ARUN RATH, HOST:
New church construction is at its lowest point since 1967, and there are more religiously unaffiliated Americans than ever before. Some congregations say they've become a more committed community by doing away with the church building altogether. NPR's Eleanor Klibanoff explains.
ELEANOR KLIBANOFF, BYLINE: At most churches, it's embarrassing to show up late. But arrive early to Greg Stultz's church, and you might interrupt the host's last-minute preparations - putting away homework and tossing shoes up the stairs.
GREG STULTZ: All right. Well, let's pray. Oh, heavenly Father, we're so grateful for this opportunity to...
KLIBANOFF: The Stultzes are part of a house church. Each week, they crowd into a different living room for dinner and fellowship. Stultz explains he long felt a dissatisfaction with the church hierarchy.
STULTZ: The Bible says, what then shall we say, brothers? When we come together, everyone has a hymn, a word of instruction or an interpretation. All of these should be done for the strengthening of the church. Where is that being done?
KLIBANOFF: Nowhere that Joleen Zimmerman could find. Three years ago, she'd been praying for a close-knit church community when she met Greg Stultz. He quoted that same verse to her.
JOLEEN ZIMMERMAN: That was the verse that God had given me - that when we come together, not to come to pew-sit, but to actually come to give.
(SOUNDBITE OF WORSHIP SONG)
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) This is a spiritual life of worship.
KLIBANOFF: During the meeting, anyone can call out a song suggestion or read a Bible verse. Instead of a sermon, everyone just talks about what's been weighing on them that week. This group says the only guidance they need to run a church can be found in the New Testament. And there were no church buildings in the time of the New Testament, according to L. Michael White, a professor of Christian origins at University of Texas.
L. MICHAEL WHITE: We do have references in, say, the letters of Paul to meeting in someone's home - or, basically, the church in your house.
KLIBANOFF: Over the next centuries, the church became a state institution. With that came buildings, denominational divides, fundraising campaigns. Some house churches are trying to get back to a simpler time. But there are as many varieties and motivations for house churches as there are house churches themselves.
GARY ALLOWAY: My name is Gary Alloway. I'm the pastor of Redemption Church Bristol, a network of house churches in Bristol, Penn.
KLIBANOFF: These days, Redemption Bristol looks a lot like the Stultzes' church - crowded and casual. But Alloway originally intended to build a brick-and-mortar church. After years of struggling to gather a congregation, he finally said...
ALLOWAY: I'm not writing a sermon for 12 people. Why don't you guys come over to my living room. We'll open up the Bible, pray for each other. We'll talk about it. We'll eat together.
KLIBANOFF: And three years later, they have three house churches that meet in homes around Bristol. Once a month, they have a group service. Redemption has a professional pastor and a budget, most of which goes to community outreach. They're pretty different than the Stultzes. But both congregations speak of the tight-knit community that comes from a small group. Joleen Zimmerman says those relationships are the value of house church.
ZIMMERMAN: You know, when I think over my life, basically, it was the relationships that actually helped me.
KLIBANOFF: Larger churches try to offer this experience with, say, small group Bible studies. Alloway says that's proof that people are looking for these smaller communities.
ALLOWAY: I don't know that everybody needs to do house churches, but every church should be doing the things house churches are doing. That ability for people to come into something right away and be known...
(SOUNDBITE OF WORSHIP SONG)
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) Nothing but the blood of Jesus...
KLIBANOFF: Both the Stultzes and the Alloways have seen their congregations expand since they moved into a home. Once they outgrow the living room, though, it's not on to a church building. They'll split up into more homes and keep the tradition going. Eleanor Klibanoff, NPR News, Washington.
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