A New Brunswick man said he believes organized religion is moving in a new and better direction with the advent of so-called house churches — groups of people who worship in living rooms and kitchens instead of parishes and pews.
Dan Lirette and his wife left their Baptist church and founded Revival House Fellowship in 2011, and their small group of members meets in homes in the Moncton, N.B., and Riverview, N.B., areas on Sundays and Wednesdays.
In an interview, Lirette said the traditional Christian church system — with “Sunday best” dress codes and stringent customs — can make some people feel unwelcome, adding that many people in New Brunswick struggle with poverty, homelessness or drug addiction, while others engage in sex work.
“In a normal church setting, you couldn’t get them through the doors,” said Lirette, before adding: “But you can get them into your house.”
While it’s a Christian organization, he said people from all sorts of religious backgrounds attend their meetings, including some Muslim, Hindu, and even atheist or agnostic people.
Lirette said the group wants to focus on building community relationships instead of on who’s right and who’s wrong when it comes to religion.
“Our beliefs do not prevent us from mixing and mingling with people from other religions,” he said.
The idea behind house churches is nothing new, with many passages in the Bible referring to meeting in houses specifically, Lirette said.
In recent decades, the practice has had a resurgence in China, where Christians meet in houses to distance themselves from state-sanctioned religious organizations.
North America, meanwhile, has a growing house church movement as well, though it has less to do with religious oppression and is more about dissatisfaction with the traditional church system, Lirette said.
The model is still relatively underground on the Canadian East Coast, but Revival House Fellowship recently launched a network to connect Maritime house churches, and Lirette said they have plans to plant house churches in two more New Brunswick regions by summer’s end.
In Ontario, The Meeting House is a multi-site church throughout the province. They do things a little differently than Revival House Fellowship: while the followers get a sermon each week, it’s in a movie theatre instead of a church.
Project manager Zulema Smith said their production team creates a video, screens it at 18 locations, and then members split up into over a hundred house churches scattered across the province to discuss the teachings.
Smith said this model makes it easier for people who may not have a religious background to learn more about Christianity.
“Especially when you look at how many people are not being brought up with any religious thought or experience, when you go into a church it can be very overwhelming because you don’t understand what’s happening,” she said.
“All of a sudden you’ve got every single person in the room standing up and singing songs that you wouldn’t have heard before if you didn’t have that upbringing.”
These non-traditional churches are gathering steam in a time where it seems more and more people are choosing to pray at home.
In a 2017 Angus Reid poll, 40 per cent of 2,000 respondents said they still pray to God or some higher power, but only 20 per cent said they attend religious services other than weddings and funerals at least once a month.
And a 2013 Pew Research study suggested the number of Canadians attending religious services at least once a month dropped by nearly half between 1986 and 2010 — from 43 per cent to 27 per cent.
But according to the latest data from Statistics Canada, three-quarters of Canadians still identified as having some sort of religious belief in 2011.
Lirette said he believes more and more people will turn to house churches as time goes on.
“People are leaving churches in droves and they’re going into homes,” he said. “I think house church fulfills something in people, relationally, that other forms cannot.”
Peter Noteboom, general secretary of the Canadian Council of Churches, said he’s not overly familiar with the house church movement — but while he can’t speak for the council itself, he said he doesn’t see people choosing to pray at home as an issue.
He said many aspects of religion have changed over the centuries.
“Churches, when they become too institutional over time, usually at some point a revival and renewal movement shows up, which reconnects it to the community,” Noteboom said. “And usually they end up drawing on the same wells of spirit and insight that have been around for a long time and breathe new life into it.”
“The church is not the building: the church is the people, and they may decide to worship in church buildings, but often they don’t.”