the Right Church Ends at Home"
(New York Times)
By Laurie Goodstein
April 29, 2001,
WILBRAHAM, Mass., April 22 -- For the last 12
years, David Ketchum dragged his wife and four children to one church
after another in a fruitless quest for the ideal congregation.
''Every time the new Yellow Pages came,'' said Mr.
Ketchum, an elementary school teacher, ''I would open it up to
'churches' to see if there were any new ones I hadn't been to yet.''
For now, the Ketchums' search has ended in the
living room of Wayne and Charlene Wilder and their three children, on
a suburban street of ample homes outside Springfield. There are no
pews here, no choirs and no ministers -- only couches and easy chairs,
two guitars, and four parents who say they are seeking the kind of
intimate Christian fellowship they never found in institutional
A growing number of Christians across the country
are choosing a do-it-yourself worship experience in what they call a
''house church.'' While numbers for such an intentionally
decentralized religious phenomenon are hard to pin down, as many as
1,600 groups in all 50 states are listed on house church Web sites.
And house churches are not solely an American
phenomenon. Missionaries and church leaders say there are thousands of
them in countries where Christians are sometimes forced to meet
clandestinely, like China and Vietnam. House churches are also popular
in England and Australia, where the numbers of evangelical Christians
House churches have recently multiplied as more and
more disillusioned churchgoers find one another over the Internet,
according to religion scholars and participants in annual home church
Some are rebelling against the contemporary culture
of the megachurch, in which even midsized churches have adopted
marketing campaigns, multimedia Bible studies and Sunday services as
choreographed as Broadway musicals.
Others say they have been alienated by pastors who
hoard power, or by churches that experiment with doctrine and styles
of worship. And many are parents who say they grew to question the
custom of dropping off their children in a Sunday school classroom
instead of worshiping together as a family.
''We've gotten so far away from the believers who
met in the first three centuries, when they were sharing one another's
lives on a daily basis,'' said Michael Wroblewski, who started a house
church in Portsmouth, R.I., where he is a mechanical engineer for the
Navy. ''You need to be interactive with the other believers, not just
staring at the back of someone's head listening to a single pastor
Prof. Nancy T. Ammerman, a sociologist of religion
at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut, said: ''These are for the most
part people who want to strip faith down to its bare minimum. They
don't want to have to support a big building and staff and insurance
policies and advertising campaigns and fixing the roof, because all of
that seems to them to be extraneous to what they understand a life of
faith to be.'' (Some house churches, however, do take up collections
But with the rise of home worship has come an
increase in complaints from neighbors about noise, traffic and parking
problems. Several local governments have tried using zoning laws to
bar house church meetings, or to limit the frequency and size of the
No official permission is required to create a
church in the United States, an incubator of religious experiments
where the government does not license clergy members or tax
congregations, as the governments of many other nations do.
''If you want to call yourself a Roman Catholic
church, you may have to answer to some authority,'' Professor Ammerman
said, ''but if you want to call yourself the neighborhood church,
nobody's there to say you can't do that.''
Two families who were prohibited in the last two
years from holding prayer sessions in their homes -- one in Denver and
one in New Milford, Conn. -- filed lawsuits contesting the zoning
decisions, and won the right to continue.
So far, the house church here in Wilbraham is about
as disruptive to neighbors as a Sunday brunch. The Ketchums arrived
midmorning this Sunday in jeans and khakis, and 18-year-old Rachel
Wilder greeted them wearing slippers. The house smelled of the lasagna
cooking in the oven.
For the first hour they sang quietly, a mix of
contemporary Christian songs and Scripture set to music. Rachel played
an unplugged electric guitar, alternating with her father, who
strummed an acoustic guitar and read the lyrics from handwritten song
sheets. One chorus dissolved into whispered prayers by both fathers,
who spontaneously shut their eyes and raised their palms, while the
others bowed their heads in silence.
There was no predetermined liturgy and no appointed
leader, as is common in many house churches. Many other home church
participants across the country said in interviews that they had quit
churches with overly authoritarian clergy or elders and were seeking
more participatory forms of worship.
''We had one pretty heavy-handed pastor,'' said Mr.
Wroblewski of Portsmouth. ''You weren't working for the Lord, you were
working for him.''
Herb Drake, who runs a house church Web site from
Northern California, said: ''Normally a house church does not allow
authority figures to rise. When they rise, bad things can happen, like
the Jonestown thing, or Waco, Tex. There is a danger whenever groups
meet for religious purposes that they're going to drift into heresy.
The institutional church at least has seminary-trained people. House
Many pastors of large churches, aware that they
cannot effectively minister to congregations that increasingly number
in the thousands, are organizing their members into smaller ''cell
groups.'' The groups usually meet on a weeknight to discuss the
previous week's sermon or to study the Bible or an assigned book.
''The challenge for any large church today is how
to grow large and grow small simultaneously,'' said Carol S.
Childress, director of information for the Leadership Network, a
foundation in Dallas that works with 5,000 large churches. ''The
research today shows that if you haven't made two friends and you
don't have some kind of small-group relationship within six months,
you'll be out the back door.''
But sometimes the strategy backfires when the cell
groups become hatcheries for house churches.
''Once we were in the cell group, we discovered
that this is where it is at,'' said Ron L. Brown, a therapist at a
home for troubled youths in Cochranton, Pa. Last year, the members of
his cell group cut their ties with their Baptist church and
reconstituted themselves as an independent house church.
''The nice thing is, everybody brings something --
a song, a hymn, a message, a God-answered prayer -- but God could want
you to drop everything and minister to an individual need,'' Mr. Brown
said. ''It would be hard for me to go back to a traditional setting.''
In Wilbraham, the fathers did most of the speaking
and the teenagers said little, despite many gentle invitations to
participate. Mr. Wilder, who in professional life is a computer
specialist in an insurance company, offered his interpretation of the
Scripture passage for the week, in which Jabez calls on God to
''enlarge my territory.''
''We each have our own little territory,'' Mr.
Wilder said softly, while five finches and three parakeets chirped
upstairs, ''and we tend to keep to ourselves. What we need to learn to
do is to allow our territory to be expanded, in the sense of letting
others come into our lives, and we can become one in the body of
Christ as we're supposed to.''
Mr. Ketchum said he interpreted this as
confirmation of his efforts to reach out to other disaffected
Christians. He shared a copy of the letter he had sent to 30 families
inviting them to join the Ketchum and Wilder families in home-based
''God is calling us to take all the dirt and rocks
that have fallen where God's church is supposed to be, and to clear it
out and repair God's house,'' Mr. Ketchum said.
Ten-year-old Sarah Wilder wanted to know how they
would fit so many families into their living room. ''We could knock
out this wall,'' her father joked, pointing at a family portrait
behind his head.
''We could meet in the backyard,'' said Gail
Ketchum, a schoolteacher. ''The yard is really big.''
CAPTIONS: Photos: Charlene and Wayne Wilder join
their daughter Sarah in a worship service at their home in Wilbraham,
Mass. (Evan Richman for The New York Times)(pg. 1); The Wilder and
Ketchum families left institutional churches for home worship, in
services like this one at the Wilders' house in Wilbraham, Mass. (Evan
Richman for The New York Times)(pg. 35)
Copyright 2003 The New York Times
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