Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker, to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier and to the church that meets in your home. Philemon 1:1-2
“There’s No Pulpit Like Home” read the catchy title of an article in Timemagazine, a news publication that used to be distributed pretty much all over the English-speaking world. It told of a fellowship of believers who meet together in a home, sing and share their thoughts—their tribulations, their challenges, their problems. They talk and pray, and cry together. There is a reading from the New Testament book of Hebrews followed by more discussion. In the course of their time together, they share a practice that believers have observed from the days of the Upper Room: they break bread and take a cup reflecting on the death and resurrection of Christ. “Communion” they call it.
What I have just described is essentially the same thing that I first experienced in China some 55 years ago when there were only two open churches in that vast country, one in Beijing and another in Shanghai. While no Chinese would darken the door of these two churches, window-dressing for foreigners, hundreds of thousands of Chinese Christians would meet in homes much like the one described by Timemagazine. But the fellowship described by the news magazine was not in a Communist country but in the heart of the United States, one meeting in Denver, Colorado, where I grew up.
In 1979, China, in a kind of trade-out for a better relationship with the West, granted a measure of religious freedom to the church and began to allow fellowships to again meet in church buildings strictly regulated by the government. But today, Purdue University’s Center on Religion and Chinese Society estimates that there are between 93 million and 115 million Protestants in China, with fewer than 30 million attending officially registered churches. That’s a lot of people doing church at home.
Churches actually got started back in the book of Acts where you find the word ecclesia, usually translated “church” or “assembly,” some 88 times. Literally the word means “called-out ones.” Most of those references in Luke’s historical account of the early church were to a small group of believers, and where did they meet together? Usually in homes, until danger drove them underground to secluded places of safety. Paul’s letter to Philemon began with greetings to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier “and to the church that meets in your home” (Philemon 1:2).
For the first three centuries, there were no church buildings—only house churches or their equivalent. Not until Constantine was converted in 325 AD and pagan temples were converted into church buildings, did the church take on a formal structure such as we think of it today.
But house churches are far from the norm in the West. The movement here can be healthy or unhealthy. Positives include a focus on discipleship, leadership, service and Gospel transmission through relationships. Pitfalls may include the fact that many people in the movement have left traditional church due to deep disenchantment, which may affect the church body. House church members say they want a warm, personal relationship with Jesus Christ, fellowship that is meaningful and intimate. “I’d never go back to a traditional church,” says Jeanine, a passionate convert to the kind of intimate, personal style found in a house church.
The Church, as set forth in the New Testament, is people, not a place. “On this rock, I will build my church,” Jesus said to Peter in Matthew 16:18. So when Pastor Alex Moseychuck found himself and his Church locked out of their “church” building by terrorists in Donetsk, Ukraine, the Church simply moved back into homes throughout the community.
Call it wrong only if you are willing to concede that for the first three centuries the vibrant, early church was just as wrong. Remember, Jesus said, “For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them" (Matthew 18:20).
Resource reading: Hebrews 10:19-25