The problem with house churches

July 17, 2008

church / ministry / theology

Before I moved to Atlanta, I spent the last period of my residence in Lakeland, Florida as part of a house church. I feel blessed and privileged to have been a part of that community.

The interesting thing is what kind of responses I got back then, if I told someone that I was part of a house church. Essentially, these responses varied from, “Oh, you go to a Sunday evening Bible study. That’s great for you.” (with a warning to ensure that I wasn’t part of a cult) to “Oh, that’s great. My church has those, too. We just call them Sunday Schools small groups cell groups life groups house churches. Then, the church meets together on Sunday mornings.”

I’m sure you can catch the implication that is in both of these responses. I don’t necessarily believe that the respondents were intentionally trying to either reduce the community to a Bible study, or assume that they already understood what was going on because it went on in their churches. But I do believe that this is an issue that is worthy of consideration.

The state of house churches

In the United States, there is a movement away from the building-based churches of the past 1,600+ years and toward smaller, less building-based churches that you could call house churches. George Barna believes that these churches (and their attendees), which are not housed in church buildings (whether they are cathedrals or shopping malls) will outnumber those that are housed in church buildings within just a decade or two.

Understand that we in the United States are behind the rest of the world in this trend, as the remnants of Christendom have stronger influence here than in other countries. As postmodernism and postcolonialism are two sides of the same coin, Christendom on the earth will hopefully have its days numbered.

You can read more about this in his book Revolution. These churches do not all necessarily meet in homes, as they might meet in bars, coffeeshops, nightclubs, or other neutral spaces. The main point is that they forgo the use of “religious spaces.”

A large percentage of these house churches, as my friend Brad Culver says, function in such a way that they try to transplant a traditional, building-based church into a home, or other space. So, this kind of church maintains an identical ecclesiology to the church on the corner. This is what we encounter when people believe that they already understand what a house church is, simply because their own church has small groups that meet in homes.

There is also a percentage, which I believe is probably growing, of house churches that function as a community of people that are angry with the traditional church. Many of these churches do have a genuine hunger to create something different for those who are angry, or hurt, or rejected by the traditional church, but because there is such a root of bitterness they will almost certainly be unsuccessful in truly finding the heart of God.

In alternative ministry, where my wife and I function, this is extremely common. You may be aware of the fact that alternative subcultures (punk, goth, metal, retro, etc.) are to a large extent rebellion against modern culture. They identified many of its shortcomings with incredible perception, and railed against them. In this sense, when they arose in the 60s and 70s, they were the first manifestation of postmodernism outside universities.

But because many of them, in their defining periods as subcultures, defined themselves by what they were against rather than what they were for, there is a potential for deep seeded anger and resentment (this is similar to the deep seeded anger and resentment that many Christians have for the secular world that they have railed against). Thus, when these subcultures are reached by the message of Jesus, they often retain their anger and resentment, and when the traditional church does not accept them in the way they function as a church or the way they function as people, this anger and resentment is turned against the traditional church as well.

Certainly, this kind of church, based on rebellion and bitterness, is not unique to alternative ministry or to the house church movement, and not all (or even most) alternative churches are characterized by this kind of foundation, but it is something against which these churches must intentionally guard themselves.

Finally, there are house churches that function as part of a genuine move of God that is happening in the earth. I want to again glean from the wisdom of Brad Culver, who calls his own community a “micro-missional faith community.” In this sense, he is able to define what his community is rather than having to defend what it is not.

In any case, these kind of communities have a beautiful potential for variety, and we can look at what they are like in another post.