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Thursday, February 21, 2008

Is the institutional church REALLY dead?

Bob Burney thinks that pollster George Barna is mistaken in announcing that the institutional church is dead:
The “research” portion of the article at ends with the surprising number of pastors who are now embracing house churches. Indeed, Barna states that “two out of three pastors agreed that ‘house churches are legitimate Christian churches.’” (He adds that most of those pastors are from liberal, main-line denominations.) Barna then takes a swipe at those who disagree and implies that those pastors who do not support house churches are the ones making the big bucks from the institutional church. Where’s the objectivity evident in Barna’s past work?

I agree with Burney. There's a lot to be said for house churches and in some places the house church may be the only viable form. But the problem is that it is always someone's house in particular.

And one of two risks is run in that case. Either the homeowner loses all control over their house or stuff may happen that shouldn't - but it is, after all, a private home. So things that a regular church would not tolerate might be okay if the homeowner says they are okay.

I was for nearly three decades a member of a church that had an active "home group" component. For almost all of that time, I was a member of such a group. For several years I was even the "Group Life" deputy warden. So I am quite familiar with both the strengths and the weaknesses of home groups.

Basically, the strengths and the weaknesses tend to be the same qualities. That is, a strong leader can lead people toward or away from personal growth. And, whereas a religious institution like a church has longevity, a home group can bust up in a single evening, when things don't go as planned or someone acts out.

One thing that institutions provide is structure and - above all - healthy distance from leadership. Or, at least, that's what should be happening anyway. And if it's not, the institution can be held accountable. So, no, I don't think the institutional church is dead. I think that the house church movement will develop institutions to address the kinds of problems I outlined, and many others as well.

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