House churches, or small groups of believers who gather and worship in homes, sometimes by necessity and other times independent of mainstream religious institutions, are considered to emulate the earliest Christian community, and more recently are growing in popularity as a way to reach out to the unchurched.
At Holy Spirit, Fabian Rodriguez serves up the evening’s first course, arranging crab-broccoli dip and other appetizers, salads and freshly baked chicken pot pie on the altar.
He’d spent much of the day in court, at the trial of the accused murderer of his best friend. And for Rodriguez, 38, a chef, it felt comforting to offer a homemade meal to “a community where I feel accepted, where I feel so comfortable that even when I’m uncomfortable I’m allowed to express it in a safe environment.
“It’s hard, when somebody is taken for no reason,” Rodriquez told the gathering March 3 during the evening’s “second course” — Scripture readings, reflection and Eucharist.
“It’s hard to listen to all the animosity, the emotions … then to find myself opening the door [after the testimony] for the sister” of the accused. “There is a lot of fear and struggle to be present with God. It’s really challenging.”
For Larry, another of the group of about 20 worshippers, the Exodus story (24:12-28) of Moses on Mount Sinai, enveloped in a cloud while speaking to God, recalled his past year “of fighting cancer.
“I can relate to Moses walking into the cloud. I did not know what was in store for me,” he said. “When I was first diagnosed they told me I had three months to live. It’s now been 15 months and the cancer has disappeared, as far as they can tell. I had no choice but to walk through the cloud, but experiencing the unknown is not always a bad thing, at least in my case. God was there, waiting for me.”
Holy Spirit and other house churches can offer intimacy and a deepened sense of community, said Randy Kimmler, associate for vocations for the Los Angeles diocese and a founder of the five-year-old alternative community.
“It grew out of a Lenten study group meeting at my house in Silver Lake five years ago,” recalled Kimmler during a telephone interview. “There is no Episcopal Church in Silver Lake; our goals are hospitality and community.”
The service draws as many as two dozen worshippers and outgrew his living room. It is held in an apartment clubhouse and incorporates a rotating schedule of: clergy who preside over the Eucharist; lay and ordained people who offer meditations and hosts who provide the evening’s refreshments, all of which are placed on the altar. After the initial meal, the altar is cleared for communion and later it is cleared again, for the third course, dessert and coffee and additional fellowship, he added.
At St. John’s Church in Elizabeth, New Jersey, the Rev. Joe Parrish said the congregation is exploring a return to its historic roots and possibly meeting in homes again.
“Our church is 306 years old; it was the second building in the same place over three centuries,” he said during a recent telephone interview from his office. “The first building was an Anglican church founded in 1706 and it was British property. When the revolution came, General Cornwallis took the church and didn’t allow any worship services so the people went to house churches.
“We had seven to eight years in house churches and when [George] Washington recaptured the building in 1782 we got it back … and perked right along as if nothing had happened.”
Fast forward to 2011 and one of the congregation’s most pressing challenges is to heat the 8,000-square-foot structure with a 750-person seating capacity, Parrish said. “The oil company has run us out, not General Cornwallis. We can’t afford to heat the place. We have to have midweek activities outside the church. It’s forcing us to consider meeting at people’s homes.”
Heating costs average about $1,200 for Sundays alone during the winter, he added. “We bailed out in the winter by going to the parish hall and converting it to a sanctuary and worship space. This year, we saved $20,000 on our oil bill.”
Parrish said that, at least for the present, simple economics dictate seeking alternatives for the socially active congregation. “We’re knee-deep in social service issues. We feed about 120 people weekly, operate a day shelter and do major outreach but we’re doing this out of necessity; we can’t afford to do it in the church on weekdays.”
Via Andy2Go the congregation hosted 12 services at 11 venues, mostly parishioners homes, over a three-day weekend from March 4-6, that “was far beyond anything we could imagine. It was incredible,” according to the Rev. Jim Liberatore, rector.
Part of the inspiration for the event happened because “God says, in so many places in the Bible, to go. He doesn’t say ‘stay’ very often,” Liberatore said. “We normally have about 210 on an average Sunday. We had 393 at our venues and over 80 were visitors.”
Locations and participants may have varied but there was one commonality: “we were out in the community in people’s homes,” he added. “People had a chance to talk with each other. On Sundays we all usually have a job to do, or a ministry and we don’t get a chance to just talk with each other.”
About 43 people attended the 11 a.m. March 6 outdoor service at the Pearland home of Katie Cordes, 33. “We had a bounce house, sandwiches, chips, fruit drinks and popsicles. The food was in the driveway and the kids brought scooters, bikes and rode around and played together. It was wonderful, very kid-friendly and unique. I actually met a couple from my church that I didn’t know, that was really neat,” she said.
“It was nice to eat together, too,” she added. “Usually after church the kids are starving and cranky so we have to rush off.”
Debbie Allensworth, 42, said she knew about two-thirds of the 27 people who attended the 4 p.m. March 6 at her home in Pearland, a Houston suburb.
“We had all ages come to our house, and we worshipped in the backyard. Fr. Jim was on the porch and we sat on the grass,” she recalled.
“The worship was a lot more laid-back than in church. It felt more intimate and it was nice having the kids incorporated in parts of the service, like chalicing, where they normally wouldn’t get a chance to do that. We had a great time.”
The casual atmosphere included “kids on a trampoline, the swing set, a dog in someone’s lap. We had music and a 20-minute worship service. When it was over we ate appetizers and sandwiches and for the next hour everybody hung out and got to know each other while the children played.”
Allensworth, a mother of four, said she wasn’t sure what it would be like hosting the event, but it helped that another family organized refreshments. “I’ve known them a long time but it was my first chance getting to work closely together with them,” she recalled. “It was nice to get to talk to somebody I don’t see very often. Many of the families I’ve know for a long time but we never had any interaction before this.”
She added that it “really filled a need people seemed to have that we didn’t necessarily expect. We discovered people really have a need to make a closer connection and maybe in the church building we’re not giving them that opportunity.”
The event, while intended to be evangelistic “turned out to be fellowship and a lot of other things,” Liberatore added. “There are going to be more of these, but the benefits have already been reaped in how they created fellowship,” he said.
“Even a lot of fellowship activities don’t have the soul this one had. It just opens people up.”
By Pat McCaughan, April 05, 2011
— The Rev. Pat McCaughan is a correspondent for the Episcopal News Service. She is based in Los Angeles. http://www.episcopal-life.org/79425_127880_ENG_HTM.htm