Orange County Church Dumps Building for Houses

There's no pulpit, no preacher, no sermon and not even an offering time. But for some 70 people, it's church.

More specifically – a house church.

Across Orange County, Calif., The Well hosts five autonomous house church gatherings. Around 15 to 20 people come together at each place prepared to share what God put on their hearts that week and to "bless each other."

The gatherings don't run on a set worship service schedule or with any specific curriculum. On one Sunday, one of The Well's house churches relocated and attendees spent that day helping with the move. That was their Sunday service.

"It's a little random because we don't know what's going to happen every week, but I like this more than preaching a sermon because when it works, you really see God doing it," said Ken Eastburn, pastor of The Well.

The Well may be one of the more unique house churches in the country. A nearly 60-year-old church, The Well was originally a traditional church called First Southern Baptist of La Habra. It drew upwards 700 people at its peak. But as the church experienced too many changes at the pulpit with pastors coming and going, attendance dwindled to about 20.

The congregation sold their building and began meeting in a 4,000 square-foot facility that cost thousands of dollars.

"It was ridiculous to spend that much money" on a building, said Eastburn who began leading the church in 2003. "Think about the millions and billions of dollars the U.S. spends on maintenance and buildings."

The shrunken congregation began praying about what to do next.

When one of the members proposed meeting in a house, Eastburn did not favor the idea at first.

But after googling "church" and "house" and meeting pastors who have adopted the house church model, he and the rest of his congregation felt "it made sense" for them to transition into homes.

"When the lease was up, we prayed, fasted and went into homes and we never looked back," Eastburn, a 48-year-old ordained Southern Baptist pastor, said.

"It was something unexpected. I wasn't looking for it," he remarked about the 2005 move. "We fell backwards into this model and I love it."

The lead pastor clarified that the transition was not prompted by finances necessarily but rather, it was "a God thing."

The transition from a traditional church to house churches has many advantages, Eastburn lists.

Most of the offering and tithes go straight to ministry works and service projects rather than to overhead costs and staff salary. Eastburn is the only paid employee in the church.

Also, there are no passive attendees. Everyone participates and the house church has the potential for creating authentic disciples.

"You can go to a conventional church and just sit there. It's much easier to hide," the house church pastor noted. But at house churches, "you can't just sit there for too long."

"Have you heard of the 80/20 rule? We have the 100 percent rule here. Everybody's involved," he said.

That kind of involvement and commitment could scare some people off. And it has.

Over the last four years, The Well has seen people come and go. While some leave because they miss the ordered structure of a traditional church, the worship or hearing "the big" sermon, many also leave because of the effort they have to put in when attending a house church.

"This is hard work. When you come to this group, you're expected to make a little sacrifice," Eastburn said. "You got to care about each other, listen to each other" and be open to sharing.

And as people open themselves up more, what typically happens is people's sins begin to surface, the Orange County pastor noted.

"You got to deal with it, or you run," he said, adding that The Well encourages groups to work together with the person when such situations arise. "A lot of people run."

"They'd rather run and not deal with it."

Another advantage to house churches is they're open source, Eastburn pointed out.

"I've heard some bad theology from the pulpit and you can't challenge the pastor right there," he said. In house churches, attendees have the opportunity to ask questions, challenge views, and even correct theology on the spot.

"Basically, anybody can put their two cents in," he noted, and "it's easy to edit on the fly and correct right there."

Eastburn currently has little concern for heresy considering they have less than 100 people and each house church is overseen by an elder who is grounded in sound doctrine. Any time a discussion may veer the wrong way theologically, Eastburn and the elders are present to steer them in the right direction.

"We're not saying we have the final word," the pastor added, "but we say 'this is aligned with what's accepted solid Christian doctrine.'"

Since moving out of the building, The Well has kept a low profile and spread only by word of mouth. But after four years, Eastburn realized they have a unique story to tell and other churches to help as more are considering transitioning into or starting a house church.

"This is something we're passionate about and we believe in this model and it'll grow," he said, noting that traditional church attendance is dropping. "God's going to use it."

"It's a powerful movement," he commented. "You can't really put it in a box."

Eastburn was a youth pastor for 13 years and has "done [his] time with the more traditional model" of church, having previously worked at a church plant of Saddleback Community Church – the megachurch of prominent evangelical leader Rick Warren – as well as other churches.

He has nothing against traditional churches or even megachurches and acknowledges that there are many people who could never attend a house church.

But, "if you really get it," he says, "it's hard to go back to anything else."

The Well currently has house churches in Yorba Linda, Brea, Tustin, Huntington Beach and La Mirada.

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