Even as I am writing this piece, many of my friends who are pastors and church elders are holding urgent meetings to decide how next Sunday’s corporate worship services will be organised. Larger numbers are now allowed to congregate and worshippers can now sing out loud but must still be masked. I understand the excitement. It is special to be gathered with the saints to join our hearts and voices to declare the glory of God! I only hope that we won’t discard the lessons we learnt these past two years. I am particularly concerned that we won’t discard the practice of “church at home”.
In the past two years, there were times when large group gatherings were not allowed, and home visits were confined to five unique visitors per day. Some churches tried what one church called “church at home”. Church members would host five other worshippers at their homes. The actual size of the gatherings would depend on how many people were actually resident in the home of the host. The entire church was subdivided into these church-at-home units and all church members were encouraged to join one such gathering during the time for Sunday corporate worship, and to invite friends in numbers that complied with the number restrictions.
At such church-at-home gatherings, all would follow either live-streamed or pre-recorded, led worship and a sermon. The gathering would then go on to discuss the sermon, to try to clarify what the Lord was saying through the sermon and what response it required from the hearers. Those leading the discussions would have some basic training and extra help in the proper interpretation of the sermon. This segment of the gathering would usually end with prayer.
Then the gathering would share a lunch and over the meal those present would share their lives — their joys and struggles — thus living out what it means to be members of one another (Romans 12:5). They would seek to bear one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:2) and encourage one another to love and good deeds (Hebrews 10:24), helping each other to serve others in the name of Christ.
Such church-at-home gatherings helped the church recover some of the dynamism of the New Testament church, providing the context for intimate relationships which are at the heart of what it means to be church. Large-group gatherings with people sitting in rows all looking forward is great for listening to sermons, but this is unidirectional with no opportunities for processing what is being heard. And such large-group gatherings are not suitable for the face-to-face interactions that are the basis for relationship building.
So, while I am happy that we can now gather on site in bigger numbers, I am more concerned that we do not give up on our church-at-home gatherings — that we do not see this expression of church life as a temporary practice only till we can return to church as usual. This would be a retrograde step that wastes key lessons we have learnt during the pandemic.
I want to remind us again and again and again that the church is not a building. We do not go to church. Neither is church an event like a worship service. In the New Testament, the church always refers to the people, specific groups of followers of Jesus. We need spaces to gather so we have church buildings. We choose to assemble at specific times for corporate worship, so we have worship services. But the church is the people. Interestingly, the New Testament talks about churches that gather in houses (Romans 16:5; 1 Corinthians 16:19). The church was the group of people who gathered in houses. This is not a competition as to whether small-group gatherings or big-group gatherings are more biblical. We are asking what sort of church structures will allow the church to be church. I believe there is a place for big- and small-group gatherings. But if Christianity is a relational faith, let us fight to keep the structures that allow us to follow Christ in the context of authentic relationships.
Recently I met a church pastor who told me that their church at home will be the main expression of church life going forward no matter how many are allowed to meet up for corporate worship. They will still have large-group meetings from time to time but not as frequently as before. The primary way the church gathers will be in their small-group home-based gatherings.
There will be new challenges, of course. For example, how do we do children’s ministry if the families will be divided in this way. And small-group leaders will need to be trained to be more than group facilitators. They will also be shepherds of their small-group flocks. This is where I hope all churches doing church this way will meet up to swap best practices and see how they can help each other. I am sure we will make mistakes and we will have to fine tune along the way. But I pray that we will not stop doing “church at home”.