Trying to describe what a house church looks like is about as futile as trying to describe the doctrinal beliefs of the Protestant church.
Everywhere you go it is going to be a little different. Some house churches are nothing more than micro versions of institutional churches. Run by one or two people while going through their program step by step. Other house churches are extremely loose and casual. While the ones you read about in China and India seem to be somewhere in between. So my aim here is not to paint a picture of what a house church looks like; but rather to identify what seem to be the strengths, weaknesses, advantages and dangers which I have experienced firsthand from home gatherings.
Strengths and advantages
There are many strengths and advantages within house churches over the institutional model or casual church (by casual I mean those who believe in no structure or planned meetings and that church just “happens” sporadically amongst believers).
Fellowship is an obvious advantage, face to face time is priceless both in and outside of meetings. Paul, following Jesus’s example, spoke of going through great personal pain and suffering in order to build up the saints. It is a mindset that is almost totally lost within our congregations pews. You cannot know the fears, struggles and weaknesses of those who you do not know. You can preach a sermon to them, but you cannot really walk with them or bear their burdens until you know their needs.
A fully functioning body is another major plus, Christians need an environment where they can use their own spiritual gifts, where each person truly has value and imparts something more significant than just monetary donations and adding their voice to the corporate singing.
Diversity is also a great asset in a house church, at least in the West where the move has being gaining momentum and people from different denominational backgrounds have started coming together. Most (but not all) denominations were birthed out of a specific insight into a truth about God and our brothers can often see things that we have been blinded from. respectful conversations about our different views can be very beneficial. Truth has nothing to fear because it will hold firm under prayerful study. Sometimes we need to have the rug pulled out from under our feet, it is both humbling and exposes the dirt that we have swept underneath it.
Weaknesses and dangers
For the most part the weaknesses and dangers within house churches are similar to those of their more traditional cousin’s problems. Controlling personalities can dictate meetings; people may run after certain teachers rather than Christ and pride at their “more biblical” model of church can result in bad mouthing those" deceived fellows" back in the institutional church. A lack of structure can contribute to a lack of direction and focus in home meetings. Personally, we have had many days like that where time flies past and before you know it, you quickly round up everyone for prayer because people need to start leaving and the day is lost.
The most concerning flaw I find though is that many people join house churches for no other reason than they see it as the biblical model. There is plenty in scripture to support meeting in house churches. And so the thinking is that if we can imitate the fruits that were being lived out and recorded in the book of Acts then we have made it. The problem is though, that so often it only seems to be a theological persuasion and people are not truly been knit together with other believers. In essence, it’s remains just a once a week deal where you still get to keep people at arms length and live comfortably as though you were your own. True churches do not just mimic what they see in the New Testament. They live and function corporately as a local body and if we can get that right, the results will ultimately bear resemblance to what we read about in Acts without our cheap imitations.
Some institutional churches live this out far better than some house churches do.