Printer-friendly version

The Old New Sanctuary

In house churches, an ancient model meets contemporary sensibilities

are, and the casual atmosphere draws them in.

“I think house churches are the future. I really do,” says Thomas. “Because more people want to know Jesus. We’ve got all these people out here walking the streets that don’t know that. Once we tell them, they come in.”

In response to the high incidence of heart disease and diabetes in the area, the Community Church members have started a community garden.

We’re not going to feed the entire neighborhood,” says Lyons. “But I hope the garden will be an example of what people can do, even in a small space.”

At Easter, the entire membership worshipped in the garden. They are also holding cooking classes with an emphasis on healthy alternatives, and their fall collard green cook-off has become a popular neighborhood event.

The teamwork and sense of unity fostered by the house church model makes it “much easier to encourage and challenge each other,” Lyons says. The only downside he has found is that there are fewer voices for singing. “You do miss out on the power of corporate worship.”

Moving forward

House churches can be ephemeral, like any church plant. Despite minimal start-up costs, sustaining a house church requires resources that are in short supply in neighborhoods like Birmingham’s West End.

The Community Church without Walls, now four years old, will soon face its first drop in funding from the United Methodist Church, which begins reducing annual support of new church starts by 25 percent during the church’s fifth year.

“A goal of mine should be to work myself out of a job,” says Lyons, “so that a salaried pastor is unnecessary. I hope we’ll raise up indigenous leadership in the church, and also in the neighborhood.”

The challanges are different for the Refuge, but the group will soon face a defining choice: Should it follow the example of the Community Church without Walls and form a network of house churches—or seek a regular location with space to grow?

No one wants to lose what the Refuge has found, least of all Maberry. “There is always the danger,” he acknowledges, “that a house church could degenerate into a book club.”

It is nearly 6 p.m. when the group in Dana Iglesias’ living room celebrates Eucharist, and then passes the peace. Everyone heads into the kitchen, where Maberry says grace, and the church members sit down together at the long dining table.

The evening gathering is a mix of informality and ceremony, ancient and contemporary, always rooted in personal connections and care for each other. “Church doesn’t have to be a show,” says Sally Whitaker. “It doesn’t have to impress people. It’s just how you love each other.” 

Susan Wunderink is a student in Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy.