By Keith Shields
Let me tell you about some people I know and the connections they’re making.
• It isn’t a spiritual gift listed in the New Testament, but George1 seems to have the gift of “rocking babies to sleep.” The single moms in his house church appreciate the opportunity to have someone else hold their baby. This 60-something, divorced man is still grieving the sudden loss of his marriage and the family he once had. The babes in arms are truly good for his soul. The more he engages with this Living Room group, the closer he draws to Jesus and the less he relies on his old superstitious “prayers” learned in his Caribbean childhood.
• When Jennifer’s 4-month-old baby passed away, this teenage mom’s house church and the Christian community rallied around her. Members of her Living Room group, some of them followers of Jesus and some of them not yet followers of Jesus, went with her to the funeral home appointments, held her when she cried, and walked with her through this difficult time.
• The Siparia family has been part of a Living Room group for nearly two years. In that time, they have seen a number of challenges, including the death of a grandfather and the poor health of grandma. Connections Christian Church has been the surrogate family in Canada for these immigrants from Trinidad.
Grandma Renata developed an infection in her foot, and doctors believed it would need to be amputated. The house church began to pray that God might save this foot, and for a while it looked like God had answered that prayer and that the foot would be spared. However, a few days later the doctors determined the amputation would need to be performed to save Renata’s life.
This challenged the faith of all in the group, but a 15-year-old girl expressed it best when she said, “It feels like God is teasing us!” Renata, a woman of great faith, taught us much when she said, “If we look at the Bible we see that many people had trials and tribulations. Why would we not expect the same? I have already said good-bye to this foot.”
The Sunday evening after Renata returned home from the hospital we had church in her family’s home. Her bed was in one corner downstairs to allow her to function on the main level of the house. As she sat up and told us her story of faith and what God had been teaching her through these experiences, she was surrounded by 30 attentive people who wanted to hear a message from God. Children, teens, young adults, and middle-aged adults listened intently. The Holy Spirit spoke through the Bible and through the life of this committed believer that evening.
Because Renata was in the process of immigrating to Canada, she did not yet have medical coverage for the hospital bills of more than $40,000. Renata’s house church family (and some from the broader network) gave more than $13,000 to a trust fund to help with these medical expenses. They continue to walk with the family as they work through the immigration process and make the payments on the remaining bill.
These are a few of the stories of how God is at work through Connections Christian Church. Connections is a network of house churches in the Greater Calgary area in Alberta, Canada. In 2003, Calgary’s Bow Valley Christian Church began sponsoring a group of five families who had a vision of creating a network of simple churches. Bow Valley provided financial support to a lead minister, a management team that acted as surrogate elders until Connections ordained her own, and the services of a financial secretary until Connections established charity status with the Canadian government.
From fall 2003 to fall 2004 these five families met in a single home and worked out the model of what it would look like to have the main gathering of the church in homes. From fall 2004 to spring 2006, Connections grew to be five house churches (“Living Room” gatherings) meeting on different days and different locations scattered over a large urban/suburban area. The churches grew and leaders were affirmed who started two new churches in fall 2006; Connections now includes seven house churches networked together. Once each month all of the house churches celebrate and reconnect in a rented facility.
Since the start of the New Testament church, apprentices of Jesus have gathered in homes. Some of these have had a missional mind-set and have replicated quickly by being the hands and feet of Jesus in their local community. Dr. Martin Robinson said, “Merely because a church meets in a home does not mean it will replicate. . . .” and “the DNA matters more than the form. There is nothing special about meeting in a home. . . .”2 Connections Christian Church is intentional about replication. We are attempting to use a new/old model as one more way to connect people to Jesus.
Why House Churches?
A network of house churches has significant advantages for postmodern times. First, they are simple. The house church does not have huge resources tied up in buildings, equipment, or programs. Thus, Connections is able to give 10 percent of its offerings to overseas missions, another 10 percent to local community initiatives, and another 10 percent to help with other church-planting opportunities.
Second, it allows for the mobilization of large numbers of lay leaders. Historically, church-planting movements have been driven by local, bivocational leadership.3
Third, house churches allow for small, affinity-based community. Tom Bandy suggests that effective evangelism in Canada “invites people into a [small] ‘pilgrim band’ . . . that supports a highly disciplined spiritual life and offers constant mentoring, conversation, and critique.”4 This community can be multigenerational and multicultural. Young adults can enjoy the mentorship of older pilgrims, and children benefit from surrogate grandparents.
Fourth, house churches are adaptable communities of faith. There are many unknowns regarding the postmodern age into which we are transitioning. Successful church-planting movements must be able to adapt to changing cultural circumstances.
Our House Churches
What does a Connections Living Room gathering look like? Each gathering of the church starts with a shared meal celebrated as the Lord’s Supper. Everyone brings the meal they would have eaten at home that evening, and we enjoy informal visiting as we eat together. In the midst of the meal, and using food from the meal, someone will share a Scripture or thought to remind us of the significance of the cup and the bread and the work of Jesus on the cross. Later, one of the group pulls out a guitar, violin, accordion, or goes to the piano to accompany us as we sing songs of praise to God.
At the teaching time, children in grade 5 or younger go to another room in the house with two teachers to be instructed from a Sunday school-type curriculum. Meanwhile, teens and adults are led through a discussion of a Bible passage. Each week, someone prepares to lead the discussion based on a study guide prepared ahead of time. Each person in the room contributes to the learning, but the leader provides guidance through the more challenging portions of the passage. We all learn much as we hear what the Holy Spirit is speaking into each of our lives from the pages of the Bible.
As the evening draws to a close we spend time praying together. A list of prayer requests is compiled and sent out via e-mail during the week. After a couple hours as the gathering concludes, some head back to the food table, others pull out board games, and others begin conversations, bearing in mind the hospitality and schedule of the host family.
All of the activities of the evening are shared among the entire group and new leaders are trained up by learning to lead in the living room. House church leaders meet weekly (usually one-on-one) with the lead minister for coaching and mentoring.
The monthly large-group gathering (called Open Door) is a celebration, reunion, and an opportunity to communicate about things affecting the entire community. It reminds us we are part of something bigger than the small group of people with whom we regularly meet, and that we are accountable to one another. Open Door is typically interactive, creative, and fun.
Each house church and individual seeks ways to be missional. One group visits a seniors’ residence and regularly provides care for the lonely, sometimes purchasing practical items seniors might need. Others have helped a widow. Some have volunteered to support and hold accountable high-risk sex offenders who are released into the community. Still others provide friendship and a worship service for street people at a local street mission.
The Connections network of house churches has been an experiment with a new/old model from its inception. House church movements are common in many parts of the world, but the concept has not been adequately explored in Canadian culture. It is well-adapted to our large urban areas where it is becoming increasingly difficult for local bodies of believers to purchase land or even rent facilities.
Please pray for this growing network of pilgrims seeking to reach out to those who do not yet realize they are far away from Jesus. Pray that we might take Jesus’ words seriously when he says, “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.”
1 Names and precise details of situations have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.
2 Martin Robinson, Planting Mission-Shaped Churches Today (Oxford: Monarch Books, 2006), 165, 169.
3 Ibid., 168, 169.
4 Tom Bandy, “Evangelism Customized for the Canadian-Australian Context” (www.equippingev-angelists.com/pdf/canadian_evangelism.pdf), 1.
Keith Shields is lead minister with Connections Christian Church and Alberta Team Leader for Church Planting Canada.