The House Church Phenomenon

John ArmstrongThe Church

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.

House church 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.