Organic Churches Should Learn the Wisdom of House Churches (House Churches and Organic Churches Part 3)
House churches and organic churches are often lumped into the same category but are not necessarily the same thing. Yesterday I spent some time describing how house churches can be more organic. Today I want to look at what organic churches can learn from house churches.
For organic churches, the idea of being confined to a certain size is unthinkable. And while many organic churches meet in homes and are typically smaller, I find many who are part of the organic church movement who meet in traditional church buildings and bigger groups. And while I’m sure in the grand scheme of things this is okay, I think it’s wise to learn from the wisdom of house churches.
Most of the people I know who have started house churches have looked into the Bible and recognized that the early church met in homes and shared the life of Christ together around tables and in their homes (Acts 2:42, Romans 16:5). There were multiple reasons that people give for this, persecution and finances are two of the major ideas that get expressed. I’d like to articulate another: purpose.
I believe God understood the makeup of the human frame when he created house churches. In anthropology circles, there is a term called the Dunbar Number. The Dunbar Number is a philosophy of what happens with certain sizes of groups. You can read more at Dunbar’s Number at the link above, but the detail in Dunbar’s Number that I want focus on is that when a group starts to reach more than 12 people, specialization within that group begins to happen. Prior to 12 people, everyone in the group was responsible for the group. But when the group grows larger than that, jobs begin to be assigned in order to accomplish whatever the goal of the group is.
But this is the beauty of house churches. Meeting in homes is often a limiting factor for how large a group can become. It gives a kind of ceiling for how large the group can become.Within a house church, there is generally few enough people that everyone can participate, everyone can do some teaching, everyone is known by everyone and knows everyone else. The meeting in a home (or most alternative meeting places besides a meeting hall) keeps the number of people small.
I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard traditional churches discussing their glory days about how it was when they first began meeting in a home. The story always dims when they talk about how their church moved out of a home and into a building. The relationships changed, the purpose changed, people who knew one another well grew distant. This happens because as a group grows, roles change. But God in His wisdom knew we would flourish best relationally connected.
In truth, the wisdom of house churches preserves the organic nature of churches. It’s exactly because house churches stay small that they are able to allow for the life of Christ and the Gospel to be exchanged between one another without hierarchy or specialization. Crowds never become the issue. Caring for one another remains important. The church Paul and the other apostles in the New Testament describe with “one another” phrases in the New Testament is allowed to naturally emerge.
What happens when these churches grow? Well at some point it becomes important for house churches who grow too large to multiply. I’ve never looked around one of our house churches, counted 12 people in the group, and decided it was time to multiply. But when our churches get somewhere around this number and they start to feel like someone is orchestrating that many people gathering in a home, I begin to pray about how God might be asking us to multiply. What we’re after is not a number, but the ability of every believer to connect with a spiritual family they can feel a part of.
What about churches that are larger than this number but claim the organic title? Yesterday I quoted Neil Cole saying “If your church isn’t organic, it’s probably not a church.” My point here isn’t to say larger churches aren’t legitimate*. But I think what we need to acknowledge is where church is actually happening within these congregations. Usually church happens within the small groups or Bible studies that these churches host or encourage. The wisdom is in knowing and providing some flexible context for where this sharing of Jesus, caring for one another, and multiplication of disciples can take place.
So, organic churches can learn from the wisdom of house churches. I’ve spent a lot of time writing about size, there are obviously other benefits to house churches that larger churches can learn from. But it’s significant to me that God has given us a family-like structure that facilitates all of us participating and caring for one another. Organic churches who adopt the wisdom of house churches will find themselves strengthened in what God has called them to be.
*This will probably receive a follow up article in the future.
Travis: Very good posting. I, too, think that a church can grow larger and still function in a healthy, “organic” way. However, the larger the church grows, the more difficult it gets to still function as a body. True, you can have small groups, and, as long as the church is still moderately small, you can have meetings where there is freedom for everyone to participate even on the “Sunday morning meeting”. But, very quickly, the needs of the “organization” start to crowd out the freedom to walk and minister in relationship. You start to develop ministries, which, individually, all seem good, but, all together, start to become very distracting from the body-life that God has called us to. You develop a worship team who needs an extra night to practice. As the numbers grow, you want a youth ministry, and a men’s ministry and a women’s ministry (all of which take up an evening) and you decide you need Sunday School (which needs teachers who need to take an evening to prepare), and you need people to clean the church and set up and you want greeters, and you see various needs in the community and so you start various outreaches. It goes on and on. Before long, it is hard to find time to walk together as a body because everyone gets their free time all committed. I believe God has called us to minister to each other and to the lost primarily through relationship — but who has time for relationship when one’s week is scheduled up. It gets to the point where a person can schedule a time to go out witnessing on Thursdays from 6 to 8, but often won’t have time to invite those non-believers into his house for a meal and to share his life because too many evenings are taken up with “ministry” activities. Gunnar
Love this. It’s probably deserving of its own post. Thanks for contributing!
True that, Gunnar.
The American church is super sized-focused to the point of irrelevancy, ineffectivity, and all the other really bad “ivities” that you might fill in the blank with…
Great post Travis. I have always heard the 1st 2 reasons you mentioned, economic and persecution. I think you brought out the Lord’s motive number 1. Just a thought I have been clearing out 5 acres of Texas brush. It was a mess of huge clumps of growth that chokes out all the small plants. After I spent a year clearing burning it down this spring brought the most beautiful mixture of wild flowers I have ever seen. Maybe the church is actually a garden that Jesus is tending to. The flowers just may be the life in the houses!