The pandemic has really been a “tipping point” for a process of decentralization that was already unfolding. We saw this in the trend toward multi-site ministries, church plants that opted to divide and multiply rather than grow large, and “fresh expressions” that generated new communities of faith. The pandemic led many churches to create “pods,” “hubs,” or “bubbles” outside the main church targeting neighborhoods where they already had membership density. These are households that meet in a home large enough to provide safety for participants of all ages, and technology to enhance worship and education.
Equipping Leaders for House Churches
In many urban or urbanizing regions, “pod” and “house church” have begun to merge. Younger, more mobile generations prefer it; and older, more stable generations have grown to like it. Churches that have been most successful in this decentralization are able to shift resources to equip parents to teach Christian education and lay leaders to facilitate and lead worship. This has led some to convert sanctuary space into studio space and develop interactive on-line education resources. The more liturgical churches send clergy to rotate among these “hubs” to celebrate sacraments and train volunteers in caregiving.
It is probably more accurate to picture this decentralization as a “hybrid” church. Weekly worship, education, and fellowship occur in the house church, but the house churches are part of a network linked to a “resource center” that joins them together both in-person and on-line. Like the older multi-site strategy, each house church shares the same DNA. Unlike the multi-site strategy, each house church has greater freedom and authority to discern, design, implement, and evaluate ministry and mission.
Churches that define measurable outcomes for intimacy and fellowship, group worship and private devotion, and adult faith formation are being especially drawn toward the hybrid church and more aggressive developing house churches. In a sense, the “go far” philosophy of the ninety’s and nought’s is being replaced by a “go deep” philosophy of ministry. Rather than expand the reach of a church to draw people to a central place, these churches are “drilling down” into neighborhoods where they already have presence and influence.
Developing Communities in House Churches
When you upload the church “People Plot” into the MissionInsite search engine, you will automatically see the specific neighborhoods where you have the greatest member representation. That is the nucleus for the next house church. You will likely discover that the lifestyle mosaic in some “hot spots” differ significantly from those in other “hot spots.” That means the community that develops in each house church is unique. Each will worship, learn, care, and serve in different ways, among different people, with different goals.
The house church (or hybrid church) strategy is really the flowering of relational evangelism. The primary entry point of seekers into faith community is no longer dogmatic or ideological agreement, nor even Sunday hospitality and worship. It is trusted, deepening relationships with those who live a Christian lifestyle. This is more easily accessed and experienced in a house church setting that is a hybrid of in-person and virtual interaction.
Methodists might well recognize this strategy as a technological upgrade of Wesleyan class meetings supported by circuit riding preachers and teachers. However, I think the new house church strategy has advantages that Wesley could not have imagined.
First, the house church or hybrid strategy is more adaptive to the mobility of the public. Today the average residency of established church members is often fifteen or more years, compared to an average residency in urban areas of six months to a year. The house church creates a bond that “travels” with each participant. Mobile people may connect with a central church streaming video of its worship service for a limited time, but not long term. They are more likely to stick with a house church fellowship where they can simultaneously connect in worship, but also carry on intimate relationships through social media.
Second, the house church or hybrid strategy is more adaptive to the multi-cultural realities of our world. The church growth movement has always maintained that a healthy church is one in which lifestyle representation in membership generally mirrors lifestyle representation in the community. Frankly, that goal is probably not realistic anymore.
For one thing, the cultural mosaic of urban communities is changing so fast that a centralized healthy church cannot keep up. It almost inevitably falls victim to a kind of “creeping homogeneity.” Diverse lifestyle segments can love one another, but that does not mean they can live with one another. The church is about power, not empowerment.
For another thing, racial and cultural polarization has defeated even the best efforts to create truly multi-cultural and bi-racial communities of faith as centralized churches. The decentralized strategy of the house church allows every micro-community to set its own ministry priorities and adapt to its own local context. The church is about diversity within unity, and not unity imposed on diversity.
The idea of networked, semi-independent house churches does have limitations. I think it is more successful in urban or urbanizing areas than rural or small-town contexts. In these other contexts, a centralized church with small groups limited to fellowship and study makes more sense. Churches may need to merge, but they don’t need to multiply.
Transitioning to House Church Models
The idea also has implications that may be hard for centralized churches to hear. Large church properties become redundant and overhead costs unsupportable. Single-purpose, large, sanctuaries with rows of pews may need to be converted to studios that customize virtual worship. In-person attendance will be smaller and safely distanced, and the emphasis will be on virtual participation. Large worship services combining participants from all house churches will inspire and unite members on special occasions through the year, but not every Sunday. Indeed, the Sunday morning experience may cease to be the universal religious rhythm of the week.
Despite this, the house church (or hybrid church) is likely to become the new normal of the post-covid 19 church (at least in urban areas). Future pandemics are probably inevitable. The decentralized church is just following the trends in public education and artistic events. Internet platforms are becoming very sophisticated. Education will be a hybrid of in-person and on-line learning; teaching will require new technological skills; and teachers may divide their time between the classroom and circulating among pods. Arts centers will replace tight rows of seating with defined loges for the entire audience and sell tickets for streaming video to home theaters. Artists will use sophisticated software to perform together virtually while located separately.
The truth is that the church has never been…or tried to become…a cultural trend-setter. Their ideas and ideals may transform culture. But their forms and methods generally follow what is happening in other public sectors. Only the former are sacred. The rest are just tactics.
I welcome all questions about using MissionInsite for ministry planning and leadership development.
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