Perhaps you can relate to my story. I was crying for something authentic. I was torn apart by all things fake: in the world, in the Church, and in my heart. I was young, but I felt so old. Past the point of giving up, and past holding on, I stood on the verge of breaking.
One hot Friday night in Houston, while leaving my sorority’s spring formal dance, I had a conversation with my reluctant date. It was 1998. The complete derailment of my plan to graduate college in four years had begun, and for the first time, I was not able to keep up with everybody else I knew. I was stuck and broke at 21, waiting for my life to change, and utterly unable to find rest, or the motivation to smile. I pouted silently in the passenger seat on my way home that night, angry and tired of my life. As if on cue, Third Eye Blind’s, “Jumper” started playing on the radio, “I wish you would step back from that ledge my friend, you could cut ties with all the lies that you’ve been living’ in…” My friend turned the volume up, as tears filled my eyes.
“Just come with me tomorrow night, and let some people love on you,” he said. Inside my fragile, screaming heart, I gave God one more chance. That was the night I was drawn to what became my house church home for the next four years.
At first, the meetings seemed slapped together, they were so informal. Three or four cell groups met in apartments and houses on weeknights, and then a separate, corporate meeting was held in a rented church facility on Saturdays. The cell I found myself in bewildered me, because nobody had it together. I ran to the meetings anyway. We ate pizza, home-cooked meals, hung out together and took our shoes off at the door. On weekends, it was an even stranger assembly of disaffected youth, searching college graduates, students, former drug dealers and burnt-out church members. Sometimes preaching and teaching occurred, while sometimes the meetings focused entirely on praying for the one or two people who were hurting most. Over a short period of time, the humanity of the people there softened my heart and invited me to emerge from my self-created cocoon. Instead of rigidly sitting in some pew, reading from a glossy, multi-page pamphlet, I started sitting on the floor of a family room, surrounded by the sound of acoustic guitars strumming soft worship music. I didn’t have to dress up. I didn’t have to feel spiritual. I didn’t even have to clean up my language or be in a good mood to worship, or believe. A neighborhood coffee shop served as the unofficial hub of the universe for this growing group of believers, where several found employment as baristas. Its fountain clad patio and rickety brown chairs drew more people in, as the coffee was warmed and sweetened by fellowship that was not compartmentalized. I drank in the atmosphere, and felt healed from years of alienated, self-rejecting church going.
Relationships developed into a tight web of connectedness. Conversations probed, reflecting on how to really live out God’s love, despite personal brokenness or dysfunction. Prayer reduced even socially embarrassing behaviors to touchable and healable wounds. Awkward interactions did not end with abandonment, and talk of serving others was challenged by household chores at other people’s houses. Familiarity crowded out the ability to hypocritically pose.
I found deliverance from strongholds that had emotionally burdened me my whole life, and the love of Christ expanded in me, completing me, ushering in the ministry of the Holy Spirit. Laughter bubbled up from a long-dry well of deep joy, washing away pain. House church was not easy, though. In looking back it is tempting to gloss over the imperfection and uncomfortable moments. Logistical difficulties arose when figuring out how to care for children who needed more than what limited space provided. Inevitably, interpersonal conflicts took center stage now and then, as personal and corporate balance swung back and forth, like an elusive, unseen pendulum. It took courage to keep going. It took discernment to maintain boundaries, and repair them when crossed. It took forgiveness, and dependence on Christ. The profane met the sacred at that house church, and it was a meeting that brought integrity to my soul. No longer did I need to condense my faith to bite-sized, cutesy stories filled with generic metaphors and contrived happy endings. I learned how to be real in my faith by taking a chance on who God could be through other people. And God didn’t let me down.
House church, home group, cell church, call it what you will. It takes many forms, and increasingly, can be found all over the world. Some call it a passing movement; some say it’s the next big thing. It’s not for everyone. For me, it was a raw, unforgettable experience that radically changed how I see myself and how I do church. By shamelessly stripping away the trappings of religion, I believe that house church can provide a unique harbor for the weary and disillusioned; a way unlike any other, to jump into the living, breathing body of Christ. “For where two or three have gathered in my name, I am there in their midst.” Matthew 18.20 (NAS)
[Jessica Lenington is a writer from Texas. She lives in Orlando with her husband Robert.]