House churches are nothing new. But their day has come for mainline congregations seeking to reduce their dependency on Sunday morning.
And what better time to get them started than holiday season, when people want special activities for families and friendship circles.
Rather than continuing to tinker with Sunday worship — a process that invariably irritates longtime members — multichannel churches can broaden and deepen their reach by encouraging small-group worship in people’s homes.
Such worship won’t threaten Sunday folks, because it appeals largely to a different set of constituents. It won’t drain resources from Sunday morning, because it doesn’t depend on clergy leadership. And yet it will enliven the entire congregation as long as the two constituencies avoid competition.
House church takes several forms, mainly having to do with who participates — children or no children, especially — and how central the formalities of the Eucharist are to the gathering. Some congregations allow a Eucharist led by members, using reserve sacrament or simply not requiring pastors. Some want member-led worship to focus on prayer, singing and word.
Otherwise, the character of house church is created by the setting: a room in a home, with people sitting in a circle, a casual environment and an absence of hierarchy. The leader is part of the group — although he or she should be assigned by the pastor. The content of worship tends to reflect its participants — children playing musical instruments, for example, or a single-gender group’s preferences for atmosphere. Some want consistent grounding in Scripture, while others want to avoid what they consider the rigidities of a typical Bible focus.
In fact, at least initially, house church can take its form and content from what it is trying not to be: not led by a teaching elder, not Bible-centered, not formal, not concerned about timing, or not monochromatic. Or the opposite of all those.
In time, a house church will move beyond defining itself by negatives and will find its own charisms.
Some decisions are pivotal:
How to handle new arrivals
Small groups tend to find a comfort level and then to close ranks. Not in hostility as much as to sustain warmth and intimacy. A group that sees itself as closed will eventually dwindle, as people move on. That process should be built into expectations from the start. By contrast, a group that sees itself as always open to newcomers and to the changes they bring won’t develop the warmth and intimacy that closed groups attain, but it will be able to survive normal attrition. Members need to be clear about their expectations.
How to balance prayer, music and ceremony
Roles tend to develop, and with roles often comes hierarchy. There is no ideal balance, but rather a balance that participants have negotiated and then explain to every new arrival. It’s a matter of identity, rather than being right or wrong. It is important that each house church be clear about its intentions and identity, so that new arrivals can assess fit.
Keep format open
One great joy of house church is that it can be flexible, playful, nimble. Unlike Sunday morning, where any change can provoke a crisis, a house church can embrace change as holy and joyful.
TOM EHRICH is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is a founder of the Church Wellness Project churchwellness.com. His Web site is morningwalkmedia.com.