I empathize with people fleeing the local church. Churches can be battlefields instead of harbors, pits of condemnation or politics rather than wells of living water.
But the endless search for something “new” has trumped the life-changing story the body of Christ has nurtured and passed on for 2,000 years. This transforming story is the story the churches enacted weekly in Word and Sacrament before they forgot their original vocation as shelters of truth, life, and light amidst lies, death, and darkness. There were four revealed ways Jesus was present at the center of their public gatherings. These ways have been lost in too many places but are waiting to be rediscovered. More on that in a moment.
A young woman, a house church attendee, told me she longs for solid pastoral guidance, a message prepared weekly by an authoritative teacher, for worship that places Jesus Christ at the exact center of a public space where everyone is welcome, a place where she can bring her disbelieving friends whose lives are not yet transformed by self-sacrificial Love, a place where they can speak openly and honestly about where their lives still remain isolated from a holy God, a place of worship that does not lean on any one person's (or her personal) understanding and articulation of the Gospel but on the collective wisdom of the body of Christ.
These qualities can indeed be found in a house church and they aren’t always discernible in public gatherings of the body of Christ. In some places, Jesus is present anywhere but the local church, wherever and however it is gathering. In fact, in some places, house churches are the only safe way to congregate in the name of Jesus.
To be sure, all churches — whether home gatherings or congregations of thousands — are tempted by an “us against the world” trap; lured to put something — anything — at the center of our worship rather than the presence of the resurrected Lord of things visible and invisible. It’s easy to put ourselves at the center of the story, even to place our denominational distinctions, to place our leaders, at the center of attention and praise. It’s easier still for the local church to exist for the sake of those already gathered rather than exist for those not yet embraced by God’s love.
Churches exist for the sick, the unloved, the otherwise uninvited. It’s tough for these kinds of people to get on the “list” of a house church made up only of those with whom we typically hang out. At Holy Redeemer, I remind the congregation that we worship together weekly for those who are not already at worship with us, for those who will come this week, next month, or 10 years from now.
Yes, we need Bible studies, small groups, and intimate settings for growth in Christ. Wonderful things happen when folks committed to each other in a wider context get to “be real” in their spiritual walk. There’s learning, accountability, and participation in spiritual practices that better occurs when a few families or a segment of the local church or an otherwise unaffiliated group of Christians gather to pursue some facet of Jesus and discipleship in him. Whenever two or three are gathered in his name, he is in our midst.
But private gatherings where only our close associates or friends gather cannot replace corporate, participatory, open-invitation worship, cannot replace the work of the local church, without unintended consequences.
So why should every Christian commit to the local church no matter where they meet for weekly worship? Because, when it works the way it was designed, there is nothing more beautiful on earth, for we become the presence of the resurrected Jesus when we gather around four practices, in these we become the body of Christ.
When the apostles gathered publicly with the first Christians, they did four things: they heard the apostles teaching (from the apostles or their appointed surrogates), broke bread (Communion), prayed, and engaged in self-sacrificial fellowship. All of this active, every-member participation was focused on the personal presence of the resurrected Jesus Christ, present in their midst to reconcile, heal, deliver, forgive and renew.
When we seek authentic connection to Jesus Christ today, whether in a church building, high school, storefront, or house, wherever we seek him together, we should expect to find him in these four practices. We should not expect to encounter him regularly in their absence. When any of these four are missing, the church is not gathered.
When we gather publicly, we need to hear the teaching of the apostles, partake of Christ’s body and blood in bread and wine, pray for the world, and be present to one another, caring for and forgiving all persons who freely join us and are freely welcomed, from the heart. We should not expect to find Jesus Christ on our own but with others, even others that challenge our comfort zones. Everyone is invited!
And these practices can be embodied anywhere at anytime. It's the practices themselves, the way in which they magnify Jesus Christ, that are essential.
It’s a risk to commit yourself to public worship. Community with folks we do not know, who are not like us, who don’t jive with our politics or culture, who don’t wear the right clothes, who sport prominent tattoos or body piercings, or (on the other hand) pocket squares and Hermes handbags, doesn't come easy when we judge people by their covers; people who wander into our meetings might smell (really good or really bad) and they might very well bore or dismay or assault us with the things they do and say. We are not “respecters of persons.” Call the roll of sinners. We are all on it. We bar no one. This is risky business.
It’s an inconvenience to commit yourself to public worship. To find churches where the greatest story is faithfully upheld and cherished these days you usually must leave the routines and geography of daily life and travel a bit. A morning or evening must in many cases be given if our encounter with Jesus Christ is to have anything but an ephemeral effect on our life, our week, our family, or soul. You cannot do these four things well in an hour.
We are so busy, life is so crowded, and we are enslaved to so many screens (TV, computer, smartphone) that meeting in imitation of these four things the first Christians did to remember Jesus, to engage in the practices he told us would help us remember him and make him present, we must sacrifice our busyness, our agendas, our calendars, our minutes, our screen time.
It’s work to commit yourself to public worship. The definition of “liturgy” is “the work of the people.” I must abandon self-centeredness to turn to the face of Jesus Christ. If I remain a passive member of an audience, I have yet to surrender myself to him completely in silence, adoration, praise, stillness, whole-person rejoicing, service, giving myself over to, trusting, in his love. Active participation in worship by every gathered member makes the body of Christ present.
But the risk, the inconvenience, the work is worth it. Many are looking for worship that authentically places the presence of the resurrected Jesus at the center of our gatherings. We have the testimony of Jesus that tell us just how to do that. We have the model of those he taught and lived with, in the worship they kept after his departure, as a faithful guide. Let’s ask the Spirit of God to breath on what Jesus said would help us to remember him and would proclaim his death until he comes again. He is always ready to act.
Teach with authority. Break bread — break Christ — and share in his divine life. Pray not for ourselves only but for the sins and needs of the whole world. Be willing to join fellowship with the sufferings and joys of all who gather in his Name. Grant it, Holy Spirit.
The Rev. Kenneth Tanner is pastor of Church of the Holy Redeemer in Rochester Hills, Michigan.