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A simple church may meet anywhere; with or without trained leaders, formal liturgy, programmes 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.
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
In the early twentyfirst century the growth of the movement has had increased news media coverage:
- Michael Alison Chandler and Arianne Aryanpur, "Going to Church by Staying at Home: Clergy-Less Living Room Services Seen as a Growing Trend" Washington Post (Printed June 4, 2006, pg. A12) (Accessed September 30, 2006).
- Stuart Laidlaw, "Religion, but no church required" Toronto Star (Accessed September 30, 2006).
- David Van Biema and Rita Healy, "There's No Pulpit Like Home" Time Time (Accessed September 30, 2006).
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, 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.
- Leadership: Who are the leaders and what is the leadership structure? Is the simple church understanding of leadership biblical? Is there enough control to prevent abuse, cultism, and heresy? Will there be many arguments as a result of conflicting opinions arising from differing levels of religious education and experience? Are the lay leaders in simple churches qualified for the care of others? Adherent Frank Viola replies to this in his book Reimagining Church saying that certain strains of the movement look to apostolic outside coaching for help and try to prevent any one charismatic person from dominating the meeting. Other leaders emerge over time according to function, emerging as others respect their authentic experience of the Lord. The Christian's ultimate "covering" is Jesus Himself and the local believing community that gathers in His name.
- Longevity: According to sources within the movement, the average lifespan of a simple church is 6 months to two years. This leaves critics to wonder how Christianity can survive in such a transient movement. What will be the long-term impact of simple church? Adherents might reply that the sticking power is not in a static institution but a multiplying movement of the Holy Spirit. The hope for organic churches is exponential multiplication, meaning that two churches become four, four become sixteen, and so forth. The same question could be asked of institutional churches where closure and the failure of new church plants is also a problem. Traditional approaches to church can be expensive and rare in their ability to replicate and multiply. Nonetheless organic church has yet to substantiate its growth claims in the optimistic terms in which they are made.
- Orthodoxy: Without denominational control or pastoral oversight, who will maintain orthodoxy among simple churches and its participants? Isn't it a breeding ground for people with wild theologies who would get drummed out of more traditional and more orthodox churches? These questions seem to be more based on fear than the reality of practicing organic churches. In its defense, heresy is no more likely to spread than in any other form of church. The nature of accountability in an every-member functioning church can deal with heresy appropriately. Many within organic churches are seminary educated, many of having left positions of prominence in the organized church out of conviction.
- Teaching: It is rare for simple churches to have sermons or Bible classes in the formal sense. Critics wonder when teaching occurs and how people are formed educationally and doctrinally in simple churches. Without concentrated teaching, sermons, and bible classes, how will believers be educated? Adherent Frank Viola, in Reimagining Church, points out that Christian meetings are where worshippers gather around Jesus Christ and every member functions as described in 1 Corinthians. Here people share how God is feeding them, and this can be very rich. Viola contrasts this with "ministry events," where teaching, education, or even evangelism occur, or where an outsider comes to minister to a group. This point, does not in itself deal with the biblical nature of synagogue-like events where one of the elders is responsible for "preaching and teaching," as in 1 Timothy 5v17. Believers in the simple movement also have opportunities for good teaching, biblical education, to read Christian books, and so forth. In fact every Christian is encouraged to feed upon Christ, which is contrasted with the system where one or two clergy teach and others absorb from them.
- Outreach potential: How will unchurched people or visitors find the church when there is no location and no phone book listing? In common with many evangelicals, adherents of organic church believe that worship should not be bound to a location; but rather be thought of as the way a community offers their lives to God. Nonetheless it is possible for a community to understand this and retain a public presence.
- Relationship with established churches: Is simple church another movement pulling people away from congregational churches? Is it a threat to more traditional models? Do simple church practitioners condemn or criticize other forms of church? Can simple churches and traditional forms of church work together? It is the expressed hope of many churches that lost people find a relationship with Jesus Christ. Neil Cole, Frank Viola, and other adherents admit that God works in and through the organized church as well as the organic church. Many people in the organic church acknowledge that they were saved while in more formal churches.
- Cultural accommodation/syncretism: Has simple church sold out to a culture that sinfully refuses to "go to church?" Is simple church just caving in to postmodernism? Does simple church promote the West's tendency to worship the individual and individualism? Such questions are complex. Writers such as Lesslie Newbigin have made the point that the church shows every sign of being captive to modernism. Where many in the church believe that western culture is becoming more postmodern, the same danger of captivity applies, but now in a different cultural context. Newbigin suggests that retreating into a private world of faith is a mistake in any context, and therefore would be critical of the simple church approach.
Self-criticism is also present in the movement. Leaders and prominent voices have pointed out key issues, like leadership development, exclusivity, missional effectiveness, and other items as points of concern. A good example of this is Andrew Jones, an emerging church advocate and simple church practitioner. Many in the simple church consider this kind of self-evaluation very healthy and tie it to the important prophetic role in the movement.
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- 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
- Barna, G. (2005) Revolution Tyndale House, ISBN 1-4143-1016-1)
- Ibid. pg 49
- J. Lee Grady, Barna's Dangerous Proposal" (Accessed September 30, 2006)
- for example: R C Cafe: Critics of House Church (Accessed September 30, 2006)
- Mainly forums and blogs
- Roger Thoman (quoting Frank Viola), Frank Viola Answers Questions (Accessed September 30, 2006]
- "Lesslie Newbigin Foolishness to the Greeks (Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1986)
- Lesslie Newbigin Foolishness to the Greeks (Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1986)"117
- My Gripes About The House Church Movement (Accessed September 30, 2006)
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