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.
I came to Christ in the midst of a spiritual revival that was sweeping through sections of the church in the mid-90’s. I watched my mom get miraculously healed of cancer in front of my eyes and it was shortly after that I gave my life to Christ. It was during this time that Brownsville, Toronto, and other places were experiencing moves of the Holy Spirit. We treasured that season because we were watching things that happened in the Bible regularly occur before our eyes. For us, this was what Christianity was supposed to be about.
Somewhere around the year 2000 many of those movements faded a bit and it was during this time I started feeling called to church planting. After college I moved to Kansas City to learn church planting and how to follow the Holy Spirit like I had seen others do. I got a bit more than I bargained for, though. Not only did I learn church planting and following the Holy Spirit, but I got introduced to the concept of house churches and my thinking about the body of Christ was turned upside down. Shortly after this I moved back to Iowa.
Since that time, I’ve mostly given myself to starting house churches in our region and raising up disciples that will make disciples. And even if you’ve read my blog, it’s largely focused on the idea that the church is a people who meet simply and make disciples.
Lately, though, I’ve been thinking about revival, the movement of the Spirit, and how that all functions in the context of movements and making disciples. You could think from posts I’ve written like Awakening, Harvest, and Broken Nets Part I, II, and III that I don’t believe in revival anymore. But that’s not the case. I believe (and am asking) for a movement of the Holy Spirit in our country, I just think it looks different than what most people are expecting.
What I mean is this: revival and awakening have typically happened in the context of existing structures of church. Because of this, these movements of the Spirit seem to draw people to a location, a church building, one or more dynamic leaders, etc. Men and women are born again, miracles happen, existing believers are convicted of sin, and renewal comes to the church. But the outpouring of the Spirit is based around a place, a few places, or a few dynamic individuals. The everyday person doesn’t expect to participate, other than to help or receive from those who are leading the meetings. And when trouble or turmoil comes to the places where the Spirit is moving, the revival or awakening inevitably ends.
But even yesterday as I was reading St. Patrick’s Confession I was reminded that movements of the Spirit happen in the context of disciple making movements that change whole nations. These empower every believer, not just the anointed few, to take the gospel to every sphere of life. This type of awakening can be passed to others with a simple version of church that allows the Gospel to spread like a virus among the lost. Instead of a few places experiencing awakening, it can move from person to person and have a much greater impact.
The Holy Spirit isn’t confined to our church meetings. He’s not just interested in elevating the spiritual intensity of the existing church for four or five years every decade. He is interested in the Gospel touching the hearts of lost men and women who don’t even know how lost they are. Imagine a movement of the Spirit that is able to invade a gang-ridden inner city that would never darken the door of your local Assembly of God or Vineyard church. He WANTS to release his power for miracles AND godliness among them as well. Holy Spirit even wants to spawn church planting movements that are filled with dreams and visions and signs and wonders and people coming to Jesus in every context!
How do I know this? Because it’s the testimony of church history. It happened with the first century church: THERE WAS BARELY A CHURCH TO REVIVE! All there was were lost people who needed this kind of movement of the Spirit. It happened again with guys like Patrick, It happened in this country with a couple of guys named Wesley. It’s been happening in China since the 1950’s. It happened in this country as recently as the late 60’s and early 70’s. We call it the Jesus People movement. And all over the world it’s currently happening in countries where you can be killed for following Christ. These are normal movements of the Spirit!
Friends, I believe God still wants to send the Holy Spirit in unprecedented ways*. But the way that that we package the outpouring will affect how far it will go and how deeply it will impact us. So let’s keep asking and keep believing for a movement of the Spirit, but let’s contend for it knowing it will not be something that shouldn’t look like a more zealous church service. It looks like a grass-roots movement of people coming to Christ, churches being formed, and missionaries being sent out.
*For example, I believe Joel 2 was fulfilled partially in Acts 2, but I don’t we’ve seen the ultimate fulfillment of “I will pour out my Spirit on all people,” yet (see Acts 2:17-21).
The church in the West is facing a crisis of discipleship. Every Christian should understand how to lead someone to Christ and help that person become a disciple of Jesus, but many don’t. Our over-reliance on sermons and books to transfer information has created believers that can consume information but not train others in following Christ.
As a house church planter with hopes of encouraging many others to plant house churches, I found out fairly early that this was a massive problem. After a period of time struggling with this issue, I had a number of brothers reach out to me and encourage me to read Ordinary Hero by Neil Cole. We adopted the methods found in this book over the next couple of years and we’ve seen some fantastic changes.
Before I get into the methods, though, I think it’s important to talk briefly about why we adopted a set of methods. I wholeheartedly believe that the best way to disciple another believer is life on life discipleship. Jesus invited twelve men to follow Him and be with Him, thus producing some of the most powerful disciples that we know of. This process is never meant to replace that powerful form of discipleship. But Jesus encouraged us to make disciples and every time I read the word “make” I’m reminded that there is some kind of intentionality to it. Disciples aren’t made on accident. This process is how we give intentional time and space on the calendar for what should be happening throughout the rest of the week.
Our goal was not just to make disciples,though, but to make disciples who could make other disciples. Many times a strong personality can disciple someone through solely their lifestyle, but successive generations waned after the pattern of that lifestyle was lost. We didn’t just want to pass our knowledge of following Jesus to the next generation, but set up the next generation to pass it onto several generations after us.
This required a method that was simple and reproducible. It was simple in that anyone with a Bible who could read would be able to participate and lead a group with very little training. Because of the simplicity, someone who had participated in a group for a very short time could easily take the methods and start their own group. It was reporducible. In fact, a lot of conversations I have with house church planters involves me talking through this process and emailing them the accountability questions. It’s easy to start with just a little guidance.
The process looks like this: a number of us meet in in groups of 2 or 3 of the same gender across our house church network weekly. Each of these people are reading the same 20-30 chapters of the Bible each week. They also ask each other accountability questions and pray for their lost friends and family each week. When a new believer is added to the body, they are added to the “2&3” of whomever led them to Christ. When groups grow to four people, we create two new groups of two people who continue doing the same process. It’s how we practice mutual discipleship.
We’ll look more into each of the elements of the “2&3” in the coming days. Obviously there is no silver bullet for discipleship. No process will take an unwilling saint and make him or her the next apostle to the nations. But what we’ve found is when we get believers reading their Bibles together, confessing sin to and praying for one another, and praying for those they know to come to Jesus, growth in the Lord happens naturally. This growth strengthens the churches and creates disciples who can make disciples.
I’ve had a lot of conversations with people who are considering joining or starting house churches. One of the odd realities of the house church movement in the United States is the belief that apostles (sometimes also referred to as “workers”) are needed to start legitimate house churches. I hear this a lot, but I believe it’s harmful.
So I will fairly often get a question that goes something like this: “I live in ___________ City. I don’t have a group believers who want to start a house church and no apostle will come help me. What should I do?”
I understand why people would look at the Scriptures and think that apostles are the only ones who start churches. But it’s a fairly odd belief for a movement that has based much of its identity around the idea that Jesus shows up wherever “two or three are gathered.” If Jesus meant this, and I believe He did, then church begins when two or three legitimate believers gather in his name, not when an apostle shows up to pronounce them a church.
Now don’t get me wrong, I think apostles are incredibly important, essential really, to the building up of the body of Christ. I also think that apostles do plant churches and probably plant more churches than people with other giftings in the body. It’s part of their nature. But to say that an organic church must be started by an apostolic worker is a great way to get less house churches started.
An argument could be made here that more house churches could be started without apostles, but they would be of lesser quality, less focused on the glory of God and more prone to be outside of what the Lord intended. Except the Scripture doesn’t paint that picture. Here a few places where it seems that Scripture shows us hints of non-apostolicly founded churches:
- Acts 2:42-47- This is the Jerusalem church that was birthed after the Holy Spirit fell on the 120 in the upper room. Now I won’t argue that the apostles didn’t help form the house churches described in this passage, obviously they were a vital part of the community. But they were 12 men out of 3000 people. There was no way the apostles could have spent a significant amount of quality time with each house church there, especially not in the way many understand the modern apostle/worker starting a house church.
- Acts 11:19-21- Here is a church or a number of churches (“a large number of people”) that was formed by “those who were scattered because of the persecution.” We know that this doesn’t include the apostles, because Acts 8:3 tells us the only people who stayed in Jerusalem were the apostles. Now, apostles were eventually involved. I think apostolic input into any church is important. But this church started when believers scattered by the persecution started preaching the gospel and people came to the Lord.
- Colossians 1:7- The church in Colossae was started not by Paul, but by Epaphras. Paul had never been to Colossae but wrote his letter to them to encourage them in their walk. I would actually argue Epaphras was an apostolic worker, but if you want to get super technical about it, Paul never calls him that.
- Revelation 2 & 3- Again, we don’t know a lot about most of the churches mentioned in Revelation 2 and 3 other than the church in Ephesus. What we do know is that Paul started the church in Ephesus, but other unnamed believers started the churches in Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philladelphia, and Laodecia. These were most likely churches that were established as the Gospel went out from Ephesus into all of the region. These were all affirmed as churches by Jesus himself, even though Paul only planted the church in Ephesus.
I say all of this to make the following point: If you can’t find an apostolic worker to help you start a house church, you are not abandoned by God. Quite the contrary, you could be a vessel the Lord uses to lead unbelievers to Christ and see a church formed. This is why I want you to plant a house church.
And given what we see in many of these Scriptures, I think it’s very appropriate for apostles to help with the ongoing maturing and equipping of house churches they didn’t start. Part of their role as a bond-servant of Christ is to serve churches in just such a manner. Paul tells us explicitly in Ephesians 4 that God “gave some as apostles…for…the building up of the body of Christ.” So to say we don’t need apostles would be silly.
But to despair, to give up hope, to stop believing God for the formation of churches without an apostle ready and willing to help is just not what I see in the New Testament. I see a whole people learning to follow Christ and willing to risk even their physical lives to share the gospel with those who have never heard it. And when those souls come to Christ, there should be no wringing of hands because no apostle is present. There is simply a confidence that the God who has led them this far would continue to empower and sustain them.
And in this way, we don’t just gain apostles, but we embody the kind of apostolic Christianity I believe God wants to restore in the Earth. May it be so, even for those who are reading this today.
How we build the church is based on how we view the New Testament. Nowhere is this clearer than the realm of elders. Some emphasize Paul’s epistles and get a seasoned, often stationary church. Others emphasize the book of Acts and it’s emphasis on minimalist structure and get a church that disappears quickly under pressure. The truth is neither of these views is correct apart from the other. But often we chose one perspective over the other, instead of seeing how both work together to accomplish what God wants.
Let’s look at some thoughts about elders from the book of Acts:
- Paul would plant churches and leave without appointing elders, but would often times do that later (see Acts 14:23). This is interesting to me, because many today stress the fact that a church without a pastor or elders is not a church at all. But Paul started a number of churches where he either didn’t appoint them on purpose or he got chased out of town before he could. My personal opinion is Paul often wanted to let new believers mature before appointing them as examples for the church to follow. But make no mistake–churches existed where elders didn’t.
- Elders were shepherds (Acts 20:28). Whoever eventually became an elder had the task of feeding and caring for the church the way a shepherd feeds and cares for a flock of sheep. This verse and another like it in 1 Peter 5 are the primary reasons I believe the gifting of shepherds and the role of elders overlap considerably. Often these are the people ingrained in the believing community and caring for those in their relational sphere.
- Elders were given the task of overseeing (Acts 20:28). Paul tells the Ephesian elders that the Holy Spirit has appointed them as “overseers.” An overseer is not a leader, a public speaker, or a visionary person. An overseer literally watches over what is going on in any given circumstance. Note that the overseer is never told to give orders, tell everyone what to do, or to monopolize the teaching or instruction of the church. Their task is to watch over what is being done. One of the great needs of the church in this hour is more overseers who can provide a safe place for new believers to grow and test out their spiritual muscles that are beginning to develop.
Now, let’s look at some thoughts from Paul to Timothy and Titus:
- It’s a noble thing to aspire to be an overseer (1 Timothy 3:1).
Part of the reason for this is that these were the believers first threatened with death when persecution came. This wasn’t a position of privilege that you needed to die to yourself before you decided to take. It could be a death sentence. And while some (especially in the house church movement) believe that it’s not good to be a leader, Paul encourages believers who desire to be godly overseers.
- There is a list of character requirements for elders (1 Timothy 3:2-7, Titus 1:6-9).
Character was the primary qualifying factor for elders of the New Testament. They couldn’t be a new believer and they had to be able to teach, but the overwhelming majority of qualifications were centered on how much Christ had transformed their character. Central to the idea of elders was that they were a mature follower of Jesus that new believers could look to and pattern their lives after.* **
- Elders were appointed (Titus 1:6). Paul makes it clear these guys were appointed and we saw that both in Acts and in these apostolic instruction manuals for Timothy and Titus. It was an apostolic function to appoint elders. Often they weren’t appointed until after an apostle left, but the church knew who they were because of this appointment. This is different, however, than a hierarchy where believers lord position over other believers.
When we look at the New Testament, there is a distinct pattern that emerges. Churches were spreading rapidly in the book of Acts through the ministry of men like Paul. Young churches would spring up and these churches wouldn’t have mature elders in place initially. Elders weren’t crucial to a church being established, you could have churches without elders.
But elders were necessary for the long term good of the churches that were established. These individuals were examples to the flock through their godly lifestyles but did not control every aspect of church life. They simply oversaw the life of the church and were helpful in the discerning of complicated issues that would arise. As overseers, they were to warn and admonish the body when particularly dangerous individuals were troubling the church.
I see elders as essential to the movement of the Gospel. I consider them localized replicators of the DNA God inserts into his church. Our failure to have them will eventually impair the movement of the Gospel God is raising up. But the elevation of elders to the supreme place of importance, over and above the rest of the saints as the only leaders impairs the movement of the Gospel as well. But when elders can be raised up that function as spiritual parents, allowing their children to grow and mature beyond them, beautiful movments of the Gospel can take place.
And that, my friends, is what we’re hungering for….
* 1 Peter 5:3 emphasizes the role of elders being a godly example. We haven’t looked at 1 Peter 5, but more and more, it is becoming my central text when understanding eldership in organic churches. More on that soon.
** The New Testament has a distinct pattern of calling believers to pattern their lives after other believers who live godly lives, not just Jesus. More on this in another post.
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….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… This design for God’s church is what I call “apostolic Christianity.”
And with that, I began the first of a series of posts describing what I believe is apostolic Christianity. These posts started being written in 2014 and have only finally all been written and posted. You can find the complete collection of apostolic Christianity articles below: