It depends – according to new research conducted by the Barna Group. I’ve heard several opinions, anecdotes, and estimations on the popularity of house churches. While Barna’s study is by no means conclusive, it does help clarify some the guesswork about the number of house churches in the United States. Barna’s estimates range from a minimum of 4% of the adult population to a maximum of 33%. Of course, the wide range represents the varying definitions of “house church:”
When a question asks whether the survey respondent has “attended a worship service in someone’s home, known as a house church,” the results generally find about 10% of the adult population claims to have done so in the past month. This pattern holds true regardless of whether or not the question includes a disclaimer that the gathering “is not associated with a local, congregational type of church.” The numbers change relatively little if the time frame is expanded to the past year, registering about 13% of all adults.
A different approach is to ask people how often, if ever, they attend a religious service – not a “worship service” – in someone’s home or even in some other place that is independent of a congregational-form church. This more inclusive question typically finds that 22% to 24% of all adults claim to have had such an experience during a given month.
The most prolific response comes when adults are asked if they have “experienced God or expressed (their) faith in God in a house church or simple church meeting in the past month,” regardless of whether it is affiliated with some other church entity. This definition, certainly the broadest of the six variations tested, finds that one-third of adults claim to have been involved in such a gathering during the preceding month.
When we cross-tabulated the “small group” question with the “church attendance” question, we 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, synagogue, or mosque but still are involved in some alternative faith community like, in the Christian faith, a house church. That is about four million Americans– not a small number.
Even the smallest estimates reveal that house churches, at minimum, hold an important niche. Having never belonged to a house church, I’m curious to hear from someone who has. Feel free to comment with your thoughts.