The Beauty of House Church: Communalism-Lite
My second year of theology school I took a course on Christian communalism. My instructor, Luther E. Smith, utilized a book he had written on the topic as one of the course texts. Throughout the semester we studied a variety of spiritual communities– some good, some bad, and some ugly. In the context of the course, I remember being profoundly impacted by three different expressions of Christian community– L’Arche, Koinonia Farm, and the Amish. We watched documentaries on Jean Vanier and Clarence Jordan that evoked admiration in my heart, and awakened a desire for authentic Christian community, practice, and discipleship. However, my enthusiasm for spiritual community was greatly tempered when we learned about the Oneida Community, the Branch Davidians, and Father Divine. In spite of the abundance of spiritual communities gone bad, my heart is always drawn back toward the ideal of Christian community whenever I read the writings of Thomas Merton and Henri Nouwen. Over the years, as I have participated more and more in a house church expression of ekklesia, I have come to realize that the beauty of house church is that it embraces and embodies many of the things that are good and true about communalism without some of the drawbacks.
Community without the Commune
During the semester, my communalism class visited the Open Door Community in midtown Atlanta. We toured their facility and listened to a presentation by several community members. At Open Door, all the members live together in a building with both common spaces and private residences. Based on my recollection of the presentation, when new members join the community they are required to contribute their personal finances to the common treasury. Each member of the community is given the same weekly allowance for expenses that go beyond the basic necessities provided by the community. As a community in the Catholic Worker tradition, Open Door provides food, clothing, and other social services to the local community in addition to doing advocacy and social justice work.
Many of the members of my house church have children under the age of six. Parents of small children know how exhausting and stressful it can be to manage your own private residence and raise your children in the comfort of your own home. For families with young children, joining a religious community that lives under one roof would be nearly unfathomable. Even though we, as a house church, do not all live in the same building, we still get to enjoy many of the benefits of intentional communities — sharing meals together, bearing financial burdens together, helping one another with house projects, higher levels of intimacy and accountability, and a strong sense of common mission and purpose.
Furthermore, members of my house church would certainly be uncomfortable with having a common treasury where it is mandatory to contribute the entirety of your finances and possessions to the community. While Acts 4:32-37 describes the early Christian church as holding all things in common, the text does not indicate that it was mandatory to give all of one’s possessions to the common treasury. Rather, Acts 4 and the subsequent story of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5 suggest that believers were voluntarily selling land and contributing a portion of their means to the community. Ananias and Sapphira were judged by God, not for holding back a portion of their property, but for attempting to deceive the community into believing they were giving all rather than just a portion. Smaller churches, while not necessarily holding a common treasury, are known for their radical generosity. In a smaller church, needs are both more immediate and more apparent. In The Indispensable Guide for Smaller Churches, David R. Ray states, “Statistics have show that, on average, people in smaller churches contribute more time, talent, and treasure than those in larger churches.”1 Ray also contends that smaller churches operate with budgets that are more cost effective on a per dollar basis than larger churches.2 Furthermore, members of smaller churches recognize a greater need to contribute financially to the church because they recognize that the burden falls on them — there are not hundreds of other people to carry the burden for them.
The truth that smaller churches are often radically generous and uniquely equipped to maximize the effectiveness of their budgets challenges the stigma stereotypically attached to smaller churches. Smaller churches are seen by many people as struggling financially and being incapable of community service and outreach.3 One time, I ran into the senior pastor of one of the largest churches in my area at a local museum. He noticed me because I was wearing my theology school sweatshirt.4 We talked for a few minutes, and I told him that I was involved with house church. He told me that he was a big proponent of house church and was excited to learn about what I was doing. However, he said, house churches cannot support large-scale missions work overseas. He talked about how his church was supporting projects in Africa, something a house church simply could not do financially. In terms of dollars and cents, this pastor is right; a single house church cannot support mission work that costs tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars. However, house churches are very good at meeting the immediate needs of the local community. As a house church, we have helped people with car and house maintenance. We have helped people with regular bills and unexpected expenses. We are able to offer financial support to people in our own community as well as giving regular support to a friend who does missionary and pastoral work in India. Even though our budget is smaller, we are able to maximize our generosity because we do not have a large building to maintain or extensive staff to compensate.
Like the Amish but with Technology
As I mentioned above, living as a community under one roof is practically impossible for married persons with children. In my Christian communalism class, I found myself most intrigued by religious communities where the members had their own private residences, but they had a very strong sense of close-knit community. The prime example in our class was the Amish. They practiced a form of communalism that I could relate to, albeit with more technology and less separation from the modern world.
Amish churches gather every other Sunday in homes. House church membership is based on geography. A typical house church consists of about 25 households or 150 persons. Amish house churches are led by a bishop, two preachers, and a deacon, but these persons serve without any pay. The morning preacher is selected a few minutes before the sermon begins, and he is expected to deliver an hour-long message. Even though women do not participate in leading the public worship, they are responsible for preparing and serving the common meal after the worship service.5 Amish scholar Donald B. Kraybill makes the following observation about Amish house church: “Rotating worship services from home to home is a profound reminder that religious faith penetrates all aspects of living.”6 Worshipping in homes, as opposed to worshipping in dedicated church buildings, combats the tendency in western culture to disconnect Sunday public worship from personal, everyday piety.
Although our house church meets in the same location every week, we observe many of the same practices as the Amish. Even though we do not make it a strict rule, members typically attend house church meetings at locations that are geographically closest to their homes. In this way, they connect with believers in their towns and neighborhoods. Our house churches are much smaller than Amish house churches,7 but our leadership style is very similar. One gentlemen oversees all the meetings. We have several different preachers who rotate on a regular basis.8 Other people in the church serve, more or less, as deacons– leading worship, serving communion, preparing the after-service meal, and teaching Sunday school to the kids.9 Like the Amish, this practice of meeting in homes, relying heavily on lay leadership, and encouraging high levels of participation, keeps us grounded in a practical faith and reminds us that the work of the ministry belongs to the whole community.
Seven years ago when I graduated from theology school, I never would have expected to be practicing house church at this point in my life. Over the years, I have realized that house church has actually been a great way to practice many of the things I learned from my class on Christian communalism. House church is accessible to all persons — single or married, young or old, families of many and families of few — whereas communalism is often limited to certain lifestyles. House church creates high levels of intimacy and generosity without having a commune or a common treasury. House church enables high levels of participation and keeps faith grounded in the context of everyday life without shunning the use of technology or complete separation from the outside world. The beauty of house church is that it takes all that is admirable about Christian communalism and makes it a reality for the average Christian.
Jarrett Dickey teaches as adjunct faculty at Sinclair Community College, Miami University Middletown, and Edison State Community College. He teaches classes in the areas of religion and humanities. In addition to teaching, Jarrett is the assistant pastor of a house church, where he helps with preaching, teaching, worship leading, and discipleship. Jarrett married his high school sweetheart, Hannah, in 2005, and they now have four small children. Jarrett holds a bachelor of science degree in biology from Ohio Northern University and a master of divinity degree from Emory University, Candler School of Theology. His hobbies include guitar, hiking, bird watching, crossword puzzles, sports, reading, and writing. You can follow him on Twitter @jarrett_dickey.
(1) Ray, David R. The Indispensable Guide for Smaller Churches (Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 2003), 219.
(2) Ibid., 218.
(3) This stereotype might come from the fact that many smaller churches were larger at one time. These small-but-once-large congregations do oftentimes struggle to maintain an older building that was built to house a much larger congregation.
(4) I want it to be noted that I rarely wear school paraphernalia. It just so happened that I wore my school apparel this particular day, though.
(5) Kraybill, Donald B. The Puzzles of Amish Life (Intercourse, PA: Good Books, 1998), 21-22.
(6) Ibid., 23.
(7) Some of our meetings are as small as just a few persons. Our larger meetings are limited by the fact that 30-40 people makes for a very cozy living room!
(8) The rotation is predictable so preachers have advanced notice unlike the Amish.
(9) Even though people perform these functions in the church, we do not typically use the accompanying titles of bishop, elder, or deacon.