I live in sunny southern California, and I can drive by churches like the Saddleback Church, Calvary Chapel, or the Crystal Cathedral. While you might not have such massive churches where you live, when most people think of the word “church,” they envision church buildings, church meetings, and specific church days. And even when reading the New Testament, it’s almost impossible to avoid these modern-day images and experiences of church.
But if you were a believer living in the New Testament time period, you’d have a totally different set of images about “church.”
The early Christians met primarily in the homes of individual members over a period of nearly three hundred years-until the fourth century, when Constantine began building the first basilicas throughout the Roman Empire.
House based ministry became so common 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. It would be safe to say that the first three centuries belonged to the house church movement. Men and women, ablaze with the Spirit of God, began to spread the gospel message from house-to-house (Acts 20:20).
The cell church/house church movement today is a desire to return to the New Testament when the church met where the people lived. Rather than a “come and see” strategy, cell ministry is a yearning to take the church next door. Lawrence Khong writes in The Apostolic Cell Church, “The devil wants to trap us within the four walls of the church. Criminals don’t care if the policeman is pushing papers-as long as he’s not out on the street” (p. 38).
There’s a tendency today in some U.S. churches to bring everyone together for a weekday teaching in the building and then break out into small groups in the sanctuary. Why? Convenience and to save time. So why emphasize small groups outside the church building. Here are a few:
- New Testament precedence—going back to the early church’s home meetings.
- Penetration in evangelism. Some people will never darken the door of a church but will go to someone’s home.
- Homes are more comfortable, whereas building space is more academic.
- Home groups lessen the driving distance, are more accessible to everyone, and allow for different meeting nights.
- Homes get families involved. It’s a nature meeting place for all ages.
- Hospitality. When the group is in the home, it gives opportunity for someone to host the group.
- Home groups allow more pastoral responsibility for all members.
But is it necessary to meet in a home? I believe that “outside the church building” clarifies the vision. While I think most small groups “outside the church building” will meet in homes, some will gather in coffee shops, parks, office buildings, and campuses.
For this reason, I don’t like to use “house church” to describe small groups because it’s not always accurate. Some of the most life-changing cell groups in the church I helped plant in Ecuador met at universities. At one time the Republic Church had over thirty cells meeting on university campuses in Quito, Ecuador.