Homing in on the Church: How a house church provides intimacy and accountability

Casual in attire and casual about the time, they enter the old, two-story frame house on Indianapolis's near north side. They are at home here, and help themselves to coffee or iced tea. A mother tries to settle her small children over coloring books at the kitchen table; two guitarists confer and tune their instruments; others enter and begin animated conversations punctuated by loud laughter. But there's an absence of small talk. Almost apologetically, the host herds the ten adults into the living room. He "begins" the meeting with a brief prayer. And they worship together. The guitar players lead in a few familiar choruses. The group struggles, a cappella, through a new song someone is intent on teaching. People laugh at themselves as they bungle an attempt at antiphonal singing. But for a few moments every voice seems to blend, and beautiful, spine-tingling praise fills the small room. . . . Then, without announcement or apparent direction, the gathering quiets itself into prayers of wonder and gratitude.

For the next forty-five minutes everyone's attention is centered on a chapter of Scripture—1 Peter 3. The leader strives—sometimes successfully—to keep the discussion on track, to reign in the more vocal, opinionated participants, and to draw out a valued insight from the reticent. The theme of "creative suffering" has emerged over the last several studies of this New Testament letter; tonight one member connects with the text by relating a story of misunderstanding and rejection in his own family.

His story seems an appropriate transition to a time of exchanging requests for prayer and support, reports of small victories, revelations of setbacks:

  • A single man asks to be made accountable in his struggle with lust.
  • A married couple tearfully rehashes yesterday's shouting match, a battle that has left them wounded and weary.
  • A young woman whose call to the ministry has unfolded over the last six months describes her first seminary class.

A first-time visitor is quite obviously startled by the level of vulnerability and frankness. Observing her gaping, the leader assures her—and reminds everyone else—of this group's commitment to make every disclosure a matter of daily prayer rather than grist for gossip. Prayers are offered; several members gather around the hurting couple and lay hands on them, gently interceding.

Three elementary-school-age children now join the group for the concluding celebration of the Lord's Supper. Everyone leans toward—and a few kneel around—the coffee table at the center of the living room; a loaf of bread is broken and passed.... "This is the body of Jesus for Vickie.... "; they drink from a common cup of grape juice. . . . "Here is the blood of Christ for Brad...."

In the hush of communion, the night sounds of the city—the pulsing, thundering bass of rap music, distant sirens, shattering glass, an activated car alarm—are clearly heard, but do not distract. The sounds seem to enhance the sacrament; the participants remember the sacrifice of Jesus and are nourished and refreshed for servanthood in the midst of the city.

The meeting is officially over, and people are free to go, but no one does. A light lunch is served as conversations continue, and plans are made for next week. Members of the group leave sporadically, reluctantly.

Finally it's 10:40 P.M. Nearly four hours after the first member arrived, the last departs.

"To the church in your house." (Philemon 2)

Apart from the in-house celebration of the sacrament, there's nothing unusual about the experience described above. Small, intimate gatherings— whether they are labeled household, cell, koinonia, or growth groups—are a part of the rhythm of contemporary church life. These small gatherings may not be for everyone, and every small group involvement cannot be a satisfying one. But most of us would agree that there's something essential here, a quality of community life for which we hunger, a level of intimacy and accountability that we need, a sense of belonging that is found in few other settings.

The Indianapolis experience is distinguished from other small groups by a bold claim: This is a glimpse of a church at worship—a complete and autonomous congregation. We are not small groups within a larger congregation, an addendum to the real church that gathers in a sanctuary on Sunday morning at 10:30. Nor are we a church in an early developmental stage, meeting in a home temporarily until we grow large enough to justify meeting in a proper building. Rather, we are fully a church now.

By claiming that we are an autonomous church we do not mean to exclude ourselves from an important connection with a larger congregation. We are, in fact, part of what we hope will be a growing network of house churches. As members of this "network," we share staff and resources, cooperate in programming, and gather regularly for collegial worship in a rented auditorium. And in saying that we are a complete church, we are not suggesting that we neither need nor desire to grow. We expect to grow. We pray for and plan on growth. But we do not intend to outgrow the home so that we need a larger (more church-like) facility; rather, as we grow, we will multiply the existing cell and begin other house churches.

Not New but Radical

The house-church model may at first strike us as a new and radical idea. It's hard for us to think of church—real church—apart from preacher and pulpit, pew and steeple. But even a cursory study of the New Testament church reveals that this model is certainly not new, although it is indeed radical—radical in the truest sense of the word. We trace our roots (L. radicalis, "having roots") to a century in which churches met in the homes of believers (cf. Rom. 16:5; 1 Cor. 16:19; Col. 4:15; Philem. 2), and were pastored by nonprofessional, bi-vocational ("tent-making") elders (cf. Acts 14:23).

No one should infer that the first-century, home-based, laity-led church is a biblically normative model for church development—that establishing seminaries, engaging full-time pastors, and erecting church buildings are abnormal activities or, worse, acts of disobedience. We understand that the early Christians met for worship in homes out of necessity and that there was no way in which a professional clergy could emerge immediately, ready to assume leadership in the wake of Paul's mission ventures.

But these limitations faced by the first-century Christians do accentuate some normative truths about the nature of the church and her leadership:

  • The church is not a towering steeple, but a called-out people.
  • The church is not grounded in real estate but in relationships.
  • The church is not a building of brick and mortar but the body of Christ, bone of his bone, flesh of his flesh.
  • Those who would lead this body in worship and mission are qualified by the charisma of God's Spirit before the approval of any human institution.

These truths are sometimes obscured by our obsession with church buildings and over-dependence upon professional pastoral leadership. Obscured, but never obliterated. In every century since the first— often during periods of persecution, in times of reform and renewal, and on the frontiers of mission— the essential nature of the church has been rediscovered and preserved. Clusters of Christians have gathered in catacombs and basements, in taverns and thatch-roofed huts, in school rooms and open fields, in union halls and homes ... demonstrating that the church exists wherever there is a community of people who belong to Christ, gather for worship, love each other, and eagerly serve the world.

In the last half of this century the house-church model has reemerged—activated and inspired by circumstances similar to those of the first century.

  • China. After the Communists came to power in 1949, the house church gained strength as an alternative to the state-sanctioned Three-Self Patriotic Movement. Today as many as twenty million Chinese Christians gather for worship in an estimated fifty thousand house churches!
  • Soviet Union. Before the collapse of the Communist regime, house churches supplemented the relatively few open, institutional churches.
  • Latin America. "Base Christian Communities," a Latin American expression of the house-church model, have become seedbeds for liberation theology and evangelical social witness to corrupt, oppressive governments.

These exciting examples, together with the success of the house-church movement in second- and third-world urban church development, have prompted us to ask whether this ancient form of the church might also have a North American, urban expression. We believe the answer is a resounding YES, As our promotional literature (somewhat presumptuously) proclaims, this is "an old way of being the church whose time has come ... again!"

Where Word and Sacrament Are at Home

Most of us have been exposed to enough good ecclesiology and good small group experiences to know that real church can happen in a living room. But misgivings remain, especially in regard to whether the essential components of Christian worship—the preaching of the Word and the sacraments—are appropriate in the house-church setting.

Christian worship in the Reformed tradition has always featured the proclamation of God's Word. The music may be God-glorifying and soul-stirring, the prayers may bear our joys and concerns to the throne of God, the sense of community may be almost palpable, but if haven't heard a good sermon . . . well, then we haven't really been to a worship service. Good preaching implies a well-prepared, Spirit-anointed, passionately delivered monologue; and that just doesn't seem good form for a living room.

And it's true—the traditional sermon isn't a good form for us. But, while there will always be a place for great "monologic" preaching, there is also a style of biblical proclamation that is especially appropriate to the house church. The Greek word used in the book of Acts for much of Paul's evangelical and church-edifying proclamation is dialegomai—a word that connotes an address or lecture intended to prompt a (often heated) discussion. (Paul was engaged in a particularly long dialogismos when Eutychus fell out of the second-story window of the Troas house church!)

This form of proclamation is obviously different than a traditional sermon; it must also be distinguished from what happens in a typical Bible study. We are justifiably wary of depending for our spiritual nurture on "sharing our insights" (which often degenerates into sharing our ignorance) on a passage of Scripture. But dialegomai demands more than facilitating a small group Bible study. This form of proclamation requires the best of exegesis, careful preparation, and creative, response-evoking delivery of the message that the Spirit has for the church. One of the challenges of the house-church movement is equipping lay pastors for this important task.

We have also discovered that the sacraments are at home in the house church. Both the Lord's Supper and baptism—in their New Testament forms and in their Old Testament antecedents—are clearly household, family rites. There is a level of intimacy and intensity inherent in these sacraments that is difficult (though not impossible) to capture in a cavernous sanctuary. It happens more naturally among eight to fifteen people seated in a circle in a familiar living room.

It's Not for Everyone

After five years of actually "doing" the house church, I remain convinced that it is a viable model for new, urban church development. I am also more painfully aware that it's not an easy model to articulate or activate in this mega-church-crazed culture. And it certainly is not for everyone. I have found that the house church is particularly attractive to groups that will not be reached by large churches:

  • People who seek a high level of involvement in the life and mission of the church. It is impossible to "get lost" in a house church. In the average North American congregation it is estimated that 90 percent of the ministry is done by less than 20 percent of the members. In contrast, 85 percent of our adult members participated in a Vacation Bible School we sponsored this past summer; most of our programs require that level of participation.
  • People who are intimidated by and perhaps have been wounded in a large, institutional church setting. Specifically, we have attracted single adults in their late twenties and early thirties, homosexuals, and disenchanted dropouts from the sixties— people whom the more traditional church has had difficulty embracing and engaging.
  • Parents who are willing to take primary responsibility for the Christian education and mature of their children. We simply cannot offer the quality of programming for children and young people that seems to be a major factor for most families in choosing a church.

We have been warned against defining ourselves negatively (non-propertied, buildingless, non-institutional) and setting ourselves over against more traditional forms of the church. So we go to great lengths to make clear that we are one among many expressions of the church of Jesus Christ. We rejoice in the huge redemptive impact made by mega-churches, in the majestic church structures that adorn our country's landscape, in the glorious, cele-brative worship that we experience in a great sanctuary. And then we click our heels and whisper, "There's no place like home!"

David Sieplinga is one of two bi-vocational pastors, each working halftime as pastor of the Indianapolis House Church, an urban church development of the Reformed Church in America.