I’ve sat across the table and listened to the stories of discouraged pastors describe in great detail where the ministry took a wrong turn. Often it wasn’t from an evil decision or a judgment from God. People stopped coming. The recession happened and people stopped giving. The church plant didn’t work out like they thought. In all of these cases, the result was the same: We’re shutting the church down.
My heart breaks every time this happens. Sometimes there are good, godly men and women doing their best in whatever capacity the Lord has called them to serve the church and circumstances cause there not to be enough money. Sometimes other resources are the issue, like a lack of volunteers. Regardless, the point is that churches with true believers and well meaning hearts close down all the time. Current statistics estimate roughly 3,700 churches close their doors every year.
But there is good news! First, because of the Gospel of Jesus, no matter what capacity you served your church in the past, you are not a failure. God loved you regardless of the outcome of your work for Him. His death and resurrection means that the work that you carried on for Him was not in vain. Paul, after spending an entire chapter in 1 Corinthians on the subject of the resurrection says this: “So, my dear brothers and sisters, be strong and immovable. Always work enthusiastically for the Lord, for you know that nothing you do for the Lord is ever useless,” (1 Corinthians 15:58).
But there’s even more good news: Just because the money and the volunteers and the resources dried up, doesn’t mean your church needs to close. It might mean the church needs to change. The fact of the matter is the Kingdom of God doesn’t run on money, so even though resources are tight, the ministry can continue. Just because the resources have disappeared doesn’t mean the relationships and family of an existing church need to end.
How does this happen? For a church that wants to continue on but doesn’t have enough money to pay for a building or staff or the have the resources to support such things, house churches are a viable option. The existing church would transition to a church or a network of related churches that meet in the homes of its members and continue the work of sharing the gospel, building up the church, and making disciples.
This would mean a lot of changes for a church that was used to meeting as a traditional church on Sunday morning. It will most likely mean the pastor would forsake a salary (if he or she hadn’t already), it will mean that the format of the meetings you’ve become accustomed will change, and the ministry of the church will have be taken up by whatever members of the church remain, not just the pastor. Also, not everyone will want to make this jump, so be prepared for some who would be okay in any other traditional context to not make this jump with you. For those who feel God isn’t done with the church yet, but don’t see a way forward, it’s a viable alternative.
If you’re facing this moment in the life of your church, feel free to contact me at PursuingGlory at gmail dot com or check out my resource page featuring the best books on house churches.
More than that, don’t give up hope in God, the gospel, or the family of God. God loves you. You and your church haven’t failed. He has a plan that continues regardless of the cash flow. God, who raises the dead, can take what seems like has died and transform it into something new.
Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?… Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.
This may come as a shock, given what you’ve seen and what you heard from Christian ministries in the past, but the Kingdom of God is not dependent on dollar bills in order to keep expanding. Let me explain.
When you came to Christ, regardless of the context you heard the Gospel in, the critical element was the exchange of the message of Jesus from one human being to another. Now, there were probably multiple things involved in that moment that were paid for: a Bible, possibly a building, maybe a paid speaker or pastor, but at a basic level the Gospel was freely given to you.
In China and in many other countries around the world, the Gospel spreads not because the people are able to give exorbitant amounts of money–they can’t. The Gospel spreads there because people received the true Gospel and they are willing to give up every part of their life so that others can hear the same transforming Gospel. So without buildings, paid pastors, and often without Bibles, the true message of Jesus continues to spread.
But in the West, we’ve become so consumed with money and the place it plays in our lives, that to suggest that the Gospel could spread without it is met with charges of heresy. Who will shepherd us? Who will teach us? Who will share the Gospel with others if we don’t pay someone to do it? And what about the building? How does that work?
The reality is these things can and do work without money. House churches, for example, work regularly without paid staff, dedicated buildings, or a ministry budget. Small groups of believers meet in each others’ homes, teaching each other, caring for one another, and sharing the Gospel all without any cost. Missions? That can still happen, depending on how you define it. Locally is easy, non-locally is tougher but can be achieved through relationships, hospitality, and tent-making.
My point isn’t to glorify house churches in writing this, but to open our eyes that ministry can happen with little to no budget. If you are a traditional church with a building and staff, that’s not an evil thing. It’s just that often I’ve seen ministry stop when the money stops flowing, but it doesn’t need to be like this. We need to lower the power of the dollar in the minds of the church and lift up the ability of Jesus to not only to sustain the church, but extend the Kingdom, with or without money.
The same Jesus that told us to look to the birds and the flowers for our personal natural provision is the same Jesus that can bring ministry forth with very little (and even no) money. May God help us see that there’s no amount of money that can achieve God’s purposes, only hearts fully surrendered to Him.
Here’s a quick test to know if your expression of church is too complicated to multiply disciples. It’s called the “Bible on a Deserted Island Test.”
Imagine you crash on a deserted island and all you have is the clothes on your back and a Bible. You are stranded on the island and separated from civilized society. But the island is large enough to support several indigenous tribes of people. You are over time adopted by one of the local tribes and learn their language. Because they’ve adopted you, you now care about these people and want to share the Gospel with them.
Now, the million dollar question: Can you plant a church like you’re currently part of among them? Follow up question: Will they read the Bible and see the church you start in the pages of the Bible you have? Or do they have to have explanation of church history or your denomination?
If the answer to both of these questions is yes, congratulations! You have a simple, reproducible church. If the answer to either of these questions are no, I would invite you to consider what part of your church model might be baggage that slows the spread of the Gospel.
If your goal is to disciple the nations, your model of church should work anywhere.
[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.
House churches and organic churches are often lumped into the same category. Many people use the phrases house church and organic church inter-changeably. When we drill down into the vocabulary, though, we find that the two phrases don’t actually mean the same thing. Organic churches are described as churches built around the presence and life of Jesus, regardless of their size. House churches are understood to be a church adhering to some kind of biblical pattern with a specific size. So which one is right?
Well, both. And neither. Let me explain: I think both expressions of church have elements that approximate the New Testament definition of church. But both definitions and the people representing them have need to learn from the other to get closer to the truth.
House churches should be organic. Aren’t they already? Well, I think there are a lot of them that are. But there are some house churches that are built only as smaller versions of the tradition that people have come out of. It’s “Honey, I Shrunk the Church” in a living room. Some of these house churches have pulpits, still dress up for Sunday morning services, and have one person constantly teaching. Needless to say, this is less than organic.
What’s sad about these types of situations is that house churches are the perfect environment for organic Christianity to take root. There is no more perfect place for Christ-centered ministry, mutual edification, humble service, and operating in the gifts than in small groups of people who are committed to one another. But this isn’t always the case.
How can a house church become more organic?
- House churches that are based around rigid programs that leave little room for God to manifest Himself among His people need to lay down the programs. This will be awkward at first as you learn to corporately wait on the Lord and lay down your (and everyone else’s) agenda. But if you wait for Jesus to show up, He will, even if only in the most simple ways.
- House churches should adopt an attitude that everyone in their fellowship who is a believer has the right to participate in the meeting. There shouldn’t be an unnatural division between clergy and laity, just a willingness to serve one another out of love for the Lord. This will mean some who are used to sharing much will need to hold back and some who are quieter or intimidated to share will need to step up and share more.
- Begin leading new believers to Christ. Many new believers are better at experiencing Jesus than us “established believers.” The sad reality is we sometimes teach people how not to be organic. If we can lead people to Christ and teach them to depend on the same Jesus that saved them to help them walk out their faith, we’ll learn much from these new believers about true Christianity.
- Learn to cultivate the life of Christ in your life and in the lives of others. This is not just a once a week thing. It’s something that is played out 24/7 and can’t be confined to a sermon, a series of songs, and an hour on the calendar. The process of cultivating this life in Christ in ourselves and in each other is called discipleship. The more we practice this, the more organic we become.
- Because cultivating the life of Christ is a 24/7 reality, it’s best to realize that the focus of the church is not a meeting. Meetings are important, but what truly makes Christianity organic is the life of Christ flowing through relationships whenever and wherever they happen. Our dependency on meetings can snuff out the spontaneity and transparency that are so often needed in becoming a church the way God wants it.
House churches should be organic churches. As Neil Cole says, “If you’re church isn’t organic, it’s not a church.” But we have to guard ourselves against only becoming a smaller version of what we saw in the traditional church we came from. In reality, God designed us to go deeper in Himself and become a reproducing agent for the Kingdom of God. It all starts as house churches become more organic.