The Beauty of House Church: Work of the People
This article is the third article in a series on house church. You can find the first article about my journey to house church here, and the second article about the communal nature of house church here.
Recently I was talking with a younger Christian friend about the cyclical nature of worship styles and preferences. Based on anecdotal evidence and personal intuition, I suggested that college-aged persons may be more and more drawn toward traditional expressions of Christian worship with their sense of mystery, sacredness, and awe. My friend quickly retorted, “Liturgy does nothing for me.” By this he meant that he had no interest in participating in worship services with monotonous responsive readings, uninspired sermons drawn from the lectionary, bad organ playing, snooze-inducing choral music, and archaic and obtuse hymn lyrics.1 My friend, who was raised in contemporary and charismatic worship environments, has little interest in returning to ancient liturgical practices and doubts that other young people like himself will begin flocking back to Catholic, Orthodox, and mainline Protestant churches in the near future.
All Christian Worship is Liturgical
As is commonly known, Christian worship expresses itself across a broad spectrum of rituals, practices, cultures, and theologies. There is the formality, tradition, majesty, and mystery of high church worship as expressed in the Eastern Orthodox or Roman Catholic Church. On the other hand, there is the spontaneity, innovation, and cultural appropriation of low church worship as expressed in a Pentecostal church or a contemporary seeker-sensitive mega-church. Between these groups, you have the so-called “worship wars”– debates about what forms and styles of worship are appropriate for honoring a transcendent and immanent God. Regardless of the style of worship, all Christian worship is inherently liturgical. James F. White argues that “to call a service ‘liturgical’ is to indicate that it was conceived so that all worshippers take an active part in offering their worship together.”2 Even though there is great variety in Christian worship, all worship services in all traditions are structured in such a way as to allow the congregation to participate. Some services allow for more participation than others, but there are no Christian worship services that intentionally relegate worshippers to an entirely passive role.3
Traditionalists are often well aware of my friend’s critiques of the liturgy. In response to these critiques, I have noticed that the traditionalists often get quite defensive. They quickly make arguments in support of high church worship. The most common argument I have heard repeated over the years is to cite the etymology of the word liturgy. To my friend’s harsh retort, one might say, “Do you not know that the the word liturgy means the work of the people?” This defense suggests that traditional worship, contrary to my friend’s perception, is highly engaging and participatory. This then becomes a justification for the liturgy– the routine and familiarity of the words enable the congregation to participate with greater ease. This argument, however theologically correct, has an unfortunate corollary. The implication seems to be that forms of worship labeled as “low church” or “contemporary” are not participatory since they are not highly liturgical, at least not in the traditional sense of the word. However, as one who has experienced a wide spectrum of Christian worship, I have often felt that, ironically enough, churches that make little or no use of traditional liturgies often invite the highest level of participation. Specifically, I have learned that house churches, which are quite possibly an example of “low church” par excellence, create some of the deepest and truest liturgical environments. The weekly worship of a house church allows for a high level of participation from all members and is, therefore, truly a work of the people.
House Church a True Work of the People
If active participation in worship is the hallmark of a liturgical worship service, then one could argue quite strongly that house church worship is highly liturgical. David R. Ray defends the worship of smaller churches, saying, “The reason I believe smaller churches are the right size to worship really well is that they are the right size to have all the people be workers instead of mere spectators.”4 If being a part of the work is the defining characteristic of liturgical worship, then smaller churches and, by implication, house churches are uniquely positioned to maximize the role that the people play during the Sunday morning service.
There are two main reasons why house church worship creates a high level of congregational participation. One, the line between clergy and laity is often blurred, if not entirely absent, in a house church context. When this line is either blurred or erased, it becomes abundantly apparent that the congregation must participate. There is no official clergy member to perform the service on behalf of the congregation. If the people do not pray, there will be no prayer. If the people do not read the Scriptures, there will be no readings from the Scriptures. Two, the intimacy of the environment makes it clear that each individual person is invited to participate and makes it more difficult for persons to be anonymous observers of the worship service. If the people do not sing, it will quickly become apparent that the music is simply a performance by the worship leader. If the people do not share praises, prayers, and testimonies, there will be several moments of awkward silence during the service. The immediacy of house church creates a context whereby worshippers feel a strong obligation that they must participate in order for the worship service to exist.
House Church Worship: A Case Study
To support the argument that house church creates a high level of participation, I will describe the worship of the house church I personally attend.5 We begin with five hymns or modern praise songs led by a lay worship leader who plays acoustic guitar. The worship leader tries to balance incorporating new music and playing familiar songs. If you play too many new songs, people are less likely to sing, which undermines the whole point of worship. If you play the same songs every week, human nature will unfortunately tire of the monotony. Selecting music for worship requires wisdom and discernment in order to allow for a high degree of participation. Furthermore, we almost always play five worship songs. Rarely do we only play four or an additional sixth song. This goes to show that even in a casual and non-traditional environment, there is order, structure, and routine.
Between the first and second worship song, we invite someone from the congregation to give an opening sharing. This is typically pre-assigned, and often the person who gives the opening sharing is not one of the regular teaching pastors. This is a good way to make sure that the service intentionally incorporates the participation of the laity.6 The opening sharing is at the discretion of the person assigned to the task. Typically persons read one or two Bible passages and offer a short reflection on the personal meaning of those passages for their daily lives. These reflections typically last anywhere between two to five minutes.
After the fifth worship song, there is often a time of spontaneous praise. People will lift up prayers, read meaningful psalms, or start an a capella praise chorus. None of this is pre-planned; it simply takes shape in the moment. After a few minutes of praises, someone will start one last a capella praise chorus. Then the lay worship leader will say, “Does anyone have anything they would like to share this morning?” Typically we allow two or three people to share. Sometimes people share a personal testimony or prayer concern. Other times people share a meaningful Bible passage and a short reflection. This whole time of spontaneous praises and sharings lasts about seven to ten minutes.
After the end of the free sharing time, one of the pastors will offer a 25-35 minute message on a main Bible passage or several Bible passages with a common theme. This part of the service, like in most churches, often represents the low point of participation. However, all sermons in all contexts invite active and reflective listening. In our house church, many people choose to take notes in a journal in order to aid in active listening. Furthermore, the smaller and more personal context creates an environment where people feel more comfortable responding to questions raised by the pastor. Sometimes people politely interrupt the pastor to raise a question of clarification or to share a personal connection. While this happens fairly infrequently, the space creates the possibility that the sermon may ultimately be a collaborative act between the pastor and the congregation.
Once the sermon ends, we celebrate communion every week and close with a time of spontaneous prayer. Both of these parts of the service allow for a high level of participation. Sometimes one of the laity will preside over the communion table and share a few words of reflection. More typically, one of the pastors presides over the communion table, but the people still participate in distributing and receiving the elements. Once everyone has received, we quickly transition to a time of spontaneous corporate prayer. The lay worship leader begins and ends the time with prayers of his own. In between, people in the congregation take turns lifting up the prayers on their hearts.
After the formal worship service ends, we always share a meal together. Even though this is not technically a part of the worship service, I consider it an integral part of the liturgy. Often times the table conversations will continue to build on themes or texts from the morning service. People will share more deeply about their praises and prayer concerns. As one of the regular preachers, I take comfort in the fact that the spiritual edification of the service does not hinge primarily or entirely on the effectiveness of my sermons. One could easily argue that the center of our worship is the table of fellowship, not the preaching of the Word. Even when I fail to have a great illustration or memorable main point, the people gather around the table and find their spirits nourished by the time together.
The worship service I have described above is rather typical of our particular expression of house church. In each of our worship services we try to strike a delicate balance between routine and spontaneity, familiarity and newness, freedom and planning, laity and clergy. Even though things change from week-to-week, the one constant is our high level of active participation. In this way, house church, which may seem on the surface to be non-liturgical, is one of the most authentically liturgical expressions of Christian worship.
(1) My friend didn’t actually explain his retort with those details, but I know how he perceives traditional worship so no elaboration was necessary.
(2) White, James F. Introduction to Christian Worship, 3rd ed. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000), 26
(3) Of course I should say none that I am consciously aware of or have personally experienced. If nothing else, all worship services at least invite you to listen attentively, which is a form of participation.
(4) Ray, David R. The Indispensable Guide for Smaller Churches (Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 2003), 108
(5) It needs to be acknowledged that house church is not a monolith even though I sometimes speak in that way. In my own town, there are a variety of expressions of house church.
(6) I keep using terms like “laity” and “clergy” for the sake of convenience. I am trying to use them in a descriptive sense, not a judgmental or pejorative sense. Most of the people in my congregation probably would not talk in those terms, though.
Image from Father Ted https://flic.kr/p/QTuXFu