House Churches vs “Traditional” Churches
In the last generation of Western Christianity, we’ve seen a lot of new churches launch around a house church model instead of the “traditional” model. I use traditional in quotes because if you know your history, you’d know that the earliest church also operated on a house church model. In that case of course, it wasn’t so much a strategic model as it was a necessity since they were a minority of mostly poor people who were at times persecuted and at the very least were consistently treated as outside the norm of Roman life. So in the earliest tradition, house churches are “traditional,” but for the sake of normal Western contemporary conversation, we see “traditional” as being large buildings with scheduled meetings once a week and maybe some other things on the side.
I’m not really interested in seeking out which model is “biblical.” Yes, the early church subscribed more to the house church model, with a range of leadership structures that were usually just a matter of contextual sensitivity. Consequently, my point of this post is to compare the practical effects of each approach within the North American early 21st century context. Of course, there are also a variety of hybrid models that try to capture the best of both. I would personally argue that some form of hybrid is the best for this context.
Advantages of House Churches
This is clearly the strongest argument for either the advantages or disadvantages. When you’re gathering with 500 people, it is a whole lot harder to develop deliberate meaningful relationships. Even when you’re gathering with only 30 people it is hard to develop those relationships. Once you cut down the number to 6-20, you get the potential to actually do life seriously invested in each other.
Less Overworked Leaders
Traditional churches almost always have a huge staffing problem. There is usually a ratio more like 1 paid full-time staff for every 50 parishioners. In small traditional churches, one staff member must preach a sermon every week and as a general rule every minute of sermon time takes about an hour to prepare so a 40 minute sermon has already filled up the work week. Then there’s pastoral care duties and if its an older and larger church, that could easily be more than another 40 hours a week. Then there’s administrative duties at the local level, administrative duties at the denominational level, weddings, and funerals. And then parishioners complain when they’re burned out. In the house church model, responsibility is distributed and/or limited to facilitating a conversation.
If you aren’t paying for an extra building, especially one that only gets used a few times a week, that money is left over for more important things. If you’re a hybrid model where there is still a large worship gathering as well, that worship space can still just be rented and that’s a lot cheaper than owning and maintaining a (usually old) building.
Disadvantages of House Churches
Even in The Meeting House which has a hybrid model – HomeChurch is the main “church” experience but we still meet weekly in larger groups for teaching and worship as well – we definitely see cliques. On Sunday mornings people from the same HomeChurch gravitate toward each other. It makes perfect sense: they’re good friends and as stated above, a smaller group has far more potential to really act like church for each other. For those without a HomeChurch, or even just someone who doesn’t have others from their HomeChurch there that Sunday, it is easy to just drift through a service without much connection. Some would even accuse house churches of being isolationist and cult-like. Of course it isn’t intentional and we deliberately try to combat it, and of course this also happens in traditional church settings, but I do think it is fair to say that it is unintentionally encouraged by house church models.
Loss of Sense of Something Bigger
Personal is important, but when you are rarely a part of something bigger, it is easy to forget just how big the church universal is. The non-denominational movement has a similar problem on a different scale. You just don’t have the resources for larger compassion initiatives if you aren’t connecting with more people, and just as importantly, you lose the big-picture vision of just what God is doing in the world. If you’re doing a house church model, make sure that you’re still connected somehow with the rest of the church.
Lacking Knowledge of Other Perspectives
This also ties into being able to capture a diversity of voices. Sometimes you get lucky and your house church is comprised of a variety of ages, stages of life, religious backgrounds, personalities, races, and all those other important categories of diversity. Other times you don’t. I love my Young Adults HomeChurch. There are many advantages to meeting with people going through a lot of the same things you are. But it is very possible to sometimes be just a little bit too much on the same page. If you aren’t listening to people different than you, you aren’t going to learn very much and may end up just reinforcing the same thoughts you already all had. For house church models, you have to make sure that a variety of voices are still being heard, even if they aren’t personally in the group.