What are house churches?

August 3rd, 2016

Back to the future

I’ll confess that when I first heard about the idea of house churches, I thought, That’s not real church. I thought the only reason a congregation would meet in a house instead of a larger traditional or contemporary church would be because they couldn’t afford a building or they didn’t have the vision or ability to grow into a “real church.” I knew, of course, that the early church started in homes. What I didn’t understand was why anyone in a free country would continue to do so when larger churches with exciting youth programs, riveting preachers and spectacular worship music are not hard to find.

Now, here I am, starting house churches.

House church movement

House churches are nothing new, though you’ll sometimes hear them referred to as part of a “house church movement.” I’ve been hearing about this “movement” for decades, and it’s often touted as the next big thing. I’ve heard visionary pastors say, “The age of the megachurch is over, and the age of the microchurch is beginning.” I believe this kind of hype clouds an authentic work of the Holy Spirit, who is interested in diverse ways to reach diverse people. House churches are another manifestation of the body of Christ and meet needs not always met by larger or more traditional churches.

In some places, house churches are the norm. Because of strict government control of religion in China, for example, most churches are underground and are unofficial house churches. A Pew study estimates the total number of Christians attending house churches in China is around 35 million people.

Some people prefer the terms simple church or organic church, recognizing that these small, more independent groups of believers can meet nearly anywhere: businesses, bars, restaurants, parks or shelters. The key features of these churches are that they are simple and easy to replicate. 

We turned our efforts toward house churches because the people we were trying to reach — those who have been hurt, burned or turned off to church — often associate pews, sanctuaries, vestments and hymnals with spiritual oppression. Even fog machines and contemporary music turn them off. They speak of the “institutional church” in harsh terms, and their immediate reaction to seeing a 5,000-seat venue is a visceral rejection. “Jesus didn’t need that,” one friend says. Although I’m somewhat more circumspect about the many ways God can share the gospel, I understand the theology behind their critique. They want to see authentic community lived out in relationships.

Attractional vs. missional

Even churches that meet in alternative venues with hip music put most of their energy into creating an event that attracts people: the worship service. A church’s effectiveness is often measured by the size of its worshipping congregation. While I believe these metrics are important, it’s worth asking what we’re really measuring with attendance figures. Does a large gathering indicate faithfulness or discipleship?

Leaders like Alan Hirsch suggest that an alternative to the “attractional” church is the “missional” church — one focused on going and living out the gospel in new places. Certainly some large churches are also missional churches, but the focus in missional churches is practices, not programs. Rather than getting people to come to church, the goal is to take the church to people.

It’s important to point out that there’s nothing wrong with an attractional church, but the reality is that an attractional church will only reach a certain segment of the population that’s already predisposed to attend events. It’s also possible for a house church to be focused on attracting people to church rather than taking church to people.

History of house churches

From the very beginning, Jesus’ followers have met, eaten, prayed and worshipped in homes. It wasn’t until sometime around the year 240 that buildings were set aside specifically for use by worshipping congregations. According to church historian Everett Ferguson, a site in Dura-Europos in Syria reveals a home that was remodeled to accommodate a Christian congregation. Two rooms were combined to make one large worship space, and another room was converted into a baptistry. Christians started building larger buildings specifically for church use in the third and fourth centuries. When the Roman emperor Constantine declared Christianity the official religion of his empire, the building boom began in earnest.

So, for 300 years, the church existed primarily in homes. In John Wesley’s day, Methodism was essentially a small-group renewal movement within the Church of England. People met in homes for Bible study and accountability. Later on in the United States, circuit riders often held worship services in people’s homes as they followed Western expansion.

What happens in a house church?

House churches vary as much as “traditional” churches. They may have an order of worship or no set plan at all. They may gather around a meal. They may or may not do corporate singing. Our house churches split our time four ways: We check in and pray for one another, we spend some time in liturgy and Scripture reading, we have a message and discussion and we share Communion. If someone with musical talent is available, we also sing.

In everything, the emphasis is on keeping things simple and replicable. If the house church becomes overly dependent on one person or one structure, it cannot reproduce itself.

Pros and cons of house churches

It’s important to note that some of the greatest strengths of house churches are also their greatest weaknesses.

Intimacy: Communities are physically close to one another. No “back pew” exists to fill up first when people arrive early. Guests are immediately known by name. While this creates a strong sense of community, it also can scare off people who prefer to remain anonymous. Those who are uncomfortable sharing much about themselves can feel ill at ease.

Hospitality: Some people think they can’t host a house church because there’s dog hair on the couch or crumbs on the table, and the stress of making the house perfect for guests every week scares them away from the idea. We’ve chosen to use the language of Jack King, whose blog post on “scruffy hospitality” points out that it’s more important to “welcome people into my humility than my standard of excellence.”

Leadership development and discipleship: In a house church, everyone is a potential leader. Anyone who can read may read Scripture, liturgy or prayer. Anyone may lead singing. Because of this high degree of involvement, the level of spiritual growth is high, but it requires commitment.

Stewardship: I’ve served a large church with thousands of members, and I recognize that there’s an economy of scale that smaller churches don’t have. More resources mean more ministries to more people. But proponents of house or simple churches point out that 20 percent of typical church budgets go toward building rent, mortgage, maintenance and utilities; 38–50 percent goes toward staff; and only about seven percent goes toward programs and ministries. House churches don’t have to pay for buildings, meaning more of their members’ giving can potentially go toward mission and ministry. Theoretically, house churches can give a greater return on investment for their giving dollars — it’s just that there aren’t as many of those dollars available to do large projects. 

House churches are clearly not for everyone, and many house church leaders are wary of the idea being hyped as the next big thing or having it co-opted as a mere growth strategy. But for some groups of faithful followers, they are a tie to our past and a window into our future.

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