It is happening again. A new species of church is emerging throughout North America and other western nations. Both in major cities and in rural areas, a unique kind of church life is peeking through like the fresh growth of new crops pressing through the surface of the soil each spring.
Hungry for community and relationship, people are learning the values of the kingdom by first-hand participation. They meet in small groups in homes, offices, boardrooms or restaurants. Church becomes a way of life where discipleship and growth occurs naturally as everyone develops their gifts and “learns by doing,” under the mentorship of spiritual fathers and mothers. I like to call this fledgling grassroots phenomenon “house church networks.”
Within the next years, I believe these new house church networks will dot the landscape of North America just as they already do in other nations of the world. Places like China, central Asia, Latin America, India and Cambodia have experienced tremendous growth through house churches that disciple and empower each member to “be the church.”
They are called house churches because each one functions as a little church. They are networks because they work together to foster accountability and encouragement. Although the terminology house church networks, sometimes called micro church networks, may sound like a contemporary concept, they are not really new; in fact, house churches are as old as the book of Acts.
The New Testament church was defined as the people. Believers did not go to church or join the church; they were the church. All members functioned as priests because everyone served as ministers. Each person got on-the-job-training and learned how to make disciples. These followers of Christ practiced their faith in spiritual families, met in homes and radically changed their world. They grew in number as they obeyed God’s Word and shared resources and spiritual blessings. They multiplied into more and more groups of believers meeting in homes, all networking together. This was the original house church networks!
Recently, new house church networks have sprung up throughout North America—from Denver, Colorado to Austin, Texas; from Richmond, Virginia to Indianapolis Indiana; from Toronto, Ontario to Edmonton, Alberta, and dozens of places in between. House church networks are emerging rapidly and in growing numbers! House church networks in New Zealand are already networking together throughout their nation.
The constant need for new wineskins
Although there are already thousands upon thousands of healthy, vibrant churches throughout North America and the world, new wineskins are continually needed to accommodate the believers who do not fit into the current church structures. House church networks, many believe, will help to restore the simplicity of the New Testament church to the contemporary church. They will not replace the mega-churches and smaller community churches in our regions but will grow up alongside them.
I had the privilege of serving as a senior pastor of a church for fifteen years. In the 1980s, our new rural church plant in south central Pennsylvania grew from 25 people to over 2,000 within ten years after starting. It was truly a miracle of grace. Back then, we thought we had a radical outlook on doing church because we incorporated cell groups as our foundational structure. However, after several years, it became apparent that there was a sense of unrest in our growing church.
I especially noticed this with some of the young people. They craved a new type of wineskin that would provide a more contemporary venue in which to get involved. They were saying the same kind of things we had said ten years earlier: “We are looking for something new. We need something that truly meets our needs.” Our ten-year-old wineskin had begun to age—it was past its prime for many of the younger generation.
It didn’t take long to conclude that we must find ways to plant new churches (new wineskins) and begin the process of handing over the reins to the next generation. If we didn’t, we would lose what we already had. How then could we reach out to our world and reap a harvest?
As Dr. Peter Wagner has said so often, “The single most effective way to evangelize is to plant new churches.”
Churches that network
The house churches are true churches, not just Bible studies or cell groups. They have elders, they collect tithes and offerings, and the leadership is responsible before the Lord for the souls of the people in the house church (Hebrews 13:17).
My wife LaVerne and I are a part of an awesome house church that meets every week in a home in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. We have a blast each week eating together, praying together, reaching out to “pre-Christians” together, and practically serving one another. We try to find practical ways to serve other more traditional churches in our community. For example, a group of churches in our region were trying to raise enough money to give to a group of missionaries and international church leaders. However, they were not able to raise the money that was needed. Our house church made the decision to give a few thousand dollars to meet the need to help these missionaries and international church leaders.
After all, we do not have building mortgages to pay off, no pastor to pay a salary for, and no electric bill to pay. Our leaders are all bi-vocational and we meet in a home. The mortgage has already been paid! God has blessed the house church financially so we can serve the body of Christ in our region.
These new house churches remind me of a shopping mall. Most of the little specialized stores in a shopping mall would go out of business within a year if they were left on their own and not linked to the other stores in their mall. But together, they prosper. When various flavors of house churches learn to network together in a practical way in their city, they will experience great blessing from the Lord. Those who do not will have a tendency to become ingrown, stagnant, stop evangelizing, and become critical of the rest of the church. We must love our Lord’s bride, the church. She is far from perfect, but He loves her and so must we.
I have two concerns as house church movements emerge among us: pride and persecution. As thousands of new house churches spring up in communities all over our nation, there may be a tendency for those involved to be filled with pride, feeling they are on the “cutting edge” while those not in house churches are “missing it.” This must be guarded against. Pride always comes before a fall. God is much more concerned about the attitude of our hearts than our church structure.
Secondly, historically nearly every former move of God has persecuted the next move of God. May the church of our generation resist the temptation to criticize the next generation as they pursue the new wine of the Holy Spirit and the new wineskins they discern are needed to experience New Testament Christianity.
Printed in Kairos magazine, January 2005
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