At home in a house church

I grew up in a non-denominational church, but you could call us Baptists when you get right down to it.

Oh, and I almost went to a snake handling church one time -- I was invited as a reporter by a congregant who wanted to get the word out to anyone interested in praising Jesus with a canebrake rattler or two -- but moved out of the area before I could take him up on it. I seriously wanted to go, and still do. I've been to Penecostal churches and Churches of God and United Bretheren Churches and Catholic Mass.

Then, there was the first time I went to a Methodist Church. I didn't like it very well because I had a raging hangover from partying too hard the night before and I kept having to stand up and sit down, stand up and sit down, stand up and sit down while saying things like, "We lift our praises to the Lord." Bells figured prominently in the serivce.

It was not a great introducution to Methodism, even if if was my fault. Not that I would condone alcohol-induced debauchery, but if you're ever hung-over, stay away from very large Methodist Churches. If the Holy Spirit's conviction doesn't get you, the bells will. Just pray while lying down in the bathroom and save yourself the time.

These days, I love my church. Love it.

My pastor, Frank, is a wonderfully beautiful being, a corny joke machine that you just want to hug. Then hug again. The other people, too.

Frank is a wonderful teacher, too -- when he teaches (not preaches), he is all the time telling us stuff like the Greek root words of New Testament scripture or the original Hebrew from Old Testament text. This makes everyone feel smart. And everyone wants to feel smart. Especially Christians, who often are made to feel so very dumb.

My church is what you might call a house church. On any given Sunday there are, oh, about 20 or 25 of us -- children included -- and we meet in the lobby of a dentist's office. Frank's wife works there as office manager.

We're part of a growing trend these days toward smaller, more intimate congregations. Oh, sure, churches like Lakewood, Saddleback and Mars Hill get most of the publicity these days with mega-churches being all in vogue, but there's a movement afoot that's growing in spite of itself.

The numbers, according to the Barna Group, an evangelical research organization:

  • Between five million and 20 million Americans participate in house churches each week; that's between 9 and 11 percent of Christians.
  • The average size of a house church is 15 people, with five children.
  • 72 percent of house church congregants are satisfied with the sense of community they get on Sundays.

Whether you want to call it organic church, house church or simple church, the fact is that this is something of a phenomenon.

House2House, an organization that promotes house church and offers resources such as the website Simple Church, claims "Christians in the United States are moving toward house churches faster than any American religious movement of the past 250 years." I can't say I dispute that, becaue there's no way of knowing to what they are comparing it. But when you factor in that if nine percent of Christians attend house churches compared to one percent 10 years ago, well, that's not exactly an explosion of growth. Evidence that there's some sort of momentum, to be sure. But house churches have not gone viral.

But many of us who call house church our home, we're missing something here: the long-term impact. Just what is it?

In more proof that Generation X is slouching toward respectability, my biggest concern about home churches has to do with my kids.

Home church, at least in our time, is a new concept, the effects of which over a longer period can't be known. What of my two daughters? Will the efficacy of Jesus' gospel be hindered by their being raised in a house church? I grew up in a traditional church, and my foundation was strong because I was given age-appropriate training in biblical wisdom. Now, I know it's trendy to decry this type of "indoctrination" of youth, but the Bible admonishes us to train -- not raise, train -- our children in the ways of God. If that means teaching Jesus while using a flannelboard, that's not all bad, is it? What about children's church? Lock-ins? Group trips to bowling alleys or swimming pools? House churches decry this sort of "programming." Besides, there aren't enough people to minister specifically to kids anyway.

To House2House's credit, it addresses the issue, saying "our house churches do not sufficiently emphasize the importance of growing children. The war is won or lost by the age of 13." I don't agree that the war is won or lost by the age of 13, but the point is well made.

Then there's the issue of insularity. In a recent story in the Colorado Springs Gazette -- Colorado Springs is the home of the massive New Life Church, better known as the former pastorate of Ted Haggard -- a "pastor" of a house church there was quoted as saying "We focus on each other. We don't exist for anything less than that." The question remains: do they exist for more than that?

Again, house churces decry programming, but if all a house church exists is for their own sense of community -- and I can attest that our congregation loves each other very much, which is the very epitome of Christ's message -- then what's left for a needy world?

Indeed, the Colorado Springs story says -- written by the author, mind you -- people "involved in house churches often don't feel a need to network with large groups of people. That's part of the point." And that point is a problem.

The author acknowledges this, writing, "Other critics believe house churches are ... unwilling to reach out and help those outside their close-knit group."

I wonder what Jesus would make of church today. What kind would He go to? Would He go at all?

A lot of this house church growth certainly comes from the guidance and wisdom of the Holy Spirit, but its roots are in the meetings of the first-century Christians. But we look at the first century church through what Mars Hill calls "a brush of idealism."

Yes, the first century church met in small groups, but that was a function of both persecution and the fact it was a new faith with relatively few followers. They had to grow. Does that mean bigger churches are more effective, considering the biggest explosion in church/Christianity happened after those first house churches, through the power of the Holy Spirit, flourised into something that could more effectively minister the Gospel?

There are, to be sure, pros and cons on the issue of house churches:

  • PRO -- It's hard to be anonymous in a house church and, thus, hard not to be involved. If you're hurting, someone will see it, and someone will ask if they can help. A pro-house church writer once said (and I'm paraphrasing), "If you feel lost and ignored in a large, traditional church, it's because you are." I don't agree, but you get the point.
  • CON -- A bigger church means a bigger impact in the community. Our mission is to love others, to serve the world, to make a difference in the lives of those around us. Say what you will about a big -- and some would say, impersonal -- church, but its size, if not its collective passion, enables it to do big things.
  • PRO -- Sermons can be interactive, with "parishoners" asking questions that emphasize key points and make the message more relevant to each person.
  • CON -- My daughter is pretty high strung, and when she decides she doesn't want to sit there anymore, EVERYONE has to hear it.
  • PRO -- Ever taken communion with just 15 other people? It is indescribably beautiful.
  • CON -- Start times are nebulous, at best. Church can't really start until most people get there, and if more than one family is late, it holds things up.

There are more questions here than answers. There's a reason for that. The movement, while not brand-new, has reached a tipping point where some of this stuff has to be addressed if we're to understand how Christ wants us to move His church forward.


I didnt' get this written in time for Tuesday -- which is normally one of two days for original content -- meaning I've run into Wednesday's links day. So, here are a few, courtesy of those you can always access on the sidebar on the right-hand side of your screen. For starters, you can access house church websites by clicking here (House2House), here (SimpleChurch), here (OpenChurch) or, check out the Wikipedia article on the house church movement here.

Agape Christian Fellowship -- Our church. As the unofficial webmaster, I'm at work right now tweaking the website to offer streaming video of Frank's sermons, complete with slides of scripture and study notes.

On the Way Ministries -- I had a chance to meet Bill Smith, founder of On the Way Ministries, last summer. Sharp, sharp cookie. He has some great insights.

Theology Online -- Like to debate? Click on over here and have at it.

Grace and peace ...