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Arrogance and Church Planting

Arrogance and Church Planting

Bruce Wesley wrote a piece that Christianity Today published on their blog with the provocative title, The Arrogance and Impatience of Church Planters. Go read it: he makes a number of really good points.

He also assumes a particular model of church planting in his analysis. That assumption may be one reason why we don’t see churches planting churches at much higher rates that we do in the US.

Now, to be fair, his model is the THE model for most US based church planting efforts. But I would argue that it’s not the arrogance of church planters that is the problem: the model itself increases the potential for arrogance.

US church planting usually begins and ends with “the man.” That particular man who starts, waters, grows, prunes and, eventually, harvests. It sees the process of church planting as a visionary, linear process which must be strategically thought out and planned. The man must be qualified, have the right lifestyle and exhibit a particular set of gifts. The man gets a vision. The man prays. The man is selected. The man starts the work. The man teaches, preaches, disciples, etc. If the man is able to overcome he will one day sit atop a successful church (the word “successful” here can usually be replaced with the word “large”). This model of church planting is based on the theologically thin (but widely practiced) idea that churches are led by pastors.

Let me state clearly that I don’t believe that this model of church planting is “wrong” or “unbiblical.” It’s one way of doing it, though, and not the only way. In fact, I think it is contextualized to our Western church tradition and thus enjoys some success in the US. Most church planting networks and denominations use it. But, let’s also recognize that it has problems. An easy one to identify is the rise of celebrity pastors. The teaching-centricity of this model means that discipleship is often reduced to knowing instead of being. Could it be that this model, focused as it is on “the man,” creates the sort of arrogance that Wesley describes? Yep, I think so.

As I travel globally I see a very different model being utilized. The organic model of church planting which focuses on discipleship and small house churches is very different. It doesn’t employ the singular leader style of church that we see in the USA. Leaders are secondary to followers: in fact, it’s often the role of the church planter to NOT teach, to NOT lead, to NOT take the stage in any way, and to NOT be the center of the church planting process. Instead, the small house church structure encourages all believers to exercise their gifts and not simply to give “the man” the opportunity to express his.

Just like the previous model, this model has issues. Churches are not institutionalized and recidivism is high (the churches don’t last a long time, they tend to come and go). They don’t wield institutional power like the traditional church model can (which can, of course, be a good thing as well as a bad thing). They aren’t easy to lead in whole. But from my personal observations, where movements of church planting churches are actually happening it is through this organic model, not the leader-centric model we see in the US.

The leader-centric model requires selection and screening, copious amounts of training, lots of coaching and oversight and has a high failure rate. This is because we aren’t only planting churches: we are, in fact, planting institutions and the requirements for institution planting are necessarily high.

Wesley, referencing the Acts 29 network, writes, “As a movement, church planting must look to the growth of its established churches, not the number of churches it has started, as a gauge of success.” Now, I love the Acts 29 network.  Just a few years ago I would talk about church planting and eyes would glaze over. Nobody really “got” what I was talking about. Acts 29, Catalyst and a host of others have changed that dynamic and I am thankful for it – very thankful. However, I don’t think Wesley’s gauge of success is the best one to use. In fact, I think it’s the opposite.

In the US we do not need more large, established churches. We need ordinary disciples that see themselves as church planters. By deconstructing this idea that we are to plant institutions we can empower just about anybody to be a part of church multiplication. To do this, we would need to move from our focus on “the man” and look to empowering ordinary pew-sitters and turn them into extraordinary disciple-makers. If each Christian saw that they were “the man” we might see a revolution of churches planting churches across the USA.

That’s something I could be very excited about.

Can that happen? Yes, I believe I have personally walked among a movement or two that has achieved this dynamic. In one of these movements I was amazed at the way they had implanted a church planting vision in each person. I asked dozens of people, “What do you do here?” It didn’t matter if they were secretaries, Bible teachers, or business people. They all responded, “I am a church planter.” It was almost cult-like!

True movements like this are rare. It is a lofty dream to think that we could see this in the US church, I know. I love the church in ALL of its forms, from mega to micro. We will always have large churches and we should. However, I don’t believe they will be the standard bearers of a movement of church planting. Perhaps their greatest contribution will be in freeing up their human capital to plant thousands and thousands of organic, disciple-making churches. I challenge these churches to see this as the real gauge of their success, not, as Wesley suggests, the ongoing building up of large, institutionalized churches.

And that is asking a lot.

House Church or Programs?

House Church or Programs?

House churches are great – I wouldn’t want to do church any other way – but house churches are only one way to do church. Traditional churches (what I call “brick churches”) have advantages as well. Sometimes I find that house church attenders with specific needs can have these needs met in a brick church program better than in a house church. They can also continue to attend the house church. Navigating this grey area can actually strengthen both.

When would I would suggest utilizing the ministry of a brick church?

Simply put: When a house church member has special needs that are real and cannot be met by a small house church.

Examples:

  • I am a diabetic and I would like to attend a diabetic support group of Christians.
  • I have two teen-age kids and they can’t connect with our house church which is made up of people with no teen-agers. My kids really need youth group.
  • I am an addict and want to be a part of Celebrate Recovery.
  • I am a young mom and want to attend MOPs (Mothers Of Preschoolers) or just want to be with other young moms (you could insert “young single” or “mature couple” or any other demographic label here).

These are all examples in which programs may be helpful to people in a house churches. As pastors and shepherds we should always be on the lookout for ways to serve the people in our flock. One way to do this is to put the needs of people before the form of our church.

Unfortunately, these sorts of programmatic needs are commonly used as reasons for leaving a house church. It doesn’t have to be this way.

When do you not suggest leaving a house church?

With the exception of a couple of very specific programs, I believe that most of the above can be met within the house church. For example, teen-agers are not necessarily better off hanging out in church youth groups (see this link for more on this topic). I think the yearnings for programs are sometimes excuses for avoiding difficulties in the more intimate house church environment. My preference would be for people to look for ways to enhance their intimate community before leaving for a program-based brick church.

In my experience, when people are looking to leave house church, the stated reason is often a “secondary” reason. When you experience an intimate house church your weaknesses and sins will be exposed. You may feel judged if anybody questions things they see in your life (rightly or wrongly). This is uncomfortable. Rather than deal with these things openly, our American church culture has taught us to just move on to something that better “fits our needs.”

If people are really leaving for the reasons I note above there is a possible other solution: enjoy the program of the brick church while maintaining your participation in the house church. I have suggested this to folks only to be given lots of reasons on why this isn’t feasible when, from my perspective, it’s very feasible.

How do you go about integrating the two?

My preference would be for people to just stick with one church. If, however, you do have a special need to get the services and programs of a larger church and you want to maintain your house church community you should prayerfully consider all involved:

  1. Talk it over with the house church and explain your circumstances.
  2. Seek out the pastor or pertinent leader at the brick church and explain your situation to them. Ask permission and don’t assume on their generosity.
  3. If you decide to attend the brick church program make sure to give appropriately to cover any expenses associated with your participation in that program.

There is no reason that this has to be a binary decision. Sometimes, it might best serve people to have a foot in both camps. In my view, this doesn’t mean you attend or are members of two churches. It means you are a part of a house church and also being served by a program of another church.

Networks are Better

Networks are Better

I am aware of a couple of house churches that have recently “folded” because of life’s circumstances. A job change, a graduation and subsequent need to move, leaving for the mission field, whatever: life changes and when it does the folks that make up the house church are scattered.

Let me preface this with the observation that local churches are not catholic in the “small c” sense. It isn’t necessary that they live on forever. In fact, I am sure that there are many churches that have outlived their purpose for existence and need to die. However, there is value in continuity and the goal is for healthy churches to live on and thrive.

House churches, far more often than traditional churches, suffer from “recidivism” or contraction. They arise, live a while, and then die a quick death. We often hear about “rabbits and elephants” in the positive sense only. While it’s true that rabbits multiply quickly, elephants live a long time. This is one advantage of the traditional church: it has incredible staying power.

So how can a house church be strengthened against a short life? One answer, I believe, is to be a part of a network of house churches. I have mentioned in other blog posts the nature of the early church and why house church networks are closer to the first century model than stand-alone house churches so I won’t repeat that here. What I am observing is that independent house churches do not survive as often as networked house churches.

The network provides balance to leadership, helps when a particular house church is struggling to grow and can come alongside other groups in the network that are struggling with issues. I am currently witnessing a house church in disintegration. I have no doubt that had this group chosen to affiliate with a larger network a year ago (when they were healthy and growing) the network in their city could be helping them now to continue on. It’s unfortunate that the needy community in which this house church has been meeting will no longer have a vibrant house church in its midst.

House church networks are, IMHO, a better way to do house church than the oxymoron of the “independent house church.”

I Live in the Suburbs

I Live in the Suburbs

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I live in the suburbs.

It’s a pretty good place to live. I am two miles from the office. I have  house and a yard. I mow the grass on Saturdays (actually, my kid usually mows it) and I water it on Wednesdays and Sundays. The mail is delivered right to the little box at the end of my driveway, by the sidewalk. I haven’t been downtown in over a month and I don’t miss it.

The suburbs get a bad rap. Some say they are “sprawling” and need to be contained. Others say they are too private, narcissistic and consumer driven. Maybe that is all true.

It doesn’t matter. We had better figure out to do ministry in the suburbs: half of all Americans live in them.

World magazine’s Anthony Bradley calls Platt, Piper, and Chan to task for championing a more “missional” way of life. Why? They are supposedly the anti-suburbanites (I am not sure I agree with Bradley’s take, but it reveals some of the ideas behind suburban slander). Eric Erickson (who I really appreciate as an outspoken evangelical) wrote about suburban angst over at Red State.  Stanley Kurtz has written extensively about the Obama administration’s war on the suburbs. Why all this suburban hate? Where is the suburban love?

Certainly, megachurches have done well in the suburbs. One of my hopes is that our little house church network will begin to crack the hard shell of the suburbanite. In the fall, our network will be hosting a one day event focused on suburban outreach. It should be good!

Me? I enjoy living in the suburbs. I can’t be all wrong on this: so do most Americans. The suburbs are the current front runner in the “best places to live – vote with your feet” competition. And we need to figure out how to minister effectively to people who live in suburbs. I find it rather amusing that almost all seminaries have an “urban ministry” track but I have never heard of one offering a “suburban ministry” track. I guess it’s not sexy enough.

But the suburbs are where the people live. And where people live is where mission lives.

Another Reason for House Church

Another Reason for House Church

….you can meet when you want to, not when tradition dictates:

According to a new study published in the Review of Religious Research, an examination of declining attendance at 16 congregations revealed that many pastors place the most blame on children’s sports activities, since both practices and competitions are increasingly “scheduled on Sunday mornings at the very time when many churches traditionally have provided religious education.”

With kids who are in sports, I think this is actually slightly “off.” I suspect it’s really not so much the Sunday AM time slot. When our kids are in sports, we are busier. Busier means less time for programs at church. House church helps with this, too! Fellowship infused into daily life makes more sense than programs that require one to “go” to church to participate. Just invite a few of your house church friends to attend your kid’s game. Meet other parents… You get the idea.

HT: CT Gleanings Blog.

Multiplying House Churches

Multiplying House Churches

Multiplication. It’s a scary word for house churches.

When we first started our house church it was three families that, within just a few weeks, became four that became the nucleus of our house church network. We then grew slowly but surely until we hit the point where it was becoming more and more difficult to meet in homes. We had grown too big!

We had plenty of reasons why we didn’t want to multiply. The deeper friendships that are built in a house church are a natural bulwark against multiplication. A number of us had yearned for a church experience with these sorts of relationships and now that we had found it, how could we give it up? Added to that is the question of “how” to multiply. Nobody wanted to discuss it for fear of alienating anybody else. Who would go with whom? We had not started with a culture of multiplication and now we had to figure things out as we went forward.

For me, multiplication is must. There are house churches that never multiply nor do they value multiplication. My fear for these groups is that they become ingrown, spiritually incestuous, and unable to relate to the outside world. At some point they become inhospitable to outsiders, who cannot share in the “inside jokes” and culture of the group. They also, over time, lose the diversity that they had at the beginning of their history together. Another danger is that they will grow until they settle for a non-house church model in order to accommodate the larger numbers.

One key to healthy multiplication is to set an expectation from the beginning that, at some point in the future, this group will multiply. From the first meeting, acknowledge together that God desires for the Kingdom to grow and that incorporating that growth will result in multiplication.

In my experience, it has been helpful to avoid having rules for multiplication. When people ask me about multiplying, they often want me to say, “This is how to do it.” Each house church is different, each person is unique, and the gifting and needs represented in the group will always be in flux. So, rather than have a set way of multiplying, encourage dialogue. Let people know early and often that it’s okay to talk about and consider multiplication.

I get a lot of questions on the timing of when to multiply. It’s not a bad idea to “set a date” about multiplication; not a firm date, but some expectation of timeframe. In our house church network, there seems to be a window of about 12 to 18 months in between multiplication cycles. I have heard others suggest that the best time to multiply is when the group grows so large that you cannot all sit around the same table and enjoy a meal together. This is a good rule of thumb and will keep your house church to a reasonably small size.

Multiplication can happen in different ways. The first way, and the one which I have seen most often, is hiving. When a group “hives,” it become two house churches with roughly equal members. In a hiving process, it’s important for everybody to have input on which group he or she will be a part of. People like to know that their voice is being heard and they want input into the decision. Considerations may be gifting, age, location, or a host of other factors.

A second method (and one which “church planting movement” advocates seem to prefer) is what I call the sending method. One person or family decides to start a new group with the blessing of the rest. This approach is well suited for those who have apostolic, or entrepreneurial, gifting. An advantage of this method is that the new group can easily be started among a set of people who already know each other. For example, somebody might want to start a house church with their neighbors. They could possibly invite you to help them get it started. Missiologists state that the fastest way to start new churches is along existing social groupings.

The last option, and most radical, is squaring. This happens when all the existing members of a house church decide to start a new house church. If, over time, each one is successful, one might end up with the mathematical square of the original number of people. This is, in essence, what has happened with the four couples who had initially made up our first house church. Each family is now a part of a new house church and we are joined together in a network.

Having a functioning house church network relieves some of the stress of multiplication. A network can provide relationship continuity, a sense of togetherness and visions for your city or town, and a safety net should a new group have difficulty.

So… go forth and multiply!

Why your Home Group is not a House Church

Why your Home Group is not a House Church

If you have been a part of a house church for any length of time I pretty much guarantee that somebody from a “brick church” (my term for a traditional, pastor-led church) has said the following to you upon hearing about your house church:

“We have home groups for that.”

They might say community groups, small groups, etc., but they are all talking about essentially the same thing. This betrays an essential misunderstanding about house churches. These people don’t understand one of the most foundational concepts in the house church movement; namely, the priesthood of the believer.

For most Christians, particularly Protestant Christians whose churches have a Reformation history, the doctrine of the “Priesthood of the Believer” is limited to soteriology (the theology of salvation). It does not extend into their ecclesiology (church theology).

In a typical brick church the home group is an extension of the pastor’s ministry. A friend who is a leader in a house church network in New York City has recounted a conversation that he had with somebody attending a brick church.

“Oh, I see what you do in house church,” he said to my friend, “we have home groups for that.”

“That’s great!” replied my friend, “and what does your group do when you gather?”

“Well, we watch a video of the pastor together and then we talk about it,” he replied.

That’s it in a nutshell! The typical brick church is organized around the teaching ministry of the pastor (the priest) whereas a house church is based on the service of all the “priests” – all members of the group – to one another and those outside the group.

In a brick church, professional clergy becomes the de facto “ministers” and the congregants are “ministered to” by this group of leaders. The house church paradigm sets this dynamic on its head, with each follower of Jesus taking on the responsibility of being a priest. Rather than sitting back and letting the pro’s do it, in a house church setting, you are the pro.

This is why most home groups cannot provide the same sort of environment that a house church can. It’s not about what the participants “do” but what they “are.” Can this happen when a home group is the extension of a larger church? Perhaps, but I have rarely, if ever, seen it or experienced it myself. I have, on the other hand, experienced the long arm of the pastor in making sure that home groups reinforce his ministry.

So, I don’t think your home group is the same as my house church.

Feel free to disagree with me!

The House Church Network

The House Church Network

[This is a short article that will be on our house church network’s website (when it launches) and cross-posted here.]

Introduction

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?

Defining “church”

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.

Growth

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.

Summary

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.