REFLECTIONS ON HOUSE CHURCHES
If it works, don’t fix it. If it doesn’t work, thinking it might start working won’t fix it. We should learn from seventeen centuries that there may be another way of doing church. How about checking out the way church was done before Christianity became Christendom and lost its original fire?! If it took a Reformation to bring us back to a Biblical understanding of the gospel message, it may take another one to help us connect with a New Testament structure.
Not that there is only one way of gathering the saints together, but some wineskins may carry the new wine better than others. We’re not talking about tweaking the Sunday worship service or rearranging the pews; we are talking overhaul. That is exciting to some, terrifying to others. Change is costly, but not changing costs more—and the Church desperately needs change. Could house churches come alongside the traditional church model as an alternative structure? Would the Church be strengthened by having this wineskin for some?
Significant things happened at houses in the early church:
- Pentecost started in a house. “When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting” (Acts 2:1,2).
- The church grew as it met in homes, while larger gatherings occurred at the temple: “Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts” (Acts 2:46). Church Growth authors speak of three different groups for assembling together: cell (small house group), congregation (the traditional model today), and celebration (groupings of cells coming together for joint worship). “Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Christ” (Acts 5:42).
- Saul, who later became Paul, knew how to persecute the church: “Going from house to house, he dragged off men and women and put them in prison” (Acts 8:3).
- The Spirit fell on Gentiles in a house gathering with Peter (Acts 10:25).
- The Philippian church was likely birthed in Lydia’s house (Acts 16:15; 16:40).
- Priscilla and Aquila, leaders along with Paul, had a church that met in their house (Ro.16:5; I Cor.16:19).
- Others had churches in their homes, including Nympha (Col.4:15) and Archippus (Philemon 2).
- Paul met with people in homes. It was his evangelistic strategy to begin in the synagogue, but when he had a critical mass that believed, he met with them in homes. In his farewell to the Ephesians elders, where he stayed longer than any other place, he said that he taught “publicly and from house to house” (Acts 20:20).
House churches include some advantages over traditional churches. Here are some:
Low cost. Just keep paying the mortgage.
Fellowship. It beats staring at the neck of the person in front of you. The sharing of lives may take place better in a home atmosphere than in a church building. It tends to be more relational than institutional. House churches are natural extensions of the nuclear family and have a family atmosphere sometimes lacking in a traditional church. A cell church pastor told me that he could see Christianity lived out on a daily basis in homes because life was less segmented, more organic.
Evangelism. It is more natural to invite someone to a home than to a church building. We want to impact our neighborhood. We can’t think of a better way than to plant a house church. And they multiply more easily than traditional structures.
Discipleship. Most people are spectators in congregations. The percentage of those involved as participants in house churches is larger. The structure of the house church makes application of truth a more lively potential, where the fellowship has created a sense of interdependence. We don’t need more knowledge; we need more obedience. Learning the spiritual disciplines might happen more readily in the setting of a house church. It is a place where gifts can be developed. It is probably easier in a house church to overcome the “what’s in it for me” syndrome. And because of the size, fewer people will likely fall through the cracks.
Leadership. Congregations often require a seminary-trained pastor, and the church is experiencing an epidemic shortage of them. House churches look for a mature leader, an elder in the faith. While church members in mainline denominations would be surprised to have an elder type who did not have seminary experience overseeing a church, most would not be surprised with the same person overseeing a house meeting. House churches can be one answer to the pastoral shortfall. They also answer to the clergy-laity gap. The very format of a house church works against the performance mentality that cripples many traditional churches, the one-man band.
Humility. It is more humble to meet in a home than in a grand and costly edifice. To expand, you don’t build an expensive building; you simply find another home.
New Testament model. Church structures flourished when Christianity became a state-recognized religion. Under persecution in the first two centuries, the house church model grew.
History. The success of house churches in places like China, Africa, South America, and Russia is compelling. Revival and awakening have often been accompanied by a house church movement, as in the case of the Pietists, Wesleyans, Moravians, Haugians, and Mennonites.
Transparency, an important quality for the release of grace, tends to happen more consistently and at a deeper level in house churches than in traditional ones. There’s much less chance to hide in small groups.
Healing. People wounded, disillusioned, or disenfranchised by a conventional church experience can find healing in the open atmosphere of a house church.
But there are some liabilities of house churches as well:
- Most have only known the traditional model of the congregation. We are unfamiliar with the house church model. It seems cultic to some. It will take a long time for many to think of meetings in homes as legitimate church and to view a leader as their pastor. A cell church pastor friend was asked by another minister, “When are you going to build a real church?” Others will wonder if it “counts” to go to a home church. People not familiar with the house church style that favors fellowship and relationship could think they have missed the main event if they don’t get a thirty-minute sermon.
- Having been fed on program-organized church with activities for all ages, the transfer to a relational-based church will take us through withdrawal. Programs (such as children’s and youth activities) may need to be replaced by stronger family ties, which for some households will prove difficult. We have relied on other people and programs to do the work for us (some of which have been vital). We would need to overcome the perceived need for a variety of programs.
- House churches could be the latest “answer” to the pressing needs of the church, another fad to be quickly tried—and discarded.
- Because the change is a radical one to a wineskin of the house church, it will take a spirit of endurance to overcome numerous obstacles. For instance, there’s give and take in house churches that people from conventional churches may be unused to. Sunday morning is usually more “take” than “give.”
- Conventional churches that have a building and professionally trained leaders have an endurance factor that house churches do not have. House church leaders will need to stay the course when resistance and competition come from the Christian culture and from society.
- Robert and Julia Banks speak about some liabilities in their book, The Church Comes Home. Some people want to be incognito when they go to church (p.85). They may not want the intensity of relationship found in some house churches. This kind of commitment takes time, and some don’t have any more time to give (p.86). There’s a price to pay for community, and many are not prepared to make that commitment. An increasingly mobile society works more against house churches than traditional churches, although both are impacted. The program orientation, as has already been noted, is a huge barrier to relationally-based houses churches. Banks observes that in many churches “the program is more important than the people who make up the group” (p. 90). They conclude that “home churching is about developing people, not programs” (p. 91), which is certainly true for healthy conventional churches as well.
Some reflections on the House Church Movement:
- If a structure is not working well, consider options. The present structure can inhibit relationship, which the church needs to be built upon. It is inefficient; the church building is typically used for only a few hours a week. Because of the focus on the building, the message to the lost has typically been, “Come to church,” not the message of the Gospel. The present structure makes celebration of the Lord’s Supper different from the way the early Christians celebrated it.
- The home is the basic structure of society. We need to return to this basic societal structure to strengthen the life of the church.
- The Church changed drastically when it stopped being the persecuted—and became the persecutor. The sad history of Christianity includes the Inquisition, the Crusades, and the killing of so-called infidels and heretics. The voice of dissent was squelched in horrendous ways. For the first three centuries and under persecution house churches flourished. Persecution of Christians is rising, and history shows that the most effective means of growth under persecution is the house church.
- Big is not always beautiful, though growing a mega-church is often the goal of pastors. Christian Swartz has showing in his extensive research (Natural Church Development) that smaller churches on the whole have an advantage over larger churches and they tend to be healthier. And Wolfgang Simson, in his excellent book, Houses That Change the World, says that we must become small to become large. The American church desperately needs health, which will lead naturally, not artificially, to growth.
- To multiply churches, we would need to multiply leaders. Leadership is a major focus of house church movements.
How would we begin a transition if we are convinced that one is needed?
- Think about underlying values first. Ask yourself, “Am I convinced that the values of the house church are worth going after?” What are the values of the house church?
- Don’t think quick fix. It is one of the long-term solutions to a 1700-year problem.
- Consider the questions involved: Must it be either-or? Could we take some things from the house church model and apply it to the traditional model? Could we begin with a cell church model and transition to a house church? Would we do a house church alongside a traditional church? Are we talking evolution or revolution? Would some be ready to experiment and simply test it out as Daniel tested out healthy food? Could it be an evangelistic tool for neighborhoods? How could oversight be given to the house churches to help keep the focus and to guard against heresy? Will pastors be busier if they transitioned to a house church model, or would they be less busy? Would pastoral care increase or decrease?
Pastors understand that to embrace the house church movement as an alternative structure could mean a change in their job description. The wineskins of the Church today are killing many pastors. As demands increase, more pastors are deciding that they would rather be doing something less exhaustive. Could house churches be one of God’s answers for the Church today? When we are faced with something that calls for massive change, we are tempted to fall back on the security of the past. Brian McLaren, in The Church on the Other Side, would encourage us to “maximize discontinuity,” that is, to be flexible in light of great need.
We have been hearing this message about house churches for several decades. Howard Snyder brought it in his excellent books (Community of the King and The Problem of Wineskins), and many have read Watchman Nee’s book on The Normal Christian Church Life. The success of the house church movement in recent years has brought it into the limelight from the fringes. It is gathering momentum around the world, and I believe it is coming from the wind of the Spirit. We would do well at least to understand what is going on, if not to get personally involved. It could be quite a homecoming!