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On a Sunday at their modest, gray ranch house in the Denver suburb of Englewood, Tim and Jeanine Pynes gather with four other Christians for an evening of fellowship, food and faith. Jeanine's spicy rigatoni precedes a yogurt-and-wafer confection by Ann Moore, none of the food violating the group's solemn commitment to Weight Watchers. The participants, who have pooled resources for baby sitting, discuss a planned missionary trip and sing along with a CD by the Christian crossover group Sixpence None the Richer. One of the lyrics, presumably written in Jesus' voice, runs, "I'm here, I'm closer than your breath/ I've conquered even death." That leads to earnest discussion of a friend's suicide, which flows into an exercise in which each participant brings something to the table--a personal issue, a faith question--and the group offers talk and prayer. Its members read from the New Testament's Epistle to the Hebrews, observe a mindful silence and share a hymn.
The meeting could be a sidebar gathering of almost any church in the country but for a ceramic vessel of red wine on the dinner table--offered in communion. Because the dinner, it turns out, is no mere Bible study, 12-step meeting or other pendant to Sunday service at a Denver megachurch. It is the service. There is no pastor, choir or sermon--just six believers and Jesus among them, closer than their breath. Or so thinks Jeanine, who two years ago abandoned a large congregation for the burgeoning movement known in evangelical circles as "house churching," "home churching" or "simple church." The week she left, she says, "I cried every day." But the home service flourished, grew to 40 people and then divided into five smaller groups. One participant at the Pyneses' house, a retired pastor named John White, also attends a conventional church, where he gives classes on how to found, or plant, the house variety. "Church," he says, "is not just about a meeting." Jeanine is a passionate convert: "I'd never go back to a traditional church. I love what we're doing."
Since the 1990s, the ascendant mode of conservative American faith has been the megachurch. It gathers thousands, or even tens of thousands, for entertaining if sometimes undemanding services amid family-friendly amenities. It is made possible by hundreds of smaller "cell groups" that meet off-nights and provide a humanly scaled framework for scriptural exploration, spiritual mentoring and emotional support. Now, however, some experts look at groups like Jeanine Pynes'--spreading in parts of Colorado, Southern California, Texas and probably elsewhere--and muse, What if the cell groups decided to lose the mother church?
In the 2005 book Revolution, George Barna, Evangelicalism's best-known and perhaps most enthusiastic pollster, named simple church as one of several "mini-movements" vacuuming up "millions of believers [who] have stopped going to [standard] church." In two decades, he wrote, "only about one-third of the population" will rely on conventional congregations. Not everyone buys Barna's numbers--previous estimates set house churchers at a minuscule 50,000--but some serious players are intrigued.