Most people leave their home to go to church, and then go back home to live. But that hasn't always been the case in church history.
The early church movement was a home-based movement that met from house to house (Acts 12:12; Romans 16:3-5; 1 Corinthians 16:19; Colossians 4:15; Philemon 1:2). Under the radar of the Roman Empire, God used the early house churches to evangelize, make disciples, and transform the world. They were so effective that Christianity eventually became the dominant religion.
Throughout church history, God has used the house church strategy to draw his followers back to a simpler form of church life and mission. In fact, since 1950 the global house church movement has resulted in a spontaneous multiplication of churches that has proven to be one of the most significant influences of the modern-day church.
Because most house churches gather in countries where the Christian church is persecuted or poor, it's difficult to ascertain exact data. Even conservative estimates of the number of people attending house churches, though, are staggering: many millions of Chinese Christians alone meet in house churches. The house church movement is alive and growing.
In Our Own Backyard
I recently heard a missionary representative for China talk about house churches springing up like wildfire. The representative spoke of one Chinese leader in particular who had planted 30,000 house churches by training people and helping them plant a new church within three weeks.
It's clear that the most rapid growth in the house church movement is in restricted access areas like China, Asia, and North Africa. But they're becoming increasingly popular and accepted around the world—including in North America. Larry Kreider, author of House Church Networks, writes:
Within the next ten to fifteen years, I believe these new house church networks will dot the landscape of North America just as they already do in other nations of the world. Places like China, Central Asia, Latin America, India, and Cambodia have experienced tremendous growth through house churches and disciple and empower each member to "be the church."
George Barna has estimated that by the year 2025, membership in the conventional church in the U.S. will be cut by 50 percent, while alternative movements like house churches will potentially involve 30 to 35 percent of all Christians in the United States. Similar movements of house churches are also rising up in other western nations like Australia, Austria, Canada, Finland, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, Switzerland, and the U.K. What about house churches is so attractive?
Simple and Reproducible
Ed Stetzer says, "My attraction to the house church springs from its simplicity and faith. I have been a part of large church starts …. Each involved more and more money. In my heart, I often feel that church planting should be simpler."
The idea behind house churches is not to grow one church larger, but to keep the church intimate while reproducing other intimate fellowships in other locales. Many New Testament church practices cannot function effectively in large, impersonal groups. Home churches form communities of believers who get to know each other in all aspects of life. They share their spiritual gifts to edify the body. Authentic Christianity has a greater chance of emerging in the lives of individuals and families because intimacy and accountability are built into the church.
The house church movement focuses on simple, reproducible strategies that release common Christians for uncommon work. They celebrate evangelism and reproduction that is natural and spontaneous. As people are released into ministry, new interdependent churches are formed. This produces support without a cumbersome hierarchical structure.
No Professionals Needed
Another attractive aspect of house churches is that they don't require ordained, seminary-trained professionals to function effectively. This reflects the New Testament teaching on not recognizing clergy and laity distinctions. Those who are seminary or Bible school-trained can be assets to house churches, sometimes serving as catalysts who plant the first few house churches in a given area. But they don't always have to be physically present for house churches to have legitimacy or theological understanding.
House churches do need godly, mature leadership, though (1 Timothy 3:1-12, Titus 1:5-9, 1 Peter 5:1-4). The training, however, happens informally, with basic Bible knowledge and practical ministry strategies as the main components.
Most house church leaders are volunteers. Financial resources are normally used to support itinerant workers, missions, or meeting the practical needs of members, such as the poor, widows, and orphans. In most cases, the house church does collect an offering to be used for minor expenses or supporting church members, but they rarely support one of the leaders.
No Special Buildings
House churches meet in ordinary homes, coffee shops, community centers, or other places that are free from rent or payments. Maintenance and overhead related to a church building are eliminated, and this is positive for many reasons. Larry Kreider writes:
The Chinese house church movement has made a commitment to the Lord concerning how the church will exist even when they are freed from communism in the future. They have already made a decision that they will build no buildings. They want to keep their method of training and sending intact, and not focus on constructing buildings but on building people.
Fully the Church
House churches are fully functioning churches in themselves. They partake of the Lord's Supper, baptize, marry, bury, and exercise church discipline. There's no set order for house church meetings, but most have participatory meetings which involve prayer, worship, the Word, and outreach. Food and fellowship are also important elements. One well-known house church leader suggests using five W's—Welcome, Worship, Word, Works, and Witness—as one possibility.
Even when there is more directive teaching given by the leader or one of the members, there is always plenty of time for group discussion and response to the message. The goal is to have all those present practicing their spiritual gifts. Most would agree that although certain elements may be pre-planned, there is freedom to follow the Holy Spirit, if he changes those plans.
In the past, I described a house church as a community of 20 to 40 people who meet together on a weekly basis but are more or less independent of other house churches.
More recently, there have been two new emphases in the house church movement: smaller-sized house churches and house church networks. Wolfgang Simson, for example, teaches that many house churches today have between 8 and 15 members, and typically multiply every 6 to 9 months.
Rad Zdero planted a house church network in Canada and wrote a book called The Global House Church Movement. He writes,
House churches should not grow too large before they decide to multiply. Otherwise, the loss of intimacy, openness, and interaction will eventually compromise the group's attractiveness and plateau the numbers. Currently around the globe, explosive Christian conversion growth from the church planting movement is characterized by the reproduction of multiplying house churches and cell groups of no more than 10-30 people.
Many have criticized the independence of the house church movement—including me. It's refreshing to hear many house church authors with the same criticism. In response, many proponents are promoting the need for house churches to network with other house churches.
Networks can function in different ways. They may be highly informal, connected only by an occasional joint gathering or special times to share ideas with one another. Or they may be formally networked together as sister churches that function with common goals and projects. Networks promote accountability, encouragement, and cooperation.
Those in the house church movement are fed up with the modern day version of Christianity that emphasizes crowds, church buildings, and unnatural hierarchies. They desire to go back to the values of simplicity and the priesthood of all believers, just like the early church. I long for the day when the church is in our homes, when our homes are used both for normal living and for reaching a lost world for Jesus Christ. God is using many vehicles to meet people, and I'm glad to see that the house church movement is one.
—Joel Comiskey is author of 2000 Years of Small Groups: The History of Cell Ministry in the Church and an advisor for SmallGroups.com.