Since pollster George Barna released Revolution in 2005, discussion on the topic of house churches (aka simple churches, organic churches, micro-churches and so on) has grown to a fever pitch—ironically, alongside discussion of the undeniable growth of megachurches.
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."
However, the research team director at the North American Mission Board notes that he's more concerned about those who don't see house churches as an authentic expression of biblical ecclesiology.
"The greater problem," he says, "for the biblical house church is the millions of believers that consider their brick, institutionalized, non-multiplying church to be a more biblical model than the fifteen people meeting in a home with a passion to grow and multiply." Citing the SBC's initially negative response and eventual acceptance of the house church movement, Cole argues that every denomination will eventually have to deal with the reality of the trend. The response, he believes, will often hinge on the denomination's view of clergy and education.
"The anabaptist denominations with a history of strong lay leaders will thrive in this new environment," he notes. "The reformed denominations that require a high level of clergy education will have more challenges. However, even in the Reformed Church in America and other established presbyterial denominations, we're seeing the movement happen—but it has to be more grassroots."
Larry Kreider, international director of DOVE Christian Fellowship International (dcfi.org), a network of cell-based and house churches, envisions a future in which partnership between house churches and megachurches is the rule rather than the exception. In his hometown of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, leaders of both models meet for prayer and partnership.
"We have a leadership team of church leaders chosen by the body of Christ in our own area," he explains. "On that team are megachurch leaders and house church leaders—all working together to honor one another."
FROWNING ON TITLES
As Stetzer hints in his article, any discussion of the house church movement naturally gravitates toward leadership—particularly the concern that a lack of leadership is an invitation for chaos and heresy. While few house church advocates deny the need for leadership, they often define it in radically different terms from their counterparts in the traditional church.
"I would call myself 'pro-leadership,' but 'anti-positional leadership,'" Cole says. "When your authority is based on the position or title, and you need a position or title to lead, chances are you're not a real leader."
Tony Dale and his wife, Felicity, who lead a house church in Austin, Texas, are the founders of House2House magazine (house2house.net) and have written several books on the simple church movement.
"Leadership does not demonstrate itself in titles and positions," Tony argues. "Our idea of leadership is that of a father who longs for his children to overtake him."
Dale admits that this model is not unique to the house church movement and even points out abusive situations in which house church leaders have exerted Machiavellian rule over their domains. However, he argues that the traditional church's strong distinction between professional clergy and laity is designed to keep people in "perpetual spiritual infancy."
Conversely, house churches often function from a bottom-up structure. While there may be one leader who directs meetings, leads worship sessions or mediates conflict, participants usually have a say in the weekly activities and long-term vision of the group. For other home churches, this role rotates or is shared among a group of leaders.
Likewise, many in the house church movement embrace the values of the apostolic and prophetic movements. They militate against the more "governmental" expressions of ecclesiology often associated with the New Apostolic Reformation. "I agree with C. Peter Wagner that we desperately need apostolic and prophetic types that the church is built on," Tony Dale notes. "But I would completely reject any concept that this is governmental. It isn't the force of their personality. It isn't that they are classic great leaders. It's what they do by laying down their lives that prepares the groundwork for what they're going to accomplish."
Dale cites the house church movement in China—much of which was carried forward by women and teenagers. For house church advocates like the Dales, the movement is a hothouse for a new type of leader that leads from brokenness and weakness rather than personal charisma.
"Under the old paradigm of church," Felicity contends, "success is measured by growth, whether that is in numbers, finances or real estate; in the new paradigm, success is based on faithfulness. God is looking for leaders who walk with a limp; those who, like Jacob, have fought with God and surrendered unconditionally to Him. They have learned from the disappointments and challenges of following him through good times and bad."
But even its strongest advocates suggest that the house church movement could endanger itself by resisting leadership in an effort to redefine it. Many would suggest that George Barna's equation in his book Revolution of two guys playing golf as church is dangerously minimalistic. Barna himself notes that the small-group movement has long struggled as an effective means of growing people spiritually because of a lack of good leadership, and he believes that the house church movement will have to face the same issue.
For Kreider, a church without a leader is not fully a church—in much the same way that a family without a father is not fully a family.
"Local churches are much more than two believers at Starbucks," he explains. "They can be, if there's a sense of godly authority and leadership. But families need parents, and the church is a family. To assume that a bunch of kids without parents is a family is an incorrect assumption."
Kreider argues that the governmental aspect of leadership has "gotten a bad rap" because of abusive leaders—but that it's no excuse to embrace an anarchistic or isolationist view of church.
"Whether we like it or not, we have to have some form of leadership," he notes. "I have to govern my family, my checkbook."
REAL-WORLD ENTRY POINT
In a culture increasingly skeptical of top-down leadership, the house church movement's democratized view of authority is attractive to the jaded. But equally significant are house churches' ability to provide a "customized" model of worshipping God that avoids the enculturated stereotypes of institutional church.
"The world is interested in Jesus; it is His wife they don't want to spend time with," Neil Cole observes in his book, Organic Church. "We tell people they must take the bitter pill of 'church' if they want to even hear about Jesus. Most would rather die of the disease than consume the medicine."
Of course, this concept is nothing new. From Christian rock concerts and skateboard demonstrations to fishing trips and Halloween alternative parties, congregations have found new ways to lure church-wary unbelievers into "safe" environments where they can be evangelized.
But house church advocates do not see a need for these entry-level venues where the uninitiated can warm up to the idea of joining the institutional church. "Why not bring the church to the sinner?" they ask. With that philosophy in hand, micro-church planters have launched congregations in dorm rooms, parking lots, restaurants, health clubs and even bars.
While some who participate in these "congregations" may end up attending a traditional church at some point, house church advocates contend all of the elements of biblical ecclesiology can be present in a group of two or three people just as effectively as two or three thousand people. And the small-group dynamic provides a low-risk environment for both the seeker and the skeptic.
"My wife leads a house church, the majority of whose attendees are first-generation Christians. The majority would not have gone and do not go to a conventional church," Kreider explains, but he also recalls an instance in which some unsaved people were befriended by house-church members, invited to services—and then shocked to find out they were attending church. "We also have people who have grown up Roman Catholic and left it years ago—and congregations made up of pre-Christians."
It is this flexibility and openness that allows house churches to multiply in what some describe as a "viral" manner. Traditional church planting has often been carried out with an "addition" model. One congregation or denomination raises money that is in turn dumped into a single church plant in a geographical area deemed ripe for the picking. Problem is, this high-capital, high-risk model sometimes fails, resulting in disillusioned church planters who wonder why vast resources, savvy marketing and even a good dose of prayer didn't spell success.
"What we need is new wineskins," Kreider says. "There's a harvest coming, and we need to be prepared to bring it in. To do this, God will raise up saints to be ministers. The problem is that many times people are too busy in church programs that they don't have time to be Christians. We need church-planting movements worldwide that will reproduce."
Additionally helpful to the growth curve, many house churches carry the DNA of the fastest-growing segment of the global church: the charismatic/Pentecostal experience. While many house churches would not identify themselves as "charismatic" or "Pentecostal," spirit-filled expressions are often commonplace in home-based congregations.
And house-church advocates tend to be more open toward this type of activity—regardless of their denominational heritage. Barna's research reflects this openness toward the gifts of the Spirit. Among the house church participants he surveyed, 58 percent of their meetings have a prophecy or special word delivered.
"I was taught cessationist doctrine," Cole notes. "But our team of leaders began to question that and searched out what the Bible says about the Holy Spirit and made some pretty revolutionary decisions."
Although the physical context for house church meetings is often unconventional, the basic structure is similar: Scripture reading, personal sharing, prayer, worship and—almost universally—eating together. And theologically, house churches tend to be overwhelmingly conservative—in faith and practice.
"There's a strong, traditional, classic, evangelical theology and biblical foundation," Tony Dale explains. "What's happening isn't so much that people's theology is changing, but their ecclesiology is changing. They're beginning to think of church as a living, vibrant organism."
In a recent interview with Ministry Today, Barna, who calls the new simple church advocates "revolutionaries," cites some of their spiritual habits: "Revolutionaries ...
Barna's prediction is not so much that this movement will supercede the traditional church, but that it will influence it—for better—and that it will challenge leaders in the traditional church to rethink paradigms for spiritual growth and discipleship.
"Any good leader is looking to the future. What we're looking at is a future in which alternative forms of faith community will be prevalent—which says that, if I'm the pastor or leader in a conventional church, I need to think about making that transition," he argues. "I would begin working with youth and children to prepare them for a different type of church."
But as Cole warns, the house church movement will always be challenged to resist the natural gravity of institutionalism. His solution? A "theology of death"—an idea that has applications outside the boundaries of the house church movement. Applied to the church, Cole argues that, if a church survives only a year—but gives birth to two other churches—it's healthier than a congregation that lasts 15 years and never reproduces.
"We've come to realize that there are some words of Christ that relate to this: 'If you hold on to your life, you lose it; if you lose it for My sake, you'll save it,'" he explains. "We need to build into our structures the truth that we do not want to stay alive forever. We will never make plans to keep ourselves alive—this is the sin of self-preservation. We're no longer trying to keep church alive. Once you start talking about a career, you've already died."
While Kreider reflects this same caution of institutionalism, he's also concerned that house churches face the same challenge of the charismatic/Pentecostal movement of 30 years ago—that of ridicule and persecution from traditional church leaders who may not see the Spirit's activity in this unconventional new model.
"I'm concerned that those of us who are more traditional—who may come from a more conventional model—may persecute this next move of God," he says. "And that those of us involved in house churches would not get puffed up with pride. It's an important way, but not the only way. I find myself in a vulnerable place. I have a lot of history with megachurches and community churches—but I have a heart for this new generation."
Matt Green is a former editor of Ministry Today who now works with Pioneers, a missions organization based in Orlando.