Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Doing Church Without One

"It's extra-Biblical."

A friend of mine who, like me, celebrates Epiphany, was commenting last week about why many evangelicals don't observe the Christian calendar.

The main reason, aside from the Christian calendar smacking too much of Catholicism for most Protestants, is that it's not found in the Bible.  It's based on a contrivance of cultures and schedules.  It's extra-Biblical.

Which of course, it is.  Our Christian calendar exists without Biblical ordinance, and it's based on cultural interpretations of religious and doctrinal themes.  But these don't make it wrong, do they?

Of course not.

Oddly enough, the same people who say the Christian calendar is extra-Biblical may also be folks who meet in a church building every weekend.  I say "weekend," because some people worship on Saturdays because worshipping on Sundays is, also, extra-Biblical.

But they still go to corporate worship at a church, don't they?  Why do they do that, since church buildings are, um, extra-Biblical, too?

If you're going to get your knickers in a twist over the lack of a Biblical timeline to support a Christian calendar, then I hope your church is a house church.  Because, regardless of whether it's a glorious cathedral, a stately New England style chapel, or an ugly megachurch, meeting in a religious building is beyond the requirements, expectations, or even Biblical precedent for New Testament believers.

The Church's Church History

God commissioned a tabernacle in which the Israelites were to worship, and the Israelites later built a temple in which to worship God.  Christ Himself taught His Gospel in the temple, as did Paul and the apostles.  But that was a Jewish facility.  The early church was not exactly welcomed by Jews, and although some large gatherings of believers were held in temple courtyards after Christ's ascension, for the most part, believers met in private homes for worship, fellowship, and service.

Indeed, from the Book of Acts onward, numerous references to house churches can be found.  In Acts 2:46, we learn believers would gather to pray in the temple, but they would fellowship "from house to house."  The apostle Paul sends numerous personal greetings to fellow believers in house churches (Romans 16:5, Romans 16:23, 1 Corinthians 16:19, Colossians 4:15, Philemon 1-2).  As persecution against believers grew more intense, Christ-followers spent less time worshipping in public, and more time praying in secret.  Remember when Peter was released from prison, and he went to John-Mark's home, where he knew the believers would be praying?  He certainly didn't run down to First Baptist's family life center on Main Street.

Fast-forward three centuries, and historians credit the Emperor Constantine with encouraging the establishment of church buildings after he proclaimed Christianity as the religion of the Roman Empire.  A few historic references to buildings retrofitted to hold large numbers of worshippers can be found before that time, but nothing of significance.  On the other hand, Constantine could be considered the world's first megachurch developer.  Among the first exclusively Christian churches ever built were his epochal Church of the Holy Apostles and the spectacular Hagia Sophia, both in what was then called Constantinople.  Today, a mosque sits on the site of the long-since-destroyed Church of the Holy Apostles.  Remarkably, much of Hagia Sophia, which fully translated means "Church of the Holy Wisdom of God," still dominates what is now Istanbul, Turkey, although it's no longer a Christian facility.  In fact, it served as a mosque for over 470 years, until it became a museum, shortly before World War II.

Not that Christians and Muslims have been the only religions to build and maintain distinct houses of religious worship.  Consider the mysterious Mayan and Incan temples in Central and South America, respectively, and Angkor Wat in Cambodia.  Indeed, religious structures have played an important role in cultural expressions of architecture around the world, and have even been worshiped as much - if not moreso - than the deities they were constructed to honor.

Maybe that's one reason why China's Communist leadership has sought to stifle religious expression in all forms for the past several decades.  Christianity is not the only oppressed religion in China, but it's one of the religions towards which China's Communists have been the harshest.  With the exception of some "Three Self" government-regulated churches that meet in approved buildings, discreet house churches are the norm there.  Not surprisingly, house churches tend to flourish in many countries with governments hostile to the Gospel, as hidden clutches of persecuted believers meet in private dwellings, persevering in their faith without a publicized address.

Here in North America, on the other hand, house churches are considered bizarre, cultish, and even totalitarian.  Not just by the unsaved and the unchurched, but by conventional Christians.  By far, the norm among evangelicals is to maybe start out meeting in a home, but only until they scrape up enough money to rent a bigger space, and then buy their own property.  And this isn't exclusively an American tradition.  We got it from Europe, home to the world's greatest Christian edifices, where centuries ago, the vibrancy of each town centered in large part on their church - or churches.

Four Walls and a Roof

These days, most American cities have lots of churches, but civic life doesn't revolve around them.  Even for many evangelicals anymore, family life revolves less around church than it does work, or kids' sports, or school events.  Church is where you go to satisfy that compartment of your life that involves religion.  It's not the center of importance unless you want to get married.

So, why do we hold on to our church buildings?  Because we're suckers for tradition?  Naw, that can't be it, since most churches despise hymnals and choirs and classical worship styles.

Because they're such beautiful architectural gems?  No, that can't be it either, since most churches these days look more like warehouses than a place to celebrate sacraments.

Because they add so much value to a community?  Here again, most newer churches have all the charm of big-box discount stores, but at least those stores pay property taxes.  Churches don't.  Here in Arlington, Texas, we taxpayers got socked in the gut when a sprawling corporate headquarters complex shut down after moving operations to Mexico and sold their valuable campus, at the intersection of two major freeways, to a clone of Houston's farcical Joel Osteen empire.

I suspect one of the reasons church buildings remain so popular is because they help centralize responsibilities within a community of faith, and therefore help insulate individual church members from needing to get too involved.  Having a few elders and deacons attend meetings requires a lot less personal investment than having each of those leaders meet with the same 20 people every week, year after year.

Second, there is something to be said for having strength in numbers.  Twenty people meeting in a cul-de-sac don't have as significant a visual impact on a community as 100 people meeting in a chapel with a sign out front.  You can't have sizable music programs, or kids' ministries, or men's breakfasts.  Of course, how effective those 20 people in the cul-de-sac are with ministering the Gospel within their spheres of influence can provide a far more powerful impact that the larger tribe in the chapel - but within many communities of faith, ministering the whole Gospel isn't really what people want to do when they go to church.

Which brings up the major factor we need to consider when evaluating the merits of church buildings versus home churches.  Christ says that "wherever two or three are gathered together" in His name, He is "in their midst."  So basically, whenever you have more than one believer in attendance someplace, you've got a quorum for corporate worship.

Proponents of house churches say that the spirit and function of "family" within a congregation operates more organically in a private home environment.  Having fewer people means more of them can minister to - and be ministered by - each other in an exceptionally spontaneous and efficient manner.  Of course, that's a scary concept to many of us churched folks, who like our personal space.

Home churches also help conserve financial resources, which means their members can better control how - and how much - money goes towards ministry objectives valued by the group. 

Many large churches counter that the small group model they've established for weekly Bible study and fellowship meet those noble advantages of the house church model.  Which is true, as far as getting to know other people goes.  But you've still got the extraneous budget requirements and maintenance tasks of the church building eating away at your resources.  Meanwhile, believers in Majority World countries worship corporately in tents and shacks, or even out in the elements, since most of them have been evangelized by Westerners used to church buildings instead of house churches.

Granted, living standards are different across the globe, as are economic opportunities, political climates, cultural expectations, and adaptability in the midst of crisis.  I doubt few of our brothers and sisters in Christ who will never worship corporately in a church like yours or mine begrudge us the structural comforts we Americans think we need or deserve.  Oddly enough, it's the believers who've organized themselves into clandestine home churches in places like China who, since evangelism is sweeping through their country, may be proving how non-essential any church building is to the Great Commission.

Same Purpose, But in Residential Bricks and Mortar

Not that home church advocates believe church buildings are evil.  From what I've read about one of America's leading home churches, Christ Fellowship in Kansas City, Missouri, home churches aren't as anti-building as they are anti-bureaucracy.  Layers of pastors, staffers, programs, and ministries require bigger and bigger buildings to house them all.  But it's the lack of connectivity between church leadership and the rank-and-file congregants that many home church proponents want to avoid.

So it's not the brick-and-mortar built environment which home church advocates deplore as much as it is the built environment of anomie and interpersonal disconnects of conventional, larger churches.  I suspect that if they could develop and benefit from solid discipleship relationships in mainstream churches, then the justification many home church advocates claim for their preferred methodology would be muted.  However, I think we all know that human nature tends to work against spiritual intimacy in larger, rather than smaller, groups.

Still, I'm not ready to give up on conventional church just yet.  Frankly, I appreciate my church's pseudo-Gothic, 1930's-vintage architecture and stained glass windows worth upwards of a million dollars.  I deeply love the fact that this group of believers has been able to pool its resources and purchase a fantastic, large pipe organ for the sole purpose of glorifying God.  Have I mentioned before that twenty percent of my church's budget - off the top - goes to cross-cultural missions?  Yes, a large chunk of its budget goes towards salaries, but I don't believe ministers of the Gospel should live in penury.  How many times have you heard me say, "a worker is worthy of his wages?"  That means professionals like seminary-educated pastors shouldn't be denied compensation for their expertise.  And generally speaking, most house churches can't afford six-figure salaries for Ph.D.'d leadership.

Do I have the same level of personal intimacy with other believers at my church as I would have in a home church?  Probably not.  But then again, I don't really want it.  Can I be honest here?  Isn't that what we're talking about?  I'm not a touchy-feely kind of guy.  Just as there are benefits to interpersonal connectedness, can't those relationships go just as wrong in a tight-knit setting as they can in a conventional congregation?  I don't want lots of people getting into my business, just as I don't really want to get into everybody else's business.  Yet I appreciate the dynamics of the larger church.

Yes, there are trade-offs between "sanctuary-church," as some home church advocates call conventional churches, and the home-based model of early New Testament believers.  But maybe since there were so few believers back then, the evolution of a worship structure for the new Christians took longer to develop than God considered essential for the Canon? 

Meanwhile, the crux of the issue probably has less to do with whether a body of believers meets in a church building or somebody's living room.  God cares more about what's happening within and among His people than where it's taking place.

Which probably means that just as "sanctuary-churches" are extra-Biblical, so are house churches, since God never tells us they're the sanctified template.  House churches are Biblically historic, but they're not mandated.

So, you can "do church" without one.  But you can't do church without "The One."

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