Why House Church?

Obviously house church isn’t the norm (yet) in Western society, but it’s as old as the Church itself. You might be wondering why we choose to gather in homes each week as opposed to the traditional way of gathering in one large space, and that’s a great question. We want to be clear that we don’t think meeting in homes will solve all of the church’s problems; it may even create some new ones! As we’ve said elsewhere, it’s not the silver bullet. Only the Spirit of God can bring revival to the Church. That being said, we do believe that there are some very practical benefits to meeting in homes, that this restructuring of the church model is more biblical and more strategic, and that it will ultimately help the Church to be more receptive to God’s leading and empowering for the building of his kingdom.

Remember this, that whatever structure we have in place should accurately reflect our beliefs. Otherwise, what we teach will be constantly contradicted by what the structure itself is teaching our church. And as we all know, actions speak louder than words. This, we believe, is one of the reasons that so much of the Church does not appear to be living according to the gospel. The structure we’ve been using for a long time has been working against our own teaching, allowing for a different kind of gospel to take root, and therefore perpetuating the widespread apathy and consumerism that we see in the typical American church today.
Church leaders have tried nearly everything to change this reality, except changing the model itself. They’ve presumed that the traditional model is the best or only model worthy of our consideration. But is it possible that what so many call “church” is actually more like an idol which keeps the Church from being at its best? Is it possible that our buildings and staff, our services and programs, while certainly providing some benefit to the Body of Christ on a micro level, are actually doing greater damage on a macro level? And if this is even remotely possible, then isn’t it worth considering a different model? If this is true, then isn’t it our duty to make a change?

In everything you’re about to read, please know that our aim is not to bash any segment of the church. It is simply to explain why we think that house church is the model most conducive to health and power within the Body, and we cannot do this effectively without also explaining why we think that the widely accepted (“traditional”) model is not. Furthermore, we recognize there are many within the traditional model who are living faithfully as Christ-followers. This isn’t a matter of whether someone can be faithful in either model (they certainly can), but a matter of how well the model helps to cultivate the life of discipleship within the Church at large. Or in other words, if we let God build his Church, how would he build it?

The following are some of the most compelling reasons that we have chosen to meet in homes:

+Equipping the Saints for the Ministry

Paul writes in Ephesians 4:11-12 that God “gave the apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds, and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of the ministry, for the building up of the body of Christ”. It’s really important that we understand what Paul is saying here because it speaks to how God has designed his Church (what theologians call “ecclesiology”). So let’s unpack this for a moment.

In the early church, apostles and evangelists were for the most part people with itinerant ministries, meaning that they traveled from place to place in order to plant and water the seed of the gospel. Prophets were those who would frequently speak God’s word into the life of the community, and, next to the apostles, were the foundation of the Church. Shepherds and teachers (or perhaps best translated as pastor-teachers) were those appointed to oversee and care for the church in a specific location, especially in the absence of the apostles. What they all had in common is that their ministry was to the larger church body, who Paul refers to here as “the saints”. And here’s where it gets interesting.

While large numbers of believers would gather in the temple or synagogue to hear these appointed leaders teach when possible, the far greater portion of community life and spiritual development happened inside homes in much smaller numbers. These appointed leaders would visit different houses as a part of their ministry, but most church gatherings occurred without one of these leaders present. This meant that the “building up of the body of Christ” was usually left up to ordinary believers. Thus, spiritual formation, or discipleship, was everyone’s privilege and responsibility, and the role of church leaders was to ensure that all were equipped for this ongoing ministry.

One of the greatest pitfalls of the traditional church model is that it trains the Church to rely mostly on one (or a few) “gifted” individuals who have a “unique calling” to do the work of the ministry. The more a church relies on one leader to build up the body, the more its members are hindered from taking ownership of this ministry, which then results in its people remaining in a state of spiritual infancy. There’s nothing inherently wrong with larger corporate gatherings, but by making them the central component of church life, we’ve taught the Church implicitly that being in ministry to the body is optional. It also implicitly teaches the Church that the big gathering is where discipleship primarily happens, and this is what it looks like: one person speaking, the rest passively consuming.

Instead, if and when large gatherings do happen, their goal should be to equip the saints for ministry (i.e. building one another up), which the saints should then be doing regularly in smaller settings, where all members of the body are participating in the ministry to one another. (More on that in the next section.) The small gathering should be the central component and the large gathering complementary. This is the New Testament picture.

By contrast, in the house church model, there's no other choice than to “equip the saints for the work of the ministry”. The moment you outgrow a house, you must identify leaders to start the next one and teach them to rely not on you, but on the Holy Spirit. And within each house, the gathering is small enough so that all members can genuinely participate in ministry to one another, rather than most sitting passively through the service.

We shouldn’t be surprised that so many Christians are “consumeristic” when we continue forcing them to consume on a weekly basis. We shouldn’t be surprised that so many lack the desire to serve when, instead of equipping them to make disciples, we equip them to plan social events, paint fences, count the offering, greet at the doors, or play in the band. While these are “ministries”, they are not the ministry to which every Christian is called. And perhaps most importantly, we shouldn’t be surprised that the Holy Spirit doesn’t seem to be doing much when only a small minority of the Church is engaged in His favorite kind of work.

Some might argue that the structural difference of the early Church was simply contextual, that it worked in that culture but isn’t best in ours. But one thing that Paul makes clear is that whatever structure we do have should reflect the God-given design of (a) leaders who equip and (b) saints who minister. It’s not that these things can’t or don’t happen within the traditional church model, but that the model itself works against this teaching, despite the best intentions of its leaders to equip people. In the same way, it’s not that these things will necessarily happen within the house church model, but that the model lends itself to the equipping of the saints more naturally.

+Loving One Another

Jesus has commanded us to love one another as he loved the Twelve. “By this, all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35) Shortly after that, he prays “that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you”. (John 17:21) At the very heart of the Christian life is fellowship with other believers. Not acquaintancy, not friendship. Fellowship. Unconditional love and devotion. Unity of mind and spirit. An intimate sharing of life, all centered around God -- Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Any Christian who has tasted even the beginning of real fellowship knows how important it is, and the Bible could hardly be any more clear that it is not optional, it’s essential. But once again, the problem we have with the traditional church model is that it works against this teaching. No matter how much we teach from the pulpit that being in deep, formative relationships with other Christians is essential, the model itself teaches that it's optional. Hence, the swaths of Christians who opt out of it. In the large corporate gathering, meaningful interactions (let alone the activities of true fellowship) are hard to come by. So by making this gathering the primary church activity, Christians have come to believe that you can be a part of the church without actually being a part of the church as Jesus commanded you to be. No wonder so many Christians feel unfulfilled in their church experience.

In the traditional model, small groups are the most common solution to this problem, and rightfully so. When a small group is functioning as it should, it is perhaps the best image of the Church (as God meant for it to be) within the traditional model. These kinds of small groups pray together, read Scripture, confess their sins, meet each other's needs, worship together, teach and admonish each other, etc. But here’s an interesting thought. If this is the most accurate picture of the Church, then what is this whole other thing that we call "church" that lacks so many of the qualities these groups have? Why call Sunday services essential and small groups optional, when it should clearly be the other way around? (Some traditional churches have already realized this and begun to make their large corporate gathering secondary to their small house gathering. What a great solution for churches who feel called to keep and use their building!)

In the house church model, there is no option. To be a part of the church for any length of time, you must enter into fellowship with other Christians and submit your life to them in devotion to Christ.

+Being Entirely Faithful to God

While buildings can certainly be helpful, we believe that far too often, they end up being obstacles to true reliance on God. When we rely on buildings for the success of the church, we end up worrying too much about the number of people funding our buildings and filling our sanctuaries, and we start to focus on how to keep people around, rather than how to be faithful whether or not people stick around.

In the house church model, there’s obviously no need for a building, which means there's far less pressure (perhaps none) to make money, and therefore no pressure to keep your numbers up, and therefore no need to be afraid of people leaving. We can have a church with just a few faithful people meeting in a living room! It’s a wonderful freedom which allows the church to be entirely faithful to God without having to make compromises in order to cater to the people who fund the ministry and fill the sanctuary. If being faithful to God causes people to leave, that’s okay. We still have our home, our church, and our integrity. We just continue as usual, putting the pressure on God to build his Church, believing that he can do it way better than we can.

If you’re still having some trouble understanding what we mean, try this:

Imagine you’re a church leader of a typical American church, responsible for the spiritual growth of your congregation. God makes it clear to you that you are to do something which may not be popular, like one of the following:

  • Stop all of your church activities immediately and devote an indefinite amount of time to prayer and fasting.
  • Start exercising church discipline, correcting people who are walking in sin, and even removing those who refuse to repent.
  • Do away with childcare and youth ministries so that all kids would be a part of the Sunday worship gathering.

These are just examples, but you get the idea. Just imagine that God asks you do something that you know is right, and you know it’s for the good of the church, but you suspect that it could cause many to leave.

Now, to add a common complexity to the situation, imagine that your church depends on a building which it uses for all its services, programs, and outreach ministries. The building has costs, and without enough people attending to pay for those costs, you’re in trouble. There’s also the fear of having an empty sanctuary on Sunday mornings and all the discouragement that comes with it. This probably wouldn’t happen immediately, but gradually over time as more and more people lose interest in your church and lose hope in you as a leader.

You now feel like you’re in a bind. Obeying God is the obvious decision from a faith perspective, but you start to wonder if God would actually lead you to place your job, your church, and your ministry in jeopardy like that. Before you know it, you’ve convinced yourself that the most faithful thing to do is that which keeps the most people coming through the doors so that you and your church can continue to do ministry (which is a good thing) as usual. Moving forward, you decide that anything which might significantly decrease your attendance or membership couldn’t possibly be from God.

It can be hard to see, but it’s nonetheless true. The inefficacy of many churches today is in large part due to their attachment to buildings, which renders them unable to hear God clearly. It’s time for the Church to let go of its brick idols and open itself up entirely to God’s direction, no matter what, or who, it costs us.

+Access to Different Cultures and People Groups

Whether we’d like to admit it or not, no one church is capable of connecting with every culture. Most value diversity, at least in theory, but there are some really obvious barriers that make diversity not only very difficult, but unfruitful. The greatest of these might be the language barrier. For example, how much good would one of our worship services do for someone who can’t understand our language? Beyond this, there are all sorts of cultural barriers related to things like socio-economic status and race which are sometimes too great to overcome. But even if they could be overcome, what would each group of people need to deny about their own culture and heritage in order to “fit in” at your church?

The beautiful thing about the gospel, which we’ve seen as it has spread across the world, is that it doesn’t deny any culture, but applies to them all. As such, expressions of worship and fellowship vary in every culture, and that’s a beautiful thing! Good foreign missionaries don’t try to make disciples who replicate the culture of the American church. Instead, they equip their disciples to build up the Church by applying the gospel to their own unique context.

In the house church model, all it takes is one. If we can disciple and equip one person from a different people group, then that person can begin a church in their own home for others who share their same culture. They will be far more able to reach people like them than we would ever be, and then there’s no need to homogenize these people groups, denying their own rich and beautiful culture, just so that we might minister to them.

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