The landscape of contemporary Christianity now includes groups of Christians who get together in each other’s homes and declare themselves a church. They may meet on Sunday mornings or on convenient evenings during the week. They may engage in worship, whether making up their order of service or following a liturgy. Or they may just engage in Bible study and prayer. Usually lacking a pastor, these “house churches” may substitute an informal discussion for a sermon, with the participants taking turns with pastoral functions.
Growing out of the “small group” movement–in which Christians meet informally for Bible study, prayer, or fellowship–the group becomes the locus of all church activities. This option is attractive for Christians burned out by megachurches or disillusioned with “the institutional church.”
Such “house churches,” consisting of as few as three people to as many as can fit into a living room, seem to be a growing phenomenon. Christian researcher George Barna says that 6% of his respondents report being part of a “group of believers that meets regularly in a home or place other than a church building.” He estimates that this comes to between six and twelve million people. But that would include Bible studies and prayer groups whose participants also go to regular churches, as well as congregations that don’t have their own building, meeting instead in schools and office buildings. And I know of congregations that have started satellite churches that, at first, meet in members’ homes.
So the number of people whose small groups constitute the entirety of their church involvement and which self-consciously consider themselves to be a “church” is not clear. In an article on the subject (the source of many of the facts in this post), reporter Kristin E. Holmes identified “dozens” in the Philadelphia area alone.
I see a number of problems here. To name just two: The lack of the pastoral office. And the lack of accountability.
And yet, as Holmes reports, some of the house churches do include ordained pastors. And some are part of larger denominations.
She tells of the “Simple Church at Home Network” organized by and under the auspices of the Seventh Day Adventists. This consists of some 250 house churches in 23 countries, mostly in the United States. These are lay-led, but with some training and oversight by the Adventists.
She also tells about the closing of an ELCA congregation, some of whose former members formed two house churches. Now these two mini-congregations have applied for membership in the ELCA and have been accepted as congregations in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, still retaining their house church identity.
And despite the problems one might have with their informal ecclesiology, the model of the house church does have much to commend it.
This is the form churches take when Christians are persecuted. In the New Testament era, the early church of the Greco-Roman world, today in Communist China and in officially Islamic nations, Christians have always met in homes, in secret.
And house churches are ideal for the growth of the Church as a whole, as we see in both the early church and in contemporary China. Say a house church consists of five families. When more families join and the house can no longer hold everybody, the house church splits–amicably–and now there are two congregations. With time and evangelism, each of these will also split. Just as organisms grow with the division of cells, so grows the Body of Christ.I would like to propose a series of thought experiments in ecclesiology, offering four scenarios and asking questions about them. (My scenarios and questions reflect a Lutheran perspective, but feel free to apply them to your own church body or theological tradition.)
Scenario #1: A house church ordains its own pastor.
An informal small group becomes a house church. The ten attendees select one of their members to act on their behalf. They call and ordain him. He begins a Word and Sacrament ministry in their home.
Question: Would you consider this to be a valid ordination?
Scenario #2. A house church turns Lutheran.
An informal small group becomes a house church. It adopts the Book of Concord as its statement of faith. It calls a pastor who is a graduate of Concordia Theological Seminary. It applies for membership in the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod.
Question: Should the LCMS accept it for membership?
Scenario #3. A denomination establishes house churches.
The LCMS wants to plant churches in an area of the country with hardly any Lutherans. An evangelist/church planter is sent to the region. He finds ten Lutheran families and organizes them into two house churches. They call the church planter to be their pastor. He visits each house periodically to preach, give pastoral care, and administer the sacraments.
Question: Would this be a good strategy for a church body to take up?
Scenario #4. A denomination and house churches in a time of persecution.
Christianity becomes a hate crime. Church buildings are religious symbols visible to the public, which may find them offensive. So the state uses zoning regulations, confiscatory tax laws, and the dwindling of members to take eminent domain and demolish them. Christians, if detected, are sent to camps for re-education or, that failing, euthanasia.
In this climate, some Christians with an individualistic theology–“my faith is a personal relationship between me and Jesus, so while I would like to meet with other Christians, I don’t have to”–keep hidden by treating their faith as an inner conviction. Just as New Agers or existentialists or humanists have their philosophies without having to meet with others of their opinions, this kind of Christianity can do without a church.
But it’s different with Christians who know they must not neglect meeting together (Hebrews 10:25). Congregations dissolve into underground house churches. Denominations co-ordinate the formation of house churches with a view to continuing their theological identity.
Question: How would denominations need to change their structures if all of their congregations had to be house churches? (In the case of the LCMS, would the levels of circuits, districts, and synod still make sense? What about the role of conventions and seminaries? What adjustments would need to be made? Or would denominations themselves have to be decentralized and go underground?)
Photo by Ace Armstrong, Bible Study, Flickr, Creative Commons License