I went to a Baptist church for months and then stopped. I was not, to any meaningful degree, bored, offended, unfulfilled, or opposed to their stated doctrines. I stopped joining their primary worship service because it was a worship service. The people at large (the laity, the attendees) were having something provided to us by the elect few (the pastor and the various functionaries). A fellowship ought to be a gathering where everyone is in principle equal–that is, there is nothing at the outset limiting what participation you may have. Going to a traditional or institutional church service is like going to an Amish barn raising and watching. If all you did was watched you missed the point–you missed the fellowship. I am no expert on Amish barn raising so I am going out on a limb here, but I suspect that your role in raising the barn has more to do with your skill than your status. If you are not handy with a saw you are probably not asked to saw. If you have not been involved in many barn raisings you are probably not asked to coordinate the whole thing. But whoever you are, if you show up willing to work there is something you can do to help: bring this, hold that, at minimum. Everyone free to do what they may, and everyone freely listening to the people who know what they are doing.
This is what conventional churches have lost. I stopped going because I was tired of watching the barn raising. And I don’t mean I was too impatient to work my way into a Position in the church; I probably could have. I make a good impression in religious gatherings and I’m reasonably bright and hardworking. But I am not interested in moving from the Hapless Masses to the Expert Few. The distinction is the problem; switching sides isn’t the solution.
In this house church that I’ve been going to for several months now, there isn’t the same distinction between the expert and the common among the people there. There are two men who have been there the longest, Paul and Brandon, and generally take the lead: starting and closing the prayer, getting the whole thing started, deciding when to stop singing and move on. But anything I or someone else might suggest is regarded as if it might be valid–like if I am working with family some construction. Chances are the people I am working with have a lot more experience than I do and have a better sense of what will work, but if I make a suggestion it will be considered and regarded for the merits of the suggestion, not my rank or certification. And the same goes for the people who come to the house church.
But then, when it comes to actually opening up the Bible and dealing with the writing in there, everyon present shuts up and somebody far away speaks via a recording, without any interaction from anyone present. And maybe he’s building a perfectly fine “barn,” off there wherever he’s preaching; but we are here. God has called us as his disciples and brought us to where we are physically. He own the sheep on a thousand hills; we’re all fed by the same shepherd, but we graze in different pastures; we should build our own “barns.”
The irony is that after we’ve all come and done our eating and chatting and singing and listening, followed by more chatting and eating, then we can actually talk as fellow Christians about the things of God. Once we’re all done with that last round of eating and chatting it’s late Sunday afternoon and if I go back to my apartment I’ll usually just putz around on the internet accomplishing nothing; all I’ve got in front of me is a relatively isolated week of work. So I’ll hang around a little longer, cadge a few more pastries, finish a few thoughts, and pretty soon a couple more hours have gone by.
Sometimes I worry a little that I am exploiting the hospitality of my hosts, but I try to keep a sharp eye and ear for any hints that I should go and have not found them. Their insistence that I am welcome to stay as long as I want is borne out in their actions. Today, when I did leave about the same time as everyone else, Vickie caught me on the way out the door and struck up conversation, and seemed to wonder why I was leaving so early. I wound up standing in the misty rain exchanging parting remarks until the phone rang.
I know what this means: we both enjoy the conversation. I work so hard to prove the point because I am socially very insecure. But the bottom line is that these Sunday gatherings offer good food, good conversation, and a pleasant day all around.
But it doesn’t involve sharing the word of God — sharing the Bible. We hear a sermon about the Bible, sure. Today’s was from John MacArthur; it was a detailed look at the social-political background of Herod and Pilate. What that taught us about God and his purposes I have no clue. Most of what was detailed I already knew from previous Bible studies with my Dad that I would generally call “sharing the word of God.” So if historical matters were covered in both, what was the difference?
I’m not sure I can do a proper job explaining the difference, but I’ll offer it as a difference in method, not material. On the one hand you have John MacArthur preparing for that specific sermon for I don’t know how long in advance, and carefully delivering his prepared lesson. On the other you have my dad, delivering ad lib whatever comes to his mind as he examines the passage in front of him, developing his thought on the fly and reacting to our comments and questions. And the biggest weakness of my dad’s teaching was not his lack of formal certification (he’s much less certified than John MacArthur, although he has nevertheless read a scholar’s diet of biblical commentary). The greatest lack in my dad’s teaching was the availability of any other perspective.
It’s not that my dad never explained other viewpoints. He does that all the time. But all of us in our family agree with Dad by and large. Sometimes theres a bit of disagreement that blossoms into long and passionate discussion, but sometimes there’s quite a lot of silence and not much said; we all think the same thing and pretty much agree about it, so what is there to say?
I’ve been in another group where there was more diversity of opinion, where also we were reading from the Bible through a particular book, and there we never some comment that got the proverbial ball rolling. Nobody in those discussions was as deeply read as John MacArthur or my dad, but the guy leading the group had a good broad understanding of the Bible and others there were perceptive enough to raise points that entailed good healthy discussion. Some people just sat back and listened. It was a great college Bible study, and while I learned more and better doctrine from my dad, I would say that as I <em>process</em> the college Bible study was a better example of Christians sharing the Bible with one another. My dad has never wanted to call our family fellowship a house church for largely the same reason; there isn’t a wide enough diversity to make a compelling example of sharing.
Because there is nothing like this in the house church I’m currently going to, some in my family think that I’m only getting social rejuvenation from this meeting, and if I stick to my principles about Christian fellowship I will wind up wandering away from this church as well. They’re a pretty sharp bunch, my family; dismiss their insights at your own risk. I wasn’t sure at first, but now I am convinced that they are right, if you are talking only about the church per se. It just feels too hollow to listen to some pastor add ten pages of extra words into three verses of scripture without shedding any extra insight into their meaning and call that Christian fellowship. Songs are nice and are an important part of Christian fellowship but it’s kind of like dessert without dinner. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a Dessert Control Officer–I’ll eat dessert before the meal, after the meal, or even for the meal once in a while. I don’t mind generous portions (and seconds). But somewhere along the line you have to eat food, too. I want to share the Bible; that’s the highest-nutrition spiritual food there is, and it’s a lot better with good company.
The catch is the after-hours fellowship. Everyone else who came for church is gone; only the people who live in the house and relatives of those people are still around. Those conversations always get into something that’s discussed with Biblical reference; a doctrine, a concept, or a paraphrase of some verses. It might be the importance of accepting literal creation as a part of God-honoring theology, or the way some conventional church practices substantiate a righteousness by works even if the church has a written statement proclaiming grace alone.
It’s a little frustrating becasue these discussions, while interesting, are still pretty light fare compared to discussing the Bible directly. But a couple of weeks ago the conversation took a turn that was encouraging; one of them, I don’t remember whether it was Vicky or Paul, brought up my earlier remarks I had shared to the general effect of what I have said here. I wasn’t trying to go there with the conversation because I thought I had talked that one out to the point where it wasn’t going anywhere helpful last time, so it was a pleasant surprise to see that the idea hadn’t been cast off and forgotten. I can’t say whether we made any progress toward agreeing with one another but it felt like a good discussion.
And there we come to the real point. Even if this house church group never agrees with me on the local believers personally sharing the Bible with one another, I’ve left some kind of imprint on their lives and thoughts as Christians, and they on mine. That’s not the ultimate goal; it doesn’t justify, by itself, anything done to attain it. But it is something different than the “worship service” of a conventional church, whereat I cannot touch the spiritual lives of anyone else though anything other than my hairdo, because the most anyone will be doing with me is looking at the back of my head. The same is not true of even a conventional Sunday school, which is why I am still attending one of those.
Ironically, the people at the house church don’t understand why I am still going to the conventional Sunday school, since like a lot of Baptist churches their doctrine looks okay on paper but is practiced in a lot of behavioural, procedural ways, which is to say a righteousness of works. As long as we are both talking, and we share some subtanatial fundamental concepts about the supremacy of God in accomplishing our salvation through the atonement of Christ Jesus, we might be helping each other along.
I don’t pretend to know for sure whether we are; I don’t use a definite knowledge that I am helping someone and being helped as a litmus test. But the reason I go to the house church, and the Sunday school, is partly out of the same reason that I think we ought to be “building our own barns,” to borrow from my previous metaphor. Here I am; let me be of some help to the Christians who are here.
I ought also to be of some help–or at least, some witness–to everyone else around me who is not Christian. But that is a subject for another day.