The House Church Movement
By Bishop Karl Prüter
The Church began not in some cathedral or building set aside for the purpose, bit in an obscure upper room in Jerusalem. In its earliest years, all the churches met in houses. Paul speaks of the congregation which meets in the house of Priscilla and Aquilla; and in another epistle he greets the church which meets at Phileon’s house.
As the Church grew, many congregations became too large to meet in someone’s home, and special buildings were erected to house the worshiping crowd. There were some obvious advantages to a public building; and soon the house churches disappeared.
Today, however, the house church is experiencing a revival; and for increasing numbers of people, it has a special and unique appeal.
In the early house churches, the congregations were small and the members were on intimate terms one with another. Scores of experimental congregations of the so-called underground church have found the simplicity and the closeness of house worship refreshing and inspiring.
Among several American communions, it is not new but has developed because many of their congregations have been small. Often times their smallness came about because of these groups’ single-minded concern with worship. They had no need to erect special buildings, because they did not set out to win people through a round of social and educational activities that had little or nothing to do with the Gospel. Hence, those seeking to get acquainted with the community or to find something to do with their spare time do not seek a house church, but look elsewhere to large institutional churches of various denominations. These house churches are content to seek out those who want to come to the Lord’s table to break bread together in the Presence of the Living Christ.
By limiting themselves to the preaching of the Gospel and remaining small, many communions have discovered some interesting advantages in house chapels.
Most important is that all who come are seeking to find God. There are few social, business, or political advantages to attending worship with a small group meeting in a private home. Consequently, there is a wonderful feeling of fellowship and a common goal and purpose among the worshipers in a house chapel.
In house chapels the congregations are small enough so that there are never any strangers. Every member knows every other member and is aware if his needs. The early Christians were noted for their love for one another. If modern Christians seem to lack this quality, it may be due, in part, to their tendency to become part of congregations so large that they do not even know the names of many of the members, and hence could not possibly know of their needs. We come to love those we know and those we serve.
A personal advantage is that I, as a host to a house church, am thrilled by the privilege to having Christ as a guest in my house. The table is set, often the very one at which my family sups, and the feast is shared with Christ and his disciples. Thus for me and my family, He is not far away in some distant church edifice, but He is truly in our midst.
Those who come to share this experience with me must also be struck by the immediacy of Christ’s presence. In building chapels and cathedrals, we have unconsciously put God is his place; and although we say He is everywhere, we oftentimes do not feel it. For many, the celebration of the Liturgy in the house has revealed with striking force that God does indeed wish to enter into our homes and into our lives.
There are also some practical considerations. Many Christians questions the money that goes into church buildings and would prefer to see more go into missions, to feeding the poor, and the the church’s ministry to the sick of body, mind, and spirit.
If we read the signs of the times correctly, the state is greedily eyeing church property, and through its taxing power will soon strip the church of much of its material wealth. The congregations which meet in houses will not be affected, and hence their energy will not be spent in protecting their property; they will be free to offer the Gospel and the Sacraments to the ever increasing needy multitude.
Finally, by meeting in a house, it becomes easier, somehow, to understand what the Church is. Too many of us grow up thinking of the Church as a building. The building often has hallowed memories; and our worship of God becomes so closely associated with the little church down the lane, that we cannot imagine worship apart from its sacred walls.
But a god who is limited to the four walls of a special building is no god at all. If we allow outward symbols to get in our way, we will never clearly see God.
For God has but one special dwelling that He seeks. He wants to dwell within you and me, even as He wants us to dwell in Him. At the Liturgy, wherever it is celebrated, Christ speaks to us. The great cathedral properly appreciated should serve to draw us to the Christ who is present at the altar. Its high clear-story and splendid stained glass windows should all serve to remind us of the glory that is His. They must not then become ends, but rather means.
In the same fashion, the humbleness of your neighbor’s house in which the Church meets, even as it did in Philemon’s house, should not distract you from the wonderful event which is taking place there. For Jesus has promised that where two or three are gathered together in His name, He will be there. He is there, and you and a few close friends are sharing this wonderful experience together. The very intimacy, the very closeness of this church meeting in a living room, dining room, or kitchen will make Christ’s coming the most exciting and meaningful fact in your life.
If you have worshiped in one of the many house churches across the nation, you know how your life has been enriched by the experience. Even members of large congregations are coming to know the value of the house church. In Scotland the “house kirk” movement has come not to supplant regular Sunday worship but to supplement it by mid-week communions to help members better understand their Christian duties and life.
We invite you to ask your pastor to arrange for the celebration of the Liturgy in your home or in some home in your neighborhood. It may deepen your faith; or if you have strayed away from church, start you on the road to renewal.
Whether you choose to worship in a humble cottage or in a splendid cathedral, the house church movement should help remind you of a central fact concerning our faith. Christ’s Church is not a house made by hands, but is as Paul described it, “the mystical Body of Christ.” It is made up of believers who are its members, and of Christ who is its Head. The Christian who worships in truth sees not the walls about him but has eyes for Christ alone from whom he draws his strength and direction.