If you’ve spent any amount of time following this blog at all you’ll know that I’m a big advocate for Christians meeting together in house churches. I’ve believed for some time that house churches and the spirit of organic Christianity are part of God changing the understanding and expression of Christianity in the Earth in one generation. All of this has lead to me keeping my eyes and ears open for news and stats about house church activity in America.
So it took me, and I think everyone that has a similar heart like mine, by surprise when George Barna came out with a survey a few years ago that suggested that 1 in 5 Americans are part of some type of house church. Really? Now, I love a good statistic that supports my convictions but 1 in 5 seemed totally unrealistic. Statistically, roughly 1 in 5 Americans are Catholic. I expect to walk into a group of five unknown strangers, ask them about their religious background and have one of them tell me they are Catholic. I would not expect to walk up to a group of five Christians and after asking each one about the type of church they belong to, have one of them tell me they are part of a house church. My experience just hasn’t shown that to be true.
I think in part others must have been asking the same questions I had been asking because the Barna Research Group just released a new study showing that the number of Americans who claim to have participated in a house church depends on how you ask the question. It seems that if you ask a person if they have experienced God in a house church or simple church gathering in the past six months about 1/3 of adults will say they have. This, according to Barna, is because of participation that many have had in a house church, a small group, or some other Christian gathering in a home. But if they were asked if they experienced God in a non-traditional church that was self-governing and had no ties to another congregational church, the number falls to somewhere between three to six percent. This is most likely because this is the strictest and most specific definition of house church listed in the survey. This seems to more accurately confirm my experience with believers in the nation.
In response to Barna’s survey, Ed Stetzer at Lifeway Research Group recently posted about his experience polling Americans about their involvement in house churches. According to Ed, he found a similar response. When asking if a group of 20 people or less praying and studying the scriptures was a person’s primary form of spiritual gathering, Ed reports the following result: “Remarkably, 26.3% of the 3600 Americans who were asked that question indicated that they did– as their primary form of spiritual or religious gathering.”
But because that could include a small group or Sunday School class, Ed and his team “cross-tabulated” those answers with those who said that they “rarely” or “never” attended a larger church worship service. The result? “…[W]e found that 50 out of 3,600 adults attend both a group of 20 or less and “rarely” or “never” attend a place of worship. If extrapolated, this is almost 1.4 percent of the American population and may represent the purest measure of those who are not involved in an organized church…” According to Stetzer that’s about 4 million Americans.
So the answer is probably somewhere between 1.4% and 6% of the American population is truly part of a house church of some kind. That is somewhere between 4,300,000 and 18,420,000 Americans that are part of some type of house church. While that is not nearly one in five of us, it certainly is shocking. The Assemblies of God in America, a fairly prominent Pentecostal denomination in the United States, lists their current membership at 2,900,000. That means there are more house church members in the United States than members of the Assemblies of God (see footnote).
There’s a lot that you can take away from this discussion (and I would love to see what you take away from it in the comment section below). But for me, the following things become apparent: 1) God is moving among house churches in America in a way that is reaching a segment of the population no one else is reaching. 2) The house church movement, however, is not growing as quickly as previously thought. 3) While numbers can be a good way of detecting what God is up to, they in no way reveal everything that God is doing. Does 4 million house church members make house churches less legitimate than if there really were 70 million as originally supposed? Not really. 4) It will be important for us to keep our eyes focused on Jesus and Scripture as our plumbline for what is right and necessary, and not the numbers of those around us.
As an aside, this discussion also confirmed something else for me: House churches are incredibly segmented and cut off from one another. If you read the comments in Ed’s blog, there were two different guys that were part of house churches from Kansas City who didn’t really know each other. I know of at least two or three other house church movements in Kansas City who don’t know about these guys. With so many house church members out there, there must be better ways to support and encourage each other. I believe what God is wanting to do through the house churches arising in this nation will require a greater level of communication, interaction, and connectedness. But that’s for another time.
So, I’m curious. Given these, facts, what are you thinking?
(No offense to the Assemblies, I love them. I just used them as a fairly well-known denomination to compare membership by.)