It has attracted the attention of both the secular and religious media. Newsweek noted it as one of the top religious trends for 2005.1 Time magazine recently featured an article on the subject,2 and NBC Nightly News highlighted it in a television segment.3
What is this trend that is gaining so much attention? It is house churches—which George Barna, evangelicalism’s best-known pollster, recently described as a growing “revolution.” In a controversial new book by the same name, Barna focuses on the move to nontraditional expressions of church, particularly house churches. He estimates that one million Americans have permanently left conventional congregations to pursue Christian community in small groups, worshiping together in homes or businesses. In a typical week, an estimated 9 percent of adults now participate in a home church. As many as seventy million Americans have “experimented with” a house church. Barna boldly predicts that by 2025 70 percent of Christians will be worshiping in “alternative faith communities.”4
How should Bible-believing pastors and church leaders respond? As the house church continues to grow in prominence, it becomes all the more essential that we evaluate this emerging movement and understand what a Biblical local church is. We must evaluate the house church in the light of Scripture, not just from our history, tradition, or current polling data. Is the home church simply a fad, the latest bandwagon on which to climb? Or is it, as many are claiming, nothing less than authentic original Christianity? Can fundamental Baptists utilize this church form?5 All of us who love the local church and consider it central to God’s mission today can profit from learning about this religious trend.
What are house churches?
House churches are small bodies of believers who meet primarily in homes, have generally fewer than thirty members, and normally have unpaid lay leaders. They are fully functioning local churches seeking to live out Biblical purposes and develop a common life in Christ. Unlike many traditional churches, these back-to-basics congregations do not start in a home with the goal of moving later to a larger facility. They are designed to stay in a private residence or similar surrounding. No church building, professional clergy, highly polished services, or expensive programs are required or desired. As the churches grow, they will seek to multiply—not enlarge.
Not all home churches meet in private residences. Some meet in coffee shops, restaurants, parks, workplaces, or on university campuses. For this reason, practitioners prefer to use other terms to describe this kind of church. A perusal of the growing body of literature on “house” churches (much of it on the Internet, since the movement is so young), reveals a variety of terms gaining acceptance: simple church, organic church, koinos church, relational church, radical church, participatory church, mosaic, and so on.
What defines these churches is not location but emphasis. Decentralized in structure, they are committed to forming in-depth relationships and are being patterned after first-century Christian fellowship. Most are very participatory with prayer, Bible study, discussion, mentoring, and outreach, as well as food and fun. Some emphasize spiritual experience over rational analysis, while a few are led by ordained pastors with seminary degrees. Most are nondenominational and independent, though some are now networking together.
“Micro-churches” gather for different reasons. It may be inaccurate to speak of a “house church movement,” because those attracted to home-style groups are among seemingly every stripe of Christian and represent many doctrinal pedigrees. Home church leaders advocate a bewildering cornucopia of opinions and positions; they debate issues of leadership authority, personal liberty, spiritual gifts, correct church polity, and so forth. There is no consensus. One veteran house church leader notes that many contemporary groups fit neatly into one of seven categories: the glorified Bible study, the special interest group, the personality cult, the bless-me club, the social club, the malcontent society, and the unwritten liturgy-driven church.6 Some groups are heretical, but others are sound in the faith. That is why it is unfair to lump all home churches into one category.
The appeal of smaller churches
The trend toward smaller churches is not just a reaction to the megachurch. The younger generations care more about authenticity and community than institutions. Surrounded by friends but feeling detached and distrustful, many twenty- and thirtysomethings are looking for a safe place to connect with God and friends. Smaller relational churches meet this need. Home churches also attract those who have been hurt by the traditional church and those who do not want to be distracted from Christ by complex church structures.
Research has shown that a growing number of North Americans identify themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” These people rarely attend a conventional church but will often seek alternative faith communities. Many “postmoderns” are concerned for authentic spiritual experiences. They do not need to be convinced to believe in spirituality; they need relationships to incarnate truth. They find it difficult to separate a relationship with Christ and relationships with other people. Not surprisingly, they are attracted to “leaner” churches. Face-to-face churches have great appeal in a culture that values intimate relationships, shared leadership, transparency, and teamwork.
The Biblical basics
Bible scholars agree that the local church is a body of believers, not a building. There are three main uses of “church” (ekklesia) in the New Testament: believers gathering in someone’s home,7 the citywide or regional church,8 and what many term the universal church.9 Ekklesia is never used in reference to a special building or ceremony. The Scriptures indicate that common, ordinary dwellings were used for spreading the gospel and for discipling new converts both during Jesus’ lifetime as well as during the expansion of the early church.
In the Gospels we see that homes—among other places—were a natural part of Jesus’ life and ministry. Christ often healed in private home settings, whether it was healing Peter’s mother-in-law (Matthew 8:14, 15) or the paralytic (Mark 2:1–12). Many of His most tender moments of ministry were to friends in home settings: for example, Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1–10), Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38–42), and the wedding in Cana (John 2:1–10). Jesus chose to celebrate the first communion service in a house (Matthew 26:17–19). He preached to crowds assembled in houses (Mark 2:1, 2). And when Christ sent out His seventy disciples, He instructed them to find a “son of peace” in each village and build a spiritual base of operations from that home (Luke 10:1–11; Matthew 10:1–15).
Private residences also had a pivotal role in the life and growth of the early church. After Pentecost, the Jerusalem church met daily from house to house to pray, study, break bread, and fellowship (Acts 2:42–47; 5:42; 12:12). When Paul embarked on his missionary travels, he seemed to regularly gather new converts into homes. For example, Lydia’s house may have become the gathering place in Philippi for Europe’s first church (Acts 16:14, 15, 40). In Corinth, believers evidently met in the homes of Gaius (Romans 16:23), Stephanus (1 Corinthians 16:15), and Chloe (1 Corinthians 1:11). The fact that Paul often ended his letters by greeting those who hosted house gatherings10 also supports the thesis that newly planted assemblies met in homes. Paul’s lengthy farewell in Romans 16 may well be a listing of house churches in metropolitan Rome. Significantly, Paul clearly revealed that his habit was to teach “publicly and from house to house” (Acts 20:20).
But did first-century believers meet exclusively in private homes? We cannot know that for certain from the Biblical record. The New Testament indicates that the first believers also met in public places such as the temple courts and synagogues—sometimes in large groups.11 It seems that the early church met in every conceivable location and structure, utilizing whatever was available. Believers used rented facilities (Acts 19:9; 28:30, 31) and public forums (Acts 16:13). However, we must be careful not to read back into these “public” texts more than is there. An impartial reading of these accounts seems to indicate these public gatherings were primarily for evangelism. They were seldom believers’ meetings for mutual edification.12 Thus, at best, we can say though the early church did not meet exclusively in homes, they did meet primarily in homes both for believers’ meetings and even for some evangelistic efforts.
Some proponents of the home church take this Biblical evidence and seek to establish an apostolic blueprint for all congregations in future generations. Did the early church apostles expect all subsequent churches to follow the New Testament church patterns they had modeled? Some will boldly argue that New Testament apostles established both church form and function.13 Yet in no New Testament sermon or epistle do we ever see direct commands to follow the house church as the prescribed form. Making all New Testament “patterns and practices” mandatory would mean that we must observe culturally dated practices, such as women wearing head coverings in church and having long hair, members greeting one another with a “holy kiss,” missionaries going to synagogues first upon entering a city, casting lots to elect church officers, washing one another’s feet, and even singing and speaking in Greek!14
Ultimately this is a hermeneutical (interpretational) question of authorial intent. Did Luke, the writer of Acts (where the house church pattern is found), intend to present one single form for the church? Or did God intend to present in the historical narratives of Acts foundational principles that He expected local bodies of believers to adjust to their cultural contexts? Most Bible expositors today view the historical narrative passages as giving insights and principles, rather than detailed blueprints and methodology to be replicated today. The fact that an action or strategy was taken in the book of Acts does not require us to assume that it is transferable to every context in our day. We must always remember that Acts is meant to be descriptive of the events of the early church, not necessarily prescriptive for today.
In conclusion, a growing number of sincere believers today are convinced that the house church model is more effective for growth and reproduction, but that does not mean it is “more Biblical.” Though the New Testament does indicate that early believers often gathered together in private homes, it does not mandate this form for future generations. On the other hand, Scripture seems to allow for a variety of forms of church life within a basic congregational setup. Church history shows that the house church has virtually been nonexistent in some cultures, societies, and ages. This may indicate that God works through many different models of church life.
The current return to simpler forms of church holds both great promise and grave dangers for the growth of the North American church. We need to be open yet discerning to what the Lord of the Harvest may be doing in our day. If He is raising up dynamic new forms of church that are Biblical in doctrine and practice while evidencing true community, then we need to welcome and affirm them. Why? Because the church is central to God’s plan for Christ’s name and fame to be known among the nations. But if the “revolution” means people are leaving Biblical churches or leaving in a Biblically improper manner, then we should not celebrate.
Next month we will assess obvious strengths and take a closer look at deficiencies in the house church model. We will see that it presents major theological and ecclesiological concerns.
1 Marc Gellman, “Pews in the News,” Newsweek, January 3, 2005, http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/10696190/site/newsweek (accessed December 22, 2006).
2 David Van Biema and Rita Healy, “Why Home Churches are Filling Up,” Time, February 27, 2006, http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1167737,00.html (accessed December 22, 2006).
3 Don Teague, “Micro-churches are big on faith,” NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams, November 27, 2005, http://video.msn.com/v/us/v.htm?g=bcd59695-b489-4d7b-9487-a94e82dcc9e0&f (accessed December 22, 2006).
4 George Barna, Revolution (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 2005), 13, 49, 54, 64–66; see also the 10/24/05, 6/19/06, and 1/8/07 Barna Group Updates at www.barna.org.
5 The house church model is nothing new. In communist nations Christians have used an underground home church model for years. Experts estimate that eighty million Chinese Christians gather weekly in homes.
6 Frank Viola, So You Want to Start a House Church? (Gainesville, FL: Present Testimony Ministry, 2003), 114–116.
7 Acts 2:1; 5:42; 12:12; 16:14, 15; 20:20; Romans 16:3–5; 1 Corinthians 16:19; Colossians 4:15, 16; Philemon 1:2.
8 Acts 9:31; Romans 1:7; 1 Corinthians 1:2 (cf. 16:1, 19); 2 Corinthians 1:1 (cf. 8:1); Galatians 1:2, 22; Ephesians 1:1; Philippians 1:1; Colossians 1:2; 1 Thessalonians 1:1.
9 Matthew 16:18; 1 Corinthians 12:28; 15:9; Ephesians 1:22; 3:10, 11; 5:22–32; Hebrews 12:23.
10 Romans 16:3–5; 1 Corinthians 16:19; Colossians 4:15, 16; Philemon; Philippians 4:21, 22
11 Acts 2:1—3:26; 5:12–16; 13:14–16; 14:1–7; 16:13–18; 17:1–5; 18:4, 24–28.
12 One example of a public gathering of believers for edification may be Acts 19:9. Paul “departed”[that’s the NKJV] from opposers and “withdrew the disciples” to the school of Tyrannus, where they were further taught for two years.
13 Rad Zdero, The Global House Church Movement (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2004), 54–57.
14 1 Corinthians 11; 1 Thessalonians 5:26; Acts 1:26.
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.