I remember hearing about house churches when I was a teenager. The New Testament tells about Christians meeting in one another’s homes, and I knew that in countries where Christians are persecuted people would generally have to meet in homes. I heard of new churches that were started by someone inviting people to worship in their home. But it always seemed to be assumed that when possible, a church building was the normal and preferred gathering place.
Sometime in the past decade or so I began to hear about people who gathered in house churches by choice. One occasional commenter at WorldMag Community always writes very critically about “institutional churches” when the subject comes up. While his tone often strikes me as uncharitable, some of his points are worth considering.
When my husband became a pastor, I became much more aware of the details of a church’s budget. In a small church, especially, a large part of the money people give ends up paying my husband’s salary. Much of the rest goes toward the church building (utilities, repairs). Relatively little goes outside the church, to purposes that do not directly benefit the people in the church.
Little wonder, then, that church members often feel like they are paying for services received – and are likely to give more or less based on their perception of its value to them. People may want to give sacrificially to help people in great need, but refrain from giving generously when it’s just to pay the church’s bills. A house church generally does not have much in the way of bills, so most if not all of their giving can go directly to missions, whether local or far away.
Another issue is people’s level of involvement. In churches, as in most volunteer organizations, most of the work is done by a fairly small number of people. And when it comes to worship services, people are used to sitting in the pews while the “professionals” lead from up front. We had a pastor at one church who frequently reminded us that the congregation is not the audience, watching the participants are up front. Rather, God is the audience, the participants are the congregation, and the people up front are guides giving helpful prompts or cues.
Still, even with that mindset, it’s easy to become passive, listening and watching and only feeling involved when there is congregational singing or unison prayers and readings (and in many churches I have attended, there are no unison prayers or readings). When I have a role in helping to lead the service, I am more likely to be mentally and emotionally (and thus, I would guess, spiritually) engaged in what is going on.
There is nothing about meeting in a house that necessarily forces people to be more involved. But it’s certainly harder to just sit in the back and be ignored. Depending on the leadership of the church and the structure of the worship service, everyone can be expected to take some kind of active part. The person who leaves comments on this topic on the blog at WorldMag emphasizes the spiritual benefits for people of being accountable for being prepared for their part in the worship service.
(There are also potential drawbacks to house churches, the most serious being the possibility of the leader(s) going astray theologically and taking the others with them. This can happen in a larger church, but in most churches there is oversight by others in the denomination/association, as well as more people around with different backgrounds who may become aware of error and take steps to deal with it. If I were part of a house church I would want it to be part of some kind of association with other house churches to have that kind of accountability and access to other teachers.)
With all this in mind, when I realized that we were going to be in the area where someone who I knew (Peter L, who gave us the tour of the Mark Twain Cave) attended a house church, I was eager to experience it for myself. So after checking out of the hotel in Quincy, we followed Peter L out into the country and along a winding dirt road to the house that they call “church.”
I had imagined a group sitting more or less in a circle, but instead we sat in rows of folding chairs in the living room. (I don’t know if attendance was particularly high that morning, but there would have been no way to fit that many people in a circle in that room.) A few extra chairs were brought in before everyone had a place to sit.
I’m used to church starting with music or else with a prayer, but the leader (and host – it was his house) started by asking people what they remembered from the lesson the week before. Naturally I had nothing to say, but I wondered just what kind of results my husband would get if he started a service by asking people about his sermon the week before…
After that we did have some singing, using both a hymnal and another book of songs. I think I knew most if not all of them, and I occasionally attempted to sing harmony. (I like to sing alto, both because it adds richness to the music to sing harmony, and because the melody sometimes gets a bit high for my range. But it’s not quite as easy to sing the alto part with guitar accompaniment as with an organ or piano that is playing my part.)
There was a time for sharing prayer requests, and a time of prayer. In a smaller group I might have wondered if everyone would be expected to pray aloud, but in a group that size it seemed clear that only a few people would lead in prayer. (I can pray aloud in a group when I need to, but I always find it difficult. At some point I’m likely to find myself at a loss for words, and there is a tendency to find words to fill the uncomfortable silence, even though it means I’m thinking about what other people are thinking of me rather than simply talking to God.)
Then there was a sermon, given by a man who had previously been part of the group but now is leading worship elsewhere. (I was not clear on whether it was at another house church or not.) He preached on Hebrews 12:1-2, with the theme of fixing our eyes on Jesus. I’m sure he had some very good things to say, but I had the problem I usually do when I sit and listen for half an hour or more – I don’t quite nod off but I’m not alert enough to remember later what was said, even if I understood it at the time.
After church we had a fellowship meal together, which I particularly enjoyed – and not just because there was plenty of good food. We had an opportunity to get to know some of the people we had just worshipped with, and my husband and the host had quite a conversation about various theological writers and speakers they were familiar with. Mostly I listened – but that’s what I usually do.
On the whole, I found worship there not all that much unlike what I have experienced at some small, independent Bible churches. There is no printed order of worship, but it follows a pattern known to the congregation. People choose the hymns to sing, and add a few words as to why a hymn is meaningful. The preaching is longer than what I’ve gotten used to at most Presbyterian churches (we were told that this guest speaker preached longer than the usual leader), and filled with enough details that one would have to take notes to retain it well.
As every house church is different, this probably tells me next to nothing about house churches in general. No doubt some are more discussion-oriented, some have more time of silent prayer, some sing praise choruses rather than hymns, some have members take turns teaching rather than having an established leader.
I think many people long for the closer relationships they find in a church body small enough to fit in a living room. They want to explore what the Bible says in the context of their particular circumstances, and have the opportunity to ask questions and offer their own thoughts.
The host/leader at Peter L’s church told us that he never planned on starting a new church at the beginning (some 40 years ago). But that evidently is the way God has led him and his family, and the various other families that have joined him for worship over the years.
My husband is called to serve in a different way, as pastor of a church with its own building and a less informal worship service (though hardly as formal as the high liturgical churches). But that’s the topic for my next post…