One of things that characterizes free-church ecclesiology is an emphasis on autonomy. This emphasis follows right in line with good-old, American rugged individualism. So much so, that even churches that are not congregational (like Lutheran or Episcopal churches) can be said to operate within a de-facto congregationalism.
However, it seems to me that changes are afoot in U.S. churches and the wider culture that are swinging the pendulum away from independence and autonomy and towards interdependence. One of the ways this can be seen is through the growing numbers of multi-site churches and house church networks in the U.S.
These churches and networks seek interdependence in several ways:
1. The network is “church”
The churches that I studied lived this out in different ways. For the church that was a worldwide network of small groups and worship centers, church was understood as the entire worldwide network, each individual worship center, and then also the small groups that were a part of the worship center.
For another house church network, church was understood as the network as a whole, each individual house church, and then the everyday life interactions of its members as they went about their lives (most of them live by choice within 6 blocks of one another).
The last house church network I studied held that its citywide, or regional expression of church was probably the most foundational, although it also held that each individual house church and smaller network that was a part of the larger one were also “church” as well.
I think this understanding of the network as church shows some of the impetus among U.S. churches in moving towards greater relational connection with one another. Why this is – I don’t know. But I think it’s a very healthy direction for congregations.
2. Seeking Greater Connection
All of the people in the churches I studied were seeking greater connection with other churches and leaders. The leaders in the multi-site church came from different evangelical theological traditions (i.e. Baptist, Free Methodist, Foursquare, etc.). They found in this multi-site church much tighter bonds between the various pastors and leaders than they had previously experienced in their denominational or nondenominational backgrounds. This was important to them.
In another house church network, I found it extraordinary that all of these house churches and house church networks around the city were voluntarily affiliating together. It ran so counter to what I had experienced in the churches where I had worked and attended. The churches I had been a part of were very happy being king of their own castle, with nobody telling them what to do. Yet these house churches were desperately seeking the active, relational involvement from other churches and leaders in their lives. It was great to see.
Of course, not everyone is on board with these changes. In response to house church networks and multi-site churches, some ask: “why not plant independent churches?” I think in cases like this, preconceived ideas about polity get in the way of legitimately investigating what could be a valuable innovation. But I think cases like this may become fewer and fewer as American pragmatism trumps free-church theological concerns about church organization.