Sunday, May 10, 2020

House Church - The New Normal-part 1

The CoVid-19 limitations on the size of gatherings suddenly thrust the churches in Canada into the world of house church. This is a world that we know well from reading the New Testament and from our study of the Early Church, but one that most of us have not personally experienced. The House Church model has tended to be for those who either buck the North American church culture or who simply have no other options (such as our First Nations ministries). A few have chosen the House Church model with careful intention, believing that it best facilitates the kind of deep life in Jesus to which He calls us.

Whatever your feelings about house churches may be, you might just suddenly find yourself in one and possibly even leading one. I have come to Christ completely unchurched, having grown up in an atheist family, in a communist country. I came to Christ in Canada, into a tiny congregation of about 20 people. My first two years of being a Christian took place in this house church.  I believed this was the norm for all believers. This is where my following of Christ was shaped and it was in a house church that my high values of committed discipleship and of living in and by the word of God and His Spirit were formed. The close family relationship, the intense discipleship, and the fast-track to service and leadership that I experienced in a house church continue to influence my approach to ministry to this day.

Hence, though I love a well-organized large church, I'm personally really excited about functioning in a house church for the next while. Below are some thoughts on how to make the most of the benefits that a house church offers. I will tackle the pitfalls of the House Church and how to avoid them in part 2 of this blog.

If you don't want to read any further, here is a summary:
  1. Pass all your decisions through the test of "Will this decision maximize or diminish the best that the House Church model offers?"
  2. Endeavour to reduce passive reception of material, instead encourage participation
  3. Encourage flexibility and adaptability
  4. In terms of the house church format and style think "trellis" not "box"
  5. Design meaningful points of connection to the mother church
House Church - a gathering of Christ followers held in the home rather than in a church building. A house church has its own leader (or a leader team). The leader is not necessarily the owner of the home where the church meets. The house churches created due to the CoVid-19 restrictions belong to a mother church and likely a cluster of other house churches.

Mother Church - the church to which the cluster of house churches belongs. The primary role of a healthy mother church is to disciple and equip the leadership of the house church. The mother church also serves as the connector between all her house churches.

The Strengths of a House Church 
The House Church model offers many advantages. Bearing these in mind we can take care to not minimize, or even undermine, these strengths through our good intentions to re-create the church-in-a-building gathering experience. The house church does not feel like Sunday morning in a larger church - it is not meant to.

1. Simplicity - the house church has no need to dress up the goings on. The glitz and glamour of large church worship services, the sound, the lights, the decor, the custom-designed screen and print visuals are simply not necessary, nor are they missed. People sit where they can, on unmatched chairs and worn out couches, or on the floor and in very real, intimate relationship with one another enter into authentic worship.

As you move from a church-in-a-building gathering to a house church avoid the error of attempting to recreate and add some of the trappings of glitz and professionalism that we have come to expect in a typical Sunday gathering.  Be sure, these really are not necessary and may lead to an increase in administrative stress for your house church leadership and may add an artificial feel to the gathering and discourage the come-as-you-are, sit-where-you-can atmosphere that is the strength of a house church.
Communication pieces from the mother church can be communicated by the house church leaders, no need for staff-produced videos or printed handouts.
In short, train and then then release your house leaders to set the format and style of gathering to suit their group and the meeting environment that is available to them. 

2. Discipling - the house church model has been primarily chosen exactly for this strength - the effective making and maturing followers of Christ. The close relationships, the face-to-face nature of the gathering, the advantage of an interactive (rather than a passive) worship experience, the possibility of sharing your life in a way that a traditional church gathering does not offer, all contribute to an increased effectiveness in the discipling and the spiritual formation process. With a healthy leadership team in place, discipling comes to the forefront of the church activity in a natural, un-programmed, unforced way.  

The mother church staff team can help here by equipping the leaders - not with curriculum, but with experience: by discipling the house church leaders in a way they can easily apply to others. I was discipled by much time spent in reading of the word, by voicing my questions and observations of the text, and by sharing the deeply felt invitations of the Holy Spirit to respond. To this day this is how I disciple others. The ingredients are simple: people with an open bible, a heart tender to God's Spirit, a relationship of care and accountability. 

To reiterate - disciple your house church leaders experientially, in a way they can easily replicate with others, while being true to their own style, giftedness and personality.

3. Leadership Development - a house church environment is conducive for early identification of giftedness in each of her members. The special contribution of each person should be apparent in just a few gatherings. The house church leader ought to be encouraged to notice these special contributions, such as the ability to organize the group, to lead in special projects, to create a welcoming environment, to arrange for the food (which is a must in a house church), to bring in creative elements to the worship, to pray, to speak profound truths of God, to make the children feel loved and welcomed etc. 

The House Church model releases its members into service and leadership at a much faster rate than other church models. The house church offers a safe environment for each member to give their gifts a try with much grace and personal support from the rest of the group. 
A personal example: I have a strong measure of the teaching gift, which my house church noticed early on. I was offered the responsibility to lead short devotionals in our gatherings within months (not years) of my salvation. I prayed and studied hard to prepare for each of my 5 minute teaching moments. I'm sure that I made a number of errors in the process. With undeveloped theology and lack of Christian life experience I'm certain that I said things that were flat out wrong. The group however knew that I was a new babe in Christ and that I was a disciple in training. They gently offered alternate views when necessary and encouraged and corrected me along the way. This experience allowed me to deploy my teaching gift early, to discover my voice and style of teaching faster than would have happened in a traditional church model, and to grow in humble confidence to stand in front of others and teach the word of God at an accelerated pace.

As you make decisions about your house churches, be careful to protect and nurture this strength. Inserting too much staff-produced content and leadership, such as streaming worship music sets and the sermon into the house church, may reduce your house church to a care group, that passively absorbs the professionally developed music and sermon, rather than actively exercises the full range of the gifting available. Church staff would be wise to consider re-deploying their efforts to equip leaders more and produce content less than in the past.
Finally, expect that the ministries developed in your house churches will vary based on the make up and location of each house church. Resist the desire for sameness and allow each church to introduce ministries organically, based on the needs and the gifting of each house church.

4. Costs - the house church runs on zero dollars - yes, that is right - zero on the budget line and yet consistently delivers Spirit-infused worship, transformative teaching of God's word, personal and timely care ministry...and more. Yes, there may be some minimal costs and it would be wise for a church that is dividing into house churches to allot each house church a small budget to cover some necessities. This budget can be very small, especially if the mother church stays open to requests for funding for unusual initiatives.
Furthermore, house churches are volunteer led, which contributes to the high level of involvement - no one is getting paid to do this, we are all doing this together.

There are a number of ways to collect offerings in a house church model. Financial contribution should be a normal worship element. Consider how to make the collection natural and joyful, and how to distribute the monies collected. Encourage good communication of financial needs from your house church network and from the mother church. I pray that you will be overwhelmed by the generosity spawned in your house church gatherings.

5. Mission - finally, healthy house churches are organic missional communities. Train your house church leaders to view the mission of God holistically - word and deed. First, it is relatively easy to invite friends to a well functioning house church. People come to Christ in house churches at a rate higher than in large church gatherings, so prepare to welcome newcomers and to nurture them into a saving relationship with Christ. 
Second, expect that each house church will want to "do something" about the needs in their spheres of influence. Collect and share the stories on how this is happening in your house churches. Provide for house church collaboration on shared missional initiatives.

6. Connection to the Larger Community - your house church is part of a larger community - the mother church. It is important to find meaningful ways of connection that goes beyond announcements or curriculum pieces. In days of isolation, people in churches are most longing to see each other. Find ways to feature personal stories and updates, encouragements, spiritual care and guidance in ways that will keep your house church firmly tethered to the home base.

Neil Cole, who has speaks and writes about the House Church, says "What churches win people with, is what churches win them to." The house church wins people with the love that Christians have for one another and for God, it wins them with a living and vital relationship with God, with a love for God's word and for worship, it wins them with the gospel of love, peace and reconciliation, and it wins them with action on behalf of those who need help.

I am praying that the MB churches in Canada thrive in the house church model. This way of meeting is in our Anabaptist/MB DNA and I trust it will bear much fruit.