Breaching the Institutional Church/House Church Divide

The concept of  a “House Church” brings up negative impressions for many pastors in more traditional style fellowships. Likewise, the though of an “Institutional Church” may make house church supporters want to discuss their wounds from years in traditional churches. How did it ever get this way? I thought we are all supposed to be on the same team with the same captain?

As someone who has been blessed to be a part of both style of gatherings, I am well aware of the strengths and weaknesses of each form. Both can equally go astray if Jesus is not the center and the people involved are not honest about their process. Neither format is the panacea to our problems.

I have known many Christians who have jumped around from big church to house church and then gone back to the new mega church. People look for answers in another church when many of the problems are deep inside themselves. I have certainly done my fair share of blaming others for my church nightmares. My first book (Organic Faith) details my struggle from disillusionment with church, Christianity and myself to a deeper state of discipleship and joy.

Preaching magazine recently carried a cover story by Sara Horn on the house church movement. I thought it was pretty fair in its treatment of the issues. According to a survey by Barna Group, roughly 70 million Americans regularly attend or have experimented with a house church. Yep, I am one of those people even though I feel lead to yoke with a large, denominational church right now. My personal preference is a smaller fellowship. But I have learned that it isn’t about my preference, and I am happy where God has me.

Many people fellowship with home churches report being very satisfied with the experience. Satisfaction ratings for these kind of gatherings are much higher than most traditional churches.

Why do some people flock to home churches? Well, the reasons are as varied as the people who make them. But there are some consistent patterns we can spot. Home churches provide intimate gatherings where everyone can get in on the discussion. Gatherings normally focus around a meal with various generations interacting and sharing about their experiences and questions. Many larger churches have responded with small groups or cell group strategies to offer more intimate settings for discipleship. This has worked and failed depending on the particulars of each church.

Churches used to serve a small community where the pastors knew all the families. With the growth of mega and medium-sized churches, many people drive long distances and don’t really know the leaders at the church. This has created a vacuum of relationship. Some have opted for home churches to fix their emotional need, yet they struggle down the road with the lack of programs, facilities or resources of a larger church. 

Neil Cole, a church planter and author, made a great point in the Preaching article. He said, “In any city in America today, you can go to a few churches and park in a parking lot where someone with a yellow vest will direct you to a space. Someone you don’t know will hand you a sheet of paper. You’ll sit down in the crowd of peo­ple you don’t know, stare at the back of the head of someone, listen to someone you don’t know give you three ways to improve your life and the only contact you have is a two-minute neighbor nudge where you introduce yourself and that’s called church…Deeper substance can only be received when you personally ingest God’s Word for yourself, without someone else ingesting it for you.”

Wow, he just described the dissatisfaction that many people feel with church as usual.

Cole says the advantage with the house church is that it allows and expects partic­ipation. He said, “You can’t just shrink the church, put it in the living room and be non-participatory. The reason you see such large numbers moving toward this move­ment is it involves all of the body of Christ. It’s throughout the week, not just one hour and a half.”

Most preachers would be aghast if someone spoke up during their sermon wanting to interject a comment into the message. That is exactly how most home churches operate. Only a small amount of traditional preaching goes on in most home churches. The real benefit of the house church model appears to be that it fosters leadership development from within the group.

I believe that house churches and traditional churches could benefit by helping each other. That is when the real victory will come. Both types of churches need each other.

House churches can find accounta­bility with other more traditional churches or home church networks. There can be a sharing of resources where all parties involved benefit. Larger churches have facilities and programs that can be used. Small gatherings may have more freedom to invest offerings in missionaries or ministries from bigger churches.  They may be able to provide manpower to specialty city wide projects or other outreach efforts sponsored by more traditional churches.

Home churches can develop leaders that are then able to go pastor other people. That is one of the major flaws in most big churches. They struggle to really develop lay leaders/pastors. The home church model creates an atmosphere where people can take more ownership of their faith journey.   

Larry Kreider, founder of Dove Christian Fellowship in Lancaster, Penn., and author of Starting a House Church, told Preaching magazine that he encourages pastors to allow willing members to start house churches as a connected satellite to their church.

That is what I think the answer is for many ailing fellowships. Instead of circling the waggons and treating wannabe home church leaders like they have a horrible disease, give them the tools to succeed and launch them forth into kingdom ministry. Churches can provide oversight and resources while these home churches take much of the burden of doing ministry. More equipping and less doing by the pastors. That is a necessity once a church gets to be of any size.

I believe there is a lot to learn and share from both formats. And I believe that the more they work together, the more things will get done to expand God’s Kingdom on earth.

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4 responses to “Breaching the Institutional Church/House Church Divide

  1. very interesting, but I don’t agree with you
    Idetrorce

  2. I welcome disagreement. But it would be nice to know what you really take issue with and why.
    -Chaille Brindley

  3. thank you for the insights – I think you are right on actually – I am on a large staff at a large church and I have struggled with wanting a house church atmosphere just for my own spiritual walk – however I can see the need for the institutional church to find leaders that see the need to see itself as not only a vital partner to house churches put a planter of house churches seeking to equip and train pastors.

  4. It sounds like a good idea – a marriage in a sense of both worlds:
    “I believe there is a lot to learn and share from both formats. And I believe that the more they work together, the more things will get done to expand God’s Kingdom on earth.”

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