This blog is the first in a four-part series about house churches. Check back next week for the next blog in this series.
As government and health officials work to slow the growth of COVID-19 cases in the U.S., places that have hosted large numbers of people are being called to close their doors. This includes churches. The government ordinances limiting the size of gatherings have caused both church leaders and church goers to ask the question, “What is church, really?”
A lot of people in the states think of churches as buildings—some small with stained-glass windows and pews, others large with stadium seating and giant sound systems. But thinking of church in this way does not work in a time when people are called to stay home, leaving church-goers figuring out what church looks like outside of the sanctuary.
But many Christians around the world, especially in places where Christians are persecuted for their beliefs, have already formed churches outside of a formal building.
Missionaries at East-West have seen first-hand how different church gatherings operate, whether in someone’s home, in secret in a remote location, or outdoors away from technology. This church model is not new but taken directly from examples of the early church in the New Testament.
“Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts … .” -Acts 2:46
“Greet Pricilla and Aquila, my co-workers in Christ Jesus. … Greet also the church that meets at their house.” -Romans 16:3,5a
“Give my greetings to the brothers and sisters at Laodicea, and to Nympha and the church in her house.” -Colossians 4:15
Knowing that church cannot (and was never intended) to be defined as a building, East-West’s missionaries use a basic set of guidelines—informed by Scripture—for helping new disciples understand what a church is.
Gathering in Jesus’ name
“‘For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.’” -Matthew 18:20
A church involves a group of believers coming together in the name of Jesus. Gathering outside of this purpose—such as for parties or work meetings—is not how the Bible defines church. When believers gather in Jesus’ name, they are committed to God’s Word in obedience, loving, and serving one another.
“‘Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit … .’” -Matthew 28:19
After commanding his disciples to go and disciple others, Jesus told them to baptize these new believers. Baptism is not a means for salvation, but it is an outward, obedient expression of faith in Jesus. The church is called to baptize believers in Jesus’ name.
The Lord’s Supper
“Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all share the one loaf.” -1 Corinthians 10:16-17
Partaking in the Lord’s Supper, or communion, reminds the church to focus on Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross for believers’ eternal salvation. The Lord’s Supper also recognizes the unity followers of Jesus have with each other as the Body of Christ—the church. Without communion, churches could lose focus of the reason they gather.
What church is
A lesson can be taken from young churches around the world without a chapel or steeple. The members of these churches know that church is not a building, though it can be held in a building. Church is a gathering of believers in Jesus’s name to obey God’s Word, practicing baptism and communion to set the focus on the gospel.
Gathering the church does not have to look like a large crowd surrounding a pulpit. It can be a handful of people in a living room or, in cases of extreme social distancing, a virtual (and intentional) video meeting online.
Next week, we will explore what a house church gatherings can look like in different contexts around the world.