House Churches

The LA Times has a very interesting article on the rising house church movement. It’s an interesting article, meant for an audience with no real background in what’s going on. I could quibble about the fact they seem to lump all the various house church philosophies together. They say, “The trend goes by several names: house churches, living-room churches, the underground church, the organic church, the simple church, church without walls.” Which really are not just different names but vitally different expressions sharing the idea of a smaller community. These can go from house churches that are just wee established churches, to house churches which emphasize missional aspects, and all sorts of stuff in between. But, those are details that might not stick out except to people who are engaged in this stuff already. So I’m not bothered about it. The article is a solid effort.

A couple of thoughts did stick out to me.

A 2006 survey by Barna’s firm — tracking developments for use by researchers and the media — concluded that 9% of U.S. adults attend house churches weekly, a ninefold increase from the previous decade, and that roughly 70 million Americans have experienced a home service.

That’s a lot of people. My guess, however, is that this isn’t people who only attend house churches, but attend small groups in addition to their regular services. I could be wrong about this.

One of the harshest critics of house churches is David Wells, a professor at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary near Boston and the author of several books on modern Christianity. He describes the movement as “empty of biblical substance. This is not real Christianity.”

Ha! This is rich. Empty of Biblical substance? Not real Christianity. There are some sweeping statements. I wonder what he sees as the Biblical arguments against or how he would define real Christianity. Certainly there are house churches that fit into this. Absolutely, however, there are established churches as well. Wonder why he is defending the older models so much. That kind of hyperbole intrigues me. I dismiss it as mostly ignorance, so it doesn’t bother me, but I do find myself curious about David Wells now. I suspect I would have some disagreements about his views on the Bible and Christianity in general.

“All through his ministry,” Barna said, “Jesus never asked anyone to go to church. He asked people to be the church.”
Spot on. Indeed, there’s even more to this. By establishing churches into building and services we have handed off the responsibilities the Spirit has given each of us. We bring someone to the professional, and abdicate our own abilities and calling and movements. We insist on their finding Jesus within a passive environment, one with only the most rudimentary responses, and we insist on their being first acculturated into the peculiar realities of the church. Our practices are indeed cultural choices not theological ones. Jesus told us what we are to do and what we are to emphasize. Paul gave us further guidelines into what this meant. But what they didn’t give is specific liturgies or static models. Those in the church, however, have confused culture with theology, thinking there are no other options than having a 30 minute sermon spoken by an over-worked man, which follows thirty minutes of various and often dubious songs. We’ve defined church so narrowly we can’t separate rejection of our own models with rejection of Jesus. We’ve built a huge fence around the essence of Jesus’ call and insist everyone match our own opinions on the matter.

We have, in essence, made our traditions into proxies for the Spirit. But Jesus never said Tradition will teach us all things. That’s the Spirit’s role, who uses the thoughts of people in the past to be sure but not to limit or control our own participation with God today.

Yet it is this informal atmosphere that has engendered much of the criticism. Some of it comes from pastors concerned about the potential shrinking of their flocks. For others, it’s a question of whether such free-flowing worship can meet today’s spiritual needs.

The first argument is really it, isn’t it? These new forms of church undermine the hierarchy and power structures. In the past there were a lot of tools and spiritual abuse that could be engaged in order to keep people filling the collection plate. Now that people can go and do their own thing, this assertion of power is entirely undermined. However, those churches who really do participate with the Spirit and engage the fullness of Scripture are not lacking for people. It’s the churches who are in a vague middle ground of shallow spirituality and pop psychology, where Jesus makes an appearance in name but not in substance that are finding themselves in trouble. In the past people would keep going because church was so rigidly defined that people assumed just showing up would do the trick. Now people are realizing there is more to God than the tripe often offered by all too many church leaders. We shouldn’t at all be consumeristic. But, if a person is starving and thirsty they need go somewhere where living water and healthy spiritual food is on the menu.

“These are very inward-looking groups,” Wells said, “because you get people who like each other meeting together in church. Because of those personal bonds, it would be very difficult to preach something jarring or disagreeable to anyone in the group. The church would break up.”

Ha again! Is he talking about house churches or churches in general? This is a precise description of historic Christianity in so many cases. Indeed, a good many house churches were started because these attitudes were overpowering and pervasive in the churches previously attended. I think it’s much easier to be persuasively jarring and disagreeable in a setting where there are personal bonds and trust rather than in a setting where a minister depends on tithes and is basically a set-apart vague authority figure. The state of Christianity in our nation today says that people haven’t been jarred or disagreed with into a state of holiness by established churches.

One Southern California minister, Dave Gibbons, is trying to bridge the gap between traditional and home worship. Gibbons is founding pastor of New Song Church, a 4,000-member Irvine congregation affiliated with the Evangelical Covenant Church. It began as a tiny gathering in his apartment and, nearly 15 years later, is returning to its roots.

Wow. I want to hear how this works. One of my biggest problems with mega-churches is that they are like black-holes, consuming the church around them and sucking up ministers to participate in larger forums. That he is stepping aside, becoming an Apostle again, and letting go of his power and authority is great. I think it will radically change his ecclesial views. I’ve long thought Hybels of Willowcreek should do this. At a certain point a church that large moves past needing the Holy Spirit, as the momentum of money and power and success becomes an artificial foundation. It also takes away that most important aspect of humility, without which it is almost impossible to have real spiritual discernment and move with the rhythms of the Spirit which leads to not only growth among a relatively small demographic but also increased depth and reach into groups of people that might not have any interest in church culture.

“Throughout history,” Finke said, “there have been lots of efforts to get away from the formally structured church. What often happens is that they eventually become larger organizations with more routine and structure. A number of nondenominational churches began as eight people meeting in someone’s living room; eventually they evolved into what they are today.”

Indeed. This is all too true. However, institutionalizing often has taken place because of the difficulties of communication. In order to keep the rhythm of a movement there had to be interaction with the prophets and visionaries of the movement, which often meant travel or other forms of limiting interaction. So there are representatives and those who came first have to establish patterns of authority in order to transmit and organize the new movement. This attracts those who were drawn by the prophets but who themselves are more administrators. Soon the administrators assume the positions of the original prophets and assume that because they are in the same positions they have the same passion and vision. So they assert their administrative authority, standardize the prophetic vision of those who came before because the administrators lack that same creativity and vision, then choose as followers those who match the administrative passion, brushing aside the prophets and visionaries because these folks don’t fit well with the standardized models. The process repeats as the prophets and visionaries feel the restrictions and find freedom outside the established movement.

However, there’s something unique in our era. Communication is no longer depended on representative control. There are means of direct and developing interaction between the visionaries and prophets and all those in a movement. Training is no longer dependent on limited means of pedagogy, but can be as varied and situational as needed. Anyone can study now, anyone can learn, anyone can interact directly with the greats of recent and past. Thus there can be a consistency of message without insisting on hierarchical control of the transmission of that message. Which cuts out the middlemen, those pastors and leaders who have long fancied themselves the arbiters of the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit is out and about, doing a work, and is no longer limited by the attempts at power and control that established churches have insisted upon. This doesn’t mean that house churches are perfect, but it does mean they are no less perfect than established churches and oftentimes more effective as they can engage in a freedom and fluidity that all too often entirely hamstrings a traditional style church.

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