|How Many People Really Attend a House Church? Barna Study Finds It Depends on the Definition|
Numerous shifts are occurring among church-goers in the U.S. as they choose from many new forms and formats of the local church. One of the least understood forms is the house church, and one of the fundamental questions is exactly how many people are attending house churches. According to a new report from The Barna Group, it depends on how such involvement is described to survey respondents.
The California-based research firm has explored people’s involvement in non-traditional ministry settings in a dozen nationwide studies it has conducted in the past five years. The researchers discovered that the number of participants varies significantly according to the definition used, ranging from a minimum of 4% of the adult population to a maximum of 33%!
Measuring House Church Involvement
George Barna, who has overseen the process of studying house churches and how to best measure participation rates in organic forms of ministry such as house churches, noted that there are several components in the measurement process that affect the survey outcomes.
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.
The smallest rate of participation is derived by posing the most narrowly framed of the six questions examined. That question asked if the respondent had been “part of a group of believers that meets regularly in a home or place other than a church building. These groups are not part of a typical church; they meet independently, are self-governed and consider themselves to be a complete church on their own. Do you participate in such a group, sometimes known as a house church or simple church, that is not associated in any way with a local, congregational type of church?” The response to this inquiry consistently generates just 3% to 6% of all adults saying they have been involved in such an assembly during a typical month.
Why Are There Differences?
The differences generated by the various question wordings were discussed by George Barna.
“There are some helpful patterns that allow us to determine how best to measure house church engagement,” noted the author of more than 40 research-based books about faith matters. “Describing the gathering as a ‘religious service’ delivers higher participation rates than calling it a ‘worship service.’ Identifying a gathering that meets in places other than a conventional church or a house expands the audience more than simply identifying a house as the location. Labeling the gathering a “simple church meeting” is the most inclusive approach of all, since the term “simple church” has a very specific meaning to people who are intensely involved in the organic church world, but the phrase “simple church” has no such meaning or limitations to the typical church-going adult.”
“When the focus shifts from the group’s location and independence to the individual’s faith experience or spiritual expression,” Barna continued, “without any location or governance limitations, people are especially likely to recall such participation. This may be largely because this description allows people who participate in a small group, cell group, home group, or prayer meeting of any type, even if organized through a conventional church, to note their involvement. In this case, the emphasis is on personal experience rather than setting or authority structures.”
When asked which of the half-dozen measures provides the most reliable understanding of the house church world, Barna suggested that each of the measures is reliable but not interchangeable. “Each question is measuring something different; in its own way, each question is accurate and useful. The study shows that it depends on what you want to find out – and how important it is to have a well-defined sense of the element to be measured, and how questions can be crafted to distort our understanding of reality. Questionnaire design is truly an art. People who use research data must be careful that what they are accepting as fact is based on an objective and knowledgeable measurement of the matter under scrutiny.”
Barna also noted that when his firm reports statistics related to house church involvement, the narrowest definition, which produces the smallest results, is relied upon. “We claim that about 5% of the adult population is currently engaged in a house church based upon the most stringent of the questions we have developed. With growing numbers of conventional churches attempting to incorporate both the house church concept and language into their ministries, it becomes increasingly difficult to get an accurate reading, but we are confident that the longer, more detailed question we use gives a realistic, perhaps even an undersized estimate of the number of people who rely solely or partly on a house church experience. All research is simply an estimate of reality, but our preference has always been to use conservative measures rather than questionable or exaggerated figures.”
Why Are House and Organic Churches Important?
The Barna research corresponds to a new book authored by global house church expert Wolfgang Simson, a German who has been engaged in tracking the organic church world for more than two decades. Simson’s new book, entitled The House Church Book, provides a simple but compelling discussion about why house churches are valuable entities in the kingdom of God, and some of the insights he has gleaned over the years about how they work best.
A persuasive advocate for house churches, Simson wrote that “church as we know it is preventing church as God wants it,” discussing the attributes of the New Testament church and how it differs so dramatically from today’s churches. “The New Testament church was made up of small groups, typically between ten and fifteen people. It grew, but not by forming big congregations of three hundred people… Instead it multiplied ‘sideways,’ dividing like organic cells once these groups reached about fifteen or twenty people. This then made it possible for all Christians to get together in citywide celebrations,” which facilitated a greater sense of the body of believers in an area as well as dynamic worship and growth experiences.
Echoing the call of the growing number of “missional” ministries in the U.S. Simson said it is important for Christians to “stop bringing people to church, and start bringing church to the people.” But Simson also is realistic about the challenges of being part of a smaller, more intimate, house-based faith community.
“Where is the most difficult – and therefore the most meaningful – place to be spiritual? At home, in the presence of our spouses and children, where everything we do and say is automatically put through a spiritual litmus test against reality, where hypocrisy can be effectively weeded out and authenticity can grow.” As a general life principle that is fostered by involvement in an organic faith expression, Simson encourages people to “stop asking God to bless what they are doing and start doing what God is blessing.”
Simson’s message resonates with that of another recent book about the house church experience, written by fellow house church pioneers Tony and Felicity Dale. Their experiences and observations are captured in the book The Rabbit and the Elephant, which provides additional insight into how the body of Christ can be fortified by the ministry that occurs in organic church settings.
The Dale’s book also describes how participation in a house church is not merely about “church attendance” but is really about a radical lifestyle. They detail what they have learned about how individuals involved in an organic church incorporate serious prayer, mentoring, serving and worship as some of the hallmarks of healthy house churches. And, like Simson, they focus on how the early Christian church was formed and led, and what kind of results it produced.
Barna indicated that while house churches are common in other nations, they are just beginning to catch on in the United States. He estimates that there are in the vicinity of six to twelve million Americans presently invol
About the Research
This report is based upon a dozen nationwide surveys conducted via telephone by The Barna Group among representative random samples of adults. Each of the studies was based on a sample size of roughly 1,000 adults (ranging from 1,003 to 1,012) drawn from the 48 continental states. The range of sampling error associated with each sample of adults is between ±1.4 and ±3.2 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. These allowances do not include other types of error (known as non-sampling error) that can occur in surveys, such as errors arising from question wording, question sequencing, and the inaccurate recording of responses.
The Barna Group, Ltd. (which includes its research division, The Barna Research Group) is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization that conducts primary research on a wide range of issues and products, produces resources pertaining to cultural change, leadership and spiritual development, and facilitates the healthy spiritual growth of leaders, children, families and Christian ministries. Located in Ventura, California, Barna has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984. If you would like to receive free e-mail notification of the release of each new, bi-monthly update on the latest research findings from The Barna Group, you may subscribe to this free service at the Barna website (www.barna.org). Additional research-based resources, both free and at discounted prices, are also available through that website.
© The Barna Group, Ltd, 2009.
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