Rediscovering the Domestic Church

Domestic Church is a way of describing spiritual activities taking place in a home setting. It has been practised across the centuries, although not always called by this name. At a time when faith in the homes of many Christian families consists of bedtime stories and prayers, Domestic Church is a way of tapping into the spiritual potential of all the other activities they do together.
Despite parents sometimes feeling they have little influence on their children, we know that we absorb many of our values for life, including spiritual ones, from our parents.

Victoria Beech is the author and publisher of GodVenture books and events. She worked as children’s work co-ordinator for Oxford Vineyard Church before becoming a Senior Commissioning Editor for Scripture Union. E Mail 

victoria@beechpublishing.com Web www.GodVenture.co.uk

Thus it could be proposed that an efficient strategy to influence the lives of children for Jesus should be to encourage, inspire and equip their parents to disciple them in their own Domestic Church. By taking a fresh look at Domestic Church, it may be possible to find a different perspective on our work with children and families, as well as some new ways of doing it. It could allow us to focus on a ‘ground up’ strategy which may not look glamorous or yield dramatic results in one event or one year, but could radically increase the impact of our children’s work and our churches within our communities.

Firstly, we will consider why Domestic Church is not common practised, then what the Bible has to say about it. In order to place it in a context, we’ll then look the place Domestic Church plays in different Christian traditions, followed by a brief look at what a contemporary Domestic Church might involve and some of the questions which could emerge. In conclusion, we will give some suggestions of actions we might take to inspire and enable participation in a contemporary version of this ancient tradition.

Why have we not practised Domestic Church?
The juxtaposition of the words ‘domestic’ and ‘church’ reveals something about how we think of church. The word is perhaps more synonymous with buildings, services and large groups of Christians. However, if the church is the body of Christ, this allows it to exist anywhere people who love Jesus are found, including in a home. That this is not readily part of our thinking could stem from the tradition of ‘serious’ religion taking people away from home, for example into monastic orders, the priesthood or as a missionary or being conducted by an ordained or priest-like figure. We have forgotten that “where two or three come together in [His] name” [Jesus] is with them” (Matthew 18:20). When we get together as families, there is always two or three or more of us!

In church, we often run separate programmes for children and adults, and some activities are better suited to age-specific groups. However, the uptake of all-age services shows a shift towards people enjoying the benefits of worshiping and learning together. Although these services are notoriously hard to do well, many of their trickier elements are absent when planning something for a Domestic Church, due to the smaller ‘congregation’ and the intrinsic shared intimacy. Yet this area is not something which seems to have been explored as much.
We can see that Domestic Church may require quite a shift in mind set, but has the potential to have higher gains. Let us next consider what the Bible says about Domestic Church.

What the Bible says about Domestic Church
In the Bible, many of the spiritual events and activities took place in someone’s home. For example, Joseph’s dreams (Genesis 37:3-11) and miracles performed by both Elijah and Elisha (see 1 Kings 17:7-24; 2 Kings 4:1-37) to name but a few. Jesus also performs healing miracles in people’s homes, for example Simon’s mother in law (Luke 4:38,39) and Jairus’s daughter (Luke 8:51-56). He also shares meals with people in such a way that they meet God, for example the sinful woman at the Pharisee’s house (Luke 7:36-50), Martha and Mary (Luke 10:38-42), Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10) and the disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:30-32).

As well as stories of God’s activity in people’s homes, the Bible also talks about various rituals and festivals which take place there. The annual Hebrew festivals of Unleavened Bread, Harvest and Ingathering (Exodus 23:14,15) each home-based element, with some being almost entirely based in the home. For example during Passover, the fast from yeast and the extensive celebration meal take place at home. It’s interesting that in the recent resurgence of celebrating Passover meals among Christians, many meals happen in church buildings, rather than in homes.

It might be interesting to look into some of the reasons for this, as they may hold keys to why people find Domestic Church difficult.
 As for New Testament rituals, one of the earliest descriptions of what Christians did together was to break bread in homes (Acts 2:16), and Paul’s letters show that at least some if not all of the early churches were home-based (Romans 16:5; 23,24; 1 Corinthians 16:5; Philemon 1,2). We see then that for people in Bible times, home was a significant place of spiritual activity, both in terms of rituals and their faith interacting with their daily lives.  We will now trace the concept of home-based spiritual activity across different Christian traditions.

Domestic Church in different Christian traditions
Since Bible times, churches have grown larger, making it difficult to meet in people’s homes. But throughout the centuries people have still referred to Domestic Church, if not in those words. For example, John Chrysostom (born 347) talks of the household as ‘a little church’ and Augustine writes about the head of households in a role similar to that of a priest.

Domestic Church is a more familiar term within Catholic Tradition, as reflected in the documents of the Second Vatican Council (1965) which say that “the family is, so to speak, the domestic church. In it parents should, by their word and example, be the first preachers of the faith to their children.” LUMEN GENTIUM, Chapter 2. More recently, the UK Catholic church has launched a multimedia resource pack called ‘Home is a Holy place’ with the aim of “recognising and responding to God’s presence at home with our families” (www.homeisaholyplace.org.uk). The materials acknowledge each act of kindness, of patience, forgiveness, of joy and celebration as a spiritual act.

This does not undermine talking about and celebrating faith rituals, but living our faith is an essential and difficult activity, and one which most families are probably better at than they might imagine. The concept of Domestic Church is also recognised within the Orthodox tradition where each family is the smallest unit of the Christian community. This is reflected in an Orthodox wedding where the couple are given crowns to wear. One of the meanings of this is to remind them of their roles as leaders of their own Domestic Church.

Within the Protestant tradition in more recent times, many people have considered it the role of the Sunday School to nurture children’s faith. However, Sunday Schools were first developed in England to teach poor children literacy, and only later involved Christian content.  As the national tradition of sending children to Sunday School has diminished over the last 50 years, these groups have become mainly for ‘churched’ children. But with only 1 or 2 hours a week, they are poorly placed to be the primary source to help children come to a living, life-long faith.
While Domestic Church has existed through the centuries, it is not currently meeting its full potential to transform lives, especially within Protestant churches. So if this were to happen, what might a contemporary Domestic Church look like?

What contemporary Domestic Church might look like
As we saw in the Biblical model, Domestic Church should involve both spiritual elements in every day routines and specific activities or rituals designed to help them meet God through the Bible and prayer. It needs to include nurture of the different elements of faith:

    • information to help people believe with their minds
    • experiences to help them trust with their emotions
    • opportunities to imagine and operate their will
    • activities to enable them put their faith into action.

Bible and prayer activities should be creative and use different learning styles. Routine and flexibility should both be used to encourage regular times of meeting with God while also keeping things fluid, fun and appropriate. For example, what Domestic Church looks like in term time may be different from the holidays. What it looks like when the children are at Primary school probably should be different when one moves into Senior school.

It might be useful to adapt and adopt some Hebrew, Catholic and Orthodox home rituals, since these traditions have more of a history in Domestic Church. For example, the Hebrew Shabbat or Sabbath meal offers a very tangible opportunity for families to share a spiritual meal together. For more details and other ideas, see The Heavenly Party by Michele Guinness.
 Some people believe all the functions of a local congregation should be displayed in a Domestic Church. It is certainly best to have a holistic approach, including elements of teaching, worship and outreach, praise, thanks, repentance and intercession. However, not all of these elements need to be present all the time.Just as local churches have different flavours and different emphasis’ at different times, so too should Domestic Churches. If people are given freedom to explore and express their faith in way which are meaningful to them, they will become evangelists for the activities they do and the God they meet through those activities.

Having looked briefly at what a Domestic Church could look like today, let us address some of the questions it might raise.

Questions which could emerge

Could Domestic Church exclude people living outside of the traditional family unit, either with or without children?

Traditionally, Domestic Church refers to a couple or a family. However, home is wherever people live, and while as children’s workers we are focused on the spiritual nurture of children, the concept of Domestic Church and its value can apply to any home. Indeed, the sort of activities which families might use might only need slight adaption to work in adult-only homes.

Could focus on Domestic Church diminish focus on ‘un-churched’ children?

If a change in allocation of resources is needed to assist Domestic Churches, the suggestion would be to reassign resources already aimed at helping children and adults attending church events.
It should also be noted that a functioning Domestic Church should lead to family members being able to share their faith more easily both in and outside the home. Most families have contact with un-churched friends for whom the Domestic Church homes could be a place where they are able to meet God in an informal, relevant setting, either through the words and actions of the host family, or perhaps through joining in with relevant spiritual activities. The latter is especially possible at times such as Christmas and Easter, as well as with regular rituals families might use such as a Shabbat meal or Christian element to a birthday celebration.

What should the balance be between congregational and Domestic Church?

This will be different in different home and church situations. However, currently the general leaning is very much towards congregation, and so any work we do to redress that balance would be bring more balance.

How can we shield children from heresy or bad teaching in a Domestic Church setting?

This is a difficult question, because by definition, church without clergy requires a level of licence. It could be suggested that Domestic Churches be monitored in the same way as other church groups such as small groups and children’s work. This would be mainly through relationship, and interaction between Domestic Churches. This question also links in with the question of congregation/Domestic Church balance. If trained teachers, worship leaders, clergy and the like recognise the importance of Domestic Church, the input they give people within a congregational setting should help to keep Domestic Churches out of heresy. 
 It is also important to recognise that churches do not consist of individuals with identical theology or expression of faith. If Domestic Church is an expression of the personal faiths of the individuals in that home, this will inevitably mean that some of the teaching and worship in a Domestic Church may not fit snugly with the congregational church to which individuals are all members.

Actions we might take
Here are just a few suggestions:

  • We need to find and be good models of Domestic Church, allowing others to be part of it whenever they are in our homes.
  • Parents need encouragement and nurture in their faith, as although children can sometimes be the drivers to faith activities, without an inspired parent, Domestic Church for families will be hit and miss.
  • Our services and events need to be run in recognition that Domestic Church is an essential place of faith development and love of Jesus. This means our teaching and liturgies (whether formal or informal) need to be accessible and reflect people’s every day experiences. Our suggestions of how to live a life of faith need to include practical ways of living out our faith at home.
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