I just submitted an article to an English web site. Having writer’s block, I edited one of my earlier articles for an English audience.
House Churches Have No Sex Appeal (And Other Gripes).
You cannot talk about emerging church without talking about house church. Only in wealthy post-Christian countries do we have the luxury of either a large pot of money (USA), an inheritance of ecclesial real estate (UK) or a government-sponsored theological training (Continental Europe).
For most of the world, starting new churches means cleaning up before the living room fills up with people. Millions of churches around the word are starting this way and millions more are needed.
If English researchers like Dr Peter Brierley are correct, then there are probably more followers of Jesus outside the institutional/alt. worship/charasmatic church in England than inside. What these "unchurched" believers create as a structured response to church life will largely define what house church will look like in the UK. And I don’t see them taking collections to build cathedrals.
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I could easily use this space to brag on the virtues of house church, but there are still some things that bug me and so I will write my gripes instead.
Who am I to gripe? I am an ordained minister who has been on both sides. I have pastored traditional churches for 7 years and have been helping to start house churches for 7 years. I am still on both sides. Both are my mistresses, and I love them equally. I also try to critique them equally.
First and foremost, house churches have no sex appeal. There is nothing to look at. No big event. No climactic happening that make people snap pictures. Except people crying on each other. Hugging each other. Handing money over to each other. Lending cars. Although some people would say that those personal victories and communal sacrifices ARE the story. Wolfgang Simson of "Houses That Change The World" told me such.
I remember the good old days of church planting the old fashioned way. The glory days of toys and more toys. Picking out mega-wattage sound systems. Shopping for electronics. Designing kick-butt graphics for the invitation. Discovering the building. Raising the money. The gut-twisting suspense of Opening Service. The relief of the big crowd that came. Those lovely, dear people that came. God bless’em, everyone!
And then the disappointment of the smaller crowd the following week. And the week after. And the week after that. The grief of losing steam. The guilt of swiping people from other churches to replace those horrible, spiteful deserters who came the first week to see the big fuss and then left forever. Stood us up. Not caring for our feelings. Or our budget. And after all we did for them . . .
OK. Maybe the memories are not all fond. But I do miss the hormone-triggering excitement of pulling off a big service. And then on the other hand, if I am really honest with myself, some house church people are beginning to host large city-wide celebrations and be more involved in the week long festivals. In fact I have been to some really good ones . . . All right. My first gripe is not going the way I intended.
But the following gripes are actual real-life insufficiencies that need to be addressed if house church evangelists are to offer a viable alternative to people leaving the Pyramids Of Egypt for The Good Land Flowing With Milk And Coffee.
Some Gripes About House Church:
1. Name is Misleading.
The label needs to change from house church to something that better describes it. I saw a house church network in Central Europe where none of the churches met in homes. People there cannot afford a house. Clubs? Yes. Coffee Shops? Yes. Apartments? Sometimes. But not houses.
Neil Cole called them Simple Churches. So did Mike Steele. I like that. Organic Church?. Micro church? . . . more work needs to be done here.
And what about the rapid movement of monastic structures in the evangelical church in UK and USA? These intentional residential communities, many of which are large houses filled with young people discovering church, are more house-based than the house churches and yet we don’t call them house churches. Do we include them under the umbrella term or allow them to define themselves under a whole new ecclesiastic framework? Maybe its time we all moved towards a deeper ecclesiology?
Another spanner in the works: I have been to house churches that have pulpits and programs. I have also visited traditional churches where the pews have been replaced with couches, carpets, and sprawling kids. The service was more house church-like than some house churches. What is wrong with this picture? Probably the words being used to describe it.
Hey, look at me, I’m griping.
2. Authentication is Delayed.
House churches are not yet recognised by the mainstream. Sometimes they are reactionary to the establishment and find identity in the chasm. Other times they are not respected.
"They are not real churches", a well-known ‘postmodern’ pastor told me. He was basing his judgment on the old way of valuation, the "Cold War" mindset Thomas Friedman called it, where people value things by "weight, size and longevity". House churches are generally low impact, small, and seasonal. In the information age, people value things by "Speed". Bill Gates said it was "Velocity". If this is correct, then house churches make a lot of sense. And if 9-11 moved us out of the Information Age and into the Security Age, then house churches make even more sense. Time for a little Rodney Dangerfield [that’s respect’ for those of you not in USA].
In the meantime, dont expect authentication from the mainstream. The house church movement is basically overlooked and downgraded. Established churches are on a mission to fill their buildings and pay the heating bill. Denominational executives are threatened by the idea of housewives starting churches in their own homes rather than their trained professionals in the buildings designated for that purpose. In a country where the church is losing people, it is hard to find church officials who will champion the organic without being able to count the numbers. But I am not saying they do not exist.
Stand back, I really griping now.
3. Orientation is Backwards.
The focus needs to change from "our house" to "their house" Much of the present house church movement is still an attempt to contain and control the meetings in their own camp. The full gains that are available will not be realised until we can begin to let the movement flow into THEIR HOUSES.
-The church in Lydia’s house was just that – in Lydia’s house.
-Matthew’s party was in Matthew’s house. Not the more convenient house of Simon Peter’s mother-in-law. And dont tell me it was her stomach complaints that kept them away . . . It was strategy, not dysentery, that led them to Matthew’s house.
-Jesus told his short-term missionaries to put peace on THEIR (those other people, the ones they were sent to) house, enter THEIR house, live in THEIR house, eat in THEIR house, heal someone or something in THEIR house. Right there is the base of a new church and it is in THEIR house. Do we no longer trust God enough to free up people to run with the Kingdom of God in their houses? Have we replaced our trust in the Spirit’s power for the scaffolding of programs and hierarchies that prop up our temples?
And yet the benefits of going organic are still there when we choose their house over our house:
– Financial, because if the party is in their house then they pay for it.
– Security, because if the party is in their house then they will guarantee every one is safe.
– Culture, because the friends of the host already appreciate the culture of their style of music and culture so there is no culture barrier. Even the structure of the event (yes, everything has structure) is relevant and appropriate.
– Convenience, because they already have that house and everyone knows where it is.
I could go on. I could also say that this principle needs to be applied on the civic level as well as the domestic level. That the city offers a gift to those who are not too self-sufficient to receive it.
4. Support is Minimal
House churches are the cookie dough of the new ecclesiology. They are tasty and soft and very tempting. But they have not yet hardened into something permanent. We might be 5 years away from seeing a complete ecosystem of organic ministries that work together to enable a healthy, reproducing, movement of house churches. The movement in USA and Europe is not ready for franchising or exporting, It is not looking for entrepreneurs to multiply it but rather for pioneers to beta test it. It needs engineers who can tinker with it while it is moving. To make it workable and efficient. To get the bugs out of the system. To see what missing elements need to be included.
Perhaps God is not allowing recognition from the mainstream so that there can be a window of time to create the prototypes away from the spotlight. If
this is correct, someone needs to get busy working on a decent support system. There is not a whole lot of support for the movement right now. Not enough, perhaps, for most pastors to seriously consider a leap of faith into a new and way-more-organic paradigm. A few good books have appeared. Some helpful conferences started up. But the house church movement in Western countries is still a few tuna casseroles short of the Pot-Luck. [ooops – wrong country – what about "a few naan short of the curry"?, "a few peas short of the pie’n’mash"? "a few wheat-bix short of the breakfast"?… I know – shut up Andrew and get on with it!]
The five-fold ministry teams needed for a healthy system are not yet in place. City-wide gatherings are still in the idea phase. The apostles and prophets are still learning how to put up with each other, let alone minister together. Traveling teams are more novelty than staple. The heroes of house church planting are somewhere in Asia. Luckily, we now have some good websites like House2House.
What about resources from the mainstream church?
Sorry. Wrong number. Their conference speakers have not written any books on how to ignite house church movements of the Spirit. Theological Colleges and Seminaries are not yet training students to plant house churches. Churches train their youth to "find" a church when they leave for college rather than "start" a church, since the existing structure is too complex for students to replicate. There is also a tragic seperation between traditional church and house church. Which leads to my last gripe.
5. Integration is Absent.
House Church Utopia is still painted as being pure and contaminant-free. As if you leave one model of church and adopt another with no reference to what you came out of. The truth is that there is compromise. There is modularity in our new forms. There is re:mixing, compositing. There are house church people that miss the worship service so much that they create one. There are people that go back monthly to visit friends. There are house churches that are more structured than some "traditional" churches. There are large churches that have house churches and large worship services inside their structure and they are very happy with it. This is not a case of MacOS versus Windows. It is not always either/or. It is more of a progressive evolution. And fish with legs are a reality of this new movement.
Backwash happens. And its OK. If we don’t allow more fluidity into what we promote as house church, then a whooooole lot of wine will be spilled as pastors move their churches towards Housetopia and discover along the way that 100% Organic certification is just not attainable.
Somebody, somewhere, needs to give people a little slack. Some space to be pluralistic. Someone needs to integrate the new history with the previous generation of churches. To stand on their shoulders rather than slap their cheeks. The Holy Spirit utilized the old-school Festival of Pentecost to kick off something new. The disciples launched out from the Temple. Paul started in synagogues. Why can’t the house church leaders be players in the wider picture of what God is doing among the old AND new wineskins? And why cant the residual church leaders give them some cards to play with?
OK. Thanks for letting me vent.
Final thoughts? Lets all just get along. Lets be honest about where we are in this transition. Lets not spill any wine. Lets not spoil the fun of pastors surfing the previous wave. Lets preserve the old wineskins and birth the new ones.
Lets work towards House Church 1.2. Or 2.0. Or 3.5
And then I can stop griping.
Written by Andrew Jones in 2002. This version has been edited to fit your screen. It was originally written as a request from a house church magazine but was rejected because of the title "My Gripes About House Church". I guess since everybody was writing "House-Church House-Church, Rah Rah RAH!!!!" articles, I thought a more critical and tongue-in-cheek article would at least get a reading from those who would not never read an article on house church. If that is you, and you have made it all the way to the end . . . then i have succeeded.
Want to go further?
1. Download and read free version of "Houses That Change the World" by Wolfgang Simson.
2. Lets ask Wolfgang Simson if he can join us at Suddenly Seminary soon for a chat. Interested?
3. Attend your country’s’ National House Church Convention. USA meeting is Sep 3-6, 2004. English who wish to learn about house church and connect with others would be advised to leave their country and learn from those doing it on the continent. The next European House Church Convention will be held in Spain, September 2005. See you there.
Did you know that the 2nd Annual European House Church Convention had its kick off in my house? Yes – one of the famed pizza parties in Prague. To be honest, it was a bit of a shock for some of them to have the opening evening of the convention in a home – but they were saying "yes, why not in a home, we ARE house church people".