House of Worship

By Miller, Lisa | Newsweek, January 11, 2010 | Go to article overview

House of Worship


Miller, Lisa, Newsweek


Byline: Lisa Miller

Finding spirituality at home.

Seven percent of Americans say they "attend religious services in someone's home." This surprising little fact was buried in a recent survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, which showed that Americans are as loosey-goosey in their religious practices as many have long suspected. About a quarter of Americans, according to Pew, believe in astrology. And liberals are more than twice as likely as conservatives to believe in fortune tellers, but just as likely to believe in the evil eye. Go figure.

That 7 percent, though, is a pretty big number, especially for a practice that defies all mainstream conceptions of churchgoing. The number of atheists in America hovers around 6 percent. Jews account for less than 2 percent of the population. For so many Americans to be praying at home is more evidence not just of greater religious pluralism but of what so many Christians have been saying recently: the established ways of worship aren't working anymore. "What's going on is a kind of deinstitutionalization of religious life," says Gary Laderman, professor of American religious history at Emory University and author of Sacred Matters.

The first Christian church services were held in people's homes, of course, and living-room prayer meetings have long been staples of Western history and literature. More recently, though, American worship has become industrialized. In the 1980s, the mega-church--with its Wal-Mart approach to spirituality--became a fixture of the suburban landscape, and the megapastor a Christian CEO. Now, says David Kinnaman, president of the Barna research group, many Christians are expressing "disappointment that the congregational models have become so consumeristic." "House church"--also called home church, simple church, or organic church--is "the new expression of hippie Christianity," says Kinnaman. If the megachurch is Budweiser, the house church is a microbrew.

But as with microbrewers, church-goers endlessly dispute the ingredients that make up an authentic house church. Do friends who pray together at a breakfast meeting qualify? Does a house church have to have a liturgy, elders, protocols, a bulletin? Is attendance in addition to, or instead of, "regular" church? …

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