With the current coronavirus concerns, we are meeting in house assemblies until further notice. Changing the forum for our public worship can be enlightening, but also challenging! We experience that church is the people––where before we only knew it. But having experienced it, we may have some practical questions about how to conduct a home-based worship assembly.
Most of us have not had much experience in home-based worship. I want to offer some suggestions or observations from experience for your consideration. I offer these thoughts as suggestions, not as mandates. If any of my ideas clash with your theological views, adapt or ignore the suggestions as you wish.
Q: Should we have a set start and finish time?
A: Yes, and no. Yes, you should have a set start time, but one of the advantages of a home-based meeting is that you do not need to be as strict with time because you know all the participants. If someone is running late, wait for them. As you can imagine, such a rule would be unworkable for our larger corporate assembly! In a smaller setting, however, we can set a 10:00 start time and then wait for the one person whom we know is coming but for whatever reason is late.
As for the finish time, I must give an ambiguous answer. You do not need to have a set finish time, but it's probably good that the finish is clear. In other words, I don't think we need to say “we're done at noon,” but we probably do need to be clear that the “assembly” has ended, whether that be 11:00, 11:30 or 12:30. A closing prayer or a clear statement like “God be with you as you go in peace” can be helpful.
I don't like a clear finish time because I see what it has done to our gathered assemblies. People start glancing at watches and squirming in their seats as we approach noon. If there's not a preset finish time, that can be lessened.
At one time, I liked the idea of the assembled time blending into a meal or other “post-assembly” activity. I loved the idea that we experienced our lives as worship because the worship service never really “ended.” As much as I still love that idea, some people crave clear borders. Therefore, my experience says that it's good to have a clear finish, but not a preset finish time.
Q: What about the kids?
A: Ah, the perennial small group question! Children are a wonderful addition to home-based groups with flexible structure and time expectations. They are a little rougher on groups with a clear structure and preset time expectations. My advice is to incorporate them the same way you do when company comes to your house.
When another family comes to visit us, I expect the children to gather with us while we share a meal. I also expect that they will not hang around as much once adult conversation begins. This does not mean they are shunned. In fact, they may (often) interrupt that conversation. The point is that there is no expectation that they will engage that conversation, nor is there great angst if they interrupt that conversation. In a home-based worship assembly, we can pause to interact with dirty diapers, requests for drinks, and to admire artwork. This is not practical in a larger assembly, although I still think we should show great patience with our younger congregants. In a home-based worship assembly, we can sing children's songs and even have a side table for communion. They can learn about God the same way they learn about other adult subjects: by hanging around.
Bottom line: don't run your home-based worship assembly in a way that makes your kids dread the assembly happening. Instead, allow it to feel like any other time when good friends come over to share time with you. The kids are being taught how to socialize and have good manners, but they are not expected to turn into little adults.
Q: What should women be doing?
A: Here, there may be some who do not share my theological convictions. I ask you, though, to consider whether a home-based worship assembly might provide more freedom. When visitors come over to your house, and weighty discussions take place around the table, do the women stay silent? In the day when women were denied education, one would often hear statements like “this is a subject for men. You don't understand this.” Would anyone say that today? About anything?
Similarly, Paul's injunction to Timothy in 2:11-15 is that women should learn. I'm convinced that the point is that people who don't know what they're talking about shouldn't be teaching authoritatively. (lots of discussion points here, but trying to paint the large picture). So what would Paul have written years later presuming the women had been taught and had learned? Again, if you don't buy this, I'm just asking that you consider it and think about it. Why do women vote now? It's not just that it seemed the right thing to do; it's that education was no longer the province of the male, and it just became untenable to deny that right when the logical basis for the bar no longer existed.
Think about all that and consider one more thing: most of us are comfortable with women speaking up in Bible classes. Is a home-based worship assembly more like a Bible class? Or a formal worship assembly? And regarding that formality, where did it come from? Were our assemblies ever to be formal? Decent and in order, yes, but formal?
Bottom line: I think a home-based format provides more opportunities for women even for those who would not do the same inside our auditorium. I also do not think that anyone who does so “concedes the point” on the issue of what happens in our assemblies. Homes are smaller, more intimate, and more personal. I can understand why someone might persist in sincerely held beliefs that practices at home should be different than practices in the larger assembly.
Q: What about singing?
A: If you're like some families I know, make a recording and sell it once you're done. If you're like other families, be kind to your animals and put them in the garage before you begin. Seriously, the way we sing at home is largely affected by things like talent and personality. Understand that the apostles did not sing in four-part harmony. One of my faith heroes, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, did not believe in four-part harmony. He believed in unison singing. For many home-based groups, this will be a practical necessity. Everyone simply sings the tune. For other groups, you may want to consider the way the early church sang: by responsive or united readings of the psalms, and by sharing new words of new songs written by members.
You have a wide range of options. You can use this as a time to dive deeply into the hymnbook of God's people (Psalms) with what we today would call corporate reading, or you can move to sing the melody together, or flat-out four-part harmony. Instruments can be involved or not, according to your talent and convictions. The point is this: make music in your hearts to God. Make him the Lord of your life and let your words flow out of that reality.
Q: Can we do communion as a meal together?
A: Absolutely. Jesus established it as one course in a larger meal, and the early church celebrated it that way. This is precisely why Paul needed to speak about people getting full and, or drunk at the Lord's Supper. If you wish to have a meal together and have one course of it be the celebration of the Lord's body, you are simply returning to early practice. The main point is, as often as you do this, do it in memory of Jesus.
Grace & Shalom,