“I am so grateful to be around people again. I have missed the connection and worshipping with others.” “I had tears in my eyes as I heard the voices of others singing round me.” You are probably thinking…another article advocating for re-opening your building and having in person gatherings. Not exactly.
I lead a church that meets in rented spaces. In late July we got word our building owners were not going to open the building to us, or anyone else, due to COVID for the rest of 2020. The comments above are from two individuals in our church who are a part of what we are calling, “House Gatherings.”
To meet online or in person? It’s an important question. And not just a logistical question…it’s an ecclesiological question. But we have more than two options. Like most churches, we experienced an ongoing drop in online engagement the longer we were not meeting together. The more we talked with congregation members the more we realized the issue was bigger than clicks and views. The issue was atrophy. Without use, muscles begin to shrink and atrophy. When atrophy fully runs its course it can lead to paralysis and even loss of vision. And the same is true for followers of Jesus. Without spiritual exercise we regress. And unfortunately, when people are not gathering for church with other believers, spiritual disciplines and other strengthening and formational practices wane.
Without a building to meet in, we felt stuck. Were we just going to sit by and hope we get the green light in January? Do we just beat the “watch online” drum louder? My team and I began to pray and brainstorm. After reading Acts 20:20 (ironic reference, right?), “You know that I [Paul] have not hesitated to preach anything that would be helpful to you but have taught you publicly and from house to house.”, we knew our plan. We will meet in houses all over our city. Do we like meeting in a large venue with hundreds of people? Yes. Does God meet us in beautiful ways in those spaces? Yes. Do we believe God can speak beyond these ways? Yes. We believe that we must “not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing…” (Hebrews 10:25) and our theology of the Holy Spirit is bigger than our preferences or what we are used to. The Spirit’s work is not dependent on the size of a building, the size of a crowd, or where the worship team is.
Throughout the first couple months of COVID, when lockdown was the tightest, we had a close family friend join us every Sunday for church. I noticed something the couple weeks he was out of town. We did not watch on Sunday at 11 a.m. like we normally did. One week it was Tuesday evening! And my kids, they were on their worst behavior and more disengaged when he was not there. Tuning in with others integrates natural accountability.
To get House Gatherings off the ground, we made the bar for entry low. The only requirement was a willingness to create a space for connection with God and others. Hospitality and the Holy Spirit make for a powerful combination! We recruited a few key leaders to get the ball rolling, but the goal was for our church to invite and create House Gatherings then let us know so we could resource and equip them as well as fill any extra space they might have. And the result? Our House Gatherings are full, some are overflowing; the number of people who are engaged on a weekly basis has jumped dramatically, and we are looking for more hosts.
House Gatherings of varying sizes (can be adjusted depending on local guidelines), are meeting in homes and together tune into our online gathering for worship and teaching. This is our only requirement as it protects unity and helps our church family stay connected. Afterward is the opportunity for discussion and prayer…and food! Think of Sundays and small groups having a baby. Some House Gatherings are three to four hours long and others are 90 minutes. Some are outside, some meet virtually, some require masks, some share a meal, some are in large houses, others are in apartments, and one is in a sorority house.
Since making this shift, we feel like we have moved from playing defense to offense. This is no small change; it takes some people time to understand that Sunday gatherings are back…just different. We are learning, navigating roadblocks, and adjusting as we go, but the disconnected are reengaging and the passive observers are becoming active participants. Invitation of neighbors and classmates is back, more people are hospitality is on the rise, giving is increasing, needs are being met, connections are being developed, salvation is happening, leaders are stepping up…our church is getting stronger.