Prior to concluding, I’d like to spend some time reflecting on similarities and differences between the house church movement in the United States and the house churches we visited while in Georgia. Being a member at a church in the States that advocates for the more intimate settings house churches provide, I paid close attention to how these congregations functioned in Georgia.
The first main difference I noticed between our context in America and theirs in Eastern Europe was simply the reason or motive for meeting in houses. In the United States the movement toward more intimate settings has been almost a direct response to the mega-church movement, or even an expression out of the mega-church movement.
A number of studies have recently come out showing how, though drawing a large crowd and even large number of non-Christians, mega churches often fail to further believers along on their spiritual journey. In response, a number of these church have opted to develop strong small group ministries that will meet in homes or out in public. Others have chosen to leave the mega-church behind and start house churches that can be reproduced and allow for more intimate settings for spiritual growth.
As for the house churches in the Republic of Georgia, this response to larger churches was just not the case. In fact, the majority of these churches I would say are not meeting at homes simply by choice, but rather because they have no other option. We learned, especially during our time at the church in Khoni, that the Baptist believers in Georgia are an oppressed people. Because they are a minority religious group, and because the Orthodox Church (the State Church) fears the Baptist influences from the West (which according to the Soviet Era was the breeding ground of the Anti-Christ), the Baptist churches often face persecution in terms of finding places to meet. The believers in Khoni described to us that if they tried renting out a theatre or other building to do a revival meeting in town, they would almost always get turned down. Though the business owner would love the business, if they rented the facility out to a Baptist group, they would run the risk of being shut down or fired by the Orthodox State Church. Not only is this the case with buildings, but it is also often the case with the believers finding jobs in the nearby towns.
Though this differing motive for meeting in homes exists, I would almost argue that the Georgian church is in a better position amidst persecution than we in America are amidst freedom. Not that freedom is not to be appreciated, but throughout history it has been the church under persecution that has both grown the fastest and been the most authentic expression of the Christian faith. This was the case in the early church in Acts as well as the underground church in China. While it seemed the Georgian Baptist/ Protestant church, though strengthened, remained stagnant in terms of growth during the Soviet Era, since it has received “limited” freedom it has seen tremendous growth. And as we experienced while in Georgia, much of this growth has come from house churches.
Two characteristics in particular stuck out to me about the house churches in Georgia, characteristics I hope to incorporate into my own church practices here in the States. The first of those was the effectiveness of community. After lunch during one of the days we were on the west coast of Georgia, we had the chance to play soccer with residents of a local mountain village near one of the home churches we stayed at for a few days. Through interacting with the youth before and after the game, we later discovered that we were able to make an impact on them spiritually by stimulating conversation between them and members of the local church. It was the very nature of the house church being located in the heart of the village that allowed for this chance of evangelism.
Another opportunity these house churches had in regards to effectiveness of community was their flexibility and hospitality amongst each other and outsiders. The refugee community we worshiped with meets daily in their homes for prayer, Scripture reading, and song, and the other two house churches we met with changed the day they got together so that we too had a chance to worship with them when we visited them. They were also much more willing to put us up in their homes because of the closeness of their community and fellowship that they experience on a weekly basis (or at least they didn’t have to go through the church office to make all this happen).
A second characteristic that I may have taken the most from the whole trip was their frequent participation in the Lord’s Supper. While we were in Georgia, I think we had communion at least the number of days we were there (ten) if not more. Recently the house church group that I meet with every other week in the United States has been reading through Acts. I couldn’t help but notice a verse from Acts 2 that supports and emphasizes this need to practice communion in homes regularly, as well as show generosity in fellowship: “They worshiped together at the Temple each day, met in homes for the Lord’s Supper, and shared their meals with great joy and generosity.” (Acts 2:46) By doing this the church is able to always remember Christ’s blood spilled for us on the cross, as well as recognize that now we, being filled and sent out with the Holy Spirit, are a living representation of Christ’s body.
Despite the language barrier that we faced most of the trip with our brothers and sisters in Christ there in Georgia, when it came to communion, we all knew its meaning and significance as it connected us from across the world together as one in the Body of Christ. And though already experiencing apathy from the American church in doing communion more often, I hope to encourage any church Body I am a part of from here on out to reconsider the common practice in the States of only doing it once a month.