The House Church
Touching Neighborhoods Globally
Which church planter do you think is better prepared to start a church planting movement in their new culture? Jim or Wendy?
Jim was an experienced church planter from the sunny Southwest states. He had been on teams that had started 2 churches sent out from Grace Community, a large church of about 10,000 people. When they began their new churches, it had been with a startup group of 500 people. They were well-funded and they worked from a carefully crafted plan. The team they had put together was carefully selected based on gifting. Jim’s new challenge, however was radically different. Jim had moved to arctic Siberia to begin a church planting movement among nomadic, Eskimo-like people who live in the tundra, typically in government housing projects or as nomadic herders (or both!).
Wendy, Jim’s team mate, was from a house church in the Midwest. Her parents had started a couple of house churches when she was a teenager and after returning home from college it was only natural for her to get involved. Her church met on Monday evenings, shared a meal together, and then enjoyed a time of fellowship. There was virtually no program and hardly even a leader since all members of the group were encouraged to participate. When the group reached about 25 in size, they agreed to split up into new groups. Over the years, Wendy had seen a couple of dozen of these small churches birthed.
Could it be that the house church movement holds the best hope for raising up a generation of church planters? Some think so.
The House Church Movement
According to statistic compiled by pollster George Barna, the house church movement in American numbers anywhere from 5 million to 20 million people.(1) This wide range indicates that we don’t have a firm grasp on the size and scope of this movement. Another interesting fact is that most (66% to 78%) also attend a traditional church. So, even those involved aren’t exclusive in their application of the house church idea.
When the lens is widened past the United States to include the global church, a vastly different picture comes into focus. House churches dominate many Asian Christian movements, notably in China. From my travels to various missionary teams around the world, house churches are much more common goals for missionaries than the traditional model. Certainly in areas where persecution has forced the church underground a “house” model of church makes a great deal of sense.
House Churches Among the Unreached
When I was a missionary in Croatia I came back to the United States and brought a pastor with me to visit some churches who were potential partners in our forming church. As we walked into a large mega-church building to setup our room for that night’s presentation he was shaking his head. “Sto?”, or “What?” I asked him, and he replied, “This one classroom is larger than any meeting space we have in Croatia.” This large classroom was not something the pastor could project into his own context.
Whether the issue is persecution, money or any number of pragmatic obstacles, the simple church model is naturally suited to the realities of cross-cultural church planting among the unreached—particularly in ‘closed’ nations.”
Church planters who have experience ministering in smaller settings and understand the dynamics of how the Holy Spirit leads in these contexts are equipped to reproduce this model worldwide. Those within the missions community have long known that entrepreneurs with humble expectations are oftentimes the workers who make things happen over the long haul.
Yet another factor to consider is how we fund and support the on-field missionary. Data found in the report, “The State of Church Giving through 2005” shows that charitable giving has grown along with per capita disposable income. Unfortunately, it also shows that the amount of that funding that goes toward “benevolence” (which includes missionary outreach) has not changed. (2) This leads to the conclusion that while we give more to church, the church gives less to the world. Consider this from a Time magazine article on the simple church:
Indeed, house churching in itself can be an economically beneficial proposition. Golden Gate Seminary’s [church planting professor D. Allan] Karr reckons that buildings and staff consume 75% of a standard church’s budget, with little left for good works. House churches can often dedicate up to 90% of their offerings. Karr notes that traditional church is fine “if you like buildings. But I think the reason house churches are becoming more popular is that their resources are going into something more meaningful.” (3)
House church members should not look on their congregational size as an indicator of small global impact. In the area of finances, small churches pack big potential.
Connecting the House Church to the Unreached
As most house church planters know, a church is not a building and one doesn’t “go” to church. In a parallel paradigm, missionary agencies should not be organizational institutions. Instead, we need to understand them as “apostolic networks” of church planters. If we make this leap, there is seamless integration with the nature and mission of the house church. There is one more element to add to this mix, however, and that is the nature of where the churches are planted.
When missionaries use the term “unreached” they are not talking about unsaved people nor are they referring to unchurched people. They are referring to entire cultures that have no access to gospel. The biblical paradigm of the ethne (greek for “nation” or “ethnic people group” is not within the scope of this article, but the church, including its manifestation of the house church, is commanded to engage across these cultural borders.
Apostolic teams of church planters benefit from a solid system of preparation and on-going support. There is also a connection with administration, employment and visa issues, member care, and a host of other issues that missionary agencies can provide. House church structures may benefit even more from these support systems than traditional churches.
Unfortunately, many house churches do not recognize their own potential to impact Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, and Tribal societies. Much of the “emerging church” literature has been focused on outreach to post-modern societies. While there is much work to be done among the post-moderns, there are vast populations that live outside of the West that hunger for a relationship with the living God.
As an insider in missionary agency leadership circles, I have observed that some agencies have decided that it is more expedient to work with mega-churches because of their potential to fund large projects. However, for those agencies whose goal is to plant churches (like the one I work for, Pioneers), large-scale projects are often counter-productive. We benefit from missionaries who have lived and breathed the house church “air” as it makes the path to field success much shorter, and straighter.
House church leaders should be aware that some missionary agencies are very motivated to connect with them. Yet, the decentralized nature of the house church makes it difficult to develop a meaningful dialogue. We long for deeper relationships and the opportunity to be re-formed by house churches across North America. Help us to better understand and reach out to you.
In sharing my heart with you I hope that all expressions of Christ’s church have a place at the missionaries’ table, the house church included. I know that I speak for more than Pioneers. We look forward to seeing how we can join hands in a way that sends more missionaries into the most spiritually dark neighborhoods in the world.
We live in the era of history in which the church of Jesus Christ is experiencing its greatest growth (yes – I mean, even more than in the first century!). House churches can and should play a larger role in this. The truth is that house churches, outside of the West, already are! The question for the house church in North America is this: Will they join with God in raising up millions of new, simple, congregations?
1. http://www.barna.org. Barna has a great number of statistic on the house church movement.
2. The State of Church Giving through 2005 Abolition of the Institutional Enslavement of Missions. 2007. Empty Tomb. p. 13.
3. Why Home Churches are Filling Up – TIME. http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1167737-3,00.html (Accessed March 4, 2008).