According to Wikipedia:
Bangladesh: 500,000 new believers in House Churches
Cambodia: 1,000 new House Churches in 10 years (1990 to 2000)
Canada: as many as 2,000 House Churches in Canada in the last few years
China: 80-100 million believers in House Churches
Cuba: 6,000 – 10,000 House Churches since 1992
Egypt: 4,000 House Churches
Ethiopia: 5,000 to 50,000 believers in House Churches during the 1980s
India: 100,000 House Churches started in 5 years (from 2001 – 2006)
Latin America: 1 million House Churches known as ‘Basic Ecclesial Communities’
Sri Lanka: Kithu Sevena church movement started 131 new House Churches in 7 months (in 2004)
Vietnam: one team started 550 new House Churches in 2 years (1997 to 1999)
U.S.A.: 1,600 House Churches on Internet alone with possibly as many as 30,000 House Churches
Is it House Church Yet?
One might surmise by the sheer numbers that we have an international House Church movement on our hands, right? Isn’t this what we have been waiting for? Or are statistical numbers deceiving? Even within Third Day Churches we are indirectly related now to hundreds of House Churches in thirteen nations. But is this the House Church movement we have been waiting for?
In some of these countries it just might be. Maybe countries like China and India, but you still wonder whether we are speaking the same language when we say House Churches in North America.
With so few patterns mandated to in Scripture concerning what the “church” is supposed to do, or what it is supposed to look like when it gathers, (Acts 2; I Corinthians 14; Hebrews 10) no wonder we are still fussing and feuding over the practices, the central concepts, and constantly questioning if we have actually hit pay dirt.
Even if we believe in the simplest sequences of the First Century Acts Church (Acts 2:42 – 47), the (1) Staying in the Apostle’s Teaching, the (2) Fellowship, the (3) Breaking Bread, and the (4) Prayers, there are still many loose ends to be so definitive as to say, “Now that is what Church is supposed to be like.”
For example, with no Bibles, how did they exactly stay in the Apostle’s Doctrine? How many Apostles were needed to get around to the gatherings that were happening daily from house to house? What exactly was the Apostle’s Doctrine or Teaching at such a young stage of development in the early church? Was there a script; a systematic outline? Were there agreed upon guidelines? Or was it a story, His story? And who exactly was allowed to pass along the Apostle’s teachings or stories?
There had not been an adequate amount of time to formally call for church hierarchy or protocol, so were the simple saints freed to pass along the stories about Jesus? Things at this early point were not clear. Everything seems pretty fluid, at least until around 180 A.D. when some major institutionalism began to set in.
And where or when did they do these things that the they are caught doing in Acts 2? It says that most of these daily events happened in their homes? How long did this practice go on? How long did these meetings continue with such openness and primitive obedience? Or when did they get more refined or more defined? And what did that look like? And what should it look like today?
Up to a point, as Jon Zens points out, the early church was marked by the manifestation of a polyform ministry with mutual edification and the meeting of needs being accomplished through the gifts of all the brethren, all the saints, all the time.
The post-apostolic church would eventually move more and more towards a separate ministry for certain gifts, eventually even a limited clergy, but not in the beginning. This baby church was pretty much a lively, large family of faith, where every meeting was full of serendipitous moments of freedom and expression with all the priesthood of believers participating.
This early expression, was an exploding, full-blown, one-another operation in the homes of all of the believers. It functioned everyday, all the time, with miracles and meals flowing, and with so many people getting saved only God could count them (Acts 2:47).
Robert Lund notes, “This was the perfect plan to accomplish the explosive growth that came from the good news being spread throughout the land. With the priesthood of all believers, explosive Holy Spirit growth, God dwelling in each person, an obvious and constant shifting from stable to dynamic growth, and a persistent emphasis on interpersonal relationships, no wonder the early Christians chose homes to be the focal point of all of their gatherings.”
Can you even imagine the buzz in the city? 3,000 newly baptized believers (Acts 2:41), and then soon another batch of 5,000 (Acts 4:4)? What was going on in the atmosphere around Jerusalem with thousands of brand new believers in Yeshua literally everywhere you looked?
Meeting, laughing, talking, healing, eating, fellowshiping, worshiping. Can we even begin to think of this growth in our classic discipleship paradigms? I can imagine the questions going on inside you head right now. Who was cleaning the fish? Who was teaching the basics? Come to think of it what are the basics? Who leads what? What was the most important thing they did when they met?
A New Kind Of House Church Movement
I realize that when I think of the term “house church,” especially in consideration of these first few chapters in Acts, that I am referring to something far different than our current preoccupation. It seems like our main goal is to get today’s weekend crowds out of our bigger buildings where they are being warehoused each weekend into our smaller, homier ones. But a whole lot more than that was going on in these early chapters of the Bible.
We have to start thinking back, before we can ever thinks forward. We have to think more of the church of God, or the people of God as being freshly lit by the fire of the Holy Spirit, incredibly empowered and released into their neighborhoods, people groups and cities, like a wildfire, taking God’s life, God’s power, and His living transforming Spirit from one person to the next until the whole community literally explodes.
What seems to reappear, again and again, is that every time we read these early expressions of Christianity we see its rawness. So raw, that this living church, this body of believers, simply cannot be contained.
It cannot be boxed into a house or a sanctuary. It is so alive, as to be out of control, at least man’s control. To review the effect of these fire-filled people on their early culture, is to recognize that God never intended us to build fireplaces, (places to house the fire) whether they are large ones or small ones, but to release this firestorm called His church to blaze throughout the land.
If we are not careful in our so-called house church movements, we might just be doing greater damage than the legacy church movement. By simply trying to box these fires into even smaller fireplaces in our folksy little homes and apartments, are we snuffing out the blaze?
The Simplified Church
Whether gathered or scattered, it appears sure that these primitive groups were both very simple and very alive. Being cautious that any formatting of our meetings doesn’t end up putting out the fire and quenching the power-filled priesthood of the saints, how do we “keep the home fires burning?”
When I ask leaders these days about whether they are actually doing “house churches,” I usually know the answer I am going to get.
“Oh yes, they say, we have a bunch of Bible Studies.” Which really means that everything they are doing still comes from the select, elite clergy. They have just as many Bible Studies as they have full-time, professionally trained staff, because those individuals are the only ones allowed to lead the Bible Studies. So each staff pastor, if he wants to kill himself, can probably lead four or five per week.
But that is not what I am talking about when I speak of a House Church or a House Church movement. I am talking first of all about about a generation of self-feeders, with all the believers growing in Christ, rather than everyone living dependently on a few others to bring them the baby food and the milk bottles of the Word each week.
Believers, both young and old, so on fire and so empowered by a living relationship with the God of the Word that every time they gather the Word pops out, it becomes flesh, and gets worked out as all the believers operate in the “doing ” of the Word, rather than just sitting passively, waiting for another “hearing” from some well-intended specialist.*
*(A Format Reminder: With the different kinds of groups God puts us in these days, make sure that the goal is to provide a safe place for people to talk. Whether we are reading the Scriptures, reading a book, finding a topic to spring from, or doing some worship with on our iPods, the goal is the same. The goal of “doing church, differently,” is to pursue the freedom and participation of the priesthood of believers, with everyone bringing what they have to the group to toss it into the mix. We ask questions that help lead people to discussion. We lead by listening, not lecturing).
We all know the church is not a building. We all know that church is not an event that takes place on Sundays. We all know that when the Scripture speaks of “church,” it means a living community. Or as John Eldredge shares (Waking The Dead), “the little fellowships of the heart.” These anointed outposts and functioning platoons of the Kingdom.
We all know that the church is about people. People whose lives have been so radically changed by an encounter with the Living God, that they have to get together, they have to worship, they have to pray for one another, they have to hang out together, they have to be involved in each others lives. And when they gather they experience the full impact of the Kingdom of God in every gathering as constantly witness signs, wonders and transformed lives.
They live within a missional-adventure-partnership-with-God-and-each-other. They live this way because they are so on fire. Yes, we each have our own journey, but we also have our shared adventure, and are called to experience a collective journey as the larger fire rages out of control.
We cannot try to shape it, to form it, to name it, or even label it. It is too hot! Every time we get together the fires burns differently, unplanned, unscripted, unhinged, and unpredictable. And every time we scatter, the new quest is freshly empowered, re-ignited, re-charged, because we have been with each other.
Is It House Church Yet?
I wonder sometimes if we have ever been a part of a true House Church, at least for a very long period of time. I do think I have received glimpses of the real deal. I do think I have had moments in gathering with other believers, in loving them, and in supporting them, and them loving and supporting me that it felt very much like true community, like a real family, like real, authentic church.
But too often I think that when trained gatherers, or people who have been churched too long get into a House Church, with all our baggage, with all our history, with all our stuff, with all our habits, we seem to mess things up by our old habits.
Do we think that a true House Church is what we Christians normally do when we get together in a home once a week? Where we gather to share a meal, to sing some songs, to pray a little, or have a Bible Study? We have all been to a lot of those. But is that House Church? Or is that still just a little Church in a House?
What if “House Church,” as Frank Viola indicates (Reimagining Church), is different than that. What if “church,” period, is simply a group of Christians living in radical, shared community under the Headship of Christ? What if “church” is actually the mystery of Christ as it is revealed through how a group of people live out their lives together.
And not just in a weekly meeting, but all of the time, and not just with a few finely trained House Church leaders, but with no set pastors, or ministers, titled or untitled. Instead, what if all the members of the gathering gather under Christ’s Headship alone? And what if a good test that you are in a true “house church,” might be whether or not you can easily pick out the leader?
What if “church” is people learning to live by the Divine Life that is in Christ alone, finding through the discovery of the Spirit each time they gather the most creative way to express that life with each other, day after day, week after week, living out their grand mission, to incarnate Christ’s person and purpose to their world?
What if all the members are learning to see and treat each other like a full family, with fathers and mothers and brothers and sisters, who are pursuing the highest good for each other, and taking genuine care of one another? What if handling challenges and difficulties like strong families is what we are called to do?
And what if each smaller group is being called to be a part of something bigger than the group itself by connecting with itinerant apostolic workers within a New Testament pattern or network and support? And what if each group is leaning to live in autonomy while learning to fully identify with the church in the region, as well as the church in the house?
Is it House Church Yet?
Gary Goodell is a former evangelist, pastor, college dean and instructor involved in ministry stuff for almost 50 years. He and his wife Jane live in San Diego, California USA and he is a father of two and grandfather of seven. As an author and consultant he is an itinerant mentor working with the international church planting movement known as Third Day Churches, that he and some friends founded in 2001. Third Day Churches now involves leadership and ministries in over 20 nations.
His two books, “Permission Granted To Do Church Differently in the 21st Century,” and “Where Would Jesus Lead?” are both available online.