Doing Without the Church?
The seven churches of Asia addressed in the book of Revelation had their problems. One of them looked quite lively but it was actually dead. Another was so lukewarm that the Lord was ready to spit it out of His mouth. And yet the Son of Man did not tell the Christians of Sardis or of Laodicea to pull out of their congregations.
Today, though, a growing number of Christians are doing just that. Despite the continued visibility of megachurches, the new trend is for minichurches, microchurches, or no churches at all.
According to pollster George Barna, the era of the institution is over. In his books Revolution: Finding Vibrant Faith Beyond the Walls of the Sanctuary and The Second Coming of the Church, Barna hails what he calls the “revolutionaries” who are abandoning the established church in favor of small group fellowships and individual devotion.
An increasing number of Christians have dropped out of congregations to form their own “house churches.” These typically consist of a few families that meet together in someone’s home. They are essentially Bible studies and fellowship groups whose members belong to no other congregation.
A house is indeed a good place for a church. Persecuted Christians have met in each other’s homes from the days of ancient Rome to contemporary China. House churches may be worth reviving for American Christians, whether in face of a new persecution or just because a congregation wants to do without a big, expensive building.
But even house churches still need to have the marks of the church. The house churches Barna is lauding typically have no structure, no formal doctrines, and no organization. They usually have no ministers or elders. Instead of calling a pastor who has studied God’s Word in depth and who knows how to exercise pastoral care, the practice is usually to just take turns leading the discussions. The house churches have no affiliations with any larger church body, nor do they have specific doctrines or confessions of faith. They do little, if anything, with the sacraments. No one is subject to church discipline, as such. If conflict breaks out, people just don’t come back. They can just worship at somebody else’s house.
House churches, though, are too institutional for some people. Many Christians take homeschooling a step further and establish a “home church.” In this arrangement a family is its own congregation. The father might teach from the Bible with the wife and children listening. They then adjourn to the dining room for Sunday dinner. No outsiders intrude.
Having family devotions is a salutary practice, but they are not supposed to take the place of public corporate worship.
But even home churches are too institutional for some people. Why does a Christian need other people around at all? “Based on our research,” Barna says approvingly, “I have projected that by the year 2010, 10 to 20 percent of Americans will derive all their spiritual input (and output) through the Internet” (Revolution, p. 180).
But even worshiping at such an electronic shrine may be too much human contact for some. Why not just contemplate God by myself? After all, isn’t the inner life more spiritual than all of these externals? Isn’t the personal relationship with God all that matters? In the words of country singer Josh Turner, it’s all about “Me and God.” And for that, I need no one else. As Turner sings, “Ain’t nobody gonna come between me and God.”
But actually I do need someone to come between me and God, the intermediary Jesus Christ; otherwise, I would fare about as well as a mosquito in a nuclear reactor. To know Jesus Christ, I need His external Word and His sacraments. I need someone other than myself to apply these to me. I need someone to teach me and to keep me in line. I need to worship God and receive His gifts. I need the body of Christ, that is, His church.
“Ours is not the business of organized religion, corporate worship, or Bible teaching,” says Barna of his fellow anti-church revolutionaries: “We are in the business of life transformation” (The Second Coming of the Church, p. 96). But, as Michael Horton has shown in his critique of this movement, such an emphasis on “transformation” is mere moralism and mysticism. The gospel, though, involves proclamation. Preaching requires preachers. The grace of God demands the means of grace: Bible teaching, baptism, the Lord’s Supper. Such necessities beget corporate worship and, yes, organized religion (see “No Church, No Problem,” Modern Reformation, July/August 2008).
“And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works,” says the apostle, “not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Heb. 10:24–25). It was not good for man to be alone even in Paradise, and it is certainly not good to be alone in a fallen world. God did not design us to be self-contained; rather, He made us dependent on others, both for our daily bread and for our spiritual nourishment.