By Joel Comiskey
Most likely you do not use house church to describe your small group experience. Perhaps you call your groups Life groups, Growth groups or just plain small groups. For many, the phrase house church seems to describe something more permanent and independent, like an actual church meeting in a home. Then there’s the question of geography. After all, don’t house churches meet “over there,” in places like China, India, or Ethopia? Many have heard the glowing reports of multiplying house churches overseas, but those stories probably seem far away, in another place and under harsher circumstances.
The reality, however, is that the house church movement is alive and well in America (note 1). Researchers have estimated that there are 20 million people meeting in house churches in America and Barna predicts that alternative movements like house churches might reach 30-35% of all Christians by 2025 (note 2).Yet, many more small groups exist in the U.S. with some estimating that seventy-five million adult Americans regularly attend the estimated three million small groups (note 3).
So what are the differences between house churches and small groups? Houses churches see themselves as fully the church, quite apart from the Sunday gathering. The leaders are elders or pastors, not facilitators developed in the local church. House churches derive their meaning squarely from the New Testament Church, not by any modern small group approach or successful church model. Small groups, on the other hand, are not independent but part of a local church. Leaders are prepared and coached through the local church and the small groups gather together each week for corporate worship. Small groups can learn a lot from house churches, and I offer here a few of those insights.
Scripture provides the best motivation
Those in the house church movement believe that meeting from house to house is the Scriptural way to do church. They correctly assert that house based ministry became so common in the New Testament that throughout the book of Acts, every mention of a local church or of a church meeting, whether for worship or fellowship, is a reference to a church meeting in a home. They also point to the fact that the early disciples met in homes because this was the strategy Jesus taught them. After all, Jesus himself met from house to house throughout Galilea and Judea and then sent his own disciples into the homes to evangelize and establish a base for gospel preaching (Luke 9; Matthew 10).
Small group leaders can become tired and unmotivated when the reason for leading a small group is because it’s a good thing to do, an important ministry in the church, or a helpful way to keep people from slipping out the back door. Even those exhortations about spiritual growth through small group involvement can fall flat when other less time consuming alternatives present themselves, like one-on-one meetings with friends or a new church program.
Small groups need to dig deep into the biblical foundation to derive meaning and motivation to press on. When small group leaders and members understand that the early church met in homes and that Jesus commissioned them, there’s new meaning and motivation to continue in small group ministry. Other motivations might have their place, but there’s a deeper foundation that those in the house church movement have understood: house to house ministry is biblically based and the best way to make disciples who make disciples (Matthew 28).
God loves to establish his church in the home
House churches today see themselves as fully the church. They realize that the New Testament writers used the word “ecclesia” when referring to the church in the home as well as to the gathered church on Sunday. Paul addressed the whole congregation in a particular place as ecclesia and also used the same word ecclesia to describe the individual house groups (1 Corinthians 1:1; 16:19). The one was not seen as detracting from the status of the other. Wherever believers met together, they were “the church of God.” House churches today are fully functioning churches in themselves.
I’m not saying that all small groups should be called the church, but the definition of the church in Scripture is very simple—whether the church is meeting in the house or a building. For example, it’s my understanding of Scripture that a New Testament church was comprised of some very simple elements:
- God appointed leadership (Hebrew 13:17)
- Under the Lordship of Christ (Ephesians 5, Romans 14)
- Participation in the sacraments of both baptism and the Lord’s supper (Matthew 28:18-20; 1 Corinthians 11), whether those sacraments are practiced in the small group or when all those small groups come together to celebrate on Sunday.
The house church movement can teach small groups that they are not just an extension of Sunday or a way to keep people in the larger Sunday celebration—a church growth technique. In one sense, the house church movement has raised the bar to what a small group should be—the church of the living God.
When my home group comes together on Wednesday evening, it’s fully the church. We have God-appointed leadership, we meet regularly, we read God’s word, we participate in the sacraments—occasionally in the home group but most of the times when all the home groups meet together for a common celebration. We are under the lordship of Christ and accountable to one another. It’s a very simple gathering.
Those Leading the Small Group are pastors
In today’s church the offices of bishop, pastor, and elder have become formalized and official. However, in the early church, those who assumed these titles were house church leaders or overseers of various house churches. The norm in the early church was to have a team of leaders over house churches. House churches today view those leading the house church as the pastor or elder who lead within a team, like we see in the New Testament.
As elders of God’s flock, house church leaders take serious their responsibility to pastor those who are in the group. This responsibility might include spiritual help, visiting the sick, counseling, or helping out with physical necessities. Team ministry is highly valued so the responsibility doesn’t rest on just one person.
House churches can teach small groups to pastor those in the small group. While I like to use the word facilitator to describe how the leader empowers others during the lesson time, the term facilitator doesn’t do justice to the leadership role that those on the team should practice toward group members. House churches can teach small group leaders to truly shepherd God’s flock within and outside the group meeting.
Organic Spontaneity Brings Life
The word organic refers to something natural, healthy, and not man-made. House churches don’t promote one particular order for a house church meeting, preferring the organic, spontaneous flow, just like the early house churches. After all, ministry in the early house churches was fluid and dynamic. The Spirit guided the meetings, fellowship around the Lord’s Supper, and Spirit-led activity among all members. In those early house churches, members were encouraged to experience their spiritual gifts for the common good of the body, and leaders operated as gifted men and women (Romans 12:6-8; 1 Corinthians 12:8-10, 27-28). Dependence on the Spirit of God through the gifts of the Spirit shaped the direction of those early house churches, and we must remember that all of the gift passages in Scripture were written to house churches.
Small groups can learn from house churches to trust the Spirit of God to move among each member, to encourage all those in the group to experience their spiritual gifts, and to practice the priesthood of all believers. Effective small groups are not primarily about curriculum, following a particular campaign, or rigidly following a study guide. The best meetings, rather, are Holy Spirit directed in which everyone participates and is encouraged to use his or her gift (s). The best small group leaders are filled with the Spirit and allow each member to minister to one another.
Jesus started his church in the atmosphere of multiplying house churches, and it seems that he continues to favor this strategy because he’s bringing it back in an extraordinary way around the world. House churches remind us that God doesn’t dwell in temples made with hands. He’s the God of pilgrimage who favors simple structures, rather than the ornate and permanent ones.
Small groups often need to be jolted back to the New Testament feel for community, evangelism, and natural leadership development. Although house churches raise the bar high, they remind us that God chose the church in the home and that small groups point to primitive Christianity as their beginning and ending point.
In many ways, what God did back then and is doing today is supernatural. We can rejoice in the Spirit’s move, but we can’t control it. But just maybe, the house church movement can remind small group leaders of their awesome responsibility to shepherd God’s flock and pastor his church in a simple, dynamic, and reproducible way.
- George Barna, “House Church Involvement Is Growing,” June 19, 2006, www.barna.org.
- George Barna, Revolution (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2005), p. 49.
- Robert Wuthnow, I Come Away Stronger: How Small Groups Are Shaping American Religion (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1994), p. 45. Robert Wuthnow’s ground-breaking survey of small groups in the U.S. not only discovered that 40% of the U.S. adult population is involved in a small group, but that 7% who were not currently in a small group planned on joining one within the following year.