Those of you who know me will know how I have long championed small groups meeting in homes as the preferred platform to do church. So, I was pleasantly surprised when I encountered this article in mainstream media, the Singapore Sunday Times. “Christians: Return of the House Church,” (Lee Siew Hua, The Sunday Times, March 22, 2020, C2.) The article was written when the government had suspended gatherings of more than 250. (Today, gatherings of more than ten have been suspended in most situations.) Many churches found that they could no longer have large gatherings for their worship services. So they encouraged their members to meet in smaller groups. Since many churches had small-group ministries, it was just natural to encourage their members to meet in their small groups since the large-group worship was out.
I am not ignorant of the fact that small-group gatherings have their own set of problems and challenges, but I still believe that smaller face-to-face gatherings are the way for the church to be the church. Paul writes to the church at Rome:
For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith; if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully.
Love must be sincere. (Romans 12:4–9a NIV)
Here, and in many other places in the New Testament, Paul points out two central features of the early church. First, the church was a community where the members belonged to one another and loved each other. I would argue that this was the distinguishing mark of the early church — their agape love for each other. Next, was the practice of every-member ministry. Paul reminds the early Christians that all were graced for ministry, each one with different gifts to share with the rest of the community.
The main gathering of the church today is the Sunday corporate worship. I think such gatherings are great for instruction and for inspiration. We are blessed by sermons and it really is breath-taking to worship God in song together with the rest of the congregation. But this gathering does not allow for the two main characteristics of the church — close community and every-member ministry. There is no lateral fellowship at corporate worship. We sit together but there are no life-sharing conversations during worship. We are hushed if we talk during corporate worship. And while there are some exercising their gifts, e.g. the worship team, preacher, intercessors, etc., most of the congregation are passive consumers of ministry.
How did the early church do close community and every-member ministry? They met in homes over a meal. These were not cell groups. Each house gathering was a full-fledged church. So most churches were about 30 people, 40 max. Kendall Vanderslice cites a Church father, Tertullian’s (155–240 A.D.) description of this expression of church life.
The gatherings brought together aristocrats and slaves in genuine care for one another, he says. They opened and closed every meeting in prayer, feasting together and giving money to the community proportionate to their income. Through this economic sharing, they took care of the needs of the poor and the sick, they buried their dead and provided for the elderly. They spoke as though God was present with them, abiding at the table. They expressed genuine love for one another that amazed those who observed it. (Kendall Vanderslice, We Will Feast, [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2019], 29.)
The above description was church as it was expressed in the first three hundred years of her history. Ironically, when the church gathers in small groups to be church, she is not doing something novel or new. She is merely doing church as they originally did it. Paul would have found our large corporate worship services strange and not allowing for the main features of church life.
A number of people have mentioned that the Lord could be using the virus to force the church to rethink how she is to be the church. (Here is an excellent article by my friend Zhi Wen.) I fear that once the crisis is past it will be back to church as usual. Therefore any reflection on house churches cannot be merely circumstantial (we can’t have big gatherings). It has to be theological and take seriously church history from a period when the church was growing rapidly.
The Sunday Times article ended with a quote from Pastor Norman Ng from 3:16 church.
“We believe this to be a spiritually significant moment where the Church can return to its historic roots of gathering in smaller groups as the early Church did,” he adds.
“By providing safe spaces where people can have more authentic interactions, we get more opportunities to encourage one another and to care for the vulnerable.”
Will we listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches?