Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Are House Churches the Future of American Protestantism?

If you can get everything you spiritually need from a small group, why would you ever attend an established congregation? That's the question before many American Christians who have turned to the ancient practice of the house church, a gathering of about 10-15 Christians for fellowship and worship. One report indicates as many as 9% of American Protestants attend home churches. There are no paid clergy, no sermons, no organs, no sanctuaries; just a small gathering of the faithful to get all they need from church without all the hassle: prayer, Bible reading, community and the sacraments.

The time might be right for a serious house church movement, but we should remember these sorts of movements have come and gone through the centuries. Lutheran pietists in Norway and Sweden established house churches when they felt they could no longer participate in the state church. Certainly, those in house churches now would tell you the first congregations met in homes, essentially as small groups. Even megachurches, ironically enough, have taught millions of their own members how to have house churches as they have refined methods and published books outlining best practices for small groups. What is a small group but a house church? Serious community, Bible study and the sacraments are almost impossible to find at a megachurch, so the need to supplement with small groups became apparent.

Those in megachurches and dormant Protestant congregations began to draw obvious conclusions: "If the real 'church' we experience is in our home, why do we need the megachurch? It is basically comprised of flashy music, manipulated scripture passages and an entertainment philosophy. And the megachurch, drowning in debt, is always asking for money. Why don't I just cut out the middle man?" Then there are the disgruntled mainline Protestants who draw their own conclusions: "We haven't had a great preacher here in 15 years. My denomination is theologically bankrupt. I don't feel like my church has any sense of the Holy Spirit at work; we're just a bureaucratic organization. I want to experience authentic Christian community."
The house church may be the solution to the lack of substance from the megachurch and the lack of vitality from the mainline church. It proposes to have a real community of the faithful that will finally get it right. And it has history on its side. Or maybe its just a gathering of the cheap faithful who do not want to pay for clergy, building maintenance, organ repairs, etc. More likely, in a postmodern context and in a climate of religious failure, these are people searching for authenticity and unable to find it. They want to cut through all the superficial and find authenticity.

In time, house churches may not be a choice as much as a necessity. Mainline churches are facing tipping points all over the country, especially in rural areas. As the cost of clergy increases (health benefits alone for a pastor's family make them less affordable all the time) as mainline Protestantism continues to dwindle, and as the older generation simply dies off without replacement, American Protestant congregations will slowly but surely decrease in number. But for the faithful that remain, unless their congregation chooses to share a pastor with another congregation, merge with another congregation, or simply filter off to other congregations, the house church will be the only option.

So if house churches solve so many problems, why were large congregations ever allowed to exist in the first place? The answer cuts to the Achilles heel of the house church: Christians were always meant to be in community, and in Christ, the bigger the better. House churches are inherently limited to 15 people or less. There is a built-in limit to the community. And because even Christians are sinners, with a group that size, you will invariably find personality conflicts, unhealthy leadership, and the perfect Petri dish for isms to flourish: legalism, pietism, liberalism. (These common errors can be cut off at the pass with proper theological education, but once you decide on such an educated clergy, you are committed to structure, seminaries, and paid clergy. That is precisely what those in house churches want to avoid, so they must trust in their own ability to teach the faith. At present, they cannot do much worse than mainline Protestant seminaries.)

Over time, the model may be that house churches will litter the landscape as fewer and fewer Protestant congregations will survive. The surviving congregations, meanwhile, will probably be marked by architecture with integrity, orthodox preaching and teaching, and a liturgical, objective style of worship. These are the antidotes to relativism, so some will surely survive. House churches may be effective if they become satellites to these congregations with pastoral oversight and some training. They may be wonderful faith incubators until full-scale congregations can once again flourish.

In the meantime, a house church movement strikes me as premature. There are still plenty of solid Protestant congregations one can join and influence. Escaping the megachurch or the lifeless mainline church is understandable. Just don't expect paradise at home.