Sunday, October 11, 2009

Surveying 2000 Years of House Church Ministry


The first story in Tales of A Korean Grandmother is entitled “The House of Kim.” It is a story that contrasts gender differences:

The Korean grandmother sat comfortably on the soft tiger-skin rug, enjoying the autumn breeze that drifted in through the open door. . . . She puffed contentedly at her long pipe. . . .

“It is good to be born a boy like Yong Tu,” Ok Cha said wistfully, coming to sit down at her grandmother’s side. The little girl envied her brother—not because he was the oldest son of their father and thus one day would become, like him, Master of the House, but just because Yong Tu was a boy. He could do so many things that were not permitted then to girls in Korea. He could walk on the stret. He could picnic on the hills in the spring, or fly kites out there when the winter winds blew. He could even go with his father or the servants to buy toys in the markets and shops of the city.
Ok Cha, now that she was a full eight years old, would not be allowed to set foot outside the Inner Court. She would not see the city streets. . . . When she was married, she would only exchange the Inner Court of her father’s house for that of her husband.

That is a tale of a Korean granddaughter. But similar stories can be told in cultures around the world, America included.


During most of the first half of the twentieth century, John Franklyn Norris (1877-1952) was the minister of the Fort Worth, Texas, First Baptist Church, known as the “home of the cattle kings” and the richest church in Texas (with a sister church in Detroit, and a total membership of some twenty-five thousand).

When his efforts to shut down a house of prostitution failed, he began advertising his Sunday evening sermons as forums for exposing the names of clients. Crowds overflowed the auditorium and a tent was erected. The mayor ordered the tent removed, leading to a prolonged conflict between mayor and preacher and their supporters. Then in February of 1912, the church was burned to the ground and a month later the Norris home was burned. The mayor was blamed, but Norris, (rumored to have planned the arson in order to blame others) was the primary suspect but never charged. Another conflict erupted in 1925 when Norris sought to subvert a land purchase sought by local Catholics. A city hall official came to Norris’s office, and, according to Norris, threatened him. Norris pulled out his gun, fired four shots, and killed the man. He claimed self-defense and the jury agreed. He was found “not guilty.” Other Baptists were embarrassed by his behavior and parted company with him, but his radio audience grew as he increased his attacks against Catholics, communists, and organized labor. His influence impressed politicians including Herbert Hoover who invited him to attend his inauguration in 1929. Norris stands out as the premier fighting fundamentalist of the 1920s.

Growing up in the shadow of the First Baptist Church of Fort Worth and its notorious minister, Tillie Burgin’s sense of calling was very different from any that Frank Norris may have claimed. Her gender prevented her from being a minister. But she could take up the mantle of other Baptist women and become a missionary. Indeed, she served for several years in Korea and then returned home to Arlington, struggling with health issues and loneliness.

But the call to missions did not die. I pick up her story from an article by Eric Swanson:

As Tillie saw the needs around her, she asked herself the question, "Why can't we treat Arlington as a mission field?" And so she did. Her mission was simple--take the church to the people who were not going to church--"to hang out and hover around John 3:16."

Today, Mission Arlington is a house church movement of nearly 250 community house churches (and nearly 4,000 in attendance) serving thousands of people a week in the Arlington community with food, clothing, furniture, medical and dental care, school transportation, child and adult day care, counseling, etc.

Although the square block ministry center is bourgeoning with love and compassion, the real ministry takes place in the 250 house churches scattered in homes and apartments around Arlington. . . . .

Each day hundreds of people come through the center with various types of needs. . . . Then, these folks are followed up through the geographically located [house] churches. Last Thanksgiving, Mission Arlington fed 9,000 people in their homes, having realized that people would rather eat with their families and friends than in a center somewhere. . . .

Good deeds have become the bridge over which the good news travels. Mission Arlington sees hundreds of people come to Christ each year. Lives are being touched. Lives are being changed. Many who have come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ through the ministry of Tillie now serve as volunteers. Mission Arlington is a model of community involvement leading to spiritual and societal transformation.

Two twentieth-century Texas Baptists. Both seeking to serve God. Two true stories. Two parables. Jesus asks for a verdict. Which of the two did what the Father Wanted?


How do we define a house church and tally up the numbers? By its very nature the house church—whether in China or America—eludes statistical analysis. In a recent poll a full one-third of those questioned said they were part of one. Perhaps so, if we poll only a select segment of the population and define a house church very broadly.

So then, what is a house church? A group of people over for Bible study? A pre-dawn, pancake-house, prayer gathering? Or is a house church a very specific kind of a faith community?

Must a house church be entirely independent of a large church or denomination? Must it be officially organized? Offer and/or publicize regular meeting times? Welcome visitors? Actually meet in a house? Be neighborhood oriented? Host at least a dozen people? Uphold historically orthodox Christian beliefs? Identify itself as a house church?

Who is authorized to answer these questions? Who is the Pope of house churches? Obviously, for good reason, no one has such authority.
A recent multi-survey conducted by pollster George Barna indicated that the number of people involved in house churches varies significantly depending upon how the questions are posed.
“For instance, when house church is defined in the strictest sense—as a group that meets regularly in a non-church building, is independent of a typical church and considers itself a church—only 3 to 6 percent of respondents said they are involved.”
For our purposes we will more or less define house church by this definition—a group that meets regularly in a non-church building, is independent of a typical church and considers itself a church—thus not to be confused with a cell church or a small group which is really part of a large church or denomination, though it may be connected with other house churches as in the case of those initiated by Tillie Burgin.
My assignment for this lecture was to look at house churches historically. If definitions and statistics are difficult to pin down for the contemporary scene, multiply that many times over in assessing the historical picture.

My assignment for this lecture was to look at house churches historically. If definitions and statistics are difficult to pin down for the contemporary scene, multiply that many times over in assessing the historical picture.

I offer my overview in a 7-point outline.

1. Biblically Authentic

2. Culturally Sensitive

3. Outreach Oriented

4. Inwardly Caring

5. Lay-leadership Necessitated

6. Theologically Inclusive

7. Imaginatively Innovative

Thursday, October 8, 2009

1. Biblically Authentic

The first characteristic we should look for in a house church is biblical authenticity. I’m currently in the process of completing a church history text with Zondervan. It has been a very enriching educational experience for me. Much of my work has been review but I’m always learning new things along the way.

I never cease to be astonished as I research and write about early church history and the incredible transformation of the church under the reign of Emperor Constantine.He is remembered for the Edict of Milan that legalized Christianity in 313, granting religious freedom and ordering that property previously confiscated from Christians be returned. Indeed, Christianity would hold a favored status. This is a turning point of history. Finally the Christian faith is getting the respect it deserves. There is freedom to worship and freedom to build grand cathedrals funded largely through government coffers. So we celebrate Constantine as the greatest of all Christian Rulers. According to Bishop Eusebius, his contemporary now remembered as the Father of Church History, he was a second Moses.

But was Constantine even a Christian at all? Here’s What James Carroll, author of Constantine’s Sword, says about him:

"Constantine’s wife, Fausta would have had good reason to oppose [his son] Crisspus . . . in favor of her own son. . . . Some historians conjecture that Fausta hatched a plot to inspire Constantine’s suspicions against Crispus. All that is certain is that in 326 . . . Constantine ordered the murder of his firstborn son and the obliteration of the name Crispus from imperial history. . . . If Fausta did falsely conspire against Crispus, and if, after the murder, Constantine learned [perhaps from Helena his mother] that he had been misled by Fausta, that would account for what happened next. . . . In that same fateful year, shortly after murdering his son, Constantine murdered his wife. . . . Eusebius promoted only the happiest of images in all his accounts, and having designated Constantine as the new Moses, he makes no mention of the murders of his wife and son."

Beginning with the reign of Constantine the New Testament community of faith would never be the same. The New Testament house church would become a relic of the past—except for instances among some independent Christians outside official Christendom. Just what was this church that was left behind?

Dr. Samuel H. Lee presented a fine lecture on this topic. I quote him in explaining why house churches in New Testament times were the standard:

"The early apostles and saints . . . used both synagogues and their homes as meeting places. . . . But soon they were cast out of the synagogues. Since they could not find official worship places, they remodeled their own houses for meetings. . . ."

Dr. Lee pointed to an even more significant reason for early Christians needing the anonymity of house churches

"The early Christians were the target of persecution . . . and naturally they began to seek hiding places. The safest place for them to avoid persecution was in their homes. It is very meaningful to note that one of the main reasons why the early Christian church did not fall apart in spite of severe persecution was because the church met as house churches. Unless all the houses of early Christians were destroyed, the house church could not be destroyed. And unless all the house churches were destroyed, Christianity could not be destroyed."

We sometimes imagine that when Paul wrote his letters to churches in various cities that he was writing to a large group of Christians. But scholars believe that when he was writing to the Corinthians, for example, he was most likely writing to several house churches meeting in various homes throughout Corinth. Recognizing this offers insight in understanding the setting for the many conflicts they experienced. Indeed, house-church history, beginning with the New Testament, is not always a pretty picture.

The earliest Christians found no need to build their own synagogues or temples such as Jews had done throughout history and today—nor temples and mosques necessary for Hindus and Muslims. Houses were well suited for the earliest communities of Christians.

But with Emperor Constantine all that changed. Church buildings and Cathedrals and shrines and institutional power all marched through the early decades of the fourth century hand-in-hand, Emperor Constantine the grand marshal of the pageantry and parade.

Ever since we have been building grand houses for God. In fact, as a gesture of full disclosure, I acknowledge that I am a member of a cathedral, or more properly a church—a grand house for God, La Grave Avenue Christian Reformed Church, the anchor West Michigan Christian Reformed Church in downtown Grand Rapids.

But I often ask myself, is this the kind of church Jesus would recognize were he to walk the streets of Grand Rapids in the autumn of 2009? Would the Apostle Paul feel at home in a grand Christian edifice—be it a cathedral or an arena-sized megachurch?

“As important as it is to mark the places where we meet God, I worry about what happens when we build a house for God,” writes Barbara Brown Taylor in An Altar in the World. “Do we build God a house so that we can choose to go see God? Do we build God a house in lieu of having God stay at ours? Plus, what happens to the rest of the world when we build four walls—even four gorgeous walls—cap them with a steepled roof, and designate that the House of God?

2. Culturally Sensitive

Another crucial characteristic that we should look for in a house church is cultural sensitivity. Sometimes we miss cultural characteristics that are right under our nose.

Some years ago I was teaching a seminary course among Navajos in New Mexico. One of the first things I noticed when we stopped for gas as I was being transported to the educational facility was that Navajos in large numbers drive pickup trucks, wear jeans and cowboy hats—and listen to country music on their car radios.

But when I later visited churches I noticed that no one was wearing jeans and cowboy hats, and the only music on the play-list was old hymns. I love the old hymns but they are unlikely to have any relevance for your average Native American.

I asked my host about it. He was a local native preacher who had confided to me that he would often sneak away on Saturday nights to play country music with his band at a community center. I suggested that he bring his band to church and play southern country gospel. He said he dared not do that because he would get in trouble with the church leaders.

Both he and the church leaders were missing an opportunity to contextualize the gospel.

When white church leaders think about Navajo culture, they typically think only of native traditions—insisting they cannot contextualize such shamanistic rituals with the Christian faith. But most Navajos are far more in tune with contemporary country music culture than with native traditions. We must be ever aware of the actual lived out day-to-day culture as we seek to contextualize the gospel.

House churches afford an opportunity for its members to be culturally sensitive—ever aware of a newcomer who may feel out of place. But house churches can also be geared to certain specific cultures such as guitar-playing Navajos reaching out to other Navajos or Korean students and staff at the University of Montana reaching out to other Koreans students, faculty and staff.

Such a focus is sometimes controversial, however. It certainly was for B.V. Subbamma back in the 1970s in India—and in America. She had converted from Hinduism, very aware of how difficult it was to minister across caste lines. But while studying under missiologist Donald McGavran at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, she wrote the first draft of what would become her signature book New Patterns for Discipling Hindus—a book that argued that house churches within single castes were far more effective than churches that sought to draw members of all castes as well as outcastes. Such a mix in India, she maintained, was not culturally feasible.Her critics screamed how dare you? The gospel is color and class and caste blind—there is neither Greek nor Jew, slave or free, male and female. She insisted, however, that even in Pasadena churches are typically structured along class lines. The Episcopal church on the tree-lined boulevard is worlds away from the Pentecostal store-front church.

We must be open to the possibility of caste-oriented or culture-oriented house churches. But we do well to strive for cultural inclusively. In the early centuries slaves reached out to their masters with the gospel and sometimes met together for worship.

In the Old South slaves would invite the mistress of the plantation to be part of what could be termed a house church. Amanda Smith, a slave evangelist, tells the following story in her autobiography:

"The spirit of the Lord got hold of my young mistress, and she was mightily convicted and converted right there before she left the ground [of our camp meeting]; wonderfully converted in the old-fashioned way; the shouting, hallelujah way. . . . Mother . . . had always prayed for Miss Celie, so her heart was bounding with gladness when Miss Celie was converted. . . . [Miss Celie] wanted to go to the colored people's church. No, they would not have that. So they kept her from going. Then they separated my mother and her. They thought maybe mother might talk to her, and keep up the excitement. So they never let them be together at all, if possible. About a quarter of a mile away was the great dairy, and Miss Celie used to slip over there when she got a chance and have a good time praying with mother and grandmother."

3. Outreach Oriented

Another critical characteristic that ought to be found in house churches is an outreach focus. For many years I dreamed of opening a closed church. I tell of this dream in my book Left Behind in a Megachurch World:
[I have a] long-held fantasy of opening a closed-down country church—even the shut down Green Grove Alliance Church in Northern Wisconsin where I grew up—and reaching out with the love of Jesus to the surrounding community. I have imagined getting a phone call on a late spring Sunday morning as I’m walking out the door, sermon in hand, heading over to the church to open windows for some fresh air. But the call stops me dead in my tracks. A little boy has slipped out of a farm house overnight and the frantic parents cannot find him. I do not know the family, but that’s beside the point. The sermon is set aside as I make the first call for our round-robin phoning system. Worship service is canceled. I throw my sweater and skirt on the bed and pull on my jeans and boots. The church becomes central-station for child-care, bag lunches, and search-team strategy. Adults and youth volunteer to get out in the woods or to man the base operations. In the end, I imagine the little boy is found and brought back home safe and sound before sunset. There is no grand finale or great revival in the community. The church doesn’t double in size overnight. But there is joy over one little lost boy who has been found.

The earliest churches—house churches, that is—in the midst of a pagan world were known for their good deeds. When the plague struck in Alexandria, Christians stayed behind and nursed the sick and buried the dead.

Following the era of Constantine it is much more difficult to find examples of house churches. Some historians suggest that monasticism afforded the closest thing to house churches—especially small monastic communities that welcomed strangers in their midst. In my forthcoming church history text I include a story about dogs and monastic ministry:

The beloved big slobbery Saint Bernard dog is not named for Bernard of Clairvaux. Rather, for Bernard of Menthon, born more than a century and a half earlier in 923. A Benedictine monk, Bernard founded two monasteries in the Alps providing refuge for pilgrims trudging through dangerous mountain passes on their way to Rome. Sometimes travelers were caught in storms and monks rescued them with their faithful dogs. The most celebrated of these rescue dogs was Barry who saved nearly one hundred pilgrims. Today Barry is stuffed and lives in the Natural History Museum in Berne.

Here were monks reaching out to strangers—hardly an example of a house church but an example of outreach ministry that would work well for a house church comprised of dog lovers.

There are infinite ways in which a small community of believers can become involved in the surrounding neighborhood. I’m reminded of Benedictine monasticism and its motto passed down from its founder Benedict, a sixth-century monk: Ora et Labora: Pray and Work.

In recent years there has been a lot of emphasis on prayer walking—walking through a neighborhood and praying for people. I would challenge a house-church community rather to go out into the neighborhood and get involved in ora et labora. Instead of prayer walking, prayer raking or prayer painting or prayer shoveling

Another medieval movement that is often heralded as house-church oriented is the Waldensians. Three centuries before the Reformation Peter Waldo, a wealthy clothing merchant in Lyons, France was converted one Sunday afternoon while listing to the lyrics of a song performed by a troubadour who was entertaining people in the town market. He was spinning a tale of a saintly old man who had died with his sins forgiven and the promise of life eternal.

Fearing that his own good fortune would be reversed in the life to come, Waldo then and there vowed to devote his life to ministry. He gave away all his wealth—much of it to the poor—except for enough to fund a Bible translation. He soon drew followers who also give away their belongings. Dubbed the “Poor Men of Lyons,” they studied the Bible and went out two-by-two evangelizing, establishing house churches, and conducting deeds of charity.

Fast-forward five centuries. The Wesleyan Holy Club that served as a foundation for early Methodists is another example of a house church committed to outreach ministry. Begun by Charles Wesley while a student at Oxford, it was later joined by younger brother John and several dozen others. A primary focus was on holiness—but not a form of holiness separated from sacrificial deeds of kindness.

The Holy Club was actually a name of derision, but those involved took their commitment seriously. The group took communion together each week and each member was committed to fasting until 3 p.m. on Wednesdays and Fridays. They also met in the evenings to study from the Greek New Testament. But the focus was not all inward. Each member was expected to reach out in evangelism and good works, visiting prisoners regularly at the Oxford Castle prison and ministering to the poor in the slums.

4. Inwardly Caring

A fourth characteristic of a healthy house church is that it be inwardly caring. I’m convinced that there would be far less need for therapists if our churches looked more like the New Testament community of believers whose inward holiness was not separated from outward deeds of charity.

I remember a time in my own life some two decades ago. My world was falling apart—or so it seemed. I was a perfect candidate for therapy but I was convinced I couldn’t afford it and besides that, I was too busy.

In the midst of my shattered world I was saying goodbye at the airport to Bud and Joan, friends who had retired early to serve as missionaries in Kenya. I had earlier taught in Kijabe, Kenya and I had arranged for housing and a vehicle and contacts with various people so that they could begin their medical ministry more efficiently.

We were waiting for the flight with dozens of other friends when Joan took me aside and asked if I would be a daughter to her aged parents while she was gone. There were no other family members living close by. I swallowed hard and then agreed, though never imagining that the following week her mother would be hospitalized with a mysterious malady that utterly mystified the doctors. She was on the road to recovery one day only to have a setback the next. She died less than two months later.

For six weeks I went to the hospital every day and as I ministered to Clare, she ministered to me and I realized that my problems paled in comparison to hers. My hospital ministry was far more effective therapy than what a counselor could have offered. This kind of ministry is a natural part of a house church that doubles as a community of love.

Dr. Lee speaks of this “community of love.”

"In Acts 2:43-47, 4:32-37, all the believers had everything in common. They sold their possessions and goods; they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts."

There are many historical examples of communities of love—though such communities often go through times of enmity and upheaval. This was true of the early Moravian community of Herrnhut founded by Count Nicholas von Zinzendorf. Herrnhut became the center for worldwide missionary outreach that was supported by a prayer watch that continued more than a century—continuous, around the clock prayer.

Zinzendorf had been raised by his grandmother in the cradle of German Pietism, a movement that met in conventicles or house churches—a movement that emphasized Bible study, prayer, personal testimonies and a heavy dose of good works. Among the outreach endeavors were homes for widows, an orphanage, a hospital, a rescue mission, a school for poor children, and food and medicine for the needy.

In his teen years, while Zinzendorf was being schooled in the Pietist academy at Halle, he and several other aristocratic youths formed The Order of the Grain of Mustard Seed, a secret society focused on spreading the gospel. This was the beginnings of his own house church movement. Throughout his life he called for what he termed a “heart religion” with the emphasis on Christ.

John Wesley was influenced by the Pietists and by Zinzendorf, especially in the matter of heart religion. But for Wesley there was no true community of faith without discipline.

In most churches today there is little if any discipline. Church members miss ten services in a row, go through divorce, and make the headlines of the local paper for embezzling from their company without so much as a threat of discipline. This is particularly true in larger churches. If a member is threatened with discipline, it is easy enough to simply transfer to another megachurch. But there is no hiding among the crowds in a house church where there is a greater emphasis on accountability.

Wesley was particularly known for his focus on personal accountability as is seen in the 22 questions that Holy Club members were expected to ask themselves each day:

1. Am I consciously or unconsciously creating the impression that I am better than I really am? In other words, am I a hypocrite?
2. Am I honest in all my acts and words, or do I exaggerate?
3. Do I confidentially pass on to another what was told to me in confidence?
4. Can I be trusted?
5. Am I a slave to dress, friends, work, or habits?
6. Am I self-conscious, self-pitying, or self-justifying?
7. Did the Bible live in me today?
8. Do I give it time to speak to me everyday?
9. Am I enjoying prayer?
10. When did I last speak to someone else about my faith?
11. Do I pray about the money I spend?
12. Do I get to bed on time and get up on time?
13. Do I disobey God in anything?
14. Do I insist upon doing something about which my conscience is uneasy?
15. Am I defeated in any part of my life?
16. Am I jealous, impure, critical, irritable, touchy, or distrustful?
17. How do I spend my spare time?
18. Am I proud?
19. Do I thank God that I am not as other people, especially as the Pharisees who despised the publican?
20. Is there anyone whom I fear, dislike, disown, criticize, hold a resentment toward or disregard? If so, what am I doing about it?
21. Do I grumble or complain constantly?
22. Is Christ real to me?

These questions are still valid today and a house church would do well to review them as it lays out its own guidelines for accountability.

5. Lay-leadership Necessitated

A fifth characteristic of the house church is the requisite of lay-leadership. There is no paid clerical staff to do the work of ministry. Everyone is expected to get involved, sometimes with virtually no oversight or authority. When I researched my most recent book Leadership Reconsidered I studied the concept known as swarm theory.

I’ve personally seen human swarm theory in action. Some years ago when living in Indiana, weather reports told of serious flooding in a nearby town. When we arrived to help in the sandbagging, hundreds of volunteers were already there. Local (and distant) truckers and construction companies, through no organized effort, had delivered sand and sandbags. People swarmed in from miles around. No one appeared to be in charge. We simply joined the line and did what others were doing and helped save homes from the raging flood waters of the rising river. Such swarming in many situations is more efficient than calling in experts from far away.

“I used to think ants knew what they were doing,” writes Peter Miller in a National Geographic article on swarm theory. “Turns out I was wrong.” So how do ants carry out the seeming complicated and ever changing assignments needed to run an efficient ant hill? It depends not on individual ants but on the colony.

"That’s how swarm intelligence works: simple creatures following simple rules, each one acting on local information. No ant sees the big picture. No ant tells any other ant what to do. Some ant species may go about this with more sophistication than others. . . . But the bottom line . . . is that no leadership is required." [July 2007, 130-132.]

Is it possible that we have been emphasizing the importance of leadership when what our society and churches actually need is more efficient swarming? Is clerical leadership really necessary?

In my forthcoming church history text, I divide the volume in two parts of twelve chapters each. Most church history books make the two-part division with the Reformation, the second half beginning with Martin Luther’s Reform.

I recognize the significance of Luther’s challenge to the Catholic Church, but he and other Reformers, including Zwingli and Calvin, left the institutionalized church intact. These Magisterial Reformers, as they are known, carried on with institutionalized Christendom that began with Emperor Constantine.

The real turning point in church history comes with the Anabaptists, and that is why I begin Part two of the book with them and not with Luther.

The Anabaptist movement began in Switzerland under the Bible teaching of Zwingli. He had turned away from his Catholic background—a priest turned Protestant Reformer. His enthusiasm for offering Bible studies to eager students, however, led to biblical interpretations that carried reform far beyond what he and other Magisterial Reformers had in mind. These students were convinced that the true church was composed of called-out believers who professed personal faith in Christ.

Soon Anabaptist house churches were forming right under Zwingli’s nose. Spurred by their commitment to lay evangelism, they quickly spread the gospel message. So rapidly in fact, that many Reformers, particularly in Switzerland, feared that whole regions might be swept away.

“The people are running after them as though they were living saints,” lamented Reformer Heinrich Bullinger. Another Reformer warned that “there was reason to fear that the majority of the common people would unite with this sect.” Still another reported that they “spread so rapidly that their teaching soon covered the land,” having “gained a large following, and baptized thousands.”

Anabaptists were the brunt of what became known as the “cruelest joke of the Reformation.” “He who dips shall be dipped” was the rule of the Magisterial Reformers. Part of the Anabaptists’ call for a separated church was the necessity of adult believer’s baptism by immersion. When they secretly re-baptized believers, they were arrested and drowned--some burned at the stake.

The Anabaptist story is a sad one, but these dear folks sacrificially set the stage for called-out believers in independent house churches in the generations since.

6. Theologically Inclusive

Still another characteristic to look for in a house church is theological inclusiveness—that of not being tied to denominational confessions.

Another specialized house church ministry that I have dreamed of initiating is one that reaches out to doubters—and those who have walked away from the faith but are not content in their condition. In my book Walking Away from Faith, I seek to be understanding of such individuals. Too often we are judgmental, virtually forcing such people out of the church.

On a web page entitled, “The Anguish of Leaving the Faith,” a man by the name of James posted correspondence relating to his own story. He was very active member of his local church and then one day when he was reading the Bible realized that he could no longer believe it. Without explaining why, he told the pastor that he would be stepping down from his leadership role in the church. But when word got out that he had turned away from the faith, his pastor quickly got involved through letter-writing.

How should a pastor respond to such disclosures? I try to put myself in the position of that pastor. At minimum I would want to begin the letter with an affirmation of my love and friendship—and some words of appreciation for the years of service that James and his wife had given to the church.

I would above all listen—listen to their story and try to comprehend what they were saying. I would interact with them and ask them if it might be possible that they were demanding too much from their faith—for example, proofs that the Christian faith never promises. I would express my deep disappointment while at the same time promising to be available to help them during these troubled times. But such expressions did not fill the paragraphs of his pastor’s response.

"You have not had a 'Loss of faith.' You have believed a lie. . . . You are a smart man James, but you are not smarter than Jesus! Even if you reject Jesus as deity he was by all historical accounts the most profound and wise teacher who has lived. He taught that you should fear God. You are a smart man, but not likely any smarter than King David, King Solomon, Moses, the Apostle Paul, and other historical figures who were smart enough to believe in God. You are not a novelty James. Even Nebuchadnezzar had a battle with pride and the false belief that there is no God. He returned to his senses. You are a smart man, but you are not omnipresent. Therefore, you cannot KNOW there is no God somewhere in the universe, can you? (be logical!). Therefore you cannot be an honest, rational, logical person would ever claim omnipresence except God himself. You are not really ready to make such an irrational claim as Atheism are you James? At best James, you might qualify as Agnostic. . . . You are a smart man. Seek wisdom. Don't be the fool who has said in his heart that there is no God! You are a smart man James, but you are not smarter than God. Humble yourself under his mighty hand! . . . I will count it a privilege and an act of friendship to help you back when you are ready. . . ."

In responding to his pastor, James answered each charge one by one, and at the end of the letter he again emphasized what a painful struggle this had been: “The loss of a church family was the hardest part for Alison. It's too bad that Christianity is too narrow to extend fellowship to former believers.” He then asks if the church is really a "church for the unchurched."

To answer James’ question: Yes, the church is for the “unchurched”—especially those in the community of believers who are struggling with doubt and unbelief. In the case of James and Allison, things might have turned out differently if there had been an effort to show more understanding and less anger.

In a house church hopefully James’ struggles could have been voiced openly—particularly a house church that is more theologically inclusive than most denominations are. This aspect of the house church goes along with lay leadership and decentralization.

But the matter of one’s beliefs and theological perspective can be a stickler because we all have our narrow creeds. But house churches historically have been far more focused on Bible study than theological issues.

The downside of theological inclusiveness or theological ignorance—as is often the case—is the cultic effect. The house churches in China are in some cases barely Christian at all. Prophet founders are sometimes honored alongside Jesus.

One of the individuals who has been criticized for less-than-orthodox doctrine is Watchman Nee, so also his disciple Witness Lee, though I personally do not disparage their beliefs.

When China opened up to outsiders in the early 1970s, one of the stunning surprises was the vibrancy of Christianity—kept alive during the Maoist regime through house churches. Estimates ranged as high as thirty million Christians who had survived the persecution with as many as five million being martyred for their faith.

The house church movement in China, like all house church movements, was then, and is today, essentially leaderless. But if there is one figure who stood above all others it was Watchman Nee.

Converted at age sixteen in 1919, Nee soon became an itinerant evangelist working with a small team of other evangelists. From his earliest days he planted churches in the houses of local Christians, often his own converts. The aspect of his ministry that I find most intriguing is that some of his evangelistic trips were taken with his mother who was also an evangelist—trips that extended outside of China as far as Indonesia.

All the while Nee was furthering his education at Chinese universities and during World War II he joined his brother in business and later became chairman of the board of their own pharmaceutical company. The move out of ministry was resented by his followers and for a time he was put under discipline.

In 1947 he went back into evangelistic work, once again taking over the leadership of the movement known by then as the Little Flock. Although he often preached at a huge megachurch in Shanghai, he is remembered largely for his planting hundreds of house churches throughout China—house churches that demonstrate both the positive and negative sides of the biblical and theological underpinnings of the movement.

Today the house church movement continues to grow in China—a swarm of Christians that is as messy as it is exciting—a movement virtually devoid of western interference.

7. Imaginatively Innovative

Finally, a critical characteristic that we should look for in a house church is creative innovation.

Still another fantasy that I have had of starting a house church is truly just a fantasy and nothing more. My husband and I have a little farmhouse in Northern Michigan that also doubles as a rental property—a writers’ retreat. The only church close by is Holy Rosary, a Polish Catholic church.

I’ve dreamed of starting a house church that my husband John Worst and I would lead together, one that would utilize our own gifts and interests.

The specialty would be gospel music. John plays the piano with a good beat and a lot of swing. We would reach out to others who would be attracted to the old-time gospel. “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” and “Amazing Grace” would all find their rhythm in our little groups. We also like poetry and would be encouraging others to read poetry—even as we dig into Scripture passages.

It might work if we lived in the area, but we don’t and we are not in the area most weekends. My reason for sharing this story is to encourage you all to contemplate your gifts and how you might reach out in ministry.

In many cases the house church movement has been reactive rather than proactive, and as such it stifles imagination and creativity. It is tempting sometimes to focus on the big bad institutional international conglomerate of Christendom. The focus should rather be on how best to follow Christ.

But even in this desire, Christians sometimes go to extremes. A case in point is that of the Moravians at Herrnhut. In their desire to develop a creative and closer relationship with the lord they became involved in intense mysticism.

Under Count Zinzendorf’s leadership, the Moravians began meditating on the death and agony of the Lord. As time passed, what once had been an emphasis turned into a gruesome obsession, and the whole house church movement turned away from its original mission outreach.

One of the leaders expressed the common focus: “Like a poor little worm, I desire to withdraw myself into his wounds.” Zinzendorf spoke of the brethren as “little blood worms in the sea of grace.” An “Order of Little Fools” was formed, and he encouraged the members to behave like little children and to think of themselves as “little fish swimming in the bed of blood” or “little bees who suck the wounds of Christ.”

This turn of events might have brought a quick demise to this mission-oriented house church movement, but the Count recognized the problem and admitted that the condition of the church had “greatly degenerated,” and that he himself had “probably occasioned it,” He was able to put that “brief but fearful” period behind him and to steer his following back on course again.

A house church affords opportunity for creativity and experimenting with new concepts but it is critical that the group is always assessing the ministry and turning around what goes wrong.

Another creative idea for a house church came to me as I was viewing Robert Duvall’s film, “The Apostle.” Duvall stars as a very flawed Pentecostal minister who is running from the law. Unlike most films that caricature such ministers with no redeeming qualities, Sonny is sincere and has an incredibly good heart. In one scene he is involved in opening a closed church by effectively reaching folks in the neighborhood. His big heart shines when, at his own expense, he buys groceries and with his sidekick, leaves boxes on porches.

Many churches conduct such charitable programs. But Sonny’s is different. He sneaks around under the cover of darkness and surreptitiously does his deeds of kindness. As I watched, I couldn’t help thinking, What fun! And what fun that would be as a project for a house church that is located in the midst of a needy neighborhood.


I’ve been focusing on historical aspects of house churches, but what about the future. In my most recent book, Leadership Reconsidered, I suggest that house churches will play a major role in the progress of the Christian faith in the next generations. I write:

"The next form of religious decentralization will come as the megachurch phenomenon begins to weaken and die. The senior-pastor, top-down leadership style will lose its luster and decentralization will occur in smaller community groups—ones identified with a neighborhood more than a denomination or personality."