The majority of Americans believe that alternatives to the conventional church experience are a fully biblical way for believers to practice their faith, a study revealed Monday.
For decades, U.S. Christians, who make up more than four out of every five adults, assumed there was only one right way to practice their faith – through worship in a conventional church. But a new Barna study shows that a majority of American adults now believe there are various legitimate ways to practice their faith besides participation in a conventional church.
"Often, people feel as if their worship and ministry are confined to what is routinely done because those patterns have a biblical basis or mandate," explained George Barna, co-author of the new book Pagan Christianity? Exploring the Roots of Our Christian Practices.
"But when you research the origins of church practices, and study the practices of the early church, you discover that most of our current church practices have ancient cultural origins, with no biblical basis."
Six alternatives were considered by most adults to be "a complete and biblically valid way for someone who does not participate in the services or activities of a conventional church to experience and express their faith in God."
Non-Church alternatives include engaging in faith activities at home with one's family (acceptable by 89 percent of adults); participating in a house church (75 percent); watching a religious television program (69 percent); listening to a religious radio broadcast (68 percent); attending a special ministry event, such as a concert or community service activity (68 percent); and participating in a marketplace ministry (54 percent).
In the past month, the study found that while 55 percent of adults had attended a conventional church, 28 percent of all adults who did not attend a conventional church did, however, participate in an alternative activity to express their faith in God.
Four percent had participated in a house church or simple church; nine percent was involved in a ministry that met in the marketplace; and 12 percent engaged in spiritual activity on the Internet.
Surprisingly, two out of three senior pastors of Protestant churches affirm that "house churches are legitimate Christian churches," according to a companion Barna study.
But less than half of all pastors of conventional churches (40 percent) said that they would ever recommend a house church to someone. Even pastors of conventional churches that believe house churches are biblically legitimate were hesitant to recommend a house church. A little more than half (54 percent) of these pastors said they would point someone to a house church.
Protestant pastors that were least likely to support house churches as a fully biblical church experience are those who earn more than $75,000 annually; African-American pastors; and pastors of charismatic or Pentecostal churches.
Only one out of three conventional church pastors (31 percent) believes that "house churches have sufficient spiritual accountability."
"Whenever you challenge hallowed behaviors, controversy is the natural result," Barna commented. "Every believer must decide whether it is more important to follow biblical guidelines and examples or to instead maintain human traditions and preferences."
Other alternatives with significant but not majority support by American adults include interacting with a faith-oriented website (45 percent) and participating in live events via the Internet (42 percent).
The survey sampled 1,005 American adults in December 2007 across the country. The companion survey interviewed 615 senior pastors of Protestant churches, randomly sampled from all Protestant churches across the country in December 2007.