House Churches, in 20th-century Mennonite experience, are groups of people small enough to meet face-to face, who have covenanted with God and with each other to be the church under the authority of Christ and the guidance of the Spirit. House churches often meet in homes, but may sometimes meet in public buildings or church meetinghouses. More important than the place of meeting is the closeness of relationships implied by the word "house."
While house churches are known by a variety of terms ("small groups," "K-groups," "Koinonia groups," "care groups," "base communities"), house churches differ from groups organized only for fellowship or only for Bible study in that they are free to take on all or almost all the functions of the church, including worship, pastoral care, accountability, teaching, gift discernment, decision-making, and mission and service.
Some congregations are made up of one house church of 7 to 20 people. Other congregations are clusters of several house churches that may meet jointly as often as once a week or as infrequently as once every seven weeks. House churches tend to be found more often in cities, where people may not have close extended family or other networks of relationship with other Christians. They are looking for more caring and accountability than they might get from simply attending worship on Sunday morning in a large congregation.
Among Mennonites, house churches have been part of the neo-Anabaptist renewal movement, seeking to embody the values of Anabaptism in a 20th-century environment (restitutionism).
Churches have met in houses since New Testament times (see Acts 2:41-27; 12:12; 16.15, 40; 17:7ff.; Romans 16:5; 1 Corinthians 16:15, 19; Colossians 4:15; Philemon 2). The early churches' move from house to sanctuary or basilica generally coincided with the Constantinian change from independent church to government-endorsed church in the Roman empire. As the center of worship moved from the house church to the altar, the Lord's Supper became not a fellowship meal, but a rite of the altar.
Throughout the centuries, renewal movements within Christianity have rediscovered the house church in the New Testament. Monastic movements often worshiped in small groups and emphasized discipline and accountability. The Anabaptists in 16th century Europe often met in homes, not only to hide from heresy-hunting authorities, but as a symbol of a community of covenanted believers who cared for each other, admonished each other, and both gave and received in their meetings for worship. Early Quakers and Methodists in England and Pietists on the continent also met in homes.
Modern interest in the house church arose from the writings of Ernest Southcott, an Anglican parish priest, published in the United States in 1956. Hans-Ruedi Weber, then chairman of the Department of Laity of the World Council of Churches, also published an article on house churches, which was reprinted by Mennonites in Concern, No. 5 (June 1958). Some Mennonites within this Concern movement in 1957 began Reba Place Fellowship, Evanston, Ill., an intentional community following the house-church concept. Many Mennonite house churches have also gained inspiration from the Church of the Saviour, Washington, D.C.
There is no accurate estimate of the number of house churches currently among Mennonites in North America. The 1986 Mennonite Yearbook listed 46 "church communities" in the United States and Canada, but some congregations were included that were not communities or house churches and other house churches were not listed. In addition to the congregations that are made up strictly of one or more house churches, many larger Mennonite congregations have several "house churches" or "small groups" performing many of the functions of house churches.
Mennonite churches in Taiwan and Japan are generally small and have often functioned as house churches. Among other Christian groups, house churches are numerous. Mainline Protestant, Catholic, evangelical, and nondenominational house churches are found around the world and are serving as a means of church renewal. An estimated 20,000 Catholic base communities are meeting in Brazil alone.
Banks, Robert and Julia. The Home Church: Regrouping the People of God for Community and Mission. Sutherland, Australia: Albatross Books Pty. Ltd., 1986.
Banks, Robert. Paul's Idea of Community: the Early House Churches in Their Historical Setting. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980.
Barrett, Lois. Building the House Church. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1986.
Birkey, Del. The House Church: Model for Renewing the Church. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1988.
Christianity and Crisis 41 (21 September 1981), sp. issue.
The House Church, published by the Commission on Home Ministries (GCM) Newton, KS (1978-85).
Jackson, Dave. Coming Together: All Those Communities and What They're Up To. Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship, 1978.
Jackson, Dave and Neta. Glimpses of Glory: Thirty Years of Community : the Story of Reba Place Fellowship. Elgin, IL : Brethren Press, 1987.
Lee, Bernard J. and Michael A. Cowan. Dangerous Memories: House Churches and Our American Story. Kansas City Missouri, USA): Sheed and Ward, 1986.
Miller, John W. House Church Handbook. Kitchener, ON, 1975.
O'Connor; Elizabeth. Call to Commitment: the Story of the Church of the Saviour, Washington, D.C. New York: Harper and Row, 1963.
Olsen, Charles M. The Base Church: Creating Community Through Multiple Forms. Atlanta: Forum House Publishers, 1973.
The Other Side 13, no. 2 (April, 1977), sp. issue.
Southcott, Ernest. The Parish Comes Alive. New York: Morehouse-Gorham Co., 1956.
Vogt, Virgil. "Small Congregations." Concern no. 5 (June 1958): 52-67.
Weber, Hans-Ruedi. "The Church in the House." Concern no. 5 (June 1958): 7-28.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, pp. 396-397. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.
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