Methodist House Churches: Maintaining Connections

November 27th, 2018

The following article is part eight of a ten-part series exploring all aspects of organizing, worshipping, and growing as a house church community. Read the previous parts here

Since I pastor a network of house churches, sometimes people ask me, “Do you have multiple churches, or one single church?”

In a conventional church, although people may be socially connected to only a dozen people (in a Sunday school class or Bible study, for example), there is a visible manifestation of the church in “big church” worship. Everyone comes together. It provides a sense of cohesion and togetherness. In that same conventional church, when someone talks about starting a new worship service, a common point of concern is that two worship services will feel like two churches, instead of a unified one.

In a network of house churches, the house church is the main worship event. So when I hear the question, “Do you have multiple churches, or one single church?” I translate it this way: How do we maintain a sense that we are part of a movement larger than ourselves?

I wonder how Paul would have answered this question. In his letters he speaks about “the church that meets in so-and-so’s house.” But he also emphasizes that all of those churches were part of the same body and the same movement. He shares news and greetings from one church to another. What kept these networks of house churches connected was not a building, but 1) a set of beliefs and practices, and 2) a missionary network of traveling apostles and teachers. The big connection between the communities that Paul served was Paul himself.

Methodist connectionalism was built with a similar missional strategy. Bishops appointed ordained elders and licensed pastors as missionaries to new places (a “charge”) as the early American colonies expanded westward. Worship services were often conducted at members’ homes, and these members were organized into classes. Some of those early groups bought property and established an institutional presence (church buildings), and that’s why the Methodist church was more ubiquitous in America than the post office.

Circuit Riding: Back to the Future

Today, circuit riding in the Methodist church has largely become a thing of the past except in multi-point charges in rural ministry. Church planters in more urban and suburban areas are not asked to be circuit riders, connecting multiple communities; they are expected to pick a demographic or community and follow a franchise model that prioritizes acquiring worship space and enough people to support a full-time professional clergyperson at a centralized location.

These approaches are driven by economics, not by mission. More accurately, they are driven by an economics of scarcity. This is why church planters and their funders usually go after “safe” demographics: the people most likely to go to church. (More on this in my next article, “The Economics of House Churches.”)

The sociology of geographical space and of travel also impacts how we do ministry. Although people often talk about our society as being “more mobile than ever,” the trend is actually away from increased mobility. More and more young people are giving up car ownership and do not drive. There may be a corresponding reluctance for people to drive across town for worship, even if that community represents “their people.”

For these and other reasons, I believe it’s time to take a hard look at circuit riding as an approach to pastoral ministry. I have become an urban circuit rider. But since I can’t be more than one place at once, we’ve had to look at other ways to help our community stay connected. It’s important for the health of the house church network that our people be connected to each other—not just to and through the pastor.

Special Events

Several house church networks I know have occasional large-group events where they try to get their house churches together. Sometimes this happens around a meal or a large-worship event. Sometimes this is more of a social gathering, like a special outing to a ball game or a mission project.

In my experience, if you’re hoping for a big attendance at these kinds of events, you will be disappointed. House churches are worshiping communities, so it is a big effort to entice people to give up their usual worship event to attend a different one, or to entice them back out of their homes after having already been to worship that week.

Still, special events are how we make memories, mingle with each other, and reach beyond our usual social networks to invite others who may be curious about house churches.


Like most of the modern world, we also stay connected online. Our discipleship model de-centers the pastor and invites lay participation at our house church worship services. One of my goals is for each house church to be able to meet without me. Sometimes I will pre-record a video that a house church can watch online, or use live-streaming to connect more than one house church so that we are sharing the same message. Laypeople who are good at facilitating then lead the house church in discussion.

Like other churches, our email newsletter and social media are also important ways we stay connected among house churches.


I encourage our partners (members) to visit other house churches in our network, especially if they cannot make it to their usual house church at their usual time. These visits don’t happen as much as I would like, but having even just a handful of people who float from one house church to another helps create a sense of being part of a larger community. When people from different house churches meet at special events, Bible studies, or similar social situations, those who are more connected are social “nodes” that introduce folks to each other.

Multiplying Leadership

Our network has already grown beyond my ability to attend every service, so we’re developing what I believe will be the most important part of helping house churches stay connected: a staff of rotating paid and volunteer pastors and teachers. It’s not unusual for a megachurch to have a pastoral staff who share preaching and teaching responsibility, but in a house church network there may not be sufficient resources to sustain many full-time professional clergy. To answer this need, we are developing a team of bi-vocational “tent-making” pastors.

I foresee these leaders being a mix of lay speakers, licensed local pastors, and part-time elders and deacons working as a team. Like the early Methodist movement, we believe the mission is too important to limit to professional, seminary-trained and bishop-appointed clergy. The ministry truly belongs to all believers, and we need a diverse range of skill sets to grow the church—many of which are not taught in seminary or licensing school.

In Methodism, we have a practical understanding of call and ordination: ALL baptized Christians are called to ministry. Elders simply have a specialized call to church ministry which is confirmed by the church. But since the early days of the Methodist movement, we’ve deployed people in ministry as licensed local pastors, lay speakers, and evangelists.

Rediscovering Connectionalism 

Ministry in our house church network has helped me rediscover what is meant by Methodist “connectionalism.” I often see the word used in institutional and bureaucratic ways, but I believe its real power is in relationship and the way we understand ministry. Connectionalism is not a sentimental desire for everyone in church to know each other. We are connectional because we are all—clergy and laypeople—called to ministry, and are most effective in ministry when we work as a team.

The trend for much of the last few decades in church life was for a church to try to become a one-stop shop for its members. We made church buildings into community centers and judged our success by how many people spent huge amounts of time in the church building(s). But house churches take a different approach: we do not create multiple age-level or specialty programs. This hyper-local approach recognizes that we are not called to be all things to all people, but to incarnate God’s reign in and for a specific community. We are A church; not THE church. We are one church because we meet under one roof, but because the one God has called us to incarnate God’s love in multiple places and multiple ways. 

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