|Source: Joel News International, #1141, September 24, 201
|Source: Joel News International, #1141, September 24, 201
The Rev. Dr Colin Warren wrote as the Uniting Church minister at Rangeville, Toowoomba and Founding Director of Freedom Life Ministries. This article is adapted from his doctoral dissertation with Fuller Theological Seminary.
Main line churches in Australia reach mainly the middle class. We need to recognise there cannot be a dogmatic ordering of the church with respect to forms of worship, language used, and leadership style, if we are going to minister meaningfully to the poor, the rich, and all between. A homogeneous target population must be determined, and different methods of presentation used to meet the needs of each group.
Unity, not uniformity
The particular homogeneous group we are reaching consists mostly of well educated people. When people come from other social levels, they are welcomed warmly. A few remain; mostly they drop away. We despair for allowing this to happen, but I see it as axiomatic that this should occur, unless we analyse why it is happening and do something constructive to alter the situation.
It does not matter how much those from a different homogeneous group are welcomed, they will feel that they are square pegs in round holes. They have different types of conversation, different interests, speak differently, watch different TV programmes, and the children relate differently to their parents. To reach different homogeneous groups, we must develop a diversity of approaches, recognizing different needs in the areas of fellowship, preaching, and concentration span, and tailor our approach to meet the need.
It is quite reasonable for the leader of a highly educated or mentally alert group to lead from behind, using inductive methodology, but a group that does not have the same mental capacity will prefer to be with one who leads them more directly. Similarly, when counselling the first group, non-directive methods could be used more successfully than with the second group, who frequently would be helped more by a directive counsellor.
All of this indicates the need for diversity of approaches, and the need to recognize that to have unity in the church, we do not need uniformity.
Yet, denominations geared to a parish system often prohibit planting unique styles of churches if it infringes on another parish’s boundary. We need a radical change that permits forward looking parishes to exercise vision that allows for obedience to the commission that Christ gave to the church.
We are organizationally geared to a maintenance ministry, not a growth ministry. This means that our churches try to encompass different homogeneous groups within the one congregation and then feel despair when they cannot hold them.
Is there a way through this dilemma without causing division? I believe there is. It lies in the concept of the home church that was so successful in the apostolic days. Historical research indicates the probability, that as the Jewish synagogue was a gathering together of a group around the Torah, so originally there was a gathering of house churches around the synagogue, with persons to have oversight of these house churches.
In the New Testament, oikia and oikos are virtually used synonomously, and have the same range of meanings as in secular Greek, and the Septuagint. The most frequent use is in:
a. The literal sense of house (Matthew 2:11; Mark 7:30).
b. The metaphorical sense of family, household, or family of God (Matthew 13:57; John 4:53; 1 Corinthians 1:16; 2 Timothy 1:16).
In the primitive Christian community, the family of God concept can be seen as a strong possibility in the house churches that were established, where the family of God was seen to include slaves and other workers who belonged to a Christian household and formed the nucleus congregation of a house church, where the house was the meeting place (Acts 11:14, 15, 16, 31, 34; 18:8; 1 Corinthians 1:16).
It is important to recognize that it was a missionary situation, and the establishment of house churches was of great significance for the spread of the gospel. The early church took over the natural order of life of the community.
In a similar way, churches today in our secular society are in a missionary situation. The crucial thing is to spread the gospel. There has to be an organizational structure for the church, but that structure must be subservient to the spreading of the gospel. Pragmatic needs require that the church will always be living in the paradoxical situation where it is an anti-organizational organization. Its structures must not hinder people from being brought into the Kingdom of God.
Circumstances alter cases. The message of the church has not and will not change, but the way we package that message must change to meet the existential situation. In Australia, we seem to have reversed this process. We have changed the message to accommodate the beliefs of our society, and have considered to be suspect anyone who seeks to change the status quo with respect to the method of presentation.
Church Growth studies show that there are homogeneous people groups in any society. Churches have frequently disregarded this reality, which at first glance appears to run counter to the scriptural teaching that in Christ we are one (Galatians 3:28).
The homogeneous unit principle does not deny this, but recognizes that within this oneness, there is also diversity due to many factors which can inhibit close and lasting intimate relationships. A series of home churches can be commenced by a mother church which caters for specific groupings of people who always feel that they are on the fringe of the normal grouping for that particular location.
An example could be where evangelism wins young people who have been involved in the alternate life scene and have experienced the drug, occult, permissive sex culture. Parents of ‘straight’ young people have a natural and legitimate fear their sons and daughters may be attracted to the permissive culture before the old habit patterns of the alternate life style young people have been broken.
The relearning of behaviour patterns often involves a long education process. New Christians do not necessarily drop their former behaviour patterns immediately. In many cases, they are fourth generation pagans and have known no other behaviour in terms of role models. A home church can conveniently bring together such groups of people and begin the discipleship process to a Christ-like way of life.
Another example may be a group of business executives. These are often under enormous pressure in the work situation and these pressures can produce difficult dilemmas in terms of ethical decisions and can involve them in serious family problems when work pressures destroy familylife. They need to be able to talk to those who know and understand their needs. Because of the responsible position they hold that affects the lives of many people under them, total confidentiality must be maintained. They can only share their burdens with those who can be trusted. Often this can only be with those who carry similar burdens and who can adequately support them in these situations.
The home church can provide a setting for the fulfilment of this need. Many other groupings of people do not fit into the normal church in Australia and so do not attend worship, but frequently would like to do so. Their position on a resistance-receptivity scale would change, if given the right opportunities.
Paul spoke with greater relevance and meaning to the community of his day than we do to people from the counter culture, and other unreached groups. Paul as a social thinker has much to teach us about reaching those yet untouched by the church. He revealed much about the internal dynamics of his communities. They lived alongside the philosophical schools of his day and the mystery religion communities. There was nothing novel or unusual about the appearance of the Christian communities, as communities. Their novelty was their message and the radical freedom they offered.
Robert Banks (1979:65) identifies three major components in Paul’s idea of freedom:
1. Independence from law, death, and alien powers.
2. Dependence on Christ and the Spirit.
3. Interdependence with others and the world.
The purpose of that freedom was so that the Christian could live a life of righteousness, conforming to the way of Jesus, which was the way of the cross (Luke 14:25-27).
Paul led his converts into a personal relationship with one another. He showed that the gospel had a shared communal aspect to it so that to embrace the gospel, was to enter into community (Rowthorn 1986:9).
The converts gathered together in private homes and shared community (Romans 16:5). It is because Paul saw Christians as belonging to both a heavenly church and a local church that he saw them as being in a continuing personal relationship with one another which was far more important than an institutional relationship. These churches had their roots in the household unit and took some of its characteristics.
Paul emphasized their unity with Christ, and refers to the church as the body of Christ. For Paul, worship involved the whole of a person’s life, every word and action, and was inclusive of the whole of a person’s time on earth. The purpose of the church was for the edification of its members through ministry to one another.
If we in our day can catch this vision, the need for increasing the size of buildings with the coming of new converts would be minimized. We could have a central church, sending out suitable lay persons to win and disciple in their homes those who find it hard to fit into the church scene.
Paul saw the gifts of the Spirit as being for the community and they were set in a frame work of love (Ephesians 4:12, 1 Corinthians 12:7). The community of believers had at its centre the key of fellowship expressed in word and deed. For him, the focal point of reference was the relationship between the members of the body.
In our situation, this could best be accomplished in the informal, intimate relationship of a home. In Paul’s day, distinctions along national, social and sexual lines were becoming blurred. A broadening in the notion of citizenship was taking place. He thought more in terms of the things that unite people than the things that divide them.
Paul saw women functioning differently from men, but he saw them as full members of the Christian community. Although he placed some restrictions on them, he also accorded them prominence, particularly in the teaching and exhortation areas. He recognized functional diversity within the community.
Paul dissolved traditional distinctions between priests and laity. He emphasized corporate responsibility, at the same time allowing inequality in the Christian community within unity. His communities were theocratic in structure. Because of the different gifting of each person, each was able to participate with authority in its activities.
The churches recognised a diverse distribution of gifts, but no hierarchical or formal structure. There was leadership, but there was also the freedom under that leadership to exercise the Spirit’s gifts. The body as a whole determined whether behaviour was in order (1 Corinthians 4:29) within the fellowship of worship. Paul’s communities were participatory societies, where authority was distributed throughout the whole group.
Rather than set himself over these Christian communities, Paul stood with them in all that he did. His authority was God’s gift to him, given in his Damascus road experience. It was an intrinsic authority from the Holy Spirit, evident to all. It did not need to be legislated.
This is the authority that I believe God the Holy Spirit will invest in the people who will lead home churches. They will be chosen in the same way that Paul and Barnabas were chosen, as the Spirit led the church (Acts 13:2).
We tend to forget that those whom Jesus sent out to evangelize the world were trained on the apprenticeship model, not in theological colleges. Neither should be denigrated, but it should be recognized that both can successfully be used when operating in the power of the Holy Spirit.
Rangeville Uniting Church has been training a group of lay persons in preparation for sending them out, in the same way Jesus sent out his disciples. In Jesus’ day, they were called out from ordinary occupations. We can expect God to do the same today.
The great commission has not changed and if we truly believe that God is going to win the world, there will not be enough clergy to handle the harvest. In our situation, the church buildings are now inadequate. We do not want to invest further resources in buildings, but in people. We are ready to send out lay persons to plant churches in their homes.
The desire is to target those groups not being reached. If some consider that lay persons would not be theologically adequate for the task, we need to remember that the first prominent theological thinkers on behalf of the church were lay persons of great ability; men like Tertullian, Cyprian, and Augustine. It is good to remind ourselves that revolutionary movements like the Cathars, the Waldensians and the Lollards were spearheaded by the laity. They developed a great preaching activity and urged a return to the Bible.
The Reformation in Europe, like the previous Conciliar movements, was mainly a movement of the laity, as was the Reformation in England. In the middle ages, the urge for reform sprang mainly from the laity. In the Reformation on the continent, it was the laity who provided the main driving power.
John Calvin was one of the most conspicuous examples of a layman who was a self made theologian. Many other examples could be given of the key role of lay persons in the significant advances of the church. The church government needs to see the laity as an essential part of the church, rather than an insufficiently tapped source of cheap labour.
To treat ordinary church members as immature, is to keep them immature. The laity, more than the minister, are immersed in a hostile world and can minister out of a first hand knowledge of the current pressures on the ordinary person. The clergy must allow themselves to be taught by the laity.
Some would say that the counselling role of the home church pastor requires that a person be trained. What if the candidate has not filled this expectation? That would be the preferred option, but many clergy have little counselling training also. Untrained, caring support can be effective. We must use the tools available. Carkhuff (1969:10) states that: ‘While professional programmes have failed to produce tangible evidence of their translation to client benefits or, indeed, evidence that they are concerned with researching their training efforts, assessment of lay training programmes have yielded positive results.’
He goes on to point out that lay counsellors appear to have a greater ability to:
1. Enter into the milieu of the distressed.
2. Establish peer like relations with people being helped
3. Take an active part in the client’s life situation.
4. Empathize more effectively with the client’s style of life.
5. Teach the client within the client’s own frame of reference.
6. Provide the client with an effective transition to higher levels of functioning within the social system.
In the helping professions, the key ingredient for an effective helper is the capacity to empathize with the one seeking help. The counsellor who protects him/herself by remaining clinical, may be able to handle a greater number of clients because of less stress, but his/her effectiveness will be minimized.
The preparedness for self disclosure and making oneself vulnerable breaks down barriers in the one who is seeking help. I have found that those we would appoint to a position of lay pastor have already been trained in counselling to the level necessary to be very effective. They have already proved this.
I am not advocating a technique or a gimmick, but I am urging a new approach to taking advantage of results of Church Growth studies on homogeneous groups, and the use of God given gifts of the Spirit among the lay people of our church, who are prepared to recognize and come under duly appointed authority.
The structure that I am proposing to link the mother church with satellite home churches is one which I believe suits our particular case, given the rules and regulations under which we must work in the Uniting Church of Australia.
Other situations may adapt these principles in other ways. I suspect that modifications would be necessary to suit specific cases.
The laity have a ministry to the world, and a ministry to the church. In the home church model, they can exercise both of these roles. To do this, they need the support of the whole church, which includes the clergy who can assist them to release their Holy Spirit gifts.
Banks, Robert (1979) Paul’s Idea of Community. Lancer.
Carkhuff, Robert (1969) Helping and Human Relations, Vol.1. Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
Rowthorn, Ann (1986) The Liberation of the Laity. Morehouse-Barlow.
© Renewal Journal 3: Community (1994, 2011) pages 66-74
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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.
© Renewal Journal 3: Community (1994, 2011) pages 53-65
Reproduction is allowed with the copyright intact with the text.
Now available in updated book form (2nd edition 2011)
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Captain Ian Freestone wrote as a Church Army Captain working with the Ruach Neighbourhood Churches in Sydney. Original Renewal Journal article, 1994. For further information see Ruach Ministries on www.ruach.org.au
Out of a desire to see a fuller expression of Christian community in the church and out of a passion to see unbelievers come to Christ and become part of his church, several of us began a network of house churches.
We often refer to them as neighbourhood churches, firstly, because not all of them meet in homes and secondly, because we are wanting to encourage each house church to have a neighbourhood vision for outreach.
God spoke prophetically to us at that time saying, ‘You don’t grow a church from the outside in but from the inside out. The house church is the basis for growth and the key to growth is faith.’
That was in 1990. It has been a difficult road at times since then and we still have a real sense that we are on a journey. We join with many in believing that revival in this nation is imminent, if not upon us, and what is needed are structures that can cope with an influx of new Christians. The establishing of house churches provides one means for us to ride on what the Lord is wanting to do.
There is a growing realisation that our present church structures are inadequate to meet the demands of a changing society. It is doubtful whether they are flexible enough to cope with a major outpouring of the Spirit of God. Ralph Neighbour, a pioneer and proponent of cell group churches, has called for a ‘second Reformation’. He suggests that present church structures are woefully inadequate: It is sad, but true: the church structure we have duplicated over and over in this century is shockingly inefficient! The buildings are empty for most of the week. The members aren’t equipped to minister to hurting people. Everything centres on activities within the church buildings’ (1990:14).Unless we are prepared to critically examine the structures in the church, we will continue to be inhibited in our God‑given mission: to be Christian community in such a way that we might ‘know Christ and make him known.’
John Smith recognises our failure in the Australian Church to reach ordinary people for Jesus: ‘To the average Australian, the church always has been, and still is, a foreign culture. Nor has there been sufficient attempt to change that image…The church is a subculture from abroad: it still has a distinctly colonial air about it. … If we are ever going to communicate to the majority of Australian people, we will have to make some savage changes to our church agenda’ (1988:214‑215).
What we need therefore in the church are bridge builders: people willing to work towards new models of church life and ministry (Kaldor 1988:23). The church in the house is one of those bridges. Yet it is more than a bridge. In our opinion it is the most appropriate context for the expression of Christian community. We share Robert Bank’s belief that ‘on biblical and contemporary grounds the Home Church is fundamental to any quest for renewal’ (1986:39).
The problem with our present church structures is that we have developed what Howard Snyder calls an edifice complex. He suggests that we have patterned the organisation of the church on the temple model. We have confused the building the church meets in as the church itself instead of seeing the church as the people of God. In a powerful critique of present day church buildings, Snyder points out that our church buildings are a witness to our immobility, our inflexibility, our lack of fellowship, our pride and our class divisions (1975:69‑73).
Ross Paterson makes some provoking comments concerning Chinese House churches: ‘Churches which lost their buildings and their corporate life (after the cultural revolution) became centred around and rooted in the family, as meetings had to be held in homes… This lack of structure has proved of enormous benefit to the church in China’ (1989:195).
Many have sought to introduce small groups within churches to address our crisis in the West but, as David Prior states, there is ‘disillusionment with the widespread proliferation of such groups.’ He adds, ‘This is in no sense to decry the real benefits which individuals have undoubtedly received as members of prayer groups, Bible‑study groups, etc., it is simply to underline their inadequacy in terms of discovering what a local church is intended by God to become’ (1983:9).
Robert Banks, as part of his argument to say the same, quotes C. M. Olsen: Although small groups have been utilised as a church renewal scheme, they have rarely been legitimised as a full expression of the church. They have been conceived as an adjunct for the personal growth of the participants… Meanwhile the ‘real’ church gathers in the sanctuary at eleven every Sunday… the small group is relegated to serving as a means to a larger end… In this role it cannot become anything more than a halfway house’ (1986:15).
Theologically, church buildings can be no more than convenient places for God’s people to meet in larger numbers. We talk about church as something we ‘go to’ for an hour or two once a week. We say that it is important to ‘go to church’ to fellowship with God’s people. But often the nature of the church service and the way things are structured actually work against the kind of ‘koinonia’ the Bible speaks about. As Snyder insists, ‘Church buildings are not made for fellowship… homes are. And it was in homes that early Christians met to worship’ (1975:71).
According to the New Testament, the most common place for ‘church’ was in the home. Kevin Giles makes clear the point that you can only begin to unravel the workings of early church leadership when you understand that the background to the epistles is church in a house setting (1988).
It seems that the temple courts provided the believers with a place for large‑scale public witness while the needed community life could be developed through the home: ‘Every day they continued to meet in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts’ (Acts 2:46).
The church in the house was not an extension of the real thing, an appendage to what we would know as a formal Sunday gathering. Nor was it a deliberate ‘church growth strategy’ of the apostles to fulfil the need for fellowship and encouragement outside the main body of the church. The church in the house WAS the church!
They did all of what we try to do inside our church buildings (and more) and with much greater effectiveness. As others have noted, the absence of church buildings was not a hindrance to the rapid expansion of the church; instead, in comparison to the situation after AD 200, it seemed a positive help.
There are numerous people in the New Testament, both men and women, who are said to have held church meetings in their homes. Among them were Priscilla and Aquilla, Gaius, Nympha, and Philemon.
The concept of the church in the house is not a new one. Throughout the history of the Christian church there is evidence of God’s people meeting in homes for church. Over many years and in many different lands God has been calling his church home. This is illustrated in recent days in the Basic Christian Communities in Central America, the revival taking place in Communist China, the growth of ICTHUS fellowship in London, and Faith Community Baptist Church in Singapore, as weas the number of independent house churches that have begun worldwide.
How the Lord is leading us.
* Within the house church everything happens. It is the church! Bible teaching, fellowship, worship, breaking of bread, exercising of gifts, collection of money for God’s work, pastoral care, and reaching out into the community all take place through the ministry of the house church.
* House churches are not seen as an extra on top of the real thing, that is, church on Sunday. On the contrary, the house church is the church; the nucleus of the church’s life and ministry.
* They are networked together in a ‘pastorate system.’ The house church is the church, but the house churches also meet together at times for a Celebration Service in a rented hall. This is not to try to ‘do church’ but to simply celebrate in all that God is doing through his church. These celebrations happen in districts at least once a month and then every few months the districts join for a combined celebration. These gatherings of praise and worship are helpful to remind the neighbourhood church member that he or she is part of a wider community of God’s people. This provides both for the intimacy in a home‑church context as well as a regular opportunity for a combined celebration.
* Each is led by an unpaid pastor. These pastors meet regularly with the pastorate leaders for training and encouragement.
* The members of a house church comprise the total family. All age involvement is encouraged.
* It is a commitment beyond the two hours spent together. House church members are involved in interacting meaningfully outside the meeting time.
* Retreat centres are used so that 2 or 3 house churches can go away together. These are times of refreshment, restoration, empowering and equipping.
* All the house churches are urged to reproduce another house church thus avoiding the tendency to just get bigger and become just another independent church.
* There is an emphasis on creative ministries in the house church and in celebration services. This has led to the writing of many home‑grown community worship songs that have been recorded.
The development of House churches is a strategy God is giving to grow the church from the ‘inside out’. We believe that if the basic unit of the Christian community became the church in the home, then many could be reached with the Good News of Jesus.
Notwithstanding the above, house churches are not to be established merely as evangelistic ventures. The house church system is not simply a program or a technique to win the unconverted. The emphasis is to build biblical Christian community that leads to a powerful witness to Jesus in the neighbourhood area. House churches are begun to enable the Body of Christ to be the body of Christ. They are set up to ‘be the church’ in the place in which they are planted.
This new wineskin of house churches that the Lord was revealing to us did not arrive in a spiritual vacuum but in the context of a community which had been on a journey of renewal. This should be a warning to any group which thinks they can simply transport the house church vision into their own context without being mindful of the necessity for spiritual renewal as the foundation for real growth.
A house church whose members have not tasted of the new wine may have new structures but little spiritual life. The journey of renewal will be critical for any group desiring both new wine and new wineskins.
Banks, Robert and Julia (1986) The Home Church. Australia: Albatross.
Giles, Kevin (1988) Patterns of Ministry amongst the First Christians.
Kaldor, Peter and Sue (1988) Where the River Flows. Australia: Lancer.
Neighbour, Ralph (1990) Where Do We Go From Here? USA: Touch Publications.
Olsen, C. M. (1973) The Base Church: Creating Community Through Multiple Forms. Atlanta: Forum House.
Paterson, Ross (1989) Heartcry for China. Great Britain: Sovereign World.
Prior, David (1983) The Church in the Home. Great Britain: Marshall Pickering.
Smith, John (1988) Advance Australia Where. Australia: Anzea.
Snyder, Howard (1975) The Problem of Wineskins. USA: IVP.
Watson, David (1978) I Believe in the Church. London: Hodder and Stoughton.
© Renewal Journal 3: Community (1994, 2011) pages 45-54
Reproduction is allowed with the copyright intact with the text.
Now available in updated book form (2nd edition 2011)
Revival Blogs Links:
See also Revivals Index
See also Revival Blogs
See also Blogs Index 1: Revivals