What makes a house church different than a traditional church? Certainly this much is obvious: house churches meet in homes instead of gathering for worship in an official church building. But other than that, what makes a house church different?
Well, at least from my own experiences, sometimes there isn’t much difference at all. Some house churches function, and are in actual practice, nearly identical to how we do traditional church. These house churches are basically mirror images of our Sunday church experience. They share similarities such as: a predictable format or liturgy, an omnipresent ministerial hierarchy, and meetings that are still centered on lectures. These types of house churches are more like replicants of traditional church – albeit just in smaller form.
So, in some cases, house churches possess no significant differences from traditional churches. They are really just a mini-version of Sunday church with the exception that they meet in the home.
But, there is also a whole different breed of house churches out there, ones that are radically divergent from the format of traditional church. These are what I call the radical house churches. They are uniquely different in that they seek to have their worship gatherings be: open and wholly participatory among all those present, allowing for spontaneity, free from a predetermined liturgy, non-clerical, and relationally centered.
The participants of these house churches intentionally set out to avoid the traditional mold of how most of us do church. Here are a few reasons:
- We believe that the spectator-driven practices that people normally associate with “doing Sunday church” were spawned from earthly traditions/customs. And in our study of scripture we don’t believe that our traditional practices were ever divine directives or non-negotiable God given mandates. In fact, our study of scripture compels us to believe quite the opposite.
- We believe that the radical house church model is closer in line with the dynamics of the early churches that we read about and were originally modeled in the New Testament.
- We believe that de-emphasizing many of these earthly traditions frees up the people of God and His Spirit to express and experience the life of Jesus more fully in our meetings. (It’s also important to note that implementing radical house church dynamics doesn’t guarantee in any way that Jesus will be reflected more fully in church meetings. A change in format does not in itself reflect Jesus more, nor is a change in format the sole end goal. However, we do believe the radical house church meeting dynamic to be more conducive for manifesting the life of Christ that the Lord desires for His Church.
Okay, now you might be wondering what specific customs and practices of radical house church are divergent from the traditional church? SPOILER ALERT – the comparisons aren’t minor or merely superficial. Radical house church completely jettisons the traditional system and sets itself upon a different foundation from where traditional Sunday church rest. Yowsers!
However, the purpose of this particular blog series is not to lay out an exhaustive description or defense of radical house church but to provide a simple introduction to it. Something to just get your feet wet. So what will follow will be a short presentation of 5 distinguishing characteristics of radical house church – specifically as to what happens in a typical meeting.
*If you want to dive into a simple yet thorough examination of the historical origins of how we now “do church” I would recommend “Pagan Christianity?: Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices” by George Barna and Frank Viola. When I read this book back in the winter 2009 it was a well welcome confirmation to the house church paradigm shift God had put on my heart back in 2006.
BEFORE WE START, WHAT IS “CHURCH” AGAIN?
Incorrectly, the word church has become synonymous with a single event – what we would call a Sunday worship service, mass, or meeting. But just as we already explored in my prior post, The Simplest Definition of Church, the Church in reality is the people and family of God. The Church isn’t a place or a meeting. The Church is a collective made up of the people in God’s family.
By its nature a family has many dynamics. It will learn together, share life together, have meals together, and so on. Going to a church service is just one dynamic of a family. So any attempt to compare or describe the characteristics of the Church by limiting the discussion to just the meeting component exclusively, including my own description as follows, will naturally fall short and incomplete.
However, since many people can personally relate with going to church services it seemed logical that this would be the first place for me to start my comparison. But in doing so, let’s also keep in mind that when we talk about the Sunday service we are only talking about one of the many dynamics of Christian life. Formal services are not the centerpiece of Christianity. Centrality belongs to the person of Jesus Himself alone. Meetings are just one element of a full and saturated lifestyle of faith. I’ll talk more about the traditional dogma of the centrality of meetings/mass in another blog.
So as we transition into talking about what makes radical house church different than the traditional church lets first summarize the traditional church experience.
How would we describe the typical format of traditional church service.
THE TRADITIONAL SERVICE FORMAT IN FOUR PARTS
When you think of “going to church” what do you think of? You might picture yourself getting a little dressed up, driving to a special or fancy building, finding a place to sit in the front facing layout of chairs or pews, singing a few songs, hearing the minister or priest preach a message, and then heading back home…or maybe heading to your favorite Sunday afternoon post-church restaurant!
I agree. All of those ideas accurately describe the different elements of the service, and what somebody might generally end up doing during church. But they really don’t describe the format by which we experience these elements through. So now let’s try thinking about the service again. Rather than listing off of what happens at church, think about how you would describe the context in which those things are happening.
I have given this much thought. Here is my perspective:
The traditional church service format is a pre-programmed, lecture based, and relationally superficial spectator activity that is produced and directed by a privileged few.
That’s certainly a mouthful. And needs some explaining…but let me first say this. Some of the words I used can carry negative connotations with them. For some of you my one-sentence summarization may initially come across as inaccurate, negative, or possibly even offensive. Please know that evoking those sort of reactions isn’t my intention. And I apologize if my perspective comes off harsh.
I love the traditional church and am still grateful for it. I still attend traditional church on occasion. I still refer people to attend traditional church when I feel led to do so. And I still support the basic premise behind traditional church – to foster and reflect our relationship with God.
But what I do believe is that if you take the words in my summarization, and strip away any pre-held negative associations you might have with them, they will in fact very accurately describe the format of church. And if you hang on with me I will show you in the following four parts some specific examples of how this description rings true and how this format plays out during the service.
PART 1: THE SPECTATOR ACTIVITY
From the perspective of the attendee the format of the traditional Sunday church is strikingly similar to as if you were at a spectator activity. Like a professional ball game. Don’t see the similarities? Think about it for a minute.
What is the main activity that one does when they go to church? Primarily we go to church to listen and watch a production. For the vast majority of time we sit in a seat and passively spectate the pastor’s/priest’s/leader’s presentation.
As church attendees, are we expected or responsible for really doing anything? Or contributing, or sharing something actively? No. Our main function as a churchgoer is to receive and consume the content that is displayed before us. We participate in the service just as we would as if we were at a football game or rock concert. Sure, we can watch the game, or sing along with the music, but we are still spectators.
The spectator nature of Sunday church is probably most apparent when one considers what is held to be most sacred, most important, and to be the whole focal of the service: the sermon – also called the message or the homily. Make no mistake, the spiritual monologue is the true heartbeat and focus of traditional church. It is the core and center of the experience. The service format revolves around the sermon. Consider these points:
The space of time dedicated for the sermon vastly dwarfs any other Sunday church activity. The preacher is clearly both the visible and audible focus of the service (after all, his/ her name is probably on the marquee outside the church as the headliner for the event).
All of the chairs and pews are facing the direction of the stage where the sermon will take place.
Leadership even describes the pre-sermon worship music as serving the purpose of just preparing the people’s hearts to hear the message – music is considered to be a mere supplement in readying the congregants to receive the sermon. That’s why music is always placed before the sermon.
You can subscribe to a podcast of the sermon if you happen to miss the Sunday service ( because of course that’s the only important part of the service to be preserved), and the mid-week church Bible study will go over the pastor “sermon points” from Sunday.
So clearly, when we go to Sunday church we are there to spectate. And spectate what? A sermon. This has become “church” to us.
Why is the sermon a strictly spectator activity? Because it is based upon one person operating in a closed lecture format. That person presents, and the rest are there to sit and silently absorb. It is a unilaterally delivered speech closed off to any real-time relationship with those who receive it. No one else can share, interject, build upon, ask questions, correct, or criticize. And the format that a closed lecture brings with it lays the foundation of spectatorship – by which the rest of the church experience is then built upon.
The reality and application of this spectator format is this: in church, we really have no active or contributory role in the experience. The expectation for us is to sit in our chairs and be a receiver and consumer of the production displayed in front of us. We are an attendee, not a contributor. We are a consumer, not a co-producer. We partake of, but don’t provide in. We are invited to participate along with what is being presented, but we are not invited to join in among the presentation and sharing itself.
So from this angle, and from what I have personally seen and experienced in 35+ years of traditional church, the church service format isn’t much different than spectating a sporting event. And so just as with a sporting event, a non-participatory attendee of a presentation, all you really need to do is show up, sit back, and enjoy the show. The production might be spiritually entertaining, enlightening, or you might even have a revelatory God moment. But in laying any negative connotations aside you still have to admit that you are experiencing the service through a format identical to a spectator event.
PART 2: THE SUPERFICIAL
When I use the word superficial I don’t mean to use it in the way it probably comes off to you initially. I’m not trying to say that Sunday churchgoers are superficial people. Certainly not. Nor am I saying that Sunday church goers are superficial with God. I know I’ve have had plenty of genuine, transcendental, deep soul-shaking moments at church.
But, when I use superficial I wish to use it in this context: for the most part the format of traditional church doesn’t foster an atmosphere where you and the people around you can have any depth of relationship and dosen’t promote one to be fully authentic. I’ll show you what I mean by taking you through a typical church day. Let’s start with just getting to the church building….
On our drive to church we might be grumpy, frustrated with dealing with the kids, or we may have just got into a round with our spouse. But from the moment we open our car door in the church parking lot we feel we must put on a happy face. Even if we are steaming mad at our spouse we would rather hide our true selves than to feel shame from the other happy churchgoers, who we really don’t know that well and who look like they have it all together. The digital sign on the church lawn might say “come as you are”, but very few people allow themselves to be vulnerable enough to take that seriously. So we do what we all do when we get to church. We all put on a cheery disposition.
Once in the building we might exchange a few hellos and smiles with the greeters and folks in the foyer while maintaining our Sunday morning happy face. As we enter the sanctuary to select a seat we make sure to leave a little “buffer space” in the pew or seats between us and others. Why? Because we really don’t know the other people around us. You don’t have any depth of relationship with them. They are superficial relationships. You don’t feel comfortable sitting directly next to them as if you would with your own family members.
And speaking of church seats, notice that the seating is arranged so that it specifically cuts off starting or building relationships between it’s attendees – unless you can have a significant relationship with the back of someone’s head.
During the service we are invited to do the “exchange of peace” with our neighbors. Out comes the manufactured happy face again even though inside we are feeling awkward as we turn to some stranger next to us. And in larger churches we then shake hands with folks we don’t have any real intention on getting to know. We probably won’t recognize their face next week or even remember their name by the time the service is over. And it will be another set of random people we shake hands with next week, with neither relationship neither gaining any sort of depth nor increase from service to service.
By the time the sermon ends our minds are set on the next activity for the day. We might pass someone we know on the way out and say “hi”, but we are soon to be through the door and onto the next thing scheduled in our day. Next week’s church forecast: repeat.
The little contact we have with people during Sunday church is void of any depth. Nothing much transpires beyond a surface level. And we aren’t truly authentic in the way we carry ourselves.
Sunday church is thus a mostly superficial activity when it comes to relationships. Its format doesn’t promote any sort of relational depth with those in attendance. The depth of relationship we have with people on Sunday morning is about the same as the depth that we would have as if we were attending a random orchestra concert, a baseball game, or a self-help seminar – it’s pretty minimal.
In their defense, churches do not want their attendees to be superficial. I’m pretty sure that every church leader would agree that superficiality is the exact opposite of what they want. However, the spectator model that the church uses for it’s meetings creates and feeds the very thing they wish to avoid. Lack of relational depth is inevitable because of the very nature of how the service is arranged for us – one-person presenting to the masses in seats arranged to focus on that one person. The church audience is placed in an atmosphere where interpersonal relationship building is not even possible. The spectator format rules supreme and it comes at the expense of growing the personal relationships between its attendees.
PART 3: THE PRIVILEGED FEW (the few, the proud, the eh…..ah…….not so many)
The traditional church divides its company into two groups. A few terms used to describe the distinction between the groups are: the clergy and the laity, the elders and the flock, the church leaders and the followers. These are the privileged few who have the prerogative to produce, conduct, preside over, and direct the service.
Traditional church leadership also follows a hierarchical top/down pattern that is nearly identical to what we find in the secular world. The tiered clergy is similar to the organization of a business or corporation – one person at the top delegating responsibilities down through a chain of authority. The higher-ups telling the lower-downs what direction to go in, what should be done, and whom has the final say in matters.
However, those in church leadership are well aware of Jesus’s teaching and life example of servant leadership. Most church leaders would acknowledge that this structure of leadership isn’t a license to rule over people forcefully, as say the world does, but to serve God’s people from a genuine heart of love for the betterment of the Body of Christ. I think the heart and motivations of church leaders is right here.
But what type of dynamics result from taking this leadership/laity format?
Traditional church separates and divides people into two classes: those who do the ministry, and those who receive the ministry. Those that preform rites and rituals and those who receive the rites and rituals. Those who influence and direct and those who assimilate and follow. Those who contribute, and those who take in. Those who produce the Sunday morning content and those who consume it.
This separation limits contribution and sharing: Who can speak when believers come to church? Only those in leadership. Who can lead prayers? Only those in leadership. Who directs and controls what happens at the service? Only those in leadership. Who can hear from God and share content? Only those in leadership.
So in traditional church another distinguishing characteristic of the service is that only those in leadership are allowed to actively share, direct, control, speak and offer perspective. The “ministry” that is taking place during the service is disseminating from a top/down model – pastor to the flock, shepherd to the sheep, leaders to followers. Ministry is a one way street in the traditional church. It is a river that flows out of a tiered hierarchy – leadership to laity, few to the masses. And sharing, as one-to-one another, is not an option in the traditional church service.
PART 4: THE PROGRAM
Another constant that you can rely on is the ordered and programmatic format of the church service. Every element that is going to happen in the service has been pre-planned and coordinated beforehand. The program is already written up. The order of worship is etched in stone, printed on the bulletin. You know exactly what the flow of the service will be before you walk in the door. All of the worship elements are timed out and scripted in the services, sometimes even down to what specific spotlight is going to go on at five minutes and thirty-two seconds into the song and which worship leader is going to sing on the fifth chorus. And especially in larger congregations, the service becomes a seamless presentation, rid of any potential awkward moments, accidents, points of contention, discomfort, or uncertainty. It has become a polished program.
Another truth about this program: nothing can derail the contents and order that the pastor/priest/ministerial committees have originally programmed for the service. No deviations allowed. Spontaneity is not a word you would associate with the order and manner of the church service (except for when the preachers throw out the one liners about the rough football game loss).
Speaking of spontaneity, how awkward would it be if during a homily someone stood up and said, “Excuse me, I’m not sure what you are getting at. I think you lost me. Could you explain that again?”, or “I think you are getting off track. Maybe you could let someone else speak.” or if someone stood up and said, “I could use prayer right now. I’m really struggling in my life”, or “Hey, I’m feeling the Lord telling me that we should spend more time in prayer”. Could you even imagine that happening at Sunday church?? That individual would be labeled out of order and would probably be asked to quiet down or would get a free escort out of the room by an elder or deacon. Why? Because there in no flexibility within the stiff and rigid church program.
Stiff and rigid are strong words. But isn’t this EXACTLY how one would gauge the flexibility of programmatic church services? The definition of rigid is: unable to bend or be forced out of shape; not flexible; not able to be changed or adapted. Doesn’t that accurately describe how the order of worship is laid out and practiced on Sunday morning?
Yes, the church service is rigidly programmatic. It is similar to taking a ride on a roller coaster. You are strapped into a format and then taken on a non-negotiable ride on a predetermined track. Interruptions to the program are to be avoided at all costs. There is no question that the traditional church operates in a format where the fixed pre-planned program is inseparable from the event.
TRADITIONAL CHURCH SUMMARY
What I have described in these four parts is a spectator event, that bases itself around a closed lecture, and is run by separated staff or clergy. By that nature the event sets itself up for breeding superficial relationships, and facilitates less than fully authentic interactions with the attendees. The service and ministry is produced, enacted, and played out by only a privileged few while the rest are relegated to being “consumers” only. It is a pre-programmed choreographed exhibition and intentionally uninviting to spontaneity in order to protect the integrity of the pre-planned program. Ministry and edification transpires only through the method of one-to-the-masses. Those attending the service and seated together experience the event more like a company of individuals rather than an interwoven relational collective.
This is the format of traditional church service.
I KNOW IT FIRST HAND
I am very familiar with this format. As a kid I grew up in a very conservative church called the WorldWide Church of God. Our services followed this format and ran two hours in length every Saturday afternoon. Everyone sat in their suits and dresses and did so in silence unless the minister made a joke. Three hymns, then announcements. Then, two toastmasters-like monologue sermons were delivered making the combined sermon time last up to an hour and a half or more in length! In college I occasionally went to evangelical Sunday services. It was the same traditional format but much shorter services thank God! They played rock music instead of hymns, people could lift their hands during the worship, and now I could wear jeans, yes! No more clip on ties!! Another bonus was that I could bring my coffee into the sanctuary to sip on during the sermon.
Then after college I served at a Baptist church in Gettysburg, PA as their minister of music. I was now on the the other side, one of the leadership, and a member of the privileged few who got to program the church service along with the pastor and staff. The service was of course the same traditional Sunday church format.
Personally, it was a wonderful experience which I am grateful to have had. Such great people! And all taking place in a beautiful little historic town set on the outskirts of the Appalachians. My wife and I made some good memories there. I’ve included below a picture of the cute church building, my office, and a worship team practice (that’s me on the bass guitar). While in Gettysburg I directed the worship team, choir, kids choir, handbells, etc. At 22 a had a secure job, my own office with a view of the Appalachians, and a leadership position in the church. Life was good. Very good.
But I felt God calling me off to Colorado and to enroll in a non-accredited bible college. I felt I was on a path to become what I thought would be a career as a traveling preaching minister. I intended to go into church services around the nation preaching sermons to Sunday attenders of all of the great things God had shown me about His Kingdom. My heart was right, and I wanted to serve God and others. So we sold the house, sold the second and third car, said farewell to our awesome church family and my 30+ guitar students, and off we went.
After moving to Colorado I became involved in yet another traditional church. And again it was the same format except that it was a charismatic church. This meant that during the worship music there might be some flag wavers in the back, people could quietly pray in tongues to themselves and to God, people got more expressive in their physical and verbal acts of worship, and the occasional person running the aisles in demonstrations of joy or worship and so on. But it was the same programmed service, with superficial relationships, and the clergy/laity distinction.
The traditional format of church was all I knew. I knew it both from the attendee’s point of view and also from the leadership point of view. And we moved to Bible College in Colorado in 2005 to unknowingly perpetuate the same traditional format.
It wasn’t till the winter of 2006, when after returning from a missions trip to Columbia in South America, that I received that download from the Lord that I mentioned earlier. It wasn’t till then that I was turned on to radical house churches. And when the Lord shared a different vision for church format it wasn’t just a minor shift, it was a completely different model of gathering for worship.
When I first stepped out and started to explore house churches in 2006 I initially encountered the same traditional format in the house church. While the formalities were loosened up, which was probably due to meeting in an informal house with smaller numbers of people in attendance, the flow and structure of the meeting was nearly identical to traditional church. I knew immediately that I was looking for something more radical. Something more closely aligned with what I saw as described in the New Testament.
So now that I have outlined the traditional format let’s move forward.
What is a racial house church? On to part 2….
*As always, I’d love to hear what’s on your mind so please drop your thoughts in the comment section below!