Most likely you don't use the term "house church" to describe your small group. After all, don't house churches meet "over there," in places like China, India, and Ethiopia where Christians are persecuted?
The reality, however, is that the house church movement is alive and well in America. Researchers have estimated that there are 20 million people meeting in house churches in America and Barna predicts that alternative movements like house churches might reach 30-35 percent of all Christians by 2025. Yet, many more small groups exist in the U.S. with some estimating that 75 million adult Americans regularly attend the estimated 3 million small groups. What are the differences between house churches and small groups? What might small groups have to learn from modern-day house churches?
Houses churches see themselves as fully the church, quite apart from the Sunday gathering. The leaders are elders or pastors, not facilitators developed in the local church. House churches derive their meaning squarely from the New Testament Church, not by any modern small-group model.
Small groups, on the other hand, are not independent, but part of a local church. Leaders are prepared and coached through the local church and the small groups gather together each week for corporate worship. Though there are some key differences, small groups can learn a lot from house churches.
Get Your Motivation from Scripture
Those in the house church movement believe that meeting from house to house is the Scriptural way to do church. In fact, house-based ministry became so common in the New Testament that throughout the book of Acts, every mention of a local church or church meeting, whether for worship or fellowship, is a reference to a church meeting in a home. The early disciples themselves met in homes because it was the strategy Jesus taught them. After all, Jesus met from house to house throughout Galilea and Judea, and then sent his own disciples into homes to evangelize and establish a base for gospel preaching (Luke 9; Matthew 10).
Small-group leaders can become tired and unmotivated when they lead a small group simply because it's a good thing to do, an important ministry in the church, or a helpful way to keep people from slipping out the back door. Even a focus on spiritual growth can fall flat when other less time consuming alternatives present themselves, like one-on-one meetings with friends or a new church program.
Small groups need to dig deep into the biblical foundation to derive meaning and motivation to press on. When small-group leaders and members understand that the early church met in homes and that Jesus commissioned them, there's new meaning and motivation to continue in small-group ministry—meeting is homes was important to Jesus. House to house ministry is biblical and the best way to make disciples who make disciples (Matthew 28). We must take our cue from people in the house church movement and let that motivation drive everything we do.
Home Ministry Is Valid and Important
House churches see themselves as fully the church. They realize that the New Testament writers used the word "ecclesia" when referring to the church in the home as well as to the gathered church on Sunday. Paul addressed the whole congregation in a particular place as ecclesia and also used ecclesia to describe the individual house groups (1 Corinthians 1:1; 16:19). The one was not seen as detracting from the status of the other. Wherever believers met together, they were "the church of God." House churches are fully functioning churches in themselves.
I'm not saying that all small groups should be called the church, but the definition of the church in Scripture is very simple—whether the church is meeting in the house or a building. Churches in the New Testament were comprised of some very simple elements:
- God appointed leadership (Hebrew 13:17)
- Under the Lordship of Christ (Ephesians 5, Romans 14)
- Participation in the sacraments of both baptism and the Lord's Supper, either practiced in the home meeting or when several small groups comes together to celebrate on Sunday (Matthew 28:18-20; 1 Corinthians 11)
The house church movement can teach small groups that they are not just an extension of Sunday or a way to keep people in the larger Sunday celebration—a church growth technique. In one sense, the house church movement has raised the bar to what a small group should be—the church of the living God.
Know Your Role as a Leader
In today's church the offices of bishop, pastor, and elder have become formalized and official. In the early church, however, those who assumed these titles were house church leaders or overseers of various house churches. The norm in the early church was to have a team of leaders over house churches. Most house churches today are led by a team of leaders, like we see in the New Testament.
As elders of God's flock, house church leaders take serious their responsibility to pastor those who are in the group. This responsibility might include spiritual help, visiting the sick, counseling, or helping out with physical necessities. Team ministry is highly valued so the responsibility doesn't rest on just one person.
I like to use the word "facilitator" to describe what small-group leaders do, but they do a lot more than simply facilitate a discussion. Looking to house churches, small-group leaders can learn how to shepherd the people in their group, empowering them in their spiritual journey, and caring for them in hard times. House churches can teach small-group leaders to truly shepherd God's flock within and outside the group meeting.
Shared Ownership Is Key
House churches don't promote one particular order for meetings, preferring the organic, spontaneous flow. This reflects ministry in the early house churches, which was fluid and dynamic. In those early house churches, members were encouraged to exercise their spiritual gifts for the common good of the body, and leaders operated as gifted men and women (Romans 12:6-8; 1 Corinthians 12:8-10, 27-28). Dependence on the Spirit of God through the gifts of the Spirit shaped the direction of those early house churches. Consider: All of the gift passages in Scripture were written to house churches.
Small groups can learn from house churches to trust the Spirit of God to move among group members, to encourage all those in the group to exercise their spiritual gifts, and to practice the priesthood of all believers. Effective small groups are not primarily about curriculum or study guides. The best meetings, rather, are Holy Spirit directed in which everyone participates and is encouraged to use his or her gifts. The best small-group leaders are filled with the Spirit and encourage members to minister to one another.
House churches remind us that God doesn't dwell in temples made with hands. He's the God of pilgrimage who favors simple structures, rather than the ornate and permanent ones. It can be positive for small-group ministries to be jolted by the community, evangelism, and natural leadership development we see in today's house churches.
We can rejoice in the Spirit's movement as we see house churches exponentially multiplying around the world. As we do, perhaps the house church movement can remind us of our awesome responsibility to shepherd God's flock and pastor his church in simple, dynamic, and reproducible ways.
—Joel Comiskey is author of 2000 Years of Small Groups: The History of Cell Ministry in the Church and an advisor for SmallGroups.com.