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Home Up

 
Reflections on the Modern House Church Movement
Frank Viola


We live in a day where there exists a "primitive church phenomenon." Countless Christians around the globe are seeing afresh that the modern practice of "church" is Biblically groundless and spiritually ineffective. As a result, many have left the institutional church and have returned to the first-century practice of meeting in homes without a clergy.

Some have dubbed this phenomenon "the house church movement." But this is a misnomer for two reasons. First, it places the emphasis on the wrong thing—the house. Granted, the location of the church meeting is not without significance. But what God is after goes far beyond where His people meet. To put it bluntly, there is nothing inherently magical about meeting in a house. While gathering in homes is better than gathering in basilicas, it is not the hallmark of the church.

Secondly, the word "movement" conveys a unified motion among a group of people. Those who meet in homes contain every stripe of Christian and represent every doctrinal pedigree. Consequently, there exists no monolithic movement that reflects all house churches. For these reasons, the phrase "house church movement" is misleading. House churches gather for different reasons and focus on different themes. And these differences are so great that they place many house churches galaxies apart.

Some Sub-Cultures of House Church

Most of the groups that fly under the flag of "house church" or "NT church" fit neatly into one of the following categories:

The Glorified Bible Study.

This brand of house church is typically chaired by an ex-clergyman or aspiring Bible teacher. This person usually facilitates a round-table discussion of the Scriptures. Meetings are dominated by Bible expositions which often descend into fruitless debates. In the glorified Bible study, those members who are not theologically inclined have a rather thin participation. Whether he recognizes it or not, the person facilitating the Bible study is in charge of the church.

The Special Interest Group.

These home groups make their focal point for assembling a common interest like home school, home birth, the keeping of Jewish feasts, a particular eschatological view, a pro forma pattern of church service, organic farming, personal prophecy, "Holy Ghost laughter," social justice, or some other issue, fad, or thing—even "house church" itself!

The Personality Cult.

Members of these groups center their universe around a gifted man or woman. It may be a dead apostle whose writings act as the exclusive medium for the group’s identity, beliefs, and practices. More often, the object of attention is a Christian leader who founds the church and perpetually stays resident within it. While the gifted personality often has a genuine desire to see the Body build itself up, his mere presence obstructs this spiritual dynamic. He is typically blind to the fact that he has unwittingly fostered an unhealthy dependence upon himself. Therefore, he is the son of the modern pastor.

The Bless-Me-Club.

At bottom, this is a narcissistic community—a spiritual ghetto. The meetings are insular and highly charismatic. The group functions as a spiritual fueling station for burned out Christians in need of an emotional fix. Churches of this ilk are dominated by navel-gazing individualists. Thus its members typically bail-out whenever the group faces a rough thicket. So when conflict or dry spells occur, those who were most zealous about "house church" end up being lured back to the polish and flair of the program-driven religious system.

The Socially Amorphous Party.

These home groups are typically comprised of four to eight people who nebulously meet in a living room to chat over tea and cookies. They rarely attain critical mass due to a lack of vision and purpose. They like to speak bulbously about Jesus being present whenever "two or three are gathered together." However, they usually fold before they even begin to understand why they exist. If they do not fold, their meetings become progressively sterile as the years roll by.

The Disgruntled Malcontent Society.

Comprised of ex-church derelicts and recycled Christians, these groups happily assemble to lick their wounds and slam the "spiritually abusive" institutional church. Their meetings are permeated with an atmosphere of pessimism, cynicism, and veiled bitterness. Tragically, after the members tire of attacking the organized church, they begin to chew one another up. Thus they find themselves taken by the same spirit they set out to oppose. This form of house church attracts Christians who are deeply wounded and have never learned to trust others.

The Unwritten Liturgy Driven Church.

These groups clearly stand outside the stream of institutional Christianity. But they often do not meet in a home. Many gather in a rented building or a "meeting hall." The dominating weakness of their gatherings is the lurking presence of an unwritten liturgy. The ironclad liturgy, which is practiced perfunctorily every week, is never questioned or changed. In fact, if the order of worship is broken in any way, the leadership of the church will call the violators on the carpet to reprove them for their irreverence!

All of the aforementioned groups happily sail under the banner of "house church" or "NT church." Yet they all fall short of the Scriptural idea of church. By NT standards, a church is a group of Christians that gathers unto, by, and for the Lord Jesus Christ alone. It is an assembly of believers who are fiercely committed to Christ’s full expression in their community. Jesus Christ is the life-blood of the church. He is the Center. He is the Circumference. He is the Content. He is the Focus. He is the sole gathering point of the church.

The saints who gather as a church are consumed with Jesus Christ and nothing else. Their goal is to make Him visible in their community. Their hallmark is their growing knowledge of the Lord. And their testimony is an unmistakable love for one another. House churches that are not characterized by these spiritual features not only miss a step, but they dance the wrong dance.

A genuine church is neither issue-centered, person-centered, nor doctrine-centered. It is Christ-centered! The church exists for one purpose and one purpose alone: The unveiling of the centrality and supremacy of her Lord! In fact, in God’s view the church is a Person, not a structure. It is Jesus Christ in corporate human expression (Acts 2:47; 5:14; 9:4; 11:24; 1 Cor. 12:12).

The Short Shelf-Life of a House Church

It is quite telling to note that many modern house churches disintegrate over a brief time span. The typical house church has an average life span of six months to four years.

Within this six-to-four window, the church usually dissolves due to an irreconcilable split or an unresolved crisis. (The crisis is usually rooted in a high-drama power struggle, a sustained bickering over hobby-horse theology, or an unwillingness to forebear with intractable personalities.)

If the group manages to hold together through the thrall of such conflict, it usually drifts toward a scaled down, "small-is-beautiful" version of the institutional church. That is, someone from within the group will devolve into the near equivalent of a modern pastor.

This person may not be dubbed "the pastor." And he may not act like an authority-monger. But he will function like a professional cleric, and the saints will grow to over-depend upon him.

The other likely result is that a group of men who tag themselves "elders" will surface and rule the church in oligarchical fashion—running roughshod over everyone else’s sensibilities. In these respects, scores of modern house churches have failed to rid themselves of the old leaven of authoritarianism.

Granted, there are house churches that push past the four-year mark. But they are rare. It is still rarer to find a house church that has been in existence for over ten years. House churches that have been extant over twenty years are an endangered species. And house churches that have over twenty years of mileage are exotically scarce.

In short, when Jesus Christ is not the center of a house church, the only fuel that can drive it is a fascinating issue, a charismatic personality, or a nifty doctrine. But all of these fuels yield low mileage. And when they run dry, the group collapses.

A fellowship of believers can only be held together in any beneficial way when a continual encounter with the Lord Jesus becomes the dominating element. At bottom, if Christ is not the glue of a non-institutional church, its meetings will become shallow, colorless, and eventually unsustainable.

The Psalmist once uttered, "If the foundations be destroyed, what can the righteous do?" (Psalms. 11:3). Why have so many house churches bitten the dust? Most often it is because they were not founded upon a revelation of the Lord Jesus Christ. Instead, they were founded upon something less.

There are a raft of things today that Christians assemble around—even noble things that have something to do with Christ. The following "things" have taken center stage in most modern house churches in the West:

Calvinism ("the doctrines of grace").

Some end-time theology (usually preterism, post-millenialism, or pre-tribulationalism).

Spiritual gifts.

"Holy Ghost laughter" and being "slain in the Spirit."

Personal prophecy.

Faith Healing.

Home Schooling.

Home Birthing.

Some political viewpoint.

Social justice and helping the poor.

Any-man’s doctrine (meaning, the group exists to debate various doctrines from the Bible).

House churching.

Social fellowship ("hanging out").

The doctrine of ultimate reconciliation or universalism (even the devil gets saved in the end).

Eternal security.

An academic Bible study.

Evangelism.

Personal holiness.

Spiritual warfare.

Health and nutrition.

All of these "things" are the glue that holds such groups together. But there is a colossal difference between meeting around some "thing" about the Lord and meeting around the Lord Himself! There is a vast ocean between meeting around an "it" and meeting around "Him"!

If you were to read your NT with an eye for discovering how the early churches were formed, you would find that they were solidly built upon the unshakable revelation of Jesus Christ (Matt. 16:16-18). All the churches that Paul planted were built upon this revelation (1 Cor. 3:11). And out of this mighty unveiling of Christ, churches spontaneously issued forth. (Note that the apostolic declaration of Jesus Christ has community forming properties.)

Because the church is founded upon the Lord Jesus Christ, it can survive under the most intense pressure and testing (1 Cor. 3:6-15). The winds may blow brutally and the floods fall fiercely, but the house will stand because it is founded upon a Rock (Matt. 7:24-27; Luke 6:46-48). Put another way, Jesus Christ is the only unmovable foundation upon which God’s people may rightfully gather.

Those Christians who are seeking to serve God without the sturdy props of human hierarchy must build their community life upon Jesus Christ. If they do not, their chances of surviving are close to nil.

The First Wave of House Church

The so-called "house church movement" is suffering severely because of a colossal failure to return to first principles. God has His own particular way of raising up a glorious Bride for His Son. It is an ancient way that begins in the Person of God Himself when He sent His Son, the first apostolic worker, to "build His church" (John 4:34; Matt. 16:18; Eph. 5:27).

Tragically, many "house church" folk reject the ministry of the itinerant worker. The reason for this is partly historical. In the late 1960s and early 1970s the United States saw its first move of God outside the religious system. Countless converts were made during this time period. Many of them began to meet in the primitive simplicity of homes without a clergy. Most of these budding "house churches" were populated with young people.

Consequently, many clerical leaders felt it was their task to bring stability to the growing movement. A good number of these men left their clerical positions on Sunday and instantly rose to become leaders of the new movement on Monday.

In a very short period of time, these men introduced to these simple groups a form of discipleship that eventually squeezed from them all semblance of life. While their motives were noble, they did untold damage to a genuine move of God. The young converts who once knew no human headship were used to spawn international movements (which eventually became full-fledged denominations) built on legalism and authoritarianism. The scores of living, breathing house churches and Christian communities that thrived were swallowed up by these movements. Christian lives were shipwrecked on the rock of a perverted doctrine of authority. The work of God was choked by the hands of men.

How could this happen? Simple. These leaders knew nothing of God’s way of raising up workers. They had never spent a day in church life as non-leaders. Neither were they trained nor sent.

The Second Wave of House Church

During the late 1980s and early 1990s this country witnessed its second stirring outside the organized church. It was at this time that the phrase "house church movement" was born. Unlike the earlier move of God, most of the people in the second movement were not youth, but middle-aged adults. Few of them were new converts. Most were Christians who were disaffected with the institutional church. So they left their sacred buildings. They dumped their pastors. And they began to gather in homes.

As a reaction to the flaws of the first movement, the second wave of house church folk looked upon any form of itinerant church planting with a suspicious eye. The movement was taken captive by a spirit of absolute egalitarianism that ruled out any need for outside help. The common thinking went like this: "We have no need of church planters. We are all equal in Christ. We have no need of itinerant ministry of any sort. Anyone can start a house church." Sadly, this thinking is still alive today. Yet those who have embraced this idea are ignorant of its origin.

The peril of the first "house church movement" was the fact that God’s people did not exercise discernment in welcoming itinerant ministers. They embraced a group of spiritual leaders who were untested. None of them spent any time being trained within the context of an existing house church. Instead, these ministers retained their clerical statuses. They simply switched their sphere of ministry from the basilica to the home. Interestingly, the letter of 2 John speaks to this very problem. There we discover John warning a local assembly not to receive untested workers (2 John 10-11).

Regrettably, the second "house church movement" has been plagued by the opposite problem. It has failed to receive those whom God has genuinely sent. Interestingly enough, the message of 3 John addresses this very issue. John makes mention of Diotrephes who would not receive the traveling workers John sent to minister to the churches (3 John 1-11).

This article has been excerpted from Frank Viola's book So You Want to Start a House Church? First-Century Styled Church Planting For Today.