Since the 1960s I have followed the rise and fall of "house church" congregations in America. I even attended one in college, in the 1960s. House church is not a new phenomenon for sure. Such congregations where part and parcel of the earliest expressions of Christian community. No one who reads the New Testament doubts this fact. But in time, when persecution died down and the church was able to meet in the open, the house church became less and less important to Christian practice.
Today, in places where state persecution requires it, the house church still thrives; e.g., rural China. But what about America? A surprising figure, tucked in a recent Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life poll, suggested that the number of Americans who say "they attend religious services in someone's home" is now at seven percent. I would have guessed 1%, or maybe 2%, but never 7%. If this is true it is a staggering development, at least to my mind.
Six percent of Americans says they are atheists. And Jews are two percent of the population. Sixteen percent of Americans say their religion is none, the fastest growing category of all. But seven percent are attending church in homes. I am personally stunned. I think there are a myriad of reasons for this movement, some discouraging and some exciting.
I am discouraged by the corporate expressions of rebellion that are often connected to Protestantism in America. I am also distressed by the "easy going" kind of ecclessiology that is represented by some of this trend. In addition, some of this is nothing more than sectarian primitivism. By this I refer to those Christians who think they are the "real believers" and thus they will drop out of all other (unfaithful) churches and turn against other Christians as the enemy of the faith held by the pure house church movement. These folks talk about the house church as if this is the God-ordained way to be the true church and all other expressions are weak, compromised or even wrong.
But I think much more is going on that is good than most know. Americans do defy mainstream conceptions and this is not all bad, especially when it comes to working and praying for reformation. One professor of religious history says, "What's going on is a kind of de-institutionalization of religious life." Is this good or bad? It all depends. Given the state of the church in America, with all its emphasis on programs, buildings, branding and marketing I think this response could very easily become a healthy one. I suspect I am not alone in thinking that church as we know it is in deep trouble in America.
Large churches stress "small groups" as a kind of programmatic way for solving certain problems and for creating community. Again, this is a mixed bag. The mega-churches feel like super-stores to me. I have attended a few recently and just found sitting in theater seats and listening to applause for what happened on a big screen a bit much for my own soul. David Kinnaman, who is the president of the Barna Research Group, says many Christians "are expressing disappointment that the congregational models have become so consumerist." House churches are simple, organic and feel more like a microbrew than a Budweiser (Lisa Miller in Newsweek, January 11, 2010).
But Protestants will continue to argue over what constitutes a valid church. This model will not solve that problem, in fact it may increase it. Is a liturgy needed? What about elders and ministers? What practices are right and wrong? Micro-churches will need shepherding if I understand the New Testament and human nature. What sets apart house churches is the fact that everyone contributes and no one becomes a spectator.
Question: Are people drawn to house churches for the same reason that many of them are drawn to homeschooling and to their opposition to institutional authority?
This movement is not entirely Protestant. There is a Catholic movement for social justice that also starts such home churches. The Catholic mass does not need a cathedral to be said and used properly. And I know several large (traditional) churches that are now planting house churches as a way to evangelize unreached areas of exurbia and the inner cities of America. They are training and preparing key leaders to launch new churches in their neighborhoods without a commitment to build a building or call a typical "full-time" pastor.
Robert Putnam, a Harvard Kennedy School professor, is finishing a book on the phenomenon of the sixteen percent of Americans who are the "nones." He says, "There's going to be a new set of religious entrepreneurs, leaders." He adds, "I'll bet you my firstborn that Rick Warren is looking at the same numbers and trying to pull his church in this direction." He may be right about this. I know some pastors of large churches who are at least exploring this present reality and becoming open to the house church movement.
Question: Is all of this simply the new fad in evangelicalism or is this a fresh wind of the Spirit preparing us to do church in a way that will be fresh and faithful at the same time?
People are rejecting the "one size fits all" approach in the culture. Perhaps the same is happening in the church and this movement will become more than a reaction to what is but an actual vehicle of grace to bring about new conversions and lead to missional-ecumenism at the same time. I know one thing for sure. This statistic got my attention profoundly thus I am watching this trend very carefully in the coming years. Could the Spirit be preparing a new generation for a new era of both suffering and growth? Could be. It is at least worth asking and watching with more prayerful interest.
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It may be that my sample is biased and not representative. But I attend a mega church and it is full of the home school, anti-institutional (but conservative) families. But the ones that I know that attend and lead house churches are almost all focused on marginal groups (fairly low income, 20 and 30 somethings that have mostly dropped out of middle class society, lots of former alcoholics and drug addicts, fair amount of mental illness.)
While I think there are weaknesses in both mega churches and house churches, my experience is that it is these two extremes that are most focused on evangelism of those that are currently outside the church.
“Greet also the church that meets at their house” (Rom 16:5) I know a friend of mine who began his own house church ministry at his home. Mainly because he was disillusioned by the church politics in his former traditional church. It is run very informally, emphasizing in group Bible study and fellowship. In China and other countries that persecute Christianity, many underground house churches prosper. It is out of necessity.
There is no such beast as a “house” church.
Philemon 1:1 Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother,
To Philemon our beloved friend and fellow laborer, 2 to the beloved Apphia, Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house:
Romans 16:3 Greet Priscilla and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus, 4 who risked their own necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks, but also all the churches of the Gentiles. 5 Likewise greet the church that is in their house
There are churches that meet IN a house. The church that meets in a warehouse, do we call it a “WAREHOUSE CHURCH”?
Some of the blame must be passed onto the pastor and others when they pray, ” Lord, thank you for our gathering here today in THE HOUSE OF GOD.” No building of any type has been or ever will be THE HOUSE of GOD.
I think the move of the Spirit that you ask about, John, is not House Church but rather learning to BE the church.
The programatic nature of most institutional churches has gotten in the way of living the kingdom. I think people are reacting to that and trying house church. But, ultimately, what we yearn for is to be a part of the true expression of the body of Christ.
I’m not referring to sectarianism, but rather how do we manifest the reality of the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth? Running around fulfilling my lead pastor’s vision is a far cry and I think a lot of people are waking up to that fact. 7% to be more specific.
It’s not just that people are rebelling against corporate mega-churches. In my small-town, mainline setting, several people I know are simply against the “institutional” church. I find myself confronted with fathers who feel they have the authority to baptize their own kids and other families who band together on seemingly minor preferences.
It seems to me that many wrongly conceptualize what house churches were in Acts. These weren’t three-bedroom ranch houses. These were the homes of wealthy benefactors, with large spaces that could hold many dozens of people (think of the 120 in Acts 1:15). See also an informative article in The Book of Acts In Its First Century Setting, Vol. 2, ed. by David Gill called “Acts and the House Church” for more on this.
I wrote about this subject on my blog last fall. http://allenpatrick.blogspot.com/2009/10/ada-herald-pastors-pen-article-october_6970.html
I’d be interested for any feedback… Blessings, Patrick
Dr. Ruth Tucker has delivered an excellent overview of the historical and modern house church movement. The full text is available on a website she created:
After hearing her speak on this topic, I asked her: “Do you know of any example of a house-church movement which maintained a healthy, non-antagonistic relationship to the other parts of the Body of Christ?” She said that she could not think of a single one. And she added that this does seem to be a crucial issue on which a house church — or any church, for that matter — will stand or fall.
House church leaders tend to be do-it-yourselfers. They want to reinvent the church and rebuild it from the very foundations. But no one can do that. Not even the Reformers (Luther, Calvin et al) pretended to do that. House churches may exhibit the very best in Christian community, in a very local sense. And they may represent the very worst in Christian community, in the wider sense of Christian unity, ecclesiology and tradition — the “communion of saints” as the Apostles’ Creed puts it.
I’ve been looking for a church since I moved, and I have been very interested in Apex in Dayton, OH ( http://www.apexcommunity.org ). It seems to be something of a hybrid – there’s weekend services as usual, but they have a network of house churches around the Dayton area that you’re encouraged to become part of that meet during the week. I haven’t visited one yet, but I’m planning to shortly.
I think there’s two main reasons why the house church idea interests me. First, I spent four years in China as part of a university-organized missions-focused English teaching program, and our team of 30+ felt much like a house church (we occasionally debated if we constituted an actual separate church, and concluded that we were just a parachurch organization). Second, I’m a bit of a loner by nature, and see a house church as a good possibility for really becoming part of a close group of believers, similar to what I had in China (something that doesn’t seem as likely with a “typical” church).
I envision an ideal situation in which an established church is willing to embrace, facilitate and assist the ministry of one or several “home” churches. The home churches would benefit from some connection with the larger body through access to resources, certain administrative functions, general guidance and accountability, and occasional participation in larger worship and ministry events. The larger church would benefit from the arrangement by knowing that it is facilitating ministries it could not accomplish otherwise (e.g., home church groups often serve the community in unique ways). Of course, only a healthy church that embraces missional ecumenism would be capable of supporting such home groups without trying to control them doctrinally and financially.
Mark Erickson is right. The most successful churches in Brazil are neither House Churches nor Mega Churches. They are BOTH AND. Hybrid. I recently spent the afternoon with the pastor of one of these HUGE churches. Ten years ago he was struggling to keep a church of 1000 together. Today he runs 40,000 on a Sunday and almost everyone is involved in the Wednesday Night House Church meetings. They have over a thousand House churches. This is a model I believe will become practical because right now “conventional” church alone doesn’t seem to work. Neither does House Church alone.