My friend (and not just on Facebook!) John Armstrong has posted a couple of thoughts about “the home church movement”, the first listing some of its draw and the second outlining some of his concerns.
Since I attend a house church, I thought I’d weigh in on his thoughts with some of my own thrown in for good measure.
His first post outlined a number of the “draws” of home churches, as he put it. I might even say that some of these are strengths.
A number of his points have to do with the way that the structure and/or feel of such a group is transformed by the absence of a professional minister and formal leadership. Not only is there a more relational feel, but there is more sharing in the ministry and worship and business-like or political power structures are less of a driving dynamic.
Here, John nails one of the “negative” components of my own move away from denominational church settings into the house church world. Traditional churches tend toward the acquisition of power, the exercise of control, and the focusing of the ministry on a few.
In denominational churches, this is often associated with power in the bureaucracy. Power and control are exercised through regional bodies that oversee how you can and cannot deal with pastors, pastoral calls, ordinations, teachings that cut against the grain of church teaching, etc. I am convinced that the pastoral transition process in the one mainline denomination I have been part of was created for the sole purpose of making sure that before another permanent pastor can resume leadership of a congregation that said congregation will be as dead and demoralized as possible. That way, if the new pastor succeeds it will only be because the God who gives life to the dead is at work in her or him.
I do fear that these bureaucratic developments are inherently antithetical to the economy of the Kingdom of God. I worry about their tendency to embody the disciples’ plea to be allowed to call down fire from heaven on anyone who happens to reject our message. I worry about their tendency to embody the disciples’ requests to sit at Jesus’ right hand and his left.
In house church, there can be no illusions about “greatness on earth” being God’s will for his pastor, despite the way that such greatness undermines the story of the cross. I don’t think that everyone needs to be in a house church, and I don’t think that denominational or more formal churches are inherently bad. But, I do think that there needs to be a constant witness of each to the potential pitfalls of the other. In the case of the deceptive allures of power, and the easy tendency for strong leaders to turn the worship of God into megalomaniacal self-promotion, I think the home church has the power to testify to the kingdom whose economy declares that the first shall be last and that the least is greatest.
Or, to put it more simply: you can’t control the work of God or confine it to your system. And, God will work things in surprising places that seem incapable of doing the great things open to those with more resources and prestige.
One thing John doesn’t say in his post that was a crucial factor for me, and related to the issue of power, is that of money. If power was one negative force, repelling me from denominationally associated churches, money was the other. Yes, there’s the business of upkeep of buildings and pastoral paychecks that make the church itself part of the money suck. And, yes, I’ve been through fund raising efforts for buildings that turned my stomach a little.
But the point at which I was pushed over the edge was when I was having a conversation with someone who wanted to appeal a Presbytery’s decision about something. The cost? Getting a team of churches together who would agree to cover the legal bills that were anticipated to be well in excess of $100,000.
That conversation was where I said, “I cannot be part of [this] denomination. Jesus cannot be happy that we are spending his money this way.” The issue wasn’t whether or not her particular appeal was warranted or important. The issue was the way that the denominational and bureaucratic structure sucked money away from the mission of God. And no, I will not agree that fighting a court case within your denomination’s judicatory is an expression of the mission of God.
Add to that the idea of funding professional, full-time ordained “pastors” to administer the local, regional, and national denominational bureaucracy, and I was at the end of it.
So now, rather than support a church building and staff and denominational politics and judiciaries, we have picked up a couple extra missionaries to support on a monthly basis, we give money to the local food pantry, and otherwise invest our ministry dollars in people and institutions that have made a more compelling case that they are working with God for the sort of Kingdom on earth that we pray for in reciting the Lord’s prayer.
This went on a bit longer than expected! Come back tomorrow and I’ll engage some other issues. Here I’ve laid out some of my the repulsions that pushed me away from big church, but there are also some positive draws that pull me toward the house church we’re part of. I’ll cover those in a subsequent post or two, and also engage some of John’s critiques/words of warning/growth areas for house churches.