Part 2 of 5
If the ABCs of Church Revitalization and the Hallmarks of a Healthy Church revolve around the decentralization that accompanies adopting the biblical definition of “church” and holding those “called out ones” to the Great Commission standard, then it’s worth following the decentralized church to its logical conclusion. House churches were the predominant format for church gatherings in the New Testament and are common today, particularly in countries where economics or persecution preclude expensive or conspicuous church buildings. There is evidence that house churches are gaining momentum in America as a rising number of churchgoers have grown frustrated with the prevailing, contemporary version of church that concerns itself with attracting and retaining members.
Movements spawning many of these house churches recognize the tremendous opportunities house churches have over brick-and-mortar. However, simply replicating waist-deep discipleship and externally-oblivious models for conducting church, only in a smaller context, will fail to realize that potential.
Potential Advantages of House Churches
Let’s look first at the opportunities that decentralizing Church into homes across America provides to generate greater Kingdom impact than gathering Christians into larger buildings. Again, being afforded these opportunities does not mean that all house churches are availing themselves of them.
- Footprint – Imagine a church in every apartment building. What about a church on every street in your city? Today, Christians leave their homes to convene in what I call “skyscrapers”, churches that do not take up much ground. In contrast, house churches are a way for the ekklesia (assembly of “called out ones”) to set up shop on every street, condo and apartment complex in the country. A church building cannot be erected on my street – the Home Owners Association would never approve of it. Management of an apartment complex would not likely allow a church to sign a lease. A condo association would not permit a church to buy a unit. But HOAs, apartment owners and condo associations cannot prevent people from meeting in a person’s residence to worship.
- Infiltration – Cults and religions hostile to Christianity are known to form cell groups to infiltrate communities and quietly increase their presence and following. Wouldn’t it be interesting if the reverse were true – for example, Christians planting house churches in Muslim-dominated neighborhoods? It would not be surprising if house churches in those communities met with resistance, testing the resolve and faith of churchgoers in ways rarely experienced in America but a daily occurrence in China and for the early church.
- Relationships – Every pastor knows smaller settings create opportunities for closer relationships. Small Groups are the primary path churches take today in their effort to foster those smaller settings. However, only a small percentage of members participate in Small Groups and most Small Groups only run for several months per year, cycling new members in and out. In contrast, house church members don’t just meet one day per week for a few months, but often do life together as a united community of believers for years.
- Depth – Weekly worship services and occasional small group meetings aren’t making many disciples. A 30 minute lecture and fellowship meetings run by untrained individuals are insufficient for those Jesus intends to be His hands and feet between Sundays. Life transformation is intensive and relational, better fostered in a house church environment.
- Commitment – It’s interesting that where house churches dominate the worship landscape, like in China and the early church, the Church sees rapid growth. There aren’t many lukewarm Christians at those house churches – fence-sitters and non-believers don’t feel it’s worth the risk to attend. Consider what a house church service would look like if a few non-believers were present. What if half the house church was filled with skeptics? If worship did still take place, it could become awkward or uncomfortable. The service would possibly morph instead into an evangelistic intervention.
- Evangelism – Rather than invite non-believers to church, it may seem more appropriate to a house church member to invite them out for a coffee. As we discussed in our 4-part blog series last month, worship services were not intended to make non-believers feel comfortable. Instead, churchgoers were to live out Acts 1:8 and to “go and make disciples” through personal relationships, and then bring those new believers into worship services.
- Neighboring – Closer proximity to neighbors would presumably make house churches more aware of their needs and more intentional about serving them. Fewer members means each has a sense of greater accountability for doing their part to live out a Prayer, Care, Share lifestyle. It’s more difficult to hide from that responsibility when there are so few to carry the load on behalf of the house church.
- Costs – The easiest way to multiply churches is to plant house churches. The costs to start up and build brick-and-mortar churches are prohibitive for most. Small churches are struggling mightily to maintain financial viability in light of recent economic downturns, decreasing giving per congregant, and losing ground to Walmart churches that provide better music, facilities and programs. Maybe the Lord never meant for churches to be so expensive to operate that such a large number could be experiencing extreme financial hardship due to high fixed costs. Instead of seeing the Church’s footprint expand (through proliferation of cost-effective house churches), we see its footprint shrinking and at risk of further decline.
- Hierarchy – Other religions put in place stringent governance structures and hierarchies to exert authority over followers. Jesus strongly resisted and called out religious leaders who tried to control the actions and behaviors of those they considered less righteous. House churches flatten the hierarchy, still allowing for leadership prescribed in the Books of Timothy and Titus, but shifting from a one-to-many church model to a decentralized many-to-many model. Less emphasis on a single individual necessarily means more onus on each member to BE the church personified all week long.
Potential Issues with House Churches
There is a solid biblical foundation for house churches given their prominence in the landscape of the early church. However, there is significant resistance to house churches among many seminaries, pastors and other church leaders. Two of the most common concerns they express relate to:
- Qualifications – Some pastors believe a house church operating without a leader who has graduated from a seminary is not legitimate. They doubt the doctrinal foundation of churches where anyone but a biblical scholar preaches or where the group shares the exegetical workload. One counterargument is that many house churches are “networked” and itinerant or local leaders act as sounding boards and elders over multiple house churches (i.e. “appoint elders in every city”). It’s worth noting that seminaries build their curriculum to prepare pastors to work within a brick-and-mortar framework. Also, it’s concerning that the institutions training today’s pastors are teaching and perpetuating a church growth model that is precipitating its decline in growth, impact, influence and perception. Much like the most brilliant minds on Wall Street who graduated from Harvard and Princeton didn’t foresee the last decade’s financial collapse, the biblical scholars of our day continue to subscribe to a definition of “church” that defies the Great Commission and possess an understanding of Jesus’ approach to evangelism that defies the second half of the Great Commandment. In other words, maybe mature Christians who haven’t been indoctrinated in the principles for making a living running a church are better qualified to lead one. Today, seminaries are producing more aspiring pastors than the shrinking number of church buildings can support, yet churches aren’t producing enough disciples to launch a home church in every apartment complex and street in America. Instead, ambitious churches aim to plant more churches under their brand and control.
- Heresy – Pastors of brick-and-mortar churches contend that group-think and under-educated leadership often lead house churches into wayward theology. Studies showing that smaller churches tend to veer off the biblical highway more often than megachurches would seem to support their claim. However, even small churches that meet in a building are still dependent on a single pastor to unveil his version and interpretation of biblical truth. For the reasons mentioned in the previous section of this blog post, a house church format inherently distributes greater responsibility for teaching and accountability for personal growth than a brick-and-mortar church and therefore may be less likely to run off the Matthew 5:19 rails.
It’s Your Turn
Have you observed a house church or been part of one that took advantage of those opportunities and avoided those pitfalls?