House church (or "home church") is an informal term for an independent assembly of Christians intentionally gathering in a home or on other grounds not normally used for worship services, as opposed to a church building, due to specific beliefs. They may meet in homes because they prefer to meet informally, because they believe it is an effective way of creating "community" and engaging in outreach, or because they believe small family-sized churches were a deliberate apostolic pattern in the first century and intended by Christ.
Some churches meet in houses because they lack a conventional church building; these are not normally regarded as house churches as their intent is to move into a larger more conventional facility.
Cell churches are an appendage of conventional, institutional churches that meet in homes and share some characteristics of house churches, but are not normally considered house churches due to their institutional church hierarchy and association.
Some within the house church movement 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 type of meeting that takes place; other titles which may be used to describe this movement are "simple church", "relational church", "primitive church", "bodylife", "organic church", or "biblical church".
Christians who meet together in homes or rented or independent halls usually do so because of a desire to return to the simplicity and purity of Church meetings as found in the New Testament
. The New Testament shows that the early Christian church exhibited a simplicity of fellowship and interactive practice that is typically not the case in conventional denominations. Christians walked closely with each other, in close fellowship, sharing their lives in Christ together. This is expressed well by over 50 examples of the phrase "one another" found in the New Testament starting with the words of Jesus in John
13:34, "Love one another." Some Bible passages that indicate the atmosphere of early church life include:Lifestyle: "They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles
’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer." (Acts 2:42 NASB
)Participatory meetings: "What is the outcome then, brethren? When you assemble, each one has a psalm, has a teaching, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification." (1 Cor. 14:26 NASB
; see also Colossians 3:16, Hebrews 10:24-25)Meeting in homes: "Aquila and Prisca greet you heartily in the Lord, with the church that is in their house." (1 Cor. 16:19 NASB
; see also Acts 20:20, Romans 16:5, Colossians 4:15, Philemon
1:2).Networking through 'Extra-local, Itinerant Ministries': "After some days Paul said to Barnabas, "Let us return and visit the brethren in every city in which we proclaimed the word of the Lord, and see how they are." (Acts 15:36 [NASB])Occasional Large Group Meetings: "I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you publicly and from house to house" (Acts 20:20 [NASB])
Structure and organization
Some assemblies have a very 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 develop elders
and deacons who serve the members. Some house churches also accept ministry from church planters and itinerant workers they consider to be apostles.Meeting format
Many house church gatherings are free, informal, and sometimes include a shared meal. Participants hope that everyone present will feel free to contribute to the gathering as and when they sense the leading of the Holy Spirit
to do so. Leadership structures range from no official leaders, to a plurality of appointed elders
. There is a deliberate attempt within most house churches to minimize the leadership of any one person, and so having one lone pastor is generally considered unscriptural and an openly plural responsibility of leadership is preferred and sought.Networking
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
. More recently local networks of house churches have begun to form with gatherings of house churches in an area getting together periodically for celebrations.
Origins and history
The first house church is recorded in Acts 1:13, where the disciples of Jesus met together in the upper room of a house. For the first three centuries of the church, Christians commonly met in homes. Clement of Alexandria
, an early church father, wrote of worshipping in a house. A private house in Dura-Europos (near Baghdad) was excavated in the 1930’s and was found to be used as a Christian meeting place in AD 232, with one small room serving as a baptistry. Throughout history, various Christian groups worshipped in homes, often due to persecution by the state church or the civil government.
After being freed from prison by an angel, the apostle Peter went to the house of Mary the mother of John Mark (where believers were gathered for prayer) so that they might spread the news of his escape. Since Mary is the only name mentioned in the Bible in reference to a house church in Jerusalem (where the church was then being persecuted), and since Peter made this his first stop before moving on, this may indicate that the church that met in Mary’s house was a notable assembly.
The origins of the so-called 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 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 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 Restorationism 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.
The house church movement has been more recently encouraged by the church planting and publishing initiative of writers like Robert Fitts, Frank Viola, Tony & Felicity Dale, Wolfgang Simson, Wayne Jacobsen,Gene Edwards, and Steve Atkerson. The Internet itself has contributed to the phenomenon's exponential growth in the past decade, networking many previously unconnected individuals.
In addition, house church social networks and discussion lists such as SimpleChurch.com, Koinonia Life, HCDL, Home Church Connection, and New Wineskinhave had a huge influence on the growth of the house church movement for the past decade. People, who might otherwise have remained disconnected prior to the internet, have met online to discuss house church-related topics, as well as to form face-to-face house church fellowships. For many, these discussion lists are the first taste of relational body life outside of the traditional church.
House Church Movement
No single factor can sum up the emergence of the contemporary house church movement, but a confluence of all the threads noted above have contributed to the growth of house churches in the West.
Today, the spread of house churches is largely found in countries like 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. House churches in Saudi Arabia have experienced raids by the religious police, often resulting in the arrest of the leaders of the assembly.
Relationship to Established Churches, Missions 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. (A home group / bible study which is connected with a denomination is usually referred to as a cell church
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), 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.
Statistics on the House Church Movement
(Statistical Sources: Rad Zdero (2004), The Global House Church Movement; Rad Zdero (2007), Nexus: The World House Church Movement Reader; Dawn Friday Fax, www.jesus.org.uk/dawn; Wolfgang Simson (2007), The Starfish Manifesto; Wolfgang Simson, EaSi Newsletter, July 2007; Wikipedia)
- Bangladesh: 500,000 new believers in HC's
- Cambodia: 1,000 new HC's in 10 years (1990 to 2000)
- Canada: as many as 2,000 HC's in Canada in the last few years
- China: 80-100 million believers in HC's
- Cuba: 6,000-10,000 HC's since 1992
- Egypt: 4,000 HC's
- Ethiopia: growth from 5,000 to 50,000 believers in HC's during the 1980s
- India: approx. 100,000 HC's started in 5 years (from 2001 - 2006)
- Latin America: 1 million HC-type groups known as 'Basic Ecclesial Communities'
- Sri Lanka: Kithu Sevena church movement started 131 new HC's in 7 months (in 2004)
- Vietnam: one church planting team start 550 new HC's in 2 years (1997 to 1999)
- U.S.A.: 1,600 HC's on internet alone (as of 2003) with possibly as many as 30,000 HC's (according to the American pollster George Barna)
- Tim Chester and Steve Timmis, Total Church.
- Steve Atkerson (ed.), House Church - Simple, Strategic, Scriptural.
- Robert & Julia Banks, The Church Comes Home, Hendrickson Pub.
- Robert Banks, Going to Church in the First Century. Seedsowers Publishing
- George Barna, Revolution.
- Gilbert Bilezikian, Community 101, Zondervan Pub.
- E.H. Broadbent, The Pilgrim Church.
- Neil Cole, Organic Church
- Graham Cooke, Gary Goodell, Permission Granted: To Do Church Differently in the 21st Century (Destiny Image Publishers)
- Albert James Dager, The House Assembly. Sword Publishers
- Felicity Dale, An Army of Ordinary People
- Tony & Felicity Dale, Simply Church
- Dale, Getting Started: A Practical Guide to Planting Simple Churches (Karis Publishing)
- Gene Edwards, Beyond Radical. Seedsowers Publishing
- Gene Edwards, When the Church was Led by Laymen. Seedsowers Publishing
- Robert Fitts, The Church in the House.
- David Garrison, Church Planting Movements.
- Roger Gehring, House Church and Mission (by far, the most comprehensive scholarly work on house churches in the first century)
- Wayne Jacobsen, The Naked Church.
- Wayne Jacobsen, Authentic Relationships.
- Clifford James, The Blueprint (read online at )
- Larry Kreider, House Church Networks.
- Jaeson Ma, The Blueprint
- Charles Newbold, The Crucified Ones.
- Hope Ovwah, God's Pattern Church. (read online at )
- Rutz, James, The Open Church
- Rutz, James, Megashift
- Wolfgang Simson, Houses that Change the World.
- R. Maurice Smith, A Kingdom A People & A River
- Terry Stanley, Home Church.
- Frank Viola, Bethany.
- Frank Viola, Reimagining Church.
- Frank Viola, Pagan Christianity.
- Frank Viola, The Untold Story of the New Testament Church
- Rad Zdero, The Global House Church Movement. Get it here
- Rad Zdero (ed.), NEXUS: The World House Church Movement Reader. Get it here
- Derek Prince, Rediscovering God's Church
Osiek, C., and Margaret Y. MacDonald. A Woman’s Place: House Churches in Earliest Christianity. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006.
MacHaffie, Barbara J. Her Story. 2nd Edition. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006.