House Churches: Facilitating Community
Captain Ian Freestone wrote as a Church Army Captain working with the Ruach Neighbourhood Churches in Sydney. Original Renewal Journal article, 1994. For further information see Ruach Ministries on www.ruach.org.au
Out of a desire to see a fuller expression of Christian community in the church and out of a passion to see unbelievers come to Christ and become part of his church, several of us began a network of house churches.
We often refer to them as neighbourhood churches, firstly, because not all of them meet in homes and secondly, because we are wanting to encourage each house church to have a neighbourhood vision for outreach.
God spoke prophetically to us at that time saying, ‘You don’t grow a church from the outside in but from the inside out. The house church is the basis for growth and the key to growth is faith.’
That was in 1990. It has been a difficult road at times since then and we still have a real sense that we are on a journey. We join with many in believing that revival in this nation is imminent, if not upon us, and what is needed are structures that can cope with an influx of new Christians. The establishing of house churches provides one means for us to ride on what the Lord is wanting to do.
Why House Churches?
There is a growing realisation that our present church structures are inadequate to meet the demands of a changing society. It is doubtful whether they are flexible enough to cope with a major outpouring of the Spirit of God. Ralph Neighbour, a pioneer and proponent of cell group churches, has called for a ‘second Reformation’. He suggests that present church structures are woefully inadequate: It is sad, but true: the church structure we have duplicated over and over in this century is shockingly inefficient! The buildings are empty for most of the week. The members aren’t equipped to minister to hurting people. Everything centres on activities within the church buildings’ (1990:14).Unless we are prepared to critically examine the structures in the church, we will continue to be inhibited in our God‑given mission: to be Christian community in such a way that we might ‘know Christ and make him known.’
John Smith recognises our failure in the Australian Church to reach ordinary people for Jesus: ‘To the average Australian, the church always has been, and still is, a foreign culture. Nor has there been sufficient attempt to change that image…The church is a subculture from abroad: it still has a distinctly colonial air about it. … If we are ever going to communicate to the majority of Australian people, we will have to make some savage changes to our church agenda’ (1988:214‑215).
What we need therefore in the church are bridge builders: people willing to work towards new models of church life and ministry (Kaldor 1988:23). The church in the house is one of those bridges. Yet it is more than a bridge. In our opinion it is the most appropriate context for the expression of Christian community. We share Robert Bank’s belief that ‘on biblical and contemporary grounds the Home Church is fundamental to any quest for renewal’ (1986:39).
The problem with our present church structures is that we have developed what Howard Snyder calls an edifice complex. He suggests that we have patterned the organisation of the church on the temple model. We have confused the building the church meets in as the church itself instead of seeing the church as the people of God. In a powerful critique of present day church buildings, Snyder points out that our church buildings are a witness to our immobility, our inflexibility, our lack of fellowship, our pride and our class divisions (1975:69‑73).
Ross Paterson makes some provoking comments concerning Chinese House churches: ‘Churches which lost their buildings and their corporate life (after the cultural revolution) became centred around and rooted in the family, as meetings had to be held in homes… This lack of structure has proved of enormous benefit to the church in China’ (1989:195).
Many have sought to introduce small groups within churches to address our crisis in the West but, as David Prior states, there is ‘disillusionment with the widespread proliferation of such groups.’ He adds, ‘This is in no sense to decry the real benefits which individuals have undoubtedly received as members of prayer groups, Bible‑study groups, etc., it is simply to underline their inadequacy in terms of discovering what a local church is intended by God to become’ (1983:9).
Robert Banks, as part of his argument to say the same, quotes C. M. Olsen: Although small groups have been utilised as a church renewal scheme, they have rarely been legitimised as a full expression of the church. They have been conceived as an adjunct for the personal growth of the participants… Meanwhile the ‘real’ church gathers in the sanctuary at eleven every Sunday… the small group is relegated to serving as a means to a larger end… In this role it cannot become anything more than a halfway house’ (1986:15).
Theologically, church buildings can be no more than convenient places for God’s people to meet in larger numbers. We talk about church as something we ‘go to’ for an hour or two once a week. We say that it is important to ‘go to church’ to fellowship with God’s people. But often the nature of the church service and the way things are structured actually work against the kind of ‘koinonia’ the Bible speaks about. As Snyder insists, ‘Church buildings are not made for fellowship… homes are. And it was in homes that early Christians met to worship’ (1975:71).
According to the New Testament, the most common place for ‘church’ was in the home. Kevin Giles makes clear the point that you can only begin to unravel the workings of early church leadership when you understand that the background to the epistles is church in a house setting (1988).
It seems that the temple courts provided the believers with a place for large‑scale public witness while the needed community life could be developed through the home: ‘Every day they continued to meet in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts’ (Acts 2:46).
The church in the house was not an extension of the real thing, an appendage to what we would know as a formal Sunday gathering. Nor was it a deliberate ‘church growth strategy’ of the apostles to fulfil the need for fellowship and encouragement outside the main body of the church. The church in the house WAS the church!
They did all of what we try to do inside our church buildings (and more) and with much greater effectiveness. As others have noted, the absence of church buildings was not a hindrance to the rapid expansion of the church; instead, in comparison to the situation after AD 200, it seemed a positive help.
There are numerous people in the New Testament, both men and women, who are said to have held church meetings in their homes. Among them were Priscilla and Aquilla, Gaius, Nympha, and Philemon.
The concept of the church in the house is not a new one. Throughout the history of the Christian church there is evidence of God’s people meeting in homes for church. Over many years and in many different lands God has been calling his church home. This is illustrated in recent days in the Basic Christian Communities in Central America, the revival taking place in Communist China, the growth of ICTHUS fellowship in London, and Faith Community Baptist Church in Singapore, as weas the number of independent house churches that have begun worldwide.
How the Lord is leading us.
* Within the house church everything happens. It is the church! Bible teaching, fellowship, worship, breaking of bread, exercising of gifts, collection of money for God’s work, pastoral care, and reaching out into the community all take place through the ministry of the house church.
* House churches are not seen as an extra on top of the real thing, that is, church on Sunday. On the contrary, the house church is the church; the nucleus of the church’s life and ministry.
* They are networked together in a ‘pastorate system.’ The house church is the church, but the house churches also meet together at times for a Celebration Service in a rented hall. This is not to try to ‘do church’ but to simply celebrate in all that God is doing through his church. These celebrations happen in districts at least once a month and then every few months the districts join for a combined celebration. These gatherings of praise and worship are helpful to remind the neighbourhood church member that he or she is part of a wider community of God’s people. This provides both for the intimacy in a home‑church context as well as a regular opportunity for a combined celebration.
* Each is led by an unpaid pastor. These pastors meet regularly with the pastorate leaders for training and encouragement.
* The members of a house church comprise the total family. All age involvement is encouraged.
* It is a commitment beyond the two hours spent together. House church members are involved in interacting meaningfully outside the meeting time.
* Retreat centres are used so that 2 or 3 house churches can go away together. These are times of refreshment, restoration, empowering and equipping.
* All the house churches are urged to reproduce another house church thus avoiding the tendency to just get bigger and become just another independent church.
* There is an emphasis on creative ministries in the house church and in celebration services. This has led to the writing of many home‑grown community worship songs that have been recorded.
The development of House churches is a strategy God is giving to grow the church from the ‘inside out’. We believe that if the basic unit of the Christian community became the church in the home, then many could be reached with the Good News of Jesus.
Notwithstanding the above, house churches are not to be established merely as evangelistic ventures. The house church system is not simply a program or a technique to win the unconverted. The emphasis is to build biblical Christian community that leads to a powerful witness to Jesus in the neighbourhood area. House churches are begun to enable the Body of Christ to be the body of Christ. They are set up to ‘be the church’ in the place in which they are planted.
This new wineskin of house churches that the Lord was revealing to us did not arrive in a spiritual vacuum but in the context of a community which had been on a journey of renewal. This should be a warning to any group which thinks they can simply transport the house church vision into their own context without being mindful of the necessity for spiritual renewal as the foundation for real growth.
A house church whose members have not tasted of the new wine may have new structures but little spiritual life. The journey of renewal will be critical for any group desiring both new wine and new wineskins.
Banks, Robert and Julia (1986) The Home Church. Australia: Albatross.
Giles, Kevin (1988) Patterns of Ministry amongst the First Christians.
Kaldor, Peter and Sue (1988) Where the River Flows. Australia: Lancer.
Neighbour, Ralph (1990) Where Do We Go From Here? USA: Touch Publications.
Olsen, C. M. (1973) The Base Church: Creating Community Through Multiple Forms. Atlanta: Forum House.
Paterson, Ross (1989) Heartcry for China. Great Britain: Sovereign World.
Prior, David (1983) The Church in the Home. Great Britain: Marshall Pickering.
Smith, John (1988) Advance Australia Where. Australia: Anzea.
Snyder, Howard (1975) The Problem of Wineskins. USA: IVP.
Watson, David (1978) I Believe in the Church. London: Hodder and Stoughton.
© Renewal Journal 3: Community (1994, 2011) pages 45-54
Reproduction is allowed with the copyright intact with the text.
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