Saturday, February 21, 2009

Why are We Afraid of our Homes?

No church historian would argue that the early church met in homes. Not only was it normative for them to do so, but it was practical and allowed for true community to exist in a face to face atmosphere.

There are 58 exhortations of “one-anothering” in the New Testament: love one another, care for one another, encourage one another, etc… A larger sampling can be found in an early blog, titled, A Layman's Job Description. These are face to face encounters that require some form of letting go of our natural bent towards selfishness and self-centredness.

The church was never viewed as a building but a gathering of God’s people.
Greet Priscilla and Aquila…Greet also the church that meets at their house.
Romans 16:3,5
Give my greetings to the brothers at Laodicea, and to Nympha and the church in her house.
Colossians 4:15
To Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier and to the church that meets in your home.
Philemon 2

Since the time of Constantine (320 AD) there has been a love affair with buildings that created a distinction of sacred/secular, clergy/laity and the corresponding costs that the early church knew nothing of. In the United States, building centered churches own about $230 billion worth of real estate with Christians giving about $10 billion each year to them.

I have even heard numerous ministers referring to their building as a witness within their community. For the first three hundred years the church thrived without such a witness. Besides, Jesus did not say that the world would know we are his disciples by the size or beauty of our building. But He did say that He would be known by our love for one another.
John 13

On the other side of the balance sheet there are no limits to size or outreach associated with meeting in homes. As the church grows, people simply meet in more homes. There are no fund raising pleas, more leadership is encouraged and released, personal participation is not only welcomed but needed. The numbers are small enough to allow for creative approaches to caring for and discipling one another. Helping the needy is doable since funds are not being diverted to salaries and buildings. The care can also go beyond daily needs but may even be personalized into teaching someone to fish.

Simple examples might be combining resources to give a scholarship to a child from a needy home either locally or internationally. Or the group might work together to sponsor an entire orphanage. A village in Africa could receive solar powered electricity for the cost of $35,000. Any one of these is not beyond the scope of what 4-8 families could accomplish in a single year.

A large group of people, meeting in a sacred building, do not have the ability to care for one another, equip all believers or strengthen authentic relationships better than a small, intimate group of people meeting in their own homes. In fact, brick and mortar buildings and meetings tend to undermine these values. Howard Snyder puts it beautifully,

"The New Testament teaches us that the church is a community in which all are gifted and all have ministry. The church as taught in Scripture is a new social reality that models and incarnates the respect and concern for people that we see in Jesus Himself. This is our high calling. And yet the church, in fact, often betrays this calling. Churches meeting in homes are a big part of the way out of this betrayal and this paradox. Face-to-face community breeds mutual respect, mutual responsibility, mutual submission, and mutual ministry. The sociology of meeting in homes fosters a sense of equality and mutual worth, though it doesn’t guarantee it as the Corinthian church shows.

The New Testament principles of the priesthood of believers, the gifts of the Spirit, and mutual ministry are found most naturally in this informal context,

Meeting in homes is revolutionary because they incarnate this radical teaching that all are gifted and all are ministers. They offer some hope for healing the body of Christ from some of its worst heresies: that some believers are more valuable others, that only some Christians are ministers, and that the gifts of the Spirit are no longer to function in our age. These heresies cannot be healed in theory or in theology only. They must be healed in practice and relationship in the social form of the church."

For ministers to say they love the teachings of New Testament without appreciating the context in which these teachings are applied is akin to saying one can enjoy the game of basketball while playing on an ice hockey rink. The difficulty for many Christians is that what they think is a Biblical standard of belonging to a local church with a building, a paid elder (pastor) and established services was unheard of during the days of the first apostles, well into the third century.

In a rather strange inversion of priorities many modern day Christians gravitate to a model which is financially costly compared to the early church model that financially cost very little. The irony is that which doesn't need to be done frequently and could be done individually is done frequently (meeting for a sermon) and that which does need to be done frequently, "one anothering" is rarely done or is at best seen as optional. It seems we would rather pay money for a setting that enables a high degree of anonymity while staring at the back of a stranger's or acquaintance's head rather than paying the higher price of actually knowing one another in face to face encounters. What would you have preferred, being one of the 5,000 that Jesus fed or being a participant in the Last Supper?

While it is true that there are no edicts to say one must meet in homes in order to mature and love one another, it is impossible to understand the early church outside of this context. Peter argued strongly that we are His building,
"you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ."
1 Peter 2:5

There is definitely no command or even a single example of exclusive sacred buildings as a focal point for Christian activity. I gave no edict to my son when he got married that he should find a home for his new bride, he simply knew from example that to raise a family a home was required.

Meeting in homes does require input from travelling leaders like apostles, prophets and evangelists. Local elders also need to learn to work creatively together. There will likely be special times when the many small house groups will come together to be a witness that we are one Body, one church within the city. This was a pattern in the New Testament as well. This would happen infrequently since the core values of "one anothering" would already be happening regularly. Without these functions working cooperatively, it is definitely possible to become inward, exclusive and fragmented. Brick and mortar churches face this same dilemma. That's why we need these sources of wisdom equipping us.
Ephesians 4

So the bottom line is why are we afraid of homes as the main venue for nurturing and building up one another? Perhaps the better question is, what New Testament practice can be done better in a sacred building than in a home?

A truth’s initial commotion is directly proportional to how deeply the lie was believed. It wasn’t the world being round that agitated people, but that the world wasn’t flat. When a well-packaged web of lies has been sold gradually to the masses over generations, the truth will seem utterly preposterous and its speaker a raving lunatic.
Dresden James

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