The church is a people ... No, really!

February 4th, 2016

When we were starting out, our new church met in my house each month. 40 people crammed into my living room and spilled into the dining room, up the stairs, and even onto the porch.

I’d often tell people about our new church. I’d tell them of our vision to become a diverse community of sinners, saints and skeptics. I’d watch their eyes light up and then I’d invite them to church.

“Where is your church?”

“We meet at my house.”

“Oh. Well, let me know when you get a building, and I’ll come visit.”

I heard this so often, I felt like I was reading from a script. Occasionally, if I felt my conversation partner would understand, I would reply with the words to a song I learned as a child: “The church is not a building; the church is not a steeple; the church is not a resting place, the church is a people!”

The belief that churches are buildings is tenacious and deeply ingrained among God’s people. I know it was for me. I’ve worshipped in houses in Zambia and Bolivia, but returned home with the colonialist attitude that “house churches” are something for developing countries — but not here in the United States. And although I’d heard house church propaganda for decades, I’d been mostly oblivious to this movement of the Holy Spirit until I started planting one. (“House” church is a bit of a misnomer, since they can also meet in pubs, parks or playgrounds.)

The resistance, I’ve found, is not just from churched folks. Unchurched folks, especially in the South, have a fairly traditional understanding of what a church looks like and where and when it’s supposed to meet.

I believe there are two related challenges in helping them understand house churches: A sense of legitimacy and a sense of sacred space.


I get it: People meeting in homes feels a bit cultish. Buildings convey institutional stability, a sense of permanence and presence. A building in a neighborhood that has a parking lot full of cars on Sundays and Wednesdays says to the neighbors, “Look! Things are going on in here!”

Yet both our past and our present emphasize the church being an active presence outside of a church building. The whole Methodist movement began in homes, and some of our most iconic John Wesley stories are of him preaching outside of a church building — on his father’s grave and in the fields. That refrain continues in the present. When I served a large church one of my pressing concerns was encouraging the congregation to develop home-based small groups. “How do we get people to bring church home and into daily practice?” is the theme of countless books written about church leadership.

House churches do not derive their legitimacy or authority from endowments or programs. They derive their legitimacy from the authenticity of their community and the discipleship of their members. A group of people who believe Jesus is in their midst when two or three are gathered together (Matthew 18:20) have all the legitimacy they need. The Holy Spirit makes it feel like a “real” church.

House churches are also uniquely positioned for evangelism, to reach people who distrust institutional authority and have been turned off to established churches. Such folks are looking for spiritually-derived authority, not institutionally-derived authority. For this demographic, house churches may actually feel more legitimate.

Sacred space

When Solomon stands up to invoke God’s blessing on the newly-constructed temple, he asks, “Will God indeed dwell on the earth?” He says that God cannot live in a house, even one so magnificent as the one Solomon had built. (1 Kings 8:27). God shows God’s penchant for showing up wherever God wants throughout the Hebrew Bible — in a burning bush (Exodus 3:4-5) or in a “sound of silence” (1 Kings 19:12).

In the first decades after Jesus, when the church was just forming, they met in homes. They called themselves the “ekklesia” which is Greek for “the called-out ones.” It probably sounded better than “the kicked-out ones,” because that’s what actually happened — they were kicked out of the synagogues, excluded because of their inclusion of Gentiles and their proclamation of Jesus as a crucified messiah.

The early church probably enjoyed the conversation between Jesus and the woman at the well, when he told her that in the new age, people would worship God not at established holy places, but “in spirit and truth” (John 4:23). A thousand years after Solomon, the early church told a story of a God who did indeed dwell on earth, but whom a temple and the heavens still could not contain.


I’m a big fan of useful structures. They can be platforms for deploying ministry. One nearby church just held a Stop Hunger Now event where they packaged half a million meals. I can’t do that in my living room. I’m grateful that a sponsor church allows me to use their workroom to run color copies on a machine that would take up my entire home office.

I suspect increasingly our large-church siblings are going to be resources and helpers for deployment of house churches, especially if we want to reach folks who do not trust steeples or their peoples. House churches are one way that we continue to live out the resurrection, affirming that Jesus is not tied down to any one place or time, because he is risen and on the move.

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

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