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A simple church may meet anywhere with or without trained leaders, formal liturgy, programs or structures. To facilitate relationship, discipleship (spiritual formation), multiplication, mobility, and member ownership, a simple church is usually a small group of no more than 20-25 persons. Church "programs" are virtually nonexistent and small group participation is essential. The process of moving from worship to small group, small group to mission work, and mission work to worship is a primary focus.
Authors Tony and Felicity Dale, founders of House2House Ministries, have promoted the term "simple church" in their book "Simply Church". The term is often used interchangeably with other terms like organic church, essential church, primitive church, bodylife, relational church, and micro-church.
In the early twenty-first century a number of established Christian denominations and mission organizations have officially supported efforts to develop house church networks. These include the Free Methodist Church in Canada, the Foursquare Gospel Church of Canada, the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, the Presbyterian Church in Canada, Partners in Harvest, the Southern Baptist Convention, Dove Christian Fellowship International, DAWN Ministries (Discipling a Whole Nation), Youth With A Mission (YWAM), and Eternal Grace.
Origins and influences
Many in the simple church movement point to the New Testament, especially the Gospels, Acts, and the writings of the Apostle Paul for justification of their model (see House Church, Scriptural Basis). Historically speaking, simple gatherings of Christians were the norm of Early Christianity. Between 100AD and 300AD, christianity grew from 25,000 to 20 million people in the Roman Empire. In fact, much of the New Testament was written to people who met in house churches.
Early Christian house churches were patterned after house synagogues which were numerous. Christians took a low-cost and easy-to-multiply model and adapted it to their new Christian context. In addition, the Communion service, sometimes called the Lord's Supper, was uniquely Christian (though modeled on the Passover). Since it did not apply to Jews and therefore did not fit in the Jewish synagogues, it had to be celebrated somewhere else. House churches were the natural place for communion to be shared. As time went on, Christians were banned from Jewish synagogues as persecution intensified (see Split of early Christianity and Judaism). Although house churches flourished in times of persecution, they were well-established before them.
In the West, simple church can be traced back to the house church movement. In North America and the UK particularly, the house church movement is often viewed as a development and logical extension of the 'Brethren' or Plymouth Brethren movement, where many individuals and assemblies have adopted new approaches to worship and governance, while others recognise a relationship to the Anabaptists, Quakers, Amish, Hutterites, Mennonites, Moravians, Methodists, and the much earlier Waldenses and Priscillianists. Another perspective sees the house church movement as a re-emergence of the movement of the Holy Spirit during the Jesus Movement of the 1970s in the USA or the worldwide Charismatic Renewal of the late 1960s and 1970s. Others see it as a return to a New Testament church restorationist paradigm and a restoration of God's eternal purpose and the natural expression of Christ on the earth, urging Christians to return from hierarchy and rank to practices described and encouraged in Scripture.
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As in any decentralized, spontaneous movement, a variety of values are expressed in simple church. Due to the influence of some key groups and Acts 2:42-47, three overarching values have emerged in many circles. Adherents Paul Kaak (who began ministry in one of the largest and most systematized mega-churches in America) and Neil Cole originally articulated these values using the letters DNA. According to him:
- D - Divine Truth: Truth is the foundation for everything.
- N - Nurturing Relationships : Healthy relationships are what make up a family. Love for one another is to be a constant pursuit of the family of God.
- A - Apostolic Mission : Apostolic means, simply, “sent.”
Adherent Frank Viola's book Pagan Christianity points out a number of reforms that organic churches often advocate.
- The belief that modern clergy is a vestige of Roman pagan religion that was absent from the early church and is largely at odds with the true priesthood of all believers. The movement sees the institution of the clergy at odds with passages like Matthew 20, Matthew 23, 3rd John, and the message in Revelation regarding the deeds of the Nicolaitans (Greek-literally those who triumph over the people). 1 Corinthians 12-14 paints a picture of an every-member functioning church meeting entirely at odds with the modern religious service which is performed by professionals for an audience. However, some believe this view does not take into account the Jewish and synagogue based nature of the ekklesia, which explains the talk of elders and deacons found in the New Testament. In reply, many simple churches do recognize elders and deacons according to the biblical standards laid out in TImothy and Titus but believe these people emerge over time as their character becomes descriptive of these roles. In an environment where people are free to express their gifts, such people can emerge. Also, being an elder or deacon does not mean this person dominates the meeting. 3 John rebukes Diotrephes the elder who had to be first and was dominating. The simple church largely believes the idea that an elder or deacon is not a license for some to minister and others to be passive.
- Valuing the Lord's Supper occurring as a regular, recurring full meal celebration rather than a short religious ritual. The early integration of the home based ritual into the public synagogue-like meeting functioned to reduce the symbolic nature of the act to a private moment, replacing its symbolism of fellowship and dedication to the Lord. This was complete by the time of Constantine, when home based agape feasts were banned. However, this history does not in itself devalue the need for the larger synagogue-like meeting for prayer, ministry of the word and singing. Simple church adherents also enjoy occasional and even monthly larger gatherings that do this very thing, though they emphasize the smaller meeting of the ekklesia as the environment for spiritual growth.
- Organic churches tend to place less emphasis on the building or meeting place. To this end, Neil Cole, an adherent of simple church, states that "buildings, budgets, and big shots," tend to do more to contain Christianity than allow it to spread. However, this statement against larger sized churches does nothing to substantiate its claim.
Media and popular attention
Many books have been written on the simple church movement, especially by insiders (see House Church, Recommended Books). In the early twentyfirst century books began to appear by those studying the movement from a more objective view, including George Barna's Revolution. Barna says that "revolutionary" expressions such as simple church will soon account for one third of American spirituality.
Visibility of the movement also increased due to national and regional gatherings of various kinds. The largest of these is the Annual House Church Conference held in Dallas, USA and occasionally at other locations by House2House.
Several prominent voices have serious concerns about simple church. For example, J. Lee Grady (Charisma Online Editor) says such a movement wants to "reinvent the church without its biblical structure and New Testament order — and without the necessary people who are anointed and appointed by God to lead it. To follow this defective thesis to its logical conclusion would require us to fire all pastors, close all seminaries and Bible colleges, padlock our sanctuaries and send everybody home..." Grady and other critics worry that the simple church movement could encourage people to leave more traditional forms of church, which could lead to further collapse or decline of Christendom.
- House2House Magazine Website, "What Do We Mean By Simple Church
- Dale, T. and Dale, F. (2000) Simply Church. Karis Books, ISBN 0-9718040-1-X
- What We Do: Planting Simple Churches
- Cole, N. (2005) Organic Church: Growing faith where life happens. John Wiley & Sons, ISBN 0-7879-8129-X
- Larry Kreider, "House Churches & Micro Churches" (Accessed September 29, 2006)
- Arnold, Lori. "Displaced pastor finds grass is greener on the outside". Christian Times. Archived from the original on May 6, 2004. Retrieved May 11, 2009.
- The Forgotten Ways (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2007)
- Simple Church at Home
- See David Garrison, "Church Planting Movements" (International Missionary Board Southern Baptist Convention, 2004); and Rad Zdero, "The Global House Church Movement" (William Carey Library Publishers, 2004, ISBN 0-87808-342-1).
- Friend of Missional
- Roger Thoman, "House Church Basics Pt. 3: Missional Church (Accessed September 29, 2006)
- A recent variation refers to the "D" as "Divine Connection" and views the Word of God and prayer as two primary means of maintaining that connection with God. The DNA metaphor is thus extended to include four overarching values instead of only three.
- Neil Cole and Paul Kaak, Organic Church Planters Greenhouse: The First Story CMA Resources. Long Beach, 2004) pg. 1-6. Also published in Organic Church by Neil Cole
- What Do We Mean By Simple Church (Accessed September 29, 2006)
- MetroSoul Website, "What We Do: Planting Simple Churches (Accessed September 29, 2006)
- Cole, N. Organic Church
- Chandler and Aryanpur, Michael Alison and Arianne (June 4, 2006). "Going to Church by Staying at Home: Clergy-Less Living Room Services Seen as a Growing Trend". Washington Post. Retrieved September 30, 2006.
- Laidlaw, Stuart. "Religion, but no church required". Toronto Star. Retrieved September 30, 2006.
- Van Biema and Healy, David and Rita. "There's No Pulpit Like Home". Time. Retrieved September 30, 2006.
- Barna, G. (2005). Revolution. Tyndale House. ISBN 1-4143-1016-1.
- Barna, G. (2005). Revolution. Tyndale House. p. 49. ISBN 1-4143-1016-1.
- J. Lee Grady, Barna's Dangerous Proposal" (Accessed September 30, 2006)