Tiny houses are a big deal. The trend toward building smaller homes — as in really small, with some homes measuring just 80 square feet or so — has continued to gain momentum since its surge during the 2008 recession. All over America people are shedding their earthly goods and paring down to a few essentials, choosing to live full-time in structures designed to hold only what could comfortably fit in a garden shed. This space might include a little stove, a bed, a few utensils and a few clothes — perhaps a toilet for the maximalist among the minimalists. Accounts of tiny house living are a reminder that the basics are pretty basic indeed.
Over the previous several decades the average size of a single family home has exploded, gobbling up resources and, some might say, common sense in the process. The tiny house movement runs completely counter to this trend. Actually, the movement runs counter to the experience of living in America in general, where the typical building is entirely out of scale with actual human beings. Who hasn’t wandered through the acreage of Walmart in the quest for a box of cereal in near despair?
Tiny house construction may represent a tiny fraction of all real estate transactions, but its hold on the cultural imagination is outsized. Blogs, magazines, conferences, trade associations, and an upcoming TV show called Tiny House Nation are all dedicated to the proposition that smaller is always better. Better for the environment, better for the community, better, even for the soul.
But none of this is new for Christians. The tension between owning stuff and stuff owning you, between being acquisitive without being possessive, between enjoying this world without being shackled to its comforts — Christians have lived with this tension since the first century, when followers of Christ gave up everything they owned to live simply and in community. Historically, the call to the monastic life was a direct response to the overwhelming claim our stuff can have on us. A claim extending all the way to the deepest part of ourselves, our souls. And in the contemporary conversation among evangelicals, the tension continues. How much is too much? Does a church have too much when it has multiple TV screens, multiple locations, a fleet of vehicles, a video production unit with enough microphone cord to circle the globe?
After many centuries of swinging between asceticism and excess, the answer is still not clear. But the parallel conversation going on outside of the church among proponents of the tiny house movement might cause evangelicals to reconsider the current vogue for football-field size facilities, swinging the pendulum a little more toward the garden shed style of ministry. Which, in the end, is as much space as the church really needs: room for two or three people, gathered together in the name of Christ. Where he is, as promised, among them.