NEW YORK — Jared Looney doesn’t put on a suit and tie to go to church. He’s more likely to sport shorts, a T-shirt and sandals as he settles into a futon in a Bronx apartment, joining a small group of believers in prayer, Bible discussion, communion — and usually a potluck or pizza.
Across the state line in Bergen County, N.J., Ben Cheek worships in a house with young professionals who dig into bagels and sip coffee before singing, sharing concerns and studying the Scriptures. The Lord’s Supper typically follows lunch, and then everyone goes to the park, watches a game or just hangs out.
Looney and Cheek — domestic missionaries supported by Churches of Christ — are part of a growing trend that a leading pollster suggests could change the face of American religion.
Some call it simple church. Others refer to it as organic church, house church or micro church.
Whatever the term, the idea is much the same: Reach new believers and people disillusioned by institutional religion by creating faith communities small enough to meet in a living room, coffee shop or break room.
“I am aware of missionaries from our fellowship who are planting simple churches on the West Coast, in the Midwest, in the Northeast, across the South and in Mexico — and there are no doubt many of whom I am not aware,” said Kent Smith, a domestic missions expert at Abilene Christian University in Texas.
Steve Holt and his wife, Chrissy, moved last month to Boston to start simple churches as vocational missionaries. Holt, 23, who just completed his master’s degree in missions at ACU, said they plan to model Christ-transformed lives.
“Hopefully, in six months to a year, we’ll have a group of pilgrims or soon-to-be pilgrims meeting with us in our home or in a coffee shop or in a pub,” said Holt, who maintains a Web site on the couple’s ministry at harvestboston.net.
In Memphis, Tenn., John Pitman’s work as minister of discipleship for the Sycamore View church resulted in him helping start a special service for seekers. Eventually, Pitman became convinced that the only way to reach outsiders was through non-traditional, relationship-focused home fellowships.
The father of five resigned his ministry position two years ago. Working with house churches, he said, has allowed him to devote more time to the lost.
“In my former ministry, I was so caught up in the demands of ministry that I wasn’t spending time with lost people,” he said. “Now … I spend time with lost people and share the gospel with them. As a result, they become Christians.”
The movement has touched not only Churches of Christ, but also many other fellowships. In fact, prominent evangelical Christian researcher George Barna predicts that within 20 years, one-third of American church members will explore alternative forms of worship, such as home churches, workplace ministries or online faith communities. He suggests many Americans are leaving regular churches “precisely because they want more of God in their life but cannot get what they need from a local church.”
“They have decided to get serious about their faith by piecing together a more robust faith experience,” Barna said last year. “Instead of going to church, they have chosen to be the church.”
BACK TO THE FUTURE?
In the view of Marvin Crowson, domestic missionary in residence at Harding University in Searcy, Ark., these simple fellowships of believers mirror the churches in the Book of Acts.
“This is the way ‘church’ was for at least the first 150 years of its existence,” Crowson said, “and some are today looking for its sincerity, simplicity, priesthood of believers and focus on people and being the church of Christ 24/7.”
In the Bronx, Looney and his counterparts settled on the simple church method only after an attempt at a larger church setting failed. In summer 2003, when the number of people meeting at an apartment reached 44, the congregation rented a public school as a meeting place.
“We absolutely lost momentum,” said Looney, 33, who studied domestic missions at ACU. “There was something about meeting in a living room that was more than just strategic. It was family.”
Last year, Looney, Cheek and other New York area church planters formed a network of house churches whose members occasionally meet as a large group.
“It is similar to a small-group ministry of a large church except that our small groups gather together in a large group less often and are understood as the basic expression of church,” Looney said.
Cheek, 28, who earned his Bible degree from Ohio Valley University in Vienna, W.Va., said he and Looney are anything but “anti-church,” even if their ministry targets outsiders who are.
“We do not see ourselves in competition with other forms of church, but rather as specialists, reaching people and social layers that other forms cannot,” Cheek said.
Looney and Cheek said they intend to grow the church in the
New York area by converting the unchurched and training new Christians to lead simple churches.
It’s a concept they suggest could work anywhere — even in the Bible Belt.
“You could do this in Nashville, Dallas … and still reach people who would never come to a building,” Looney said.
REACHING THE UNCHURCHED
Robin Yeldell couldn’t agree more.
Yeldell, a 43-year-old computer consultant and father of three, left the Buckingham Road church in Garland, Texas, in January to nurture simple churches among the unchurched in the Dallas area.
A lifelong church member baptized at age 11, Yeldell had taught teen and adult Bible classes most of his life and been active in missions and evangelism.
But he said, “I had a growing uneasiness with the lack of true fellowship in the typical church.”
In the new setting, Yeldell said, the substance of the worship experience matters more than the form.
“The thing people are most interested in is, ‘What is Jesus doing in your life?’ and ‘Where are you with your journey with God?’” he said. “That’s a great change from the don’t-ask, don’t-tell, big-church experience.”
Yeldell’s wife, Caitlin, still attends the Buckingham Road church with their sons. She said she finds herself questioning many church traditions but wants her boys in regular Bible classes.
“I still get looks at church as though my husband has fallen off the Scriptural wagon completely, which is untrue,” she said. “People who know him know that he is not rash. This choice has come from a lot of prayerful consideration.”
July 1, 2006