Return of the Early Church: House that Change the World

( [email protected] ) Jan 26, 2011 06:32 AM EST
Chinese churches have mushroomed in the United States over the past two decades, particularly in immigrant-rich areas such as Los Angeles, New York, and the San Francisco Bay area. Whatever the nature of these churches — denominational or non-denominational, traditional or charismatic, remote or urban — all of them were founded with the dream of creating spiritual and cultural community, while building a bridge of faith between their new and native lands.
Dr. David C. Yang Home Church

Chinese churches have mushroomed in the United States over the past two decades, particularly in immigrant-rich areas such as Los Angeles, New York, and the San Francisco Bay area. Whatever the nature of these churches — denominational or non-denominational, traditional or charismatic, remote or urban — all of them were founded with the dream of creating spiritual and cultural community, while building a bridge of faith between their new and native lands.

New York-based physician Dr. David C. Yang was an elder in one such church, whose Taiwanese founders had grown it from a small group meeting in a high school gymnasium into a congregation of hundreds over the case of 15 years. Yet after working hard to help the church achieve its decades-long goal of constructing its own building, Dr. Yang grew concerned that the huge effort needed to achieve this material goal was not necessarily paying off in better fellowship or more efficient proclamation of the Gospel.

Seeking answers for the feelings of frustration that he was experiencing, Dr. Yang came across a book by Wolfgang Simson, Houses That Change the World: The Return of the Home Churches. Upon reading it, he became deeply impressed by its message of return to simplicity and focus on small, close-knit groups of brethren. He shared the book with his pastor and fellow church ministers, hoping to inspire them to introduce the "Home Church" model as a network of self-sufficient satellites that he believed would complement the organized church.

The concept proved controversial, and few of his coworkers were won over. After a long period of prayer and meditation, Dr. Yang finally decided to start a Home Church network independent of his former congregation.

The first Staten Island Home Church meeting took place in February 2004, bringing together a handful of Christians to worship in Dr. Yang's living room. It has continued to grow and split off new groups ever since — with dozens of homes now hosting worship gatherings each week.

Hoping to inspire others to embrace the Home Church model to extend or enhance their worship of God, Dr. Yang shared with The Gospel Herald the philosophical and biblical basis of the Home Church concept. Rather than being a new movement, the Home Church is in fact a way of going "back to the future," inspiring and reviving the modern church using the principles of the early church.

Question #1: Is the Home Church a new concept?
The Home Church was a model commonly adopted by the Early Church.

Yang: As recorded in Christian history, the first church was built in the third century, with construction being completed at Alexandria 325 year after its commission by the Roman emperor Constantine. Prior to Constantine the Great, the Roman Empire had always regarded Christianity as an "illegal religion," and prohibited the church from owning any property. As a result, during the New Testament era and the period that followed, believers gathered in small groups of families (see Rom 16:5; 1 Cor16:19; Phm 1:2) until Constantine "professionalized" the church.

This means that the Home Church is the most original form of the church: The first church in the west was founded at Lydia’s home in Philippi, in Macedonia. Even today, the modern church planting movement has relied heavily on the Home Church concept; the growth of the Home Church "movement" has merely built upon these examples to create permanent networks of Home Church gatherings.

Question #2: Isn't a church a building?
A church is not a building — it is a gathering of the faithful.

Yang: Christian history has shown us that a church does not necessarily have to have a sanctuary, and a gathering that takes place in a sanctuary is not necessarily a church. In short, a church is not embodied in a physical construction. A church exists in any place where born-again Christians gather in the name of Jesus, worship God and preach the Gospel. While sacred places and formal rituals are inspirational and uplifting, they are secondary elements to the spiritual family of Christ-followers themselves. The Home Church concept seeks to return to that fundamental concept, so as to reconnect with the vital origins of Christianity and its role as a way of life.

The truth is that for all of the advantages of the traditional church, there are also drawbacks. Traditional churches offer expansive community and many ways for believers to interact with one another. Yet this can also make services feel overwhelming and impersonal. Traditional churches provide a rich array of programs. Yet these programs require time and expense and administrative focus that can take away from the core basics of worship and evangelism. Home Churches, as a stand-alone network or as a complement to traditional churches, offer a simpler way of peer-based worship that enables engagement and participation by all members, with no resource requirements beyond what the members provide themselves.

Question #3: What are the advantages of the Home Church's small size compared to traditional churches?
The Home Church encourages people to think of church as “home”

Yang: It's often noted that traditional churches are program-oriented —they are focused on bringing people to the church. This can result in highly structured worship services that present a "learning curve," and that require orientation and introduction for newcomers and nonbelievers to feel comfortable. Traditional churches do their best to welcome new people to congregations, but fitting in can still be an intimidating prospect.

In the Home Church, people quickly find themselves feeling at home because they are in a home! Home Churches are all about bringing the church to people.

The hosts of a Home Church gathering, whom we usually refer to as " 家長 - Spiritual Heads of The Family", act in the role of the mother and father of a large family, welcoming members and helping them get comfortable as soon as they enter.

The goal of the Home Church is to make worship into a part of one's lifestyle. Location, time, day of week are secondary to that notion, and as a result, we make them flexible.

For Staten Island Home Church, families take turns to host gatherings — not just in order to share the burden, but so that we can share our lifestyles with one another. There is of course no pressure to host; families are used by God to host gatherings at their homes based on their availability and resources.

Gatherings are usually held on weekdays at 7:30 pm or 8:00 pm. Members often come 15 minutes in advance to prepare themselves with prayer, then share dinner together. Dinner is not just about a meal, but about creating a time when everyone can relax and share their lives, testimonies and prayer requests, to bring everyone closer together. We try to make sure the preparation of the meal will not become a burden for the host by asking everyone to bring a dish, pot-luck style - another way that we seek to make the experience a shared one.

The ultimate goal is to eliminate any feelings of impersonality, and to encourage real and mutual communication between members so that they feel comfortable being transparent about their spiritual lives — open even to sharing their weaknesses and transgressions, so that we can build up and support one another with love. As an example: A brother who served in the church for over 10 years was addicted to smoking. He came to our Home Church with his wife, and through our constant prayers, he was able to share the truth that had burdened his heart for many years —his inability to quit. From that point, we prayed with him, and encouraged him to pray as well, whenever he wanted to smoke. Finally, solely by the grace of God, he quit smoking completely — without the help of artificial medical aids. He has credited the open, loving and caring environment of our Home Church to his breakthrough and his overcoming his weaknesses.

Question #4: What are the advantages of the Home Church's small size compared to traditional churches?
The small size of Home Churches encourages active engagement and participation by all members.

Yang: The institutional structure of traditional churches tends to mean that there are a small percentage of people tasked with doing the bulk of the church's work — with perhaps 20% of the congregation becoming coworkers, while the remaining 80% of the congregation participate more passively. This can become a burden on the coworkers, who may lose the sense of joy in serving the Lord, and it also keeps many of the congregants from participating actively.

A principle of the Home Church is that all members are encouraged to serve from the very beginning. The result is something like the opposite of the traditional church 80% coworkers and 20% congregation, which both shares the workload evenly and encourages Christian growth and development. Because the services are so simple and there are no elaborate programs, serving tasks are easy to learn and can be embraced even by new members after a few gatherings, so all may have that opportunity.

Question #5: What roles do members play in services?
The Home Church encourages the idea of "A priesthood of all believers."

Yang: The notion of the “priesthood of all believers” is one of the most significant characteristics of the Home Church. All members are given encouragement and opportunity to serve and lead services, and they grow in faith as they serve. It's a concept that many traditional churches also encourage, but the size and scale of the congregation can make this difficult to put into practice. As a result, ministering to the entire church falls on the shoulders of the pastor and a small group of coworkers, while other believers become convinced that serving is not "their job" — reducing their sense of engagement and the active nature of their faith.

Question #6: What are Home Church's services like?
Home Church gatherings are simple and flexible.

Yang: Home Church gatherings are meant to be simple and easy to prepare for. The church bulletin is sent by the guardians by email to all members a few days in advance so that everyone can prepare for their roles and plan messages for sharing. Worship is a time to experience the presence of God; believers come to see God in spirit and in truth. As a result, we encourage worship using any type of instrument or style or form, or even no set form at all. It is only important that members can be touched by the Holy Spirit during their time of worship, so they can be set free to come closer to God.

Question #7: Do Home Church services have sermons?
The Home Church emphasizes interactive message sharing.

Yang: In traditional churches, the sermon is mostly a one-way sharing of message, with the congregation having little time to react or interact. The concern is that many members may as a result not be engaged, and perhaps pay insufficient attention to the meaning of the message.

As a consequence, the Home Church focuses on messages shared through discussion, incorporating question and answer periods as well as time for self-reflection. We believe this interaction allows believers to process and digest the message so that they may more easily apply it in their daily lives. Some members choose to use study guides or other books to enhance their understanding; others rely solely on the Bible. This diversity is not a liability but an asset: Members are encouraged to find their own path to God's Word, and thus have a personal stake in their spiritual growth, thus protecting them from going astray.

Question 8: Does the Home Church have a hierarchy?
Home Church guardians are caretakers rather than decision makers.

Yang: In the Home Church, we do not have the clear hierarchy seen in traditional churches. Strictly speaking, we do not have designated “pastors,” “deacons” or “elders” in the Home Church; instead, our guardians are generally husband and wife pairs co-working together to take care of a Home Church gathering. Their role is to enable others to serve and worship, rather than to direct or guide. For the Staten Island Home Church, any member may volunteer as guardian, with the position confirmed by the entire network, the goal being to identify people who are humble, reliable and mature, whose faith has been tested by trials, and who have testimonies they can share with members as a result; theological training or academic qualification are secondary. The position of guardian is a lifetime appointment, but guardians may apply for suspension of their duties if life complications require them to do so; if they are temporarily unable to host gatherings, they may direct their members to other Home Church gatherings instead.

Guardians are responsible for taking care of brothers and sisters with love, rather than making decisions for them. They may be asked on occasion to mediate among members, but the emphasis of the Home Church is on collective participation and decisionmaking, on mutual listening and respect.

Question #9: In Home Churches, leaders are not required to receive formal theological training. This may work well when the church is small, but how about as the church grows?

Yang: The Home Church's leadership system follows the example of Jesus’ ministry — when he told his disciples, “Come, follow me.” All he required from his disciples was that they follow his way of life. Jesus’ disciples learned his message by living it; we believe that the same should be true today. Therefore, the Home Church emphasizes that believers should practice their faith through service. In faith, like many other pursuits, skill and understanding and strength are acquired through hands-on experience, not merely by studying theory.

The miracle of the Gospel is that its truth is so simple. Many great pastors do not have traditional educations or theological training; the earliest Christian teachers had no training at all, but were rather disciples, learning and teaching through practice.

Indeed, field experience is the most critical and challenging learning for those in the ministry, and it is increasingly becoming seen as important for seminary graduates to go out and gain firsthand experience with believers to provide a real foundation for their learning. Similarly, as a physician, I feel that only those who understand the suffering of patients can become a good doctor — professional knowledge from medical school is merely the foundation for success.

Question #10 : Where do pastors and the traditional church system fit into the Home Church model?
Home Churches should complement and extend traditional churches.

Yang: The Home Church model is not meant to replace traditional churches. God's kingdom and the family of the faith should grow both large, traditional churches and Home Churches simultaneously — so there will always be a need and a role for clergy.

Members of traditional churches may start their own Home Churches alongside their traditional congregations. The two church models are neither conflicting nor contradictory. In fact, when I first came across the Home Church model, I had not thought to establish a Home Church independently. Indeed, the hope is that the Home Church model can revive the traditional church and inspire members of the faith to become more engaged.

Question #11: Does attending a Home Church mean ending your membership in a traditional church?
The Home Church is built on the idea that God’s Kingdom is all one family

Yang: The Home Church emphasizes the understanding that all Christians are one family in Christ — and as a result, it does not distinguish between “your church” and “my church.” In fact, many Home Church brothers and sisters also go to Sunday worship at other traditional churches. Whenever and wherever one goes to worship Christ and proclam the gospel should be encouraged! Although the Home Church does not take offerings, those who are attending traditional churches are asked to fulfill their Christian duty in tithing. Commitment to attending Home Church is not about duty or membership — it is a voluntary choice made to enhance spiritual growth.

We put a limitation on the maximum number of members in a Home Church, to maintain the intimacy and mutual supportiveness of the gathering. An overgrown Home Church must split off and form another new Home Church under the guidance and training of the guardian. One becomes two, two become four…that is how the Home Church multiplies. While brothers and sisters may feel sorry about the separation, members are always free to attend any gatherings at any time and location that fit their schedule, reinforcing the notion of the church as “one family,” knit together

Question #12: What are other benefits of the Home Church model?

The Home Church is a highly efficient and streamlined way of celebrating the Gospel and spreading the Word

Yang: In traditional churches, heavy resources and energy are often spent on meetings, deliberations and bureaucracy. However, since each Home Church has only around 10 members, decisionmaking is usually relatively fast and simple. Without the need for administrative conferences, Home Church members are able to focus their energy directly on evangelism and service. As soon as the gathering agrees on a project plan, volunteers are immediately ready to take action, so rapid response to developing needs is also possible. For larger initiatives, it is simple to mobilize multiple gatherings or the entire network — simply by having guardians contact other guardians, since the way the Home Church network was founded (one gathering becoming two, two becoming four, and so on) ensures close ties between groups.

The streamlined nature of the Home Church also means less waste when it comes to supporting mission efforts. Home Churches require no costs for church-planting, and while as noted, Staten Island Home Church does not to take any offerings from members or even have a group bank account, we ask members to donate directly to ministries outside the Home Church. The few church-related expenditures we have relate to costs for churchwide evangelistic gatherings we hold in hotels during Thanksgiving and Christmas. A low suggested donation is requested of attendees, with guardians covering any deficit as needed and based on their ability to do so. With our resources, we try to expend our effort on places that are truly in need, such as mission organizations, evangelical ministries and charities. We emphasize the importance of community services , not to limit our supports only for Christians. Christians are suppose to help general populace, who are poor or weak, as Jesus reminded us to do.

Question #13: What benefits does the Home Church model offer for members?

Home Churches provide freedom and flexibility in worship time, place and frequency.

Yang: The Home Church concept makes worship something that can and should take place freely any time and at any place. Home Church members can set their weekly meeting time according to their schedules; in case any individual must miss their meeting time due to other obligations, they can always go to another Home Church gathering that meets later in the week. Some people attend two or three meetings per week. This flexible schedule is very helpful for Christians who must work on Sundays and are not able to attend regular Sunday worship at traditional churches.

In addition, meeting locations are also very flexible. Other than homes, some meetings are held at offices, hotels, cafés and even shopping malls. For example, we have one Home Church that gathers every Monday at 10 am at mall food court, where a few retired couples share tea and worship God together.

Beyond their regular weekly meetings, all Home Church gatherings join together to hold group evangelistic gatherings during Thanksgiving and Christmas, and at other times during the year if guardians choose to bring groups together — at a small or large scale.

Question #14: Does this mean the Home Church breaks away from the Christian tradition of worshipping on a fixed Sabbath Day?
The Home Church seeks to reinforce the fact that faith should be a part of life throughout the week and not just a "single-day" thing.

Yang: We believe in worshipping on Sunday — but we also believe in worshipping on any day as well! We think the traditional concept of “Christians only worship on Sundays” needs to be changed; as born-again Christians, we should gather in the name of Jesus, preach the Gospel and worship God throughout our lives, meaning that worship should not be limited to a particular time, place or circumstance — Christians must stay connected with the Lord every single moment. This is also in keeping with the practices of the Early Church, which did not limit its worship to a fixed Sabbath.

Question 15: What do Home Churches do on Sundays?
The Home Church encourages its members to use Sundays to go out, evangelize and testify.

Yang: We encourage the use of Sundays as a day to go out into the community to evangelize and testify — to interact with others in the faith and nonbelievers to share the Word. Last time when I was in Taiwan to visit my friend at a church, the taxi driver told me that he did not know of the church I was seeking. But actually the church I wanted to go to was right on the main road — and the driver told me that he saw the cross every time he drove by, but never knew anything about the church itself. I was shocked by what he said. It reminded me that there is often still a huge gap between Christians and the community around us.

Many people lose contact with their nonbeliever friends after they become Christians, and tend not to make new friends with non-Christians. One reason is that nonbelievers often socialize on Sundays, while Christians are at worship. But socializing can provide a great opportunity to witness the Gospel. This suggests that the traditional concept of “Christians only worship on Sundays” may have become an obstacle to evangelism — or at least that Christians need to be reminded not to use Sunday services as an excuse for being lazy in sharing the Gospel.

Shops, restaurants and other services never close on weekends and holidays. Why? It is because most people only have time to shop on these days. The Great Commission of Christians is to preach the Gospel to all people on earth; Sunday can be the best time for evangelism, and it should be.

Let us also remember Luke Chapter 13-14, which speaks of Jesus being rebuked by the Pharisees, for healing the sick on Sabbath day. According to Jewish law, people were banned from working on the Sabbath, but Jesus broke that tradition and healed the sick. What was Jesus’ response to the rebuke? He said, “Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?" (Luke 13:16)

Jesus is the Lord of Sabbath, the story reminds the Church and Christians today. Perhaps as we have strictly keep the tradition of Sunday service, we have lost opportunities to save lost souls. God forbid that we be as the Pharisees, rebuking fellow Christians for saving souls on Sabbath day!

Question #16: Does this encouragement toward evangelism help the Home Church grow?
The Home Church is designed to spread and grow exponentially.

Yang: The relatively slow rate of church growth is a topic of great concern for many Christians: I have read a research study saying that the United States has spent $500 billion on domestic evangelical ministries in the past 15 years, but U.S. church membership has almost zero net growth to show for it. The Chinese Church is in a similar situation. In both America and China, although many churches are being planted and the number of churches has increased, the number of regular church attendees has seen no significant change. This is something that suggests we must reevaluate our church model, to consider why growth has not been more potent despite this massive investment.

We believe that one reason for this is that the traditional church model focuses on linear growth by “addition.” Meanwhile, the Home Church focuses on a “multiplication” structure, allowing for linear growth — one becoming two, two becoming four, and so on. For Staten Island Home Church, once the number of members in a Home Church exceeds 14, we require that the gathering be divided into two. Since 2004, Staten Island Home Church has multiplied four times and split into four Chinese-speaking gatherings; the fifth is going to be our first English-speaking church to date.

Traditional churches worry about low attendance. For Home Churches, we worry about the opposite — too many people in a gathering. When the number becomes too big, it is more difficult to foster close relationships and establish open, ongoing communication. The multiplication factor means that growth is very fast, but the quality of the message is preserved because the Home Church believes in having all members take part in service and thus train to lead and witness to others — the “Priesthood of all believers.” The hopeful goal is that every brother or sister should set up and lead at least one Home Church in their lives.

Question #17: The concept of the Home Church sounds very similar to the "Cell Church" concept. Are they related?
There are a lot of similarities between the two models — and some major differences.

Yang: The function and concept of cell church movement is very similar to that of Home Church. However, there are some major contrasts as well.

Structurally, the cell church system is in the shape of a pyramid, with the senior pastor at the top, followed by layers of associate pastors, zone pastors, cell leaders and associate cell leaders. Except for the senior pastor, all the others are entrusted and authorized by those in a higher position to serve. In a Home Church, all members are seen as being on the same level — the guardian is simply a more experienced peer who has volunteered for a task. Work is not carried out by people who have a particular position or title, but by those who are moved and gifted by God. Group members are tasked with mutually supporting and obeying each other as spiritual companions. As stated in the New Testament, all church members are equally important in the body of Christ. (1 Cor. 12: 21-25) — so position or title is not necessary; what is critical is to humble oneself as a servant and serve one's fellowship with love.

In terms of administration, each cell church is a part of the larger overall church, so it can be seen as a “subsidiary” of the church. But Home Churches act independently of one another — each Home Church itself is a “complete” church. This includes the manner of worship and teaching program: Cell churches usually follow fixed formats and lesson plans as guided by the central ministry leadership, while Home Churches are not restricted in how they worship — members decide for themselves what biblical messages to share and how to share them.

Question #18: How does the Home Church observe Holy Communion?

Home Churches celebrate Communion at every gathering.

Yang: Just as Jesus presided over Holy Communion after the Passover dinner, Home Churches observe Holy Communion immediately after we finish our pre-worship meal. Indeed, the original purpose of services during the Early Church was focused around the observance of Holy Communion. As Jesus said, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.” (Luke 22: 19:20; 1 Cor. 11: 23-25) — Holy Communion is to remind believers of the sacrifice of our Lord Jesus who died for us on the cross, and to encourage believers to follow his holy example, to truly experience a transformation in life. It is in the observance of Holy Communion with a heart full of repentance and gratitude that we connect with Jesus’ life, and it is for that reason Home Church puts a great priority on celebrating it every meeting.

At the time of the apostles, believers had a fresh and direct impression of Jesus’ death and resurrection, so they strongly emphasized the observance of Holy Communion. As recorded in Acts 2: 42-46, "Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts." From that we see that worship and Holy Communion were indeed closely connected to each other in the Early Church, and so we maintain that beautiful tradition.

Question #19: How about other rituals, such as baptism?
Home Churches conduct baptisms, as do any Christian church.

Yang: The purpose of the Home Church, as with any church, is to bear witness to the fruit of the Gospel, which is the baptism of fellow followers of Jesus into the faith. Last Easter, we had a sister baptized; her Christian children had prayed for her for over 10 years, and she was baptized into the family after attending and sharing in the love and warmth of Home Church meetings, at her fourth gathering.

There are those who feel uncomfortable with the notion of accepting baptism at home, although that is what the apostle Paul did himself, as recorded in the New Testament. As such, we encourage believers to freely choose between the Home Church and traditional church for their baptism.

Question #20: If there are such differences in opinions on matters such as form or frequency of worship elements and rites like Holy Communion and baptism, how are they handled in the Home Church?
The Home Church respects the different opinions of its members.

Yang: We accept and respect that Home Church members have different opinions on how to worship. For example, some believers feel it is not necessary to observe Holy Communion at every single gathering, and insist that once a month is enough. We welcome discussion on these matters, and different gatherings may practice differently — we respect our brothers and sisters freedom. Yet within gatherings, we also ask that each member humbles himself or herself and embraces a loving obedience to the structure that the group and its guardian have collectively chosen.

Question #21: What about support services, such as Sunday school and child care?
Such services are offered on a volunteer basis by individual members as needed.

Yang: Home Church members regularly volunteer to take turns to help parents look after their kids. We do not have a particular program or arrangement; as we see each other as “one family,” it is very natural for us to take care on the burdens of our brothers and sisters in need. Some Home Churches who have multiple young children do pool resources to hire a babysitter or nanny to take care of the kids during the service so all parents can participate.

Question #22: If the Home Church is not meant to compete with or replace traditional churches, how can the two develop simultaneously?

Some traditional churches have experienced tremendous growth by setting up Home Churches.

Yang: There are many differences between the Home Church and the traditional church, yet they are not incompatible. In fact, we have seen some traditional churches that experienced tremendous growth by setting up Home Churches. As I mentioned before, I had originally planned to start a Home Church network within my traditional church, but I finally gave up because there was not a great deal of support for the idea. If pastors and ministers in a traditional church are open to accept the Home Church model, it can be a means to spur membership growth and spiritual revival. The Home Church model is very flexible, so it can be implemented within virtually any denomination and any church culture.

Question #23: What is the most important thing to remember about Home Churches?
All churches — traditional or Home Church modeled — are ultimately about worshipping God.

Yang: This has been a long discussion about the definition, structure and development of the Home Church. Nevertheless, we must always remember that the most important part of all Christian gatherings, whether in the Home Church or traditional church, is the act of worship — celebrating what our Father has done for us, in our creation and his sacrifice of his only Son for our salvation. It is through worship that believers are connected with God, and their lives are transformed. It is the ultimate common goal of all in the family of the Kingdom of God to preach the Gospel to the ends of the earth, and complete the Great Commission of our Lord Jesus. I hope my sharing of what we have done with the Home Churches has stimulated deeper reflection and exploration of what is possible, if the boundaries of how we worship today are stretched and the model of the earliest Christian churches are seen as an inspiration. God bless and be with all of you!

If you are interested in knowing more about the Home Church model, please read other Home Church articles published in The Gospel Herald , and Kingdom Resources For Christ, email Dr. David C. Yang at [email protected]

[The interview was conducted by reporter Wei Quan, and Eunice Or contributed to the translation.]