Church, we may have to meet in houses
Ng Zhiwen // March 17, 2020, 11:48 pm
The COVID-19 public health crisis is compelling us to rethink how we do Church.
Already, many churches have had to set up a livestreaming service from scratch, so that church members can participate from their homes. By now, I am sure many are seriously considering cancelling their weekend worship services. Some already have.
A typical alternative has been to offer some form of service online; some way of approximating to a live worship service. You may feel this is a kind of ‘downgrade’, but what other option do we have? Public health is the priority.
You cannot imagine the burden that is now on your pastors. Keep them in your prayers. Show that you are on their side.
At the same time, I’d like to suggest another way of thinking about this: Should your church have to enter a season of no-large-worship-service, why not take this opportunity to rediscover what it means to be Church?
I mean no disrespect for worship services. I grew up in a “fairly institutional” church, and I totally get the blessings of having a certain size and having our own premises. But lest we fall in love with the service as an institutionalised practice and forget the essence of what it means to be Church, consider the following:
For the first 300 years of its history, the early Church gathered in houses! Read Acts 2:46, 1 Corinthians 16:19, Colossians 4:15, Philemon 1:2, just to name a few examples.
Of course they would also worship in the synagogues possibly in larger numbers (provided they were welcomed there), but the sense we get is that the Church gathered wherever and however they could.
We also know that during times of persecution in the Roman Empire, Christians would gather for worship in the catacombs – these were subterranean tunnels that enabled them to hide from their pursuers.
Those of us who have been to other parts of world may also have seen Christians gathered along the road, at a café or even under the shade of a tree to learn about Jesus their Lord and to worship Him together! They have learned to be flexible and adaptable.
We can as well.
What is more important is what these Christians did when they gathered.
Acts 2:42 tells us that the early Christians “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers”.
Teaching. Fellowship. Breaking of bread. Praying together.
Pliny the Younger (c. 61-113), a non-Christian Roman governor in Bithynia, in a letter to Emperor Trajan described Christian worship as follows:
They were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so. When this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of food – but ordinary and innocent food. [Pliny, Letters 10.96-97]
Note that bit about food. To us Singaporeans, that should make perfect sense!
They had fellowship over food! They learnt to relate to each other, get into each other’s lives, bless others and be blessed through conversation. All this around a meal. This could be the greatest blessing of the house church.
I remember reading a book by Marva Dawn, where she shared of a church in America that decided to keep Sabbath in an unusual way.
They would gather on Sundays, but there would be no service. They would just sit together and literally wait for something to happen. Sunday after Sunday. They knew that they had been going through the motions, so they wanted to learn how to wait on the Lord.
After the initial unease, people started talking to each other. Someone would cook a meal and share it with everyone. People prayed with each other. Others would share scripture. There was no liturgy. But there was a rediscovery of community.
In an interview with Crosswalk, renowned worship leader and songwriter Matt Redman shared about the story behind his song “Heart of Worship”.
“(Our pastor Mike Pilavachi) decided to get rid of the sound system and band for a season, and we gathered together with just our voices. His point was that we’d lost our way in worship, and the way to get back to the heart would be to strip everything away.”
It was painful at first, but soon the Church learned to pray heartfelt prayers, and sing to Jesus from the depths of their soul.
“Before long, we reintroduced the musicians and sound system, as we gained a new perspective that worship is all about Jesus, and He commands a response in the depths of our souls no matter what the circumstance and setting. ‘Heart of Worship’ simply describes what occurred.”
As we make alternative arrangements for our weekend services and gather into smaller groups, there are some issues that are bound to arise. Here are some possible ways to address them:
1. HOW DO WE ORGANISE THE CHURCH INTO A HOUSE CHURCH STRUCTURE?
Work with what you already have (e.g. a cell group or Bible study group system). Members who are not in a cell group will have to be engaged and encouraged to join a cell (that can’t be a bad thing!).
If you have to start from scratch, you may need some members to take the lead and host a house church. The important thing is to identify and prepare the house church leader – that would be a key task of the pastor.
Ask other churches how they do it.
2. WHAT WILL BE TAUGHT?
The pastor can provide the teaching (via a pre-recorded sermon, live-streamed sermon, or a structured series of lessons or teaching notes for the house church leader). He can even meet the leaders beforehand to discuss or to study the Bible text.
Alternatively, the house church leader can prepare his own material – ideally with some coaching and training by the pastor! This also is not a bad thing for the long term.
3. WHAT ABOUT COMMUNION?
Most churches will want to abide by their standing practice concerning who may administer communion and how frequently it should be done.
I don’t think this is a ‘show-stopper’ for a temporary house church model, but each will have to find a solution. Improvisation may be needed, without compromise of the principles behind the practice. Why not go back to the scriptures and consider how it was done during the time of the Apostles?
I am not advocating that one model of church structure is preferred or superior to another. Each structure comes with its own potential shortcomings.
We may be in this season for a while, and it will be painful to drop the Sunday Service. But with this “loss”, we may enter into a deeper appreciation and practice of what the Church was called to be and to do.
Perhaps this is what the Lord wants of us now. And when we have learnt the lesson, we may return. Not the same, but better.
This article was first published on Zhiwen’s Facebook page and has been republished with permission.
THINK + TALK
- What does it mean to be the Church?
- Has your church experience changed this season? If so, have you let the differences affect you negatively?
- What are some of the issues you or your church might face in this season? What can be done about them?