Liturgy in house churches

May 12th, 2016

We had to answer two big questions as we transitioned from a conventional church plant to a network of house churches. The first was, “What is the difference between a house church and a small group Bible study?” The second was, “How will we structure our time together?”

What’s the difference between a house church and a small group Bible study? I think about it this way: A house church’s main function is public worship, and its focus is on God. A small group’s main function is discipleship and learning, and its focus is on the participants. Of course, we often talk about the ways worship and the life of discipleship bleed into each other. Our worship, devotion, compassion, justice, witness and learning all overlap. Yet public worship is not Bible study, and vice versa.

How would we structure time together? As a pastor, one of my biggest roles is leading worship. Yet without a chancel or pulpit, choir or band, hymnals or sacred architecture, I had to rethink worship planning. I’ve led worship on construction sites and in jungles, on junior high retreats and auditoriums. But the weekly rhythm of a house church was something new to me.

I’ve grown up using some variation of the Basic Order of Worship in the United Methodist Hymnal. Some church folks believe that no plan is the best structure, and they should just let the Holy Spirit lead where she may. Others, especially in larger corporate worship, have worship scripted down to the millisecond. What I’ve come to appreciate about house churches is that they allow for flexibility and “planned spontaneity.”

In some ways, the architecture worked against us. We were meeting in living rooms, not sanctuaries: spaces where kids build pillow forts, families cheer for their favorite teams, and pet dogs steal TV dinners. We needed a way to bring the sense of mystery, tradition and holiness into our home spaces so that it felt like worship, and not just a Bible study. We did not want to feel like we were playing hooky from “real church,” but that we were connected with churches all over the world.

We found an answer to several of these issues in liturgy. Liturgy (which literally means, “the work of the people”) is the script that a congregation uses to worship. It generally consists of written prayers and cues, responsive readings, songs, poems and scriptures that a congregation can do together. Even churches that don’t have a formal liturgy often have an informal one, a rhythm of repeated actions, calls and responses, that allow the group to praise God as one body. Liturgy allowed us to structure our time together, brought a sense of holiness and mystery into our familiar spaces, and created the sense that we were meeting as house churches and not merely small groups.

We experimented a bit. We tried the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, some alternative liturgies (including some from Iona), and the Service of Word and Table from the United Methodist Hymnal. Though we still use some of these, our go-to resource has become Common Prayer, by Claiborne, Wilson-Hartgrove and Okoro.

There are several things our congregation likes about Common Prayer. It contains a liturgy for every day of the year, which means people can use it as a devotional guide on their own during the week, or when they are not able to be together on Sunday. It consistently includes voices from beyond European and American Christian traditions, reminding us that we are part of a diverse and global church. It highlights scriptures that focus on justice, correcting our individualistic cultural bias towards spiritualizing the Bible.

Our pattern of worship divides an hour into rough quarters: check-in time, Common Prayer, a sermon and discussion, and Communion. We wrap up with announcements or any community decisions that need to be made, followed by a benediction.

Another benefit of liturgy in these house churches has been to me as a pastor. I am now a circuit rider, traveling to multiple sites each week. Because I have to travel more, I have been forced to delegate more. At every house church, there is greater opportunity for leadership development among our members. Each service needs liturgists, scripture readers, hosts, coordinators, and (often) kids to set the table and present the Communion elements. Each house church has to make their own decisions about scheduling, meals, leadership roles and preparation. A book of liturgy allows members to take more ownership of worship, to step up and lead when I am absent and to teach newcomers what to do.

After decades of leading both traditional and contemporary worship, I’ve come to appreciate liturgy for a set of reasons I never expected.

Dave Barnhart is the pastor of Saint Junia UMC in Birmingham, Ala. 

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