Methodist House Churches: An Introduction

June 8th, 2018

Evangelism Through House Churches

When I started planting a church, I knew that I wanted to reach “the nones and the dones,” those who had been turned off to organized religion in general, or to church culture specifically. Although we began as a conventional church plant, we shifted to a house church model about two years ago after we learned that some folks are more likely to accept an invitation to dinner than an invitation to a church building. Since then, both of our original house churches have given birth to others, and I’m hopeful that those four will become eight. So far, the average length of time it takes one of our house churches to birth another (the “gestational period”) is about 16 months.

I’ve come to see house churches as a potentially vital part of the inevitable sifting and sorting that will soon happen in my denomination. Regardless of how things shake out at the called session of the United Methodist General Conference in 2019, conflict over the inclusion of LGBTQ persons in churches has already had a high human cost. According to research by the Public Religion Research Institute in 2014, one-third of millennials who have left their childhood religion cited anti-gay attitudes as being important in their leaving. This is born out by hundreds of one-to-one conversations I’ve had with nones and dones. I’ve also talked to several LGBTQ-friendly Methodists who no longer feel welcome in Wesleyan Covenant Association churches.

While some LGBTQ persons and allies choose to stay and fight for visibility and a place at the table in non-affirming churches, many Methodists are left spiritually homeless as congregations solidify their stances and people realize they or their views are unwelcome in certain contexts. They often do not telegraph their disappointment to their pastors; they simply drop out. While in urban areas, progressive, LGBTQ-affirming churches are easy to come by, the pickings are slimmer in rural areas, and many folks do not even know alternatives exist. For this reason, I believe house churches may be a viable way to reach folks who might otherwise abandon church altogether.

In an attraction-based, building-centered church, we church professionals focus on growing attendance by adding bodies to a worship event. We do a lot of advertising, come up with relevant sermon series topics, and beg members to invite their neighbors and friends. Growth of ten percent is considered huge. By contrast, house churches may only add one or two new individuals or families a year, but this represents an enormous percentage increase when multiplied across many house churches.

But the impressive growth in house churches happens not when we add bodies to a service, but when we add a whole new house church to our connection. It is not uncommon when we birth a new house church for us to bring in two or three new committed households at a time, plus a number of other curiosity-seekers and attendees.

Pros and Cons

House churches have several things going for them:

  • They are great for discipleship, fostering intimacy, and building community.
  • Collaborative, grassroots house churches can help heal the wounds inflicted by hierarchical, authoritarian churches.
  • They are often intergenerational, with children and youth taking important roles in worship.
  • If they are started well, they are inherently evangelistic and welcoming.
  • They may be attractive to folks who find large crowds and large buildings off-putting.
  • They invite discussion and leadership development.
  • With attention, they can be networked into the connectional system.
  • They are cheap to start and run, since there are no buildings to maintain. 

House churches have these potential drawbacks:

  • It is hard to develop comprehensive children and student programs.
  • They are time- and energy-intensive for the pastor.
  • They can be relationally messy, since they can attract strong personalities and emotionally needy or hurt people.
  • If they are not started and nurtured well, they can become internally-focused and cliquish.
  • Some people may be uncomfortable about visiting a private residence, or they may prefer the anonymity of a larger church.
  • Without attention, they can become isolated from a larger connection.
  • Though they are cheap to start and run, they may have difficulty supporting professional full-time clergy.

The house church is not a one-size-fits-all model. There are economies of scale and specific advantages that large churches have. But for the first three hundred years of its existence, the Jesus movement had no dedicated buildings, and it grew like wildfire. Likewise, the early Methodist movement thrived through class meetings and small, missional churches that often met in homes. Francis Asbury, one of the first bishops of Methodism, lamented that Methodists grew more and more fixated on building large buildings.

“Methodism” has a distinctive theology, but we acquired the name because it was our practices that set us apart more than our beliefs. Like the early Methodist movement, house churches focus on how we practice being the church together instead of the facilities or programs we offer. It is a shift from consumer-driven religion to communal and collaborative faith. A network of house churches functions much like an early-Methodist circuit, in which Circuit Riders, appointed as traveling missionaries, would disciple multiple small communities. 

How Do We Start a House Church?

There are many books on house churches, but they are often written from the perspective of conservative non-denominational authors that clash with my Methodist theology and heritage. For example, one popular house church book insists that real biblical house churches need to be run by men, and that those men represent “non-hierarchical” leadership. Others insist house churches are the only truly “early church” way of following Jesus together.

I view house churches through a different lens: this is one model among many, and every house church is a new expression of the indigenous culture. Like a sower casting seed, a church planter can start many different house churches. Some may fail and some may thrive, depending on the soil in which they land, but there will be a harvest nonetheless. The planter of house churches focuses on practices, not programs, and developing a “staff” of lay leadership instead of professional full-time employees. House churches are like leaven, mustard weeds, or a virus: they stay simple in order to reproduce fast, instead of growing larger and more complex.

Indigenous expression means they adapt to the needs of the local community. Some of our house churches are centered around a common meal. Some are not. Some like singing. Some do not. Some have lots of kids who require us to find ways to incorporate them into worship. Others have few or no kids, or only require child care during worship.

In this blog series, I plan to address several aspects of planting house churches. If you have experience with house churches, Methodist on not, I’m also interested in hearing your reflections as well. The topics I plan to address are:

  1. Introduction to Methodist House Churches
  2. The Basics of Organizing House Churches
  3. Leadership Development (Discipleship) in House Churches
  4. House Church Homiletics
  5. Intergenerational Worship and Children in House Churches
  6. Inviting and Recruiting in House Churches
  7. Group Dynamics in House Churches
  8. Maintaining Connections Among House Churches
  9. Economics of House Churches
  10. Future Possibilities for House Churches (conclusion)

My hope is that if people feel alienated from their Methodist churches due to theology, politics, or polity, they will not simply drop out, but will organize to create new churches. Living things take advantage of a changing environment, or they die. Historically, schism has sometimes been a catalyst for evangelistic growth. There are many people who are hungry for Good News which is really good news, and we Methodists have a viable structure, missional history, and disciple-making paradigm that could make house churches a powerful witness in the next century.

comments powered by Disqus