House Churches – complementing or replacing Institutional Church?
[Not an academic paper – information extracted from available publications]
Our friends at the Milpara Project have been examining the potential for and growth in House Churches. At a time when many congregations have had to abandon their church buildings because they have become an economic liability, and when there is a global disenchantment with institutions including the Church, there are many motives for small groups finding fellowship and a group of friends to share their faith with.
The first house church is recorded in Acts 1:13, where the disciples of Jesus met together in the “Upper Room” of a house. For the first three centuries of the church, Christians typically met in homes, if only because intermittent persecution (before the Edict of Milan in 313) did not allow the erection of public church buildings. Clement of Alexandria, an early church father, wrote of worshipping in a house. The Dura-Europos church, a private house in Syria, was excavated in the 1930s and was found to be used as a Christian meeting place in AD 232, with one small room serving as a baptistry. At many points in subsequent history, various Christian groups worshipped in homes, often due to persecution by the state church or the civil government.
In the second half of the 20th century after the Maoist revolution, China outlawed organised religion. The Chinese model during the persecution was the longest lasting revival in the history of the church. There were no missionaries, dollars, sacred buildings, pastors, Sunday service, tithing or even Bibles. There was Body Ministry, where the people prayed and ministered to each other, quietly under the radar. No wonder the church grew exponentially from one million to 100 million.
Persecution has not been the only motive for the development of House Churches,
Today, Christians who meet together in homes have often done so because of a desire to return to early Church style meetings as found in the New Testament. The New Testament shows that the Early Christian church exhibited a richness of fellowship and interactive practice that is typically not the case in conventional denominations. They believe that Christians walked closely with each other and shared their lives following Jesus together. The modern house church movement has both captured allegiance and anxiety. Many acclaim it as a rediscovery of New Testament Christianity, while others see in it an escape from the realities of established church life.
Although not in a climate of persecution, India has adopted many of the best practices of the then Chinese model and is experiencing similar growth and multiplication. The Global House Church Summit in India in 2009 was an attempt to create awareness among the participants of the need to revert and replicate the original house church principles as modelled in the New Testament. Victor Choudhrie stated that the objective of the Summit was to put the primitive first century church (as implemented by the first trainees of Jesus Christ) firmly on the map as the model for churches today. He summarised his message as follows: “The house church is not the destination, it is only a convenient vehicle. “Kingdomization” of home, the office, the market place, the boardroom, the parliament and of the nations is the real objective, until all the kingdoms of this world have become the kingdom of our Lord and His Christ.”
Several passages in the Bible specifically mention churches meeting in houses. “The churches of Asia greet you, especially Aquila and Priscilla greet you much in the Lord, along with the church that is in their house.” I Cor 16:19. The church meeting in the house of Priscilla and Aquila is again mentioned in Romans 16:3,5. The church that meets in the house of Nymphas is also cited in the Bible: “Greet the brethren in Laodicea, and Nymphas, and the church which is in her house.” Col 4:15.
For the first 300 years of Early Christianity, people met in homes until Constantine legalized Christianity, and the assembly moved out of houses into larger buildings creating the current style church seen today. Choudrie describes this change in stronger terms:
Then came the Roman Emperor Constantine (CE 272-337), a sun worshipping hybrid Christian who did a lot of good but also imposed the solar cross instead of the Menorah the lamp, as the sign of the church (Revelation 1:20). He built the first Cathedral, appointed professional clergy, declared Sun-Day as a day of worship, appointed himself the virtual Pope, banned the house churches and herded all believers in the brick and mortar buildings and called it the church and corrupted the Bride for 1700 years. However, the authentic church survived in secret, often illegal house churches.
In North America and the United Kingdom, the recent developments in the house church movement is often seen as a return to a New Testament church restorationist paradigm and a restoration of God’s eternal purpose and the natural expression of Christ on the earth, urging Christians to return from hierarchy and rank to practices described and encouraged in Scripture. According to some proponents, many churchgoers are turning to house churches because many traditional churches fail to meet their relational needs.
Some that support the house church configuration (associated with Wolfgang Simson, Jon Zens, Milt Rodriguez, Frank Viola and others) consider the term “house church” to be a misnomer, asserting that the main issue for Christians who gather together is not the meeting location (the house), but whether or not Jesus is the functional head of the gathering and face-to-face community is occurring. Other titles which may be used to describe this movement are “simple church,” “relational church,” “primitive church,” “body life,” “organic church” or “biblical church.”
House churches can adopt an organic church philosophy which is not necessarily a particular method, technique or movement but rather a particular church expression that the group takes on when the organization is functioning according to the pattern of a living organism. The church represented in the New Testament is based on this principle, and traditional, contemporary Christianity has reversed this order.
The thousands of house churches around the world vary widely in origin and purpose. In England three main branches have originated independently of each other as offshoots of established denominations. They have no central organization and want to be known simply as local churches. Yet each ‘chain’ of house churches has a distinctive character. They are linked by the itinerant ministry of their leaders, common hymns and denomination.
Rad Zdero in The Global House Church Movement(2004) has presented a very readable, if not academic, description of a purpose for the House Church. The thesis of this work is to call the Church to the house church expression for both life and global mission. Zdero believes the form and function of church is prescribed in the Scriptures as illustrated by the Apostolic tradition.
There are several strengths of this work. Firstly, readers are challenged to become more biblical in their ecclesiology. Though some would disagree with his interpretations, Zdero does attempt to allow the Scriptures to support his convictions and challenges us to discard many of our cultural understandings of the church that detract from a healthy ecclesiology and mission. Secondly, though some within the house church movement have abandoned evangelism, Zdero emphasizes this vital component of church life. Thirdly, Zdero has done an excellent job attempting to balance the theoretical and the practical issues of house church life in a concise, easy-to-read fashion. Fourthly, though Zdero is emphatic that the house church structure is a biblical prescription, he does state that his desire is “not to tear down anything that God is doing in and through the traditional church” (132). Instead it is about facing the reality of changes that are occurring in human perspectives and behaviour.
American social researcher and commentator, George Barna, has estimated that by the year 2025, membership in the conventional church in the U.S. will be cut by 50 percent, while alternative movements like house churches will potentially involve 30 to 35 percent of all Christians in the United States. Similar movements of house churches are also rising up in other western nations like Australia, Austria, Canada, Finland, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, Switzerland, and the U.K. What about house churches is so attractive? Australian census figures demonstrate that a similar change is well under way here.
In North America people are leaving the traditional church by the millions. There is a huge reservoir of people who used to be churchgoers, many of whom have not left church because they have lost their faith, but they have left in order to preserve their faith. Many of them were leaders within traditional structures. And the pattern is repeated in Australia. But there are some encouraging trends in the US simple church movement: • Simple churches are becoming more missional in nature. • An increasing number of regional initiatives that draw networks of churches together, for conferences, for social justice issues etc. at a local level. • An increasing number of mega-churches are having dialog with and looking to simple churches for some kind of strategy to reach out into their communities. • Student initiatives in the universities.
The House Church movement is alive and growing.
• Atkerson, Steve (2005). House Church: Simple, Strategic, Scriptural. USA: NTRF. ISBN 0-9729082-1-8.
• Banks, Robert. Paul’s Idea of Community: The Early House Churches in Their Historical Setting (1994). Peabody: Hendricksen, ISBN 978-0853642510.
• Banks, Robert and Julia, The Home Church: Regrouping the People of God for Community and Mission (1998). Peabody: Hendricksen ISBN 978-1565631793.
• DeVries, David (2010). Six-Word Lessons to Discover Missional Living: 100 Six-Word Lessons to Align Every Believer with the Mission of Jesus. Bellevue: Leading on the Edge International. ISBN 1-933750-26-X.
• Jacomb-Hood, Anthony. Rediscovering the New Testament Church. CreateSpace (2014). ISBN 978-1978377585.
• MacHaffie, Barbara J. (2006). Her Story: Women in Christian Tradition (2nd Edition). Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress. ISBN 0-8006-3826-3.
• Osiek, C.; Margaret Y. MacDonald (2006). A Woman’s Place: House Churches in Earliest Christianity. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress. ISBN 0-8006-3777-1.
• Simson, Wolfgang (2001). Houses that Change the World: The Return of the House Churches. Authentic. ISBN 1-85078-356-X.
• Viola, Frank, and George Barna (2008). Pagan Christianity?: Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices. Carol Stream: BarnaBooks. ISBN 978-1-4143-1485-3. A scholarly work based on the Bible and church history that reveals the origins of contemporary church practices such as the modern pastoral role, pulpits, church buildings, dressing up for church, tithing, seminaries, etc. Reveals that many of these practices are rooted in a mixture of the New Testament with Old Testament and Roman pagan practices.
• Viola, Frank (2008). Reimagining Church: Pursuing the Dream of Organic Christianity. Colorado Springs: David C. Cook. ISBN 978-1-4347-6875-9. A constructive follow up to Pagan Christianity; explains the purpose of Christian fellowship, spontaneous church meetings (1 Cor. 14:26), and the priesthood of all believers (1 Pet. 2:9). Extensive bibliography of organic church literature.
• Viola, Frank (2009). Finding Organic Church: A Comprehensive Guide to Starting and Sustaining Authentic Christian Communities. Colorado Springs: David C. Cook. ISBN 978-1434768667. A practical follow up to Reimagining Church; explains the biblical models for planting and nurturing organic church communities along with how to navigate them through the common problems they will inevitably face.
• Zdero, Rad (2004). The Global House Church Movement. Pasadena: William Carey Library Publishers. ISBN 978-0-87808-374-9.
• Zdero, Rad (2007). NEXUS: The World House Church Movement Reader. Pasadena: William Carey Library Publishers. ISBN 978-0-87808-342-8.
Paul Inglis 6th June 2018