makeshift buffet line.
It doesn’t look like a church, but it is. It’s a house church, hosted by Dick and Jean Wulf. Every Sunday, six to 10 Christian worshippers gather in the Wulfs’ basement to eat, sing and share their faith. And during football season, they watch the Broncos game afterward.
“We focus on one another,” Dick Wulf said. “We don’t exist for anything less than that.”
In an era when arena-sized churches seem all the rage, there’s another, quieter movement afoot. House churches are springing up around the world, across the country and even in Colorado Springs, a place where megachurches seem to grow like kudzu.
According to a 2006 study from The Barna Group, an evangelical polling organization in California, 9 percent of adults nationwide attend some form of house church during the week. That’s up from 1 percent who attended such a church a decade ago. (The study says these house churches are distinct from the small groups offered by many large traditional churches.)
This is no-frills spirituality – faith stripped of glitter and polish.
House churches don’t build sanctuaries, don’t hire pastors and don’t issue press releases.
They’re informal and small: Rarely do they have more than 20 congregants. Most are conservative, and many lean toward the charismatic or Pentecostal, meaning congregants may speak in tongues or believe in spiritual healing.
But the only thing you’re guaranteed to find at a house church is a meal. What happens during the rest of the service – well, congregants say that’s up to the Holy Spirit to decide.
“If I was a pastor, I’d never attempt to do (in a large group) what we do here,” Dick Wulf said.
House churches have been around since the beginning of Christianity, when being Christian meant risking being killed, and meeting in large groups was downright dangerous.
There were no seminaries then, no divinity degrees, just believers who by necessity worshipped in secret.
As such, house churches are most popular in countries where Christianity is on society’s fringe, or where Christians are persecuted. China, say some experts, is buzzing with house-church activity. India apparently is another hot spot.
Americans don’t have such dire issues to deal with. Here, the house church is partly a reaction to church itself.
“If you’ve ever felt alone and unimportant in church, there’s a good reason,” writes local house church expert James Rutz on his Open Church Ministries Web site (www.openchurch.com). “You are alone and unimportant.”
Unlike the small groups offered by many large churches, house churches are independent entities. Their spiritual guidance comes from the Bible and the members. Instead of a polished worship band, congregants in the Wulfs’ basement sing along to worship CDs, reading the words from homemade “hymnals” in plastic binders.
Instead of a paid pastor calling the shots, congregants “let the Holy Spirit lead the meeting.” They trade the excitement of the typical megachurch service for intimate conversation and homemade bean casserole.
Some congregants admit they miss aspects of what they find in a traditional church. But they also believe they’re getting something here they weren’t getting elsewhere.
“Not only are we sharing our strengths, but we’re sharing our weaknesses and vulnerabilities,” said Peter Philbrick, who attends the Wulfs’ house church.
House churches also foster more accountability. Even skipping church for a weekend is more difficult, according to Jean Wulf, when you know you’ll be missed.
The movement has its critics. Some say house churches are fraught with theological peril: House-church leaders rarely have divinity degrees, and some believe that when you have untrained laypeople teaching other untrained laypeople, the environment’s ripe for heresy.
Other critics believe that house churches, by their very nature, are insular, unwilling to reach out and help those outside their close-knit group.
The Wulfs’ group, though, hopes to start twice-monthly community gatherings for single parents and families, where attendees can be taught how to communicate with each other better. “If nobody shows up, we can play games,” Dick said.
The biggest drawback of the movement may be the same thing that attracts people: Its simplicity.
In the United States, the average church has 90-100 congregants. At one extreme is the megachurch – commonly defined as a church with more than 2,000 members. At the other extreme is the house church, where congregations rarely top 20 members.
Here’s a look at some of the differences between the two.
- What you’ll find: Slick, often contemporary worship, top-rung preaching and loads of activities.
- What they struggle with: It’s easy to feel lost, and it’s easy to hide.
- How they try to compensate: Small-group or cell-group programs, so congregants can form personal relationships that might elude them during worship services.
- Where they’re found: Anywhere. House church advocates claim there could be as many as 100, compared with about 400 traditional churches. n What you’ll find: It de-pends. Almost all share a meal. Many sing together or give offerings. All congregants spend time interacting, quite often in one-on-one conversations.
- What they struggle with: Some congregants miss the pageantry or liturgy or exuberance found in larger churches. The character of the service can vary widely from week to week.
- How they try to compensate: House churches band together for worship sometimes, giving adherents more of that large-church experience.