Growing up Catholic, I would have lumped attending a house church with selling flowers for the Hare Krishna. But that was before I fell in love with Jesus, married a church-planting pastor, and traipsed after him, attending church in elementary schools, a community center, and a movie theater.
This Sunday morning the house church gathers in my just-built tract home, snugged against the Red Mountain Freeway in Mesa, Arizona. About 20 people filter into the great room and help themselves to coffee and bagels while catching up.
I ask engineer Steve, 53, what he thinks of Oasis Community Church’s transition from itinerant to house church over the past year.
“We’re praying more, seeing more answers. No rent, board meetings, parking lots, crotchety old guys—”
“Except you,” someone says.
Most of the house church members agree with Steve and 13-year-old Faith. “We’re closer emotionally.”
Luke says, “True, but we lack cultural and socioeconomic diversity.” His wife, Lauren, says, “I miss the structured services of the established church, but the house church has made me more vulnerable and trusting of people.”
David, 20, appreciates the inter-generational interaction and feeling like he belongs.
Earlier this week I quizzed my close friend who quit attending Oasis when we moved from Baker Performing Arts at upscale San Tan Mall into rotating between members’ homes. She said, “It’s too in-your-face. I don’t want people to know every single aspect of my life. It’s suffocating.”
My husband, Jim, planted Oasis in 1999 for the Brethren, a denomination of 100 mostly small, rural churches. Oasis’ attendance topped out at around 200 and has averaged 65 over the long haul.
Annie, 25, announces prayer time. The crowd settles onto a hodgepodge of chairs and couches. Annie says she needs prayer for a better attitude toward her boss.
Luke is frustrated in his current position and applying for three new jobs.
Someone asks Carol, how her brother-in-law, just diagnosed with ALS, is doing. Not great.
I ask Kevin, 27, how his new tech support job is going. Awesome. College student David tells the group he’s under-funded for his upcoming mission trip to Turkey, but he plans to cover the cost with his savings. He wants to know if that’s okay. Yes!
Jim—who is sitting in back today to keep an eye on the three children watching Veggie Tales and playing cars in our bedroom—says one of his students at Grand Canyon University is having family conflict and several other students are asking spiritual questions.
Somebody’s sister and her boyfriend/husband—we’re not sure which—have come back for the third time on the heels of a relationship meltdown. They sit quietly taking it all in. We’ve been praying for them, but nobody wants to embarrass them by bringing up their crisis.
I’m sitting next to my neighbors Dustin and Kristen who have come to church, possibly because I interviewed Dustin on Friday for this article. I want to ask the group to pray for Kristen’s teen-aged son who moved out recently, but I don’t want to make them more uncomfortable than they probably already are.
Annie starts the prayer, then after a second or two of silence, people randomly pray for the items that were mentioned. David prays for my April master’s tuition which I’ve been struggling to earn, and I’m reminded how much I love getting and giving emotional support in the house church.
Annie says, “Amen,” and people grab a second cup of coffee while Luke picks up the guitar he’s worn an extra hole in and settles a harmonica holder around his neck. He launches into a several song set accompanied on the Cajón, a box-shaped drum, by Annie’s husband Matthew. We sing along with the words scrolling across the TV.
As Luke lays down his guitar, Dustin, says, “Now I see how Luke got Lauren—it was the harmonica!” People laugh and chatter rises around the room.
Lauren says, “Okay, people, focus.” It’s her turn in the rotation of a half dozen people who like to teach. She leads a group discussion based on a Bible passage about how we can serve the people around us.
“Does it count if you serve with a crappy attitude?” someone asks.
Dustin chimes in that he often offers to help people with remodeling. “Sometimes I wake up in the morning and I’m not into it. But I always feel better if I suck it up and do the job.” Earlier, I’d asked Dustin, a Mormon why he’d wanted to visit our church. He said, “I figured I could check it out without people freaking bugging me afterward.”
Lauren closes the morning with a brief prayer.
Later, over lunch, I press Jim for his views.
“I believe the church is about relationship—with God and each other. This is the best expression of the church I’ve experienced. But we’re still learning.”
Our son, another David, who has founded house churches in Arizona and Kentucky adds, “The house church is a safe place for people who have been hurt by the established church.”
“What do you see as drawbacks?” I prod.
David answers, “Sometimes house churches fizzle out.”
Jim nods, agreeing. “And then there’s my pride. I have a Master of Divinity—a degree equal in difficulty to a Juris Doctorate, I’m told—and after 35 years as a pastor, I lead a church of 20 people.”
I snicker and Jim’s lips turn up at the corners. After three decades of marriage, he knows what I’m thinking.
I’m remembering a comment about church size by Jim’s colleague at a nearby church. “It’s like we’re stuck in the junior high locker room wishing we were all hung like Bobby Woods. Bigger is not necessarily better.”