The church in the West is at a crossroads. Beset on every side by dangers from the outside (political and social pressure) and dangers on the inside (immorality, legalism, heresy, etc.), it’s become increasingly clear that we cannot remain where we are and be faithful to Jesus, let alone be effective. If you’re the person arguing that the church in the West needs to stay the same, you are in a small minority.
But how do we change? And what kind of change are we looking for? The discussion typically focuses on two alternatives: A return to more conservative, evangelical Christianity typified by Billy Graham (but possibly with a more Charismatic element) or a move to liberal Christianity typified by Rob Bell or Jim Wallis that is often more acceptable to society as a whole. Frank Viola and others have argued that there is a third way, focused solely on the person of Jesus that leaves the left and right debate behind.
And while I think there is a trap in some of the left vs. right thinking, I would like to argue that there is actually another way available to us. Instead of going left, right, or beyond, we have the option of going back. Going back, you ask? Go back to what? The answer is to go back to the original design Jesus has for His church. The design is not complicated, it is not hidden, but it is often neglected. When we return to Christ and His original design for His church, powerful things begin to happen, both in our lives and the lives of those around us.
The good news is this design isn’t lost to history or buried in some Roman catacomb beneath a thousand years worth of rubble- It’s found on the pages of a book in nearly everyone’s home and latent within the hearts of those who believe in Jesus. The answer God has for us is to go back to the movement Jesus started when He was raised from dead. This design for God’s church is what I call “apostolic Christianity.” Apostolic Christianity is Christianity lived out on the earth in the same spirit as the first century church.
This is the goal- to live out a kind of Christianity the apostles Peter and Paul would recognize where they to meet us. We can never completely return to the first century, but we can be captured by the same Spirit that captured the first followers of Jesus. The culture of our churches should reflect the same vision and values that the church in the book of Acts held.
You should note that apostolic Christianity is not about a person or even a spiritual gift. It’s about a people radically set apart as belonging to God, living sent lives under the power of the Holy Spirit. The goal of apostolic Christianity is to become a church “attain[ing] to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13). It’s the church becoming a bride who has “made herself ready” (Revelation 19:7) and presented to Christ “without spot or wrinkle” (Ephesians 5:27). It’s this type of Christianity that Jude references when he says to his readers “I found it necessary to…appeal to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3).
It’s a conversation that happens in house church circles and between those with some experience with house churches and the house church-curious. “What books on house churches would you reccommend?” The conversation then turns to what people have read and what people haven’t, the strengths of one approach over another, etc.
I originally started this post just as a resource to give people a jump start on their understanding of house churches. But as I began writing about the books that have been meaningful to me, I found that the books I was recommending were different than where most people start the conversation. You’ll notice that this is a global list, three of the five authors aren’t Americans and two of the five don’t speak English as their primary language. What I love about that, is while these books are applicable to our context, they allow us to sit at the feet of others who aren’t trapped by our particular world-view. They allow us to look at church and Scripture through a different lens than we do here in America. And I think that that is helpful.
So, submitted for your approval and in no particular order, the five best books on house churches are:
This was the original house church book for me. A leader I respected in the church we were part of said “If you want to understand what God is doing in our midst, you have to read ‘Houses that Change the World.'” I picked it up. I didn’t like it. I wrestled with every idea in the book. Eventually it pinned me. It begins with Wolfgang’s 15 Theses (worth the price of the book, btw) that challenge the state of the current church and then moves to a sweeping vision of why and how we do church in homes. What I love about Houses is that it’s written by a German who saw God raise up a multiplying network of house churches in India. It’s truly a global, apostolic book that challenges “Church As We Know It.” If you check out one book on this list, this is the one I recommend.
Neil Cole, founder of CMA Resources and Awakening Chapel, has written a book about organic churches that is extremely helpful. He tells the stories of his early days starting Awakening Chapel and the journey the Lord has taken him on multiplying disciples and churches throughout the world. Organic Church is extremely helpful because it places a heavy emphasis on the power of Jesus in the life of believers as the driving force in organic house churches. Many of the principles are based on church multiplication principles that originated in other countries like India and China, but are fleshed out in an American context. If you want to know what the multiplication of churches looks like in America, this is a great place to start. (Also, not exactly about house churches, but a great help in understanding context is Ordinary Hero and Church 3.0., also by Neil Cole.)
Viral Jesus by Ross Rodhe
Long-time readers of the blog may recognize Viral Jesus because I reviewed this book several years ago and gave a copy of the book away. This book is an absolutely fantastic invitation into a lifestyle centered around the mission of Jesus, especially how he describes it in Luke 10. Ross shares multiple stories about planting house churches in a Western context. All of these stories have Ross or one of his friends following Luke 10 and sharing the Gospel with men and women of peace. Miracles happen, people come to Jesus, and new organic house churches are started as a result. I highly recommend this book because of its strong emphasis on the church growing through apostolic mission.
The Global House Church Movement by Rad Zdero
This may be the book most unfamiliar to my readers, but it is a gem. Zdero crammed a ton of good theology and practice into a short space, which makes for page after page of profound insights. This book was foundational to me at a time when I was beginning to think about planting my first house church and answers questions with wisdom I haven’t seen anywhere else. The real asset of this book is its global perspective. It’s not limited by our normal western grievances with “Church As We Know It,” but really pulls the reader into an understanding of what God has done and is doing around the world. If you’re looking to plant a Kingdom house church and not just an Americanized-version of house church, this is a great book to pick up.
The Heavenly Man by Brother Yun and Paul Hattaway
Okay, so this one is not technically a house church book, but I included it because it captures the heart of what I believe the house church movement could and should become. It’s the story of Brother Yun, a Chinese leader in the underground house church movement. It’s basically his testimony of following Jesus, preaching the Gospel, starting churches, and enduring persecution. All of this happens in the context of churches that meet in homes and send out others to do the same. The book is simultaneously filled with miracles and heartbreak. You will be inspired by the stories of believers who have sacrificed much to follow Jesus and challenged to see your church embrace many of the realities described here. While this book was the Christian Book of the Year in 2003, many people read it as an inspiring story and not as a life to imitate. Don’t make the same mistake!
You’ll probably realize that I left some notable titles off. Pagan Christianity, Reimagining Church, and The Rabbit and the Elephant are just a few. Some of these I haven’t read and others are good books, but much of their content will be found in these books as well. No matter what our jumping on point is, moving towards a more organic, missional, apostolic form of church that results in Christ-formed followers is the goal.
Now, what about you? Which books have been helpful in your journey towards an organic, missional, apostolic church?
Note: The links to these books are part of my Amazon Store. While my opinions are mine and offered freely, I do stand to benefit from the purchase of these books through these links.
A month ago, I had a dream.
In that dream I was walking through the downtown, urban section of a city. I came across a storefront church. It was bustling with young, urban attenders that were very much of the hipster variety. Everything about this church had the buzz of “cool.”
After hanging around for a while with people I didn’t know, I found out that the person I was hanging with invited me to preach but I was totally unaware. The leader of this church had asked me to preach on servanthood, but he was wanting a message on servanthood so that he would have an easier time recruiting people to serve the ministries of this church. He had no interest in servanthood as a value in the Kingdom.
From the front of the building, we walked into the sanctuary with the pastor and his assistant. The sanctuary was actually a stadium-style ice rink. The pastor asked me to sit in the highest row, which is where he spoke from, but the worship of the meeting actually took place at the bottom of the stadium out on the ice. As the worship progressed, I began to realize that this church’s worship was a very detailed production/show and that everyone was dressed very formally. There was an orchestra, dancers and because an ice rink was central to this church, they even had ice skaters. Somehow I had ended up in dressed in a suit but had no shoes and was feeling very awkward about it.
Then suddenly towards the end of the “worship time” it became clear that the ice rink was melting. But it wasn’t just the ice in the rink at the center of the stadium that was melting, but the whole building. Unbeknownst to me the entire building was made of ice and was beginning to melt. The stadium seats, the floors, and even the walls were melting and cracking. It disrupted the whole service and we could not continue. I woke up with this phrase on my spirit: “The frozen church is melting.”
Interpretation: I believe that this is a warning to the church, particularly in the West. The church built on entertainment, cultural relativity, and business values will begin to come undone. This will be in large part due to “atmospheric change” that the church in the West will find itself in. I’m unclear about whether this will come from greater hostility toward the church from society in general or a greater intensity brought to bear on the church by the Lord Himself, resulting in more fervency in the body and a rejection of these values. But one thing is clear: a Christian organization built on man’s organizational values that feeds a consumer mentality in the body of Christ in order to further the success of one or two leaders will be a recipe for a “melting church.”
Hebrews 12:26-27: “At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, ‘Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.’ This phrase, ‘Yet once more,’ indicates the removal of things that are shaken—that is, things that have been made—in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain.”
Application: The call then, based on all of this, is to repent. We need to repent of those areas where we’ve been working for our fulfillment and notoriety instead of the Lord’s glory and the advancement of the Gospel. We need to reject human leadership values and church structures based on marketing principles and not God’s word, even if you can vaguely construe Scripture to justify your approach. Go back and do the things you did at first when Jesus was your first love. Begin again to follow Jesus, listen to His voice, and look to Him and His word for how you and your church can begin to follow Him based on what He values.
Now: Do you see anything in the interpretation or application of the dream that I missed? If you do, please feel free to leave a comment in the comment section below.
Christianity in the West has settled for something significantly lower than a culture of discipleship. Our “spiritual” members are typically those who have consistently read their Bible and maintained a devotional private life. The most honored among us are those who have brought their spiritual life to bare on one area of their public life, be it their job or their friends. The point is, much of this falls significantly short of what Jesus intended for His church.
One of the sayings of CMA, an organic church planting fellowship I’ve learned a lot from is “we need to lower the bar on what it means to be a church and raise the bar of what it means to be a disciple.” They believe that if church is simple enough for anyone to participate in it and everyone is a committed disciple, churches will begin to be established quickly and repeatedly. My question then is, how high should we raise the bar? The following is my list of seven benchmarks for discipleship:
- Intimacy with Jesus- Every spiritual reality in the Kingdom of God is born out of a deep and abiding relationship with Jesus. When a person is truly born into the Kingdom, they are immediately grafted in to a real relationship with a resurrected Lord. But we never graduate beyond that relationship. There is no level of spiritual maturity where listening, loving, and abiding becomes something you did when you were young in the Lord. Cultivating this ongoing relationship with Jesus becomes the basis for every other Kingdom activity we do. (Matthew 22:34-40, John 14:15, John 15:1-10)
- Ability to Follow the Holy Spirit- Jesus expected the ministry of His Son to be carried on through those who followed Him. Jesus-style ministry did not stop when He ascended to Heaven. It continued on in the lives of those who had followed Him and in the lives of those who would come to believe in their testimony. The Holy Spirit led the expansion of the church, the direction of its mission, and fueled the internal growth of holiness in His people. It’s not necessary to take a class on following the Holy Spirit, but we all need to grow in understanding how He leads individually and practice obeying His leadership. This will include knowing His voice, following His promptings, and manifesting His gifts. (John 20:21-22, Acts 2:33, Acts 2:38, Acts 9:31, Acts 13:52, Acts 16:6-10)
- Growing Character- We all come to Christ as enemies of God and it’s the work of God to cause us to surrender to Christ. This change from a captive of Satan to a citizen of the Kingdom of God will have ramifications on our lifestyle. As we develop intimacy with Jesus and follow the Holy Spirit there will be continual change of character reflected in our lifestyle. This is fueled not out of religious pressure but the work of God in the soul of man. Jesus called us to be perfect even as our Heavenly Father is perfect, Paul told us he pressed on to the upward call of Christ but had not reached it. Our lifestyles are to grow up into the image of the One who saved us. (Romans 5:8, Colossians 1:13, 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, Galatians 5:22-24, Matthew 5:48, Philippians 3:12-15, Ephesians 4:15-16)
- Retelling the Gospel with Relevancy- Anyone who has been to a third world country and seen effective ministry being carried out by the illiterate and unlearned will understand that it doesn’t take a seminary degree to be a disciple. But the ability to grasp the Gospel is essential in coming to Christ. The ability to retell the Gospel is crucial if we desire to see others come to Christ. So every believer from the newest to the most mature should be able to retell their story of Christ meeting them (their testimony) and the story of how that was accomplished by Jesus (the death, burial, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, otherwise known as the Gospel). (1 Corinthians 1 :26-31, Romans 10:14-15, 1 Corinthians 15:3-4)
- A Commitment to the Body of Christ- When Jesus saves us, He sets us in spiritual families that corporately represent Christ. We lose our individuality and gain a corporate family more amazing than anything we have ever participated in. This family is at the same time a universal brotherhood and a specific and local group to which we belong. We begin to tangibly demonstrate our love for Jesus and our status as disciples as we demonstrate love for other broken humans redeemed by Jesus. (Psalm 68:5-6, Ephesians 4:4-6, Romans 16:3-5, 1 John 3:14-18, John 13:35, Romans 12:9-21)
- A Commitment to Care for Orphans and Widows- God found us when we were unwanted orphans (spiritually) and adopted us into His family. Truly following Him, then, means we take care of the weakest and most broken parts of society, whether they are believers or not. We demonstrate the reality of our Gospel by caring for widows and orphans. (Romans 8:15, James 1:27, Galatians 6:10)
- A Commitment to Reproduction- The Gospel and and it’s effects were designed to spread from person to person with little difficulty. Our commission from Jesus is to teach whole nations the realities we’ve learned from Him. If we miss this element, we cease to be a discipling culture. Paul wanted Timothy to not just teach other people, but to teach people in a way that they could pass his teaching on to others. It was this commitment to spreading both the Gospel and it’s associated lifestyle that allowed it to reach most of Europe in a short period of time. The same will be true today. (Matthew 28:18-20, 2 Timothy 2:2)
Simply put, we are to be people who know Jesus deeply and follow the Holy Spirit. This will cause us to grow in character, express the Gospel in word and deed, care for fellow believers and take care of widows and orphans wherever we find them. When we commit to reproducing this lifestyle in those that are following Jesus around us, we begin to see a discipling culture take root.
One thing to know is that none of these characteristics require extensive schooling or training. Most of them are just the result of you following Jesus and learning to trust His leadership. All of this can be taught (and more likely caught) in the context of the body of Christ on mission. That has deep implications for our current training systems across the body of Christ, but that’s a topic for another post….
Now the question today is this: What would you add? Let me know in the comment section below.
Editor’s Note: This post was written by David Washburn. In addition to being a great writer and an all around nice guy, he is also my father-in-law. Recently David attended a house church for the very first time and I asked him to write about his experience.
I have been going to a traditional church all sixty years of my life. I have been a member of high churches as well as the more casual, contemporary churches. Presently I am a member of a charismatic church were hundreds of people attend each week. All those years and all of those churches and it was not until last Sunday that I attended a house church.
What songs we sang, what Bible verses were read or what we prayed really does not matter. There really was very little difference in how this house church worshipped together than what you could find in organized churches in this area. The difference was found in the love of these people for each other and for people in need.
I have attended churches where everyone is called brother or sister. “Brother Dave, how are you doing today?” “Sister Kathy, you look marvelous in that dress.” They are very friendly and welcoming people. They have big smiles and will give you a hug as soon as they see you. I love those churches. This house church was different. They didn’t call each other brother or sister but they treated each other as genuine family. They laughed and tease one young girl about her new boyfriend. Laughed with one man who the week before had forgotten that they were going to be singing at a senior care center and was at the place they meet for Church instead. They were not putting on a smile to impress anyone, but rather because they enjoyed each others company.
During our time there I got the sense that they had genuine love and caring for each other. If one of them were to say something out of line, I am sure they would have lovingly set them straight. If one hurt, they all felt the pain.
Their love did not stop with just those in their group. Every first and third Sunday they would all go to sing at a senior care center. They had an outreach to others who were in need of God’s love. How many people in your church have an outreach outside your church members? This house church had 100% participation in reaching out to others.
These are simple people joined together in the Love of Christ to help each other to grow and to reach out to their community. They are not just brothers and sisters in name but in the love of Christ. That is what makes this house church so good. Perhaps a better terms would be to call it a Home Church instead, because you feel as if they really are a family who are loving and caring for each other in their home.
David Washburn is a follower of Jesus, a husband, a father, and a grandfather. He is an author of short stories and a blogger. His blog “Searching God’s Heart” focuses on knowing God’s heart and preparing for the revival of the last days.