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The Old New Sanctuary

In house churches, an ancient model meets contemporary sensibilities

It's 4:30 on a Sunday afternoon-time for church. Two by two, 10 congregants come in through the back door of a Durham, N.C., home, several carrying a young child in one arm and a booster seat in the other. Once the children are settled to play in the kitchen with two adults keeping watch, the others pull out their Bibles and find chairs in the living room.

First there's a presentation about the importance of keeping refrigerator coils dust-free. A young woman donates a cleaning brush for the group to share, explaining that regular use reduces both electric bills and a household's carbon footprint. The discussion that follows includes planning for the community garden, how to commit next month's offering, and where to meet for their Easter service.

The Rev. Todd Maberry, a 29-year-old Duke Divinity School alumnus, then leads worship, guiding members of the Refuge through readings from the Gospels and a discussion about practicing confession as a spiritual discipline.

The Refuge is a house church, part of a movement with an ancient model and contemporary sensibilities. House churches, despite their independence, have much in common. Topping off at about 35 people, they represent a Christian variant of the current belttightening, ultra-local, relationshipdriven zeitgeist. This model's appeal is in its simplicity, efficiency, and sense of community.

“This is where the church began—in houses,” says Charles Campbell, professor of homiletics at Duke Divinity School. While their particulars are typically quite different, house churches are part of a movement that calls Christians to “do church” without buildings or fulltime pastors, points out Campbell.

Maberry and fellow alumnus R.G. Lyons, both from the class of 2006, are currently leading house churches committed to building relationships across racial and denominational lines, but the similarities of their work stop there: Lyons is a United Methodist elder who was assigned by the North Alabama Conference to plant a church in a predominantly African-American neighborhood in inner-city Birmingham, Ala. Maberry, ordained in the Church of the Nazarene, works weekdays as Duke Divinity School’s registrar and is the part-time pastor of the Refuge, whose growing membership includes divinity students and mostly white, middle-class couples with young children who live in Durham.

Whether the current wave of interest in house churches will have a significant effect on the church in America is unclear. Despite examples like the Refuge and Lyons’ Community Church without Walls, some observers are not sure that house churches constitute a movement, let alone an influential one.

Nonetheless, a 2009 survey by the Barna Group found that between 3 percent and 6 percent of Americans polled described themselves as “part of a group of believers that meets regularly in a home or place other than a church building. These groups are not part of a typical church; they meet independently, are self-governed, and consider themselves to be a complete church on their own.” These results roughly match up with a 2009 survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

Refuge

As host Dana Iglesias prepares rice and beans for the Sunday evening meal, she explains that before moving to the area, she belonged to another house church. She is a family physician studying for a graduate degree in public health, and she has chosen to live in one of Durham’s older, low-income neighborhoods. Here she’s part of a small intentional Christian community with a huge communal kitchen and long dining room table.

Sally Whitaker and several other members joined the Refuge after leaving another church.

“There were a lot of other couples like us that had lost faith—not in God,” says Whitaker, “but in our ability to do church right. So Todd [Maberry] and a few others said, ‘Well, let’s just do church together.’”

For Whitaker, the Refuge provides “community like no other” among members who are intensely serious about their faith.

Monica Trogdon and her husband had tried many Triangle churches without finding one where they felt comfortable, and she was skeptical about the idea of a house church at first.

When friends told her about the Refuge, she remembers thinking, “Clearly, these people are so strange they can’t be in a mainstream church.”

But after meeting the members and having dinner with Maberry and his wife, Trogdon was reassured that this house church was what she’d been seeking, and she began to attend regularly. Now, she’s leading the church’s efforts to start a community garden.

Like many house churches, the Refuge is connected to a denomination, but loosely. They are registered