In a metal outbuilding at a shuttered horse track near San Antonio, Jeff Bishop says he will celebrate at his "simple church" under a rough-hewed cedar cross, with "folks who speak 'cowboy' like I do."
In Washington, D.C., at Saturday night Easter Vigil, while "some folks go to services dressed to the nines, we'll be dressed to the fives: We'll keep it casual and focused on Christ," says William D'Antonio, a member of a network of Catholic-style house churches called "Intentional Eucharistic communities."
No matter what you call them, house churches, or "simple" or "organic" churches, have long thrived in third world countries where clergy and funds for church buildings are scarce. Now, however, they are attracting a small but loyal following across the USA.
It's not that Americans can't find a conventional church congregation. Rather, believers in the millions have concluded that they have been there/done that and are leaving the pews for more simple surroundings.
They are turning to small, regular weekly gatherings where they pray, worship, study Scripture and support each other's spiritual lives without all the trappings of a building, a budget, an outside authority or, often, even a pastor. Many are lay-led groups where they like to say they "do church," rather than "go to church."
"It's the ordinary minus the ordained," says Ed Stetzer, president of LifeWay Research Nashville-based Christian research agency, and author of a book on church growth, Viral Churches.
Participants are not "Christmas & Easter Christians" — folks who pour into the buildings on peak holy days and fade away a week later. Instead, "they're intensely active believers who want to take charge themselves and find something that feels more authentic," says Christian research expert George Barna, author of a new book, Maximum Faith.
"If you look at the Bible, the church we have today is no where to be found. The original form of church was the house church. Older people want to find a more personal experience of God and young people don't want the congregational structure or process. People don't want to just read the responsive reading when they are told to," Barna says.
A January 2011 survey by Barna Research, the Ventura, Calif-based company he founded and later sold, finds 5% of Americans, about 11.5 million American adults, say they attend a "house church or simple church, which is not associated in any way with a local, congregational type of church," at least weekly or monthly.
That's up from 4%, about 8.8 million adults, in 2006. Although the increase is slight, its clearly "more than a passing fancy. It has staying power," current company President David Kinnaman says.
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