Thursday, September 21, 2006

The Classic Way of Church -- what we can learn from House church

I started doing some reflections a while back on the classic way of church (I don't like the term "traditional" because it carries a lot of baggage) and why it still worked for me. The reflections grew out of conversations with house church folks who had a pretty sustained critique (some fair, some not fair) of the type of church I attended. I felt that I needed to do a kind of apologia -- and I probably have lots more to say on that issue.

However.... (he says, getting ready to drop the other shoe)

the house church have some really valid points, and some things that those of us in more classic (and institutional) churches need to hear. So here are a few things I've been thinking about in conversation with my house church friends (again, I'm speaking in generalizations -- not comprehensively for all house churches -- when I say "house church folks", i'm generalizing from my experience, not absolutizing for all house churches everywhere)

1) House churches are intentional. One of the big beefs I hear from house church folks is the shallowness of commitment of many in the institutional church. So many people in the institutional church think that suffering for Jesus means missing the first half of the NFL game so you can go to worship. House church folks count the cost -- they intentionally examine their lives and try to bring them into conformity with their faith. Everything they do is aimed at that goal.

The institutional church often times encourages spiritual laziness. Even the institutional churches that are really good at challenging people to consistently live their lives as disciples -- even those churches have programs and activities that they do by reflex, without reflecting on whether they accomplish the purpose of equipping the saints. The challenge for institutional churches is to reflect and make sure that the things they do are truly kingdom things.

2) House churches are relational. I believe classic churches are relational -- and they're intentionally multi-generational. But because these churches tend to be larger than house churches, it is easier to fall into a more surface level of relating. Folks in house churches are deeply related to one another and are in one anothers business all the time. They truly see themselves as extended families -- and they perceive that in institutional churches, there's a shallow level of committment.

The institutional church needs to do a better job of celebrating and communicating relationship -- I see that there are lots of deep relationships in institutional churches -- the challenge is how to bring new people into those relationships. In institutional churches, we often have people who have been together for decades -- they have a depth to relationships that only comes from years of walking side by side. Often it's challenging for those folks to jump to a high level of intimacy with someone new. And yet that high level of intimacy is exactly what house church folks crave.

3) House churches truly give of themselves. It takes a lot of resources to feed the institutional machine -- building maintenance, staff salaries, programmatic resources -- all of these funds that feed an institution are all freed up by the house church. And their contention is that all those funds then are free to go to mission -- to helping the poor, to feeding the hungry, to meeting needs in the neighborhood.

Now I believe that institutional churches are worth the investment -- there is value in having the public witness of a well crafted building, there is value in paying for a minister to be dedicated to prayer, preparation (through study and reflection), and people. There is value in an institution that can create bigger scale programs than just a few people can pull together. But the house church critique still stands -- institutional churches have to ask "who is all this stuff for?" and if we say "for us" then we ought to tremble. The value of all this stuff lies in the capacity for us to demonstrate to the world the love of Christ -- to proclaim to the world the truth of Christ. All too often, institutional churches rest on the laurels of the building and the programs, forgetting for what purpose those things exist.

4) House churches are not empires -- Institutional churches often become little more than extensions of the head pastor's ego. The power that a pastor can wield in terms of setting program, determining priorities, directing dollars, and channeling energies is enormous. So many people check out of institutional churches because they're tired of feeling like they're living someone else's dream, or they're tired of the charismatic leader treating people like pieces on a chess board, or they're tired of being caught in political power games, or they're tired of feeding an ego machine. This empire mentality can be seen in the obsession with numbers and budgets (again, I think needful things -- but we can set them up as idols)

House churches tend not to be empires -- sure, there's always the danger of them becoming a cult of personality -- however in this time of US history, the folks who attend house church tend to be more of the independent thinker type than the compliant type (though that trend could always change).

Simply put -- a lot of institutional pastors (and I speak of myself as chief of all sinners) need to lay down the idea that the show is about them -- it's not a show, and it's about Jesus and his glory.

5) House churches are not slick -- there's a local megachurch here with the slogan emblazoned boldly on their sign "A real church for real people" -- Now I defend this church to my colleagues, but let's be honest about the irony in that slogan. It's a slickly designed marketing logo and piece of copy which is aimed at selling the idea of the church to the largest number of people possible. The house church folks look at that slogan and laugh at the unintended irony -- they would say "a plastic church for plastic people" (russ caveat -- please don't get me wrong -- I don't think there's anything wrong with marketing as a concept -- we're marketing our Music Mission Kiev concert pretty aggressively. However, the medium is the message -- I don't think it's possible to market the concept of "authenticity").

House churches are messy; they're not really concerned with externals or being "user friendly" -- usually, they don't care if they offend folks on the outside. Their aims are not explosive growth. They're willing to show their rough edges. To a degree, this is their means of demonstrating grace -- to show that you don't have to be a particular target demographic in order to be welcome. Institutional churches can learn.

5) House churches are non-programmatic. House church folks don't really want to "run the bases" of the Purpose driven life. They don't want to treat discipleship as a checklist -- if you go through this series of classes, then you'll be a disciple. Because they look at discipleship holistically, they tend to avoid programmatic ways of discipleship as shallow and non-helpful.

And honestly they're right -- most of the programs I've been through are nowhere near as life changing as they're hyped. If we in the institutional church could back off from breathless hype (trying to sell) a program, and simply offer programs as an alternative that might help, it would go a long way toward encouraging discipleship.

So, those are a few thoughts for the day -- let me know what you think.

Soli Deo Gloria

Previous posts --
The Classic Way of being church: intergenerational
The Classic Way of being church: preaching
The Classic Way of being church: An Apologia