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The Old New Sanctuary

In house churches, an ancient model meets contemporary sensibilities

under the 501(c)(3) license of Maberry’s supervisors in the Nazarene church.

Maberry, who donates his time to the Refuge, appreciates that house churches reverse the CEO model of church leadership. While the Refuge’s consensusdriven decision making may slow things down, he and the members prefer leadership that is less top-down and “more of a web.”

He also praises the model’s low cost, which frees resources for mission. House churches aren’t strapped by building or maintenance expenses, relying instead on members’ hospitality.

Each month, the Refuge chooses how to share its offering, which they call “jubilee giving.” They consider both global and local concerns, alternating between the needs that seem most urgent. One month they helped a couple with the wife’s expenses for breast cancer treatment. Another month they gave to a ministry in India that helps women who have been caught in the sex trade.

“It’s not millions of dollars,” acknowledges Trogdon, “but the effects on individuals’ lives are significant.”

Through the Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham (RCND ), the group formed a relationship with a young woman who had been through the juvenile court system. They tutored her for a year, threw a baby shower for her, and still stay in touch. They also paid for several members of a Durham halfway house to attend an Alcoholics Anonymous conference.

“We have people in our group who would not consider themselves Christians, and people who have a mystical understanding of faith,” says Maberry. Seeing the consistent practices of those who have been following Jesus, he says, makes a difference for newcomers. “For us, discipleship is not some class that we run for two hours once a week. Discipleship is modeled when those at different stages in their faith interact.”

In January, the Refuge went through the first of rites familiar to any church: they buried a member and held a memorial service in Duke Gardens. In June, their first couple will be married. Maberry isn’t worried about not having a building for these events. “We’ll just be creative,” he says.

Church without walls

In downtown Birmingham, Ala.’s West End, unemployment hovers close to 33 percent. Three United Methodist churches there have closed in the past two decades, unable to pay their rent. Despite the bleak outlook, membership in the Community Church without Walls, a network of five house churches led by R.G. Lyons, has grown several times over.

Maintaining church buildings in a place like West End, where there is so much need, can be “a very unfaithful practice,” says Lyons. The Community Church without Walls has close ties to Urban Ministry, a United Methodist Church 501(c)(3) charity that operates in the inner city and houses Lyons’ office.

The Community Church without Walls evolved from a youth Bible study in Lyons’ West End home to a house church meeting there each Thursday evening. When the original group of six outgrew his living room, members began to offer their homes for worship.

Currently an average of 50 to 70 West End residents, about half of them teens, worship at one of the house churches each week. A facilitator leads the service, where a Bible study replaces the usual sermon, and everyone shares a potluck meal.

A primary influence has been the Church of the Saviour in Washington, D.C., which, as Lyons notes, “has been around since 1948. They were ‘emergent’ before anyone was using that terminology.”

Juliette Thomas is a lifelong United Methodist, and this is her first experience in a house church. She hosts a group that meets on Friday evenings after youth group. “My house is called Agape House,” she says. “When [congregants] come in, they’re at church, and they’re welcome. It’s their church; it’s no longer mine, because God has blessed me with this house.”

Before the 1960s, West End was one of Birmingham’s most affluent neighborhoods, and its many churches were full on Sundays. During the civil rights struggle, Public Safety Commissioner Bull Connor, who became notorious for turning fire hoses and police dogs on peaceful demonstrators, taught Sunday school in one of these churches. Although many residents abandoned the neighborhood during that era, for the most part, the stately old churches are still standing. Today, worshippers from the suburbs or middle-class areas beyond West End drive in on Sundays, then return to their own neighborhoods

There’s a perception, says Thomas, that attending those big-steeple churches requires an expensive set of Sunday clothes. At the Community Church without Walls, worshippers are encouraged to come as they