A friend of mine is working to set up some house churches. I have always liked the idea of house churches or house church networks. I have always greatly preferred them to cell churches. Cell churches utilize aspects of house churches, while disempowering them (which often is rather sad). That being said, I have to admit that a lot of this is a matter of taste. Ultimately, I believe different situations lead to different types of churches– be they house churches, house church networks, cell churches, parishes, Sunday school churches, cyberchurches (?) or others.
But the example of house churches got me thinking about theology. I like to say that missions and missions methods should be drawn from a theological foundation. However, some of the works I have read on house churches make me step back for a moment. A good idea (like house churches) can be built off of a poor foundation.
1. The “Primitive Church” Theology. Some like to point out that the New Testament churches were house churches (or at least house church networks). There is some truth to this… at least physically. However, the first place the church met was in the temple, and then attempts were made to work through the synagogues. Houses were a back-up plan, along with schools, caves, and fields. When centralizing church buildings were an option, Christians tended to choose that option. Nothing in the New Testament writings, nor the practice of the NT Christians suggests that they were compelled theologically toward a house church model.
Essentially, there are two problems with the Primitive Church Theology. The first is that just because something was done a certain way in the New Testament, does not mean necessarily that it is the way churches should be today. The New Testament church commonly held services in Greek, Latin, or Aramaic. The reason was that the culture required the language. That does not necessitate us following the same pattern. In fact, a better principle would be that vernacular language should be the language of the church (whatever that vernacular language might be). In the case of house churches, their existence in the New Testament says more about the culture and social situation in the New Testament. The second problem is that we tend to create the early church in our own image. Even cultic groups like to say that they have “restored” the New Testament church even if their beliefs and practices appear to have no historical connection to primitive Christianity. In these situations, the absence of evidence becomes evidence of a “cover-up” by the “official” church. The early church had variety and had characteristics that are like no church today. That is good, since no church today lives in a culture that is identical to the New Testament Roman Empire (or Parthian, or any other, for that matter).
2. Spiritualization of Ministry. House churches are useful, but some have tried to describe them in terms of spiritual movement. Some of this has been tied to a Charismatic Eschatology… tying house church movement to the so called 1st, 2nd, and 3rd waves of the spirit (or Spirit) as described by some in that branch of Christianity. Obviously, being a proud card-carrying NON-Charismatic, I would have trouble with this. But I would think that even if I was a Charismatic (theologically speaking) I would be cautious as well. Why? First, there is an unhealthy reductionism to it. Everything was wrong in the church until <BAM> God does something and things are good… but still wrong. Then God does something else and <BAM> things are better… but still wrong. Then <BAM> something new…. we can keep going with this, but it is just hugely simplistic and a bit dishonoring of the Church and God’s work in the Church throughout history. (To be fair, I am Baptist, and we are often guilty of ignoring vast swaths of Christian history as well. Shameful and disrespectful). God has been working in the church throughout history. He has done it in different forms and ways in different places. One is not necessarily best, and it is best to recognize no form is… necessary.
Second, spiritualizing a certain form of ministry puts one in an awkward position of potentially rejecting God. If house churches is God’s new spiritual wave, then to not be involved in house churches is to reject God. Spiritualizing encourages people to turn off their reasoning capacity. We don’t weigh benefits or problems with a certain direction. We don’t see, in this case, if house churches make sense in a certain community or not. We do it or not be part of God’s new spiritual breeze. Spiritualizing Example: Here in the Philippines, an American “prophet” declared that a certain Charismatic (and charismatic) religious leader was going to be President of the Philippines. This has created the crazy situation of pastors and other religious leaders working to try to make that prophecy come true. While I don’t know why anyone would want a religious leader to go into politics, I understand even less why anyone would feel the need to try to make such a prophecy come true. If it doesn’t come true, the prophecy and the prophet is false… not a problem at all. But when we try to overspiritualize, we tend to shut our minds down and go off in directions as if doing it means aligning with God while doing something else means rejecting God. That is a heavy burden. Best not to spiritualize stuff.
OKAY now. Where are we. I have said that Missions should be grounded on Theology. But I have to do some more thinking. Clearly, it needs to be based on GOOD Theology, not just any theology (or prooftexting). However, maybe it is better to to be Pragmatic (doing something because it appears to work) then create a bad theology around a certain ministry, strategy or program. At least that is where I am right now on this.