One of the latest hot religious trends is without question the house church movement. Partly a reaction to the megachurches of the '90s (and today) many people are rejecting the overly produced church shows in stadium sized auditoriums, sometimes in actual stadiums. They recognize a need for something more genuine, and a religious expression that is not simply left to professions that one goes to watch. There is a desire for participatory religion. That's not a bad thing at all. I have no issue with real churches--as opposed to the above mentioned religious 'events'--of any size. The Jerusalem church of the early chapters of Acts clearly numbered in the thousands.
But there are some issues of concern, I think. A couple of weeks ago TIME Magazine took a look at house churches and, well, I'm just now getting around to posting about it.
TIME certainly shows well the type of church the house church movement is about:
On a Sunday at their modest, gray ranch house in the Denver suburb of Englewood, Tim and Jeanine Pynes gather with four other Christians for an evening of fellowship, food and faith. Jeanine's spicy rigatoni precedes a yogurt-and-wafer confection by Ann Moore, none of the food violating the group's solemn commitment to Weight Watchers. The participants, who have pooled resources for baby sitting, discuss a planned missionary trip and sing along with a CD by the Christian crossover group Sixpence None the Richer. One of the lyrics, presumably written in Jesus' voice, runs, "I'm here, I'm closer than your breath/ I've conquered even death." That leads to earnest discussion of a friend's suicide, which flows into an exercise in which each participant brings something to the table--a personal issue, a faith question--and the group offers talk and prayer. Its members read from the New Testament's Epistle to the Hebrews, observe a mindful silence and share a hymn.
The meeting could be a sidebar gathering of almost any church in the country but for a ceramic vessel of red wine on the dinner table--offered in communion. Because the dinner, it turns out, is no mere Bible study, 12-step meeting or other pendant to Sunday service at a Denver megachurch. It is the service. There is no pastor, choir or sermon--just six believers and Jesus among them, closer than their breath. Or so thinks Jeanine, who two years ago abandoned a large congregation for the burgeoning movement known in evangelical circles as "house churching," "home churching" or "simple church." The week she left, she says, "I cried every day." But the home service flourished, grew to 40 people and then divided into five smaller groups. One participant at the Pyneses' house, a retired pastor named John White, also attends a conventional church, where he gives classes on how to found, or plant, the house variety. "Church," he says, "is not just about a meeting." Jeanine is a passionate convert: "I'd never go back to a traditional church. I love what we're doing."
Now that type of Christian closeness is attractive. And, I would argue, shows the kind of close personal relationships that Christians ought to have. But in reaction to the megachurch drift away from intimacy and personal relationships, and focus on public worship, the house church movement essentially has swung the opposite direction. They have done away with public worship and replaced it with the intimate relationship.
Now, there is a certain attraction for restorationists to house churches. It strikes us as more genuinely expressive of New Testament Christianity. Didn't those in the New Testament frequently meet in homes? Certainly they did. this is the premise of F. LaGard Smith's wildly popular book, Radical Restoration, which lays out a blueprint for doing house church the LaGard Smith way. And many groups have left more traditional and established congregations, some with purer motives than others, in order to break the bonds of Traditionalism in order again to restore the church to the way God intended.
Although I poke a little fun there, those of us interested in the restoration of New Testament worship must always remember that it is always an ongoing work. Each generation can calcify expediency to tradition. My recent overseas work reminds me of that danger. We must be careful that the 20th Century American way (the model I am familiar with) is not confused with the First Century New Testament way, regardless of how well the two may harmonize.
The point is that it is well that we have those who ask questions and challenge, even those we may consider gadflies, as they require that we are ever justifying ourselves by Scripture and not simply preference.
That said, some of those drawn to the house church movement strike me as sophisticates who are rising above the bounds of traditionalism qua traditionalism. They border on gnostics who have discerned a New Way known to them but not appreciated by the masses. Thus there is a removal from Biblical responsibility, which is in part reflected in the local church leadership:
More recent arrangements can seem more ad hoc. Tim and Susie Grade moved to Denver a year ago. They had attended cell groups subsidiary to Sunday services but were delighted to learn that their new neighbors Tim and Michelle Fox longed for a house church like the ones they had seen overseas. Now they and seven other twenty- and thirtysomethings mix a fairly formal weekly communion with a laid-back laying on of hands, semiconfessional "sharing" and a guitar sing-along. Says Tim: "We have some people who come from regular churches, and were a little disenfranchised. And people who joined because of friendships, and people who are kind of hurting, kind of searching. My age group and younger are seeking spiritual things that they have not found elsewhere."
Critics fret that small, pastorless groups can become doctrinally or even socially unmoored. Thom Rainer, a Southern Baptist who has written extensively on church growth, says, "I have no problem with where a church meets, [but] I do think that there are some house churches that, in their desire to move in different directions, have perhaps moved from biblical accountability." In extreme circumstances home churches dominated by magnetic but unorthodox leaders can shade over the line into cults.
So I wonder what Biblical accountability house churches are holding themselves to. Are they striving for elders as Paul commanded should be appointed in every church. The New Testament example also points to churches with permanence, that would last beyond one family's job transfer. House churches tend to be anonymous and fleeting by their very nature. I have no issue at all with churches meeting in homes, but the new 'house churches' often seem to be a different kind of animal.
The danger of anti-traditionalism is the never ending search for novelty, the desire simply to be different. It can become a conceit that the initiates are not only on the cutting edge, but are on a superior spiritual plane. Very often it will lead to that loss of Biblical mooring the article mentions, the introduction of heresies and the ultimate loss of faith of its participants.
Will that happen in every situation? No, it won't. But I'm generally of the belief that most areas really do not need more churches; they need churches with more focus. Those frustrated with an existing congregation's direction in many cases would do well to put in the patient hard work to help bring a more Godly focus to that group. I recognize that is not always possible. But it seems to me that a retreat to the kitchen table isn't really the answer.