A paper written for Dr. Tom Johnston’s Church Evangelism course in 2010.
Over the past several years I have had the opportunity to study church planting as part of my course requirements for a degree in North American Church Planting. I have learned about many different models, have listened in on various seminars, and have been a participant in a few as well. One thing that I have learned through all of this is that church planting is most definitely a field unto itself with cultures and subcultures only understood by those active within it’s realm. One of these cultures (models) will be discussed in this paper along with a look into a few of its subcultures.
The house church model has been around within Christianity for a long time. Acts chapter 2 discusses how the early church meet, received the Holy Spirit, fellowshipped daily, and met in one another’s homes. This model is able to withstand persecution and tribulation from outside sources. It multiplies faster and produces more new believers who are more grounded in their faith. It also struggles with many of the same things that their traditional, non-traditional, and experimental church sister models struggle with.
Within this paper I will look at six subcultures within the house/organic church model. These by no means cover all the subcultures, but at the same time will overlap or be able to fall into other subcultures that could easily be found with a Google search. I will give an overview on the Institutional Home Church, the Glorified Bible Study, the Special Interest Group, the Organic Church, the Missional Communities/Networks, and the Insider Movements. Since these subcultures are not written about in many books or online sources, I have pulled together and condensed the little information I could find through three years of house church study and summarized it here.
The first subculture is what some would call the Institutional Home Church. This house church is simply what its title suggests; a traditional, institutional type church that meets in a home or other place other than a “church” building. This church has all the looks and feels of First Baptist County Seat without all the space and most of the programs. This church has a paid traditional pastor, a worship leader, possibly a youth guy/gal, a Sunday School hour, a discipleship time, a regular budget, meeting time, etc. The pastor of this type of church preaches each week much like he would in the County Seat church he may have come out of. The order of service is identical to that of County Seat and the people who attend this church like it this way.
Why would anyone “do” house church this way? A few reasons: 1). It is the only way these believers know how to do church. I have found in my church planting and organic church journey that when I do not know what to do or how to do it I tend to fall back to how I used to do things. 2). The pastor is charismatic and for any number of reasons he “left” the church building to do it his own way. Sometimes pastors leave do to conflict, some are forced out, others are burned out, and some just want to start a church of their own and do not have a clear calling from the Lord so they do what they know, only smaller. 3). They like the intimate feel of the Sunday School/rural church and want to feel that each week. Many people join a church and get lost in the crowd. I run into people all the time who attend a particular church near my place of employment and have no clue who are in their fellowship outside the folks in their bible study group. 4). More and more churches are intentionally moving this way. Whether they call it a transition into “house church networks” or “cell churches”, they are moving outside the building, freeing up tons of resources, and using these newly found treasures for the kingdom. Personally I find this fourth reason the most noble, yet least practiced. Many churches would try to get back to the biblical roots of meeting in smaller groups in someone’s house or a “third place” like Starbucks, but most fail in their efforts. A friend of mine in Tennessee tried to do this after pastoring a very “successful” church, but ultimately the members wanted the opposite of what they tried to do in meeting in homes in order to impact neighborhoods.
The second subculture is what Frank Viola calls the Glorified Bible Study house church. An ex-clergy type person or someone who has aspirations of becoming a bible teacher often facilitates this church. This type of house church does a good job of studying scripture, but fails at almost every other aspect of what the New Testament describes a fellowship of being. Those who have “superior” knowledge of the bible dominate the group and those who do not know as much participate very little. The shelf life of this subculture is usually on the shorter side of the average house church. One reason being is that people get tired of it very quickly and move on to something else. The bible teacher may get sick of being the only one who studied the lesson that week. The participants may grow tired of hearing a few people dominate the conversation. And the whole group may get sick of coming together to do the same thing each week. A variety of reasons could spell the demise of such a group.
The Glorified Bible Study group is a common start to a house church. Many people come out of fellowship where they feel the pastor or the bible teachers are not sharing the same thing that scripture teaches and set out to start their own church. They hear about the house church model, do a little research (I mean a little!), gather a few friends who feel the same way and get started. Like any group that gets started the new wears off, people get on ones another’s nerves, and religious hobbyhorses take front and center at many of the meetings. People soon grow tired of arguing, find a hobby on whatever night the meeting takes place, and drop out.
This church does not realize it until it is too late, but they operate much the same way as the church or group that they all came out of and were trying so hard to run from. The bible teacher becomes the pastor, the utmost importance of getting the bible study done become the new order of service, the religious hobbyhorses become the bad teachings they were trying to turn from, and the people are left feeling frustrated and even more dissatisfied with “the church” than before.
The Special Interest Group house church is the third type I would like to summarize. This house church can include, but is not limited to, affinity-based churches, business group house churches, and “gap-filler” house churches. The special interest group is common in the house church world. Every now and then I will have an email pop up in my box from a person interested in house church. This person, or couple, will have experienced house church before and is looking for a group sort of like the one they came from before their job transferred them. They might throw me clues like, “Are all the families home schooling their children”, or “I hope everyone in your group believes and firmly teaches the so and so end times view”. This is my cue to lay it all on the line in an attempt to be as frank as possible without coming off as rude. We have never had to seriously deal with anyone bringing in any crazy ideas due to simply sharing with them that we generally do not worry with such matters to the extent that they would like us to.
This type of church might have their members sign some sort of statement of faith espousing their particular slant on scripture (an eschatological view, Calvinism, Arminianism, a branch of a denomination). Anyway you look at it, the special interest is very evident and not going anywhere. Anyone coming in who would dare try to change things is either put in their place or shown the door.
I lump affinity based churches, business group churches, and gap-fillers in simply because they tend to follow this trend. The affinity-based church might be an ethnic church with one family that does not fit the mold on the outside, but on the inside identifies with the group. The same is true for businessmen, bikers, cowboys, recovering homosexuals, or even sex workers. In the church-planting world there seems to be a church for everyone! There might be the exception to the rule, but the church is based on the special interest.
The unique group that I have discovered is the gap-filler church. This church exists solely for the purpose of filling a religious void of some sort. A friend of mine in Kansas City discusses this type of church often with me since he is struggling to stay out of this category with his own group. His group consists of many people who started attending a house church simply because his group meets on Sunday night: the very night that their traditional church stopped having services. They consider the house church valid, support it’s efforts, participate openly each week, and talk about its merits with their friends, but do not see it as the primary church they attend. They do not tithe or give any type of offering (this would take away from the mission of the “real” church) or invest any significant amount of time or effort into the evangelism and mission strategy of the house church they attend as the gap-filler. Although they are unique in our house church network, I do not feel that this type of church is unique in the house church model. Many people love the feel of the house church but cannot and will not give up on their traditional way of fellowship and worship.
The Organic Church is the next subculture. Viola describes this type as a “living, vibrant, face to face community that has no other pursuit but Jesus Christ Himself”. In this type of subculture titles are not used, but gifts are exercised. I would be lying if I said each group in the organic camp did not have the one guy who would be labeled as the pastor, but this pastor-type does not look anything like his contemporaries. He might have the gift of shepherd, but this gift does not play out as an “office” as some would suggest. This idea is against the very grain of Southern Baptist ecclesiology, but nonetheless is a valid and real part of many churches that are a part of the convention falling under the organic church subculture.
This person might have the gift of pastor (mentioned only once in scripture) and never look like the typical pastor in a meeting or in public. In this type of subculture, a one man preaching event on a regular basis is seen as a dominating factor and would not happen for long. Each person who makes up the body of Christ is encouraged to participate and share according to the knowledge and gifting given by the Holy Spirit.
In a single meeting there might be a word of encouragement followed by a song of praise that is followed up by a time of group or silent prayer for a person or issue. This type of church is led solely by the moving of the Holy Spirit and His agenda for the evening. You never know how the night will turn out! Organic church is natural (as suggested by its name) and cannot be put in a box and made to follow any sort of order of service or rule of thumb. Neil Cole explains it in his book Organic Church in several phrases. “The Church is a living organism not a static institution.” “The Church is so much more than a building.” “The Church is not to be bound to a single location.” “The Church is much more than a one-hour service held one day a week.” “The kingdom of God is meant to be decentralized, but people tend to centralize.” “We are each God’s temple and together we are also his temple.” I have met many people who scoff at the idea of organic church, but when I have presented them with these ideas they have no argument. The trouble comes when these statements are played out in real life and non-conventional ways of participating in church are acted on and seen by others looking in.
I once described this method to a man in an “institution of higher religious learning” and he told me that this method was not biblical. Not only did he say that, but also he went on to say that there would be no way a church like this could ever get off the ground and even if it did it would not last a year. He invited me to share a cup of coffee with him a year from the date we talked and we would talk about why the “organic church” did not work and what I could do to start the right type of church. I never shared that coffee with him. Good resources on this topic abound on the Internet and within the movement. Although not usually a scholarly source, reading enough blogs and online postings can give an impression of this type of church to an interested person investigating organic church.
Another type of subculture within the house church movement is the missional communities/networks. Andrew Jones, a Southern Baptist blogger and emerging church type reports on subcultures of house church in his blog. He includes an article written by Wolfgang Simson, a house church leader and writer from Germany, called “Another Six Pack of House Churches”. In it he discusses the missional communities that are popping up in large denominations like the Anglican Church and the Assemblies of God. These missional communities are essentially house churches within denominations. The Southern Baptist Convention has them too and all have similar characteristics. One is that they are under the radar of church and denominational leadership. These groups have learned the hard way that making their cause, methods, and ecclesiologies known to the national leadership is denominational suicide. In order to remain under the umbrella of the denomination, they remain quiet about how they meet and what they do.
Not only is it suicide to “come out”, but it goes against the grain of what they are trying to do. These missional communities or networks are not interested in being the next method that is paraded coast to coast in conferences and in printed materials. They are interested in changing people’s lives with the message of the Gospel and watching God work, not themselves.
The final subculture is called Insider Movements. Insider movements are not the same as above, but are started within other religious movements. These might include Buddhists, Hindus, or even the Roman Catholic Church. These believers firmly believe that the Lord uses them within their old religious system and culture to reach those still practicing pagan worship. They are culturally immersed in whatever religious system they came out of and start churches that might have the look and flavor of a false religion but in actuality is Christianity. Southern Baptists are no strangers to this as those working with the IMB have been doing this for years. We have learned that indigenous church planting is the most effective manner in starting new faith communities. Charles Brock wrote a book on this subject with the very same title for eager young Christians to soak up and enjoy.
I have only touched on a few of the subcultures within the diverse house church movement. Although there are many more types, most would tend to fall into, or hover around, one of the groups mentioned above. I have not used too many outside sources, as much of this material is firsthand knowledge to me. I will include a brief bibliography of materials that influenced me in the forms of books and web sites.
Banks, Robert. Paul’s Idea of Community. Hendrickson Publishing, Peabody MA, 2007.
Brock, Charles. Indigenous Church Planting. A Practical Journey. Church Growth
International, Neosho Mo. 1990.
Cole, Neil. Organic Church. Jossey-Bass. S.F., 2005.
Payne, J.D. Missional House Churches. Patnoster, Colorado Springs CO, 2007.
Viola, Frank. Finding Organic Church. David C. Cook, Colorado Springs CO, 2009.
Jones, Andrew. “6 more types of house church”
http://tallskinnykiwi.typepad.com/tallskinnykiwi/2009/11/another-six-pack-of-house-churches.html. Accessed February 11, 2010.
Vu, Michelle. China’s Relentless Persecution of House Church Head. http://www.christianpost.com/article/20080219/china-s-relentless-persecution-of-house-church-head/index.html. Accessed February 09, 2010.
Mickey Mooney. www.networkvine.com Paris TN 38242.