What exactly drives someone to start a house church? After all, aren't there enough churches?
There are certainly a lot of traditional churches in Wheaton, Illinois, where I caught up with one house church of three couples. None of the couples is bitter toward the dozens of churches they visited before starting their own church two and a half years ago. In fact, they described many of the churches as "nice" and "fine."
The reason they couldn't find a church home wasn't because they didn't like the music or the sermons—it was bigger than that. Part of it was logistical—one member is a firefighter with 24-hour shifts, so Sunday morning services rarely work out. Part of it was theological—they don't feel comfortable attending a church that denies women full participation in services and the life of the church. Part of it was life stage—as childfree married couples in their 20s and 30s, most church programming simply doesn't connect.
They also struggled relationally in the traditional churches they visited. Everyone in the group had trouble being themselves in the traditional setting. One woman shared how she always felt like people saw her as a troublemaker. Another agreed: her honest questions about faith had been met with suspicion and disapproval.
Despite their struggle to fit in at traditional churches, the couples were hesitant to start a house church. One of the women expressed, "There was a lot of self-doubt in this: It must be our fault that we cannot find the right place." After praying for God's guidance, though, they moved forward and started making plans for their new house church.
The Weekly Gathering
A typical meeting begins with a shared meal, which the couples take turns hosting. The group talks about the current study they're working through, the book they're reading, or the spiritual practices they've been working on. Each week, the group members take turns leading the discussion, but everyone participates in the conversation, asking questions and building on each other's responses as they chat.
To incorporate music into their meetings, they often make playlists to listen to during dinner. At the beginning of the week, the leader announces the theme for the week (they've recently focused on liberation, forgiveness, and inheritance, to name a few). Once the theme is decided, the leader sets up a shared playlist on Spotify. Throughout the week, each person adds several songs to the playlist that speak to the theme. This practice invites the group members to be mindful throughout the week about the topic, exploring what it means to them.
Then, the group listens to the playlist during dinner. Group members explain their choices and talk about how the songs speak to the theme for the week. This has been a great way for them to both explore the themes in a deeper way, and also get to know each other better. Songs often hold memories and emotions, and sharing them with one another deepens their relationships.
After dinner, the group practices Communion and shares prayer requests. They spend the rest of the time praying for one another.
Benefits and Struggles
One of the benefits of house churches is the inherent flexibility. This means that not every meeting looks exactly the same. This group has visited the food pantry, met in a local park, watched sermon videos, and even enjoyed ice cream together as a way to get to know each other better. One of the men noted that he appreciates that they "can be free to change the form if someone needs additional support," which isn't possible in a traditional setting. If someone has a question, they can stop to find an answer. If someone needs extra prayer, there's time for that.
That's not the only benefit, though, as the group eagerly expressed. "Everyone's contributions matter. You can't hide in a house church," explained one. Another shared how much she appreciated the transparency, especially in decision-making. Several members agreed that because church is in their homes, it's easier to connect their faith with the rest of their lives. Rather than travel to a special building, church is held right where the rest of life happens—and that makes it hard to compartmentalize your faith.
On the other hand, the group has faced some difficulties, the biggest of which is explaining their house church to outsiders. One woman shared how excited she was to tell a former mentor and pastor about the house church, but the experience turned out to be extremely painful: "Instead of celebrating with me, he responded gravely with a loaded question: 'So what do you think God meant when he said we are to gather together as a church body?'" His response has been echoed by others in the predominantly Christian area in which they live, and that's been hard for the group members.
The group also talked about the struggle to have a long-term plan. Flexibility is both a strength and a weakness—it's certainly possible to be too flexible. Though they appreciate the flexibility to do what they want to do from week to week, one of the women commented, "We know it's often healthy and beneficial to do things we may not feel like doing in the moment." They have also spent a lot of time talking about whether they should continue inviting other couples or if they should stay small. Because they are each leaders of the church, the decision must be made together, and it can be difficult to discern the right next step as a group.
Are You Simply a Small Group?
One of the questions I was most eager to ask the group was how they compare their house church to a small group. One of the women had a thoughtful response:
The distinction isn't entirely necessary and is a relatively new phenomenon. Small groups are a symptom of large, multi-community churches. Small groups give you the intimacy that big churches realize is crucial yet they are not able to provide. Most people view the distinction between a small group and a church to hinge on the presence of a sermon and live music, and possibly Communion. That is not our definition of a church. Nor do we see that as a biblical definition of church. Many Evangelical Christians believe, as some of us once did, that a house church is something new, edgy, or a break from tradition. That could not be further from the truth. Churches have been meeting in homes, over a meal, since the beginning.
The group was quick to explain that their spiritual journeys have led them to where they are now—and that means their expression of church isn't right for everyone. All six members had religious upbringings with backgrounds in Evangelical churches. Four of the six members attended a Christian college. One completed seminary. Four have post-graduate degrees. Three work for Christian organizations, and all but one work at not-for-profit organizations. They are from the Midwest and are white, married, heterosexual, 20-30 somethings, childfree, and middle class. They recognize that their identities inform and shape their choices and beliefs. Other churches or house churches need not look like theirs.
Even more, they stressed that their church is not meant to be an indictment of other churches. Though they didn't find their place in more traditional settings, they fully recognize that others do. "The Bible and the world around us confirm that God loves diversity," one woman stated. "Diverse worship is not only a byproduct, but also a great strength of the global church."
Intentionality and commitment are important for both house churches and small groups to be gatherings where life change and spiritual growth happen. The difference with this group is that they have chosen their weekly home meetings as their primary faith gathering. In many ways, that commitment ups the ante. They know they can't rely on someone else to feed them, to answer all their questions, or tell them what to do. Rather, they are leading each other. They are committed to the group as the group commits to them. There is shared ownership and responsibility, and that encourages them to continue asking questions, working out their faith, and growing in their relationships.
It makes me wonder how our small-group members could benefit if they had a similar commitment to their small groups. What might they learn on their own if they couldn't depend on a video teaching at each meeting? How might their Bible reading develop if they didn't have a study written by a Bible teacher to guide them? How might group members use their gifts in fresh ways if they had no set meeting schedule to follow? How might relationships deepen when group members commit to sticking together through thick and thin?
While some may balk at the idea of forming house churches, this group is onto something with their intentionality, commitment, and shared ownership. Regardless what you think of house churches, it seems our small groups could benefit from these three values.
—Amy Jackson is managing editor of SmallGroups.com. The members of the house church interviewed in this article have asked to remain anonymous.