What is a house church?

We believe this article also applies to home fellowships such as ours.

House churches date back to the early church, when Christians used to meet in homes. As their numbers grew they looked for larger places to gather, and eventually church became a bricks-and-mortar place to ‘go to’ — instead of a group of fellow Christians to fellowship with.

House churches never really disappeared, though. Whether by necessity (such as persecution) or by preference, countless Christians have continued to meet in private homes.

Over the past fifteen years, or so, many Christians in the West have, in a sense, ‘rediscovered’ house churches. Some of these churches are part of a larger movements, while others remain largely independent.

So-called ‘cell groups’ — weekly meetings organized by a local church — are not considered to be house churches.

That said, some organized house church movements have somewhat of an elitist ‘us-versus-them’ approach to brick-and-mortar churches. In reality, true Christians are found in many different types of church.

Likewise, some house churches — whether independent or part of a larger movement — have included (or still include) some cult-like elements, either sociologically and/or theologically. The same can be said of many other types of churches and church movements or denominations.

Unfortunately quite a number of house churches — many in the US — have voluntarily come under the influence of people who consider themselves ‘apostles‘ and ‘prophets.’

At HouseChurch.nl we see ourselves simply as Christians — people saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. While we meet in an independent house group, we are part of the larger body of believers headed by Jesus Christ.

The following article, from the Los Angeles Times, addresses the house church phenomenon:

Jason Kilp had a short commute to church one recent Sunday. He walked about 15 feet from the bedroom of his Anaheim apartment to a small worship service in the living room.

“It’s intimate,” the 24-year-old graphic design student said. Unlike gatherings he and his wife have attended at a 4,000-member mega-church in Irvine, Kilp said, “this is like a conversation. It’s somebody talking to you.”

The couple are part of a growing movement, mostly among evangelical and born-again Christians, that, depending on who’s talking, represents either a second Protestant reformation or a sellout of biblical principles.

The trend goes by several names: house churches, living-room churches, the underground church, the organic church, the simple church, church without walls. Although they disagree on whether it’s a good thing, proponents and detractors say that going to church in a home has the potential of forever changing the way Christians worship.

“We are at the initiation point of a transformational shift,” said George Barna, author of the book “Revolution,” about the changing nature of worship, and founding director of the Barna Group, a Ventura-based research firm that tracks religious trends.

A 2006 survey by his firm — tracking developments for use by researchers and the media — concluded that 9% of U.S. adults attend house churches weekly, a ninefold increase from the previous decade, and that roughly 70 million Americans have experienced a home service.

Those most likely to attend house churches, according to phone interviews with more than 5,000 adults nationwide, are men, families that home-school their children, residents of the West and nonwhites, while those least likely to attend include women, people older than 60 and Midwesterners.

“We predict that by the year 2025, the market share of conventional churches will be cut in half,” Barna said. “People are creating a new form of church, and it’s really exciting.”

Some have doubts

Not everyone shares Barna’s enthusiasm for the phenomenon, however. Some argue that the growth of home worship simply shows the failure of the mega-church, rather than a spiritual breakthrough. One of the harshest critics of house churches is David Wells, a professor at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary near Boston and the author of several books on modern Christianity. He describes the movement as “empty of biblical substance. This is not real Christianity.”

Proponents counter that it’s how the church began.

In Christianity’s early years, Bible historians say, most worship services took place in homes. That was due to the church’s small size, its lack of structure and, perhaps most significantly, that it evolved when religious gatherings had to be conducted away from the watchful eyes of repressive authorities.

“There were no church buildings in the first 300 years of church history,” said Dan Hubbell, a former Southern Baptist minister in Winnsboro, Texas, who now “plants” nondenominational house churches worldwide. “The early church was basically a gathering from house to house.”

As the church grew, so did its structure, evolving into the mega-churches of today. But somewhere along the way, adherents say, something valuable was lost.

The house church movement, they say, satisfies the craving for a more intimate worship experience lost in the mega-church maze.

“People can get a lot closer to each other than in a formal church setting where everyone sits with their heads facing forward,” said Milt Rodriguez, 54, whose nondenominational ministry, the Rebuilders, has started five “first-century style” house churches in Colorado and Missouri since 2002. “It’s not just one person preaching with everybody following. Everyone has a function, and everyone shares.”

Barna believes the growing appeal of house churches stems from the heightened acceptance among U.S. churchgoers of what he describes as the “postmodern mind-set,” which places primary value on relationships and shared experiences.

“We’re finding, increasingly, that that’s the case,” he said, “particularly among young adults. People are feeling disconnected, and when they attend conventional church services, there’s not much there to connect them to others present” and to God.

House churches, Barna said, regain this intimacy by meeting in groups of 10 to 20, usually weekly, in members’ homes. Their tendency to depend on spontaneous leadership instead of formal clergy, he said, encourages fuller and more personal participation.

“All through his ministry,” Barna said, “Jesus never asked anyone to go to church. He asked people to be the church.”

Roger Finke, a professor of sociology and religious studies at Penn State University, says this grass-roots approach explains the phenomenon’s primary appeal to nondenominational Christians.

“If you are Orthodox or Catholic or Lutheran,” he said, “you wouldn’t think of having the authority [to worship] without being part of a larger hierarchy. For evangelicals, the ultimate authority is the Bible. They don’t depend on ordained clergy to provide ritual or give them sacraments. They want to get back to what the early church was like.”

Informal atmosphere

Yet it is this informal atmosphere that has engendered much of the criticism. Some of it comes from pastors concerned about the potential shrinking of their flocks. For others, it’s a question of whether such free-flowing worship can meet today’s spiritual needs.

“These are very inward-looking groups,” Wells said, “because you get people who like each other meeting together in church. Because of those personal bonds, it would be very difficult to preach something jarring or disagreeable to anyone in the group. The church would break up.”

He is also concerned about ritual and tradition.

“What do you do about sacraments?” he asked. “What about discipline? Will the group be able to address a moral calamity? When you have a clubby little group, other people don’t naturally make their way in.”

One Southern California minister, Dave Gibbons, is trying to bridge the gap between traditional and home worship. Gibbons is founding pastor of New Song Church, a 4,000-member Irvine congregation affiliated with the Evangelical Covenant Church. It began as a tiny gathering in his apartment and, nearly 15 years later, is returning to its roots.

“We were growing into this big mega-church,” said Gibbons, 44, “but we began to question whether we were really changing lives. Was our model truly sustainable? Was my goal just to get big, or to really reach people?”

The questioning went into high gear, Gibbons said, during a yearlong sabbatical in Thailand, where converts, many with Buddhist backgrounds, seemed far more comfortable meeting in living rooms than in a traditional Christian church. “Jesus was already there,” the minister said. “They didn’t need us to impose Western structure.”

When he returned home, a new vision emerged for his church and its relatively young congregation. The result is what Gibbons calls the “church without walls,” which Jason Kilp has been attending.

It is a network of about 15 mini-churches with an average of a dozen members each. Meeting at least weekly in homes, the groups are coordinated by church staffers who are not spiritual leaders in the usual sense. Though home worshipers are still associated with New Song Church, Gibbons says, they attend services at the Irvine facility only monthly “to see that they are part of a bigger whole.”

Eventually, Gibbons says, he envisions most New Song members attending house churches with a commensurate decrease in the size of services at the mother church. The results so far have been just fine for the Kilps, who say they are traveling less and learning more.

“It offers support and spiritual growth,” says Kilp’s wife, Lucy.

Gathering to worship

At the recent gathering in the Kilps’ apartment, a handful of worshipers listened to a CD of Christian music, sang the hymns “I Love You Lord” and “Change My Heart, O God,” prayed, shared testaments and read Bible passages while nibbling on apples and churros.

Kicking off a discussion on the conflicts between culture and faith, Stephen Bay, 36, raised the issue of reaching out to potential converts on levels they can more easily understand. It’s important to “meet people where they are,” he said. A New Song staffer who acts as a liaison between the main organization and the house church, Bay doesn’t pull rank and functions otherwise as any other member.

The group has met at a different house each week for 18 months, rotating among its members such duties as teaching, leading prayers, providing music, bringing refreshments and facilitating discussion. Occasionally, Bay said, they even hold communion. Anything is all right “as long as it points us to God,” he said. “I went to church every Sunday but God was a distant being. This is a lot more intimate and engaging. It helps me understand the Bible on a level I haven’t before.”

Joining this group, he said, “has reawakened me spiritually.”

Advocates tend to describe the movement in hyperbolic terms. “There have been many very powerful renewal movements,” said Tony Dale, operator of a home-worship website called housetohouse.com”but this is the first time since the Protestant reformation that there’s been a new paradigm of how Christianity is practiced. It’s a seismic change.”

Mainstream religionists like Penn State’s Finke, citing the often-cyclical nature of such changes, tend to be more cautious.

“Throughout history,” he said, “there have been lots of efforts to get away from the formally structured church. What often happens is that they eventually become larger organizations with more routine and structure. A number of nondenominational churches began as eight people meeting in someone’s living room; eventually they evolved into what they are today.”
– Source: David Haldane, Los Angeles Times, July 23, 2007