(originally published on December 5, 2012)
My Gripes About the House Church Movement
by Andrew Jones
Give me a mop . . .someone’s about to spill some wine. Not intentionally, mind you. His church is “transitioning” again. This time into a network of house churches. It’s the next thing. The new model. Latest trend. He says. And some people are going to leave and not come back. Consider it collateral damage. A sacrifice. The price you pay for the change. For the next step.
A decision towards progress that is too much, too soon, too hard, too costly. The straw that breaks the camel’s back. The choice that pleases some and sends others away. People leave the church as turtles or skunks. This is what Brother Thomas Wolf told me. Turtles crawl quietly out the back door, without bringing attention to the protest of their silent withdrawal. Skunks leave at the front, where everyone can see them, where they can let everyone know how badly they will be missed, how they should have been listened to. They leave a smell behind that lasts a lifetime. A stinky reminder of the decision that divided.
And the Sanctuary of the Wineskin sees the light of day. Opens to the elements. Wine spills. Through the cracks. Runs in the streets like blood, searching for a new home. Is God happy?
Despite the vocal crowd who worship at the Cult of the New, Jesus is not infatuated with new wineskins. He likes both. But He is a connoisseur of vintage wine. Mature wine. Wine that has sat under time, ripened, grown, perfected under the conditions. Wine like this is achieved only by permitting the new containers and preserving the old ones. Let the old wineskins be preserved. If you squirt fresh wine into them, they will burst. Spill. Jesus doesn’t like spillage. Jesus likes mature wine. So we need wineskins also. Old wine in the old wineskins. New wine in the new wineskins. Whatever. Whatever keeps it. Contains it. Preserves it. Gives it room to move and expand. Grow into what it is destined to be and securing it from disease. Both. Freedom and safety. Creativity and security. Bubbly and still. The heights of exploding taste and the depths of softened character. Flavor and body. Cherries and oak. Cheekiness and gracefulness. The wabi and the sabi. The vigor of youth and the wisdom of age. Both, says Jesus. Both. Both will be preserved.
But here is the challenge: To allow the new without threatening the old. To preserve the old without hindering the new. Those without wisdom choose one but not both. And the result is skunks and turtles.
I visited a House Church in the early 90’s. It was run by skunks. A group of disgruntles whose happiness came from the fact they met on Thursday and not Sunday. In a living room and not a sanctuary. On a sofa and not a pew. They were like kids staying away from school, hiding out, proud of their boldness to leave. And yet in all their freedom they managed only to move the church service from a building to a house. Not much else had changed. Only the location. They had the smirks of naughty boys on their faces. They were a church service on the run. An escaped meeting captured by a living room. One that built its identity from rebellion, defined themselves by what they were not. This was the Revenge of the Skunks. I didn’t go back to that church. But I have been hanging out with turtles.
“They’re not organized” insists the Owner in the movie “Chicken Run”. But she is wrong. The chickens have been cooped up long enough. They build a plane and fly over the fence. To a new world. An island. To set up a new existence away from tyranny. To become Free Range Chickens. Free Range Turtles, on the other hand, left quietly and by themselves. No machinery. No noises. Just a quiet withdrawal. A velvet revolution. Pilgrimage. A solitary exodus. Their tithes first and then their attendance.
Their protest was in their feet. They choose not to come back but still kept up relationships with those who stayed. Lest they be like the skunks.
But on their journey outside the institution, some of them discovered each other. Ate meals with each other. Prayed with each other. More often. More regular. Sometimes weekly. Those with gifts gave them. Those with abilities used them. Those with leadership led. Those with wisdom taught. Those who liked the way things were going told others. New churches emerged in places where Turtles lived. This was now the Time of The Turtles. Neighbors and friends got caught up. Church people thought it peculiar. New believers thought it quite normal. The kind of thing they would do if they had to make a church. Why not in a home? A coffee shop? Wherever people live? Isn’t that how the first church did it in the Bible?
These were another group. Not skunks or turtles. Another. Butterflies, perhaps. No rebellion. No scars. No issues with ecclesiastical entities. Just people who liked to live with each other in each others context. Environments with wallpaper and photos and TV magazines. Lives located somewhere. Homes where people live and children pick their noses and dogs annoy. Real people who want to see deeply into each other’s lives. To delight in the beauty. To heal what is broken. To be healed. Touched. Appreciated but not used. Perhaps these people are the third wave. People who church together without contrasting. Part of a church without an address. A movement without a label . For they do not always call what they do “house church”. Sometimes there is no house. Even “home church” does not contain their experience of God and each other in this covenanted journey.
Maybe it is just church?
But back to the Pastor-man who is about to rupture his church. He has probably heard the current criticisms about the house church movement. “No leadership,” they say. “Prone to heresy,” they say. “An incubator for cults. They don’t last. No leadership.” They say.
They say wrong! Tyranny thrives in a vacuum of passivity. Finds its voice inside an intimidated silence. It cannot live under the lively chatter of dinner-table conversation. Dictators cannot bully themselves to the front when leadership is valued by character instead of rank, and is distributed out to the right people for the right moment. Like ducks flying in formation, until the change, when another duck takes the lead for the present direction. Ducks have leadership. Just not the One Leader who leads all the time. And for every thing. And every direction. My pastor friend has the answers for the wrong complaints. He should listen to what is really wrong with the House Church movement. From people within it. From those road-testing the new models. Kicking the tires. He should listen to me. Because I have some gripes about the House church movement. I need to vent them. And he needs to hear them. Here they are:
My Gripes About House Church
First and foremost, house churches have no sex appeal. There is nothing to look at. No big event. No climactic happening that makes people snap pictures. Except people crying on each other. Hugging on each other. Although some people would say that those personal victories ARE the story. Wolfgang Simson said that to me last month. 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 wanted it to. But the following gripes are actual real-life insufficiencies that need to be addressed if house church spokespeople are to offer a viable alternative to pastors leaving the Pyramids Of Egypt for The Good Land Flowing With Milk And Coffee.
1. 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, in this case OUR HOUSE. The full gains that are available will not be realized 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 don’t 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 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. Think of the benefits.
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 Convenience, because they already have that house. Etc. 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 receive it.
2. Communication is misleading.
The label needs to change from house church to something that better describes it. The house church network in Prague started 6 months ago. People meet in many different venues but none meet in a house. People there cannot afford a house. “Home church” is better but they don’t always meet in homes. Clubs? Yes. Dunkin’ Donuts? Yes. Apartments? Sometimes. Neil Cole called them Simple Churches. 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 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?
Another spanner in the works. I visited a “traditional” church in Minneapolis called Solomon’s Porch. 200 people meet in a large loungy space with couches, carpets, and sprawling kids. Their service is more housechurch-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.
3. Authentication has not yet arrived.
House churches are not recognized by the mainstream. “They are not real churches”, a well-known American 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 weight, size and longevity. 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 has 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 Respect to flow towards house church.
In the meantime, don’t expect authentication from the mainstream. The house church movement is basically overlooked and downgraded. Denominational executives are threatened by the idea of housewives starting churches in their own homes rather than their trained professionals in the buildings that were designed for this purpose.
Yes, there are exceptions. The Baptist General Convention of Texas, for example, when they discovered that a house church network in their own backyard had grown into 250 churches within 6 years, decided to take what they had learned and release it all over Latin America. Fantastic. But the mainstream American church is either not ready or not that interested at the moment. “Call back later when you start some real churches.” Yeah. I’m really griping now. Stand back. I have some more.
4. A decent support structure is years away.
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. For 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 in 2001. The launch of House 2 House magazine is a good start. But the house church movement in Western countries is still a few tuna casseroles short of the potluck.
The five-fold ministry teams 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.
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. Seminaries are not 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 separation between traditional church and house church. Which leads to my last gripe.
5. Integration is not a commonly held value.
House Church Utopia is still painted as being pure and contaminent-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 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 Mac OS 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 is gonna get spilled as pastors move their churches towards Housopia 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 and the new structure 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?
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 watch the return of the Turtles. Lets work towards House Church 1.2. Or 2.0. Or 3.5 And then I can stop griping.
I was forwarded this and told I could post it. Mr. Jones, should you beg to differ, just let me know and I’ll remove it or send you a big royalty check for your contribution to this site. 🙂