An amazing development has occurred in the past few decades, around the world in various places, across usual dividing lines, in Christian communities of many different Christian persuasions and backgrounds. I refer to the re-emerging and continuing phenomenon of house churches as a dynamic expression and normal practice of Christian faith communities. The worship and fellowship forms used in house churches, regardless of denominational affiliations, are much more biblical than those observed in institutional churches. In fact, the worship and fellowship in the typical house church, regardless of the denominational persuasion or background of the participants, looks much like the picture of the Lord's church we have in the Bible and through the first centuries of Christian history. While the house church model is often the primary model of church in countries where persecution, oppression, and limited economic means restrict churches to simpler forms, the house church model is growing around the world, even in areas where external factors do not force the church to such a model. In the United States millions of believers now meet in house churches. George Barna estimates the number to be more than 20 million-as many as one-third of those who regularly attend church.
In many parts of the world, mission work is best accomplished through house churches which emphasize that the local gathering of believers is a community of faith which can share life physically and spiritually as a family. In fact, such smaller groups are much more capable of functioning like a family than are larger, institutional, building-based groups.
Dan McVey (Ghana Gram, Feb/Mar 2006) suggests that a biblical foundation for such communities may appear in the commission of Luke 9, "when Jesus sent out his disciples to look for 'men of peace' in the communities as they took the word of the Kingdom. They were instructed to live with the men of peace, eating with them and blessing them with the word of Christ." McVey further explains that house church forms better explain early Christian practices such as communion in the context of a common "agape" meal (1 Cor. 10-11) and some of the fellowship and disfellowship issues in Corinth (e.g., ch. 5). Formalized worship and leadership have, through the centuries, tended to move the church, especially in western culture, farther and farther away from the simple faith communities which characterized the early church.
The observations of this article are not intended to suggest that house churches are the only acceptable form of church, but rather intend to lift up our eyes to the possibility that large, untouched segments of the world's population might be touched with the use of smaller, neighborhood gatherings of believers who share faith and life, problems, weaknesses and strengths, and support one another in reaching out to the lost, inviting them into a close fellowship of prayer and faith. This model is being rediscovered throughout the world. One area in which the model is especially visible in the U.S. is in the current church planting emphasis.
The rediscovery of this model and its effectiveness in multiple cultural settings is leading to remarkable numeric results. There are some networks of house churches in China that have over 1,000,000 members. Such house churches share a network of communication and study. The house church (cell) form is an especially viable option for believers in the midst of persecution. According to Joel Comiskey of Cell Church Solutions (cellchurchsolutions.com), based on research done for his dissertation from Fuller almost 10 years ago, Latin America is leading the way in the development of cell or house churches. In 1997, in Bogota 10,000 cell churches existed in penetrating every corner of Bogota; their goal was 30000 before 2000. Comiskey reports that in San Salvador, La Mision Cristiana had 116,000 attending 5300 cell groups. Other outstanding examples of the way the house church model of church planting is being accepted in Latin America include La Comunidad Cristiana Agua Viva in Lima, Peru with 550 house groups and 6500 Sunday worshipers; El Centro Cristiano in Guayaquil, Ecuador with 1600 house groups and 5000 Sunday worshipers; and El Amor Viviente in Tegucigalpa with 850 house groups and 7500 worshipers.
Every time I fly into a major Latin American city, my heart hurts as I wonder how we are going to take the gospel to the residents of such large, bustling cities! The number of mega-cities in the Americas (cities of 1,000,000+) has gone from 67 just 20 years ago to 105 in 2005, and is predicted to reach 136 in the next 20 years. How are we going to reach the large metropolitan areas of the U.S.? The model we are customarily using is not working, and we are falling further and further behind as the percentage of Christians compared to the multiplying populations is smaller and smaller. I am concluding that our churches in the western world in particular, and in Latin America specifically, need to rediscover a simple form of worship, organization, service, and focus. Spending millions on buildings, personnel, property, and other institutional expenses while having a limited voice in the world around us should give us pause: Is this really what Jesus' church looks like? Is this really what Jesus intended for his church?
Such reflection causes me to realize that we need to simplify our lives and faith, return to the foundations of faith, and ask afresh how faith should play out in our daily lives. We need to minimize the structures and baggage, and try to discover ways to start over without the distractions and complications of burdensome traditions. Such models of ministry and mission require fewer resources, a lower profile, and allow fitting into the culture in unobtrusive ways. Such is consistent with the task of training indigenous ministry workers to train and involve others. Such provides a way of escape from the paternalistic, dependent patterns of mission work that have frequently developed.
The house church model is really what we see in the ministry of Jesus and the apostles. Certainly there is the need for public proclamation, but churches were built through families and small social blocks-consider the family relations of Jesus' followers, or read Romans 16.
If Barna's estimate is even close, that there are more than 20,000,000 believers in the U.S. already involved in house churches, small-group based churches, marketplace faith fellowships, and similar kinds of small, relational expressions of Christianity, we are faced with an unprecedented phenomenon in Christianity. If the major cities of Latin America are being penetrated with small-group based churches that count thousands of adherents, we would do well to take notice, and to ask what God is calling us to do. May our allegiance be only to Jesus as we see to be faithful disciples and to make more disciples for his glory.