House Churches & Institutional Churches, Part 4.1 (Economics, Christ’s Church, and Unity)

David Himes wrote in a comment to a recent post,

Using your basic logic, Jay, the best economic solution would be for all of the believers to meet in house churches, thus, eliminating the need to pay for and maintain buildings or large staffs.

Price wrote in response to the same post,

I guess I don’t see how home churches in and of themselves cause a problem. It seems that the unwillingness to come together in a bond of unity to do something bigger than what can be done by the individual is the problem.

Price,

Yes, the biggest problem among the house churches is the failure of most house churches to cooperate in a way that allows them to take advantage of the same advantage institutional churches have: a large pool of resources. Houses churches that were well organized would, in theory, have the same pool of talent and an even larger pool of financial resources than institutional churches having the same number of people. It’s just that, in the United States, house churches very rare cooperate in this way. And that makes them, as to certain kinds of activities, ineffective.

Some of this can be overcome by cooperating with other house churches, and some of these problems can’t be overcome that way. It’ll take several paragraphs to explain that one.

Even within the Churches of Christ, as cussedly independent and cantankerous as our institutional congregations often are, they still manage to cooperate well enough to pull off some major projects and undertake some very effective ministries. God could do far, far more through them if they cooperated even more — and they should. But in my experience, institutional churches will — on the whole — cooperate more than house churches.

I think my thinking might make better sense if I were to point out the inherent difficulties faced by house churches in economic terms. In purely monetary terms, David is right — house churches have by far the lowest financial overhead of all church models. If the only factor affecting the use of money in God’s service were the net amount available above congregational overhead, the house church would be the best model.

Capital concentration

However (still speaking in the language of economists), house churches falter when it comes to the accumulation and concentration of capital. You see, whether we’re talking about money, human talents, or  human experience, that is, anything of value in serving God’s mission other than God himself, who is infinite — such “capital” becomes much more efficient and effective when accumulated to a size large enough to work to its greatest potential.

What cancer patient would want to be treated in a one-room hospital? Some activities just don’t work well at a small scale! Or consider a fabulous teacher of church history in a house church of 4 people. He does a great job; people are built up. But it’s just 3 people. Place the same teacher in a class of 50, and the impact of his talents is vastly multiplied. Scale matters.

Therefore, while house churches have very low financial overhead, they suffer huge overhead in terms of the use of some kinds of talents. God gives us many gifts of human talent that just don’t work to their maximum potential in very small groups.

Just so, if 100 house churches have $1,000,000 among them, they only have $10,000 apiece. You can send a lot of missionaries, build a lot of orphanages, and establish a lot of job training centers for $1,000,000. But not so much for $10,000.

Now, if the house churches were to cooperate, coordinate, and pool their resources to fulfill a shared vision, and similarly pool their human talents and gifts, then they’d be quite a force to reckon with. But in the US, they just don’t. And, of course, pooling those resources would inevitably increase their overhead — some talent and time would have to be redirected to communication and coordination rather than external ministry, pastoral care, and such.

And while it’s not too hard to imagine that house churches might pool their financial resources under some sort of joint leadership, it’d be much harder to pool their human talents. And how could they avoid the one-room hospital problem?

Therefore, the house church model limits what we can do to those things that don’t require accumulations of human or financial capital. The exception would be house churches that go to considerable trouble to pool human and financial resources, to communicate with efficiency, and to have shared visions and plans. And this is possible, but it’s not “organic.” It doesn’t arise naturally. In fact, it takes a lot of hard work — rather like a marriage, and just like a marriage, it would require a lot of motivation.

And it would require giving up a large measure of autonomy. The house churches would have to submit to a larger community — which would be very Christian and very un-American.

Bubble-up ministries

But even if the house churches were to do this, there’d still be inefficiencies resulting from small scale. I mean, a single member of a house church wouldn’t have the opportunity to know that many other people. It could be an intensely loving community, but it would be very hard for good ideas and the Spirit’s movement within individuals to “bubble up” to the surface and catch the imagination of the entire community — if the main form of cross-church communication were via some central, coordinating body.

You see, in my congregation, the elders serve as the coordinating body, but good ideas rarely come from us. For example, last year, a member noticed that several families were trying to adopt. Families talked to families and soon discovered that something like 20 families in a church of 650 were all trying to adopt or seriously considering it. And all this communication took place outside of formal channels because our members know each other.

This quickly led to the formation of an adoption support ministry that trains members and non-members on the adoption process and provides prayer and other encouragement to those adopting. Scale has advantages.

In a house church, an adopting couple would certainly be supported, but would there be classes on working through the legal system and red tape? On how to claim the adoption tax credit? Would there be a fund to help support adopting couples? Would there be one or two other adopting couples to share with and support each other?

In our church, the hearts and talents of a handful of people with a passion to support those going through an adoption spread through a very large community of people, even touching those outside the church because they were part of a single community with countless informal paths of communication.

Cross-institutional efficiencies

Among the institutional churches, a church can grow large enough to be gain the economies of scale necessary to take on projects that a house church could not imagine doing — and for even larger projects, they can easily band together to build the necessary pool of talent. This is at the cost of a very expensive building and church staff. And it’s also at the cost of having many members involved solely in communication and coordination. And yet it happens.

And so, while institutional churches don’t cooperate well, they cooperate well enough to found universities, orphanages, mission hospitals, foreign mission efforts, and all sorts of domestic benevolence efforts.

The institutional church is hardly 100% efficient, but for some reason, despite often being highly cantankerous, obstreperous, and just plain difficult, they are able to pull off some amazing things. One reason is that, while most congregations can’t support an orphanage by themselves, a single congregation is large enough to have not only the vision to do so, but the organizational center needed to network needed to accomplish the task.

To take a simple and recent example. A church in my hometown (not my own congregation) had a member with a vision to support families of people going through cancer. She was able to find others in her church with a similar vision, and they founded “The Bigger C” — an organization devoted to supporting cancer victims and their families through Christ — who is bigger than even cancer.

But they didn’t have the volunteers the ministry needed in her home congregation. And so my church was asked to participate, and many of our members gladly volunteered to help. A few other institutional churches did the same. Soon, it was a full-fledged program, with lots of volunteers, run by gifted people with a shared vision.

Her home church didn’t have the necessary “accumulation of capital” in her home congregation to pull it off, but it wasn’t hard to find the “capital” needed in just a handful of institutional congregations.

These congregations include many thousands of members. Maybe only 1 in 30 members shared that vision and chose to volunteer. But that’s still a lot of people, resulting in a ministry built on the love of Christ for people in deep need of it. It’s been an incredible outreach both to believers and non-believer.

Now, imagine if every church in town were a congregation of 20, with no listing in the  Yellow Pages, no central organization, no staff, and no offices. I don’t think she could have pulled it off.

A surprising conclusion

Now, all the foregoing compares institutional and house churches in only a few respects. Houses churches have some advantages over institutional churches, which we’ve considered in previous posts. There’s more to church than the elements discussed in this post.

But the fact is that division is horribly painful to the church Christ died for — whether that division is the refusal to work together of 100 autonomous house churches or 10 autonomous institutional churches. The biggest problem, regardless of scale, is a refusal to work together.

We have this perverse, ungodly notion the other churches in town don’t matter, and so we can be “united” without actually working side by side with other churches in town. And the house church movement has the very real potential to make the problem even worse if we simply form a bunch of house churches, and (a) we don’t think through the consequences and (b) let the two models for church become rivals. We have enough rivalries already.  You see, unity is not only important among institutional and among house churches, it’s important among house and institutional churches.

And since all good science is from God, we shouldn’t be surprised that, from an economic perspective, the optimal configuration would be a mixture of house churches and institutional churches working very closely together in a shared vision and mission.

The house churches would be able to take advantage of their natural low overhead to pour huge amounts of money and human talent at projects of all sorts — if they all worked in concert. And as is so often the case, house churches are the beginnings of new, larger churches that, because of their size, are able to reach a community that the larger churches can’t.

The institutional churches would be where most new ideas would most often “bubble up” to the surface, because they’d be the places where people with good ideas and the movement of the Spirit in their hearts could most easily find each other and work together to initiate new ministries.

Unlike institutional churches, little talent in house churches would be committed to overhead functions. Members could quickly pour themselves into whatever project the Spirit stirs up, without having to lose time and energy getting volunteers to lead the “closing prayer” this coming Sunday or finding volunteers for the nursery. Low volunteer overhead means more talent and money for ministry.

You see, it’s not necessary to pick.  Rather, it is necessary to flee the temptation to turn different church models into rivals and to instead honestly appraise the strengths and weaknesses of various church models so their strengths can be combined through the kind of sharing that only comes by the Spirit of Christ.

None of this is easy, and none of this will happen organically. In this country, what happens organically is we take our radical, individual autonomy and turn it into radical congregational autonomy — which is sin regardless of your church model.

This will take a lot of work and leadership. And large and small churches have to flee the temptation to be a “free rider,” letting other church do all the hard work. Even a house church is big enough to initiation the formation of a league of churches that work in concert in a common mission. How many people does it take to call a meeting of church leaders and share an idea?

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  1. Well done… It's somewhat offensive to some to be categorized as a "giving unit" (my terminology) as church planning committees often do but in order to maintain an effective budget one must calculate the income… In every church (no matter the location) there are those who CAN give more and those that can't. That doesn't always reflect what is given however!! Some give a greater percentage of their income than others…. But, if I understand you correctly, the fact that you have a greater number of people unified under one location and communication channel, the TOTAL amount of giving (or service) is greater due not as a result of a higher percentage of contribution but the same percentage of a higher beginning number… Which brings it all back to communication, cooperation and unity… However, I would probably argue that the INFLUENCE of those participating in a much bigger effort might encourage others to participate.

    The full application of this argument would be to join the other "churches" in the area to participate when possible. I know of many churches of Christ that join hands with the "denominations" during extraordinary circumstances like the tornadoes that recently ripped through Alabama or the hurricanes of the previous years… Imagine how much more effective the effort was when entire congregations joined hands with other entire congregations !! It would seem that the same logic would and does apply…that the more cooperation, communication and unity developed among "competing" institutions, whether "house churches" separated from the main body or other "institutions" separated by minor (to some) theological doctrine would improve the impact of the good being done.

    I hope that we somehow find a way to continue our slightly noticeable movement TOWARD unifying the Lord's church by working more together with whatever body of believers might exist to have a greater impact on our service to the Lord. Surely, we can put aside whatever differences might exist between us to focus on the NEED of others. Perhaps it is more important to BE a Christian than to argue over the definition of what one is…??

  2. Price, good thinking!

    Most have not seen bad times so don't realize that will bring folks together, forgetting differences quicker than any preacher.

    All have good in them and want to help others. Its us, we, ourselves, that keep folks from doing what comes naturally. WE draw the invisible lines that should not be crossed. Hard times is a great eraser isn't it.

    Maybe that's why we are having so much bad happening lately.
    GOD knows this much better than me!!!!

  3. http://www.simplychurch.com/2011/08/an-outstanding-example-of-the-impact-of-a-network-of-house-churches.html

    I’ve participated in house/simple church networks. They don’t have to be financially terrible. There are good examples of house churches banding together into networks to solve greater problems.

    I know there are some house churches that are particularly insular, but the same can be said of legacy churches as well. I know there is one in Boston like that.