A Moment for Rediscovering the House Church?
The cancellations and adjustments keep mounting. Here in Washington State, Governor Jay Inslee has prohibited gatherings of more than 250 people, which puts the kibosh on many sports events just on the eve of college basketball playoffs. Today came the announcement that the Seattle Schools would close, effective tomorrow, for at least two weeks. Most churches locally have already cancelled worship services until further notice. Some churches are filling the gap by offering church on-line, live-streaming of services only without a congregation.
All of this, of course, in the interest of stemming the spread of a Corona Virus. Limit social contact. Maintain “social distance.” Which is totally understandable and necessary. And yet social contact and interaction remain fundamental to human experience and health. Loneliness and isolation are already a big challenge in modern culture.
If “social distancing” is a necessary response to a problem that is, we hope, short term, it is also itself a problem. So many of the forms of contemporary life contribute to an unhealthy distancing and dis-connection. Re-weaving is essential for our common future.
Perhaps this is a moment for the church to re-visit an older model of gathering? The house church. In the Book of Acts, the period of the early church, church often happened in homes. In Acts 16: 40 there is a report of the church gathered at the home of Lydia who was a textile merchant who traded in purple cloth. That trade (purple was an expensive dye) meant that Lydia was probably well-off enough to have a house that could accommodate such a gathering. Also means a woman in leadership in the early church (there were several mentioned in Acts).
House church and home worship has never completely died out since those early centuries. They have, however, grown rare. But now may be a time for re-discovering this older model of smaller groups of Christians gathering for worship together. Given the challenges of this time, it is probably wise that such groups be kept on the smaller side, ten people or fewer, maybe just six to eight. Clearly, anyone who is not feeling well, has an underlying health condition, or doesn’t wish to take even this level of risk should not take part. But healthy others might find the smaller gathering in someone’s home to be a welcome island in the sea of social distancing and cancellations.
Many congregations already have some system of geographical sub-units upon which to build. Even without that it shouldn’t be too difficult to identify hosts that are willing and set several different days or times from which people can choose. Or have all the house churches meet at the same time, the usual hour of worship.
Pastors who aren’t planning regular services or writing sermons could prepare a liturgy, or order for home worship, that can be easily lay-led. Prayers could be written, appropriate familiar hymns suggested and brief meditations on Scripture could be accompanied by questions for conversation and exploration. Alternatively, folks could dial in the pastor on Face Time or Zoom and she/ he could offer a message. Praying with and for one another, and for those who cannot get out, seems especially important at this time.
One of the values of the house-church model has been a higher level of intimacy than the normal church building and liturgy afford. Of course, you’d want to stick to elbow bumps and bows rather than holding hands and hugs, but being together could itself be a healthy choice in a time when so many of our normal human interactions are on hold. Another upside of the house church is that can widen the leadership circle by relying on lay-leadership.
I acknowledge that this idea may be judged by some medically unwise, and perhaps it is. I’m not a doctor, nor do I play one on TV. So the risks will have to be accessed wisely. That said, some of our best “new” ideas are old, often very old.