We are advocates of houses churches. We are completely convinced that God will lead thousands of people to start new house churches within the next few years. But that could be good, or it could be a disaster.
House church is not a panacea for all that ails the institutional Church, nor should it be an end in itself. Like any church, house churches can get off track—every church is made up of fallen people who hurt and disappoint each other. We make mistakes. We sin. The closer we get to each other, the more we see each other's faults and the more we can hurt each other. Relational Christianity in house churches can be messy.
Here are some common pitfalls and how to overcome them.
The Pitfall of Consumer Christianity
House churches should be about something far more radical than trying to be a smaller version of big churches. If we simply replicate the bigger churches we know well (on a smaller scale), we end up multiplying problems, not offering solutions. Our culture needs a new expression of church, not a dumbed-down mini-version of what already exists. If people want a church that is radically committed to the mission of God, sooner or later they will have to contend with the values—the DNA, if you will—that have been instilled in them for years in traditional churches.
DNA is an apt analogy for the persistence of values imported into house churches from traditional churches. The problem we face is almost cellular! Apple trees produce apples and orange trees produce oranges, and if a person's experience has been a social, cultural, and economic system that produces churches shaped by our Western culture, we should not expect that person to produce anything different without deep spiritual change. .
Leaders of all church sizes know what it's like for people to leave over a slight disagreement about the style of worship or for a different variety of programs offered at another church. Many Americans and Europeans choose their church like they pick toothpaste—by shopping! If they don't like the product at one church, they'll check out another product the next week.
House churches run counter to this consumer mentality. They flat-out don't work unless people are committed.
The Pitfall of Inauthentic Community
If we seek community with other followers of Jesus without an orientation to a new definition of church—a definition that is about genuine community and radical commission—people will revert to expectations based on older models. We must orient people to a community based on genuine relationships that require honesty, forgiveness, and mercy. If we do not, churches will experience conflict and division among people, and conflicting expectations within people.
In order to experience genuine community in a house church, we have to trust other people. But there is this little problem called sin! We don't, however, believe that sin is the greatest barrier to community, but lack of forgiveness. People in our nation are broken, and trust doesn't come easy these days. When people consider whether or not to trust, many seem to think that the other person's sinfulness is the problem. They are idealistic about their own lack of sin. Idealists don't do well in community—not because they are imperfect, but because they don't acknowledge their imperfections and received the forgiveness of God. If idealists have not received forgiveness, they will struggle with giving it to others.
It's important to get this right. If you are part of a small community, sooner or later someone will do something to hurt or disappoint you, and you may once again have good reason to avoid "the Church." But Dietrich Bonhoeffer points out in his book Life Together that the Church is not a place for idealists and humanists. Rather, Church is a community of forgiven sinners—a family of people who need mercy from those who have learned to forgive like Jesus.
The Pitfall of Pride
A common pitfall in any new, radical effort to do church differently is pride. Pioneers of new church communities may tend to view their way of doing church as the one and only solution for today's ailing Christian culture. If we are doing church differently because it is novel, because it is trendy, or because it meets some personal need or preference, we are doing it for the wrong reasons. Simple church communities are only one of many ways the Lord is calling the Church to rise up and be unleashed in the world today. One model does not fit all.
As soon as we think our group is the only "right" group around town, we're in trouble. Pride always comes before a fall. We must learn to follow the path the Lord has laid out for us with great conviction and, at the same time, honor what He is doing through others walking a path that looks different from our own.
The Pitfall of Fear
Another trap to avoid is fear, particularly fear of what people think. House churches are largely unproven entities in today's church world. They are new to many people and depend upon sometimes-inexperienced people to provide leadership. Despite these challenges, house-church leaders must act in faith, not in fear. They must build what God has called them to build and gain the courage to press on even when they encounter people who question their nontraditional approach to church. Even though house churches may lack credibility, what they lack in status can be made up for by courage and vision.
Fear of our own mistakes is another thing that can hinder us. Bible teacher Bob Mumford once said, "I do not trust anyone unless he walks with a limp." He was referring to Genesis 32, when Jacob, after wrestling with the Lord and demanding His blessing, was touched in his thigh and from that day forward walked with a limp. When God lovingly deals with us through difficult times, we walk with a spiritual limp the rest of our lives. This is the stuff of which true spiritual fathers and mothers are made.
Jacob's example testifies to the fact that we all make mistakes. It also teaches us that we must not give up. We may be doing all the right things, but problems will still arise. Or we may be tempted to go back to something easier than dealing with the shortcomings of humanity. Being a spiritual parent to believers in a house church is not easy. But it is rewarding.
The Pitfall of an Independent Spirit
Still another hidden danger is developing an independent and isolationist spirit. Sometimes those who do not want to be under any type of spiritual authority gravitate toward house churches because they believe they can do their own thing without having to answer to anyone. There are also house-church groups that are reactionary against the institutional Church, often indicative that people have been hurt or abused in traditional churches by controlling leaders.
Through this kind of disillusionment and disappointment, believers may totally isolate themselves from the greater Church. This kind of independent spirit is a form of pride, and it is very unhealthy. In contrast, the Lord's plan is to use the local church to protect us, help us grow, and equip us to be all that we can be in Jesus Christ.
The Pitfall of Heresy
House churches may fall into the trap of heresy if they are exclusive and unwilling to work with others. This can be avoided if we are accountable to other leaders in a house-church network and in the Body of Christ at large. We need accountability to keep us from false teaching.
The best solution to heresy in the Church is not to have better-trained leaders in the pulpits, but to have better-trained people in the pews. An institutionalized church does not keep us from error. The size and structure of the church does not keep us from heresy. We can only find freedom from error by testing everything by the Word of God, in relationship with godly believers outside our circle and accountable to others in the wider Body of Christ.
Neil Cole of Church Multiplication Associates—a family of simple church networks—explains how they handle the threat of heresy in a simple church:
Do I teach scriptural interpretive skills in our movement? Yes, I do, but it is not the first thing I do. First I set the saints to reading the Scripture without any middleman. Once the sheep hear the Good Shepherd's voice, they will follow Him for life. There is a significant "imprinting" that needs to take place from the very beginning of a new life. Like the baby ducks that will follow their mother, new disciples must connect with God's voice early on.
People will ask me, "Then aren't the disciples going to misunderstand scripture?" Yes, of course they are. And so did I when I was a young disciple. Perhaps we should allow people the freedom to make a few mistakes, leave with a few questions, and learn as they grow. I remember my first Bible study that I ever taught—it was heresy! And I managed to utter a four-letter word in it as well. I am glad someone gave me a chance to do better the next time.
I do teach basic Bible interpretation skills, but I wait until the disciples emerge as leaders and are preparing to teach others. When they are responsible for others' learning, then I teach them basic interpretive skills.
—Larry Kreider and Floyd McClung; excerpted from their recent book Starting a House Church (Regal Publishers, 2007). Used with permission.