Is This What Happened When Churches Moved from Houses to Buildings?

At Old South, we are continuing our online existence.  Worship, meetings, gatherings, even pastoral care are all now remote, and mostly on Zoom.  Despite no community transmission of Covid in these parts, we’ve been reluctant to move to in-person gatherings.  Old South is made up primarily of people over 70 (and many well over 70), and our old building has horrible air circulation.  Old South is also a strongly musically inclined congregation.  With no choir, and hymns sung only behind face masks, the prospect of in-person worship feels just too sad and difficult. 

Our online church existence has gone reasonably well.  We even have a few people who would not normally be able to join us (people who have moved away, or are connected to members, but live out of state) who attend regularly.  Still, we have a small group of people who are not joining us.  Some have never owned a computer and won’t do so now, and they are not interested in joining us by phone, which they could.  For a few others, even if they have a computer at home, they are just not interested in joining us.  They might manage email just fine, but they are not interested in trying anything more than that.  And let me add here, this isn’t just about the elderly.  Some of our most recalcitrant are under 65.

I’ve been wondering a lot about those who have been “left behind” or have chosen to stay behind, as we have moved more and more of our communal lives online.  Is there any connection to what happened in the early church, when the faithful started to move away from house churches and into churches as separate buildings?

Until very recently, I had never thought about this change in Christian life and practice, that happened so very long ago.  But now I wonder, and wonder especially about those who were left out, or stayed out, in the shift from gathering in a house to gathering in a building.  Were there members of house churches who refused to go along with this new-fangled concept of meeting in a dedicated building used only for church gatherings?  Did that period of the early church have within its membership those who disapproved of the “new technology” of the day, who looked upon a separate building as perhaps extravagant and unnecessary, or too impersonal and too given to excessive expressions of hierarchal authority?  And, what about the wealthy women who sometimes were the benefactors of house churches?  Did they perceive that a move to buildings would undermine their significance in and to the church?

I wonder.

And, I wonder about what lengths people went to to try to convince those “left behind” to try this new thing:  Hey, I’ll be walking right by your place on the way to worship on Sunday, maybe I’ll knock on your door and we can go to worship together?  Or maybe there were visits from folks who tried to describe all the greatness of this new thing, all the benefits of meeting in a church “building” as opposed to someone’s house.  There’s so much space! It’s so much easier to bring friends!  Or to tell people where we worship!

If such a thing happened, were the church building proselytizers successful?  Did they change anyone’s mind?  If they did, I’d love to know how.

If those people were anything like my people, I bet they weren’t very successful.  It can be impossible to get some church people to change—no matter the reason or the situation.  In the great shift that is now taking place, we may like to believe that our move to virtual church is just a temporary consequence of the global crisis we are living through.  But, it’s hard to imagine that such a long stretch of this new thing hasn’t changed us, in serious and substantial ways.  And, what about those who are “left behind”?  Will they simply be left behind, or will their incessant clinging to what we once were harm the community’s ability to follow the path that is now laid out before us?  I wonder.

About smaxreisert

I'm a United Church of Christ pastor serving the small, faithful Old South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in Hallowell, Maine. I was ordained in Massachusetts in 1995, moved to Maine in 1997 and have served the Hallowell church since 2005.
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