How do you describe "church"? A thing you do? A place you gather? A people you gather with? Is it possible that "church" can come together in a number of different places, like sanctuaries, community centers... and homes?
Imagine if we described church this way:
About 2,000 years ago, a grass-roots movement called "The Way" appeared. They were community organizers who met in homes and shared meals together. They followed the teachings of a Jewish rabbi and professed a radical and simple set of practices and politics: sharing resources and teaching that radically inclusive love and nonviolent justice could transform the world. They believed they were creating a new social order that would spread organically from place to place, like yeast through bread or like mustard weeds across an open field.
They called their communities the "Ekklesia," which meant "those who are called out." It sounded better than "those who've been kicked out," which would also have been true, because their Jewish members were kicked out of synagogues, and their non-Jewish members were often kicked out of their homes. The way they spoke about their founder was mysterious and provocative. They claimed that though he had been executed as a rebel, he was still alive, and was still with them in their movement.
This history sounds very different from the large-scale franchise model of church we have today. For nearly 300 years, the Ekklesia did not meet in dedicated buildings; they met in homes, and often in secret. They described themselves as a "household of faith." The center of worship was the table and a common meal.
I see this same Ekklesia operating today, in various forms, both large and small. But I see it especially in house churches. House churches are churches that meet in homes rather than dedicated buildings. They have a strong focus on creating authentic community and training participants to live out their faith in their daily lives. Rather than growing large, their focus is often on channeling growth into starting new house churches.
The early church also described themselves as a "chosen family," because many of them were ostracized from their biological family's faith tradition. That describes many people in our house churches as well — folks who left churches only to find themselves dis-invited from family Thanksgiving dinner, or who have come out as LGBTQ and no longer feel welcome in the church of their childhood. And, of course, some find a home here who never had a church or family in the first place.
Even though we live in the age of the "megachurch" in North America, with auditoriums that seat thousands of people, I believe we're seeing a renaissance of the "microchurch." One big reason is economics: Most churches spend 20 percentk of their budget on renting or maintaining buildings and facilities.
Across the world, house churches form for a variety of reasons. In repressive regimes, house churches are a form of the underground church, much as they were in the first 300 years A.D.
Characteristics of House Churches
Our church has been functioning as a network of house churches for a little over a year, and I've been challenged and changed by the experience. Some of the characteristics of house churches are:
A focus on practices, not programs. Since they are by definition small, house churches don't typically have "children's programs" or "mission programs." Although members have certain roles and responsibilities — like organizing a lesson for kids, or making phone calls for a workday on a Habitat House — what organizes the community's lives are their shared practices. Our house churches organize their activity around our five areas of discipleship: worship, devotion, compassion, justice (more on that below) and witness. We use a book and a website (http://commonprayer.net) to worship together. We celebrate communion every Sunday.
A focus on partnership, not just membership. In a house church, participants are partners together in ministry. If there is a paid staff, they are too few to do the work for us! Sure, "membership" is a lovely metaphor, because it's about one body made up of differently-abled body parts. All our skills work together for the good of the whole. But the word has lost a lot of its meaning, because it can also sound clubbish and cliquish — as in "membership has its privileges." Partnership means we are all equally important members of a team.
A focus on becoming leader-full, not leaderless. Our culture has an unhealthy fixation on leadership that is usually male, business-oriented and top-down. The early church was egalitarian, meaning that everybody was equally empowered and accountable (Matthew 23:8-12). A healthy house church might reject traditional forms of patriarchal leadership, but it still focuses on helping its members become co-learners and co-followers of The Way. Taking a cue from community organizing, we recognize that leadership development (teaching skills and practices) is an important part of growing and sustaining a movement.
Reproducing like rabbits rather than elephants. Large institutions are not nimble. They have difficulty adapting to new situations, and take an enormous amount of resources and time to reproduce. Large neighborhood churches often grow their buildings, becoming larger and larger until they become land-locked, or they establish "satellite" churches. House churches can move to where the opportunity or mission is. A common metaphor about house churches is that they reproduce like rabbits rather than elephants or, to use Jesus' words, "leaven in bread…" or "scattered seed" (Matthew 13).
It's important to note that some house churches are only temporary, because they aim to buy or rent a facility when they reach a certain size, while others make a choice to grow by replicating themselves rather than growing larger. If you decide to join a house church, make sure you understand their mission and long-term plans and are on board with them.
I can't sing the praises of house churches without also offering some warnings, of course. Some house churches form because of a charismatic but unhealthy leader who siphons off the discontent of an existing church and leaves to start his or her own thing. These can be cultish. Some house churches attract people with an axe to grind. These problems can be true of large and existing churches as well, so it's important to look for warning signs wherever you go, and listen to your gut.
I also don't believe that house churches are a one-size-fits-all option for people today. There are economies of scale that allow large churches to do things that small churches cannot. A diverse population needs diverse communities of faith for a variety of spiritual needs. But house churches can be a good choice for those looking for an alternative to the dominant idea of church.
Connecting with a House Church
How do you find a house church? They often do not have flashy websites or signs on busy highways. The best way is through networking — just asking around in real life or through social media. Meeting a member for coffee or lunch can be a good way to assess whether or not the house church will be a good fit for you.
Since house churches are highly relational and often "off the grid," just Googling may not be sufficient. There are a variety of directories available online which you can find by searching, but trying to create a directory of house churches is a bit like herding cats: They are by nature difficult to track and some, in order to provide "safe space" to their members, may not want to be easily found. They also tend to be fluid. If a host family is on vacation, they may meet in an alternative location, or if someone moves, the house church may split or consolidate with others. I've found online searches to be hit-and-miss.
For this reason, I recommend simply asking on social media: "Hey, does anyone know of a good house church in my area?"
House churches come in a variety of flavors: Some are affiliated with a denomination, but many are not. Some emphasize being lay-led, while others are led or coached by ordained clergy. I'm United Methodist, so I'm biased; I prefer and tend to trust churches affiliated with a larger church body with some kind of system of accountability. The fact is, everybody comes from some kind of background, and I think it's dishonest for people to claim that they have no denominational history or that they get their model of doing church "straight from the Bible." The way churches approach sacraments, female leadership (clergy or not), LGBTQ inclusion, biblical interpretation, culturally-appropriate missions, leadership ethics and training, and financial stewardship all have a history. Ideas and beliefs come from somewhere — they do not fall out of the sky. This is good advice for seeking out any church: make them tell you their story.
If you can't find a house church in your area, I'll be glad to talk with you about starting one. After all, we are all co-learners in this community organizing movement of called-out followers of The Way.
Dave Barnhart is pastor of Saint Junia United Methodist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, a network of house churches for "sinners, saints, and skeptics who join God in the renewal of all things." He has been a pastor for 15 years, and a church planter for 5. He blogs at davebarnhart.net, and has written a book called God Shows No Partiality. He loves watching movies and building things. You can reach him through his website or through Twitter @davebarnhart.