House Church Aversion

The house church movement in the USA is weak and anemic compared to the same movement in other nations. Barna’s research on the size of the house church movement gives a huge range (anywhere from 4% to 33%) depending on the definition “house church.” I think the lower end numbers are much better guestimates.
 
In my travels to other nations I find that where the church is growing the fastest, house churches are the primary church expression.
 
Why do Americans seem to have an aversion with the house church?
 
Here are five reasons I offer:
 
1.  Safety
 
One of my neighbors asked me why they hadn’t seen me in “brick church” (my name for any “non-house” church) and I told her that we were in a house church. Her response, “That’s too much like a cult for me. “ In a brick church there is institutional presence that makes church seem, well, more culturally acceptable. People know what to expect and what will be expected of them.  
 
It’s safe to be in a place where the expectations are clear.
 
2.  The Joiner Factor (“Safety, Part 2”)
 
Some years ago my wife asked another mom to join a home school coop in our area. “No way,” she replied, “I am not a joiner.” We had never heard that phrase before, but it made a lot of sense to hear it. Many people want to walk around on the edges of church before making a decision to “plunge in” and “join.” In a small house fellowship, you can’t passively participate until you decide to get serious. If you are in the room you are an active participant. That’s a little too close for many people. 
 
You can stay on the periphery of a  brick church, making it a safer place for new people.
 
3.  Tradition
 
Like it or not, our church tradition has a lot to do with what we want in church. Even those who never attend church as adults usually experienced church as kids or at the “big moments” in life (marrying and burying). This creates a cultural definition of church that does not include the house church
 
We like our tradition.
 
4.  Inoculation
 
Most of the time, after describing our house church to church-goers, they respond with, “We have small groups for that.” This small group experience makes people think they already get the house church experience (this response is always very frustrating for me because being a part of house church is nothing like being a part of a small group in a brick church small group)
 
Most people are inoculated from house church by the small group experience.
 
5.  Teaching
 
Finally, the US church is focused on teaching as the primary activity in church. The format of the service, the buildings, the promotion of the ministry, are all aimed at teaching (or, in many cases, the "teachers"). This is a leftover from the Protestant Reformation. US church-goers seldom experience what it means to be a part of a church in which community is more important than teaching. This bias toward teaching has been so ingrained into our definition of church that we cannot easily let go of it.
 
House churches fail to meet the cultural expectation on teaching.
 
What do you think? What are the reasons for American aversion to the house church movement?

11 Comments to “House Church Aversion”

  1. [...] Esler over at http://Esler.org has a great post on why Americans seem to have an aversion to house churches. Really a good and [...]

  2. Matt @ The Church of No People 1 July 2010 at 8:24 am #

    Hey Ted, I just happened on your blog.  I''m a house church pastor and I totally agree with your list.  People don't trust house churches – they think they're cults or something.  I always joke around with people that it's just like any other church, but we serve kool-aid at the end. ;)  I think Marty makes some great points about the negatives of house churches, but I doubt that most people are reflecting on those factors, choosing to be led by pure convenience and familiarity.  Keep up the great work!

  3. Marty Schoenleber 29 June 2010 at 10:17 pm #

    Matt said: "Would some of the back and fourth about how we do church be quieted if we led our people to focus all of their attention on expressing the gospel in our communities and led all of our people to participate in Disciple Making? "
    I'm not sure about all the back and forth being quieted down, but you have stated very succinctly what all leaders of all churches, whether "brick" or "organic" must do better: We must lead our people to focus all of our attention on expressing the gospel in our communities, and lead all our people to participate in disciple making." 
    I am going to quote you Matt. Good job.
    Bill, I don't know you. It is almost impossible sometimes in these comment streams to catch all of the personality and flavor of a participant's spirit, but to me, your "Warehoused Christianity confirms Marx not Jesus" comment sounds (to me) like the kind of incendiary language that gives house church leaders (I'm one of them) a bad name. Do we really have to throw fire bombs at "brick" churches?
    Why not just create a new wineskin. Jesus didn't say destroy or even stop using the old wineskins. He said don't put new wine in old wineskins. 

  4. brian hofmeister 28 June 2010 at 12:18 am #

    Even amongst those interested in the concept of house churches, I believe fear of the unkown also hinders people.

  5. Ted 24 June 2010 at 1:50 pm #

    Great comments – very helpful insights.  I would like to go on record as saying that I don't dislike the brick church.  In fact, without the brick church I wouldn't have a job!

  6. Marc Hardy 23 June 2010 at 12:23 am #

    This is very interesting.  I think you've hit a lot of nails on their heads with this post.  The Christianity I see in America is, for the most part though not in all cases, is made up of people who are very comfortable with  the way things are and do not feel they need to be changed.  It can be tinkered with but not changed.
    I have become passionate about what is at the heart of the house church idea: the participation and imitation of the life Christ, in and as a community.  I think that has the potential to frighten many people, which is what you're pointing to.  People enjoy sticking with the familiar and the safe rather then putting themselves in a vulnerable place, which is the epitome of life in a house church.
    I am a seminary student and I had had the plans for the longest time of going into a traditional ministry position.  I do not wish to bash all "brick  churches" because I believe there are many out there who are getting people to actually participate, that are changing the lives of the people in the congregations and in the community.  However, I have to come more and more to the realization that even though that might be the case, most people who are outside the Church will not even consider setting foot in a church building.  They desire community but don't feel a church building is where it can be found. 
    Thank you for posting this.  I hope to keep this in mind as I continue pursuing what I feel is God's leading in my life with house churches.

  7. John S Wilson III 22 June 2010 at 8:44 pm #

    Like your list!
    I think that in American society we are very shallow when it comes to relationships, the more acquaintances the better, but no real close friends. The lack of close family tends to cause people to be isolationists, if they weren't already before in America. Each of these seem to reflect Safety (Part 1 and 2) from your list.
    I think you are right on in regards to tradition.
    I'm not sure about your inoculation point. Your description seems to indicate the person is being defensive and trying to change the subject. While there are similarities, you are right there are huge differences (Pagan Christianity makes that point!),
    I'm not sure about teaching being an aversion. It depends on the house/simple/organic church. They can spend a lot of time in teaching (since they meet more than one day a week) but the mode of teaching most are not normally familiar with in the institutional church is objective versus subjective. Organic church learns Christ which is wholly subjective. I think it is more of misunderstanding of what mode of teaching are we talking about – objective spectator/seminar versus subjective debate/dialogue/application in face to face community.
    I have actually found not so much aversion from others as more of a misunderstanding. When they understand that there are no programs or structure and the focus is simply to know Christ better in relationships it actually is more attractive to some. In fact I have gotten comments such as: "you take your faith seriously," somehow they are presuming that you a participant in the church not just a spectator and they are right.
    Great stuff! God bless brother!

  8. Bill Colburn 22 June 2010 at 8:44 pm #

    Well said.  Similar issues face the 'third-place' church. We meet in a coffee shop. The cry is always, how can that be church?  No children's classs, no pulpit, no choir or rock band. Kind of similiar to the 'how can he be the Messiah if he's from Nazareth'.  The American Christian penchant for comfortable, pretty, and popular speaks loudly of misplaced affections and pastors preaching smooth things, rather than Christ. Warehoused Christianity confirms Marx, not Jesus. Yet, nothing will ever change if we don't persist with something better.  

  9. Matt Tipton 22 June 2010 at 6:30 pm #

    "In a brick church there is institutional presence that makes church seem, well, more culturally acceptable." 

    I hear all the time from people in our culture that the institutional church is inauthentic and hypocritical because people are not doing community or loving each other well (I tend to agree).  I read in your post that many in our culture struggle with the house church because it is to exclusive or cult like or asks to much of them. 

    WHICH IS IT PEOPLE!?!

    Is it possible that people simply want to live for themselves rather than respond to the gospel of Christ and live it out in in and among the church?  Lets stop calling people to respond to the church and call them to respond to Jesus Christ and when they do lets walk life closely with them for the sake of seeing them transformed into the likeness of Jesus.  If our people begin to wrap their lives around the great commission then the form church takes becomes less significant. 
    No matter where we land in the church model conversation we must make sharing and showing the gospel of Christ the main thing for all of our people. 

    I wonder what would happen if we loved people well and offered the gospel with all of its sharp edges intact and let God do the work of regeneration? 

    Would some of the back and fourth about how we do church be quieted if we led our people to focus all of their attention on expressing the gospel in our communities and led all of our people to participate in Disciple Making? 

  10. Marty Schoenleber 22 June 2010 at 6:21 pm #

    Ted,
    These are some good thoughts and helpful (and well organized despite your 'untidy brain.'). But lets be more reflectively honest as well. I am presently planting a cluster of house churches so I want to offer some other reasons. Mine are not a replacement of yours, just a further addition:
    6.  Some Christians are put off by what they perceive to be an overly critical attitude toward what Ted calls "brick churches.'
    7.  Some don't see any missional thrust in the current house church movement. They hear a lot of talk, a lot of good theory, but in the end many house churches are equally irrelevant to gospel transformation of neighborhoods.
    8.  Many non-Christians see no transformative difference between them and their "brick church" or "house church" neighbors. Why try it if it doesn't produce anything different?
    9.  Most places that are experiencing rapid growth in "house churches" are also totalitarian cultures or governments. Either the government or the culture suppresses large assemblies of people, or large assemblies of people around the gospel narrative. In the west freedom and affluence make it possible, perhaps not as productive as we would like to think, but possible to build churches, schools, colleges etc. This weights a culture against certain forms.
    10. Western culture is so individualistic that house churches intimidate the average American.
    Thanks for stimulating my thinking.
    9.

  11. Greg 22 June 2010 at 5:11 pm #

    I would agree with these observations.  Reason #5 I would definitely agree with as I continue to hear so many people say, "I really get fed by the pastor's sermon." And if not getting "fed," the search for another brick church begins.  This desire to be taught forever is keeping so many from contributing and sharing with a community of believers.


Leave a Reply