Reforming the Home Church

John ArmstrongAmerican Evangelicalism, Missional Church, The Church

Yesterday I reported on the growing home church movement and gave some reasons why this development is happening. I have to say that I see this movement in a more positive light than some I know but I believe the impulse of true reformation is needed here as everywhere else. Toward this end I ask some questions about the home church movement.

UR Church 1. Can such a movement genuinely thrive if there is not more emphasis on teaching and preaching the Word?

I think the answer is a qualified no. Regardless of how teachers are chosen and equipped they will always be needed in the church. A church without gifted teachers proclaiming “the whole counsel of God” will not be healthy if the New Testament is really our model. This does not mean we need "clergy" or a hierarchical arrangement, simply that we need gifted teachers. It also doesn't mean that such teachers must be in a special class of "ministers" in order to be genuinely gifted and given to the church.

Most home churches seem to treat teaching as they do singing and sharing. It should come from all the people thus no one (or two or three) is seen as gifted and enabled to teach others as a mature Christian thinker and biblical teacher. For a movement centered so much on the Word this could be a huge oversight and will have to be corrected if the home church is to experience ongoing reformation. Again, please read my words very carefully. I have provided some significant qualifications but my point still stands unless you make 1 Corinthians 14 the sole model of all biblical worship. Even if this is "the model" you would still have to read a good deal into this text, without the fullness of the larger New Testament witness to the role of teaching in worship, to not see my point.

2. Can such a movement thrive if there is not more interaction and development between home churches, much less non-home churches that are also real churches?

In some ways this question is rooted in the concept of networking and wider relationships with the whole church. In my terms this is the missional-ecumenism I speak about all the time. Home church can become a dynamic movement for vital Christianity but it will need to avoid becoming an expression of the church that ignores or disdains the rest of Christ’s people and churches. Home churches run the very serious risk of becoming ingrown small groups with little vision beyond themselves!

3. Is there a temptation here to rely on spontaneity as the sole basis for authentic ministry in the church? (This question is more about reductionism than anything else.)

I think the answer should be obvious. This temptation to the home church is real and should be faced honestly by those who are leaders (even if not recognized as such) in the home church movement. This movement could profit from larger gatherings where home churches meet one another and sense how great is the larger potential of the Christian church in a city or community. It would also profit from interaction and teaching that stretches the members beyond their simplicity and comfort zone. I can see this movement growing among middle class people and largely leaving the poor and uneducated alone. This will need attention if the movement is to mature.

4. Are home churches anti-liturgical?

Grapes It seems that this is true. Liturgy is seen as simple or non-existent. This can be a positive but it can also be a huge negative. The Lord’s Supper can quickly become nothing more than a “new” ritual without a deep theology to sustain its real meaning. And baptism becomes a form of self-expression without a deep meaning rooted in the covenant and the grace of God expressed to the baptized.

While some churches are liturgical in ways that most people do not understand the answer to this problem is not the throw out the bath water with the baby. The answer is to address the biblical and theological issue of sacraments and their role in the worship and life of the community.

All church gatherings have some liturgical form. The home church follows a script, written or unwritten. Before long the forms will become normative and expected and the church will stop the reforming process. This will harm the movement.

5. What is the role of offerings and money in the home church?

The report by Linda Stewart Bell in the aforementioned AP report on the home church showed that many of these churches do not know how to handle the issue of money and offerings. Most, according to her report, do not take regular offerings. While this may prove to foster genuine opportunity for real response to needs in the group it will cause the group to shrivel spiritually if people are not taught to give generously to the kingdom of God. This leads us right back to Question 2 above. These churches need to have a missional mindset and giving is always a major part of such a mindset. 

6. What will house churches do if they succeed?

Movements come and go but the church remains. It may be found in many expressions and the home church is one of these. If the home church succeeds, and grows, then what? Most will divide and start new home churches that remain smaller. This is a positive I think. But if they do not establish strong missional focus on the world they will fail the Great Commission test. Simply dividing and creating more home churches is not a long term goal in my view.

Tony Dale, a leader in the home church movement, told Linda Stewart Bell, “I’d say the vast majority of house churches we know are Christians honestly trying to live 24-7 for Jesus.” This movement, sometimes called organic church or simple church, is not going away. I have seen it firsthand and see much to like. I plan to give more attention to such expressions of the church in the years ahead because I think these churches could play a vital role in renewal and positive ecumenism. I fear, however, that right now these roles are not seen as high priority in this young movement.

7. Can house churches be truly inter-generational?

Simply put can house churches be inclusive of all ages and ethnic people groups? Obviously they can, and should be, but are they? My own sense of the house church movement is that it is in a state of maturing and things will improve. For now there is still a great danger that house churches are more an expression of negative experiences inside traditional Western church forms than an expression of deep missional faith. There are clear exceptions I know. My meeting with house church leaders and people across America has made this clear to me. But I sense there is still a lot of church development that is needed if these congregations are to help unite us all as the people of the one Christ. 

I am more positive than negative to the house church movement. I have taught and worshiped in some really wonderful house churches. I believe this movement is not a fad and we should expect it to keep growing. The question then is clear: "How do we proceed in a way that does not further divide the people of God into various tribes?"