(Jul 8, 2006)
In the living room, a dozen people hold hands and pray for each other, for politicians and for help in spreading the Gospel. They’re a group of Christians worshipping in a house church.
They gather in homes — just as the Acts of the Apostles describes how Jesus’ first followers worshipped.
Some members of house churches belong to large congregations in established churches. Others haven’t been to a church in years.
When the prayer ends, the hostess distributes the bread and punch for communion.
Sam Buick is pensive as he takes the eucharist. He hasn’t gone to a regular church service for about seven years, Buick says, but insists that his Christian faith is the most important thing in his life.
An ordained Pentecostal pastor, Buick said he searched the New Testament and didn’t find evidence of the power structures which are in place in many churches today. So in 1999, he left his local church and started meeting regularly with about 10 others.
On a recent Saturday night in Waterloo, Buick and fellow worshippers tucked into a potluck dinner, discussed Scripture, sang hymns, prayed and took communion.
There was a time when Buick would have thought substituting pink punch for sacramental wine was irreverent.
But his view on religion has changed in the past years. With the right intention, he said, “having pizza and Coke can be just as holy.”
While about 20 per cent of Canadians attend religious services at least once a week, Statistics Canada and religion scholars say Canadians put more importance on faith than church attendance suggests.
By walking away from mainstream church, Buick said he hasn’t abandoned his church. Rather, people are the church, he said.
“Just because you don’t have stained glass windows and a pipe organ does not mean you’re not as religious, if not more so, than you were within the religious building,” he said.
“You can bring the cathedral back in the bungalow.”
Some people who go to house churches are members of big congregations. Others have no intention of ever going back to large-congregation worship.
According to a recent poll by the California-based Barna Group, about nine per cent of American adults (roughly 20 million) participate in a house church in any given week.
That’s up dramatically — from just one per cent — a decade ago. (The survey of 5,000 people distinguished between a house church and small cell group which is part of larger congregations.)
George Barna, the study’s director, said he anticipates house churches will become a significant fixture in Americans’ expression of faith, will increasingly become a primary church for Americans and that weekly house church attendance will double in the next decade.
Because of their fluid structure, it’s tough to assess how many active house churches there are in Canada.
In May, Statistics Canada reported that more than half of Canadians practise religion privately. But those figures don’t include house church members.
Stan Fowler, professor of theology at Heritage Seminary in Cambridge, said he doesn’t believe house churches are taking place on a large scale in Canada. However, cell-based churches, in which small groups also meet regularly as a large congregation, are a strong movement.
People attending house churches tend to be conservative Protestants whose tradition includes a strong streak of individualism, he said. So some theologians might worry about the potential for house-church-goers, without guidance from a trained pastor, to inaccurately interpret Scripture.
But Fowler said house church members probably meet for mutual support and to discern how to live out Scripture — not to form doctrine to the extent they would change the nature of the faith.
“A lot of the value of the (small) groups really lies in having a group of people around who care and who are there for you when you are experiencing difficulty,” Fowler said.
According to Buick, who helped start the house church which met in Waterloo recently, mutual support and encouragement is crucial to the congregation.
In the biblical Hebrew and Greek world, people achieved salvation as a household or community rather than as individuals, he said.
So the emphasis of salvation is on relationships, Buick said.
“If Jesus is my Saviour then He’s also the Lord of relationship,” Buick said. “He wants restored relationships to the Father . . . He wants restored relationship with people I’m estranged with.
“So we need a model, in a sense, what it means to be a family moving towards being more functional rather than embracing our dysfunctions.”
In the living room of the Waterloo home last month, a dozen people stood in a circle and held hands.
They prayed for one member’s budding Bible study group. They prayed for another worshipper’s elderly aunt. They prayed for Henk VanderLoo, one of the men in the circle, whose leg had been troubling him lately.
As they prayed, one of the worshippers gently put a hand on his back.
Carole Hyde, one of the original members of the house church, held hands and prayed with the other worshippers.
Hyde, who is starting a Bible study group in her Kitchener townhouse complex, said she joined the small church partly because she felt her gifts for pastoring weren’t being used in her former congregation.
“They had enough leaders in the church,” she said. “I felt very insignificant. I just didn’t feel there was any place for me.”
In the house church, she said, she was encouraged to use her gifts.
People in the house church also uplifted her after her ex-husband left her broken-hearted, she said.
eeded all the help I could get.”
Last month’s meeting was the first house church service hosted by Debbie Hansen-Coulombe and her husband Camil Coulombe.
Hansen-Coulombe said the couple started attending house churches several months ago because they wanted to gather with like-minded Christians.
The couple leads a Bible study group at Waterloo Mennonite Brethren Church, where they attend services regularly.
People come to house churches because they are hungry for more of God, she said.
“To get into the Word a little bit deeper in a smaller, more intimate way.”
Marc Leacock, of Kitchener, said he was attracted to the house church by Buick, several years ago, after his foot was crushed at work.
Leacock said his former church didn’t give him much emotional support at the time, but Buick visited him once a week.
He was also dissatisfied with worshipping in a large congregation, Leacock added.
After more than 20 years of attending regular churches, Leacock said he can walk into a service 45 minutes late and know exactly what’s going to happen.
The regular speakers were getting to be predictable, he said.
He’d rather be inspired by hearing the testimony of fellow congregation members.
“That’s what’s missing,” he said. “The dynamic, the passion of it.”
But he hasn’t totally written off contemporary churches.
Leacock said he regularly attends services at Country Hills Mennonite Church in Kitchener. And larger churches are fine for people who feel comfortable there, he said.
But churches need to go beyond their walls if they’re going to reach everyone, he said.
“Some people just won’t go to church, but they’ll come to your house,” he said.
“They’ll honour Christ in your house.”
FOR MORE INFO
Sam Buick can be reached at 519-747-0822.
160 King St. East,
Kitchener, Ontario, Canada, N2G 4E5