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House church or home church is a label used to describe a group of Christians who regularly gather for worship in private homes. The group may be part of a larger Christian body, such as a parish, but some have been independent groups that see the house church as the primary form of Christian community.
The House Church movement was pioneered by people like the Revd Ernest Southcott in the 1950s, when he was vicar of St Wilfred's Church in Halton, Leeds in England. Southcott believed that if people would not come to church, the church must go to the people, and his book The parish comes alive spread these ideas widely among Anglicans.
Sometimes these groups meet because the membership is small, and a home is the most appropriate place to assemble, as in the beginning phase of the British New Church Movement. Sometimes this meeting style is advantageous because the group is a member of an underground Christian movement which is otherwise banned from meeting as is the case in China.
Some recent Christian writers have supported the view that the Christian Church should meet in houses, and have based the operation of their communities around multiple small home meetings. Other Christian groups choose to meet in houses when they are in the early phases of church growth because a house is the most affordable option for the small group to meet until the number of people attending the group is sufficient to warrant moving to a commercial location such as a church building.
House church organizations claim that this approach is preferable to public meetings in dedicated buildings because it is a more effective way of building community and personal relationships, and it helps the group to engage in outreach more naturally. Some believe small churches were a deliberate apostolic pattern in the first century, and they were intended by Christ.
The satisfaction level of those attending house churches tends to be higher than their counterparts who attend traditional churches. Surveys have shown that satisfaction levels are elevated in regard to church leadership, faith commitment of members, level of community within the church and spiritual depth of the church setting. Research has shown that older members are drawn to house churches because they are devout Christians who desire deeper, more intense relationships with God and other church members. Younger members who are drawn to house churches are those who are interested in faith and spirituality but not traditional forms of church.
Cell churches are usually associated with larger churches: they also meet in homes and share some characteristics of house churches, but they are not normally considered to be house churches, as they are not self-governing.
Some within the house church movement (associated with Wolfgang Simson, Frank Viola and others) consider the term "house church" to be a misnomer, asserting that the main issue for Christians who practice their faith in this manner is not the house but the small group type of meeting that takes place. Other titles which may be used to describe this movement are "simple church," "relational church," "primitive church," "body life," "organic church" or "biblical church."
House churches can adopt an organic church philosophy which is not necessarily a particular method, technique or movement but rather a particular church expression that the group takes on when the organization is functioning according to the pattern of a living organism. The church represented in the New Testament is based on this principle, and traditional, contemporary Christianity has reversed this order.
Early Christian house churches
The first house church is recorded in Acts 1:13, where the disciples of Jesus met together in the "Upper Room" of a house, traditionally believed to be where the Cenacle is today. For the first three centuries of the church, known as Early Christianity, Christians typically met in homes, if only because intermittent persecution (before the Edict of Milan in 313) did not allow the erection of public church buildings. Clement of Alexandria, an early church father, wrote of worshipping in a house. The Dura-Europos church, a private house in Dura-Europos in Syria, was excavated in the 1930s and was found to be used as a Christian meeting place in AD 232, with one small room serving as a baptistry. At many points in subsequent history, various Christian groups worshipped in homes, often due to persecution by the state church or the civil government.
Christians who meet together in homes usually do so because of a desire to return to early Church style meetings as found in the New Testament. The New Testament shows that the early Christian church exhibited a richness of fellowship and interactive practice that is typically not the case in conventional denominations. They believe that Christians walked closely with each other and shared their lives in Christ together. Others believe that the early church met in houses due to persecution, and home meetings were the most viable option to the early adopters of Christianity.
Several passages in the Bible specifically mention churches meeting in houses. "The churches of Asia greet you, especially Aquila and Priscilla greet you much in the Lord, along with the church that is in their house." I Cor 16:19. The church meeting in the house of Priscilla and Aquila is again mentioned in Romans 16:3, 5. The church that meets in the house of Nymphas is also cited in the Bible: "Greet the brethren in Laodicea, and Nymphas, and the church which is in her house." Col 4:15.
For the first 300 years of early Christianity, people met in homes until Constantine legalized Christianity, and the assembly moved out of houses into larger buildings creating the current style church seen today.
According to proponents, many churchgoers are turning to house churches because too often in today's environment, a person can attend a church for long periods of time and not know the names of those sitting next to them and many traditional churches fail to meet the most fundamental needs of the attending believers for fellowship and covenant relationships even through various church programs. This leaves many members feeling frustrated and lost with the desire to find a better way to build the body of Christ. "The struggle to attend multiple worship services each week, join other church programs and keep up with family and job responsibilities creates an atmosphere of attending, not relating."
During a struggling economy, churches can face formidable financial challenges forcing them to make cuts in funding to missions and benevolence programs. A traditional church that is required to support the typical church infrastructure including a building or campus can face financial pressures if it faces a significant drop in membership. Limited financial resources can encourage church leaders to rethink the pattern of ministry and look for ways to forward the outreach of the church with unpaid members. House churches are already in a more favorable financial position due to the limited expenditures required to facilitate the functionality of the church.
House churches require less money to start up and operate which frees up funds for other ministries. There are no sanctuaries to buy and maintain, and frequently there are no pastoral salaries to sustain. "The constant pressure to fill the pews and provide the money to keep the building and programs going is draining to the traditional church. To some of us, churches have become like big monsters that eat up everything we can give them and then constantly ask for more and more."
It should also be noted that the church is mandated to regularly assemble, and it needs a suitable facility for the congregation to meet. While it is desirable to many to meet in free facilities such as private homes, the Bible makes no such mandate in this regard. Scripture is silent as to if the early, New Testament church met exclusively at locations that incurred no cost to the church. "Disciples may meet in free facilities; they may rent a place of assembly; they may purchase a building in which to worship. Depending upon the circumstances, any of these options could be viable."
Structure and organization
Some assemblies have a conventional leadership structure; others have none. A commonly held belief in the modern-day house church "movement" is that the Protestant Reformation did not go far enough to demonstrate a New Testament belief in the "priesthood of all believers" and that Jesus Christ alone is the Head of the Church, and the believers the body. The absence of hierarchical leadership structures in many house churches, while often viewed by the Protestant church at large as a sign of anarchy or rebelliousness to authority, is viewed by many in the house church movement to be the most viable way to come under true spiritual authority of love, relationships, and the visible dominion of Jesus Christ as Head of his own bride (i.e. the church). This does not mean that they reject all leadership, however.
Many house churches recognize elders and deacons who serve the members. Often, the elders function as a plurality where each elder holds the same authority as the others. There is a deliberate attempt within many house churches to minimize the leadership of any one person to reduce the chances of an authoritarian leadership structure developing within the church. Having a lone pastor is generally considered unscriptural by a percentage of house church attendees and such meetings foster an openly plural responsibility of leadership. Some house churches also accept ministry from church planters and itinerant workers whom they consider to be apostles.
House churches that follow a more traditional leadership structure include a senior pastor in similar fashion to larger, traditional churches. Groups following this format can be traditional churches in the early stage of growth or churches that do not want to incorporate under the 501(c)(3) structure.
- Meeting format
Many house church gatherings are free, informal, and frequently include a shared meal. Meeting formats can vary from week to week due to the relaxed structure of the church service. The progression of the church service frequently follows a participatory style where there might be several short teachings offered by multiple attendees. Participants hope that everyone present will feel invited to contribute to the gathering as they are led of the Holy Spirit to do so.
The house church movement today also owes much of its networking and exchange of information to the use of the Internet; HC is generally used as an abbreviation for "House Church" and IC is used to designate "Institutional Church", which is the generalized term for more traditional church structures, including a church building and/or sermon-centered church services directed by a pastor or minister. More recently local networks of house churches have begun to form, with gatherings of house churches in an area getting together periodically for celebrations.
The origins of the house church movement are varied. In North America and the UK particularly, it is often viewed as a development and logical extension of the 'Brethren' or Plymouth Brethren movement both in doctrine and practice where many individuals and assemblies have adopted new approaches to worship and governance, while others recognize a relationship to the Anabaptists, Free Christians, 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 move 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.
Relationship to established churches, mission groups and society
Historically, there have been tensions between house church movements (along with other restoration and revival movements) and traditional churches. Therefore, many house churches do not have formal links to larger Christian organizations as a matter of principle. (This does not apply to home groups which are connected with a denominational church, often referred to as cell groups.)
Recently, however, a number of established Christian denominations and mission organizations have officially supported efforts to develop house church networks. These include the following: 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 (USA), Dove Christian Fellowship International, DAWN Ministries (Discipling a Whole Nation), The Progressive Christian Alliance, and Youth With A Mission (YWAM), Eternal Grace, and the recently launched Underground Churches among others.
In a social sense, the movement towards house churches may be linked to other social movements as well, such as the "emerging church movement", missional living, the parachurch movement, and perhaps even larger social phenomena such as panocracy and intentional living movements.
House Churches abroad
Today, the spread of house churches is largely found in countries such as China, Vietnam, India, Cuba, Brazil and African nations, but they are also seen in small, but growing, numbers in the Philippines, Europe, and North America. A modern day example of the house church movement is the group known as "the local churches" which began in China with Watchman Nee and spread all over the world through Nee's co-worker, Witness Lee. The local churches have grown to hundreds of thousands of attendees congregating patterned after the New Testament example and have been commended by several Christian leaders in the United States.
- Cafe church
- Chinese house church
- Church in a pub
- Church planting
- Restorationism (Christian primitivism)
- Schuilkerk – A type of house church in 17th and 18th century Netherlands
- Two by Twos – also known as Cooneyites, Christian Conventions, Meetings, Workers and Friends, The Way or The Truth
- The parish comes alive by Ernie Southcott, London, Mowbrays, 1961
- David, Stephen. "Ten Reasons For Small Churches". NTRF. Retrieved 2014-02-25.
- Simson, W: "Houses that Change the World", pages 79–101. Authentic Media, 2005
- Barna, George. "George Barna & David Kinnaman on the Rise of the Churchless". Barna Group.
- Dale, Felicity. "Starting a simple church can be simple". Simply Church. Retrieved 26 February 2014.
- Viola, Frank. "Why Organic Church Is Not Exactly a Movement". Christianity Today.
- Floyd V. Filson (June 1939). "The Significance of the Early House Churches". Journal of Biblical Literature 58 (2): 105–112. doi:10.2307/3259855.
- Fenn, John. "House Churches in the New Testament". Simple Church.
- Henning, Jeffrey. "The Growing House-Church Movement". Ministry Today.
- Roberts, Mark D. "Leading a Church in Challenging Financial Times". Patheos.
- Mayberry, Mark. "What about Church Buildings?". Truth Magazine.
- 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.
- Garrison, David "Church Planting Movements". January 2003, Wigtake Resources.
- Various brothers representing the local churches and by the editorial section of Living Stream Ministry (May 25, 2013). "An Open Letter From the Local Churches and Living Stream Ministry Concerning the Teachings of Witness Lee".
- Melton, Gordon J., Saliba, John A., Goetchius, Eugene Van Ness, Stark, Rodney, Malony, H. Newton, Gaustad, Edwin S. ‘’The Experts Speak-The Testimony of J. Gordon Melton, John A. Saliba, Eugene Van Ness Goetchius, Rodney Stark, H. Newton Malony, and Edwin S. Gaustad Concerning Witness Lee and the Local Churches.’’ Anaheim: Living Stream Ministry, 1995. Print.
- Hanegraaff, Hank. ‘’We Were Wrong.’’ Christian Research Journal 32.06 (2009): 04-05. Print.
- Hansen, Collin. Cult Watchers Reconsider: Former detractors of Nee and Lee now endorse "local churches." Christianity Today. 26 January 2009. Web. 4 March 2013.
- Atkerson, Steve (2005). House Church: Simple, Strategic, Scriptural. USA: NTRF. ISBN 0-9729082-1-8.
- Banks, Robert. Paul's Idea of Community: The Early House Churches in Their Historical Setting (1994). Peabody: Hendricksen, ISBN 978-0853642510.
- Banks, Robert and Julia, The Home Church: Regrouping the People of God for Community and Mission (1998). Peabody: Hendricksen ISBN 978-1565631793.
- DeVries, David (2010). Six-Word Lessons to Discover Missional Living: 100 Six-Word Lessons to Align Every Believer with the Mission of Jesus. Bellevue: Leading on the Edge International. ISBN 1-933750-26-X.
- Jacomb-Hood, Anthony (2014). Rediscovering the New Testament Church. Omaha: Ekklesia Press. ISBN 978-1-938480-10-2.
- MacHaffie, Barbara J. (2006). Her Story: Women in Christian Tradition (2nd Edition). Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress. ISBN 0-8006-3826-3.
- Osiek, C.; Margaret Y. MacDonald (2006). A Woman’s Place: House Churches in Earliest Christianity. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress. ISBN 0-8006-3777-1.
- Simson, Wolfgang (2001). Houses that Change the World: The Return of the House Churches. Authentic. ISBN 1-85078-356-X.
- Viola, Frank, and George Barna (2008). Pagan Christianity?: Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices. Carol Stream: BarnaBooks. ISBN 978-1-4143-1485-3. A scholarly work based on the Bible and church history that dismantles institutional sermons, Pastors, pulpits, church buildings, Sunday clothes, tithing, seminaries, etc. Reveals that many of these practices are based on a mixture of the New Testament with Old Testament and Roman pagan practices.
- Viola, Frank (2008). Reimagining Church: Pursuing the Dream of Organic Christianity. Colorado Springs: David C. Cook. ISBN 978-1-4347-6875-9. A constructive follow up to Pagan Christianity; explains the purpose of Christian fellowship, spontaneous church meetings (1 Cor. 14:26), and the priesthood of all believers (1 Pet. 2:9). Extensive bibliography of house church literature.
- Zdero, Rad (2004). The Global House Church Movement. Pasadena: William Carey Library Publishers. ISBN 978-0-87808-374-9.
- Zdero, Rad (2007). NEXUS: The World House Church Movement Reader. Pasadena: William Carey Library Publishers. ISBN 978-0-87808-342-8.
- House Church Directory
- NBC News story on House Churches NBC news story from October 2010 on house churches
- House Church Resource
- Open Gate Ministries – This is the house church from Connecticut/Massachusetts that was featured in the NBC News story
- New Testament Reformation Fellowship (NTRF) Online House Church Resources: Free MP3 sermons, articles, free/donation accepted books available. Website hosts an updated Established House Church Contact List
- House Churches at DMOZ