There are many reasons for the decline in traditional church attendance in America over the past decade. This article will not attempt to negotiate that terrain. Instead, we’re focusing on an interesting trend that’s going on everywhere in the world, even right here in the USA.
It’s called the house church. Groups of believers meeting together in an informal setting such as someone’s home, much the way the early disciples did. And that’s part of the appeal: it’s a return to the original roots of Christianity, a focus on relationship-building as part of worship, smaller, more intimate gatherings, and an opportunity for both in-depth bible study and voluntary contributions from the entire assembly including prophetic encouragement, the sort of spontaneous out-spilling of the Spirit that are not typically encouraged or allowed in formal churches today but which we know were in the days of the early Christians.
There is also the issue of today’s churches meeting in expensive, million-dollar buildings. Many Christians have a problem with the idea of any monies they might contribute through tithing going towards the maintenance of a building or paying someone’s salary. Neither buildings nor salaries were part of Christ’s great commission. The modern Christian, often having a more personal arrangement with God about tithing and offerings that is independent of the church, may prefer to give directly to a charity or mission rather than to a local church. A house church frees them up from this obligation, as offerings are rarely taken there.
The house church is, of course, popular in the underground church in countries where the gospel is prohibited, such as in Iran and Saudi Arabia and many other Muslim countries. It is, perhaps, the only way believers can come together; only there, they meet at great peril to their own lives and that of their families.
It can be difficult to find a house church because many of them are secret and careful about who they allow to join their group–much like an already full bible study group. But you can always start one yourself, and this is an idea for churches today to consider as a way of reaching out to members who don’t seem to “go for” traditional church. Have your members start a house church. They don’t need to meet on Sundays–in fact, few of them do.
A typical house church doesn’t have a sermon–just some worship time, perhaps some bible study–and then, usually, the rest of the time is “led by the Spirit”. House church gatherings tend to be longer than typical services because they are not formulaic and once people are deep into worship, they often don’t want to go. They are an opportunity to go “places” where a typical Sunday morning service just doesn’t allow. We have witnessed prophetic blessings and demonic expulsion at house churches.
The only real requirement for starting a house church, besides a dwelling of some type (even a prison cell will do), is a firm grasp of Scripture and a solid relationship with Jesus Christ. This is because, if you are going to be “led by the Spirit,” you must be sure your inclinations are in alignment with Scripture.
An interesting phenomenon is the rise of female leadership in the house churches, especially in consideration of the decline in typical church attendance. The message here seems to be that typical churches couldn’t keep up with the Holy Spirit, which is definitely flowing in the house church. While male leadership continues to dominate the declining church, female leadership is the hallmark of the rising house church–at least in America. Whether or not this trend continues, however, as more men begin to infiltrate the house church movement, remains to be seen.
Our personal view–and it is entirely speculative–is that many women have left traditional church because the church simply has not offered them a place for leadership. This is a tremendous oversight on the part of the church. We know that in the early days, a church met in the house of Nympha (Colossians 4:15). Junia (Romans 16:7) was an outstanding apostle, also possibly known as Joanna (Jewish name), the wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward (Luke 8:3) who originally supported Jesus’ ministry out of her own means. (This probably came after Jesus healed their son in John 4:46-54.)
A sloppy exegesis of Timothy 2:11-12, which people still quote today as reason not to allow women to teach or have authority over men, ignores the context of the original writing. At the time the letter to Timothy was written, women were, for the most part, uneducated. For them to teach would have been absurd. It is perhaps the same reason why Jesus picked twelve male disciples–yet allowed Mary to study at His feet. For Paul to allow women to learn was, in and of itself, an amazing break from tradition. Like Jesus, he was moving away from all that he had known as a Jew. Jewish girls and women simply were not taught–not much, anyway–maybe in the first few years of life. Then, as the boys continued their education, Jewish girls were redirected to the many chores of the household. That is why, when Jesus allowed Mary to study at His feet in Luke Chapter 10, His declaration was so profoundly shocking–and joyfully liberating to women. Now, in his letter to Timothy, Paul is ready to concede that, yes, he agrees, women may learn–but he’s not ready to stand them up as teachers. The fledgling church is still too fragile. Note the phrasing, “I do not permit.” HE does not permit it. Not the Holy Spirit. Not God. Paul does not permit women to teach. Their time had not yet come.
The Holy Spirit anoints. The Holy Spirit chooses. The Holy Spirit decides whom He will raise up. If it is indeed the time for women to lead, God will continue to go before them. If not, God will shut it down, and men will resume leadership among the house churches as well.
What is so curious about the rise in house churches is they are so powerful at the very time when traditional church is so ubiquitously “dead”. Sure, you may run across an occasional worship service where the “Spirit” shows up. Everyone’s pretty psyched when that happens. But for the most part, you know what I’m talking about: church is just plain boring. Be honest. No one really wants to go–unless the Spirit shows up. Those who do go, go out of obligation, or because they have friends. God just isn’t there anymore. And most of us have been wondering for some time…where is He?
The discovery of the growing house church movement was a personal relief to many of us at Naples Noteworthy given the declining state of the church in America. It was clear the Spirit wasn’t consistently in the church: so this was where He was hanging out!
“In the house church the Holy Spirit has freedom to flow. It’s much more powerful than in man-made organizations,” says Hatice Hornyak, leader of a house church in Naples. This seems to imply that the house church gathering itself is directed by the Spirit.
But hold on…traditional church may not be completely on the way out. The truth of the matter is, we have seen leadership and pastors from churches all over Naples showing up at house churches lately. Why? Perhaps they’re just curious. Perhaps they need fed. Or perhaps they’re just thirsty for an in-filling of the Spirit.
When it comes to the Spirit, we all know that we carry the Spirit inside us. And when we come together, the presence of the Spirit is magnified. So, theoretically, there is no reason why every gathering should not be flowing with the Spirit–no matter where it takes place. “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” Matthew 18:20
So, why isn’t it happening? Why is the Spirit showing up at house churches and not consistently at the big fancy million-dollar building churches?
Maybe it’s because believers are gathering in the house churches, not out of obligation, but out of genuine desire to worship and learn. Maybe it’s because they’ve come to realize that, as believers, we don’t just go to church. We are the church. One church, united in one body, no matter where we are–as long as Christ is at the Head.
And maybe it’s because they’re following the example of the original disciples and forming lasting relationships as Christ commanded us: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” John 13:35
It’s an interesting question. But the undeniable, powerful presence of the Spirit in the house church is one reason we believe the house church may well be the church of the future.
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