House churches are not organizations that require people with administrative skills or immense giftedness to coordinate and direct a group—they simply call for ordinary people who are in love with Jesus. Neil Cole, in Cultivating a Life for God, believes that simplicity is the key to fulfilling the Great Commission. He says, "The more complex the process, the greater the giftedness needed to keep it going.'"
The really good news is that, to start a house church, you can lay down the burdens of planning how to cope with buildings, programs, and outreach strategies. You don't have to be an impressive leader (though you probably will have some leadership gifts). To start a house church, you simply need to open your home to friends and neighbors and take things one step at a time.
The first step to starting a house church is to pray. House-church ministry must be birthed in prayer. Though it is a simple step, without prayer and God's leading, we invite trouble. Starting a house church cannot be just a good idea; it must be a God idea. If you feel that you are called to start a house church, gather a few like-minded people together and begin to pray so that you can receive a strategy from God. Many house churches have false starts that are directly linked to a lack of prayer.
Taking time to pray gives God the opportunity to work in our hearts and purify our motives. When house churches start up because of a reaction to something we don't like about the established church, the house church's identity is built from rebellion and discord. Healthy house churches, on the contrary, must begin with God's leading and a desire to reach those who don't know Jesus. What a person sows, the Bible teaches us, he also reaps. Therefore, if you begin a house church because of an offense toward an existing church or leader, you will sow the seeds of fault-finding and pride in the church you are creating.
Along with prayer, it is also important to look to the local Christian community's leaders for spiritual guidance and advice as you launch a new church. From day one of the Lancaster Micro-Church Network, we have cultivated relationships with established believers in our local community and beyond to answer questions and explain to them the concept of micro-church. A wise Bible teacher once said, "Lone rangers get shot out of the saddle." We agree. Healthy house-church movements are not exclusive groups who refuse to be accountable. Vibrant micro-church networks are spiritually connected to leadership in the Body of Christ.
Know Whom You Are Called to Reach
Every micro-church should know whom they are called to reach. Here's a great suggestion from Tony and Felicity Dale, who together started a successful network of house churches in Texas:
Draw together people from your circle of influence. We had a number of business associates who were not Christian, but whom we had come to know pretty well over a period of months or years. We asked a dozen of them to join us in a study of business principles while enjoying pizza in our home, using the book of proverbs as our textbook.
There were no rules to our discussion; everybody's opinion was valid and there was no such thing as a wrong answer. Gradually we introduced prayer and worship and over the course of a year, every one of them became a Christian. They formed the nucleus of our original house church.
When the first micro-church in the Lancaster Micro-Church Network started in our (Larry's) home a few years ago, we asked God for pre-Christians or new believers to join us—we also asked for laborers to help in the endeavor. However, we ran into some immediate problems. First of all, lots of believers wanted to come and check it out. Some of these Christians were looking for the latest Christian fad. They liked the idea that the micro-church met on a Wednesday, not a Sunday, and that it met in a living room, not a sanctuary.
But we were not starting something new for the sake of starting something new! Since we had a mandate from the Lord to reach new believers, we asked inquiring Christians not to come to our meetings. Having too many older Christians in the group would make the pre-Christians feel uncomfortable.
Jim Petersen, in his book Church Without Walls, clearly describes what can happen if a "migratory flock from neighboring churches" invades a new church simply because they are curious:
I have a friend who was a part of a team that set out to start a church. The congregation was divided into house churches, each of which was assigned an elder who helped shepherd the members of that house church. Centralized activities were kept at a minimum for the sake of keeping people free to minister to their families and unbelieving friends.
The weekly meetings were dynamic. I will never forget the first one I visited. People of all sorts were there, from men in business suits to ponytails. Many were new believers. The Bible teaching was down to earth, aimed at people's needs. I loved it.
So did most everyone else who visited. The word got around and soon the migratory flock from neighboring churches came pouring in. Their needs consumed the energies of the leaders of this young church. Their wants gradually set the agenda. The inertia of the traditions of these migrants engulfed this very creative effort and shaped it accordingly.
So what's the problem, we ask? The problem is that the vision that original team had for taking the church into society through the efforts of every believer was frustrated.
My wife and I knew that the vision the Lord had given to us to reach a new generation had to be safeguarded in the early days of our new micro-church network, and the young leaders of our network wisely set clear perimeters. They asked God to bring pre-Christians, new believers, and laborers—and the Lord honored their request.
The Size of the House Church Matters
Quite soon, my wife and I had a second problem in our home-based micro-church. The pre-Christians attending invited their friends, and within 6 months of starting, we had 50 people in our living room on a given night. It was way too large!
It is wise to keep the number of people to between 6 and 12. From my experience, groups less than 6 strong tend to dwindle and be lackluster because of the decreased number of relationships and interactions possible. However, groups over 12 tend to lose intimacy and every-member participation. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that rapid church planting movements today reproduce small house churches numbering between 10 and 30 people.
Frequency of Meeting
House churches should meet at least once a week to maintain a sense of connectedness. Again, though, we must emphasize the importance of flexibility. Some micro-churches meet at the same location every week, while others move the meeting place by rotating turns in members' houses. Some groups meet more frequently, others less often. Some house churches meet during the week, others on weekends.
It is crucial that meeting together is an expression of the members' desire to build community together—not just a religious duty to add more meetings to their already busy lives. If gathering together is done around food and for the purpose of fellowshipping, it is more natural. Choose times that are convenient for everyone involved and then make an effort to connect with the other members (even just by phone or e-mail) outside of official meeting times. Building a spiritual family takes more than an hour or two one night a week!
One thing is certain about house-church meetings: they should not be a smaller scale duplicate of a typical Sunday morning meeting. A house-church gathering should not look like an "escaped meeting captured by a living-room," as one young man described house churches that do little more than replicate and repeat the traditional church service format: worship, teaching, prayer.
Instead, we have learned that there are often four basic components to a micro-church gathering: eating, meeting, small groups, and "the meeting after the meeting."
Eating. House-church people love to eat! Everyone should bring food.
Meeting. House churches gather together for a time of worship, teaching and discussion about how the Scriptures apply to life.
Small groups. If the house church is larger than five or six people, we have found small groups to be very effective. These groups often meet outside of the micro-church meeting. When we ask new believers about their favorite part of the micro-church meeting, we hear again and again that they enjoy small groups. It is in the context of small groups that new believers open up about their lives and learn to pray with others for the first time.
We have also found that gender-specific small groups can be very effective. A house church of eight or ten may have one or two small groups of men and one or two small groups of women. Oftentimes, house church leaders meet monthly with the small-group leaders for training and encouragement. In fact, small-group leaders usually become house-church leaders.
The meeting after the meeting. In most conventional churches, people are ready to go home right after the service. Nor so in a house church. These people really love being together. Actual meeting times may last from one to three hours, or more—whatever it takes to allow for adequate participation from everyone.
Although eating (usually a meal) is one of the elements of a house-church gathering, sometimes there may not be food. One week the house church may help someone trim their shrubs and have a time of prayer afterward, and the next week they may come together for a whole smorgasbord of worship, prayer, teaching, and fellowship. Every week should be fresh and informal as people meet to discuss the life of Jesus and life with Jesus.
—Larry Kreider and Floyd McClung; excerpted from their recent book Starting a House Church (Regal Publishers, 2007). Used with permission.