Building a Biblical Model for House Churches

The following is reprinted with permission from Paraklesis, a publication of Baptist Bible Seminary. The article first appeared in the Summer ‘08 issue.

The move from conventional congregations to house churches has been termed a revolution. Researcher George Barna estimates at least 1 million Americans have shifted to small-groups worshiping primarily in homes or businesses.

But the revolution comes in this statistic: by 2025, Barna predicts 70 percent of Christians will be worshiping in such “alternative faith communities.”1

While the trend is clear, the benefits and biblical focus of such gatherings is more muddled. The early church detailed in the New Testament indeed met “house to house,” and the Apostle Paul regularly gathered new believers in homes. But this is not an exclusive or biblically prescribed model for worshiping.

The home church model can work today, and in circumstances where proper ty is scarce or expensive it can be a practical approach. Pastors and church leaders, though, need to think clearly before moving to a house church model. They must keep a biblical focus paramount and not let relational benefits overrun sound doctrine and New Testament church polity.

Inside house churches

House churches are small bodies of believers that meet primarily in homes, have generally fewer than 30 members, and normally have unpaid lay leaders. These back-to-basics congregations do not start in a home with the goal of moving later to a permanent facility. They are designed to stay in a private residence or similar surroundings.

Because some meet in coffee shops, restaurants, or on university campuses, practitioners prefer to use other terms to describe this kind of church: simple church, organic church, koinos church, relational church, participatory church, etc.

What defines these churches is not location but emphasis. Decentralized in structure, they are committed to forming in-depth relationships. Most are very participatory, with prayer, Bible study, discussion, mentoring, and outreach, as well as food and fun. Many are nondenominational and independent.

The trend is not just a reaction to the megachurch. The next generation cares more about authenticity and community than institutions. Many are looking for a safe place to connect with God and friends. Smaller relational churches meet this need.

A growing number of North Americans identify themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” These people rarely attend a conventional church but will often seek alternatives. Face-to-face churches have great appeal in a culture that values intimate relationships, shared leadership, transparency, and teamwork.

Meeting Biblical Basics

There are three main uses of “church” (ekklesia) in the New Testament: believers gathering in someone’s home, the citywide or regional church, and the universal church. The Scriptures indicate common ordinary dwellings were used for spreading the Gospel and for discipling new converts during Jesus’ lifetime and later.

The Jerusalem church met daily from house to house to pray, study, break bread, and share (Acts 2:42-46; 5:42; 12:12), and Paul regularly gathered new converts into private homes. Lydia’s house in Philippi may have been Europe’s first church (Acts 16:14-15, 40). In Corinth, believers evidently met in the homes of Gaius (Rom. 16:23), Stephanus (I Cor. 16: 5, 15), and Chloe (I Cor. 1:11). Paul tells us his habit was to teach “publicly and from house to house” (Acts 20:20).

But the New Testament indicates the first believers also met in public places such as the temple courts and in synagogues—sometimes in large groups. Believers used rented facilities (Acts 19:9; 28:30-31) and public forums (Acts 16:13).

While the early church met in homes both for believers’ meetings and even some evangelistic efforts, it is not an apostolic blueprint for all congregations in future generations. No New Testament sermon or epistle gives direct commands to follow the house church as the prescribed form.

Because biblical truth can be less pronounced in home churches, leaders need to be discerning to what the Lord of the Harvest may be doing in our day. The return to simpler forms of church holds both great promise and grave dangers for the future growth of the North American church.

Starting a church in New York City, for example, may require non-traditional thinking. And this model is an option to explore.

Indeed, if He is raising up dynamic new forms of church that are biblical in doctrine and practice while evidencing true community, then we need to welcome and affirm them. But if the “revolution” means people are leaving biblical churches or leaving in a biblically improper manner, then we should not celebrate.

(A research paper featuring a more detailed analysis of the house church phenomenon is also available from Ken. For a copy, contact Ken here or at )

Notes

1 George Barna, Revolution (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 2005), 13,49,54,64-66.


Ken Davis, M.A., is Director of Church Planting at Baptist Bible Seminary and leads Project Jerusalem. Ken has been involved in church planting for over 25 years. He served as chair of Baptist Mid-Mission’s North American Church Planting Ministry Council, and he co-founded the School of Church Planting, which has provided training for over 300 church planters worldwide. Davis came to BBS after serving nineteen years as the missions professor at Crossroads Bible College in Indianapolis, a school specializing in training leaders to reach multiethnic urban America.

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Josh Gelatt's picture

Aaron,

Here is my stab at a definition:

1. A shared value of radical simplicity (which governs much of what follows)
2. Intentionally small, relationally based community of believers.
3. Emphasis on interactive bible study & teaching (e.g. members interrupt with questions, etc).
4. Emphasis on prayer & worship
5. Emphasis on deep, personal relationships.
6. Emphasis on personal evangelism.
7. An intentional de-emphasis (if not outright rejection) of programs (e.g. no youth group, no children's ministry, etc).
8. An intentional de-emphasis on structure----no chain of command (though most would recognize a lead teacher/shepherd).
9. An intentional de-emphasis on "offices". There is no "office" of pastor (he gets no business card), even though they would recognize those with the gift of shepherding (again, the emphasis is on the gift of pastoring, not the office of pastoring). No "office" of deacon (they would recognize valued, godly, and respected servants---similar to what we see happening in Acts 6).
10. Tithes& offerings (if taken) are used for missions projects the group is passionate about.
11. Emphasis on engaging their own communities/spheres of influence with the Gospel.
12. Emphasis on "be the church", outright rejection of "go to church" concept.

Often it seems as if there is a conscious attempt to model Bonhoeffer's "Life Together.

The ones I see as most dangerous, if not grounded biblically, and therefore urge caution on, are #3 and #9. #9 I can agree with, depending on how extreme they take those ideas, and if it leads to a rejection of the idea of spiritual authority. I do notice the almost universal lack of a paid pastor. I agree that we don't really see any hint of a paid, full time pastor in the NT (for the apostles, perhaps). Appealing to the "double honor" only tells us that some elders were provided some funds (it doesn't say they were given a full time wage for life). Still, I would argue that offering a pastor a full time wage is a consistent outworking of the principles laid down in the NT. The house church model seems to fail to see this, but this may stem from their hermeneutical approach

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

That's helpful and pretty accurate I think. I would see trouble in more items in the list than you apparently do, but it looks like a pretty good summary of the main emphases.
Several of them make me smile because they sound like "The same thing traditional churches do only disorganized." Smile
Would it shorten the list to say "An antipathy toward structure and doing things in an organized way"?

I do fairly often encounter a way of thinking in the folks I know who really feel drawn to these kinds of alternative churches. It goes like of like this:
- Planning and organizing crowds out the work of the Spirit
- We need more spontaneity in our service and worship to follow the leading of the Spirit
- We need the Spirits power not programs
etc.

The underlying assumption seems to be that the Spirit doesn't like structure or plans and is only at work when something happens spontaneously. I find it very intriguing... why should we believe the Spirit is more involved in what is disorganized and spontaneous?

Bob T.'s picture

In my prior post I was critical of the so called "traditional" church and enthusiastic for the house church. I also warned we must be careful to not throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. The house church can be a church as defined by some theologs. It can have biblical leadership if it has one or more men who meet the qualifications for oversight eldership. It is an assembly or congregation. It can, and usually is, biblically orthodox in basic doctrine. It can worship, teach, witness, and fellowship. It has the good characteristics of not supporting clergy, not having imperial institutional ambition, not placing over emphasis on buildings, minimizing organization, and fellowship that goes beyond a "say hello to your neighbor" during service and some casual conversation after the service. Even smaller churches, under 100, often lack true biblical fellowship. Many flounder with many people who have not grown spiritually and resultant problems due to this lack of biblical maturity. The professional clergy (Dr. or Pastor) are so often given inordinate responsibility and authority. This is a factor in the suppression of the congregation responsibility for growth and ministry.

Now we have entered the hyper pulpiteer era. TV sends the pulpit man's message to different locations where audiences wait with baited breath for the latest authoritative word. Often the word comes with the latest performance techniques and sermonic sophistication. Multiple programs are launched and institutional enthusiasm is promoted. Mega churches multiply. Imitator small churches try to survive. The slice of the population who appear to be genuinely Christian shrinks from 12% to 5% while we have our conferences with the big guru performers and institutional churches wrestling with the problems of the world overcoming the churches.

There were two times in our lives when my wife and I were in "Plymouth Brethren" assemblies. These two assemblies met in small but simple buildings and numbered about 100 each. We were impressed by the spiritual maturity of the men and the stability and Godliness of their families. We thought that this was in part due to a lack of clergy and a spirit of responsibility that was upon all. These both began as home assemblies (churches) and built buildings to accommodate the need of the number. There was a pulpit weakness as the ability of the elders to teach varied and they shared the pulpit. However, they did not rely upon the pulpiteer to be the main show. There was much teaching in weekday Bible study and Sunday school . They were considered equal to the pulpit. This lack of a pedestal mounted clergy who was the performing pulpiteer set a tone of mutual responsibility to know scripture and grow. This was was extremely refreshing. Some chapels did support a teacher who went to various chapels. Others later supported a teacher at just one chapel. However, they did so without giving the hierarchy of position and office that gave the person authority above other elders.

I appreciate Alex defending the local church. Many are biblical and are effective. However, I can understand the dissatisfaction that some Christians may have with church as usual. Some house churches may outgrow the house. When that happens they need to transition to an external meeting place without losing the desirable characteristics that they have. Some may support a full time teacher. They need to do so without mounting him on a pedestal with unseemly authority.

I find it interesting that a group or agency that is Baptist, Fundamentalist, and involved with the GARBC somewhat would take an interest in "Home Churches."

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Bob, I agree with much of your post but I'd just caution not to let abuses and excesses of authoritative teaching lead you to think there should be no authoritative teaching. That is truly a baby out with bathwater scenario.
The NT links the episkopos and presbuteros with autoritative teaching, and this is also why they are linked in 1 Tim. 2:12.
Of course, the authority never surpasses that of Scripture and only derives from it and mature believers in or out of the authoritative teaching role are able to provide accountability to the episkopos/presbuteros, but the authority is real. This is why James writes...
James 3:1 My brethren, let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment.

What the pulpit superstars are doing (some would argue it's just using their gifts to influence as many believers as possible but that's another topic) is not a reason to go to a "nobody's in charge here" approach.

ChrisC's picture

many aspects of the structure of home churches are not so different from the plymouth brethren that started in the 1820s.

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