23 August 2007

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House Church Movement Quietly Grows Here (Lancaster article w/ the Flinchbaughs)

Here is an article about the house church movement here in Lancaster, PA from this Friday's evening paper (The New Era). We are excited that people even outside the church are getting to read about a different way of doing and (most importantly) BEING the church. Megan and I were interviewed twice for the story and even had a picture of us featured along with some others in the article. Our bookstudy buddys, friends, and mentors Dave and Carol Witmer also had some words included in the article. The highlights for me come from another friend Jonathan Groff. You can view all of it here: http://local.lancasteronline.com/4/207993 or read below.

We feel like the article does a nice job of talking about what groups like ours generally do and why we do it even if it leaves out a lot of the core theology that informs these ways of doing things. The paraphrase under our picture is kind of what we said but it was not meant to imply that we could only worship God in houses or that everyone else should too. That is just as silly as only worshipping in big impressive buildings..... Big thanks to Joan Kern for taking the time to research and talk to so many people in the area engaged in this work. We pray that the article furthers thought about God's Kingdom and how people can get involved themselves. Enjoy.

House church movement quietly grows here
The informal, intimate gatherings in homes, usually with a meal, are an alternative to traditional churches. Trend is sweeping country, too.

By JOAN KERN, Staff
Lancaster New Era

Published: Aug 10, 2007 10:11 AM EST

..68.82.233.9-->LANCASTER COUNTY, Pa - They share a potluck dinner on paper plates, celebrate three birthdays with homemade chocolate cake, then kick off their shoes to discuss Genesis 2-3 in the living room while their kids play upstairs.

For the group of six single and married adults, this is church.

It's a house church, hosted by Michael and Brie Stoltzfus in their Lancaster City home. A small group of worshippers gathers here every Wednesday, from 6 to 8 p.m., for food, fellowship and Bible study.

In another city home, on Lime Street, nearly a dozen Generation X-ers gather Sunday evenings in a similar church service. They share a meal, move into the living room for singing, share news and needs, and then move onto Bible study.

The gatherings are part of the independent, nondenominational Christian house church movement that's quietly sweeping the nation, including Lancaster County. There are at least 15 known house churches here — and more planned.

"I don't have a problem with other churches," says Michael Stoltzfus, a 30-year-old Realtor. "This is just another way."

"It's under the radar, it's grassroots and it's huge," says the Rev. Larry Kreider, international director of DOVE Christian Fellowship International in Ephrata, which oversees seven local house churches. He has also written two books on the subject of house churches.

Like Stoltzfus, house church attendees say they take no issue with traditional churches, but they wanted to try something different.

They wanted a church that doesn't use finances for buildings or pastoral salaries. And they wanted a church that enables them to share their faith in a different way, reaching people who don't attend church or those who don't feel comfortable in a traditional church setting.

House churches, by their very nature of meeting in homes, are small. Rarely do they have more than 20 congregants, but leaders are constantly sought to birth new house churches. If a group grows too lary, it may break off into another house church.

The intimate, casual setting of the house church appeals to people who care deeply about authenticity and community, organizers say. The house church, also known as simple church, could aptly be called "face-to-face church" because worshippers can't slip in and out unnoticed.

House churches, with shared bivocational leadership, are dedicated to putting resources into the community, such as making meals for the needy or transporting elderly residents, leaders say.

Some Lancaster County house churches are neighborhood-based; some are generational; others begin by inviting friends who, in turn, invite other friends.

There's no model for house churches, but congregants share core values, says Jonathan Groff, a 32-year-old estimator and salesman for Brentmore Construction who leads a house church Sunday mornings in the west end of Lancaster City.

"We're all Christians; we're all responsible for each other," he says. "It brings accountability to the grassroots level."

"One of the key things we're working on is changing the mindset of church as a place to go," he says. "Church is who we are.

"Church happens every day of the week, when we're playing together, praying for people and sharing needs.

"With so many people in unhealthy families today, a house church can serve as a surrogate family," says Groff.

Megan Flinchbaugh, a 25-year-old Solanco High School teacher, attends the Lime Street house church with her husband, Chris.

"Our goal as a group is to meet the needs of our neighbors, to walk with them and be their friends," she says.

"We're committed to that goal," says Chris, 26, who works at Rhubarb's Natural Foods on Columbia Avenue. "We want to encourage each other."

Nationally, most house churches are conservative, and many lean toward the charismatic or Pentecostal, meaning congregants may speak in tongues or believe in spiritual healing. In Lancaster County, the nondenominational house churches have many congregants with Mennonite roots.

According to a study last year by The Barna Group, an evangelical polling organization in California, 9 percent of adults nationwide attend some form of house church during the week. That's up from 1 percent who attended such a church a decade ago. (The study says these house churches are distinct from the small groups offered by many large traditional churches.)

House churches are a return to Christianity's roots. Jesus ministered in homes, and the early church began in homes.

In communist countries, Christians have met in "underground" house churches for years. Experts estimate that in China, where Christians are persecuted, 80 million worship weekly in house churches.

In the United States, however, the house church movement started partly as a reaction to the church itself, with some worshippers feeling alone or unimportant, house church experts say.

The current house church movement in Lancaster County differs though, with those involved emphasizing they have nothing against traditional churches. There was a house church movement in Lancaster County in the 1980s or early '90s begun by some disgruntled people, but they did not last, organizers here say.

Unlike small groups offered by many large churches, house churches are independent entities. Their spiritual guidance comes from the Bible, the members and their overseers.

Instead of a choir or worship band, congregants at the Lime Street house church sing along with Chris Flinchbaugh as he leads worship with his guitar. Rather than hear a sermon from a paid pastor, they take turns leading Bible study, recently focusing on "Celebration of Discipline" by Richard Fost. And instead of giving money to help support a church building, members give 10 percent and then suggest, discuss and approve recipients.

The Lime Street house church was founded three years ago by a young couple from Weaverland Mennonite Church in East Earl. The church oversees its finances and theology.

"We have an unwritten agreement that we all tithe somehow," says Megan Flinchbaugh.

In the past, the church has donated funds to a city family who had a house fire, area residents teaching English in India, and missionaries. They have also sent a member to a house church conference and purchased Bible study guides.

But the national house church movement has critics. Some say house churches are fraught with theological peril: House-church leaders rarely have divinity degrees, and some believe that when you have untrained laypeople teaching other untrained laypeople, the environment's ripe for heresy.

Some critics also say house churches are unwilling to reach out and help those outside their close-knit group.

But those fears don't seem to be materializing in Lancaster County.

The Rev. Bruce Epperly, co-pastor of Disciples United Church of Christ, meeting at the Friends Meeting House, 110 Tulane Terrace, believes house churches have more personality than institutional churches.

"I don't oppose them at all," Epperly says. "They do move more quickly and are more intimate."

He acknowledged that if house churches grow extensively, some organized churches may cease to exist, but said the traditional church isn't going away.

The Rev. Kent Kroehler, senior pastor at First United Methodist Church, just guided his church, at Duke and Walnut streets, through a $9 million expansion.

But he says it's a plus to watch house churches re-emerge.

"We need to respect the mystery of how spirituality works in the community," he says.

Both Epperly and Kroehler say there is a danger that house churches could become isolated from the global world and stray from accurate theology.

"They need well-educated leaders who have a larger vision than their community," said Epperly, also professor of practical theology at the Lancaster Theological Seminary.

That's where organizations, such as DOVE Christian Fellowship International, come in.

The nondenominational DOVE operates the five-year-old Lancaster Micro Church Network, which includes seven house churches. Three are in Lancaster; four are in Lititz. DOVE oversees the network's finances and theology in monthly meetings.

After Stoltzfus, the Realtor, became interested in establishing new churches about four years ago, he attended DOVE's Church Planting Leadership School. At the school, he met 34-year-old Mark Ginder, of Lititz, who taught a recent service the Stoltzfus' house.

Groff is mentored by local church planter David Witmer through the regional HopeNet Fellowship of Churches. HopeNet was founded by the nondenominational Living Hope Community Church, 2823 Columbia Ave.

Living Hope commissioned Groff's city house church, and Groff is a former Living Hope member. Comprised of west-end neighbors, about 20 young adults and eight children under age 6 attend.

"We're constantly trying to raise up leaders and birth new house churches," says Wayne Kaufman, 60, who mentors three city house churches and hosts one for empty nesters in the James Street Improvement District.

Last year, local house churches began an annual summer gathering in a local park to get to know each other. Some networks of house churches, including DOVE's, stay in touch with monthly meetings.

Kreider, Stoltzfus, Kaufman and Witmer are all members of The Regional Church of Lancaster leadership council.

The networking ministry states the following common goal on its Web site: "seeing the Kingdom of God established in every Lancaster home, community and marketplace — including the media and the worlds of commerce, education and government."

All but Kaufman, who declined to give the history of his faith, have Mennonite roots — Kreider and Witmer were ordained in the Mennonite Church; Groff and Stoltzfus grew up in Mennonite churches.

At house churches, Stoltzfus says some non-believers come and go, while others become believers and reach out to other non-believers.

Some people try both a traditional church and a house church, attending both for a while. They are encouraged to make a commitment.

Groff says a house church meets his need "to focus on relationships in our midst.

"It's not very glorious," he says. "It's a lot of time, a lot of work, a lot of loving. You have to be willing to open up to others, not just sit on a bench."

One couple's introduction to HopeNet's house church began with a plate of cookies when they moved into the neighborhood.

"We got to know each other, became friends," Groff said. "When they had struggles, we ministered to them as a church would, and voila, you have church."

If someone is having a problem, he said he may not have the answer, but he can sit and pray with him.

Stoltzfus explained that most people come to house church through a connection.

"It's very rare for someone just to show up," he said. "I'm bringing people into my home. I'm careful and cautious."

He said he still has a lot to learn about house churches.

"I don't want to pretend to be something I'm not," he said. "We're taking our time. We're not rushing to save the world.

"We want it to be genuine."
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(McClatchy-Tribune contributed to this report.)
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CONTACT US: jkern@LNPnews.com or 481-6028

 
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