The church at home: the house church movement
The modern house church movement has both captured allegiance and anxiety. Many acclaim it as a rediscovery of New Testament Christianity, while others see in it an escape from the realities of established church life.
The early Christian community started as a house church. The record in the book of Acts tells us that 'They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship... They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts. 'Some twenty-five years later, the apostle Paul wrote to friends in Rome: 'Greet also the church that meets in their house.'
During the following decades the Christians continued to meet in homes. In times of persecution they went underground into the catacombs. But after the Roman Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity in AD 313, church buildings began to multiply. In
the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, the Reformation fostered new churches as Protestants built their own places of worship. Yet in every century Christians have met in homes in small groups to supplement their more formal church life.
Others, however, have left the established denominations to form independent house churches. It is this latter development, evident since the mid-twentieth century, that can be called 'the house church movement'.
The same but different
The thousands of house churches around the world vary widely in origin and purpose.
In England three main branches have originated independently of each other as offshoots of established denominations. They have no central organization and want to be known simply as local churches. Yet each 'chain' of house churches has a distinctive character. They are linked by the itinerant ministry of their leaders, common hymns and conferences, similar behaviour patterns and visits among the 'member' churches. They now number several hundred with about 50,000 members.
In the United Slates a similar movement in the last two decades has been nurtured by the charismatic renewal (see Worldwide renewal). While most of the participants in this renewal have remained in the Roman Catholic and mainstream Protestant churches, many have left them to form small informal house churches. Their rapid growth is due also to winning new converts from non-religious backgrounds. The various chains have the common linking features noted above as well as leaching on cassette tapes, in magazines and in books. Members number several hundred thousand.
The house church movement has also developed in Latin America and certain Communist countries. The largest has appeared in China, as the government outlawed Christianity and confiscated buildings. These churches are completely indigenous, unconnected with any outside organizations. They rely on lay leadership, since churches are not allowed to support full-time workers. Leaders usually emerge when the groups meet together for prayer; they are recognized and appointed by members of the church. Evangelism lakes place through personal contact with friends and neighbours. The Chinese house churches are fully self-governing, self-supporting and self-propogaling. Flexible and adaptable to local needs, they enabled Christianity to survive and even prosper through the-dark days of the Cultural Revolution. Membership today is numbered in the millions.
Amid the wide diversity of environment, origin and activities, these house churches have much in common:
- Strong, supportive personal relationships and a concern to express in practical ways the aposlle Paul's teaching about Christians being 'members of the Body of Christ';
- Flexibility and spontaneity in worship and prayer in the context of the home;
- Intensive biblical instruction of new members and children;
- Mutual strengthening of the members, including sharing of material goods as in the early church;
- Investment of money and , time in people rather than expensive buildings. Large meetings are held on occasion in rented buildings.
All this shows how strong and vital this movement is. Yet its very freedom and flexibility make it susceptible to isolation, divisions and cultic trends led by false prophets. Some house churches demand a total commitment of the members' time and energy, often concentrating on the community's own concerns to the neglect of the wider work of God in the world.
Eventually many of these house churches will face the problems of over-organization and rigidity encountered by the established churches. The test of this growing movement will be the success of'second generation' members - those who have grown up within it- in dealing with these problems and persevering in the 'apostles' teaching' as set out in the Bible.
Copyright © 1986 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian History magazine.
Click here for reprint information on Christian History.