How macro and micro churches are connecting to help each other
A megachurch in Florida makes training videos for a house church movement in Texas. A house church network teaches megachurches how to launch simple churches. A traditional church moves out of its building to become a network based in homes.
These stories and more are emerging from a movement that is uniting two dramatically opposite ends of the church spectrum: the very large and the very small. But instead of seeing themselves as competing entities with separate missions, they are coming together in innovative ways to further a shared mission.
How It All Started
“A few years ago our senior pastor, Joel Hunter, got a nudge from the Holy Spirit that we needed to bless the house church movement,” recalls Dan Lacich, a pastor at Longwood, Fla., megachurch Northland, A Church Distributed. “We asked ourselves, ‘How can we build bridges within the body?’ We contacted Tony and Felicity Dale from House2House ministries in Austin and asked how we could bless them. They wanted to make training videos, so our tech department helped them with the production.”
When Lacich called Tony Dale, he had just gotten off the phone with one megachurch in Austin, Texas, and another in Ukraine who had both asked him, “How can we get involved in house churches?” When the topic came up three times in two days, he felt that God was saying He wanted the two movements to figure out how to work together.
Lacich and Dale invited two-dozen people from both groups to meet in Orlando, Fla., in January of 2009. “It was a round-table talk to see what common ground we had,” Lacich says. Instead of asking what each side had to offer, Dale posed the question: What do you want from the other group?
“My answer was very simple—grace,” Lacich recalls. “You could tell something changed in the room. With grace as the foundation, could we give each other enough grace to say, ‘I might not want to be doing that, but I believe God wants to you do it’? If it’s all kingdom business, then we need to work together to make it happen.”
It Hasn’t Always Been This Way
In the past there has sometimes been a sense of mistrust between the two groups. House churches have been cast as rebels who can’t fit into the church structure, and the megachurch has been seen as the cause of burnout and hurt. But in recent years there is a growing recognition of legitimacy within both forms.
In Tony and Felicity Dale’s recent book, The Rabbit and the Elephant, they say that if you take two elephants, feed them and care for them, in two years you’ll have three elephants. But if you take rabbits and do the same thing, you’ll have a whole host of rabbits. Therein lies the beauty of the simple church: rapid multiplication.
On the other hand, Lacich maintains that sometimes you need something bigger. When Tarzan got in trouble and called out for help, he needed Tantor the elephant, not Thumper. Likewise, the megachurch has the size and muscle to make big things happen.
“For too long we’ve been enemies of one another,” says Rennes Bowers, an elder for a network of churches called Apex Community in Dayton, Ohio. “Our little niche is to bring the two together. The house church movement by nature has some things that are hard for the megachurch to swallow, and vice versa. But it’s so simple. As I said at [a recent] House2House conference, ‘There are people in this room who are 500-watt bulbs shining for Christ. Apex is made up of 3,000 one-watt bulbs.’ That’s a pretty bright light to impact our region. In 1 Corinthians 1 it says God uses the weak things to confound the strong. That’s how we look at ourselves.”
That’s also how many congregations see themselves today, as more local churches have begun to adopt a citywide and regional perspective that spans church models.
“It’s a good time to let the walls come down,” says Michael Stewart, pastor of missional communities at Austin Stone Community Church in Texas. “We’re all about the kingdom and living out the gospel.”
Small Is the New Big
When it comes to strengths, micro churches bring numerous assets to the table. They are known for their simplicity, reproducibility, transferability and community. In the smaller context believers can live out the “one another” commands of Scripture.
“The house churches give us the ability to obey what the Lord said, which is to make disciples,” Bowers says. “They foster accountability, community and sharing your life on a micro level. They expose the rough edges which are not exposed in a group of 3,000.”
Fellow Apex pastor Rob Turner recounts the story of two middle-aged sisters who arrived at the church about two years ago: “They come from a fairly large family, all hearing-impaired except for a brother. They both committed their life to Jesus and got involved in a house church. Not only are they hearing-impaired, but they are also very poor. When their car broke down and they couldn’t afford to fix it, they had to ride their bikes to work. Their house church found out about it and decided to get them a car. In one night the group of 15-20 people raised enough money to buy the sisters a car. Now you couldn’t get them out of our community if you tried.”
Leaders at The Well in Orange County, Calif., saw enough advantages to the house church model that they have transitioned a once-dwindling congregation that met in a typical Baptist church building to a rapidly expanding network of simple churches throughout the region. Pastor Ken Eastburn points out one of the main reasons behind the switch: “House churches can provide a more intense experience to really help people grow and develop spiritually.”
Says Stewart: “I was on staff at a megachurch, but my paradigm began to change as I saw the gospel exploding globally. When I read the book Church Planting Movements by David Garrison about one house church movement in China that’s planting 1,700 churches a month, I thought, Maybe there’s something we have to learn here. When God called me to Austin Stone I asked, ‘What would it mean to learn what God is doing globally?’ I became more and more open to planting house churches. We transitioned from being a church with a few small groups to a church that is now a network of missional communities.”
According to Tony Dale, small is becoming bigger than big. Megachurches are acknowledging that house church methods naturally release leaders more rapidly, so they are starting to invite house church leaders to come and teach them about their organic patterns. As a result, an increasing amount of cross-fertilization is occurring. In fact, Dale points out that interest in the rabbit’s effectiveness at multiplying has obviously been piqued. At a recent Leadership Network conference, the simple church breakout sessions with authors/speakers Neil Cole and Alan Hirsch were by far the most attended workshops.
... But Is Big the New Small?
In contrast, the megachurch brings networking, momentum and resourcing to its partnership with the micro church. It provides a different kind of accountability and sustainability that exists for both large communities and an individual believer. Megachurches aren’t just the means to bringing people in the front door to Christ—as wonderful as that aspect is—but also provide multiple follow-through options. On a larger scale they offer the potential for citywide worship and prayer, yet on the smaller scale megachurches can plug individuals into multiple support programs.
One example of this occurred at Austin Stone in Texas. As Stewart recounts, “Reagan High School called us and said they would have to close their school if they didn’t get some help. We got up on a Sunday and said that we needed volunteers to mentor kids at the local high school. More than 300 people were mobilized in one week. They helped with tutoring, mentoring and adopting classrooms, and in six months the high school went from failing to passing.”
Global vision is another strength of the megachurch. “Technology is a huge part of it,” Lacich says. “For two years at Northland we’ve been streaming our worship services in an interactive Web stream. Folks can log on and communicate with an online minister and the people worshipping in a group. We’ve got people around the world gathering in their homes and worshipping along with us.”
Macro churches can also offer macros support for resource development. “One of our values is giving away our materials,” Lacich adds. “We write all our own children’s ministry curriculum and post it online [at childrensministrywarehouse
.com] for anyone to use. One big issue for house churches is what to do with the kids. They don’t always have money to go out and get the latest ministry program. So we’re saying, ‘Use this for free.’ Any and all of the other equipping classes we make available to anyone.”
Dale cites his wife Felicity’s project, the Getting Started Manual for planting simple churches, as another example of megachurches providing tools smaller churches could not. “We wanted to turn it into a video/training exercise,” he says. “Northland did this for us and they did a superb job. When it was finished, Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005 and thousands of churches lost their facilities. Saddleback Church in California contacted us and said they wanted to give our course to everybody who’d lost their facility. It gave credibility to the big and small working together.”
The incident also highlighted Dale’s belief in the powerful—and positive—influence megachurches can have. “Many of us in the simple church movements are persuaded that some of these really big churches may end up being more influential than the small,” he says. “We’ve been able to touch a few hundred people. But if Austin Stone really found a way, they could release thousands of churches across central Texas because they have so much influence.”
Spreading Like Wildfire
What seems at first like an unlikely partnership has the potential for spreading rapidly, with several macro churches beginning to move toward the micro model. Apex church in Dayton is one. A year ago they decided to become a network of house churches. Currently half of their folks meet in homes during the week in addition to their weekend gathering. (See “Hybrid Churches” sidebar.)
The Well in California made a similar move. Eastburn says: “We felt that the Holy Spirit was leading us out of the church building and into the homes. We’ve never looked back. I wouldn’t be surprised if other churches took this leap in the next five years, especially with the tough economy.”
The idea is growing in other parts of the world as well. “I just got back from Nairobi, Kenya, where I met with Pastor Wilson, a man in his 70s who leads a church of 10,000,” Lacich says. “For his remaining years in ministry he wants to focus on mentoring young leaders to start house churches in Kenya. Here’s a guy halfway around the world thinking the same thing.”
And micro is also moving toward the macro. “In the future, I believe you will see many house churches become organized and networked,” says Apex’s Jason Wing. “As that happens, natural leaders will arise to become capable equippers.”
Neil Cole with Church Multiplication Associates has already opened a dialog with some megachurch leaders in Los Angeles to talk about reaching the city for Christ. “We are coming together asking what God could do through us if no one gets the credit but God,” he says.
Author of such books as Organic Church and Organic Leadership, Cole is a firm believer in Christians from both ends of the church-size spectrum keeping a bigger perspective. “One size does not fit all,” he says. “We need to have a variety of size groupings in the church to accomplish a variety of functions. When we expect one size to do it all, we’ll all be disappointed and the kingdom of God will not be complete. I don’t think that our unity is based on all of us contributing equal amounts. It is about all of us seeking the Lord and no longer keeping count as to who has more people, money or the better strategy. The church is Jesus’, not ours. He loves His bride no matter what she looks like—large or small.”
Lacich concurs, pointing to Scripture as proof the two not only can co-exist but must. “It’s pretty clear that in the New Testament you had mega church and micro church and they all saw themselves as the church.”
When it comes to the macro and the micro, it’s not a matter of either-or any more. Maybe it really is both-and.
Lois Swagerty is a freelance writer in Carlsbad, Calif.