[This is a short article that will be on our house church network’s website (when it launches) and cross-posted here.]
The word “run” has a lot of meanings. You can run a race, or you can run a meeting. You can run your engine, or the ferry might run on a schedule. The word “run,” in fact, has more meanings than any other word in the dictionary.
So goes the word “church,” as well. It means many things and so we have to rely on context in order to properly understand it. The Living Room Orlando is a “House Church Network.” What do we mean by this?
The Bible talks about the church that meets in a particular house, or is in a city, a region, or it may refer to any Christian, anywhere in the world:
- A church meeting in someone’s house (1 Cor. 16:19, Philemon 2).
- The church in a town or city (1 Cor. 1:2; 2 Cor. 1:1; 1 Thess. 1:1).
- The church in a region: “the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria” (Acts 9:31).
- The church in the entire world (Eph. 5:25; 1 Cor. 12:28).
These are all examples of the different meanings of the word “church.” In their own context they carry a certain meaning that should not necessarily be carried over to another context. A phrase that one doesn’t find in the scriptures, but has been used to describe specific churches, is “local church.” Typically, when we use the term “local church,” we are doing so to distinguish if from the church in the entire world (the church universal).
The First Century Experience of Church
The idea that the church must be either local or universal is an unfortunate assumption in Western Christianity. It leaves out what might be the most common experience of “church” in the New Testament. I am referring to a group of churches that are meeting in a city – what I will refer to as a “house church network.”(1)
There is little doubt that the house church was the most normal experience of church in the New Testament. Globally, house churches might be the most common expression of the church today! As I have “counted Christians” based on the locations, governments, and cultures in which they live, there is no doubt that at least a significant portion of the world’s believers do not meet in sacred buildings (what I refer to as “brick churches”) but in homes. (2)
Churches in the New Testament era commonly met in homes. “…households became the nuclei for the early life of the church, e.g. the house of Priscilla and Aquila at Rome (Rom. 16:3, 5), of Stephanas (1 Cor. 16:15), of Onesiphorus (2 Tim. 1:16), etc.” (Dosker). This has implications for our approach to spreading the Kingdom of God. Often, it is more effectively done with a household in mind, rather than just by sharing the Good News with individuals.
Not every New Testament pattern must be mimicked today simply because it was the practice in the first century. However, different models of church beget different types of Christianity. Large mega-churches produce a type of spirituality that is different than that found in the small country church. House churches as well produce a spirituality that is markedly different than what might be found in a brick church setting. House churches have problems created by their unique model, but that same model also has certain blessings not found in brick churches.
The New Testament “Town Churches”
When teaching through the written word, Paul addressed city and regional churches. The “Letter to the Ephesians,” was not written to the “1st Christian Church of Ephesus.” These were letters written to the network of house churches (or, in some cases, possibly “synagogue churches”) that were meeting in a particular city or region. The Corinthians, Thessalonians, Ephesians, Galatians, and Philippians, are letters written to churches that were city-based. They were a grouping of house churches.
When appointing leaders, Paul writes about appointing them at a church level (Acts 14:23). The question is, was this a particular house church, a town, or a region? In Titus 15:5 we read, “I left you on the island of Crete so you could complete our work there and appoint elders in each town as I instructed you.” Notice that he instructs leaders to be appointed in “towns” not in churches or in particular houses. This does not imply that this it is wrong to have leaders in particular churches nor does it mean that town has only one set of church leaders. Rather, it is an acceptable pattern to share leaders among a group of churches in an area.
We also know that the church in a town or city gathered occasionally to hear teaching and worship. Although this wasn’t the normal activity of the church, larger gatherings give a sense of movement and togetherness. At the genesis of the first century movement, we find, “Those who believed what Peter said were baptized and added to the church that day—about 3,000 in all” (Acts 2:41). So, the believers also met in large gatherings occasionally, although the more common gathering was certainly within homes.
The House Church Network
While we often use the word “church” to refer to a single brick church this is not how the first century Christians used this word. Instead, the first century church experience would be for a believer to gather with other believers in a home, with a common affinity to others meeting in other homes, and to have a shared “town-wide” leadership. Occasional gatherings of all the believers the town also occurred, such as when an apostle visited.
This pattern is behind our house church network’s large group meetings. We gather in homes across our city, sharing the leadership responsibility at the network level by appointing elders for the network of house churches. We enjoy fellowship in larger corporate gatherings less frequently, choosing to make our homes the main place of gathering. We don’t claim that our model is prescriptive for the whole church, but we do believe there is biblical precedent for how we choose to meet.
A house church is like a family in a number of ways. Families grow and mature while their makeup changes. They have stages of development. We don’t always like everybody in our family, but we accept them as family members nonetheless. When a couple has a few young children, they are all together. The day comes, however, when the children grow up and marry spouses of their own. This natural cycle of growth and multiplication is something that is captured in a house church network. As a house church grows to more than can easily fit around a living room, we suggest that the church multiplies into two or more house churches. How long does this take? It depends on many factors but most importantly is dependent on the gifting of the people involved. A house church full of entrepreneurial, apostolically gifted people will multiply quickly. There is no particular formula we follow for when to multiply or how the people should be distributed in the new house churches. We ask the house church to pray about this and seek direction from the Lord.
Our network is called The Living Room Orlando and it is a network of multiplying house churches. It is our goal to see many people given the opportunity to participate in the Kingdom of God through the ministry of everyday disciples and experience the priesthood of all believers. We are not a protest movement against the brick church nor do we consider our church model the “best, right, or correct” one. The way we “do church” is not for everybody but we believe that it has biblical precedent and will create a movement that glorifies God. We humbly seek the Lord’s direction in growing deeper in Christ as communities of believers.
(1) Some use the phrase “organic church,” or “simple church.” We mean essentially the same thing but have decided to stick with the New Testament language of “the church which meets at your house.”
(2) The purpose of this article is not to denigrate churches that meet in buildings. All forms of the church are, by definition, the church! When house church advocates criticize the brick church they run the risk of criticizing the bride of Christ.