Lessons from the House Church

Written in February 2007

“So continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved. Acts 2:45-47

“Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated and untrained men, they marveled. And they realized that they had been with Jesus.”  Acts 4:13 (NKJV)

House churches are here to stay. Whether that is reason to rejoice or weep depends upon to whom one speaks. Supporters see the house church as the return to the first century biblical model. As such it is their great hope for world evangelism. To detractors it lacks sound theology and threatens the church. The vast majority of American Christians aren’t sure what it is or why there is any discussion. Many confuse location with philosophy and methodology. If it meets in a house it must be a house church and one day it will be able to afford a church building like normal.

I see little point in adding to the house church debate, but I do believe that all parties can benefit from an examination of the model. What are the attractions of the house church and how do they relate to more traditional models? Can other churches improve their effectiveness by integrating house church strengths?

Relationships are foundational: That’s a no-brainer. Who would argue with the importance of relationships? Rad Zdero, a well known Canadian house church leader, writes, “Small groups are vital for the growth of Christians and an effective tool for reaching non-Christians.”  He continues in Appendix 3, “They [house churches] focus on relationships and the development of people spiritually, not on executing programs or projects.” [1]

Though all the various styles, or structures, of churches say that relationships are important one must question why their actions do not agree. Imagine pulling up to one of our smaller churches and reading the church sign which says, “Unless you are one of us, we don’t want you here!” In all my travels I have never seen that level of honesty, but I have been to some churches that practice it. Several years ago my wife, Kathy, went with me to a church where I was invited to speak. Arriving a little early Kathy sat down in the auditorium while I prayed with the staff. It was not long before an individual walked up and told her to move. She was sitting in that person’s place. Kathy moved several rows back and during the welcome time she shook hands with a mother and teenage son in the pew in front of her. No one else acknowledged them; they were obviously visitors.

Programs, ministries, and facilities are neutral. They are neither good nor bad. However, the lost world, and especially cults such as the Mormons, can provide a bigger dog and pony show than the vast majority of our churches today. Our local YMCA offers more “ministries” to families than anyone around. Christianity is the faith of relationships; relationship with God, others, and even ourselves. Bells and whistles can not take the place of relationships. Our society consists of fractured, dysfunctional relationships. Programs will not hold the lost visitor. They will come until the novelty wears off and then disappear, or continue showing up on convenient Sundays. Facilities, ministries, and programs are not the end, but a tool to facilitate the church’s ministry of restoring relationships. The lost hunger for relationships.

Does your church demonstrate a commitment to building relationships? Is assimilation a priority of, and modeled by, the leadership? Is a plan in place to insure that your church is not just “friendly,” but a place someone, anyone, can come and find friends? Assimilation of guests does not just happen, it requires intentionality. House churches charge that institutional churches are too large for meaningful relationships, which has proven true, more times than not. However I must say that the coldest place on earth is a “closed” small church. When you walk into a group of 20 to 40 people and receive token greetings, you know they know that you are a visitor. The difference between a clique and a church is the church must remain open to new people and draw them in. The biggest clique I ever encountered was a church plant of twenty. They were “friendly” until they died, but in ten months I never felt accepted into the group.

Discipleship is everything: Jesus’ plan for restoring the relationship between His Father and fallen man centers on discipleship. There is no plan “B.” The Great Commission charged us with making disciples. It amazes, and frightens, me the inability of the average Christian to give his testimony or present the plan of salvation in a concise, cogent manner. One of the House Church “charges” against the more “traditional” church is the apparent emphasis on numerical growth at the expense of discipleship. Jesus understood that the multitudes that followed Him were not proof of His success.

Discipleship requires accountability between individuals, a shared life, and time. Many sociologists lament the role TV has played in fragmenting families. The time children interact with their parents amounts to minutes in the day while time watching TV or on the computer amounts to hours. Can’t the same be said of much of our activity driven church calendar? We get so busy at church that we have at most a shallow intimacy with our brothers and sisters in Christ. The business world promotes mentoring as an important key to success. This is one time were the church should follow the corporate world’s example. Statistics reveal few Christians in America ever share their faith. We have more evangelism training programs than ever before, but fewer baptisms. We have a problem related to Christian maturity and our response is to start another program. Jesus modeled and the disciples followed. The Sanhedrin’s comments concerning Peter and John demonstrate the power of discipleship. Programs do not impart passion; passion is passed from one to another. Passion results from discipleship.

The common response to this issue is, “Well, we do that in Sunday School.” In reality the typical Sunday School class, at best, imparts information, and at worst instills boredom. You can always tell who the great Sunday School teachers are. Their classes are packed while the guy down the hall has just a hand full of people year after year. I have been a member of classes larger than forty people. You gain information, but not transformation. The Apostles’ transformed lives resulted from discipleship.

Does your church have a strategy for connecting mature Christians with newer believers? Is there a mechanism in place for groups of two or three people to spend time weekly digesting and dialoguing about the information transmitted in the large gatherings?

Christianity is a Shared Life. The two previous foundational principles of the House Church require time. The term I used most frequently as a pastor concerning my church was “church family.” The difference between a dysfunctional family and one that is healthy is often a matter of time. It takes time to talk, to build common values, goals, and to truly love each other. I submit that if church is nothing more than a place that I go on a Sunday, serve on a committee, or even watch my kid play basketball then I will not see the other members as brothers and sisters, as family. Several activities helped my former church become a family that always wanted to add new siblings. First, we played together. In the summer we would pack the grills and spend Sunday afternoons playing softball. Everyone would play. When the T-ballers were at bat the little kids played the infield. When the next batter could put the ball over the fence we switched the defense. The main point was to share an activity with our families and the church family. Trust me; it built koinonia when two batters in a row took out my shins with line drives. For some reason they found it humorous to see their pastor rolling on the ground. In the winter we would go tubing and sledding together. Another important activity we did, and I don’t wish this on any pastor, is that we built a building on a cash basis. The hours spent working together for a common goal drew us together. There is something powerful about a church that enjoys being together.

You don’t have to build a building or play softball, but you need time to talk. It is amazing how much you can learn about someone as you spend hours together involved in accomplishing a common goal. I have had some of my deepest conversations while sitting in a dugout or framing walls.

How does your church promote a shared life? Do you have a plan that enables people to spend time together beyond conducting church business? Does it include a mix of activities for the smallest groups and the larger, including the whole church family? Does your church enjoy being together?

Remember, models don’t solve problems. There are house churches that are as dysfunctional as the larger institutional churches they reject. And there are some mega-churches that implement the above principles as well as any church can. The question remains, “Can a lost world see that your members have been with Jesus?”

[1] Rad Zdero, The Global House Church Movement, Pasadena: William Carey Library, 2004, 9, 130.


3 Responses

  1. “Discipleship requires accountability between individuals, a shared life, and time.” Good word Bill. We too often lack accountability, live life independent of each other, and stay way too busy for discipleship to happen. Thanks for the reminder.

  2. Koinonia is so important when developing a healthy family unit. It also plays a part in the regeneration and social maturation of the local body of believers. Thank you for your insight! I look forward to taking your class at Liberty and one day, having the opportunity to plant a church.

    • Glad that you are moving toward church planting. Hopefully we will have a chance to chat during the term.

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