For those hiding under a rock, Barna's estimate is that 8 percent to 9 percent of adults in the United States are now involved in some type of house church. And his prediction is that 70 percent of the church will be worshipping in non-traditional settings within the next 20 years. When we say "non-traditional," we're not talking about those wacky churches that have WiFi in the sanctuary or a coffee kiosk in the lobby. That's so '90s.
Nor is Barna (along with many others) envisioning house churches populated by disgruntled church hoppers with an insufferable superiority complex, assembled with the common denominator of their disdain for the institutional church. That's so '70s.
The new house church movement is less predictable, more engaged with the institutional church and missional to the core. Not to say they don't have their problems, but today's house churches are virtually unrecognizable in comparison to their old-school predecessors.
A brief disclaimer is in order: Of course, the concept of the church meeting in homes is nothing new—from the household-based congregations Paul addressed (see Rom. 16:10,11; 1 Cor. 1:11,16, 16:15; 1 Tim. 3:12; 2 Tim 1:16; Tit. 1:11) to modern-day house church movements in China and India composed of millions of believers.
However, from the time of its institutionalization in the early fourth century, Western Christianity has been most visibly identified by the buildings in which it is practiced and the full-time clergy who administer its rites. All this is up for grabs in the postmodern world, in which the core values include distrust of authority, suspicion of structure and an unabashed pursuit of authenticity.
It is in this environment that ecclesiology gets stripped down to its lowest common denominators, and the champions of the new house church movement are surprisingly consistent on what those ingredients are.
HOUSE CHURCH DNA
"DNA—divine truth, nurturing relationship and apostolic mission," explains Neil Cole, identifying what he believes are the core ingredients of the biblical church analogous to those of human biology. "My conviction is that without these happening, you don't have any life or health. You can't unravel the DNA into its component parts. Its only power is when it's intact."
The executive director of Church Multiplication Associates (cmaresources.org) and author of Organic Church: Growing Faith Where Life Happens, Cole has planted more than 700 churches in 32 states and 23 nations. Cole is not anti-traditional-church in the least—in fact (like many in the house church movement), he once served on staff at a megachurch, pastored his own congregation and maintains denominational ties (for him, Grace Brethren Church).
However, he believes that these ingredients can be left out of the mix in a traditional church without anyone noticing and the business of ministry not missing a beat. Others in today's house church movement share Cole's heritage in traditional congregations and conviction that the tried-and-true model may not be the only model for reaching people who would never walk in the doors of a typical church.
"Most of the house churches of the past were inwardly focused—an 'us' versus 'them' mentality," Cole explains. "Now, people are choosing this expression of church because it is healthier and more participatory. It suits the postmodern world very well—it's relational, authentic and experiential."
Unlike their counterparts of the past, most of today's house church advocates are cautious in labeling their movement the "only" way. Many of them maintain relationships with denominations and traditional churches—and these denominations and churches are even finding ways to plant and support house churches themselves. Rick Warren's Saddleback Church sends out "missionaries" from its own flock to plant home-based congregations, and the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) is seeking new ways to embrace the movement.
For instance, in an article on his Website newchurches.com, Southern Baptist missiologist Ed Stetzer admits that "enthusiastic house church proponents have neglected some of the ecclesiology described in Scripture by de-emphasizing New Testament delegated leadership, misunderstanding the role of covenant and related church discipline, and a failure to practice the biblically prescribed ordinances."