Monday, September 12, 2016

Have we reached 'peak house church?'

The gauntlet has been thrown. But is there anyone left to take it up?
It's a safe bet to say House Church was never a tremendously popular stream in American Christianity. However, its legacy cannot be denied.

No, we've never undergone the level of persecution that often drives large number of churches "underground" and into private homes, such as the ones we know of in China. Rather, we meet simply as a means of keeping the focus on Christ.

Denominations and church planting associations answered this gauntlet-throw of returning to New Testament Christianity. They gave their cell groups greater authority and roles in the life of the church. They returned to local, community-based churches. Megachurch leaders such as David Platt and Francis Chan have taken cues from the movement and incorporated them into their own ministries.

The House Church Movement itself did not form in a vacuum. It answered the challenge laid forth by Chinese Evangelism movements (Watchman Nee, etc.) and various breakaways from British Anglican (Ernest Southcott) and Pentecostal (British New Church Movement) life in the 1960s. Those earlier waves of New Testament restoration owe much to a "torch of testimony" borne in previous eras by  Anabaptists, Brethren, Quakers, Mennonites, Moravians, and the Wesleyan movement. In turn, even those awakenings hearkened to monastic awakenings such as the Waldensians and the Priscillianists which preferred to meet simply and treat all believers as priests in Christ Jesus as the Early Church did.

It's clear that no one movement has the trademark on what the New Testament church consists of. But what happened to the awakening know today as the House Church Movement, that once stood such a strong chance of growing into a formidable call for restoring Book of Acts churches across the world? And to be clear, let's define the House Church Movement as a wave of non-hierarchical churches which value spontaneity and home-based gatherings, free of programs, salaries, titles, and control by outside organizations such as denominations. Specifics may vary "from house to house."

It reached a crest of public curiosity about a decade ago before a noticeable slump. In my personal experience, the peak was in 2005, when several website house church directories were running full-steam and books like "Pagan Christianity?" were generating dialogue like we've never heard before.

In the Dallas-Fort Worth area alone, I knew of at least 10 actual house church meetings that gathered regularly and faithfully. I saw evidence of many more attempts sprinkled all over the area. We even had two such gatherings in Denton, Texas -- none of which gained a lot of traction, but certainly raised eyebrows.

According to house church planter Gene Edwards, America reached "peak house church" around 2000 and was "dead" by 2010. Before then, Edwards recalled a groundswell of interest:
"I would say by the year 1995 I was receiving at least one phone invitation a week, to
help someone to start a church that met in homes. There was also a national magazine [House2House Magazine, now retooled as the Simply Church blog] that appeared at this time on the topic. Everything looked like, and everything pointed in the direction of a very prevailing movement that could very well sweep America. 
"Today I receive no such phone calls. The telephone rarely rings that has anything to do with the so called house church movement. The magazine no longer exists, and the annual conferences are no longer being held. By the year 2010, the enthusiasm had disappeared."
Ironically, it was 2010 when house churches finally started receiving significant national media coverage -- just in time for a wind-down. USA Today published a well-distributed article titled "'House churches' keep worship small, simple, friendly," giving some hope to awareness of the movement. According to a Barna Group survey mentioned in the article, 6-12 million Americans were house churchers. Pew Research found 9 percent of Protestants met in homes.

What happened? 

In one respect, many house churchers moved on to the next big thing. Some became "Emergent" Christians, others morphed into "Missional communities," while still others scrambled to find new names that didn't limit the churches to a house (e.g. Simple Church, Organic Church, Micro-church, etc.). Let's take a look at how the House Church Movement intersected with these new developments in Christianity:
EMERGENT -- Emergent Christianity, which rose to prominence in the early 2000s, originally had much in common with the house churches originally in that they were spontaneous, decentralized, and conversational. Now the Emergent label seems to be on the decline. Those with a left-of-center political bent found greater synthesis with Mainline Christianity. Devoted to the "worship arts," a good share of the original Emergents became attracted to the "smells and bells" of historic Christianity. Many are now full-blown liturgical Christians with pre-written orders of service, ceremonial vestments (a fancy word for robes) and even buildings to meet in that are primarily designed for worship. Others with a more Evangelical view hopped on board the Missional train.
MISSIONAL -- Other house churchers grew tired of couch-centered church life and adopted a "missional" mindset. Also rising in the early-2000s, this movement stresses an emphasis on community service projects and neighborhood relationship-building -- think Missionaries to the local level, but who also place a value on worship and discipleship. As many house churchers transitioned to a Missional model they left behind their resistance to hierarchical leadership and programs. Some have put Bible teaching and worship on the back burner as an emphasis on local mission work took centerstage. Some (but certainly not all) go as far as considering the work itself to be incarnational and a substitute for worship and evangelism. Unlike the Emergent movement's waning, Missional seems to be gaining strength. 
AND THE REST -- Many figureheads of the American House Church movement have come to consider the title a bit of a misnomer. House churches that now prefer adjectives such as "Organic," "Simple," "Micro," etc. still resist hierarchical leadership structures and programs, but have adopted other practices that the House Church Movement may generally oppose. It's difficult to categorize these Christians -- think a Venn diagram where many aspects of Emerging and Missional models may intersect with them. Case in point: Authors such as Neil Cole and Alan Hirsch are often hailed as Organic church figureheads, but who are also claimed by the Missional movement. A read-through of Hirch's "The Forgotten Ways" shows an awfully mechanical approach. Even Frank Viola, the co-author of "Pagan Christianity?" began slowing down efforts to plant house-based churches circa 2011, feeling God has led him and others into a different season of ministry. As Frank points out, the word "organic" has been used (and mis-used) a lot, lately.
As another case in point: Many Simple Church proponents have grown weary of primarily meeting in living rooms and see nothing wrong with having a storefront ministry center, an outdoor gathering, renting a public park facility, etc., to meet as a simply organized but more institutionalized church. An Anglican house church network leader I know in Austin has since planted a more traditional Anglican congregation, but with a much more seeker-sensitive approach and a premium on neighborhood groups. His desire to do house church seems to have diminished in 2011, as well.
That's not to say there aren't plenty of house churches around that haven't jumped on another bandwagon. As Felicity Dale, the former editor of House2House magazine blogged:
"When house church, or organic church, or simple church became a buzz word, many people jumped in with all four feet.  But, as I go on to say, if people don’t truly live out the DNA, they will soon find that what they have is only a pale substitute for the real thing. 
"Thankfully, those days are over. We’re no longer a fashionable fad."
"Next big things" come around often these days, and surely there are the steadfast house churchers who will keep their feet planted on the convictions God gave this movement. Regardless of where you stand, I hope this post gives some insight into why it is that the American House Church Movement, as it was prior to 2010, did not become the "third Great Awakening" or "new Reformation" for which they hoped and prayed.

At least not yet.

The next post will examine my categorization of the post-2005 House Church Movement.

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