As Jesus was leaving, he saw a tax collector named Matthew sitting at the place for paying taxes. Jesus said to him, “Come with me.” Matthew got up and went with him. Later, Jesus and his disciples were having dinner at Matthew’s house. Many tax collectors and other sinners were also there. Some Pharisees asked Jesus’ disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and other sinners?” Jesus heard them and answered, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor, but sick people do. Go and learn what the Scriptures mean when they say, `Instead of offering sacrifices to me, I want you to be merciful to others.’ I didn’t come to invite good people to be my followers. I came to invite sinners.”
Matthew 9: 9 – 13
Back in the late 1980s I went to a seminar on reaching Baby Boomers, led by Jack Sims. Jack and Richard Rossi started a controversial church in the United States called “Matthew’s Party”. The church met in a bar, served wine and hor d’oerves, worshipped with rock music, was attended by movie stars, and gave the offering back to anyone in attendance who needed the money. If I remember right, they didn’t do any communal singing – as it was counter culture for most of the people there.
Jack explained that when Matthew met Jesus, it wasn’t possible for them to meet up at the local synagogue. It would have been cultural suicide for Matthew to turn up there. He and his friends probably wouldn’t be welcomed anyway. So he invited Jesus over to his place, held a party, and got his friends to meet Jesus in their space.
I took that to heart. What would it look like if people got to meet Jesus in friendly spaces that didn’t drip with the mood of church meetings? What if we met in restaurants or cafes? Since that time, I’ve experimented with Restaurant Church, Cafe Church, and House Church. In each of those settings there’s an opportunity to reinvent worship and learning. Meeting round tables usually rules out communal singing. It leads to conversation instead of lecturing. All these settings lend themselves to story telling, laughter and connecting with the difference Jesus might make in our lives.
Andrew Jones, (Tall Skinny Kiwi) posted a few gripes about house church networks back in July 2004 (based on article from 2002). He points out that the focus needs to change from “Our House” to “Their House”. His words:
Much of the present house church movement is still an attempt to contain and control the meetings in their own camp, in this case OUR HOUSE. The full gains that are available will not be realised until we can begin to let the movement flow into THEIR HOUSES. The church in Lydia’s house was just that – in Lydia’s house. Matthew’s party was in Matthew’s house. Not the more convenient house of Simon Peter’s mother-in-law. And don’t tell me it was her stomach complaints that kept them away. It was strategy, not dysentery, that led them to Matthew’s house. Jesus told his missionaries to put peace on THEIR (those other people, the ones they were sent to) HOUSE, enter their house, live in their house, eat in their house, heal someone or something in their house. Right there is the base of a new church and it is in THEIR house. Think of the benefits. Financial, because if the party is in their house then they pay for it. Security, because if the party is in their house then they will guarantee every one is safe.Culture, because the friends of the host already appreciate the culture of their style of music and culture so there is no culture barrier. Convenience, because they already have that house.
I warm to Andrew’s challenge. One of the best experiences of church I’ve had recently was the blessing of a child eighteen months ago. The family had family connections with the Uniting Church elsewhere. And they wanted to have their boy baptised. We looked at the options and chose a service of thanksgiving and blessing. The next door neighbours were members of Pacific Parks Uniting, our house church network. They looked at coming along to one of our homes for a service. But they had about 50 friends and relatives to fit in. So we had it all at their place. What a celebration! We showed photographs of all the meaningful people in their life together on PowerPoint, through the TV. We had poetry, prayer, Bible readings, and a song on the stereo. The next door neighbours presented the certificate. And then we cracked open the bubbly. Way to go. Maybe we’ll get together again at their place, for another experience of church. Hope so.