“What the church needs to do to address its decline”.
One option – House Churches
Updated 9th May 2018
When invited to comment on, and presumably make suggestions, as to what the church needs to do to address its decline I realised that this is a very wide ranging issue with very many implications. Many, many words have been written related to this topic by more experienced and perhaps wiser heads than mine and I felt that rather than waffle on with ready generalities or academic analysis there might be value in narrowing the scope substantially.
So for the purpose of this response I shall home in on the Uniting Church in Australia, specifically in Queensland, and to “church” as comprising congregations.
Contributions to the decline:
There many reasons put forward for why general church attendance is declining. They include:
- Too many diversionary activities e.g in sport and shopping now available on Sundays
- A strong militant atheism promoted by intellectuals of the likes of Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens. 
- A general decline in people joining community groups with face to face interaction being replaced by electronic communication media – screens.
- Negative publicity from the enquiries into abuse of children in church-run institutions
- Loss of a valid intellectual doctrinal base acceptable to educated people and not conflicting with 21st century state of information, knowledge and experience.
So perhaps all of these (and many other factors) need to be explored when addressing the decline of congregational participation.
Recent observations on the decline:
Recent observations have reinforced in my mind that the current model is not sustainable. By current model I mean that by which we have a congregation of 100 or so attenders, fully independent financially and employing one full-time minister. Those observations:
- An estimate provided by our Presbytery Minister that to establish and sustain a congregation to the employment standards specified by Government and church authorities requires an annual income of some $120,000.
- A neighbouring congregation with which I am associated, despite being one of the three or four biggest congregations in the Presbytery had to defer recruitment of a replacement minister until the congregation it became financially viable.
- A a formerly large city congregation in which a close relative of mine is an active participant would not be able to support a minister without the income it earns from property investments made by previous generations.
- Much is being made of the vigour brought into our congregations by various ethnic groups. While this is to be welcomed we find that these ethnic groups are not in a position to make substantial contributions to congregation finances.
- With a growing number of congregations, usually with ageing attenders, becoming non-viable financially and administratively, there is a tendency for UCA authorities to follow through with closure of the congregations despite growing general populations.
- With a substantial administrative burden arising from compliance with legal liability, health welfare and safety issues, insurance, child protection and so on, ageing personnel are less inclined and less capable of taking on office.
The “House Church” as an option for addressing the decline:
While it may not be a complete answer I would offer one approach to the above difficulties. This is by facilitating the establishment and nurture of house churches. This option is touched on by Keith Suter in his Scenario No 3 for the future of the UCA. That is a return to the early church as a network of spiritual centres established in the residences of committed followers.
Some features of such “house churches”
- The description “house” is used rather than “home” because a home can be anywhere and the word has an emotional connotation. “House” specifically proposes a private residence as against a public church building.
- The house gatherings might comprise three or four families. It might be that a particular household would gather sufficient people to warrant forming a congregation (the assumption being made with the current policy of “church planting”) but that would not necessarily be the intention of forming a house church.
- The house church would have no legal binding to the central church and the central church would have no legal responsibility for it. This means that issues of finance and risk would be taken on by the household rather than the central body. This is appropriate if Christians are to be people of initiative rather than putting safety first. There are precedents for this which can be described at some other time. If this can be seen as a “burden” to the householder one has to ask what degree of commitment we as individuals have to the Jesus Way. Can we imagine Jesus saying, “I won’t be going up to Jerusalem to confront the authorities there until I have checked that I have sufficient insurance cover, no one is likely to sue me, that there are no government regulations hindering me, that my finances have been audited and that I have not sought to have celebratory meals with my friends without first asking our local priest to bless the food!”. Nevertheless there may well be means of minimising the legal risk for householders and these options need to be explored.
- Financial contributions to the central body ( e.g. for the purpose of theological training, representation on social and political issues, provision of consultancies and so on) would be encouraged but should be voluntary.
- No minister or other paid staff would be required but it is expected that capable lay leadership would develop and would be encouraged to undertake theological studies
- While the central church would have no binding authority it would be a resource of ceremonial and educational resources, extending highlighting its traditions and promoting the ethos which the denomination inherits and represents.
- The house church need follow no specific doctrinal or liturgical line. Some households may align themselves with fundamentalism, others with “progressive” Christianity and probably most with the majority UCA position of liberal orthodoxy.
- Membership: Membership of the UCA currently comprises a number of classes – Baptised members, Confirmed members, Members-in-Association and Adherents. At the peak of this list there is required the ceremony of baptism, publicly administered by water.The congregation then prays for the persons and the whole congregation affirms the faith of the universal church by saying the Apostles’ Creed.
- The congregation prays a prayer of thanksgiving and the persons are baptised in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and signed with the cross.”
- “The candidates for baptism repent of their sins, declare that they turn to Jesus, pledge themselves to God, declare that they trust in Jesus as Saviour and Lord and trust the Holy Spirit as their Counsellor and God.
For the house church there would be no criteria for membership. Anybody would be welcomed to join in the journey of sharing with others the living of the Jesus Way.
- Hurtful behaviour. Any occurrence of hurtful behaviour by individuals to varying degrees would be dealt with appropriate authorities ranging from the house group (e.g. exclusion) to the police (where criminal activities take place) and not by any denominational body.
- Financial management. (The current Treasurer’s Handbook for all congregations has 66 pages of instructions!). This would be simplified as (allowing for any taxation and other statutory limitations) there would be no one to report to other than the house group. In practice one person may be given responsibility but with all dealings completely open to public scrutiny. As much expenditure as practicable would be financed by gifts (not levies) to the central church. The main retained ongoing expense might be a “sinking
- fund” looking to the day when the house group sought to become a standard congregation.
Steps to be taken now:
There is no need for action on this venture to await the deliberation and decision of the four governing councils of the Uniting Church in Australia. Action can begin right now outside the official resolutions of the Church. We are looking here at a vision over 20 years. Any support and encouragement from the official church would of course be welcomed.
- Establish and maintain a data base comprising every congregation, faith community, home study, and any other groups within the denomination.
- Circulate the intention to explore the feasibility of house churches being associated with the Uniting church. Disseminate the idea and invite groups to tell of their own experiences and experiments in this area.
- Nominate a house church “contact person” for each postcode in the State. The contact person would have no responsibility (unless she or he wanted to take it further) other than to be just that – a person through whom enquiries may be made as to the contact details for people in that area either already maintaining or interested in setting up house churches. For some postcodes there may be additional contact persons linked to specific towns or suburbs.
- Participate in the group which is exploring the feasibility of nurturing house churches. If you have comments to make (especially “how to make this work”, rather than a flat “it won’t work”) send a message to firstname.lastname@example.org
Some suggestions in making it work:
- Take existing home study groups and move their meeting times to Sundays incorporating liturgical features such as singing.
- Householders when seeking a new home may make one criterion for selection, the availability of a room large and otherwise appropriate enough, to hold a gathering of 3 to 5 families. When the residence is to be rented, the occupier, would, of course be wise to check with the landlord as to the intended purpose.
 A February 2018 observation of a statistical sample in the DNA exhibition at Brisbane City Hall suggests that although attendance at church services is low there remains a large proportion of the Brisbane population who retain a core some sense of what might be called the religious. In this soundly selected random survey some 20 per cent of respondents stated that they do not attend religious services. From this same 100 person sample, however, some 60 per cent stated a “belief in God”. A challenge for the churches?