Note: Over the next number of Mondays, I will be posting portions of my doctoral dissertation which I wrote in 1995 and 1996. Much of the material is still relevant for the missio Dei today. The focus of my dissertation was the house church and its relevance for starting churches in the Greater Toronto Area. The subject of the house church is presented from a theological, exegetical, historical, missiological and social science perspective.
The “House Church” defined: In this study, the house church is defined as a small group of Christians who gather weekly around God’s Word and Sacraments (i.e. baptism and the Lord’s Supper) and for prayer and Christian hospitality in a home, rented facility, or office. A Lutheran missionary expressed this view when he defined a “house church”:
In my understanding I borrow heavily from the Lutheran Confessions. The Confession’s description of what the church is, is perhaps the best one around outside what Scripture says, ‘Where two or three are gathered, I am in the midst of them.’ According to the Confessions a church consists of God’s people assembled with God’s Word and the Sacrament [i.e. the Lord’s Supper]. That’s a house church in my estimation. It’s a small group of believers gathered together in a small space whether it be a community room, a boardroom, or someone’s home.”
The term “house church” is difficult to define because there is a general confusion and lack of consensus regarding this term by people who use the term. A survey of missionaries working in various regions of the world revealed that “house church” is used in many ways: as nongovernment sanctioned worshipping groups in China; a large group of Christians who meet in a house-like structure; a Bible study group that meets in a Christian’s home but worship regularly at an edifice church; cell groups patterned after the meta-church model; small group Bible studies that meet for the purpose of evolving into a congregational with land and building; a sacramental community that has been formed and commissioned by the “mother” congregation to plant a church in another part of the city; and as sacramental communities that gather regularly around the Word and Sacraments in homes and who have their own lay leadership under the direction of a pastor a local congregation. With this lack of consensus it is not surprising that a District official commented, “I am not sure what you mean when you speak of ‘house church.’”
For the purpose of this study, this researcher has chosen to work with the definition of “house church” as stated in the first paragraph for two reasons: 1. The New Testament house churches are best described as sacramental communities, that is, as groups of Christians who met regularly as a community of faith in homes, halls or some other available place of worship, that is, for the purpose of the study of the Word, prayer, fellowship, the Lord’s Supper and Baptism under the guidance of appointed elders (i.e. pastors) and deacons. The house church was the whole church in microcosm. 2. There appears to be small number of Christian groups in Canada actually using a home as a primary centre for weekly worship, evangelization and catechization. This researcher was directed repeatedly to congregations that met in rented facilities by denominational leaders when he inquired about the use of house churches in starting new churches.