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On House Church - Part 1
If the house church is so great, why aren't there more of them?
This was too long for one post, so I broke it up into two.
I was on a call last week with the authors of The Great Dechurching which you can listen to at this link. Toward the end of that call, I said something about my experience with house churches and why I do not believe they are the “answer” to US or Canadian dechurching. That comment garnered a couple of emails, a few X (Twitter) direct messages, and some questions in meetings I was in later in the week. People were curious to know what the bigger picture was behind my comment and what I have learned about house church. So that is this post, and next week.
I first became interested in house churches back in the mid-2000s. Working for a large missionary agency, I was watching the development of movement-oriented church planting strategies. These are almost always house church movements. I was traveling, speaking, teaching, and observing how house churches were being planted all around the world. I began to question how I could present this idea to others while not personally doing house church. It felt two-faced.
Thus, during the 2010s, our family was a part of house churches. We started in 2010 and continued in house churches up until around 2019. Initially, my wife and I broke from our traditional church and just prayed and asked God to lead us to people who might be interested in Christ. Our motivation was to focus on non-believers or immature believers thinking that discipleship in the house church context would be better than it would be in a traditional church context.
Over the first six months or so, we met other believers who were also interested in house church. Ultimately, we formed our first house church with four couples. We live in Orlando and our friendship circles were mostly ministry staff at various ministries in the SE side of Orlando. Thus, our initial group was made up of families who were working in full-time, Christian ministry (more on this later). Eventually, we split into four house churches with a unified elder team. We met for years, rotating between houses, and enjoying incredible fellowship, worship, prayer, and time in the Word. In 2018, we began to feel insular and abandoned our experiment a few months later.
Here are personal observations I have collected about house church. Others involved in these house churches may have a very different perspective from the one I am suggesting in this article. I am only writing this with my own observations in mind. I will return to the end of our story and where we worship now later in this article.
There is Freedom Surrounding Structures
When I use the word “house” in this article, it is a reference to smaller, more informal, and less traditionally structured churches. They might meet anywhere, but I think most people understand what I mean by “house church” so that is what I will use.
I have read a lot of material from church historians about church structures in the first few centuries of the Christian movement. Early on, the most likely structure in place was a city-wide, loose network of house churches. When possible, these churches met in what would feel like more traditional, larger groups (I am going to call these “traditional churches” going forward). In other words, in the days of the Apostles, we find no prescriptive structure surrounding houses or traditional churches and we see little by way of this in the following centuries of the church. When the church became Romanized, house church structures were far less common. My observation here is that there is no single, preferred, or commanded church structure surrounding either houses or traditional churches.
I should note here that the Bible prescribes some church structure around shared leadership through elders. Most likely, though, there were not elders for each meeting house church. Rather, “the church at [insert city name]” had recognized elders across multiple house churches and they were the de facto leaders. There is not much research on this, but I have seen what happens when missionaries are working in a city, and this is the common model. This is also what happened early on in Jerusalem. The church was meeting across the city from house to house but under the leadership of the apostles.
Elders (or overseers) were qualified via their lifestyle and commitment to Christ. It does not describe a church office of “Pastor” like we have today. That would be the same for formalized membership and a host of other practices we have in the church. I see nothing wrong with these things. We just need to hold them loosely and not try to make them biblically commanded practices. We also need to avoid condemning them because we like less formality.
We get into problems when we universalize church forms past the items specifically mentioned in Scripture. The proponents of traditional models of church are, in my view, not as concerned about the size of the group (house or traditional) as they are about advocating for a pastor-centric structures. This is also what house church advocates tend to attack. The extent to which this pastor-centric thinking pervades the church is often tied to how much somebody value preaching models that are didactic.
Both the traditional model and the house church models have great arguments in their favor, and both can use the Scripture to back up their view. If you want to attend a church where the pastor is “large and in charge” that is fine with me. What I do not appreciate is the polemic that if you do not do it our way, you are unbiblical. I remember when Mark Driscoll and his “research team” once tried to publish an article arguing that there were no house churches in the first century (and that it was transitory). The article did not last long, of course, because it is patently and obviously not true. But there was motivation to defend the pastor-centric model of church. We can see where that ended up.
Similarly, advocates for house church should understand that traditional churches are also the bride of Christ. They are a significant way that people experience church today and in the past. I praise God that there are 9Marks churches out there. They often do a far better job of presenting deep, theological Bible truths than, frankly, many house churches. This is a paradox. Discipleship, to me, is better facilitated in the house church even though theological issues are better in the traditional church.
Different structures result in different outcomes. Traditional churches can offer what house churches cannot, and vice versa. As I look back over my “church life,” the mountaintop for me was being in a house church. Why? The focus on relationships and the consequences of that on discipleship outstripped anything I experienced in traditional church. It was fun.
On the other hand, when my adult kids began to struggle with some big personal issues, I praise the Lord that a traditional church was there to assist us. They offered programs that a house church could never offer.
One of the common reasons people prefer the traditional church over house church is teaching. Our house church did not have a traditional preacher. We studied and talked through books of the Bible and used a simple format to handle the text. I prefer this over traditional preaching. People in the group handling the text themselves become 2 Timothy 2:15 people (“rightly handling the Word of God”). People who just sit in the pews and listen to the preacher become really good at… sitting in the pews. Yes, preachers often “get it right” and do better theology. However, congregants remain spiritual babies, being spoon-fed year after year.
I have sat in thousands of church services. Preachers often “preach down” to the lowest Biblical understanding possible. For somebody like me who has spent a lifetime studying the Bible, these sermons are good reminders at best and boring at worst. Hear me that I am not saying that I have arrived in Bible knowledge and application to the point where I don’t need to hear the Word preached. But preaching in churches (and I do a bit of preaching myself) is not the only way adults learn, yet the traditional church makes preaching the focus of everything. That is why “butts in seats” is more important than evaluating discipleship. The Willow Creek “Reveal” study is often cited as a critique of the megachurch. I think it is more of a critique of the pastor-centric model of church which is producing “thin disciples” (you can read many studies about the lack of discipleship in the church today).
But… house church groups can also suffer from utilizing only the Socratic method. The emphasis on application in the house church movement means that we ask Bible texts to tell us what to do when some texts were never designed to be applicational texts. Understanding systematic theology, historical theology, expository teaching, and so forth are also important for understanding the Bible’s inexhaustible treasures. House churches can be shallow. In our case, we had trained ministry professionals, many with advanced Biblical degrees, in our house church network (that was unusual so my experience may not be very typical).
Where the house church beats the traditional church is in accountability through relationships. The traditional church does not force your junk to come out. You might be in a terrible marriage but on Sundays, everybody is all smiles. You cannot maintain that sort of masquerade in house church. It is simply too intimate. We learned things about each other we would never learn if we had been in a traditional church. I should further note that a small group in a traditional church does not supply this sort of intimacy. People always say, “We have small group for that,” but, no, you don’t. The level of commitment is higher, and thus the level of accountability is higher.
So, my experience has been that house church is better at discipleship but weaker at teaching than the traditional church. The traditional church can provide programs and services that the house church cannot. Ask yourself what you need in a church before deciding on what structure best fits your situation because structure matters. Or, perhaps, “where do my spiritual gifts best serve the body?”
Next week: Problems with contextualization, affinity group recruitment, and where I attend church now and why.
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