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Home Up Legal Analysis

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The Underground Church—in Toronto!
Home church—illegal? It's important for us to understand that the word "church" doesn't necessarily mean the same thing to us as it does to our neighbours.

When Christa Hesselink and her team in Brampton started their summer Home Church in June, they got more than they bargained for. A few weeks into the summer, a letter arrived from city officials quoting zoning by-laws and requiring them to "cease operating a place of worship" in the home where they were meeting. Whether it was a street lined with cars every Tuesday night, or the Meeting House sign that an enterprising welcome team had put on the lawn before Home Church, the word around the neighbourhood was that someone was running a church out of their home. And apparently the news had reached someone at City Hall.

The incident got me thinking. My first thought, of course, was whether I would get thrown in jail or at least lose my job—if Home Church becomes illegal, I'm going to need to brush up the old resume. But then I got to thinking about the difference between how our culture perceives church—Sunday mornings in big buildings singing boring songs—and the picture of church we find in the New Testament.

The early church—those first followers of Christ—were a force to be reckoned with. They got their message heard by the most powerful empire the world has known, and changed our world forever. But if you had a chance to look in on them in those early days, you would not have found much that was too impressive by the world's standards: people gathering in homes scattered throughout the region surrounding Palestine, singing songs, eating meals together, praying and studying the Scriptures. Innocent stuff, and maybe even interesting, but certainly not world-changing. And yet that is exactly what they were.

When teaching His followers about the kingdom of God, Jesus used a couple simple stories to illustrate His point. First, He said the kingdom of God was like a mustard seed. It starts out as a tiny seed, nothing much to look at. Yet over time it grows to become a huge plant and the birds come and nest in its branches. Or, the kingdom of God is like a little bit of yeast put in to a lump of dough. At first it is barely noticeable, but as you work the dough the yeast pervades the whole thing. I think the point Jesus was making was that the way God works is to start with small, seemingly unimpressive things, and turn them into something great. A mustard seed, a bit of yeast—these things are not overwhelmingly obvious. But their effect is powerful.

Lately, there have been some things happening at The Meeting House that have caught the attention of people outside our church. Growing crowds, cool technology, the wacky idea of doing church in a movie theatre. These are the things people tell their friends or write newspaper articles about. But as fun as these things may be, they are not the point. The real stories at The Meeting House lie beneath the surface, largely hidden from the world. They are happening in living rooms and kitchens around the city as people gather weekly for Home Church. A single mother in Brampton finds a safe place to share some of her struggles and has a community of people pray for her. A young man in North Toronto finds himself increasingly passionate about serving the poor of his neighbourhood and organizes a trip to the local youth drop-in. A group of people in Oakville who are learning what it means to be generous, chip in and raise over a thousand dollars to help a member of their group with car repairs. A gathering of 40 young adults cram themselves every week into an apartment in Mississauga so full they are literally tripping over each other, because they want to learn about the teachings of Jesus.

None of these stories are going to make headlines anytime soon. They are just stories of ordinary people coming together, encountering God, and trying to learn what it means to really love. But make no mistake—these are stories of where the real action is at The Meeting House.

We are going to explain to the City of Brampton that we are not operating a place of worship in a private residence. At least, not in the way that they mean. And in all likelihood we won't be driven underground. At least not yet. But it is good to remind ourselves that in a sense we are part of an underground movement. A movement that is built around God at work, quietly but persistently going about His business of changing lives.

Joel Percy is the home church pastor at The Meeting House. He can be reached at joel@themeetinghouse.ca or (905) 827-3266, X24.