Emergence of House Churches in the Context of Coronavirus Pandemic: Time for Soul Searching in the UMC

Bishop Mande Muyombo with some of the youths of his area in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

By Bishop Mande Muyombo
The Coronavirus pandemic has emerged as a serious challenge to the way we human beings socialize and engage in our families, communities, businesses, even our churches which have always been a source of strength and service, especially to those who are widowed, orphaned, sick, and dying.

The worship experience which is always a source of spiritual strength in communal experience must for now be taken back to a more private experience. It is important to argue that as Christianity emerged in Antioch, Jesus’s apostles encountered several challenges in trying to make worship a communal experience while often hiding and being persecuted. The empire resisted Christianity and attempted to stop it from spreading.

Brothers and sisters in other non-Christian countries still face this. Now we are being persecuted by a new, common enemy to all humanity, a new disease that has evolved and sweeps through communities indiscriminately. We must each prepare ourselves as communities, families, and churches to battle this together spiritually, even while physically separate.

As a response to the Coronavirus pandemic, the Executive Committee of the Council of Bishops urged the Commission on the General Conference to postpone the 2020 General Conference, a gathering which was expected to take critical decisions for the future of the United Methodist Church.  In the letter to the Commission, COB President Bishop Ken Carter expressed the following, “We write out of a deep love for our global church and as a tangible way of giving spiritual and temporal oversight in our role as shepherds and we are guided by the core value of helping delegates to do their best work.”

The global UMC has not been a good role model lately of showing love and unity to spread God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. But this is a new day. This epidemic has drawn strangers and enemies together in new ways to battle a common enemy, and I hope that this is a time the church can lay down our weapons against each other and take up our cross. A lawyer once asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus told the story we know well of the Good Samaritan showing love to a man who would have died alongside the road without his intervention. This is a time for us to come together spiritually even if not in physical community, lay aside our differences and distrust, power struggles, and be a servant to the world around us, Christian and (Muslim, etc.) rich and poor, male and female, young and old.

Gathering, worshipping, and praying together, serving others, has been our natural, automatic response in times of crises, large or small.
We cannot do this now. When several heads of states decided to close churches and other public gatherings as a way to contain the virus, many church leaders started exploring new, creative ways and means of communication, worship, prayer, and caring for their communities. Churches in western countries with so much technology have already moved to using the world-wide web as an avenue for online worship. Some pastors in Africa have been doing this as well.

As a Bishop who leads in a rural context with the majority of worshippers who do not have access to the internet, I decided to urge our members to go back to the context of early Christian house churches. They were able to gather many families in a home for worship, but you will need to worship just as those who already live in your home. But, like the Italians who sing out their windows together, perhaps your voices and songs, witness and praises, prayers and encouragement will rise up from your homes and blend together too. 
At this moment, I wish had a radio station which could have allowed us to worship and share the word of God during this season of Lent.

I will keep looking for new ways to communicate with you all, and perhaps you will have ideas and suggestions to share with me. 
Furthermore, we have decided to use band or class leaders (blocs in French) as individuals who will be important in keeping worship and the church running. While we may have been lost in larger structures, such as local church, district, annual conferences, episcopal areas, central conferences and general conference, doing ministry in the context of the corona virus is taking us back to the concept of house churches. 

To be precise, while we may have been lost in worshipping as traditionalists, centrists and progressives, the virus does not care about our constituencies, that is why we have to return back to the concept of house churches. I still have difficulty explaining these labels in my area, they tend to be confusing and divisive. What people care about, is that they are Christians and they are United Methodists who stand in solidarity with each other during times of tragedies such as these.

Maybe as we return to house churches which are more private, we may reflect more about what it means to be church. I am now scared about public worship and gathering such as the general conference. What we now care about is how to legislate and hurt each other and forget the least of us who have been struggling with other challenges such as poverty, violent conflicts, lack of drinkable water, floods and other pandemics.

In recent days some countries in Africa have reported new cases of the virus. In Kinshasa which is the capital city of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, nearly 97 cases of the virus have been reported with 8 deaths including some senior government officials. Because of the lack of strong health systems on the continent of Africa, the contamination of the virus is expected to be very significant here, especially in areas where there are no hospitals and no ventilators.

A global crisis like this requires a concerted global approach with the contributions of absolutely everyone. The global connection of the United Methodist Church and our Christian faith devoted to global servanthood has always been a catalyst of peace and development across the globe, and it can be now. It is with this approach that the United Methodist Council of Bishops’ Hope for the Children of Africa responded to the suffering of African children by providing means of education to some of us. Furthermore, it was through a concerted approach that the United Methodist Church established Africa University which has become the beacon of Africa. In addition is through a global concerted effort that the United Methodist decided to join hands in fighting against malaria and HIV/AIDS.

My wife and I were blessed to have our first twins in 2003, however one of them succumbed because of malaria. My other twin, by the name of Christiana, is living is because of the United Methodists who stood in solidarity with us. Until today the Imagine No Malaria program through the Global Health Unit at Global Ministries is saving many lives in my community.

All of our relief efforts in the USA and around the world are made possible through the work of UMCOR which receives gifts from United Methodists regardless of the affiliations.

I am tempted to say that an ordinary United Methodist cares less about being centrist, traditionalist or progressive. Rather each ordinary member is proud of his or her faith and dedicated to making disciples for transformation of the world. Events such as Katrina, Hurricane Sandy or Ebola in Africa brought together United Methodists from around the world. 

New challenges such as global migration and the coronavirus pandemic should unite all United Methodists from around the world. It is clear that the consequences of this pandemic are going to be huge and will affect our local churches and communities. Will we concentrate our energies on legislation or dedicate ourselves to a shared mission in serving communities that will be in need?

Our public space worship has now become a battlefield for power and control. Our ordinary members, while elected as delegates to annual conferences, central conferences, jurisdictional conferences and general conference, are dragged into toxic environment characterized by legislative battles.

From a sacramental perspective, our public worship spaces should have lifted the sacraments of baptism and Eucharist as means of experiencing God’s grace, healing and comfort. In retreating to house-churches whereby we may not have the feel of the institutional church, United Methodists have the opportunity for some soul-searching and reclaim their prophetic voice of coming to the rescue of those who are suffering from the pandemic. Throughout history, fighting over doctrinal issues led to many killings and not saving lives.

For most of us the word “church” refers to images of altars, station of the cross, wooden pews, plastic chairs, stained glasses and large buildings. the church building always gives us a sense of stability of our faith. The church building is also a special space to worship God and to meet with other church members. In the context of social distancing it is hard to have this same understanding of being church. Maybe, we have taken this for granted for a long time. Church building maintenance takes a big portion of the budget and yet there are always challenges in the mission fields.

During early Christianity, church buildings were not plentiful. Acts 2:46a suggests that “Every day the devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple area and to breaking bread in their homes.”

There are various instances of house-churches concept in the New Testament which we reflect on.
In Acts 12:12, “when he (Peter) realized this, he went to the house of Mary, the mother of John who is called Mark, where there were many people gathered in prayer.”

In Acts 16:40, when, they (Paul and Silas) had come out of the prison, they went “to Lydia’s house where they saw and encouraged the brothers and then left.”

In Romans 16:3,5, Paul states “Greet Priscila and Aquila, my co-workers in Christ Jesus… greet also the church in their house.”
In Colossians 4:15, Paul says “give greetings to the brothers in Laodicea and to Nympha and the church in her house.”

When Paul writes to Philemon in verses 1-2, he states “Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus and Timothy our Brother, to Philemon, our beloved and our Co-worker, to Apphia our Sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church at your house.”

House-churches should be revived during this time of the Corona pandemic and provide opportunity for families and friends to engage in prayer, Bible study, faith-sharing. During this time, United Methodists across the globe have the opportunity to do some soul-searching and engage in dialogue of the future of the church and its impact on mission
Bishop Mande Muyombo
Resident Bishop of the North Katanga-Tanganyika-Tanzania Episcopal Area.