A Liturgy for House Churches

by Bill Ireland

  • Do you celebrate communion at every church meeting? How do you celebrate it?
  • Do you begin the meeting with prayer, followed by six worship songs and a bible study?
    Or, do you just let things flow as they will?
  • Does one person teach, or do several people share the responsibility?
  • Is your bible study preprogrammed, or does it emerge spontaneously from week to week?
  • Do you study by topics, or verse-by-verse exposition?

These are just a few of the questions that house churches confront as they strive for a healthy, biblical church life. And each group answers them differently. It's a source of puzzlement and frustration for many of us that there aren't more guidelines in the scriptures on how to conduct meetings. The clearest picture we have is in I Corinthians 12, where Paul exhorts us essentially to allow room for everyone's spiritual gift, avoid confusion, and try to avoid talking over each other.

Obviously, the meeting format isn't such a hot issue in traditional churches, where the service is what it is and evermore shall be. But to us who are trying to recapture a more authentic New Testament approach it's crucial. Why isn't there more in the Bible on such a basic subject?

Perhaps because it's not that important. I have known God to move powerfully in liturgical church services, small prayer meetings, no-holds-barred Pentecostal services, prison chapel meetings, and informal gaggles of unruly young people. Apparently He wasn't deterred by the sometimes-bizarre practices He observed. (Which ones count as bizarre? Take your pick, according to your own biases.) The point is, He blessed each one with His presence.

The LORD does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart (1 Samuel 16:7 NIV).

If we take that scripture seriously, we must suppose that God is paying attention to different things than we are—even in our meetings.

At the end of his very practical exhortations in I Corinthians 12, Paul gets to his real point: "And now I will show you the most excellent way." Then, of course, he launches into the love chapter everyone is familiar with—a beautiful passage that should inform all our lives. But in context, it's a lesson on how to conduct a church meeting. So the issue isn't so much what we do as our attitude. As Ella Fitzgerald sang, "It ain't what you do, it's the way that you do it."

For house church devotees, finding the New Testament pattern for everything church-related is like the search for the Holy Grail. But who says the early church was the embodiment of perfection? It had its problems too, as we might recall.

In I Corinthians 11:2, Paul praises the Corinthians for "holding firmly to the traditions, just as I delivered them to you." But what were those traditions? Apparently, nobody really knows. Could we not suppose that they concerned the very things Paul returned to over and over in his writings? Personal holiness, brotherly love, honesty, simplicity, Christ Himself above all—those were Paul's themes.

Not much about liturgy.

In I Corinthians 11 Paul does set out some practical rules for meetings:

  • Observe the Lord's Supper.
  • Be sober and considerate when you do.
  • Men should pray with their heads uncovered; women, covered. (How many Christians today observe, care, or even know about that one?)

Apparently, the rest is up to the Holy Spirit, and us.

Perhaps, like me, you'll read the many books on how house churches ought to function—and then lay them aside and trust God to show you what works for your particular part of the Body of Christ (within the clear scriptural bounds of acceptable behavior).

With that in mind, here's a guide for house church meetings, based on I Corinthians 13:

  1. Be patient with each other, including those who talk too much—or not at all.
  2. Be as kind as you can to everyone—even the obnoxious, dull, or obstinate.
  3. Don't indulge ego trips.
  4. Don't allow rude or inappropriate behavior
  5. Don't pursue personal agendas.
  6. Don't give way to jealousy.
  7. Don't nurse grudges.
  8. Don't give any place to words, doctrines or practices that are demonstrably evil.
  9. Exalt truth as an absolute value.
  10. Always protect God's sheep!
  11. Trust that believers' motives are usually good, even if their methods make you squirm.
  12. Trust God to sort things out for the best.
  13. Keep your hopes burning bright.
  14. Never give up!

Do those things, and you won't go too far off the path.

And always remember, "Now we see but a poor reflection, but then we shall see face to face."

We won't need any instruction manuals then.

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