Maybe it’s the circles I’m hanging with lately, but suddenly there’s a jump in the interest on house church. Bill Easum’s article in On Track (the 21st Century Strategies monthly E-zine) reviewed Frank Viola’s Reimagining the Church because of “the importance of the book.” And I agree, it’s an important book, just as Viola’s Pagan Christianity was important. However, when it comes to the mainline church, I suspect Viola’s message will mostly fall on deaf ears. Why? I invite you to read the books for the whole scoop, but here’s a reality of these books: they discount virtually every practice and tradition the church holds sacred. In these books, Viola slaughters more sacred cows than Iowa Beef Processors. Pulpits and pews? They’re gone. Vestments? So yesterday. Preaching? Gone. Buildings? Apostate … or almost … living rooms are okay.
Don’t get me wrong. On the whole, I like most of what Viola has to say. He and I have been singing off of the same page for a long time. But there’s a weighty question out there for me. Is the church of yesterday really the church of tomorrow?
There are a lot of voices “out there” not only saying yes, but nodding their heads vigorously. Why, aren’t we in what amounts to a pre-Christian world?
Nope. Not at all. Those who claim we’re in a pre-Christian world not unlike Paul’s world are idealistic at best, and a half-bubble off level at worst. It is true that Paul’s world was filled with paganism and a menu of cosmo religions. There are any number of similarities between Paul’s pre-Christian world and ours. But there is one huge, overriding difference. Paul didn’t live and breath and work as a part of a church that had a reputation throughout his culture of being antiquated, irrelevant, hypocritical, and impotent. Weird and cultish, yes. Antiquated, irrelevant, hypocritical, and impotent, no.
I went to Angels and Demons yesterday (I rate it much better and less troublesome than Dan Brown’s other offering). Whether you watch the movie with unconnected or well-connected eyes, you can’t help but notice the church’s struggle with relevance, tradition, and the battle with science (and culture as a whole). The movie hardly helps the church, though I’m pretty sure it doesn’t hurt us either. The church itself has done a marvelous job of shooting itself in the foot (in North America, I’m not convinced we haven’t shot ourselves in the head). A movie that points it out isn’t going to make things worse.
Which brings me back to the question … in order to recapture the faithful practice of Christianity, is going back to the “biblical” church the answer?
Let me shed some light on the myth of the notion of the biblical church. First, the notion that a “biblical” church is/was God’s mandate is seriously flawed. If God had wanted to give us a blueprint for what the church was intended to be like, our New Testament would look a lot more like the Torah, complete with building plans of what the church building should like … or not, as the case may be. Israel got an instruction manual for their version of “church” in the ancient days. The priests were even told what to wear and which fingers/thumbs to dip into the blood of the sacrifices. Everything about that “church” was mandated between the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy. Turn to the New Testament to look for any sort of similar instructions and you’ll be sore disappointed. The best we get is a character list of godly leaders.
Turns out, God’s been blessing the church in its many different manifestations over the years. Although the house church is the only “biblical” church, it’s clearly not a mandated model. Churches with church buildings have been variously effective over the years and many faithful and effective Christians have been birthed, raised, and sent forth from that model (Mother Theresa and Billy Graham are two that come instantly to mind). On the other hand, churches without church buildings have been variously effective over the years as well and is now one of the most prevalent and fastest growing models in the world. However, the human tendency and need to institutionalize is a strong one, and I suspect that even those flourishing house churches in India and China will one day be in our boat. History has a strange way or repeating itself.
But there’s another fallacy in the notion that house church is the solution for the church of tomorrow – which it could very well be, but it’s not likely to be the prime solution in my lifetime and not likely in yours. We live in a capitalist, consumerist culture. Not only has the church not been able to change that, in many ways, the church has inculcated that (something about the Protestant Ethic comes to mind). In a consumer, post-Christian culture that carries around the church’s reputation like a chip on its shoulder, house church is going to be a tough sale. The typical questions I hear are almost always about nursery care, youth programming, and so on. Until the church stops being a purveyor of services for its members, the house church is going to have limited appeal. Indeed, it wasn’t that long ago that house church researchers were struggling to find a statistically significant number of North American house churches that had been in existence over five years. They may have found enough by now, but what they were finding is that most house churches disbanded within a couple of years. There are many reasons this is true in North America, but that doesn’t change the fact that short lived house churches aren’t around long enough to make the difference that Frank Viola and others are calling for. Apparently, when it comes to “church,” our culture by and large still insists on “programs.” House church isn’t really big on programs … and either is Viola.
All this may sound like I’m suggesting that the house church is not a solution. In some ways, that’s exactly what I’m saying. House churches won’t “save” the mainline … indeed, it won’t save any denomination. Only a very few house church networks are able to support professionally trained clergy (few of whom “get” house church anyway), so it’s not going to be the hope for appointing Methodist Elders or providing full-time jobs to those leaving seminary with student debt. And it’s not likely to “catch on” suddenly anytime soon so that the North American House Church Movement starts looking like the Chinese House Church Movement. Like the Willow Creek model, most of us aren’t Bill Hybles in South Barrington County and most of us aren’t living in China where the pre-Christian culture is actually a pre-Christian culture.
On the other hand, I think that the church as it exists today needs to learn a LOT from the house church. Discipleship simply hasn’t and generally doesn’t happen effectively within the walls of the brick-and-mortar (B&M) church. It hasn’t and generally doesn’t even happen in most church’s small groups. For the past too-many years, the church has lived under the delusion that it could “teach” Christianity by filling our brains with information about God and about the life of a Christian. That’s gotten us to where we are now (how’s that working for you?). The house church is probably the most effective model for developing disciples of Jesus … but it does it because it’s not curriculum based, but discipleship making, living life as a disciple of Jesus based organism. The good news is that this in infinitely transferable to the B&M church.
So, is the church of yesterday really the church of tomorrow? The answer is definitely not. And absolutely yes. But it’s not likely to look like what most of the pundits would want it to look like.