Small is the new big
(© ISTOCKPHOTO/AKURTZ)

Making sense of the diverse house church movement currently sweeping across the U.S.

There is a major shift going on across the church landscape of North America. God is placing the church back into the hands of His ordinary people. Not church with buildings and professional leadership, but rather intentionally small groups of disciples, led by ordinary people, meeting in homes or wherever life happens. They are known as simple, organic or house churches. (Most people use the terms interchangeably.)

The church meeting in a house is no new phenomenon; there have been house churches ever since the book of Acts. Many of our current legacy churches—the term we prefer for traditional churches because we value the legacy they passed on to us—began in homes. However, these house churches aren’t seeking to “grow up” and move into a building. They have a theology of staying small (usually fewer than 20 people) and multiplying into many different locations.

Though the house church movement has grown globally for years, in America this current move of the Holy Spirit began taking off in the 1990s—and for somewhat pragmatic reasons. God uses all kinds of church, yet during this time more people began to meet as church in their homes, in restaurants, in workplaces, in college dorms and in other “everyday” locations. For a long time, everyone thought they were the only ones. Then we began to discover each other.

House2House, the ministry we helped found, played a small part in this. In 2000, two leaders of house church networks in Central Texas approached Tony, my husband, and me with the idea of a magazine to provide resources for the developing house church movement. For a few years, we produced a physical magazine; now it’s a Web-based ministry, house2house.com, seeking to help any church or group of people that desires to move toward a more organic form of disciple-making and church life. This ministry has given us the incredible privelege of a front seat in the arena of what God is doing with simple/organic churches around the nation as people contact us with their stories and questions.

Only 15 years ago, house churches in America were almost unheard of; we would’ve had difficulty identifying more than 200 to 300. Today the Pew Research Center reports that 9 percent of Protestants in the United States “attend services” in homes. Studies in 2008 and 2010 by the Barna Group estimate that 6 million adults attend some form of simple church. While some of these people also are part of a legacy church, this is a huge shift—and one only the Holy Spirit could have produced.

There is no central organization to what is going on. There are no superstars. There are no mega-conferences to attend. In fact, it’s difficult to see why the movement has such extraordinary influence. Yet the interest in this “new sociological phenomenon,” involving people from diverse theological backgrounds, has stretched even beyond the church to the secular media.

There are, perhaps, three main reasons for this attention:

1) People are recognizing that the center of Christianity has shifted from the West to continents such as Asia, and that house church movements are often the vehicle God is using to produce extraordinary growth. Most of us are aware of house churches in China, but India’s growth may have overtaken it. We have friends there whose network of house churches saw more than 750,000 baptisms on the Day of Pentecost in 2011! The book T4T by Steve Smith and Ying Kai describes a church-planting movement in a Southeast Asian country that has documented more than 1.7 million baptisms and 150,000 new church starts since 2001. Church-planting or disciple-making movements are impacting many nations, including some that are normally hostile to the gospel.

2) Current economic challenges are forcing churches to rethink their missions strategy. Some legacy churches are having difficulty meeting their budgets, forcing them to vacate costly premises or lay off staff members. House churches that require little or no finance become very attractive.

3) Simply put, it’s a sovereign move of God. Although a few adopt house church patterns because of disillusionment with the establishment, it seems that God Himself is challenging many to embrace its principles.

Redefining Church
Most Christians accept that real church isn’t the building but still think of it as the event—the sacred hour on Sunday morning. The Bible often describes church as a family: God is our Father; fellow believers are our brothers and sisters. Family isn’t something we go to, although healthy families get together often. Instead, it’s something we are, defined by our relationships and shared lives. In this smaller context, we can easily obey the “one anothers” the New Testament describes.

The basic building block of church is the “two or three” with Jesus in the midst (Matt. 18: 16-20). The presence of Jesus makes it church. In the informality of meeting in a home, with Jesus as the focus, disciples are made and lives transformed. Simple/organic church implies a 24/7 non-religious kingdom lifestyle in which there is no sacred/secular divide; all of life is to be lived for Jesus. We are just as “spiritual” at work or playing sports as when we are gathered together. Without multiple meetings to attend each week, there is more time to get to know our non-believing neighbors too.

Within simple/organic church, then, we need one key skill: listening to Jesus and obeying what He says. Both mission and community will follow.

For example, at one gathering we spent 15 minutes individually asking Jesus what He wanted to say to our church. God revealed the same message to more than half the people through Scriptures, ideas and prophetic words. It was exemplified by a vision our daughter had: a fruit tree with a group of people around it that became multiple fruit trees with many groups. That word has since become a reality as daughter and even granddaughter churches have emerged.

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