A number of years ago, a significant number of Christians turned their back on 10am services on a Sunday, public worship, preaching and structure – what they called the “institutionalized church” and started meeting in small groups in houses. This has a number of names: house church, irregular church, organic church; but the principles are the same: you meet in houses in necessarily small groups and you focus on building relationships with those people. This then leads to a disdain and a critical attitude towards any church that meets in a building, that is large and that has structures.
This step is understandable. There is something missing in your faith if you turn up at church 5 minutes late every week, rush out the door afterwards and never build a relationship with anyone. There is something missing in a church like that. But what has happened is people have thrown out the baby with the bathwater. Rick Joyner says that all error in the church is simply people embracing a newly revealed truth at the expense of other truths. So as people realize the power of small, they reject and neglect the power of big. In fact, they will say things like “it’s not about the numbers”, “size doesn’t matter”, “small is beautiful” that make you think that they really do not care about reaching their cities and towns for Christ, but rather care about their culture and small group to the exclusion of the people who need Christ.
So why is this a mis-step and why is this a problem for the body of Christ? Well, as an experienced church planter who has planted six churches from nothing, five of which I am currently supervising and pastoring, we have had a number of people come from these groups and bringing the house church mentality with them. We have also met people from these groups at conferences and spoken to them and discussed church with them. I am absolutely convinced this is not a revival of love and joy and peace and a new way of doing church as some of them think, but a big mis-step that leads to some of the most unhealthy expressions of Christianity I have seen.
Here are 10 Reasons the House Church Movement is a Mis-Step:
- It is not Biblical. The Bible has to be our plumb-line. The Bible is not just the plan of salvation (it would be a much shorter book if it was), but it is the key to how to function as the body of Christ on earth and we should function as a church in the same way the New Testament church functioned. We find out in the New Testament that they met in the house and the temple (Acts 2.46). A healthy church needs small house meetings and big temple meetings.
- It creates a very insular atmosphere and an indifference to the world. I live in a city of 9 million people. How you can turn around and say “it’s not about the numbers” I don’t know. Of course it is. If you have 8 people in a house, you are not reaching the city. You are not fulfilling the great commission. You can start with 8 people in a house (I wish I had 8 people in a house when I started, we started with 3) but don’t end there. Reach out, go into all the world, make disciples who make disciples.
- You cannot raise leaders quickly enough to multiply house churches. It’s simple maths. If you want to grow and impact the world as a house church, you need to raise up an “elder” or “pastor” who can look after the new house church. But the group is not being fed the Word, does not have access to the fivefold ministry, is not being sharpened by the larger group, so the people grow slowly. They will love your little group because of the low-challenge, high-acceptance nature of the group, but they will not grow. So you stay in your one off small group, chasing people all the time, wondering why people are hard work and why the gospel isn’t changing their lives, and get frustrated.
- You do not have access to the fivefold ministry so your church is underdeveloped Christians. I would hate to think how impoverished Tree of Life people would be in 2015 if they had not heard Terri Savelle Foy, Gregory Dickow, Greg Mohr, Robert Maasbach, Bengt Wedemalm and Will Graham. These people are true fivefold ministries – apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers – who know the love of God, who can equip the saints to do the works of ministry. Without access to them, or people of their calibre, you are impoverished. Do you realize Terri Savelle Foy doesn’t come to preach to a “church” of 8 in a Living Room? Do you realize that Gregory Dickow’s wisdom and depth would never reach a church of 8 in a Living Room? You need a temple meeting to attract the fivefold. It’s that simple. And so because of that, people in house churches are growing at a slower rate, they are not being inspired and challenged and equipped the way they should be.
- You have no size, so you have no structure, so you don’t know how to work in a structure and honour a structure. If you have 8 people, you don’t need any structure or formalization. I have pastored many growing churches, and as things grow you need to inevitably formalize that which is informal. Some people are just opposed to formality and structure. They don’t like it. The reason for that, if you cut away all the theological masks and step through the fog of pious sounding platitudes is that some people do not like structure because some people do not like to submit to anyone else. Jesus said you will never be entrusted with anything if you cannot be faithful to that which is someone else’s (Luke 16.12). If you do not learn the power of honour, then you will never truly live. If you cannot honour your parents you will never have life in abundance (Ephesians 6.4). If you cannot honour a church, you will never have life-changing experiences in church.
I have found that the people who come from house churches and small house groups to the Tree inevitably struggle with showing honour where honour is due, because they have never had to before.
They think that honouring someone is foolish, yet it is where life comes from. They want the same privileges as everyone else in the church – you preach, so I can preach; the elders can flow in the gifts, so I will just yell out in tongues wherever I want; the preacher preaches for an hour, so when I get up to give my 5 minute testimony I will take one hour; there are people up the front with musical instruments, so I will just walk over to the front and bring my musical instrument to church. Never following protocol because it is a blind spot to them, and so they then clash with the church because the church is of a certain size and therefore has protocols, they then get disillusioned, call the church harsh, and retreat back to their tiny groups.
Whenever we get people from house churches, I am always careful to see they are learning honour and learning the culture of honour, because otherwise they will be gone soon.
- You only welcome people like you, so you never clash with anyone so you are never sharpened. In any church of more than 15 people, you will clash with people. That’s not a bad thing, the Bible says we sharpen each other like iron sharpens iron (Proverbs 27.17). When we clash, we can look at ourselves and sharpen up. A bit of introspection is good for the soul (too much, not so much, but that’s a different post for another day). People who have only been in a cosy small group don’t clash often, so don’t develop the skills to handle conflict. In fact, generally the first conflict is when they leave the church family. Missing out on being sharpened and growing. Some of these people can be Christians for decades, they can minister the Word, they can flow in the gifts. But they cannot handle conflict. As such, that is a danger for any church. Be aware!
- You never benefit from the vision of a large service. One of the greatest things about a large meeting is that it gives vision. When we had 280 people in one service this year, it envisioned the whole church – this is what it can be every week, we can impact people, we can dream big. There is something so powerful about people walking into a big meeting – it makes them big people. Never underestimate the power of vision – vision gives life purpose. People from small groups do not generally have a purpose that keeps them going through the storms. They instead rely on the group in a dysfunctional way to keep them going through storms that really they should be laughing through.
- You never benefit from corporate worship. Worship music is one of the most important gifts of helps in the New Testament – it helps people focus on God, it helps people consider how big God is, and it prepares people for the life-changing, preached Word. Don’t get me wrong, there is something special about worship in a small group – all of our small groups have a time of worship in the Tree. It’s cosy, it’s refreshing, it’s good. But when you all get together at once, and you have worship leaders who know what they are doing, and that worship is a prelude to a powerful equipping sermon, man that is something else. You don’t have that in a house church, and so they often don’t understand the power of worship, they don’t understand the role of worship as a help and prelude to the Word. (Again, for another later post, why worship all night long or all service long without the preached Word will never change anyone’s life and is never once found in the New Testament).
- You do not have a pastor, so you are in a bad place. The people running house churches are not fivefold ministry pastors. That’s a given, because if they were the group would eventually grow. True pastors over time grow churches because they tend to their needs and feed them. Look at this verse of Scripture:
But when he saw the multitudes, he was moved with compassion for them, because they were distressed and scattered, as sheep not having a shepherd (Matthew 9.36, ASV)
You need a shepherd (shepherd and pastor are the same word in the Greek). You need a pastor. You need to be part of a church that has a pastor. If you are not, you will end up distressed and scattered. You will come to your house church every week and be soothed and forget about Monday, but you will never be fed and tended to so that you can eat Monday for breakfast. You end up scattered – a word that means confused. That is the greatest problem with the house church movement, it is breeding confused people, people without pastors. That is a tragedy.
- Finally, confused people deep down in their reborn spirits know that the house church is not enough. But because the house church does not teach them how to submit to authority, how to handle conflict, how to show honour – when you do decide to step out of the pond into the sea, you clash, you feel out of sorts and you don’t know why. You fail to learn why and cannot submit to another church structure long enough to find out why, so you storm off and attack the church, never realizing the problem is in your own heart and own lack of wisdom, and because the nice little house group where everybody knows your name, never prepared you for reality. Never challenged you to stand up, to honour, to submit, to do things you don’t feel like, to prefer another over yourself.
I have had people get furious at me because I will not let someone I do not know pray for the sick at the end of a service. It’s not that they are spiritual and keen, and I am envious and jealous. It’s because they don’t know protocol, they don’t know honour, and they need to learn. Their fury is prove they need to mature, and have been in a dysfunctional “church”.
So what is the solution – it is simple. You attend a healthy church that has small groups. That has a big temple meeting and house meetings, just like the church in Jerusalem, in fact just like every church in the New Testament except Rome (The Roman authorities would not allow the church to have big meetings), and Rome had problems due to that! You learn how to honour and prefer others, you learn how to submit and be involved in protocol. You learn how to be faithful with and steward that which is anothers.
Then you end up with true growth, true life and true abundance. This is the way forward, saints. Those who are wise will hear.
Grace and peace,