In what I say below, I am NOT saying that house churches are superior to other approaches.
I AM saying that I think house churches fit some contexts–including Zagreb, and the parts of Europe that I am familiar with–better than traditional approaches to making new churches.
I also am NOT criticizing existing churches. The evangelical pastors of Zagreb and Eastern Europe are going heroic, frustrating work, and I love and respect them deeply. They are playing the cards they have been dealt to the best of their ability, and I am thankful for them and their labor.
At the same time: if I could deal my own hand in the game, how would I want to play that hand? Here are my thoughts.
If I planted a church in Zagreb, here’s what I would do.
1. I would intentionally plant a network of house churches. We would plan from the beginning to be house groups. We would commit to never owning buildings. Our gatherings would be in house groups in neighborhoods around the city. Our offices and meetings would be in our homes, coffee shops, or occasionally rented or borrowed spaces (for special events).
WHY? I think all the other “why’s” below depend on this decision. Add to that the economic benefits of not having to rent/buy/refurbish/heat etc., a property that is idle much of the week.
2. I would organize each group around 2-4 spiritually mature professionals (i.e., people with full-time “secular” jobs). Hopefully these would be husbands and wives, for the most part (but not exclusively). They would bring different mixes of personalities and gifts. These leaders would give 10 hours per week to working for the network for no or little compensation. We would welcome women in leadership.
WHY? This lessens our dependence on support from outside Croatia. It allows a mix of gifts in leadership.
3. Each group would plan to grow to about 15-20 people, including children. At that point it would plant a new group in a new location.
WHY? Because anything larger is hard to host in homes.
4. We would be constantly developing leaders by expecting everyone to use their gifts and talents. We would use a continuous loop system of modeling and mentoring. You know the cycle:
- You teach (explain).
- They watch you do the task.
- You do the task with them.
- They do the task with you.
- You observe them do the task.
- You turn them loose.
- You teach (explain) to someone else.
WHY? I want to avoid the passivity-problem that is so common in European churches. For these churches to thrive—for ANY CHURCH TO THRIVE—there must be a strong culture of volunteerism & participation. Expecting ownership & involvement is the blueprint of Ephesians 4.11-16.
5. We would strongly urge people to attend the house group closest to where they live (or work?). We would do this, so as to better facilitate ministry in the neighborhoods where our groups were located. And we would demand that each group “sink into” its neighborhood, finding and meeting needs in the name of Jesus, serving and being the best neighbors possible to the people living and working around them.
WHY? Focused attention and missional presence; this helps the group know their mission field; it would LITERALLY be the apartment building or the block that they all live in. Also economics; this cuts down problems with parking & commuting.
6. We would plan from the beginning to have our primary gatherings at a time other than Sunday morning. In Zagreb, Sunday morning is a very active time in the parks, nature areas, and center of the city. We would use that time for ministry to the public where they are: handing out water bottles to hikers and bikers, giving away ice cream to children, praying for people who need prayer, street ministry/evangelism, whatever is appropriate for busy public settings.
WHY? Minister to the people when they’re there, when they’re available. The early Pauline churches probably met in the afternoons & evenings, because Sunday was a work day.
7. I would avoid using the word “church”. We would think of ourselves as PART of the Church universal, of course. But in context, “fellowship”, “gathering,” “community” (“gemeinde”) would be a better label.
WHY? Because Croats (like most Europeans) have very specific ideas about what that word means and WE WOULD NOT FIT THEIR DEFINITION. Europeans don’t see a distinction between Christianity and christendom. We would be living out the distinction.
In Croatia, I think I would legally organize the group as a benevolent udruga (association), so that we could accept donations and spend money according to our purpose.
8. We would be supportive of existing churches in every possible way. We would go out of our way to be supportive of other churches, leaders, ministries.
Problems remain, of course. What to do about worship? Ministry to children? Etc.
If we had someone particularly gifted at leading worship, perhaps the groups could have staggered worship times & the worship leader could move from group to group? Maybe that would work with other specialized ministry things as well? The “circuit rider” model?
Or maybe the emphasis should be more on reading scripture together & prayer, and less on performative worship & preaching / teaching?