House Churches and the Future
One of the things I have learned over the years is this simple truth: “We don’t change because we want to, we change because we have to.” This is rarely no more apparent than in the Church. Churches often stick with programs, structures, and activities long after they have served their usefulness. Things quickly turn into traditions, that may have had a purpose at some point in time, but now become defended by the phrase, “we have always done it that way”. And as Jesus stated, “By your traditions, you nullify the Word of God” (Mark 7:13).
It is not my intention to try to attack traditions, some of which may be of value. But I do want to challenge all of us regarding the “winds of change” that I believe are coming and in many ways are already with us. What has happened to our nation over the past few months as a result of the Covid -19 pandemic forces us to consider the future and how we, as the Church, need to adjust.
We have seen an increase in the civil government “overreach” into the Church. I believe, as do many others, what we have seen is only the beginning of a coming “persecution” of evangelical churches in particular. If this is the case, we must seriously reevaluate what we do and how we do it. Living under persecution necessitates changes that the freedom which we have enjoyed does not. The persecuted church must be wise in its dealings with the world system. Bold, non-compromising, but wise. Jesus said, “I am sending you out as sheep among wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matt. 10:16).
Recently I have been reading a biography of Watchman Nee, the Chinese Christian leader, who lived at the time of the Communist revolution in his country. Watchman Nee spent the last twenty -five years of his life in a Communist prison. He, along with many others, died as a result of the persecution of Christians on the China mainland. But the miracle is that the Church in China, not only survived, but has thrived. It is estimated that there are 100 million Christians in China today in the “underground” Church. These churches function like what we read about in the book of Acts. Without denominational structures, without buildings, without the programs and other things that we in the American church think are essential. They function in what we would term “house churches.”
I trust that you are aware that for the first three hundred years, from the time of the Apostles to the time of the Emperor Constantine, there essentially were no church buildings. Yet it was during this time of persecution that the Church grew at a tremendous rate. In the beginning it was a “house church movement.” It was simple in comparison to what it later became. No buildings, no clergy-laity distinction, no denominations, and no “business model” for church growth.
Now, if you will indulge me in my attempt to speak “prophetically,” allow me to say where I see things going for the church in America. In light of the persecution that may be coming, we need to think differently. I believe that the church “as we know it” is quickly coming to an end. Be glad, mad, happy, or sad, I believe that is reality. I do not pretend to know what it will all look like, but I do believe it will be different. Which I believe is a good thing, and one that has been “engineered” by Christ Jesus, the head of the Church. He is seeing to it that we must change.
Many things that the Church in America has taken for granted as the way it should function is un-Biblical. How much of what goes on in the typical evangelical, “Bible-believing” church can be supported by the Scriptures? I know we say we believe the Bible. But where in the Bible do we find support for our organizational structures, our form of church government (whatever it might be), our fund raising, our committees, our programs, our titles (reverend, bishop, etc.), and a host of other things. Maybe you can find Biblical support for some of these things, but the real question is: “Are you examining these things in terms of the Scriptures?” I believe we have departed from the purity and simplicity of devotion to Christ (II Cor. 11:3).
I believe that the day is coming when we will return to the “way” of the New Testament Church. There will be a “restoration” of that Church that we read about in the Bible. Instead of church buildings, we will meet in homes as they did. Instead of all the ‘baggage” that we have accumulated through worldly business ideas and traditions, we will be more centered in the things that truly matter to the Kingdom of God. With that I believe there will be the release of signs, wonders, and miracles like what we read about in the book of Acts.
Please hear me, this is not a “rant” against the church in America (or anywhere else for that matter), but it is a challenge to recognize what may change and may need to change. As Bob Dylan said many years ago, “The Times They Are a Changin’.”
I am attaching to this blog an article I wrote September 17, 2010 about the “House Church Movement” and my experience in leading a “house church” which I have been doing for the last 14 years.
The House Church Movement
The house church movement continues to attract attention. The Barna Group estimates that between 6 and 12 million people now attend a house church in America. The reliable Pew Forum discovered that 9 percent of American Protestants attend house church exclusively. Any movement that attracts 10 percent of the total of Protestant worshipers is likely to have a growing and considerable impact on the church at-large. While I do not think traditional churches will just go away anytime soon I expect the house church movement will grow in the years ahead. This is not a matter of mere academic interest to me. I have lead a house church for the past four years. In many ways it fits the pattern of most house churches, if there is a pattern. We generally eat together, worship, pray, share, study the Scripture, and celebrate the Lord's Supper. I believe that we are seeking to meet in much the same way the Church did in its first couple of centuries. I do not feel elitist about this, nor do I feel that those in what could be termed "traditional" churches are in some way "missing it." I do feel like we are pioneering something, and that we are following the Lord's direction for us. Having pastored a traditional church with a building, programs, and all the other things that accompany such a church, I am thankful for the simplicity that I find in the house church. Ed Stetzer, the president of Lifeway Research and a specialist in missiology, notes that the appeal of the house church is to a “simpler expression of the church.” He adds, “For many, church has become too much (like a) business while they just want to live like the Bible.” I believe people are genuinely tired of seeing the church become a business that seems totally removed from what they read about the ministry and fellowship enjoyed by people in New Testament churches. I have read the various critiques of the "movement" (and it is questionable as to whether it qualifies as a movement), in addition I have heard from pastors of traditional churches that have real, and in some cases valid concerns, relating to the direction that some house churches are taking. I am concerned about an anti-authoritarian attitude that draws some to house churches. I am not supportive of a "leaderless gathering," if in reality there is any such thing. I recognize the danger of those teaching, who in ignorance of sound theology, can introduce dangerous and deceptive doctrines. I am also concerned about groups that isolate themselves from the larger Body of Christ. Having said all that, allow me to say that I believe that what God is doing through this movement is a restoration of Biblical orthopraxy. Orthopraxy refers to "correct practice," whereas, orthodoxy means "correct doctrine." There are those that are Biblically orthodox, but in terms of practices and methods, do not look to the Bible as to the basis for what they do. Traditions, culture, and pragmatism often dictates why churches do what they do. They cannot find support for much of what they do in the pages of Holy Writ. That is one of the big challenges that confronts most traditional churches. In the 1800's, the Plymouth Brethren confronted the Church with the same challenge, to show from the Scriptures the basis for their practices and ecclesiastical structures. Here are key questions that I believe must be addressed: (1) Is the Church in the New Testament embryonic or a model for future generations? (2) Was the New Testament Church meant to mainly furnish us with the authoritative apostolic teachings or was it meant to have some particular instructions for us in structure? (3) Does the New Testament give us form as well as content? All three of these questions address how we view the Church in the New Testament and how we view the developement of structures and methods down through Church history. Here is what I propose: (1) The New Testament furnishes us with principles for a pattern church that can and should be followed today. (2) As the epistles are normative to the doctrine of the Church (orthodoxy), the principles of the book of Acts are normative for the life, experiences, and practices (orthopraxy) of the Church. I see these questions and these proposals as the essence of the issues raised by the house church movement to the Church as a whole.