If nominations were solicited for a single word that best described the North American house church and home fellowship movement, “potential” might be the one in the sealed envelope. David Garrison who has studied global church planting movements suggests that house church planting is one of the key factors for the growth of global Christianity. Although in many regions house churches are multiplying themselves at a rate of three or more new house church starts per year, according to Wolfgang Simson, author of Houses that Change the World, the average house church should expect to multiply about once a year. That kind of potential may not sound like much, given the average house church has less than fifteen participants, but over a five-year period a single multiplying house church would net thirty-one new house churches and four hundred and sixty-five new Christians. Extrapolate that to the hundreds of new house churches being started globally on a daily basis, and you can get an idea of why the word potential keeps cropping up in house church conversations.
Researchers are reporting this kind of expansive growth, and more, in house churches across India, Bangladesh, China, Southeast Asia, Africa, and Latin America. These churches are discipling, evangelizing, and multiplying at a phenomenal rate, although the house church movement in North America is lagging behind the worldwide curve. Nonetheless, there is much the more established churches in North America can learn from the global house church movement, especially when it comes to home fellowships and small groups.
First, Just What is a House Church?
A house church is the church meeting in a home (or some other informal setting), nothing more and nothing less. However, the gathering of a house church doesn’t look anything like a gathering at a typical North American congregation:
- There is no preaching.
- There is often no clear “pastor” or “leader.”
- There is no set order of service.
There is generally more money available than there are immediate needs because often there’s no overhead, so most of the funds are spent doing missions or ministry.
Instead, at a typical house church gathering there’s a meal, a Bible study, a time for sharing resources, and prayer. Some house churches sing hymns, some sing more contemporary songs, and a lot of house churches almost never sing. Most house churches feel a bit unorganized, primarily because they are unorganized. Instead, each gathering is more like an evening’s get-together with good friends who also happen to be encouraging one another in the faith. It’s really pretty simple.
So, what can the more established churches in North America learn from an informal gathering of ten to twenty people? Plenty, especially when these gatherings are literally changing the faces of communities and regions all over the world. And since a home fellowship or small group has a number of similarities with the house church, there are a number of practices that can be adopted and adapted from the house church model.
What follows are two particular practices that have allowed the global house church to become one of the chief contributors to Christianity’s global growth practices that are particularly adaptable to home fellowships and small groups.
Community is More than Casual Fellowship
In North America, many home fellowships and small groups exist primarily for a single purpose. Some meet weekly for Bible study or to accomplish a mission project such as letter writing to prisoners or soldiers. Others come together for a casual book or movie discussion or to pursue a particular hobby such as quilting. All of these are great reasons to get together and all create a measure of community. However, the global house church movement teaches us that Christian community is more than single-faceted fellowship.
Discipleship is at the core of every effective house church, and everything an effective house church does accomplishes this core purpose. Virtually every effective house church shares a meal together, spends significant time in prayer, studies the Bible, and shares their resources in ministry and mission; however, all of these activities are intentionally fellowship-focused. The community created by that fellowship is more intense than a typical small group’s casual, friendly association. Because discipleship, rather than fellowship, is the house church’s core purpose, the participants intentionally develop their interpersonal relationships and transparency is not only encouraged, it is essentially required. As Bill Easum has observed, “It’s impossible to be a pew sitter in a House Church—and it is next to impossible to be fake about your faith or lack of it.”
Creating Discipleship Communities
Creating a discipleship-focused community does not happen by happenstance, and discipleship is seldom created after-the-fact in an existing small group: discipleship is a core purpose and cannot be an add-on. As such, there are at least three things global house churches do to engender genuine discipleship.
- Spend Significant Time Together. In North America, most small groups and home fellowship groups seem to consider an hour to an hour-and-a-half the optimum time for their gatherings. Typically, the reason for this “optimum” length is the notion that people are too busy to spend more than an hour or so together. However, most house church gatherings last from two to four hours, and sometimes more. Although this may seem like an unreasonable amount of time to ask of a busy parishioner, consider that most effective house churches share a meal together, as well as accomplish Bible study, worship, prayer, sharing, and whatever other activities and traditions the house church may have. By combining multiple activities, the actual length of time spent together is optimized. However, beyond the time house church participants spend at their weekly gathering, many, if not most, also get together at other times during the week. Folks who attend house church typically are, or become, close friends in the fullest sense of the word. They regularly spend meaningful time during the week calling on each other, helping each other out, and praying together. Their relationships grow to such a point that they are enabled to speak truth into each others’ lives without jeopardizing their friendships.
- Build Honest Transparency. Many home fellowships and small groups remain focused on the task at hand, whether doing a Bible study or some other project. Participants seldom make a concerted effort to be openly transparent about their lives, especially their spiritual lives. They seldom share how their faith impacts the decisions they face each day. In a house church, honest transparency tends to become the expected norm. Few house churches or small groups begin with that kind of openness, honest transparency can be cultivated. It starts with leadership. First, there must be a commitment to transparency by the leader and a willingness to be vulnerable. Leadership must both lead and model in this effort. To facilitate transparency, some house churches use a helpful threefold question to open a time of worship, as a precursor to prayer, or at some other opportune moment: “Do you have a sin to confess, a need to confide, or a praise to celebrate?”
Although many Protestants and mainliners may chafe at the bidding for “sins to confess,” this is probably the most critical of the three. In many traditions, participants are all too willing to share what’s going well in their lives and to offer a prayer need about Aunt Nelly—which isn’t a bad thing, but often indicates a hesitancy to go deep. But by keeping the need for confession at the forefront, participants are encouraged to share at a deeper and more personal level. Additionally, the call for confession helps the participants to focus on inner spiritual issues which often evokes prayer requests for more heart-felt personal needs.
As the participants begin to share more openly, and this takes time, practical needs and issues will begin to surface. For instance, reflective participants may share about decisions they are called on to make at work that create an ethical or moral dilemma. In some groups, the level of sharing is deep enough that a serious issue such as lust or temptation may surface with enough warning time for the group to rally in prayer and support so that a marital affair can be avoided. It is when the group’s level of trust and honesty reach these kinds of depths that the Christian faith has an opportunity to make a crucial difference in peoples’ lives and serious Christian discipleship becomes more than just a hope.
- Take the “One-Anothers” Seriously. In about AD 198, Tertullian wrote a defense of Christianity to the Roman Empire:
I shall at once go on, then, to exhibit the peculiarities of the Christian society, that…I may point out its positive good. We are a body knit together as such by a common religious profession, by unity of discipline, and by the bond of a common hope. We meet together as an assembly and congregation, that, offering up prayer to God as with united force, we may wrestle with Him in our supplications…. We assemble to read our sacred writings…with the sacred words we nourish our faith, we animate our hope, we make our confidence more steadfast; and no less by inculcations of God’s precepts we confirm good habits. In the same place also exhortations are made, rebukes and sacred censures are administered.…Though we have our treasure-chest…on the monthly day…each puts in a small donation; but only if it be his pleasure, and only if he be able: for there is no compulsion; all is voluntary. These gifts are…piety’s deposit fund. For they are not taken…and spent on feasts, and drinking-bouts, and eating-houses, but to support and bury poor people, to supply the wants of boys and girls destitute of means and parents, and of old persons confined now to the house; such, too, as have suffered shipwreck; and if there happen to be any in the mines, or banished to the islands, or shut up in the prisons, for nothing but their fidelity to the cause of God’s Church, they become the nurslings of their confession. But it is mainly the deeds of a love so noble that lead many to put a brand upon us. See, they say, how they love one another…how they are ready even to die for one another.
His writings offer one of the better looks at how the early church practiced the “one-anothers” within their fellowship. Note how the Christians encouraged, admonished, and discipled each other, as well as how they took care of those who were imprisoned for their faith. Notice also how they were mocked for being so good to one another. Clearly, they engaged the spirit of one-anotherness.
Over the past years, the church has broadly applied the biblical one-anothers as a mandate on how Christians should treat everyone. As Christian, nice, and edifying as this sounds, in practice it is clear that many, if not most, of the one-anothers were instructions for how Christians should treat each other:
- Agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you (1 Corinthians 1:10).
- Speak to one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs (Ephesians 5:19).
- Admonish one another (Colossians 3:16).
Confess your sins to one another (James 5:16). These are not the kind of behaviors Christians in the early church would have generally visited upon non-Christians. Further, Paul indicates more directly that the one-anothers should be considered in-house commandments when he writes to the Thessalonians: “Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always try to be kind to one another and to everyone else” (1 Thessalonians 5:15 -emphasis added). Here Paul clearly makes a distinction between the brothers and sisters who are the recipients for the one-anothers and everyone else.
It’s not that Christians shouldn’t love “everyone else,” nor that Christians should treat “everyone else” with anything besides the highest quality of goodness and kindness. Rather it is a Christian responsibility to apply the one-anothers to those in the church primarily, firstly, and preeminently. It has been said that if Christians ever started treating their brothers and sisters in the Lord with the love required of them, the world would beat a path to their door.
This is the mandate the global house church has clearly adopted. Effective house churches tend to take the one-anothers very seriously and apply them liberally to the fellowship. This witness is one that every home fellowship and small group needs to take note of. There are over forty one-anothers in the New Testament that include not only the commonly quoted “love one another,” but also includes mandates to spur one another on to good deeds, to offer hospitality to one another, to encourage one another, to be devoted to one another, and to submit to one another.
Discipleship communities take the one-anothers seriously and apply them within the fellowship first in order to raise up effective disciples through love, admonition, and encouragement.
Multiplication Isn’t an Afterthought, It’s the Core Thought
Effective global house churches don’t exist for themselves; they exist to multiply disciples, leaders, and house churches. For instance, in less than five years, one house church in China multiplied itself to the point where research attributes nearly a million converts and thousands of new house churches to the mother house church. In the US, preliminary findings from a Southern Baptist Theological Seminary research project shows that forty-nine percent of North American house churches have multiplied at least once in the past three years. These churches have taken seriously Jesus’ commission to make disciples.
In the past, the method for “dividing” a small group was to wait until the group had a certain number of participants (often twelve to fifteen) and then the group would split in half resulting in two groups. In theory, each group would replace the lost members with new folk, grow to the magic multiplication number, and then divide again. In theory, small groups would become the evangelizing arm of the church. However, the theory breaks down in practice.
The primary reason small groups are so effective is because they create a close-knit community where people become both friends and mentors. When a group is split, the relationships are divided and in many cases both groups become anemic and often disintegrate.
Although there are a few house churches that divide using the old model (generally with less than optimal results), most house churches multiply using a leadership-development model. In this model a leader is raised up, trained, and commissioned within a house church and then deployed to start a new house church in their own home, often on a different day or time. Typically, a family or two will follow the new house church leader, but those who leave to help form the new congregation—including the new leader—normally continue to visit the mother house church for some time. Because participants’ relationships between the new house church and the mother church are not severed, the transition is smooth and existing relationships are maintained; thus both mother and daughter house churches flourish. In time, the mother house church replenishes their losses with new friends and families and the process is repeated.
This model can be equally effective for home fellowships and small groups. The key is to establish an expectation of multiplication from the beginning. It is never too early to begin praying the Luke 10:2 prayer “Ask the Lord to send workers into the harvest field.” Although some may be concerned that they should “build up their own fellowship first,” this will both hinder growth and constrain multiplication. Instead, home fellowship and small group leaders should keep their eyes, ears, and hearts open to potential new leaders from the first meeting, looking particularly for those who have untapped relational networks. The need for a broad relational network is necessary because a new leader is largely responsible for populating the new group with unreached people from their own sphere of influence. By multiplying new home fellowships and small groups, Christianity effectively penetrates established neighborhoods and communities and reaches a wider audience than would otherwise be possible.
Home fellowships and small groups share an advantage with the house church: they’re small and postured for rapid multiplication. The house church movement has been chugging along at a respectable rate around the globe because it is small and reproduces easily. But as important as multiplication is, it isn’t enough.
The house church is also committed to creating discipleship communities. Here too, home fellowships and small groups have an advantage. Discipleship development primarily takes place in small, tight-knit communities of faithful disciples who are willing to be open, honest, transparent, and held accountable. There is a great potential in our churches today, a potential that offers significant hope for North America. The house church is a part of that hope, but by using some of the house church’s most effective tools, home fellowships and small groups have a great potential to create literally thousands of multiplying disciple-making communities across America.