Where do you go to church?" a minister asked me at work one day.
"At home," I replied.
"Oh, you shouldn't give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing," he counseled, quoting Hebrews 10:25.
I should have expected his response. Many believers, ministers included, simply aren't familiar with the concept of a house church. To say that you "go to church in your house" sounds sacrilegious to them.
They may equate a house church with the excuse, "I worship God in my own way," and see it as a cop out. This minister didn't understand and had never even heard of a house church. However, the house-church movement has been growing in the United States as well as overseas.
A paradigm shift. In this age of alternative movements, people everywhere are looking for new and better ways of doing things. We are realizing the need to be proactive participants in every area of our lives, such as health, medicine, education and now, even church. Those who are Christian leaders need to see this paradigm shift and capitalize on it.
The house-church movement has been a quiet revolution happening around the world. In some places it is out of necessity due to governmental constraints. But elsewhere, because more and more people are becoming dissatisfied with their local congregations for various reasons, they see a house church as a viable worshiping alternative.
Today, members frustrated with feeling lost at church are looking for ways to have a close, loving church community that is free of the constraints of meeting in a building. Too often today we can go to church for a whole year and not know the names of the members sitting next to us. Though pastors try various programs, our present church structure does not always meet the most fundamental needs of many believers for fellowship and covenant relationships.
Connecting with one another in relationship is an aspect of spiritual life that is often neglected. The struggle to attend multiple worship services each week, join other church programs and keep up with family and job responsibilities creates an atmosphere of attending, not relating. The constant pressure to fill the pews and provide the money to keep the building and programs going is draining to the traditional church. To some of us, churches have become like big monsters that eat up everything we can give them and then constantly ask for more and more.
Have you ever wondered where the members who left your church went? A lot of them are looking for or starting home ministries because they long for a simpler way to serve God. Most of us want to go back to what the early Christians had in the book of Acts: "Breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart" (Acts 2:46, NKJV). So, what exactly is a house church?
Establishing a house church. The home church, or house church (terms used interchangeably), is not a new concept; it is not a new denomination or parachurch organization. The home church is simply a return to first-century Christianity in its simplest form.
House churches put into practice the model reported in Acts. There are no sanctuaries to buy or maintain, no clergy to hire or support, no denominations to form, no membership rolls to join, no church budget to vote on, no building funds and no TV ministry. A house church is just the community of God meeting under the guidance of the Scriptures and the Holy Spirit. As home church adherents see it, this is the blueprint that Jesus designed and His apostles carried out.
House churches come in all flavors, from fundamentalist to renewal movement to charismatic to mainline. Most house churches recognize the elders and deacons as the only administrative positions. We believe pastors, teachers and prophets are ministry gifts to the church, not administrative positions.
Paul established elders (plural) in the cities he visited (see Acts 11:30; 1 Tim. 5:17; and Titus 1:5), showing that the congregations in Paul's day were governed by a plurality of elders. Those of us in a house church do not have a single pastor leading a congregation. We believe there is safety in plurality of leadership. The independent house churches are like cells groups without the sanctuary.
We do network informally with other groups when the opportunity arises, but each house is a self-contained ministry. All the functions normally associated with a sanctuary (communion, baptism, healing prayers, Bible study) are conducted in the homes by laypeople.
Biblical roots. The house church cannot be understood without first looking at its biblical roots. In Acts 2:46 we read that, "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." The apostles went to the temple court to dialogue with the Jews that Jesus was the Messiah, but the fellowship of the community (known then as "the Way") took place in the home, "breaking bread" (the agape feast, a full meal) and "praising God" with "gladness and simplicity of heart."
This is the only model we see in the New Testament. The term house church is also used in Paul's letters to the various churches (see Rom. 16:5; 1Cor. 16:19; and Col. 4:15). When Paul wrote to "the church at Rome" or "the church at Cornith," he was not writing to a single, large megachurch. He was addressing all the house churches, which comprised the church (singular) in each individual city.
The small home-based group was the pattern that Jesus left with His disciples. On the night of the Last Supper, Jesus told one of His disciples in Matthew 26:18 to "'go into the city to a certain man, and say to him, "The teacher says...I will keep the Passover at your house with My disciples"'" (emphasis added).
Jesus wanted to share one last fellowship service with them. It is not by chance He chose a home to do this; as the architect of the church, Jesus understood that a change was taking place. The way of worship under the old covenant with its external rituals was giving way to the new covenant with its invisible, internalized kingdom of God. The Holy Spirit was moving from the position of the temple to the temple of the believer.
A house not a temple. Jesus had every opportunity to pattern New Testament ordinances and services after the temple and synagogue customs and traditions. They could have used the pattern of a building that people came to for sacrifice and worship, priests who devoted their time to service in the temple, gatherings at the synagogue to hear the rabbi teach the Scriptures, and all the intricate temple furnishings, vestments and clerical ranks. Instead, Jesus instituted a radically different system.
The equality and priesthood of believers. The centerpiece of Jesus' pattern for community was the equality of all men and women in God's eyes. Because all are equal, we were to call no man "father" or "rabbi" (see Matt. 23:8-12), because in this new system, titles and position were irrelevant.
In a family, one son might be a doctor, another a judge and one a captain in the military. When on their respective jobs they are known as "Dr., Your Honor and Captain," but when they are at home with family, titles do not mean anything. They are family, and that transcends rank and titles.
This is the concept that the house church stresses, that all are priests, and that with the Holy Spirit's guidance, all minister to and build up each other (see 1 Thess. 5:11). House churches emphatically stress the priesthood of the believer.
A love feast. The other key to this new system was the use of a meal at the center of worship. The Passover meal was a symbol to the Jew that God delivered them from Egypt and that He was faithful. Jesus carried this meal to a new height, one where we could both remember His sacrifice and grace, but also fellowship with Him and others. When we sit at this agape feast, we fellowship with Christ as though He were there physically with us.
In Jesus' culture, as well as ours today, the dinner table is the traditional place where there is never a stranger. We get to know each other, discuss newsworthy topics, debate, share our thoughts, ask for advice or express our love for each other. This table is the first choice for strangers meeting for the first time. Jesus could not have chosen a better place to build community. We who are part of a house church see the Lord's Supper as a full fellowship meal around which we share, discuss and break bread together.
The four main reasons why we choose to be part of a house church are:
1. The house church builds strong disciples. The house church model requires all in the group to enter into relationships with others, confessing faults, bearing each other's burdens, weeping and rejoicing together. This naturally builds character, strength, compassion and trust.
2. The house church combats modern cynicism. Today's society is cynical of most ministries. They see them as self-serving, only asking for time and money to aid in their growth. They see pastors only concerned with size, numbers and image.
A house church will show the 21st century what it showed the first--that small groups using 100 percent of their resources to aid the poor and needy can make a difference in the lives of people. They will see Christ's love in action. With no overhead, small groups can do much with little. The skeptic will not see materialistic Christians, but sacrificial ones.
3. The house church releases the Holy Spirit's gifting to people. Today, due to size and time constraints in most Sunday services, there is only enough time for a few individuals to exercise the giftings of the Holy Spirit. A large setting intimidates all but the boldest. Many others feel embarrassed and suppress the gifts God wants to channel through them.
The house-church setting with small groups of familiar friends will leave space for all to exercise the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Those intimidated can be encouraged; those out of order can be corrected and all words can be weighed by all.
4. The house church builds unity. In John 17, Jesus prayed that His disciples would become one, or have unity. Today, a multitude of Christian denominations and networks all claim to hold the truth of the Scriptures, some even claiming to be the only way. This leaves Jesus' prayer unfulfilled.
The house church has no ties to any organization and requires no membership. Its only leader is Jesus. As such, the house church becomes the perfect vehicle to break down the walls people have built. Cooperative efforts don't have to falter in committees, be vetoed in conventions or survive political whirlwinds. They only have to reach across a dining table. We only see Christians, members of one body.
What better way to destroy ethnic divisions than sharing our homes and dining tables. Here true reconciliation will take place. When Peter would not eat with Gentile believers, Paul rebuked him before all (see Gal. 2:11-14). Again, the table is the altar of reconciliation for the Christian, our peace table. Opening your home to someone of a different ethnic group takes effort and moves us past formalism into fellowship.
But what about cell groups? Pastors today understand that they cannot effectively shepherd a large flock traditionally, so many are turning to cell groups, or small groups. The cell ministry can be an effective extension of a congregation, freeing up the ministry staff of pastoral duties while building community. The main drawback to overcome is the problem of cells becoming another program of the church in competition with the others for members' time and involvement.
Leadership must make a true commitment that cell groups will survive at all costs, sacrificing other programs if necessary so cells can realize their potential. If they do not, enthusiasm will wane, and the cell concept will die.
What does the future hold? The world is becoming a global melting pot. People are relocating nationally and globally. Pastors will, in greater volume, shepherd ethnically diverse congregations with high turnover rates. This trend will increase in the upcoming years. Shepherding a culturally diverse congregation can be rewarding, but it presents some obstacles to overcome, such as cultural differences in music, orders of service, sanctuary design and furnishings.
House churches stand ready for this challenge, able to invite all into their homes, sing in the many culturally flavored hymns of praise, share a table with food from around the globe, break bread and lift a common cup together as we commune with each other and with Jesus. Here there is no division, only unity.
We who are part of the house-church movement do not have all the answers to church life. In no way do we negate the tremendous work done by many faithful saints of God who labor in traditional ministries, nor are house churches without their own problems. We simply desire for other believers to see the house church as a viable, scriptural and orthodox expression of koinonia, or "fellowship"-- just as legitimate as any organized church meeting in a building.
House churches follow the blueprint of the Bible, the example of the early Christians and the words of Jesus when He said, "For where two or three are gathered in My name, I am there in the midst of them" (Matt. 18:20 ). Remember this verse next time someone tells you they "go to church in their home." *
Jeffrey Henning and his wife, Mary, host their house church, Break Bread Ministries, in Marietta, Georgia.
A lot of great books and other resources on the house-church movement are readily available, though they may be hard to find in your local bookstore. You can, however, order them by special request or through an online bookseller such as www.amazon.com.
The Church Comes Home
Robert and Julia Banks
Hendrickson Publishers, Inc.
Paul's Idea of Community: The Early House Churches in Their Cultural Setting
Robert J. Banks
Hendrickson Publishers, Inc.
Going to Church in the First Century
Christian Books Publishing House
The Church Without Walls
Thomas S. Goslin II
Hope Publishing House
The House Church: A Model for Renewing the Church
Rethinking the Wineskin: The Practice of the New Testament Church
Frank A. Viola
Present Testimony Ministry
The House Church
Philip and Phoebe Anderson
There are also excellent sources of information on the Internet. Use any search engine and type in "home church" or "house church." Below are some of the best house-church sites, all having links to newsletters, articles and other sites:
Break Bread Ministries
This is the author's site. Included are links to other home churches and study information.
House Church Central
There is an automated directory of house churches around the world listed here. Search by state, city or country. This will allow you to locate a house church in your area or add a new one.
The Homechurch Homepage
Many great articles and links to other house church and cell churches. www.homechurch-homepage.org
New Covenant Living
Newsletters, articles, links to books and many other aids.
Colin Thompson's home page
This is about the house church in England.