Discerning House Churches
The house church discussion is always an interesting one. People can be very passionate about house, simple, and organic churches, and that can limit some important discussions.
Some say, “Of course, that’s the best way—that’s what is in the New Testament!” And, actually, they are right about the New Testament. However, it can be tricky to evaluate something that you are convinced is the only right way.
On the other hand, house churches are far from the norm in the English-speaking Western world. And, as such, unfamiliar for many. To be honest, many readers will have had experiences with house church people that is less than positive. (I hear often from pastors about disgruntled or theologically-odd people ending up in house churches.)
The fact is, there are healthy and unhealthy expressions of house / simple / organic churches. There are good expressions, and I’ve written lots on that, but I’ve run into plenty of the bad ones.
Healthy and Unhealthy Expressions of House Churches
Let’s be clear from the front. Even if you had a bad experience with someone, there are many healthy expressions of house churches.
First, many are excellent in discipleship. They focus on the simple elements of discipleship, which enhances the effectiveness to rapidly reproduce.
Second, house churches often release believers into areas of leadership and service at a higher rate than other models.
Third, house churches are simple and stripped of all the glitz and glamor. As a result, people are reached with the gospel through relationships.
Neil Cole, who is intimately involved with the house church movement and has the best and most winsome writing on the subject, often says, “What churches win people with, is what churches win them to.”
Thus, house churches do not have to worry about adding additional ministries in order to keep people committed or entertained, especially in a culture where the attention span of consumeristic people is diminishing and where brand loyalty is waning.
But, just as in other models, there are also some unhealthy elements within house churches.
Too many house churches are filled with people who got burned by the more institutionalized church. Thus, house churches tend to attract dissatisfied people—sometimes the angry children of evangelical megachurches.
The reality is, dissatisfaction does not a movement make.
In addition, most house churches aren’t places where one will find the singing to be excellent, the teaching and preaching to be proficient, and the children/youth programs to be safe, secure, and engaging. This ‘organic’ flavor may not be palatable for some, but it is certainly countercultural.
This countercultural reality is one of the reasons we have no house church focused Church Planting Movements in the West like we do in much of the world.
But this counterculture approach may be the reason many are reaching people now, and may indeed reach more in the future.
So, there is good and bad, for sure.
The Appeal of House Churches
Yet, I believe there’s an appeal house churches have among some church planters and specific cultural contexts.
I was recently with two Lutheran (LCMS) pastors. Lutherans have a high [very institutionalized] ecclesiology. In addition, they map out the ministry process for their pastors: the pastors go to college, then Concordia, and then the bishop tells them where they are going.
But these two Lutheran pastors took a different approach. They went to the bishop and said they didn’t want to go just anywhere. They wanted to graduate from seminary, move to a community, work at Home Depot, and plant a church relationally with their colleagues and neighbors.
These pastors wanted to take a path less traveled. They wanted:
- To go where led
- To not be restricted by money or funding
- To be part of a church that was high on relationships
- To be simple in their approach
- To be naturally ingrained into the rhythms of the community
- To see a church birthed from intentional discipleship
Many church planters, if we are honest, find this appealing. And it’s in this appeal that there’s great potential for the house church.
It’s appealing because it’s biblical, missional, contextual, and more.
House churches may not only appeal to certain church planters, but also to certain cultural contexts. Certain contexts may be conducive for house churches:
- Restricted areas
- Closed countries
- College campuses
- Large apartment complexes
- Urban or high-density areas where the cost of living is expensive
- People who are disenfranchised, weary, or intimidated by the more institutional and organized forms of church
Some may be nervous about a house church movement. Some worry that house churches don’t have all the marks of a biblical church. [I wrote a blog series explaining the marks of a biblical church.] However, house churches can have all those marks for a very simple reason: otherwise, you’d have to rule out the first 100 years of Christianity, since that’s what they did.
Given the healthy expressions of house churches and the appeal house churches have to certain planters and in certain cultural contexts, evangelicals need to be more open to house churches.
I’m not trying to give a full evaluation here, but simply to say there are good things (and some not as good things). It’s good to acknowledge both, but to also give house churches a chance if you’ve already rejected the idea.
However, and this is a big however, house / simple / organic church leaders need to know that most of us have seen a lot of unhealthy expressions (like in traditional church as well, I know!), so some may be hesitant.
As healthy expressions grow, or their stories are told (as I try to do here), we can see more and better examples of house / simple / organic churches.
Ed Stetzer holds the Billy Graham Distinguished Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College, is Executive Director of the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism, and publishes church leadership resources through Mission Group.