Monday, November 29, 2010

Underground Heaven

Yesterday, as I sat and chatted informally with the two souls who showed up for a Biblically-based Advent mission study following worship, conversation drifted a bit.   The intent had been to do a formal mission know...with whiteboards and a structured conversation about how we can translate vision into action, just like I'd discussed face to face with the session of the church last week.  And with the lay pastor during our weekly meeting.  And in the email newsletter.  And in the bulletin.  But I neglected to account for the one o'clock start of the Redskins game.  When I returned to the parlor following a conversation, everyone had left.  So it goes.  One of the pitfalls of really not caring about sports, I suppose.

Given that you can't have a mission study if most of the church ain't there, our chatting wandered elsewhere.  A central element of the conversation I had with those who joined me was the future of my own ministry.  I'm in a bit of a fuddler.  On the one hand, I'm pretty much done where I am.  If there's a future for this church, I both can't discern it and am not part of it.  On the other, prospects for finding a call anywhere in the immediate vicinity are marginal at best.  And if I want to live with my family, which I do, well, I need to stay here.

So what we talked about was a resurfacing of a thread that has moved frequently across my thinking over the years.  I look at the structures of the church...and particularly the physical structures...and I see stuff that is for the most part unnecessary.  Big buildings and big staffs and large parking lots might be the goal of most pastors, but for me, they feel like a distraction.  I've watched over the last several years as good souls in my congregation have poured energy and thought and resources into our great honking edifice, and wished those energies could have been directed elsewhere.  To service.  To evangelism.

To my eyes, most of the real meat of faith comes in small groups, gathered with the purpose of worshipping simply, sharing a meal, supporting one another, and talking openly about the Gospel. Such things do not require a building.  Just homes and living rooms and tables at the local pub.

But...what about those moments in life when we need a temple?   What about the hatching/matching/dispatching?  Need to get married?  A beach or a mountainside or your back yard will do.   Need to be baptized?  The Potomac isn't that far away.   Remembering a lost loved one?  The funeral home or graveside works fine.

What about service?  Last time I checked, the world does not lack for places where a group of Christians can make themselves useful.

Over the week, I've nosed around online writings about house churches.  One thing that struck me was how ferociously house and cell churches have flourished in places where Christianity is restricted.  Like, say, China.  There, the word for such intimate micro-churches is 地下天國.  Which, if your Chinese is as nonexistent as mine, means "Underground Heaven."  

I like that.  So gently subversive. 


  1. The Moral Rearmament, now Initiatives of Change, started out and got big with 'house parties'.
    I had my daughter baptized at home, because she had fever and the church was freezing cold. We pulled out the dinning table, I avoided ( last minute) baptism over the soup- terrine and insisted on the use of a small silver jar that had been offered and not been used for the baptism of her father. It was a very moving ceremony, with around 20 guests and everybody enjoyed it.
    I often wonder if especially young people here in Europe aren't discouraged from church visits by the impressive buildings and the highly pre-formated structure of the catholic mass- reminds a lot of school- half of the time you're afraid to make a wrong move.
    There are quite a lot of biblical groups around here who meet in somebody's home on a regular basis to discuss the bible. It is much more 'sharing' and 'community'.
    But I guess the basic question is: does religion need a 'sacred space'? ( space in the sense of physical space). We in Europe have pretty much eradicated sacred spaces from our homes, and each time I'm in India I just adore the house temples that people keep in a corner, or sometimes in a separate room. Our old churches represent such sacred spaces, but we have difficulties to link to them. The link to a sacred space is more a mystical thing, than a rational thing.

  2. Maya brings up the interesting question of who 'owns' the sacred space. The idea of private chapels - even private clerics - has largely subsided in the west, but once it was significant and prominent. Luther wasn't too happy about the idea of paying for masses with certain intentions, because he saw in it a seed of simony.

    Now, in a house church, who 'owns' the church? This is a remarkably recurrent problem; that the people who provide the space eventually come into some conflict and the facility becomes a weapon.

    In the 'community' churches of Europe, it was the polity that dedicated it and handed it over to the clerics; then, the state intervened and took the lands for the most part (and the clerics, in the case of Briton, Sweden, and other establishment churches).

    In America, church land is still being used as a weapon - look at the liberal Anglicans who try to deny the conservatives their sanctuaries.

    However, in the end, I find the piece about 'staff' a larger issue. As much as I would like to see the global church united, I shudder to think of all the committees with which it would be burdened and the agencies by which it would be sorely oppressed. As in the post about over-functioning pastors, the church itself takes on tasks that should perhaps be done by Christians, but not the church; and the 'leadership' grows to match the 'mission statements' and 'vision statements' in excessive bulk.

  3. As I see it and have experienced it the biggest drawbacks to house churches are:

    a) Control over the space, as Ben points out, there is usually some conflict and those in control of the space use that control as a weapon. His example is arguable but his point is spot on.

    b) Diversity goes out the window. It is hard to attract different types of people to a small homogenous group meeting in someone's house. The whole handicapped access concern spring immediately to mind let alone issues of race and wealth and education. Church is currently the only place I know outside family of origin where you don't get to pick the people you love.



  4. @ Ben and Dawg: You're right in naming the related issues of openness and ownership. House churches trend hard towards insularity, which makes them pretty lousy at the core task of evangelizing. I prefer the cell model, where those core communities view themselves as part of something larger.

    But cell communities are great for study, accountability, and fellowship...and lousy at being public and open. You need to have an opportunity to worship visibly.

    My take on this is that it would make sense to have public Sabbath worship be...well...public. Meaning, bust out of the building, and have cells gather out in the world. Worship in public amphitheatres. Fields. Parks. Beaches.