A “revolution” is here. Millions of North American Christians are leaving conventional churches to meet in homes. Church-and-culture analyst George Barna says house churches will continue to grow in popularity because a growing number of believers are seeking greater depth in relationships and more commitment to spirituality than what they have found in traditional church settings. Many who join these largely independent and nondenominational gatherings want to “be” the church, not just attend church. 1
This emerging house-church movement calls for a careful and discerning response, not a reaction but a fair and Biblically balanced evaluation. The recent dramatic increase in alternative faith communities raises serious questions. Can these informal and unstructured forms of church be an effective tool to reach current and future generations for Christ? Can home-based assemblies fulfill the Biblical blueprint of a local church? These are questions we will explore.
Last month we examined the current appeal in our culture for “simple church.” We saw that smaller churches are part of the contemporary search for community and authenticity. Our review of the Biblical basis for house churches led us to conclude that though the New Testament seems to indicate that first-century believers did often gather together in private residences, it nowhere mandates this form for future generations. The historical record of Acts is meant to be descriptive, not prescriptive. This month we will focus on both the strengths and weaknesses of the house church approach and then consider lessons we can learn from this contemporary movement.
House Church Strengths
House churches have undeniable advantages. First, they are evangelistically effective. The most effective method of evangelism is not growing existing churches but planting new ones. Because house churches are the most easily replicated form of church, they are an obvious choice for church planting, particularly in urban areas where property is practically unaffordable. House churches are frequently better at encouraging friendships and lifestyle evangelism than conventional churches. Because of their face-to-face approach, they can serve as a neighborhood visual aid to the gospel and an evangelistic front door to seekers. House churches often grow because they give hospitality a high priority. This makes them very attractive to outsiders.
Second, house churches are economically feasible. They are far less expensive to start and maintain because they have no buildings, programs, or big budgets. Because simple churches are normally led by volunteer lay pastors or part-time bi-vocational leaders, there are normally no large salaries to pay. This frees up funds for community outreach, local benevolence, and global missions.
Home churches are also very adaptable. Simple churches can be started anywhere, anytime, and they are not dependent upon the latest economic or political forecast. They can start in one location and for evangelistic or security reasons move easily to another site. Because they are structurally mobile and flexible, they are commonly found in China, Muslim lands, and areas characterized by persecution and poverty. With a low profile and visibility, they are resilient, making them almost persecution-proof.
Finally, house churches are discipleship-oriented. They normally focus on relationships and the development of people spiritually, not on executing programs or projects. This people-focus makes them excellent places where new believers can be nurtured in their faith and older Christians can be challenged to get off their duffs and begin growing. Because it is much more difficult to hide in a small group, accountability is amplified. In traditional churches, it is easier to get lost in the crowd. In house churches, member care and assimilation are easier because everybody knows everyone. Life transformation occurs best in a family atmosphere of love, forgiveness, responsibility, modeling, mentoring, and firm discipline—qualities normally found in simpler churches.
Other strengths are also found in house churches. Advocates point out that they are highly participatory, give priority to developing leaders, and are easier to multiply than traditional churches. These obvious qualities make house churches quite attractive to many North Americans, especially to innovative church planters.
Concerns with the House Church
Yet with all these practical advantages, the contemporary house church has raised some major theological and ecclesiological concerns among Bible-believing leaders.
First, some house churches seem to be watering down or neglecting essential ecclesiology described in Scripture. Many lack a Biblical understanding of what “church” is. For some, this lack of understanding is seen in a failure to practice Biblically prescribed ordinances. With others, there is a minimizing of church covenants and definitive doctrinal statements. Also evident is an uncertainty over legitimate pastoral roles and a de-emphasizing of New Testament patterns of church leadership. Simple church can soon become minimal church. This is seen in the weak attempts to define a local church. In an effort to strip back nonessential baggage and traditions that have crept into many institutionalized churches, some modern-day house church practitioners overdo it and end up with the belief that any group of believers fellowshipping together in the same room is a church. Often cited and misused is Jesus’ statement in Matthew 18:20 that where two or three believers come together in His name, Jesus is in their midst. “Jesus in the midst is church,” some believe.2
What then is a genuine New Testament church? I am convinced that a Biblical assembly exists when its people see themselves as a church and are committed to function as a church. A house church of fifteen is a genuine church if it perceives itself as a church and is committed to Christ and to one another to carry out Biblical purposes. This means that all the characteristics of a New Testament church need to be present in a house church for it to be a Biblical body.
- Biblical leadership: The church has or is moving toward qualified pastor/elders and deacons.
- Biblical ordinances: The church regularly practices believer’s baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
- Covenant community: Members are in committed relationships with Christ and with one another.3
- Biblical purposes: The church is seeking to carry out evangelism, worship, discipleship, service, and fellowship.
- Biblical preaching: The Word is shared for believers’ edification.
- Regular meetings: Members meet together regularly, not just gather occasionally.
- Submitted to the Lordship of Christ: The church is under Christ’s headship and living for His ultimate glory.
These are minimal essentials for a local expression of the Body of Christ. For any movement of churches to see the blessing of God, it must be committed to a full ecclesiology.
A second problem within many house churches is a tendency toward doctrinal heresy. Small, “pastorless” groups can easily become doctrinally unmoored and move from Biblical accountability. This is not a problem unique to house churches but is one common to any independent group that rejects dominant cultural patterns. A leader with a strong, charismatic personality is often followed with unquestioning loyalty. If he begins to drift toward an odd doctrinal stance, no one may challenge him. In extreme cases, home churches dominated by magnetic but unorthodox leaders can shade over the line into a cult.
A few examples of recent doctrinal concerns found among North American house churches should suffice. Prominent in some circles is a glorification of “the fivefold ministry” of Ephesians 4:11, the teaching that God is restoring in these “last days” all the “ascension gifts,” including apostles and prophets. The ministry role of these five leaders typically comes packaged in a charismatic theology with the expectation of fresh revelations from God. Other areas of confusion include the practice of signs and wonders and the teaching of the health and wealth gospel of prosperity. An unwarranted overemphasis on revival has caused some home church members and leaders to look for supernatural events as a shortcut to personal holiness and ministry success. This expectation drains energy from regular evangelism and practicing one’s spiritual disciplines in a daily walk with God. Others, caught up in extreme forms of homeschooling, have moved toward isolationism. This seems to be a real challenge for many house churches. While they may cultivate close-knit interpersonal relationships, can they cultivate an appreciation for and involvement in the larger Body of Christ? A final example of doctrinal aberration is the frequent abuse of spiritual authority; there is a tendency for untrained or wrongly chosen house church leaders to either become “little Caesars” or to overemphasize submission. This can lead to master-servant relationships rather than the Biblical concept of servant leadership.
A third weakness is the unstable nature of many house churches. Modern house churches seem to have a fairly short shelf life. One veteran of the movement laments that the typical house church has an average life span of four years or less.4 Why do so many fail? Many evidently dissolve over an irreconcilable split, often a power struggle or bickering over a theological hobbyhorse. Some succumb to “koinonitis” (where fellowship and community become the main focus). Losing any concern for evangelism, they become exceedingly inward-focused and eventually die.
Perhaps the greatest drawback with house churches in North America is the way they are viewed in our culture. Nonbelievers and some Christians find it difficult to recognize something as church when it doesn’t have a building with a steeple or at least a cross on it. North Americans tend to have high expectations for professionalism; house churches may seem rather amateurish. Like it or not, many people are influenced by cultural perceptions that view house churches as mere Bible studies. Some neighbors may even misconstrue the purpose of a nearby house meeting, generating gossip and rumors about cults. Zoning restrictions have prompted more then a few large house meetings to disband because of complaints by neighbors or the authorities.
Some of these concerns regarding the beliefs and practices of the modern house church movement are valid. Other objections, based on cultural definitions, have no real Biblical foundation. As Bible believers, we must avoid the tendency to view all home churches as similar in structure and ideology. Obviously there is great diversity. The house church may not be for everyone, but it should not be dismissed as unworkable or always unbiblical.
Lessons for All
Whether one fully embraces the house church or not, pastors, church planters, mission agencies, and church leaders can learn helpful insights from the current move toward simpler forms of church. House churches remind us all that it is important to use right terminology. “Church” should not be recognized as a place but as a way of life. As the people of God, we do not “go to” church; instead we are the church! House churches also highlight the importance of having a dynamic small group ministry in our churches.
House churches teach us that simpler church life and structures are generally more effective than complex ones. Growing churches find ways to simplify their organizational structure, eliminate superfluous programs, and focus on the main aim: making disciples.5
Another crucial lesson, gleaned from house church planters, is the priority of developing and deploying local leaders for the ongoing task of missions. We should expect the Lord of the Harvest to supply workers from our converts. The resources and workers for the harvest should come primarily from the harvest (Matthew 9:36, 37), not from outside the community.
Finally, the global house church movement reinforces for us in North America the importance of being deliberate about multiplying churches. Unless a church movement or association intentionally reproduces in every sphere of church life—leaders, small groups, and new churches—it will eventually die. The current emphasis on “organic church” reminds us that healthy churches reproduce. A healthy church sees itself as part of an ongoing—baton-passing, faith-passing—process, never as an end in itself. The goal must be to reproduce, not just sustain.
If nothing else, simple church models should make us aware that we can worship God and “be church” in many ways and in numerous settings. We must be careful lest our structures and methods become hindrances to the gospel. Church planters, missions, and established church leaders need to be open to new approaches that help us fulfill the Great Commission. The home church movement is one such innovation around which a movement seems to be forming. As in all movements, instability and bad examples exist, but not all house churches are deficient in Biblical doctrine and practice or reacting to deficiencies in the established church. Organized and led in a Biblical manner, house churches could be an effective way to reach unchurched North Americans immersed in a postmodern culture of lostness. Time will tell.
George Barna, Revolution (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 2005).
2 Robert Fitts, The Church in the House: A Return to Simplicity. http://www.robertfitts.com/HTML_books/The%20Church%20in%20the%20House.htm (accessed 20 March 2006).
3 A covenant relationship implies growth toward godliness, accountability, and Biblical discipline.
4 Frank Viola, So You Want to Start a House Church? (Gainesville, FL: Present Testimony Ministry, 2003), 17.
5 This is exactly the premise of Thom Rainer and Eric Geiger’s recommended book, Simple Church: Returning to God’s Process for Making Disciples (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 2006).
Ken Davis serves as Director of Project Jerusalem, a church planting and training ministry at Baptist Bible Seminary, Clarks Summit, Pennsylvania. He has been in church planting for more than twenty-five years. He served as chair of Baptist Mid-Mission’s North American Church Planting Ministry Council, and he cofounded the School of Church Planting, which has provided training for more than three hundred church planters worldwide. Ken came to Baptist Bible Seminary after serving nineteen years as the missions professor at Crossroads Bible College in Indianapolis, a school specializing in training leaders to reach multiethnic urban America.