My introduction to the ‘house church’ movement was subtle. I did not wake up one day and decided I wanted to start doing ‘house church’. For me, it began with a nudge in my spirit that began around 2004. During that time I was becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the way we were ‘doing church’. I began a journey (that continues today), looking for answers.
I didn’t pursue house church because I disliked the traditional church. I am a musician. I have served several traditional churches as their musician and choir director. I enjoy good choirs, praise teams, and dance ministry. I enjoy good preaching. I enjoy some of the programs and events offered by traditional churches. They offer a corporate level of worship that we all enjoy, but end up being more entertainment for believers than ministry to reach the lost.
Dissatisfaction prompted me to look for answers. The first place I looked was the Word of God. I was amazed at the number of references to believers gathering in houses. In my bureaucratic thinking, I immediately translated that to the ‘cell church movement’ that was popular at that time. There were plenty of books on that subject, so I assumed this was the way to go. It wasn’t. I trained those who were interested in being cell leaders. I tried to implement cell groups, while all the time I felt like I was putting square pegs in round holes.
I honestly don’t remember how I came into contact with some material relating to house churches in America. I had heard about the underground house church movement in China, but assumed the governmental oppression that the Chinese church experienced forced them to worship that way. No way could that work in America. After all, we were free to worship any time and any way we chose. We were free to ‘go to church’. Yet, hearing about house churches in America resonated in my spirit, but scared the daylights out of me. House church was so out of the norm from everything I knew.
Quietly I began to research house churches in this country. I read many books – pro and con. It became clearer and clearer to me that gathering in the homes of believers was the norm for the first century believers. I found nothing in history that justified any other way. The shift that created our current way of gathering appeared to be prompted by human intervention for self-serving reasons. Even so, my conclusion was that what has become the traditional church system was not wrong – but I found it to be incomplete. It was a system that generally failed to release believers to pursue their individual calling, purpose and ministry. Their programs and internal ministries were substitutes for what should be our real focus – the advancing of the Kingdom of God by making disciples.
I began to search for house churches in my area. It was difficult than I anticipated. The few I found were unwelcoming and isolated. They appeared to me to be the typical – me, my four and no more. As disappointing as this was, I continued to look for answers. In 2009, a dear brother introduced me to a book, The Normal Christian Church Life by Watchman Nee. It blew me away. A book that was written 1939 was speaking nearly everything I was sensing in my spirit. So I really ramped up my quest for answers.
It didn’t take long for me to find more and more material on house churches, specifically here in America. It seemed to be a growing phenomenon. It appeared that more and more people were moving to this simpler more organic way of gathering. It could probably be argued that this was true for a season. But then, I began to hear of ‘issues’ arising among house church adherents that sounded eerily close to the same ‘issues’ present in the traditional church. Financial problems, isolation, racial issues, leadership dysfunction and doctrinal error were some problems being quietly discussed behind closed doors.
Why was this so? Was it naïve to believe that the house church movement would correct many of the problems seen in traditional church settings? Yes, because as long as human frailty is involved, there will be problems. Yet, as I looked deeper, there was a greater issue. It is the reason I wrote this article. House church, as biblically legitimate as it is, had morphed into a fad.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a fad as something (such as an interest or fashion) that is very popular for a short time. I believe something becomes a fad when the purpose for it is lost in the methodology. In other words, it became a fad because more people were leaving ‘big box church’ for ‘living room church’, for the wrong reasons. To many, house church was an antithesis to traditional church. They flocked into living rooms, under the banner of following Jesus, but more to declare their freedom from what they perceived as religious bondage. They were free – but free for what?
Within these gatherings there was singing, camaraderie, sharing of meals, praying for each other, but often within the context of being liberated from their idea of an oppressive regime called the traditional church. Frankly, very few would outwardly describe the traditional church as an oppressive regime, but the religious code words were regularly evident. “I’m no longer under bondage.” Think about it, you never consider anything that held you captive in a positive light. “Only Jesus leads His Church.” This subtly says that “I don’t need someone preaching to me, or you can’t tell me what to do.” “Tithing is Old Testament.” In other words, this becomes a pseudo-biblical excuse for not giving. “Elders are just older men.” By diminishing the biblical role of elders, you can dismiss their authority in your life.
Did house church become a fad? Is it losing its popularity? Evidence of my assertion is in the fact that some of the key ‘house church’ proponents I first became acquainted with are now facing financial hardships because the ‘thrill is gone’ and the money that supported them has dried up. People no longer flock to their conferences or buy their books. Some of the early writers that so eloquently wrote about the joys of the house church, are now writing about other popular topics of today. Some house church groups have become victim to religious extremes. And finally, some of the leaders of the movement have migrated back into the ‘traditional church’. They found ministry opportunities (code word for paying jobs), in the system they said was oppressive and unbiblical.
I am yet a strong proponent of the house church. In no way do I want to think that I am saying that house church is wrong. House church is not a doctrine. Neither is the way we typically gather in dedicated facilities on Sunday Mornings a doctrine. Gathering from house to house is closely aligned to biblical practice. Yet, if we lose sight of our purpose for gathering from house to house, we will eventually lose interest in its methodology. Whenever your focus is more on WHAT you do, rather than WHY you do it, you run the risk of becoming a fad.
House church is a tool. It is one part of the tri-part nature of the church. First, house churches provide a place to disciple new believers and foster covenant relationships. Second, house churches within a city or region must connect and come together from time to time for corporate worship. We must never disconnect from the greater Body of Christ. And third, house church participants should commit to growing in the knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ, and be willing to be developed for the work of ministry. I believe it takes all of this to have a strong New Testament church.
I discovered what I was looking for. I was searching for a way to fulfill the command of Jesus Christ in the earth. I have been seeking how to be fruitful, to multiply and replenish the earth and subdue it within a community of believers who desire the same thing (Genesis 1:28). With them, I want to ‘go into all the world and make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19). I want to encourage others and be encouraged to preach the kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ (Matthew 10:7-8; Luke 9:2-6). I want my gifts and callings to be available to serve the Body of Christ when and wherever they are needed (1Corinthians 9:19). I believe this is the vibrant living church that Jesus purchased with His blood (Acts 20:28).
Tim Kurtz is the founder of The Center for New Testament Church Development. The ministry was formed in 2010 with the mission to plant regional churches that reflect the values and structure of the first century church.