I still appreciate the institutional church. I’ve spent most of my life in such churches, leading them, speaking to them, attempting to nurture believers in them. I have most of my memories of God’s work in my life related to them. Almost every church I speak to today is an institutional one. I haven’t given up on this model, but I think I have discovered something far better for meeting my expectations of church life and my compelling interests as a Christian leader.
I’m also aware that some of my friends who are in traditional churches misunderstand a church like ours. They have reason to be cautious. I’ll admit that many, if not most, house churches I’ve read about could never be fully satisfying to me either. Many are embarrassingly dismissive of sister traditional churches for one thing. And most, frankly, are missing depth and form and leadership and doctrine in the way I believe the Scriptures demand.
Christ Fellowship of Kansas City is in some ways unique as far as the house church world is concerned. If you have read in this area, you will see this easily. We are one church with multiple congregations meeting in homes, rather than a single, unaffiliated, group. And we pay very close attention to doctrine and discipline and leadership and the ordinances. We are our own brand to be sure, but at the same time share some features with other churches that are both traditional and house-oriented.
Come with me into the house church way of life (the way we experience it) as I attempt to describe some of its features.
Our Sunday Meeting in Homes
I’m one of five elders of our church, but we meet in six homes around the city. A designated leader who will potentially become an elder leads the sixth one. Four are in the northland of Kansas City (Weston, Kearney, Parkville, and one in my area that we call, “the Northland Congregation”). Our two newest congregations are in the south, in Lee’s Summit and around the Grandview Triangle.
It’s Sunday morning. Our meetings will not take place until the afternoon, so some of the men go to religious centers other than Christ Fellowship on Sunday mornings. These are religious groups that we believe do not present the gospel clearly, if at all. We enter into their class discussion over the months and enjoy building relationships, asking questions, and loving new friends. Like we would do in any church, we encourage any believers we might find, and challenge unbelievers with the demands of the gospel. We are totally up front about our church membership. Amazingly, our men are sometimes asked to teach or lead in these classes. Often we are the only ones with a personal Bible in hand, and some clear answers. Others in our church get up late, to perhaps read, relax, and enjoy their families or friends prior to our meeting time .
Sunday afternoon at 4:00, the Northland congregation gathers at one of two homes in our area. This is our main meeting of the week. The other congregations are coming together at close to the same time also. We share warm greetings as people come into the home, hugging the kids and each other. The ladies place their food items on the counter. There are plenty of crockpots. Salads go into the empty spaces of the refrigerator. The coffee is brewing. Good smells are everywhere.
When people arrive to the Northland Congregation home, the children head upstairs immediately to meet with Karen Eppler. She has designed some Scripture memory material that has been outstanding. Each child has his or her notebook with special photos on the cover and throughout. For a half an hour or so, the kids work on singing their memorized verses and talking about important concepts. In our congregation, the kids often sing what they have learned so all of us can benefit.
We almost always start our meeting in the family room after 4:30, but we have good intentions of starting on time. Actually, nobody is bothered about time much. This is a believer’s meeting, for the most part. We do have unbelieving children among us, however. We actually do not encourage the church to bring unconverted people to these meetings until they are true seekers. Before that, we ask our people to work with them privately as much as possible. When it is time, and they are ready, they may come into our meetings. We do things that believers do and that unbelievers will not understand during our time together.
We mix up the order of the meetings however we wish, but, after a few words about upcoming activities, we often sing first. In our house, we use a notebook of songs we put together. But other congregations simply write out songs on sheets. We might sing spontaneously at other times also. In all our congregations there are musicians. Children who play instruments are excited to help out with their guitars, violins, flutes, cellos or piano, alongside some adult musicians. In our congregation right now, we have a piano and guitar. Sometimes our pianist plays the violin instead.
Next, we usually have our open session. This might last for 30-40 minutes. Sometimes, if the group has grown larger, it could last even longer. During this time the members speak to each other about the riches of Christ, the way God has dealt with them this last week, evangelistic encounters, prayers answered and prayers needed. Some of the men may have us open the Word so that they can teach us some short message. Recently a thoughtful poem was read and a violin arrangement of a familiar Christian song was played. All of this is followed by a long prayertime in which every item brought forward during the open session is brought before God. This prayertime may last 30 minutes.
Sometimes we have this open session around the table after our meal. This is a shift that sometimes improves things for the children because it breaks up our lengthy meetings—and we have plenty of children to think about.
Some of the congregations will supply a nursery for those who want it. Others just point people to a room or two where a parent may go with a child or baby. One room usually has baby monitor in it so that the parent can hear what is happening in the family room. Each congregation may do what it wishes with its children. Most parents like to do what they can to train their children to stay quietly in the meeting, but not all children cooperate well at first. Some parents allow their children to play on the carpet in an adjacent room while they sit at an opening into the family room. Since there is a spirit of a family reunion about the meeting, these adjustments are perfectly understood.
We always have a serious Bible exposition also, usually by an elder. However, other men also take this responsibility if they are so gifted. This message is usually more dialogical and is done sitting down. By the way, we try to avoid rows of chairs, but prefer making the atmosphere casual.
The Lord’s Meal
Following this more in-depth teaching, we break for a meal, the Lord’s Supper. After the wives have gotten the food ready, and someone has prepared the symbolic elements of the Supper, we take these elements together. However, variety abounds. We believe the meal itself, along with the symbolic cup and bread, make up the actual Lord’s Supper. In most of our congregations, the men take turns directing our thoughts to something about Christ. In our congregation, we pick up the elements of the Lord's Supper and take them along with our meal. Most often this is not a somber time, but a celebratory experience. In doing it, we are commemorating His death. The Bible does not say that thinking about His death is the requirement (though we do that), but that doing it is what memorializes His offering for sin. Our view is that only local church members may take the symbolic elements of the Supper. Others join us for the meal, but our taking of the communion symbols is an act of true fellowship within the community of those who are subject to the authority and discipline of the church.
What a feast we enjoy! Because the meal starts at about 7:00 or even 7:15, the kids are hungry, though most parents have learned to give them a snack just before we meet at 4:30. Adults always go first through the line, and children learn to come to the line last. We want to teach them respect for the adults instead of “the right” to be first in line. We also teach them not to take more on their plates than they will eat. They can come back later for more if needed. Of course, adults with small children may precede the adults in general. This meal lasts a long time and is characterized by good conversation about what has been taught, or other questions and ideas. Lots of laughter also characterizes this time. Sometimes special needs are presented to the group giving a chance for other believers to give their counsel.
Offerings are collected in a box in each home congregation. These funds are to take care of their own needs, any benevolence inside or outside the congregation, and missions giving. Each congregation has its own bank account. Twice a year we have a special emphasis on missions, but people may contribute each week, if they wish, toward our missions needs. Each congregation determines its mission causes to support. Since each congregation keeps a certain portion each week for its own needs, some money is always accruing. and some of that money may also be added to support missions work. Remaining income is sent to the Ministry Center for use by the whole church. The hostess is always given $25 for expenses that might occur, or for such incidentals as electric expenses. By the way, some of the elders are given some money by the churches. Individuals may indicate how much of their check is to be put in the "Elder Support" fund. That money is equally divided between our pastors, but a pastor may opt to leave part of his portion to be divided among the others if he wishes. All pastors are bi-vocational, or trust God for the rest of the money they need.
Each congregation sets up a book table, filled with good literature. We subsidize the people’s reading by giving them half price for all the books they will read. The books are purchased by the Ministry Center and are re-divided between the congregations at every multi-congregational meeting. At that meeting, all the books are out. Anyone attending is permitted to have this discount. However, they are not allowed to buy books for those outside the church for half price. Most believers will say that they have read more since being in our church than ever before this time. Some of the CCW books are there free of charge, bought by the church to help with the people’s evangelism. Often members go out with a handful for distribution that week.
That’s Sunday. The people came at 4:30, but do not leave until 8:30 at the earliest. Often their departure is closer to 9:30 or 10:00. It’s difficult to leave such good friends.
Elders at Work
During the week the elders mentor every man in the church. All the men participate, though some have unusual work situations making conventional methods more difficult. I meet with my men at Panera Bread at 6 a.m. each Tuesday morning. One other brother, who works 60 hours a week in two jobs, is mentored in other ways, such as through phone conversations, or extra time following our regular home meeting. We know the state of every family this way, and we are able to monitor and encourage growth, take care of issues, plan and encourage each other. Of course, some men who are not elders also meet together to train or mutually encourage other men on their own.
I do not want to fail to mention the elders’ relationships. We are best friends. We meet weekly for a supper at a grocery store salad buffet and have a meeting of about four hours. It is lively. After carefully going through the events and needs of each congregation, we pray and work on a Bible-oriented project together. We recently spent two years on the subject of divorce and remarriage. Our study will turn into a book. Some of our studies are put on our website; others are for our elder’s use alone. We are intent upon writing our studies down in a document as a study method, fine-tuning them until they seem just right.
We are growing in size steadily and sometimes faster than we had planned. The elders have retreats once or twice a year for our spiritual benefit. We discussed our growth and how it is to be handled, and we also spend a long time praying and trying to understand better what praying in faith is all about. We really see ourselves as a team.
We are not family integrationists, though we love for families to worship together. Our youth meet each week on the same Wednesday evening that their parents meet. Gathering in a home, either the men or the women study the Scriptures in series lasting approximately six weeks. Typically this means that the men or women will meet in the family room of a home, while the young people meet in another room upstairs or in the basement. At present, there are about 16-17 youth. An intern leads them through exegesis of Scripture. They have studied Romans over 53 weeks, and are always through some book of the Bible, verse by verse. They prefer it this way. The men recently have been going through some Bible studies on finances. The discussions have been lively. Some are cutting up credit cards and making new commitments to God related to money and possessions. It has been a life-changing few weeks. The ladies are asking to have the same study following the men’s series.
Every six to eight weeks our home congregations come together at the Heartland Retreat Center for our multi-congregational meeting. All five congregations make a pretty good crowd for us, filling the large fireplace room. We have two messages by our pastors, with a meal in-between. We love getting to be with the others so often, but if we did it more often than we do, something of the specialness of it would be lost. The pastors preach behind a podium. That is a real contrast to our sit-down, dialogical messages in the home congregations. We just had our annual “Bee Creek Shelter” meeting this last Sunday. We met in the morning at a park inside an old tobacco barn refurbished for group use. We have breakfast, followed by one message at this annual event, then lunch and an afternoon of fellowship while the kids play. There are a few other unique multi-congregational meetings like this from time to time, and some picnics or softball games, but those take place on days other than Sunday. We are completely flexible since communication is so easy. Our next Heartland meeting will include a guest speaker, Dr. Steve Wellum, from Southern Seminary. He will speak twice on Hebrews.
Additional ministries and meetings are organized by individual members. Some invite others to help in evangelism projects, some ladies with small children meet at the park weekly, some help each other out in homeschooling, other mature men build discipling relationships. There are Bible studies at work, and work projects on Saturdays. Hospitality abounds. We’re not monitoring all of this as elders. It just happens with our blessing. There have been missions trips, and conference trips as well. Two of our men are being sent to the conference on adoption taking place soon, for instance. They are hopeful of helping couples in this area. In fact, some children have already been adopted.
I always feel it is incumbent to say that we do not talk down traditional meeting patterns. We are not on a campaign about house churches. We do not think our way is the only way—not at all. But we do want others to think through this pattern. Perhaps there are leaders who are in a position to begin such a work in another city. Or maybe there are other leaders who are to join with us here. Or there might be traditional churches that wish to expand through house churches. We want to allow our few years of experience to motivate and instruct you. Where we have made mistakes, we think we can help you avoid them. Where we have seen good things, we want you to be able to see if they apply to you. Our documents are available for you to adopt or adapt with proper acknowledgment so that outside readers can contact us when they have questions and read the original documents if they have been altered.
Finally, it might seem strange that I would write about our church since I’m designing this for my ministry website. In my view, all roads lead first to Christ and to His church. Our ministry is all about the local church. The house church is one model to consider among many others. Most of our articles are adaptable by any kind of church, but I still want leaders everywhere to consider biblical models of church life. I have to admit that I’ve never been in a church so well-ordered. Every member is accounted for every day. It is doctrinally sound and unified. Evangelism is seen at every turn. Faith and prayer are exercised and needs are being met. God is enriching our lives as never before because we can use our gifts, and through relationships we can be challenged to be more than we were. We are not perfect, but we have had a lot of joy and growth so far. I hope that leaders who do not buy in to our method will be able to see its structure more clearly now, and will recognize certain benefits which we enjoy. We are workers together with you all.
Copyright © 2008 Jim Elliff
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