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.
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 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 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.”
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.