I’ve invited several people to write “guest blog posts” for this blog. There are several reasons for this: 1) To offer different perspectives. 2) To generate even more discussion and conversation between blogs. 3) To introduce other bloggers to my readers.
(If you are interested in writing a guest blog post, please contact me at aknox[at]sebts[dot]com.)
House Churches: British experience to teach the USA
A pastor I know here in England says that the church in the USA is five years ahead of the UK church – and uses that as an excuse for following the latest trends from North America. In some ways what he says is true. But in other ways, from what I have observed, the US church is decades behind its British equivalent. For example, we have already moved a long way from the traditional model, still dominant in the USA, in which everything in a local church is led by a small group of salaried pastors.
Another example is the recent house church movement in the USA. When I read about this, for example in Frank Viola’s books and at blogs like The Assembling of the Church, I feel that I am seeing again what was happening in the UK in the 1970s and 1980s.
In his 2008 book Reimagining Church: Pursuing the Dream of Organic Christianity Viola promoted his vision of a house church movement as something novel to his primarily North American audience.
Maybe this really was new to most North American Christians, or maybe they just had short memories. But my memories, based on over 30 years as an evangelical Christian, go back to a British house church movement which started in the 1960s and was influential in the 1970s and 1980s. I was never personally involved in such a group, but had good friends who were, and heard a lot of teaching from that direction, mostly in the early 1980s.
That was a time when many British Christians who had been touched by the charismatic movement re-examined what it meant to be church. Many left traditional congregations to set up or join what started out as house churches. Among the groupings which started out at that time was Newfrontiers, pioneered by Terry Virgo; some of the early days of that movement are described in an extract posted at Adrian Warnock’s blog from Virgo’s recent book The Spirit-Filled Church.
These churches soon outgrew the homes they met in and started to meet in hired halls. The UK is now well covered by more or less informal networks of mature churches which originated in houses. They retain a generally charismatic approach. Many now have their own buildings, often converted warehouses which don’t look at all like traditional churches. Despite this they still teach and practise many of the things which Viola is now teaching in America decades later.
Concerning leadership and authority they have taken various directions. Newfrontiers took on “Reformed” theology and allows only men to have authority in the local church. Other groups became involved in the shepherding movement, whose teaching on authority is the antithesis of Viola’s, but many have now rejected this. Most avoid having a single salaried pastor, although there may be a full time “lead elder”.
But perhaps I am wrong to suggest that the house church movement is a British invention. Since the early 1980s I have kept a copy of The Community of the King by Howard A. Snyder, published in 1977 by IVP in the USA (the link is to a 2004 updated edition). In Reimagining Church Frank Viola refers to and quotes this book. Much of what Viola writes in part 1 is very similar to what Snyder was teaching 30 years ago. That helps to explain why there is little in Viola’s teaching which is new to me.
A problem Viola doesn’t address in detail in his book is the one which the 1980s British house churches quickly faced: what happens when a congregation grows too large for a home? Perhaps this is not such a problem in Viola’s central Florida. But in England there are few homes which can comfortably house meetings of more than about 20 people. Viola writes (p.85):
What did the church do when it grew too large to assemble in a single home? It certainly didn’t erect a building. It simply multiplied and met in several other homes, following the “house to house” principle (Acts 2:46; 20:20).
But if a group of about 20 divides, or multiplies, because it has filled a home, it becomes two groups of about ten, each not really large enough to be a viable independent church or provide a broad base of fellowship for its members. In fact they become the spiritual equivalent of nuclear families, rather than the extended family model which is more appropriate for the church. If each group needs several leaders, it can be very hard to find enough people who have the necessary gifts and maturity to lead even a very small church. And Christians isolated in such small groups are likely to become very inward-looking.
It is for reasons like these that many British churches have adopted a home group or “cell church” model, offering a combination of small group meetings in homes with larger central meetings. But of course the central meetings require a building, owned or hired by what must become some kind of organised church. Viola does allow for large group gatherings but apparently only on special occasions, not regular ones which might encourage ordinary Christians to find their sense of belonging in a larger group.
Viola is right to point out that the chief New Testament model for the church is the family. But it is not the modern American or British nuclear family. He is right that many people today are looking for the kind of close community offered by this family model of the church. But some churches with their own buildings work very hard on offering community like this. And the very visibility of a church building at the geographical heart of a community draws into the family people who might never be reached through home based fellowships. So I cannot agree with him in his general commendation of house churches.