Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Explaining "House Church" in 60 Seconds

This morning I found myself trying to explain to a stranger what house church is, in about 60 seconds.

The Backstory

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.


Anonymous said...


Ah - the elevator speech! How do you get your main message across in 30 - 60 seconds? Always a challenge.

But let me play devil's advocate here just for a moment. I heard you explain the "what" of house churches - that it's people gathering as their primary community. Okay, but why? I think that your answer might be that the "main goal is to help people grow and change, and through that to change the world" and that a "large group/lecture mode is really not very effective."

This sounds like a great argument for small groups within a larger church. Just like having small lab groups after the main lecture, the labs are useful, but the main lecture is still necessary. So far, I fully agree with you that small groups are effective. But why only small groups?

Is your main argument purely economic, then? It just costs less to have house churches?

Just playing devil's advocate.

(You have 60 seconds to reply. Go.)


Feral Pastor said...

Hey, DTM - good question!

Let me clarify... I'm not suggesting that we only do house church or small groups. I see real value in larger gatherings, both in larger groups gathered for worship and in larger group gathered for work (which is where denominations could easily fit in.) I tried to hint at that when I used the phrase "primary faith community." My main concern however is that conventional congregations and the people in them typically spend most of their time and energy on the large group expressions and far less on the small ones. I don’t want to eliminate the larger expressions, I want to invert the priorities.

That does raise a practical question: which would be easier – to invert the priorities of an established congregation, or to start fresh with a small/house expression and introduce the larger expression as you go? I’m betting it’s the latter so that’s the direction I’m heading.

Now, on to your question about the why: is the argument for house churches essentially economic? Is this really just about efficiency?

In a sense, yes. But the two terms we really need to engage are stewardship and waste.

If a business is inefficient the basic result is less profit. But when the Church is “inefficient” – when we are poor stewards and waste God’s resources – the basic result is less Life. There are people who don’t get told about Jesus because we spend so much of our time on things that don’t help us grow into the kind of disciples who might actually tell them. There are people who don’t get food in this world because we spend so much money on buildings that are empty most of the week and only half full on Sundays (if that).

It’s the waste that I can’t get over. Wasted time, wasted money, wasted talents of incredibly gifted people, and all in the face of so much need in the world – spiritual need and physical need.

The congregation I grew up in now has an average worship attendance of 38 and the net equity of their building and lot is $3.8 million. I am sure that they are not unique. And every time I think of that I can’t help but imagine… What if…? What if…?

To me, the economics is a big deal. In the Church, economics means lives. And souls.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the comment on my blog!

Just like you, I use to be on staff at a church. I served as the Network Director (Evangelist) when I was there. I just transitioned out and I am asking for the Spirit to guide me on what to do when it comes to ministry. This is probably the most out of box thing I have ever done. I have never been homeless when it comes to church.

Feral Pastor said...

Hi Annemarie - thanks for coming by! Being "homeless" is a good way to put it. I've been without a specific church home for 14 months now myself and it's a very odd experience for someone raised in the church as I was. I'd like to hear more about where you've been and where you think the Spirit may be leading. If I open up a new topic for that on my blog, would you be willing to let me sort of "interview" you over a virtual cup of coffee???


Anonymous said...


That would be just fine! Feel free to e-mail me at