Spencer Colliver, a former elder and coordinator of home groups in the O’Connor Uniting Church, Canberra, wrote extensively about house churches.
In this environment all the people of God
will be released into the fullness of the Spirit.
A group of enthusiastic young married couples had been engaged in an intensive coffee house outreach ministry to other young people. They were jaded and disillusioned by the lack of encouragement they received from the churches to which they belonged.
I was invited to lead them in a caring and sharing group. At the end of six months of weekly meetings and other activities the bitterness had largely disappeared, but by this time all of them had stopped attending their respective churches. They invited me to work with them indefinitely. For nearly three years the weekly meeting was ‘church in the home’ for them. It built and strengthened their faith until most of them moved away from the city to other places where they became active in other groups or churches. That experience of home church had strengthened their faith in Christ and his church.
The house church or church in the home is neither new nor revolutionary. Wherever the people of God have been genuinely open to the Holy Spirit their lives have often found their most potent expression in small groups.
The early church had its essential life in homes. Their intimate experience of being the people of God was in households. There they ‘devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers’ (Acts 2:42). In his letters to the churches, Paul refers several times to the church which meets in the house. Early church history confirms that the most common meeting place for Christians was in the ordinary domestic setting of a house. Going to church in the first and second centuries meant going to someone’s home.
A small group
There are powerful biblical, historical and sociological reasons for contending that the life of the Christian disciple is more completely expressed and fulfilled in a small group in an informal domestic setting than in a large assembly and hall.
Jesus’ final command was to love one another (John 13:3435) and his final commission was togo and make disciples (Matthew 28:1820). We may proclaim the gospel to thousands but we make disciples in small groups in the furnace of daily living. We can only truly love one another in the context of an understanding, sharing relationship.
The strength and influence of the revival under John Wesley and George Whitefield was
conserved and focused through the class meetings of twelve which Wesley organised. David Prior (1983:40) notes, ‘By 1742 in Bristol (i.e. four years after his Aldersgate Street experience of assurance of salvation through trusting Christ) there were 1,100 people divided into classes of 12 each, each with a leader. … Class members began “to bear one another’s burdens” and naturally to “care for one another.”‘
The class meeting has been described as the keystone of the entire Methodist edifice. Wesley expressed a personal need for a small group with whom he could unburden himself without reserve. No circuit, he said, ever did or ever will flourish unless there are small groups in the large ‘society’. In later years, Wesley would not accept an invitation to conduct an evangelistic program unless house groups were already established to which new converts could be directed and nurtured.
The current move of the people of God into small groups and communities is widespread from the United Kingdom to South Africa to the grassroots communities of South America, from Zimbabwe and Uganda to China, Singapore and Korea. Wherever the Bible has been taken seriously and the Spirit poured out people have more frequently found their essential life with a small group of other Christians.
The large congregational meeting is the place for public worship, declaration and teaching. It is instructive to note that the people of Israel were taught the law in their families (Deuteronomy 6) and the expression of their corporate unity as the people of God was when they went up to Jerusalem four times a year for celebration and festival.
If we were to take seriously the model which Jesus gave us we would be concerned with forming groups of 1215. In order to obey his command to make disciples there needs to be a grouping or social context which stimulates personal awareness and understanding of one another and gives opportunity to observe closely the behaviour, the attitudes, and the feelings of one another. Jesus called the twelve to be with him. They walked, ate, slept and kicked the dust of Galilee together. In the discipling of a small group he modelled intimacy and fellowship.
Within that group of twelve Jesus had three who were even more intimately related with him. He took them with him on special occasions such as at the Transfiguration and the raising of Jairus’ daughter. Jesus made small forever beautiful when he said that ‘where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them’ (Matthew 18:20).
When we review the biblical statements about our relationship with one another and reflect upon what has been termed mutual ministry it is difficult, if not impossible, to see how we can respond genuinely to these Scriptures except in a small, continuous, ongoing, intimately related group.
Jesus’ command to love one another is emphasised again and again in the epistles. In fact is was this quality of life which caused others to recognise the Christians as Jesus’ disciples. ‘To be Jesus’ in love and compassion is the greatest witness. In order to do that you have to be close to people.
A shared life
We are called to a shared life. Loving cannot be at a distance or in personal remoteness. Nor can it be expressed only to God in our times of worship and meditation ‘for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also’ (1 John 4:19b20).
What does it mean to love and to share? And what are the impediments to the shared life? God cares about the way we treat each other because we are members of his family. The vertical relationship with God is given flesh and blood in our horizontal relationships with one another.
The expression ‘one another’ and similar terms are keys to the shared life. The Scriptures in which they are found give substance to the attitudes and behaviour which express love. They detail love in action. They deliver us from the sentimentality, lust and triviality of today’s use of ‘love’. It involves reciprocal relationships.
There are some 18 categories involving ‘one another’ in the New Testament. Love one another is most common; it occurs 12 times. Many other categories are familiar: accept/welcome (Romans 15:7), comfort/instruct (Romans 15:14), forbear/bearing with (Ephesians 4:2), live in harmony/have unity of spirit (1 Peter 3:8), confess sins to and pray for (James 5:16), submit to/be subject to (Ephesians 5:21), be kind, tenderhearted and forgiving (Ephesians 4:32), serve/become slaves (Galatians 5:13), practice hospitality/be hospitable (1 Peter 4:9).
These and many similar expressions show how ‘the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love’ (Ephesians 4:16). Our task, under the Holy Spirit, is to build up each other.
Paul was convinced that the Christians in Rome were so complete in knowledge that they were ‘able to instruct one another’ (Romans 15:14). We must conclude that building one another up is too important a task to be left to the leaders. It is not the exclusive task of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers to build up the body of Christ. They need to train and equip God’s people to do the building.
It is one thing to be a pastor; it is a more demanding but more productive task to train another to be a pastor. I may be only a ‘one talent’ person as a pastor but I would expect that a five talent pastor would show me how not to bury my one talent but use it for my Master.
The charismatic renewal has enabled many people to enter into mutual trust and share in a more open, vulnerable and accountable way. Yet the rich results of renewal found in deep personal sharing are still rare. What causes this plateau of involvement with one another?
Obviously there are personal reasons why leaders and people do not wish to share. We are afraid that confidences will not be respected. We are conditioned to hide our deepest feelings and cover up our negative attitudes, to put on a mask and keep up appearances at all costs. Some of us will not share with others because we are afraid that when others know us as we know ourselves they will not like or accept us. Some have an understandable fear of falling under the influence of people who will exercise power or control over their lives.
Churches emphasise the individual and personal character of salvation which then is worked out mainly in a private devotional life. This provides opportunity for discord and disunity with a fear about the consequences of a shared life. We may agree in doctrine but never share at the deeper levels of attitude and feelings.
Structural impediments built up over decades of church tradition and organisation inhibit the growth of sharing, loving relationships. Church life inhibits intimacy and community. The principal hindrance to the shared life is the big weekly meeting on a Sunday; it hinders if that is the primary expectation for the gathering of the people of God. Sharing of life is minimal and many want it that way; but others come with a desire to be open to one another and with a burden they long to share. The structure of the meeting does not allow for that.
There is nothing intrinsically wrong with the large gathering for teaching, public declaration and worship, but it is not the context or framework within which love and sharing can grow no matter how much people desire it. That happens in the structure of the small group.
If I am to achieve a life style and Christian behaviour consistent with the New Testament I have to be placed in a situation where I can share to the point where I can understand others, and they me. I need also to be held accountable for my Christian growth by brothers and sisters who hold me precious in the sight of the Lord Jesus. In such a group there is time and space for everyone to minister to one another and so fulfil the priesthood of all believers (1 Peter 2:9) without depending on a ‘chief priest’.
A multi-gifted ministry
Being in a small group does not guarantee that automatically the quality of life will reflect the New Testament. Some groups may come under the domination of leadership either from the central church staff or from a controlling person. The small group can also become a microcosm of the large gathering with people only minimally involved. This was the case in Bible study groups where we sat and listened with only minimal interaction, usually at impersonal levels.
Leadership is essential, of course, but that of the servant who seeks to release everyone in the group into the practice of their gifts the charisms which the Holy Spirit is waiting to bestow. The renewal has opened the possibility of the gifts of the Spirit for all, not only for those trained and ordained. Making disciples involves bringing all the people of God into an understanding and practice of their gifts.
John Howard Yoder (1987:18) traces the movement of the ‘multiministry’ of the early church to the ‘monoministry’ of later times. He writes of the ‘slower, more complex tasks of evoking, nurturing and coordinating those gifts.’ Each of those verbs has a crucial process surrounding it and few groups have come to grips with these essentials of making disciples.
Ernst Kasemann (1964:70) elaborates this further noting that ‘the multiplicity of charismata are constitutive of the body of Christ, “the body consists not of one body but of many.” … This multiplicity does not cause the body to disintegrate but makes its true unity possible. … The church cannot find her order in uniformity or rationalisation. Neither must she give so much prominence to individuals among her members that others are overshadowed and condemned to passivity.’
Churches in renewal often shift the modelling of the exercise of gifts from the pulpit to the platform. The ‘healing line’ in which a few people exercise the gifts of the Spirit has not encouraged the full release of all to minister. A manifest personal gifting together with ordination creates a sense of awe and the feeling that ordinary people can never make it.
When a congregational setting is the principle place of ministry it is difficult for people to understand how to go about, for example, praying for healing at work or in the neighbourhood. In teaching the disciples Jesus modelled healing and deliverance right where people were, on the street, in the market place, out in the country, as well as in synagogues.
John Wimber has emphasised, ‘If your church is too large to accommodate this type of learning you probably need to break it down into smaller units for equipping’ (1986:13). Wimber goes on to say that his first experience in exercising all the gifts of the Spirit occurred in a small group. The small unit, however, is not only for equipping but also for ongoing practice.
That ongoing practice or continuous and full exercise of the Spirit’s gifts leads into a consideration of the difference between home groups functioning as supplementary to the congregational meeting and house or home churches which operate as independent units but which may come together for celebration.
A multi-church ministry
Home churches opt to move in the direction of multichurch rather than megachurch. This is the case in a number of places in Australia and in England.
The home group has been an important addition to the life of many churches in renewal. It offers opportunity for the personal nurture, caring and sharing of the members of a congregation which is not possible during the Sunday morning service. The meeting, usually for two hours during a week night and usually excluding children, includes worship, sharing of personal needs, prayer for one another, study of Bible passages often set by the minister, and discussion. From time to time groups organise events aiming to touch nonChristians, but primarily the groups are for the support of members.
The home church, however, takes full responsibility for its life. Everything that you would expect to happen in church happens in the church in the home. The implications of this kind of church in terms of church order, leadership, membership, adherence to core doctrines, times of meetings, accountability, management of monies, and training of members are all matters which are beyond the scope of this chapter.
In personal contact and review of house churches in the United Kingdom and participation in Australian home groups for 15 years and latterly in a home church, I note the following.
1. There is in the home church an intention and vision to be the church. The vision may not always be well articulated because it is constantly unfolding, but there is a strong commitment and responsibility for its realisation. In many respects it is a church planting exercise with all the uncertainty and tentativeness associated with such a project. People coming out of a church focused primarily on maintaining its life are not prepared to handle all the questions which arise. However, once they are free of a set tradition and structure there is all the freshness and vtality of a first-generation experience. This freshness in the Spirit is maintained in several ways as listed here.
2. There is an intention to foster the full participation of all members in the release of the gifts of the Spirit. The gifts and the anointing of the Spirit are granted as the Spirit determines (1 Corinthians 12:79). They are given to people to serve the body, not just for the realisation of their ministry (1 Peter 4:1011; Ephesians 4:716). Within a framework of orderliness everyone or as many as possible contribute to the expression of life in the Spirit in the body (1 Corinthians 14:2633; Ephesians 5:1521; Hebrews 10:2425). In the discipling of people there is encouragement to overcome fear and cultural reticence to enable them to express what God is doing in and for them. Everyone then shares the encouragement; no one is left out.
3. The outward expression of the body and inner growth flows over in service to the immediate community. The home church is neighbourhood based. David Prior (1983:89102) explores the importance of listening for the ‘pain’ of the neighbourhood and the need to be Jesus in that situation and do the works of the Father. The house churches of Brighton Circuit, Brighton, England, make themselves available to the street in which they are located. They seek to be servants in meeting whatever needs are there. This may be the hardest place to express Christian care and to demonstrate the good news. Those helped and healed share the good news in their locality as did the demoniac of Gadara (Mark 5:1820).
4. Each home church seeks to reproduce itself in one to two years; to grow and divide. When growth occurs new issues emerge. Discipleship and Christian foundation courses are developed and people trained to conduct them. New leadership is grown for the new groups and for their overall direction; the pain of separation dealt with. This church planting lifestyle creates an impetus to growth in personal and group life constantly refreshing life in the Spirit. When we remember that over 70% of Australians acknowledge there is a God but over 80% do not have any Christian commitment we see a world outside of our comfortable group life to be won for Jesus.
5. Full use is made of people with theological training and other expertise as resource people and facilitators. Members who have special gifting are given opportunity to receive further training in order to equip others for the work of the kingdom. Some home church clusters, as indeed some denominational churches, establish their own Bible schools and courses to encourage all their members to be biblically literate. When members show they have particular capacity for, say, counselling they are given opportunity and financial help to undertake any courses available. The aim is not only to enable all people to exercise their gifts responsibly but to develop them so that the body is effective in its work and ministry.
6. As home churches grow in number some kind of service and resource centre may be necessary. In one United Kingdom situation 30 house churches are linked together with 600 people who gather for celebration and public outreach in halls and community facilities. The administrative and resource centre is in a shop front in the main commercial area. All the house churches acknowledge the leadership of the total enterprise but this commitment is given by covenant; it is not mandatory. Authority to act flows from the groups. This kind of structure, rather than imposed uniformity, is more likely to lead to unity.
7. Essentially the home church is based on a ‘tent making’ model so that financial resources are freed primarily to build living stones, support ministries in needy areas and developing countries, provide some support for part-time ministries and mission, and to keep expenses for salaries and buildings to a minimum, in contrast to most churches which pour their financial resources into buildings and full-time salaries.
8. In keeping with the unity of the Spirit home churches seek to foster relationships with other Christian groups and churches. In no way does the home church become separatist in character though it will be independent in function in order to stimulate full involvement of all members. There is an aggregation of Christian presence in the community which grows from neighbourhood to suburb to district to region to nation, gathering in streams of different kinds to the swelling river of witness.
A way ahead
In terms of church history it may be said that all of this has been tried before and fallen into decay. Perhaps so, but at the birth of groups and churches in those earlier days and for a considerable time afterward such movements served their generation in the onward sweep of the kingdom of God.
Such groups always emerged in times of renewal or persecution, often challenging the status quo. If they eventually atrophied and died this is no reason why in a new generation these ideas cannot be reworked. To merely retain a present tradition which is no longer relevant to the challenge of this day is most inhibiting. We constantly encourage people to take the step of faith. Failure is not the end of the story, nor ever will be in the kingdom of God.
The renewal of the people of God calls for full participation to go on to adulthood. To keep people sitting in hundreds facing in one direction, going through the same procedures, listening to the same person over years, keeps them in childhood and resists the Spirit of God who is calling all to freedom, service and servanthood.
Finally, what if the worst were to happen in Australia as has happened repeatedly both in the past and in the present, and the church were persecuted and had to go underground? How would we prepare and equip the people of God? Or more optimistically, if we see a mighty outpouring of the Spirit of God on this land, would we be ready to gather and conserve the harvest? Either way, given a five year opportunity to prepare the army of God, how would it be done now?
While we speak with awe of megachurches where thousands gather, we should remember that the cell group has always been the energising element in any successful mass movement. The historian Herbert Butterfield says, the strongest organisational unit in the world’s history would appear to be that which we call a cell; for it is a remorseless self-multiplier; it is exceptionally difficult to destroy, it can preserve its intensity of local life while vast organisations quickly wither when they are weakened at the centre; it can defy the power of governments; and it is the appropriate lever for prising open any status quo.
Whether we take early Christianity or sixteenth century Calvinism … this seems the appointed way by which a mere handful of people may open up a new chapter in the history of civilisation’ (Banks 1986:233234).
The experience of house churches in China is a graphic illustration of this principle. What may have served us well in a stable society will not stand the test of an increasingly destabilised and uncertain future. The home church will not be an ancillary unit to the congregation but its basic foundation. In this environment all the people of God, not just a few, will be released into the fullness of the Spirit.
David Prior (1983) The Church in the Home. London: Marshall Pickering.
Ernst Kasemann (1964) Essays on New Testament Themes: Ministry and Community. S. C. M. Press.
Robert & Julia Banks (1986) The Home Church: Regrouping the People of God for Community and Mission. Sydney: Albatross.
John Wimber (1986) ‘Releasing Lay People’, First Fruits Magazine, Anaheim: Vineyard.
John Howard Yoder (1987) The Fulness of Christ: Paul’s Vision of Universal Ministry. Illinois: Brethren Press.
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