The following article is part ten of a ten-part series by Dave Barnhart exploring all aspects of organizing, worshipping, and growing as a house church community. Read the previous parts here.
Back to the Future—Again
For the first three hundred years of its existence, the early church did not have any church buildings to fight over. The early church had only a vague set of rules for the ordination of clergy, depended heavily on the witness of its laity, and grew like wildfire. Similarly, the Methodist church began as a renewal movement primarily in homes and among laypeople. We only became a denomination when the United States separated politically from England. We trained licensed local pastors in order to deploy pastors quickly to areas of need. When Francis Asbury wrote about church buildings, he disparaged large, fine sanctuaries because they caused clergy to depend too heavily on the wealthy members of their congregations, which in turn compromised their preaching and witness.
In the weeks since the 2019 Called Session of General Conference, I’ve seen a lot of writing on the future of the United Methodist Church. A lot of this writing has to do with power and control of property. I have felt at peace during much of this sturm and drang, because our local church has already begun living into one possible future. Self-replicating, lay-led, clergy-coached house churches are indeed a viable model for creating new communities of faith. While so many church leaders are chasing institutional stability, we are remembering that the roots of our faith are in radical disruption.
Missional-thinking Christians have been saying for years that as our culture becomes less Christian, our society begins to resemble more closely the world of the first century, a field ripe for harvest. The future is indeed beginning to look very much like the past.
Breaking Away From Injustice
As I’ve written this series on house churches, I’ve focused mostly only the how. I have said that I do not believe that house churches are necessarily more faithful or more authentic because they are like the early church. But I do believe they are an important and necessary disruption to church-as-usual. Planting house churches is a way of breaking away from and critiquing the colonizing theology of Empire that has dominated Christian thinking for the last century. When people speak nostalgically about church growth in North America in the last century, they are speaking about a particularly oppressive form of institutional church that benefitted from and promoted white supremacy and capitalism.
Church planting is a religious business, and its cheerleaders—like me—often talk nostalgically about the early church. But what usually gets left out of the history is that church planting and church growth in the last century is also the history of redlining, white flight, suburbanization, and corporate capitalism that has undergirded the building of “successful” churches and church buildings. The church-industrial complex focused on suburbs created by white flight, and it pointed to suburban church growth as a sign of God’s favor and their own innovative brilliance. So when denominational leaders talk of church “decline” from the last century, and speak of their desire to Make Church Great Again, they often leave out this history and what it means for the current moment. The United Methodist Church similarly accommodated racism by forming regional jurisdictions when it was formed out of a series of mergers in the last century, and it is partially this accommodation of racism which has led to our organizational dysfunction and imminent schism today.
Those who talk about church decline also leave out the fact that the problem they are speaking of is largely a white church phenomenon. David Scott’s article “American UMC Decline is a White People Problem” points out that African-American, Native American, Pacific Islander, Hispanic, and Asian-American churches have all added membership in the last twenty years. The narrative of church decline is actually a racist narrative.
I believe house churches provide an opportunity to break with our racist church structures. If house churches are imbued with anti-racist DNA, they can challenge some of our historical and structural racism. House churches with practices that uphold liberation can be transformative for the larger “capital-C” Church.
I am not talking about some liberal ideal of “diversity” or “inclusion.” While I do think a sign of the kingdom is people of all races, gender identities, sexual orientations, and class backgrounds worshiping and having dinner together, “diversity” is not the goal. White folks need to recognize that integrated spaces are not necessarily safe or comfortable spaces for non-white folks. One of our newest house churches is made up of predominantly black LGBTQ folks. One member said, “In my parents’ church I’m too gay; in white progressive churches I’m too black. But here I can be my whole self.” House churches provide a place where people can be authentically their whole selves, and bring all of who they are to worship. If they are doing anti-racist and liberatory work, their primary concern is not going to be “looking diverse.”
House churches that are predominantly white can hold some of the difficult conversations and spiritual revelations that white folks need to have about repenting and transforming their way of being in the world. This is profoundly spiritual and religious work, and it can happen within the context of worship. But it is difficult—if not impossible—to do in a large public building which is ostensibly “open to everyone.” Most (but not all) white churches who fixate on growing big, successful programs avoid these uncomfortable discussions for fear of scaring folks. This is a fatal mistake.
House Churches as Disruptors
While there are some big churches who tackle controversial subjects, and some big-church pastors who speak prophetically, the very work of trying to grow commercially-successful churches means that the work of justice and social transformation is often left to the passionate fringe. House churches are a tool which can be used to disrupt religion-as-business and help the larger Church rediscover its roots in personal and social transformation. Planting a house church network is less like starting a business and more like community organizing. This is not an approach that fits well with attractional modes of advertising, like direct mail or billboards.
In the first century, pagan temples were the mega-churches of the day. They had the religious mass market all sewn up. But by placing Christian worship practices in the home, the early church also placed worship in the domain of women. It’s no accident that many of the church leaders named by Paul and Acts were women. We know that churches met in the homes of Nympha and Prisca and Aquila, and that leaders like Chloe and Phoebe had significant clout. In the same way, modern house churches blur the line between professional clergy and lay leadership. Leadership in house churches is less hierarchical and more egalitarian.
We also know these first-century house churches bucked the cultural trend of social stratification. People who ate at the same table were like members of the same family, and they even claimed that distinctions between Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female fell away in their oneness in Christ. Today, it is still more likely that people of different races and social circles will rub elbows at a dining table than in a sanctuary.
House churches also disrupted the economy. Members “shared all things in common.” Though our house churches are not communes, there is certainly a greater sense of sharing and intimacy. When someone has a need, the community moves to assist, often before the pastor ever hears of it.
I do not mean to suggest house churches are a panacea for all the social ills that afflict the larger Church. Meeting in homes still means that we are confronted with the reality of wealth disparity and economic inequality created and sustained by capitalism, sexism, and white supremacy. A house church can be just as much of a social bubble as a conventional church. Toxic small-church ways thinking are always a danger.
But the fact that house churches can be rapidly deployed, formed around the indigenous culture, and imbued with good DNA means that they can disrupt church-as-usual with truly transformative lay leadership. It does not require a quarter-million dollars, a full-time professional clergy person, and a parcel of land to start a church. And in the uncharted waters into which Methodism is sailing, I believe it gives us the power to reach more of our society with Good News for All People.