[Editor’s Note: This post is part of an ongoing series about learning from the global church. Other posts in this series can be found at the bottom of the page.]
The church around the Earth, living under persecution and depending on God’s power instead of their wealth and influence, has much to teach every believer in the West. But the house church movement, specifically, has much to learn from their global counterparts.
Our house churches have had the unique opportunity to meet some brothers in the house church movement from around the globe, to be a part of some of their meetings, and to learn from those who have planted house churches globally. These experiences have helped us to see God’s Kingdom from different perspectives and avoid the traps that sometimes consume the house church conversation in the West.
So, what has the house church movement around the globe taught us?
- The Gospel is Essential to the Church– Sit down and talk to any house church participant from Africa or Asia and it isn’t long before you hear of their heart to reach the lost with the gospel. I’ve sat with servants from other nations whose hearts burn to see the Gospel of God’s Kingdom transform their nations. For me, in particular, every time I meet with one of these figures, it reminds me that while community and spiritual family are important, they are the result of the Gospel. And this has helped us not be consumed with convincing every existing church to become a house church (and judging those that don’t) but sharing Jesus with those that don’t know Him and teaching them to follow Him in the context of organic spiritual family.
- Discipleship Must Be Universally Reproducible- One of the significant ways we’ve learned from the church around the world is through brothers and sisters who have served the church in Africa and Asia bringing back principles they witnessed at work in the church there. These generally have stressed not just the preaching of the Gospel, but the structuring of the church so that each true follower of Christ learns how to obey Jesus like the New Testament teaches. Many streams such as NoPlaceLeft and Church Multiplication Associates teach discipleship principles first learned in massive movements of the Gospel in other countries and then brought and implemented here. These principles are simple and can be passed on to other believes so they can participate in the work of evangelism and discipleship.
- The Purity of the Church is Important- In our house church network, we have a brother who has spent time with the underground house church movement in China as a member of the body. One of the realities he has stressed over and over again is that the church there frequently will observe the lifestyle of an unknown brother or sister for a season before they let a brother participate fully in the life of the church. This sounds harsh in our Western context, but in the context of the church of China, where a new person could be a government spy, this is a matter of survival. In our context, this example has helped us learn how to handle false workers that the New Testament has promised would try and come into our midst (and have). It’s also helped us have hard conversations with those who aren’t born again, but come with a belief in God.
- The Kingdom of God is 24/7– Our brother who has spent time in the church in China is constantly reminding us that the church meetings there often last all day, with kids! Training sessions last through the night and into the next day. The point is, there are no nice, anticipated end times. There is no time when the meeting is projected to end. Our friends in Africa have an entire village that wakes up at four AM to energetically pray for their village, their church, and their nation. I have one friend in Africa who wakes up and prays between midnight and 5:00 AM for his nation because he’s been doing it since he was a young man. In each of these scenarios, the church has submitted their use of their time to God. It’s no longer theirs, but His.
- The Church Needs to Embrace Multiple Giftings- We’ve believed in the diversity of gifting that Christ gives his body for some time. However, when we heard a friend of mine from a closed nation begin to describe how they are beginning to value not just apostles, prophets, and evangelists, but shepherds and teachers as well, it was transforming for us. Since that time we’ve been able to embrace the shepherding gift in a way that has significantly helped us care for the body and continue to grow the church.
These are some of the significant ways that the church from around the globe has significantly informed how we live out life in house churches. I encourage everyone from the West to find ways to connect with what God is doing in other parts of the Earth in order to better see His Kingdom.
If you’re interested in learning about the house church movement around the globe, check out The Five Best Books on House Churches. Most of the books are a great starting point for seeing house churches planted in a different soil than the cultural West. It may just help you to see the church and God’s Kingdom like never before.
Learning From the Global Church Series:
Often I have conversations with brothers and sisters in the West about house churches. After enough conversations about house churches with people, you start to recognize the books people have read already by the way they talk. And I inevitably have the same advice for people: Learn from the church around the globe.
Why do I tell this to those interested in house church? I find that in the United States, the house church movement1 is a movement of choice. We don’t have to be a part of a house church in order to survive as believers. It’s voluntary. There are very few economic realities that force meeting in homes. And I think because of this, those who chose to be part of a house church come in for a few different reasons: pain or purpose.
Pain is a regular reason people I know choose house churches. They express it different ways. Sometimes they express it through tears with stories of how more traditional churches have hurt them2. Others express it through stories of burnout that begin in a traditional church and end with them swearing never to do what caused them to burn out again. Often those I talk to have a sense of being cheated when they find out church can exist without the traditional trappings. Sometimes, not always but sometimes, I’m concerned about the level of bitterness in these discussions.
Purpose is the other reason people find their way into house churches in the US. This is usually expressed in the fact that people began studying the nature of the church and realized that many of the churches they see don’t match what the Bible describes as church. These purists attempt to build a church that is faithful to what they see in the New Testament, with differening results.
Regardless of which of these two doors3 people choose, the result is often pride. Whether that pride is expressed in “I’m not going to be the same kind of church that hurt me” or “I’m more biblical than the church I used to be a part of” or “We have the true angle on what church is,” the result is an attitude that Jesus says leaves us unjustified before God.
Which is why it’s so important for the house church movement in America to learn from the church around the world. There are precious, precious saints in China, Iran, India, Africa, and South America that have practiced church that meets in homes because they love Jesus and this is the only type of church they have known. They are stunned by the love of God that they have found. They know what it means to live in true community. They aren’t ashamed of the Gospel and are willing to give their lives for their fellow brothers and sisters to hear it. Being part of a house church and coming to Christ are the same experience, without any pride.
I remember being in a coffee shop with an Ethiopian before I ever traveled to Ethiopia. He told me of the glories of Ethiopian coffee, explaining how the use of coffee beans to make coffee started in Ethiopia and then was exported around the world. In each place around the world, the beans began to take on the flavor of the particular new soil in which it was planted. For example, one of the places it went was to an Indonesian island called Java and since that time the island has faded into obscurity, but it’s impact on coffee continues. Today you can buy Brazilian Coffee, Kenyan Coffee, Columbian Coffee, etc., each tasting a bit like the soil it came from. But the truest coffee, my friend argued, –coffee the way God intended it–was grown and prepared in Ethiopia.
This is a fun story. Whenever I think about it, I’m reminded that churches, like coffee beans, take on the flavor of the culture around them. Often, we’re not aware of it because we’ve only “tasted” our flavor of church. Now, we don’t have a church we can go back to in order to see the original, unlike my Ethiopian friends and their coffee. But if we were wise to learn from our friends in the underground house churches around the world, I think we would perhaps get a little bit closer to the church that God designed, untainted by our American experience.
Tomorrow, I’ll share a little about how the church around the Earth has informed what we do. For now, I’d love to hear your thoughts. If you’ve been part of a house church (or even a traditional church) how has your experience been informed by the soil of American culture?
1 I’m going to speak in broad generalities here. Please understand there is no way I could ever speak about all house churches as a single, similar unit. That would be like saying all of my kids are the same.
2 Note, by saying this, I’m not saying every traditional church hurts people. Though, I’m sure if we’re humble enough to admit it, every church hurts people, whether it’s their intent or not.
3Again, I’m speaking in generalities. Not everyone comes in through these two doors.
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.