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.