I have only six and a half years of experience with a house church model. My inexperience may disqualify me from saying much. Though I don’t want to get older any more quickly, I am anxious to have years of experience so as to speak more convincingly about this concept.
I also do not in any way wish to imply that we are experiencing the absolute “right method,” or that, in fact, other meeting patterns could not be even more blessed of God if He so chooses. In other words, I’m not on a crusade about the house church. However, I sometimes wonder if I’m saying enough. This experience has been so beneficial and stimulating that I sometimes cannot contain my enthusiasm for it.
I have to be careful here for another reason. Churches are like individuals, each having their own personality. The early church met in homes and yet there were diverse experiences among them, unique problems, issues of major and even potentially church-destroying proportions. Read the New Testament to document this. No church model is a panacea.
Though I’ve read almost every book I could find on the house church movement, I find little that grabs me. I have gained something from reading that has made a sort of composite answer about a few issues, granted. Yet, most of what I read about is too loose for us here. Contrary to much of what is going on elsewhere, we have had much joy and profit in constructing an informed and strong leadership base, developing and living within a belief set, defining the necessary boundaries to church life, and practicing church discipline. We expound the Bible each week, though within a surrounding liberty in our meetings. Our elders are always busy working on difficult issues. For instance, we spent nearly two year’s of study on divorce and remarriage. Our work has ended up to be more than a paper, but a book. We want to be well prepared in areas where we do not have the luxury of accepting all views at once. We take the growth of people very seriously.
One writer suggested that house churches first meet for a year and not even talk about the Bible at all, just so that individuals can get to know each other well. That sort of thinking is not for me. In fact, I just don’t comprehend it at all.
What is it that makes the house church model with seriousness about doctrine and practice so appealing to me? There are perhaps many answers to this, but let me reduce my comments to just three points.
First, I can go to bed at night and know that the people in the church are all accounted for.
We have multiple pastors in multiple congregations, each meeting in a home in different parts of the city. The church is not large, but it is persistently growing. But I am not worried unnecessarily about the care of the members in the church, for each pastor is well aware of each person’s situation in his congregation, the difficulties, the problems being faced, their spiritual temperature, etc.
I always tried to have this pastoral confidence throughout my years of church work. It was usually attempted through cell groups within the church. It worked fairly well for those who participated, and we had a very high level of involvement. But this current model has finally provided the assurance of pastoral care that each of us on the pastoral team always longed for. No one is missing; no one is without constant oversight. When I think of the final judgment when every pastor will be called to give an account for his care for each person given to him (cf. Heb 13:17; 1 Cor 3:10-17), I cannot imagine how some pastors will give an account for those they hardly even know. I wish every leader could know the peace of mind that good care for members can bring.
Second, I like the spiritual growth that this model stimulates.
Again, the early church which met in homes had its problems, so not every house church is going to be maturing spiritually like the next one. But we are encouraged about the level of discipleship that we are seeing through these first years, and we think it relates in some way to the model of church life we have.
I’ve been in many hundreds of churches in my conference speaking years, and most have little to show for new levels of maturity being developed in its members. These churches inherit some good leaders, but often do almost nothing to promote spiritual maturity. It is not that pastors do not want it, but church life for them is mostly about a “lowest level of maturity” kind of approach to everything that is done. On the other hand, our model allows us to speak more deeply about truth because we can stop and explain ourselves easier. Each pastor can even take questions right in the middle of his exposition.
We also see spiritual growth in a very large cross-section of the church because of the kind of appreciation for involvement this model promotes. I’m tentative here because I do not want to overstate. We have our problems, our sins, habits, inertia issues, but because of the constant interplay in each other’s lives which our “smallness” provides, these matters are regularly challenged. And with an emphasis on a regenerate membership, true believers most often respond to that interaction and make efforts at improvement. Our people are together often, in ways that are not only planned, but also spontaneous. It makes a huge difference. They talk about spiritual issues, a practice promoted in our intimate gatherings. It carries over.
Smallness helps. It makes many opportunities for growth more “do-able.” For instance, men can grow because they are almost all involved in meeting for a special time of prayer/study one morning a week with their elder where they can talk things out. They have regular Bible study with all the elders at night many weeks of the year where similar freedoms are experienced. They are encouraged to present truths in the open session of our regular congregational meeting, lead in presenting a short homily before the Lord’s supper taken each week, and sometimes (when ready) expound a larger portion of Scripture for their local congregation. Added to this is member-to-member discipleship for some. And several of our men lead Bible studies at work, coming out of the stimulus this intimate group style of meeting enjoys. Our smallness allows for this. It is easy to speak up and to learn while doing it.
What I’m saying is this: Our model isn’t about the “performance” sort of Christianity that has become so predictable in our current period. In fact, the congregations come to welcome what the least among us can say or do. So, instead of becoming more “presentational” (have I coined a word?), we are becoming more excited about first steps and blundering attempts. We can fail in the congregational meetings. Things don’t have to be perfect. But as most auditorium settings, professionalism almost always comes with enlargement, squashing the real participation of the new believer or those least glib and talented among them.
All of this is even further promoted by our context being a believers meeting. Our church does a lot of evangelism, but it’s done mainly outside our meetings. When we come together it is about believers growing and the worship of God, unlike many churches where the Sunday meetings are largely about reaching new people. We just don’t have to impress anybody.
Thirdly, it’s almost always pleasurable.
Okay, I realize that this may not be a biblical criterion for church life, but it works for me. Coming together in our home congregations (and in the meetings of all the congregations every six weeks or so), is an experience much like a family reunion. I’ve always pushed the idea of love in the churches I’ve been privileged to lead. It has made a difference. But this model takes it to a new level. So, coming together is something we all really look forward to.
Part of the enjoyment each week is eating together. This is the Lord’s supper we experience—the taking of the elements along with a lingering talkative meal together. For us this happens after about a two hour meeting (5 p.m.-7 p.m.). During the meal, we discuss all kinds of things, and most of that is about the Bible or applying the Bible to our lives. Personal issues get worked out as we talk things over. Who would not like that?
Our edification/worship meeting is warm and inviting, usually deep, often inspiring or emotive, certainly praise-filled. Since the objective of each member is to edify or to receive edification, and to worship, it is about things we love to do. Again, without being performance-oriented, we are calm about the meeting rather than uptight about a production.
Interestingly, my preaching is very different for this model and has its real pluses in my mind. In the past, I had to work more at oratory. I hope I didn’t over-emphasized this, but it was there—how well is my message polished for presentation, etc.? There’s a place for the audience/stage preaching, of course. I still do that as I travel, and we have that in the “gatherings” every six weeks when all our congregations come together. I have seen much blessing in it. But my weekly preaching is more dialogical. I don’t mean by this that my approach is like a Sunday School class with an unprepared teacher, or the sharing of opinions without holding people to the truth (as preachers must do). Nor do I mean an abdication of responsibility to hold forth absolute truth in a convincing way like some liberal pastors might fall into. But now my weekly exposition is more about the text and less about polish. I can be interrupted. I can ask questions myself, and invite discussion. I think that I depend on God in a greater way than I used to when I relied on more homiletically perfected presentations. I don’t mean that I speak without study—far from it. But this somewhat more dialogical kind of teaching is more relaxing for the speaker by allowing me to be burdened about the text more than the arrangement and appearance of the message. Examples of Jesus and Paul entertaining dialogue abound in Scripture. Also, I think the somewhat more casual and informal atmosphere engenders better learning. So I’m just having more enjoyment preaching than I ever have.
Does this model present some challenges? Of course. Where there are people there are problems and potential blow-ups and even divisions. We’ve been spared much of that so far, but we may be tested in the future. We have already had to enact church discipline. I do readily admit the challenge of having enough leaders for ongoing multiplication. That is something we are only now seeing as critical, though we anticipated it. It’s a good sort of problem to have.
Have I said too much? I hope not. I would love to see more solid doctrinally-minded believers take this approach. You will have to be willing to supplement your income in some other way. Many are willing to do this happily. For me, I receive all my income in the way I always have, trusting God through the channel of CCW, but others will have to do something outside of typical Christian circles. We only provide about a quarter of a salary for pastors. Working outside is not bad for evangelism, though, as we are finding out. Our pastors willingly do this. It keeps them real, frankly.
I cannot recommend all brands of home church life. There are many forms and some I could not call “church.” But I hope good men will see the value in going this way if they have a high view of truth and biblical leadership. Perhaps our experience can help in some way if that opportunity comes about. I also hope that some churches that meet in a more traditional way will consider extending themselves through house churches. There is much that we can do.
You may find more information from our church website at www.ChristFellowshipkc.org.