Sunday, September 10, 2006

Thoughts on Home Church

I grew up in a family that was isolationist. Although my father put a premium on authority (his authority), there was no recognition of the need to be under the authority of a local church. Not only did our family not attend church, but we didn’t even do home-church.

As a consequence, I grew up looking down on organised religion, turning up my nose at the vain pursuit of externals, which included denominationalism and the ‘legalism’ of regular church attendance.

When I moved to England and started my own family, I realised, in a limited way, the scriptural importance of church. So we did home church with a couple other families. The choice to do home church rather than conventional church was because of the shallowness and liberalism of all the churches in our area (the local vicar was a self-professed Buddhist). I always wanted to find a church where we would feel somewhat comfortable, where we could enjoy fellowship with like-minded Christians and where we could be enriched with Biblical teaching. Until I found such a place, I was happy for my family to do home-church, even when attendance dwindled down to only four other people besides my family.

In the last year I have begun taking my family to an organised church even though it is far from satisfactory. I have also been officially confirmed into the Anglican church. As these developments suggest, I have undergone quite a significant shift in my thinking. We still meet for worship in the home, but I always make sure that this never takes the place of regular Sunday morning church attendance.

One reason I changed was because I didn’t want my children to grow up with certain unscriptural attitudes that I have observed among people who were raised on informal home church. Such attitudes include

an us-verses-them approach towards ‘other Christians’

the despising of tradition or form

lack of appreciation that we are members of one body and what that means Biblically

church hoping as a means to seek personal satisfaction, ending up with not going to church at all

unscriptural emphasis on the ‘invisible church’ without any understanding of the visible people of God. This includes an inability to think in covenantal categories. (If you aren't familiar with the distinction between the invisible and the visible church, click HERE).

pursuit of individualism where everyone is left to be ‘true to their own feelings’

keeping faith a private affair between ‘Jesus and me’ and, as a corollary, a rather isolationist, sentimental approach to life.

no understanding of the importance of regular public worship
a dualistic split between the more important 'spiritual' realm and the physical world, sometimes bordering on gnosticism. Hence, a suspicion of physical church buildings, physical definable congregations, physical traditions and customs, etc. One home-churcher went so far as to actually burn down his old church building.

minimising the importance of the sacraments (one home churcher said he was uncomfortable how normal churches made such a ‘big deal’ over communion)

an emphasis on the personal, private aspects of faith over and above the public visible aspect.

the pursuit of an egalitarian lifestyle and rejection of authority, especially Biblical authority

no church government; indeed no leader at all.

a trend towards liberalism as a corollary to no accountability

lack of accountability to the body of Christ and a Lone Ranger type of mentality.

reducing the Bible to a personal devotional manual which is then used mainly for inspiration and individual interpretation.

While it is theoretically possible to have authority and accountability in a home church, the informal medium almost excludes this entirely. Here’s how. The New Testament makes clear that in a church the leaders are responsible for shepherding and watching over their flock (Heb 13:17; 1 Pet. 5:2-4), but this presupposes the pastor knows who the members of his flock are. Just as the command for younger people to submit to older people (1 Pet. 5:5) presupposes that the distinction between a younger person and an older person is concrete and visible, so the command for members of a flock to submit to their pastor/elders presupposes that membership is concrete and visible. In the early church, membership in specific churches was defined by geographical boundaries. Because this is not the case in our era, there needs to be another method for determining membership and it should be just as concrete, just as clear and just as public. Officially registering with a church achieves this.
In a home-church, membership tends to be more informal, fluid and ambiguous. For a while I assumed that membership could just happen by default when people attend a fellowship without them having to formally join/register. However, this creates certain practical problems, some of which I have actually observed:

the pastor doesn’t know how long a person has to attend before he becomes a member by default, so he’s unsure if he has the right to speak into their lives when he sees rebellion.

a person who wants to be under the shepherding influence of a pastor travels a lot, but because he isn’t in regular attendance the pastor falsely assumes he is not in authority over him.

a person (perhaps an unbeliever) attends the church but doesn’t realise that attendance makes someone a member by default and he suddenly finds himself coming under the standards of church discipline.

a person begins to forsake the assembling of the saints and really needs some spiritual help. However, because membership has been based on the criteria of attendance, as soon as the person stops attending he stops being a member and therefore ceases to be under the authority of the pastor at the time when he needs it the most.
These are some of the reasons I would favour a visible model of church membership and why the more informal home-church paradigm is problematic. Currently the home-church movement is becoming increasingly popular, particularly in America. Although I would never argue that it shouldn't be done, if home church is practiced it needs to be done with an acute consciousness of these tendencies so as to minimise any potential damage.
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