by Joel Comiskey
We have lived in Moreno Valley, California long enough to see myriads of houses constructed. As I’ve passed by the new tracks of homes, I’ve often dreamed of the day when those homes are used for a dual purpose: for normal living and to reach a lost world for Jesus Christ.
Traditionally, people leave their home to go to church and then go back to their homes to live. I long for the day when the church is in the home, and the planting of new churches primarily involves the use of existing homes. The early church movement was a home based movement that met from house to house (Acts 12:12; Romans 16:3–5; 1 Corinthians 16:19; Colossians 4:15; Philemon v.2). Under the radar of the Roman empire, God used the early house churches to evangelize, make disciples, and transform the world. The primitive house churches were so effective that Christianity eventually became the dominant religion.
Throughout church history God has used the house church strategy to draw the church back to a more simple form of church life and mission. In fact, from 1950 on, the global house church movement has resulted in a spontaneous multiplication of churches that has proven to be one of the most significant influences of the modern-day church.
The sheer numbers of people meeting in house churches around the world are staggering. While it is quite difficult to ascertain exact data for the house church movements because most of these churches have been gathering in countries where the Christian church is persecuted or poor, we do know that the house church movement is alive and growing.
Not only in persecuted countries
The most rapid growth in the house church movement is in restricted access areas like China, Asia, and North Africa. I attended one mission gathering and heard a missionary representative for China talk about house churches springing up like wildfire. The representative spoke of one Chinese leader who had planted 30,000 churches—all house churches. This Chinese leader trains people and within three weeks they are expected to plant a church.
This type of church planting doesn’t take place in many contexts. There is no doubt, however, that house church ministry has become increasingly popular and accepted. Larry Kreider, co-author of Starting a House Church, writes:
Within the next ten to fifteen years, I believe these new house church networks will dot the landscape of North America just as they already do in other nations of the world. Places like China, Central Asia, Latin America, India, and Cambodia have experienced tremendous growth through house churches and disciple and empower each member to “be the church.”
Well-known pollster George Barna has estimated that by the year 2025, membership in the conventional church in the U.S. will be cut by fifty percent, while alternative movements (like house churches) will potentially involve thirty to thirty-five percent of all Christians in the United States. Similar movements of house churches are also rising up in other western nations like Australia, Austria, Canada, Finland, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, Switzerland, and the U.K.
So what are house churches? I’ve noticed certain principles common in all house churches.
Ed Stetzer says, “My attraction to the house church springs from its simplicity and faith. I have been a part of large church starts. . . . Each involved more and more money. In my heart, I often feel that church planting should be simpler.”
The idea behind home churches is not to grow one church larger, but to keep the church intimate while reproducing other intimate fellowships in other locales.
Many New Testament church practices cannot function effectively in large, impersonal groups. Home churches form communities of believers who get to know each other in all aspects of life. They share their spiritual gifts to edify the body. Authentic Christianity has a greater chance of emerging in the lives of individuals and families because intimacy and accountability are built into the church.
One reason why house churches are reproducible is because they lack a hierarchical structure. The house church movement focuses on simple, reproducible strategies that release common Christians for uncommon work. They celebrate evangelism and reproduction that is natural and spontaneous. This reproduction is occurring at every level and in every unit of the church life. As people are released into ministry, new interdependent churches are formed.
One misconception of the house church movement is that all house churches meet in homes. Larry Kreider, a proponent of “house churches,” started using the phrase micro church to highlight the fact that not all house churches meet in a house. Some will meet in coffee shops, galleries, and other places. Others prefer the term simple church, or organic church. Neil Cole, house church planter and author of Organic Church, plants organic churches in restaurants, bars, or other places besides homes.
No clergy or “professionals” are necessary
House churches do not require ordained, seminary-trained professionals to function effectively. House churches point to the fact that New Testament teaching does not recognize clergy and laity distinctions. Those who are seminary or Bible school-trained can be assets to house churches, sometimes serving as catalysts who plant the first few house churches in a given area or people group. But they don’t always have to be physically present for house churches to have legitimacy or theological understanding.
House churches do need godly, mature leadership (1 Timothy 3:1-12, Titus 1:5-9, 1 Peter 5:1-4). The training, however, happens primarily through an informal approach, with basic Bible knowledge and practical ministry as the main components.
Most house church leaders are volunteers. Financial resources are normally used to support itinerant workers, missions, or meeting the practical needs of members, such as the poor, widows, and orphans. In most cases, the house church does collect an offering. And in rare cases, a house church may decide to support one of the leaders. Bob Fitts Sr. writes:
A house church will be able to channel almost all of its finances into ministry. There may be some minor expenses, but since the meeting will be held in houses, all building expenses will be avoided. In this way, only ten tithing families could support a full-time pastor. Since one pastor could oversee more than one house church, he does not have to receive all his support from one congregation
No special buildings
House churches meet in ordinary homes or other places that are free from rent or payments. Maintenance and overhead related to a church building are eliminated. Larry Kreider writes:
The Chinese house church movement has made a commitment to the Lord concerning how the church will exist even when they are freed from communism in the future. They have already made a decision that they will build no buildings. They want to keep their method of training and sending intact, and not focus on constructing buildings but on building people.
The house church movement—more than any other strategy–is building-proof. Money is not spent on buildings and maintenance.
Fully the church
House churches are fully functioning churches in themselves. They partake of the Lord’s supper, baptize, marry, bury, and exercise church discipline. Many house churches, however, do network with other house churches for mutual accountability, encouragement, and cooperation.
House churches are normally led by volunteers and meet for participatory meetings which involve prayer, worship, the word, and outreach. Food and fellowship are also important elements.
Simple order of meeting
There is no set order for house church meetings. One well-known house church leader suggests using five Ws (Welcome, Worship, Word, Works, and Witness) as one possibility. Yet, most house churches have an open, participatory style with no one single order in mind.
Even when there is a more directive teaching given by the leader or one of the members, there is always plenty of time for group discussion and response to the message. The goal is to have all those present to practice their spiritual gifts. Most would agree that although certain elements may be pre-planned, there is freedom to follow the Holy Spirit, if He changes those plans.
It’s common in house churches to celebrate the Lord’s supper as a full meal. This often takes place at the start or end of the house church meeting, but may take place on an entirely different day. House churches point back to Acts 2:46 where the believers broke bread from house to house. Celebrating the Lord’s supper as a meal can be seen in 1 Corinthians 11: 20-26, where Paul talked about participating in an actual meal.
In the past, I described a house church as a community of twenty to forty people who met together on a weekly basis but were more or less independent of other house churches.
More recently, there’s been a new emphasis in the house church movement. A new version of the house church promotes smaller-sized house churches. Wolfgang Simson, for example, teaches that many house churches today have between eight to fifteen members, and typically multiply every six to nine months.
Rad Zdero wrote a book called The Global House Church Movement. He himself planted a house church network in Canada. He writes,
House churches should not grow too large before they decide to multiply. Otherwise, the loss of intimacy, openness, and interaction will eventually compromise the group’s attractiveness and plateau the numbers. Currently around the globe, explosive Christian conversion growth from church planting movement is characterized by the reproduction of multiplying house churches and cell groups of no more than 10-30 people.
Networking the house churches
Many have criticized the “independence” of the house church movement—myself included. It’s been refreshing to hear many house church authors making the same criticism. Many house church proponents today promote the need for house churches to network with other house churches.
Networks can function in different ways. They may be highly informal, connected only by an occasional joint gathering or special times to share ideas with one another. Or, they may be formally networked together as “sister” churches that function with common goals and projects. Larry Kreider writes, “They are called house churches because each one functions as a little church. They are networks because they work together to foster accountability and encouragement.”
Those in the house church movement long to return to New Testament Christianity. Many in the movement are fed up with the modern day version of Christianity that emphasizes crowds, church buildings, and unnatural hierarchies. They desire to go back to the values of simplicity and the priesthood of all believers, just like the early church. And houses churches are well-positioned to meet this need. They thrive without money or traditional hierarchy to make things happen.
It’s also refreshing to note that many in the house church movement feel the need to network with other house churches, rather than functioning independently. The movement has also begun to emphasize smaller sized house churches, realizing that community can easily be lost when the group grows too large.
God is using many vehicles to get the job done before his second coming and one of those important strategies is the house church movement.