Last Sunday, without realizing it until afterward, I began a second stage of my Congregational Journey with my visit to Reality Stockton (details herein). I was impressed with a lot of aspects of the ministry there, and one that struck me most was the emphasis they placed upon their home groups. In one of his messages Joshua Kehler, Reality’s pastor, stated that the home groups were half the church in terms of ministering to people. Now I’ve been involved in congregations that did home groups, but I’d never heard a pastor treat them as equally important to the Sunday mass meeting. So I made a point of finding out when and where the groups were held, and arranged to visit one at my earliest convenience. Which happened to be yesterday, Thursday evening.
But between Sunday and Thursday, I made one very crucial error. Let’s call it “forming unrealistic expectations.”
Now I have an excuse for this (hey, don’t we all). Lately I’ve been reading some books by Frank Viola — not the one who was a pitcher for the Twins and Mets, but the one who’s a leader in the American “house church” movement. House churches, as you might guess from the name, usually meet in someone’s home. In Viola’s view, they are not supposed to be led so much by a single pastor as by the Holy Spirit working through all the people there. Everyone is not only allowed but encouraged and expected to contribute a song, testimony, teaching, word of prophecy or whatever God gives them to share. Decisions for the group are made by consensus, and any leadership in it arises naturally through experience, rather than via appointment or licensing by a hierarchical body (such as a denomination). What Viola is shooting for as he plants and oversees these congregations — and he’s been doing it for over 20 years now — is to help people move as closely as possible to the pattern for fellowship and ministry that he sees in the New Testament. I don’t know if he’s right on all the particulars, but it seems to me that he’s closer to the New Testament ideal than any congregation I’ve actually been privileged to experience myself.
So I had all that baggage in my dome, and somewhere along the way managed to get “home group” confused with “house church.” You can see how that would happen, I think. Still, maaaaaaaajor mistake.
Because a house church is an independent entity, with its own way of doing things; a home group is an adjunct to an established, traditionally-organized congregation. A home group’s raison d’etre is to support and supplement the ministry of a congregation; a house church is a congregation in its own right. What I did was the equivalent of confusing a car with a boxcar — a car runs on its own, independent of any other vehicle. Whereas you can fiddle with a boxcar for as long as you like, but if it’s not hooked to a train engine, you ain’t going nowhere. Neither one is better or worse than the other, that’s not the issue. They’re just two different things with different uses that happen to share a few characteristics (four wheels, brakes, an interior).
What I went to Thursday night was not a house church. It was a home group. Any disappointment on my part can be traced directly back to thinking through the difference. But despite my screw-up, I had a good time and saw some good things.
The meeting, held at the home of Phil and Gwen Santo, was a departure from their usual one, so I was told. Normally, it starts at 7:00 p.m. and features music for worshipping, a time for prayer and a discussion of the previous week’s sermon. This week, however, it began at 6:00 with a potluck dinner (which they apparently have once a month) and dispensed with the discussion period. This was okay for me, as it meant there would be more of what I was looking forward to most: fellowship.
See, when you’re visiting a different congregation every Sunday, you don’t get to deal with anyone in much depth. When that Sunday’s congregation either largely ignores you or only gives you only “church-friendly” greetings (shake hand, smile, say hello, walk away quickly), which happened in about half of the ones I’ve visited in 2009, it’s even worse. I have been “assembling together” with a few believing friends as often as I can, but despite that I was starting to get a little starved for human contact. And when a socially inept, bookish introvert like me can’t get enough human contact at a Sunday service … that says something about how we in American evangelicalism/ Pentecostalism are “doing church,” now, doesn’t it? (But that’s another rant for another time.)
I mentioned in the account of my Sunday visit that I hadn’t really been noticed by too many people there, and those that did take the time to introduce themselves were all my age or older. Not the case this time — most of the two dozen or so adults at the Santos’ were more than happy to engage the scruffy newbie in conversation, despite his being clearly a decade or so older. If anything, I’m worried that I blabbed a little too much and started either boring people or playing the “too much information” game (and if I embarrassed anyone there with my flapping gums, I hope they can forgive me, and I’ll promise to restrain myself in the future). A couple of the people there knew me from Sunday, including Mark, who was apparently the de fact elder of the group. A couple others knew me from when I was part of a previous congregation where they were in the youth group; unfortunately, I was never involved in youth ministry and so couldn’t recall them, but they were fairly understanding of my memory lapse.
The fellowship part was the real high point for me — the rest was okay, but nothing spectacular. A guitarist led us in a few songs, but I didn’t know most of them so my contribution was muted. There was time for people to pray for the upcoming Easter services, but I didn’t get the impression anyone had a concrete sense of what God specifically wanted to accomplish through those services, so a lot of the prayers were kind of vague. Then a couple more songs, and a basket full of cards and pens was passed around for people to write prayer requests; those would then be chosen at random by others in the group to pray for. And after that, the meeting closed and people went back to fellowshipping again. Pretty soon, it was 9:00 and I was starting to fade, so I bid Gwen my goodbyes and headed home.
All in all, though, it was a good meeting, the people I met were good people and I’m glad they were willing to put up with me for a few hours. As to how it will fit in with God’s future plans for me in general and the next stage of the Congregational Journey in particular … I’m not totally sure yet. I’ll have to see where God leads. But I don’t think my first visit to the Santos’ house will be my last. At least, I hope it won’t.