Bringing it all Back Home
Notes from a house church in Auckland
Whenever we go to visit somebody else's church one of the first questions we almost invariably get asked is "And where do you fellowship?" When we tell people we're in a house church the first reaction is often a little cautious, and even, occasionally, suspicious ("Uh-oh, these people are into some kind of deception!"). But after we've chatted for a while the reaction is almost always "Well, that sounds really great!" or "I wish we had something like that in our church".
The fact is that a rather large percentage of believers is more than a bit dissatisfied with the status quo. Our spirits and our reading of Scripture tell us that there's more to Christianity than most of us are experiencing, but we're just not quite sure how to get to it.
For the last eight years a group of us have been involved in what could be considered an experiment in alternative church life. I have been a believer since the early '70s but - although I am profoundly grateful to my former denomination for the love and instruction I received - the conventional 'church service' setting has become less and less relevant to me. What happened there didn't seem anything like what I read about in the Gospels.
I knew a significant number of others who felt the same (the silent migration of non-fellowshipping believers is no secret), so some of us decided to stop 'going to church' and start having it at home instead. It wasn't our intention to thumb our noses at traditional church structures - to say "We are right and you are wrong" - but instead to offer an alternative to them, one which I've come to believe is necessary in meeting the needs of at least some of the many who, for one reason or another, feel estranged from the Christian mainstream and end up falling through the cracks.
Acts 2:42-7 shows us that any
healthy Christian community
needs a balanced - and quite simple - diet. We need to study Jesus' words and those of his apostles; take communion together and pray for one another; share our possessions (a hard one for most of us first-worlders), and generally build one another up practically, intellectually, emotionally and spiritually so that we all reach our potential as his children and are empowered to share his Good News with others. We use this as our blueprint.
Now I know that most congregations are trying to do this exact same thing, but the dynamics and priorities of large organisations tend to militate against true community, and - for all their good intentions - most struggle to achieve quality discipleship. It's interesting that Jesus chose twelve disciples, he didn't choose twelve hundred. Small size is a big issue.
Somebody came to me a while ago and said "I went to my pastor to ask him how I could better serve God, but all he could suggest was that perhaps I'd like to join the team of ushers or operate the overhead projector". Over time the church has become a lot of things other than the simple community of friends that Jesus started out with, and much of what we do 'in church' is unnecessary, inefficient and sometimes even counterproductive.
I don't think Jesus died for offertory hymns or to protect the copyright on overhead projector transparencies. It's possible to get so caught up with organising programmes and running meetings that there's no energy left over to reach out (I do some counselling and one of the most common comments I get from Christian clients is "my pastor is too busy").
Church buildings have dynamics of their own, too. The architecture of most 'churches' - closely emulating the design of concert halls, movie theatres or conference centres - preaches a powerful sermon. "Listen, don't do." "Leave the work to the pastor, the ministry team and musicians." "You can only take part in this church if you're not afraid of microphones." Truth is, many 'services' appear remarkably like performances.
It's very hard to have meaningful fellowship when you're all facing the front and all you can see of the person nearest you is the back of their head. It's well nigh impossible, on the other hand, to be uninvolved, and far less likely that you'll go away feeling like a stranger, when everyone's sitting around in a circle.
Another disadvantage of 'church'
buildings is that - like RSA halls,
Masonic Lodges and basketball courts - they represent 'interest group' premises, somewhat removed from the rest of the community. Places you don't go unless you're a member. We expect non-believers to screw up their courage and come to these mysterious places, but actually Jesus instructed us to go to them. Have you ever noticed how much easier it is to invite your non-Christian friends around for supper than it is to coerce them into coming to your outreach service?
Of course the fact that we refer to a building (or a denomination) as 'church' at all is wrong, as we all know, and as someone is always quick to point out in any discussion about house church vs institutional church, but still we keep calling buildings with pointed roofs 'church', and so, I suppose, at least to some extent we must still believe it.
Now, just so you don't think I'm totally biased (which I must be to be writing this article!) let me point out that house groups aren't perfect either. Some of them are a bit precious about their 'rightness', and there can be an undercurrent of criticism of 'the established church'.
Some run the risk of becoming isolated and unbalanced, or being dominated by the charismatic personality of one individual (mind you, I don't think small groups have any monopoly on this score). But we're not all like that, and I've seen over the years a depth of spirituality and personal and community growth far greater than I ever saw in a comparable period in more conventional settings.
It will be argued that many denominations have 'home groups' as a part of their programme, but it's my experience that these tend to operate like mini Sunday services (thirty minutes praise and worship, forty minute sermon . . . ) and they're usually an optional extra, not the main focus, so it's hard to develop the same level of commitment.
House church is a step on the way
to more real Christian commu-
nity. It's also a step back towards the way the church originally was - before Constantine, ecclesiastical power-politics and gold encrusted basilicas, or ginormous, half-empty auditoriums with huge mortgages - when Jesus and his friends could sit round in each others' houses and talk about life, the universe and everything else (including how the day's fishing had been); where somebody bursting in with a truckload of problems wasn't 'disrupting the service'.
If Jesus had chosen to come to us in 1999 instead of 30AD, you'd be far more likely to find him in a cafe or somebody's lounge than in a 'seeker service'.
I suspect that most of us know somewhere in the back of our hearts that living in community is an ideal to aspire to - one of the signs of the Church at her best (we've all read the book of Acts), and we can think of lots of reasons why this "just won't work these days". But the real reason we're not doing it may be that we're still too selfish, individualist and materialistic to listen to our heart. Until that day comes again, house churching is giving some of us a chance to get a little foretaste of what Christian community just might be like.
Big groups and small groups are all important; we can learn a lot from each other. Small groups need to learn how to grow quantity, big ones need to learn about quality. House group leaders need better networks of accountability, big group leaders need to relax the reins of control.
So what do we do here in our
house church in Grafton? Well, we
normally meet on Tuesday nights and at first we just sit and chat over tea and cookies. After a while we get into some Scripture reading and discuss whatever the readings bring up for us. This leads naturally into prayer time. The whole thing is totally informal and highly interactive - everybody has unique gifts and insights and we try to make as much room as possible for each other to grow, and for the Holy Spirit to do his thing.
Some nights we share communion. Occasionally we have guests (teachers, missionaries etc.) talk to us, and we're seriously into pot-luck dinners. We have a loose association with a couple of other 'house' groups and a local community church.
Because we meet on Tuesdays and not Sundays we're free to - and some of us do - visit other churches, or else have a good Sunday morning lie-in. When I was in a 'regular' church we often used to joke about how Sunday was the most exhausting day of the week for Christians - but in these days of high stress and burn-out that joke's not so funny any more.
This low key spirituality is very sustaining, a natural and enjoyable way to 'do church'.
Several years ago I had a mind-
picture (was it a vision?) in which
I was standing on the grass outside a brick, 1960s style church building. As I watched, a man, who I took to be the pastor, came out of a side door, walked around to the front entrance, and proceeded to take down a large sign attached to the wall which stated the church's denomination etc.
The impression I had was that he was doing this because he no longer felt comfortable with the concept of labels, and the impression of dividedness which they tend to portray to the world. From now on he wanted his congregation to be known simply as Christians, that's all.When people ask, we say we're a house church, though we've never actually given ourselves a name. Some probably see us as too loose, but then I guess Jesus had the same problem.
If you're looking to find a house church it may not be easy. They don't advertise (although there are a few sites on the Internet) and they don't have recognisable buildings - mind you, neither did the first century church. But if you feel you ought to check it out, and you talk to God about it, you just might find yourself sitting one day in the kitchen of some 'slightly left-of-centre' Christian acquaintances, sipping a cup of tea, and suddenly realise you're in the middle of one - "Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them".
Mark Laurent has been a Christian song writer and communicator since the 1970s, sharing Jesus with people who see Christianity as irrelevant and boring. He has gigged throughout New Zealand, Australia and England, performed on television and radio, recorded 8 albums of original music, published a book of poetry and runs seminars on guitar, house church and ¥green' Christianity.