We’ve been hearing for years that house churches are the wave of the future. Now comes a feature from the Associated Press that suggests house churches are really beginning to gain traction. Based on the AP report, it’s hard to distinguish between house churches and the small groups so many evangelicals attend weekly. Like small groups, houses churches appeal to Christians seeking close-knit relationships built around prayer, Bible study, and corporate singing. Simplicity is a key selling point.
“I think part of the appeal for some in the house church movement is the desire to return to a simpler expression of church,” Ed Stetzer told the AP. “For many, church has become too much (like a) business while they just want to live like the Bible.”
According to a 2009 Pew study, 9 percent of church-attending American Protestants forgo services outside the home altogether. Though not a big trend, we might imagine reasons for the growing appeal of house churches. Staffing grows more expensive every year, especially with the rapidly escalating costs of health insurance. City councils aren’t always eager to approve permits for churches looking to build new facilities. Some Christians get lost in the shuffle at megachurches. Others may feel burned by church leadership, who must frequently make difficult decisions, sometimes necessary and occasionally unwise.
But there is another reason Christians turn to house churches. Evangelicals don’t always have a comfortable relationship with human authority. Such chafing against institutional figures can be traced back to Martin Luther and other Protestant leaders during the Reformation. But today some Christians buck against any external human leader, however well-trained, godly, and submissive to God’s Word. Evangelicals in particular harbor a populist spirit.
“You don’t have to be dependent upon someone you hear at church to translate for you,” Neil Cole, founder and director of Church Multiplication Associates, told the AP. “God is capable of speaking your language and talking to you where you live and I think that’s attractive to people.”
What Cole says might merely refer to Luther’s pioneering contributions to Christianity. The renegade monk translated the Bible from its original languages into vernacular German, against the wishes of the Roman Catholic Church. By doing so he unleashed the power of God’s Word through the priesthood of all believers. Next year, Protestants will celebrate 400 years since the Authorized King James Version of the Bible was published in England. Through his Word, God speaks all our languages and talks to us wherever we live. We don’t need any church authority to filter it and tell us what it really means.
Sometimes, though, spiritual democracy can veer into anti-intellectualism. If God speaks directly to all of us, then maybe we don’t need any teachers at all. We don’t need to depend on anyone else, so we don’t need to study, either. Further education, such as seminary, supposedly becomes more of a hindrance than a help. Unfortunately, some house churches appeal to Christians who hold these views, too.
We’re all familiar with the dangers of education that privileges scholarly approval over the Word’s clear teaching. But we must also beware the sort of rebellion against authority that forsakes the teaching office altogether. This privilege and responsibility finds its warrant in the Scriptures themselves. The apostle Paul wrote about elders, “He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it,” (Tit. 1:9). Again in Titus 2:1 he writes, “But as for you, teach what accords with sound doctrine.” And in Titus 2:15: “Declare these things; exhort and rebuke with all authority. Let no one disregard you.”
At their best, house churches recall the dynamic fellowship of the early church, exemplified in Acts 2:42-27. Let us not forget, then, that Luke’s beautiful description begins with believers devoting themselves to the apostles’ authoritative teaching.