Americans Embrace Churches Outside the Institutional Form as Biblical

According to the Barna study from 2008, tens of millions of people are experiencing and expressing their faith in God independent of any connection to a institutional church. During the time of the study, 55% of adults had attended an institutional church service. 28% of all adults who did not attend an institutional church activity did, however, participate in an alternative means of experiencing and expressing their faith in God.

The survey found that 4% had participated in a church that met in a home; 9% had been involved in a ministry that met in the marketplace; and 12% had engaged in spiritual activity on the Internet.

In another study conducted by The Barna Group among Senior Pastors of Protestant churches, 2 out of 3 pastors agreed that “house churches are legitimate Christian churches.” Surprisingly, pastors from mainline churches were more likely than pastors from other Protestant congregations to consider house churches to be biblically defensible forms of church experience. Among the pastors least likely to support the legitimacy of house churches were pastors who earn more than $75,000 annually; African-American pastors; and pastors of charismatic or Pentecostal churches.

The views of Protestant pastors regarding house churches show that they assign both strengths and weaknesses to house churches. For instance, more than three-quarters of conventional church pastors (77%) contend that “house churches genuinely worship God.” Two-thirds (66%) said “a house church might be a better spiritual fit for someone than a conventional local church.” And three out of every five (60%) noted that “house churches produce genuine disciples of Christ.”

However, less than half of all pastors of conventional churches said that they would ever recommend a house church to someone (40%). Also, only one out of three conventional church pastors (31%) believes that “house churches have sufficient spiritual accountability.”

Paradoxically, only half (54%) of the Senior Pastors of conventional churches who believe that house churches are biblically legitimate forms of church said that they might ever recommend a house church to someone.

This research parallels the findings of a controversial new book co-authored by researcher George Barna, entitled Pagan Christianity? Exploring the Roots of Our Christian Practices. In that book, Barna and co-author Frank Viola explain the origins of many common routines widely used in conventional churches, ranging from preaching to communion. The early Christians met almost exclusively in homes and had few of the trappings that characterize 21st-century churches and services. Many of the church habits in place today were not apostolic or biblical practices but are vestiges of pagan practices adopted by Christians in the third century or later.

Pagan Christianity contends that most of today’s church practices have no biblical foundation, and in some cases, hinder people from having a genuine experience with God. With extensive footnotes and documentation, the book shows that the following church practices had little to do with scriptural mandate or apostolic application:

  • Church buildings were initially constructed under the Roman emperor Constantine, around 327. The early Christian church met in homes.
  • The pulpit was a piece of stagecraft borrowed from Greek culture in which professional speakers delivered monologues in public debates. There is no evidence that Jesus, the apostles, or other leaders in the early Church used a pulpit; it seems to have been introduced into Christian circles in the mid-third century.
  • The order of worship originated in the Roman Catholic Mass under the leadership of Pope Gregory in the sixth century.
  • Preaching a sermon to an audience was ushered into the church world late in the second century. Sermons were an extension of the activit of the Greek sophists, who had mastered the art of rhetorical oratory.
  • There were no pastors, as an official or director of a group of believers, until sometime in the second century. That was eventually furthered by the practice of ordination, which was based upon the prevailing Roman custom of appointing men to public office.
  • The biblical approach to “communion” or the “Lord’s Supper,” was truncated late in the second century from a full, festive communal meal without clergy officiating to the presently common habit of having a sip of wine and morsel of bread (or juice and a wafer) under the guidance of a recognized clergyman.

The book also addresses a myriad of other practices, including tax-exempt status for churches, pews, stained glass windows, altar calls, the pastoral prayer, church bulletins, bishops, clergy attire, choirs, tithing, the collection plate, seminary training, infant baptism, the “sinner’s prayer,” and funeral processions, among others.