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February 20, 2008
Column # 1,382
Advance for Feb. 22, 2008
Millions Seek Alternatives to Church
by Mike McManus

George Barna's latest poll indicates that "a major shift in people's spirituality is underway in America."

"For decades, American Christians, who comprise more than four out of five adults, assumed that they had one legitimate way to practice their faith: through involvement in a conventional church," Barna writes.

"But new research shows that this mind set is no longer prevalent in the U.S. The latest Barna study shows that a majority of adults now believe that there are various biblically legitimate alternatives to participation in a conventional church."

Six different alternatives were deemed by most adults to be "a complete and biblically valid way for someone who does NOT participate in services" of a traditional church, and yet still "experience and express their faith in God."  For example, 89 percent support faith activities at home with one's family, 75 percent approve of house churches, and two-thirds support watching a religious TV program, listening to religious radio, or attending a Christian concert.

While 55 percent of adults attended a conventional church service in the past month, another 28 percent of all adults who did not attend a service, did, however, "participate in an alternative means of experiencing and expressing their faith."

Millions feel they are members of Charles Stanley's church in Atlanta or that of T.D. Jakes in Dallas though they live hundreds of miles away because they see their televised services weekly and contribute. Four percent participated in a house church, which has grown 5-fold in the last six years.

Another 9 percent participate in a ministry that meets at work.  Tyson Foods created an in-house chaplaincy program five years ago that now includes 128 chaplains, which has improved morale and worker retention.  There are 25,000 corporate chaplains.

Two thirds of Senior Pastors of Protestant churches agree that "house churches are legitimate churches," and might be "a better fit for someone than a conventional local church."  But only 40 percent would ever recommend a house church to someone and only a third believe that "house churches have sufficient spiritual accountability."

Nonsense.  In the first centuries Christians met almost exclusively in homes. The first church buildings were constructed under the Roman emperor Constantine in 327. "The Lord's Supper" was a festive communal meal without clergy officiating for two hundred years.

George Barna, his wife and three daughters, age 12, 13 and 16, created a house church in 2005 with three other couples and their ten kids. "We hated church but wanted more of God," he says.  "It is probably the most intimate form of Christian community I have ever experienced in my 26 years as a Christian," he told me. "It has brought my family together as a spiritual unit.  It has been the best thing that has ever happened to my kids' spirituality."

Although their children were in two youth groups which they enjoyed "we noticed that there was not much spiritual growth taking place. Now they are involved in all that we do as a church or when we serve homeless people," he says.

His pastor actually preached a sermon after they left saying, "Anyone who is in a house church and think they are part of God's church are sadly mistaken." 

Barna's response?  "He needs to have a better grip on what the Bible teaches. That's what the Reformation was all about - making sure the people had the Scriptures so they were not under the thumb of the priest of the Catholic Church.  Scripture teaches we don't need an intermediary. We can go directly to God."

Julia Duin, who was in a house church for nine years, has written a book, "Quitting Church" to be published next fall. She says some flee controlling pastors, or churches that do not believe in the spiritual gifts such as healing or prophesy. Others found the teaching irrelevant.

Barna's polls report that 80 percent of adults feel God was not present in their services.

By contrast, his four families rented a condo at the beach last weekend.  Everyone was asked to identify the most creative and beautiful things God has created, and then compare them to what man had created. A 13-year-old boy contrasted the condo's pool with the ocean.

"One is so puny compared to what God created, this gargantuan ocean with little crabs and sea shells washed up, the waves and the pelicans diving in and bringing up fish. There is no comparison."

Barna concludes, "We are not boxed in by anything. We bless God, honor him, and find many ways to draw closer to him."

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