April 30, 2005
Henry Staggs handed out a hodgepodge of Bibles — of various translations — and instructed everyone to find 1 Peter 1:13. The five well-behaved children sitting on the floor in the middle of the room were preoccupied with petting Jezebel, a poodle-schnauzer mix. Yet they took Bibles and opened them on the floor.
Eighteen people — eight adults and 10 children — had squeezed into what was once a small bedroom for a Sunday afternoon of "house church." Each in the tight circle took turns reading a verse until the 13 verses of the Bible had been read. That children occasionally struggled with words was part of the faith adventure.
Everyone, including a 6-month-old girl, was affirmed as part of Living Hope Christian Fellowship, gathered in the condominium of Henry and Cindy Staggs in Mesa. During the two hours, no sermon was given, no offering plate passed. No organ or piano played, and no four-part choir sang. Missing were hymnals, stained-glass windows or roomy pews.
But no one was a stranger.
Todd Spence strummed his guitar as the group sang such popular songs as "Lord, I Lift Your Name on High." A discussion focused on the Bible passage, and everyone held hands in a circle for a closing prayer. Then the group moved to the dining room for a "full meal communion" in the tradition of the Last Supper. Their hearty conversations cemented friendships.
A New York couple and their six children on a sixweek stay in the Valley attended. The eight not only markedly drove up attendance, but also gave an exotic dimension to the small group as they told what house church was like back East.
"It’s the intimacy of the home church — knowing each other, knowing each other’s needs," says John Rowden, who brought his daughter Toni and nephews Dakota, Dylan and Dalton.
"There are thousands of people in the Valley and millions in the world who choose to express church life and practice in a simpler and more biblical manner," says Staggs, 35, who began a fellowship almost a year ago. Driven by Matthew 18:20 — "For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them" — Living Hope is said to be typical of the house-church movement.
Each member in the fellowship is accountable to the others, with authority and accountability based on relationships established in the group. Fellowships are intentionally small; all participants are given time to express their prayer concerns, whatever they may be; interaction is encouraged; simplicity is emphasized; consensus among the group determines things; and leaders are to set an example. Children may be taken aside for concurrent activities.
While the Staggses hosted the 1 to 3 p.m. Sunday service, they didn’t dominate it. The Bible discussion, which made up the heart of the circle time together, saw members in the group pick up on each other’s thoughts.
"The church was going through a lot of persecution," Spence says as he reflected on the passage. But God was assuring them "to have the hope of the future . . . be waiting for the inheritance. I like the whole idea of needing to express our hope and to set our hope on the grace that we are going to receive on that day."
Rowden says he was heartened that "God will never break his promise to us" and "will be there at the end, through the incessant problems that beset the world." There was a pause, and all eyes looked again at the passage.
"We are here temporarily," says Larry Johnson, who attends this service and leads another, East Valley Grace Fellowship, which splits between Gilbert and Mesa on Fridays.
Spence told how easily it is to go home, shut the windows "and feel like you are alone and you can do whatever you want. No one’s watching, but you can’t get away from God, and that’s a good thing."
Their talk led Rowden to apply the Scripture to the house church. "We are able to come up to each other as brothers and to be able to have that time together." He told about formerly attending a traditional church when "I felt like I needed my own mission. . . . I was thinking big. I was thinking I wanted to go to Iraq. I am not afraid to go anywhere." But he left that church and got into a house church. That, instead, became his real mission opportunity "right here in my back yard, right in my own country."
Johnson says he was the financial secretary of a traditional church of 25 to 30 people. It struggled for 10 years trying to pay its pastor.
"Then, of course, we lost our pastor, and we couldn’t pay anybody else," he says. That’s when Johnson investigated house churches. "I just realized that not only is it the way that God wants us to worship, but I love the relational aspect of it."
Staggs says the house-church movement is growing in the East Valley as a clear alternative to institutional churches with walls, staffs and high costs.
The only sacraments of home churches are Communion and baptism. Those with Living Hope only have to walk across the driveway to the condominium complex’s swimming pool to perform baptisms. "Larry and I baptized a guy about three weeks ago," says Staggs. "He was a real big guy. We went to put him down in the water, but he just floated on top. We had to push him down." Another time they baptized three children together.
A fellowship of 12 to 15 people is ideal, says Staggs, adding that intimacy and relationships suffer with more than that. Instead, they encourage families to start their own house churches. Living Hope’s mission statement reflects common Christian imperatives, including worshiping and serving God, planting "seeds of faith in the hearts of the lost and hurting," welcoming the stranger and feeding the hungry.
Debbie Spence, mother of guitarist Todd, says she felt it was time to leave her east Mesa traditional church, which is just beginning a big campus construction program. "I just thought, ‘There’s got to be a better way’ — then I thought, ‘I am already in the better way,’ " she says. "I am just going to be free and let the Lord lead me."