JRD Kirk responded to a post by John Armstrong on the upsides and downsides of house churches. I think this is a very important discussion for the church to have. As I wrote in the comment I see house churches attracting both the young and those disaffected by the institutional church who wish to still practice their faith in the context of a community.
Here is the comment I left on Daniel’s blog:
Good topic. I don’t know if I should comment or write a blog response. The issues that both you and John raise are good and I think our context needs to do more work on house churches and that model.
I could certainly hear the pain of past wounds in your post here. I work with church planters and nearly every good one I know says “sure it can be better than what I’ve seen…” and that’s usually true. It is also the case in nearly every case that whatever solution they sought to address the problems they saw came with their own set of challenges.
There was a time in my ministry when I was very attracted to the model. I had worked with very small churches in the Dominican Republic which were practically house churches. The model address a number of problems inherent in the American church, but some of John Armstrong’s “yeah buts” also resonated with me.
Institutions tend to do one thing well, stabilize and preserve. I tend to find house churches unstable when you start to consider decades, not years. They require a lot of their members, often more than members can sustain over the decades. Many people have periods in their lives when they have a lot to give, and other periods when they tend to coast and rest. There isn’t a lot of room in house churches for both movements.
I also think currently two groups are attracted to house churches: those who have been hurt by the institutional church but aren’t ready to give up on the faith, and those who are idealistic (often the young) about finding the “true” way to do church. When these two groups are happy about how things are going everything is dandy. How will they do when conflict sets in (in a small group there is no place to hide for better or worse) and something ugly happens?
The worst thing about the American system of church is that it is easy to walk away from each other rather than do the hard work of working through conflict. I don’t really see house churches as addressing this even though many say it does. You can leave a house church as easy as a B&M church.
The relationship between the church as organism and the church as institution is always a complex one. The problem of institutions is the problem of wineskins. Institutions both help us travel through time but are always worn down by the age of decay and the accumulation of the residue of our sinful actions.
Perhaps I am thinking of the difference between a snail and a slug. A snail has a shell that it develops. Slugs are just out there in the open.
I think we will probably have house churches with us always, but I also tend to think that what we see out there right now is there for good reasons. The church keeps developing institutions because I think it needs them.
I recall good friends of mine in the cluster when they started their church. They were pursuing a meta-church model which was promoted by Carl George. There is a lot to say for that model. They were developing a network of cell groups which were basically similar to house churches. No matter how much they talked about their little groups being “the church” they continued to be asked by participants, especially those with the least church background, “but when are we really going to start doing church.” They finally broke down, started a worship service. Today the group continues to have a vital small group ministry but it’s pretty much a regular “church”.
I remember reading Ralph Neighbor’s “Where do we go from here” for the first time. It blew me away and I was all geeked about his vision. It made so much sense, seemed so clear, so right. I think it still is, but I haven’t seen it really work out in practice.
House churches in a way run against the current of at least 1700 years of doing church and a lot of stuff in that current isn’t good. At the same time existence at times is its own justification and I so signs of the bulk of the church shedding the encumbrance of institution. pvk