This morning I found myself trying to explain to a stranger what house church is, in about 60 seconds.
I was at a doctors appointment to meet with a specialist for the first time who was going to take a look at my hand. (I have some odd stiffness in some finger joints but it doesn't look like anything to be too concerned about, thankfully.) One of the parade of people who saw me in the exam room before I actually met the doctor noticed the catering logo on my shirt and asked me if I worked for a caterer. I do, part time, and had just come from setting up a breakfast. So I told her that I was actually a pastor, on leave from call and working for a caterer while mostly being a homemaker and parent while my wife brings home the bacon and pays the bills. We chatted briefly about catering and then she was done with her tasks and left the room. Later on, after I met the doctor and she had finished discussing the concerns I had about my hand, she mentioned that the other person had told her that I was both a pastor and a caterer which was unusual. So I went ahead and talked about how I was not serving in a church but was now exploring the house church movement. To this, she replied;
Oh, that's great! - like visiting sick people in their homes?
Beat the Clock
So there it was. How do I explain house church to a doctor I just met, in the few moments for conversation available in the exam room after my appointment? In a nutshell, here is basically what I said:
In a regular church, the primary event is when you gather together a large group of people who mostly listen while one person talks, namely me - the pastor. But if your main goal is to help people grow and change, and through that to change the world, this large group/lecture mode is really not very effective. You'll really do much better with a smaller group - say 10 or 12 - who can really get to know each other and be involved in each other's lives. And that is what house churches are about.
She picked up on that right away and enthusiastically compared it to her own experience of helping to train other doctors on how to diagnose things. She said that while it's useful for her to initially just explain it to them and tell them about it, what really helps is when they then go and practice it and check back with her to see how they did: experiential learning in a small group vs. a lecture.
I then added that another reason I was interested in house churches was because of the high cost of doing regular church. To support that large group event takes a whole lot of money for the building, and the salary of a graduate level professional and so on (and pay for insurance, she chimed in, never far from the mind of a doctor these days to be sure). I said that it just takes an enormous amount of time and money to keep it going and in the end you don't get a lot out of it. She was right with me, and saw what I was getting at, saying "So the ROI (return on investment) is low. I'll be the people in charge don't like to hear that." "Well, yeah..." I replied.
Then she made one more interesting comment. She remembered that she had actually attended a house church meeting - or something much like it - perhaps 10 or 15 years ago. She recalled that it seemed very strange because it was so different from a regular church service, which she was familiar with.
That was it. Time was up. I went home and she went on to her next patient.
1. Amazing how these conversations get started! I imagine it's more likely for me to find entry into these topics because it's an easy offshoot from the basic "what do you do for a living" question.
2. I was struck by how quickly she made the comparison to her work with training doctors. But actually, the whole idea that effective teaching and training needs to be more interactive is pretty commonplace these days. What seems more striking now in retrospect is that it's taking the church so long to catch up with this. Mentoring, coaching and participative learning really ought to be the norm for our practices of faith formation.
3. Lastly, I noticed that my quick-draw explanation was largely negative and reactive. That is to say, my first move in talking about house church was to contrast it with what it isn't: conventional, Sunday-morning-oriented church life. To an extent, that's understandable. Conventional church is certainly my own most familiar reference point. And I understand that when an idea is in its early stages, it's often expressed in terms of what it is reacting against or emerging from. It can take a while to learn how to articulate what you're for but it's not so hard to describe what you're against. (Brian McLaren has pointed out how this is taking place in the emergence of Postmodernity - easier to contrast it with Modernity than to give it a positive definition of its own. The very term "post-modern" itself illustrates that point.) But it really begs the question: how would my answer be different if tried to say what house church is and what it's for rather than what it isn't?
So, let me close by giving that a try.
House church is when small groups of Christians get together regularly - typically in a home - and that gathering is their primary faith community. They may or may not also go to traditional church services, but this small group essentially is their "church," their congregation. And so these people share life together, and they help each other to grow, to be more like Jesus, and to change the world.
That leaves a lot unsaid, and "primary faith community" feels unwieldy... too much like a technical term, but it's a start.
I look forward to my next conversation and a chance to try it out.