In my letter on “Old Strategies for New Realities,” I spoke of “testing, developing, and implementing methods of small-group, home-based, lay-led Bible study and fellowship groups that will replicate themselves and form movements of house churches.”
Since then, the Chinese government has enacted measures that greatly restrict the activities of unregistered churches.
Most conspicuously, many big church buildings have been demolished, and large congregations have been forced to shut down. All over the country, churches have divided into smaller groups, meeting in homes. Most congregations had been preparing for this, but some were not ready.
While many lament these restrictions, others see things in a more positive light. Why?
Biblical basis for home meetings
Most importantly, the New Testament is replete with references to house or home meetings, or to households of believers. (See Acts 2:2, 4 5:4 8:3; 18:7; 20:20; Romans 16:5; 1 Corinthians 1:16; 16:19; Colossians 4:15; 2 Timothy 4:19; Philemon 1:2).
On the other hand, New Testament Christians hardly ever worshiped in public structures, especially after the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70 A.D.
Aside from Paul’s use of the school of Tyrannus for teaching (Acts 19:9), we have no record that Christians met anywhere other than in private homes.
The record of church history
Scholars agree that Christians gathered exclusively in homes for worship and fellowship for more than a hundred years after Pentecost. In the second century A.D., they began to use homes that were dedicated to the use of the church. Not until the third century did they start to meet in buildings built for that purpose, and not until after Constantine legalized Christianity in 313 did they gradually center their congregational life on large buildings.
Throughout out the history of the church, Christianity has grown fastest when believers have met for worship and fellowship in private homes.
In contrast, when believers make the shift to a building-based Christianity led by “bishops,” though large numbers gather together, spiritual quality drops off significantly. Both individuals and congregations seem to lose fervency and spiritual effectiveness when this sort of “cathedralism” becomes the norm.
China is no different. The explosive growth of Protestant Christianity from the 1970s to the 1990s was centered in (though not entirely limited to), fellowship meetings in homes. Since then, though Christians have been able to gather in large numbers, church leaders frequently lament the decline in spiritual life.
Why home meetings?
Aside from the strong biblical evidence for home-based church life, we can see obvious reasons for the superiority of this way of “doing” church.
Meeting in smaller numbers, Christians can get to know each other. In a less formal setting, they share their joys and sorrows, pray for each other, and exhort each other to grow in grace. Leaders, likewise, are closer to their people and can minister to them more personally.
As in the early church, home meetings allow for eating meals together. In fact, the Lord’s Supper was just that – an evening meal followed by the celebration of this rite of communion, or fellowship, with each other and with Christ.
Evangelism takes place more easily and effectively in such a setting, as well, for unbelievers feel welcomed into a home, where they can sense the love of God in his people.
Finally, home meetings can survive and even thrive during times of persecution, much more easily than building-based.
Home meetings are not easy, of course! They face challenges, too. You have to neaten up your house, for one thing! Parents need to teach their children how to behave in public settings. Since you can’t “hide” in a smaller group, couples must learn how to work together. But aren’t these good things?
For an extended treatment of home-based Christianity see my paper on the topic. See also my book, Reaching Chinese Worldwide, pages 75-77.
For your prayers, please ask God to:
Prosper and protect Chinese believers as they transition from “cathedralism” to New Testament-style home meetings.
Prepare Christians in the West for the time when they, too, will have to meet in homes.