In the past few weeks my wife and I have made the decision to start another church in the Boston area. We have been thinking through what form or expression this new church should take and we’ve come to the conclusion that it won’t be the house church model.
So what is wrong with a house church?
The house church model is one of many church plant models. I believe the creativity and variety that God gives us as we make disciples and start churches is a strength of God’s kingdom. House churches can be effective and can perform biblical functions of fellowship, worship, and disciple-making just like other sorts of new churches can.
I hold the house church movement in high esteem, not just because some people do them well but also because I have friends who are starting house churches and I believe God is using them in a powerful way. But, in addition to all of this love sauce that I’m pouring on the house church movement, I want to go one further: I am in total agreement with everything that the house church movement values. Values of community, authenticity, relevance, experiential faith, discipleship, etc. I even agree with the form that these values often take; that is, small gatherings and intimate settings where fellowship and discipleship can flourish. Let me go still further: I hope that our church plant will embody ALL of the positive values, forms, and expressions of the house church movement!
In short, I believe the house church movement is a valid model of church planting. I have tremendous respect for my friends in the house church movement. And, I hope our new church will embody all of the positive qualities that can be found in house churches. I should also say at this point that ANY model is subject to fail if the leadership doesn’t possess a high Christology and ecclessiology that is informed by God’s Word and God’s Spirit.
So what is missing?
I have a high regard for the house church movement, but I personally believe that something is missing. The piece that is missing is in how Jesus made disciples. I’ve accepted for years that Jesus made disciples by investing a considerable amount of time in a few men who would then go on to do the same. In that way, Jesus multiplied His own ministry. This is the discipleship model that I often hear from the house church movement. I always have a question mark floating around anytime I hear this discipleship model but I never knew how to ask the question.
Not too long ago, the question popped into my mind: “What about the seventy?” Jesus had been investing in His disciples and spending a lot of time teaching and healing the crowds and in Luke 10, Jesus appoints seventy people and sends them out in pairs “to every town and place where He Himself was about to go.” This passage immediately follows the discussion Jesus has with three would-be disciples that He turns away because He knows their hearts are not in it. In other words, it’s clear that these seventy people weren’t concerned about their own comfort or other worldly distractions. These were true disciples who would be sent out as lambs among wolves and who would rely on God’s provision for their daily needs. They were spiritual warriors to whom even the demons submitted.
Where did they come from? Jesus couldn’t have spent the same kind of time with each of these seventy people as He had with the Twelve! Instead, they must have come to Jesus and said, “I will follow You wherever You go!” just as the three would-be disciples did in Luke 9:57-62 and Jesus knew they were speaking the truth. We can conjecture that He did spend at least some time with each of them – maybe a conversation. We can also conjecture that they had heard Jesus teach and possibly been healed at His touch. In some way, their lives had come in contact with Jesus and now they would never be the same.
In other words, Jesus didn’t just make twelve disciples. There were hundreds of disciples. In fact, by the time Jesus dies and is resurrected and then ascends, the disciples get together in an upper room and there are 120 gathered together. That’s a HUGE house church!
Jesus made hundreds of disciples who were touched by Him and were taught by Him and He didn’t spend a considerable amount of time with each one personally. After the Spirit descended on Jesus’ followers, they began to speak the gospel with boldness and in one day the church grew to over 3,000 people! Again, that is a huge house church!
What does all this mean?
At one time in Jesus’ ministry, there were at least seventy committed disciples that Jesus knew He could trust to send out into the towns and advance the kingdom. These seventy came because Jesus was willing to engage the crowds and not just a few. That number grew exponentially, not incrementally. Jesus is the foundation of the church and the Spirit is the One that empowers the movement. If it were up to me and my few relationships, my town of 15,000 would never be reached. My conclusion, as I have been thinking about what it means to start a church is that I need to be relational (just like Jesus), but I also need to reach the masses and allow God to touch lives and draw them to Himself (just like Jesus).
I believe every new church leader has the desire to make disciples. I don’t question anyone’s motivation, but the purpose of this post is to think through our methods. Whatever method or model we use we must remember that every person deserves to hear the gospel! I will use whatever avenues at my disposal and that are contextually appropriate to advance God’s kingdom. I’m not saying that house church leaders don’t, I’m just explaining where I’m coming from.
Now it’s your turn. How has this prompted your thinking concerning church planting? Please be clear, this is not an attack on the house church movement. I am simply stating why we’ve made a personal decision not to plant house churches and some of the principles that led us to that decision. Thanks for your considerate response!
I hate trying to figure out titles for church related ministries. It’s not always necessary. Titles tend to confine a person or organization into a narrowed definition. On the other hand, “small group ministry” as a title is merely descriptive and doesn’t tell you anything about the goals and purpose of the groups.
Description or Purpose?
In my previous church we used the term “community groups” to indicate that we were hoping to foster community by being intentional about meeting together with a small group of people. Not bad. There are “fellowship groups”, “life groups”, “home groups” and “Bible-study groups”. These titles tend to intentionally or unintentionally, for better or worse, confine your group to focus on fellowship or on life or on homes or on the Bible.
Some of those titles are descriptive, others have to do with the purpose of the group. A home group simply indicates that the group meets in a home. A life group indicates that the group wants to learn how to live life together as followers of Jesus. You get the idea. Each title gives a description or a purpose to the group. There is nothing wrong with any of these terms. The problem is choosing one.
Jesus’ Small Group Ministry
So, I’ve been asking myself a question: What do we call the “small group” of people that Jesus led? We usually call them the Disciples. Well, that small group has gotten to be pretty large as all of us who follow Christ are disciples. That’s good to remember when we encourage small group leaders to foster growth in their groups. “The Disciples” is a good term because it tells us who they are and the purpose for which they are together is presumably for discipleship.
The Disciples were also called The Twelve. Twelve is a descriptive term that merely reflects that this close-knit group was, in fact, small. It wouldn’t do to call our small groups “The Twelve”. Like, “I’m going to go hang out with the Twelve tonight.” Especially if your group actually consists of nine members. A descriptive term merely describes reality. That’s why “small group” is a basic term that is functional and helpful even though people will say, “But ‘small group’ isn’t in the Bible” or “That sounds so formal.” Fine, it’s got its pros and cons but it doesn’t hurt anything to refer to gatherings of a small group of people as small groups.
My Favorite Names for Groups
Anyway, all of this reflection has led me to rank these names for small groups in order of personal preference:
1. Discipleship Groups (81% satisfaction) – It’s descriptive, it indicates the purpose of the group but it also reminds us of who we are: disciples. I’m basing this group name on my reflection of the question “What do we call the small group that Jesus led?” I think this is my new favorite name for small groups.
2. Life Groups (74% satisfaction) – I think Life Groups is a pretty good name. A healthy small groups ministry will be encouraging people to not only believe but to live the Truth. It’s important for us to put our faith in action. If Christians were living the life they were supposed to our country and our world would be a different place. A small group is a warm and loving environment where faithful followers of Jesus are incubated to maturity.
3. Absolutely No Name (58% satisfaction) – There would be some benefit to going completely organic and going out of our way not to give these gatherings a name. The problem here is that if we are too loose and eschew any sense of order and structure then that’s exactly what we will get. No definitions, no values, no set times, no stated purpose, etc. = perish. The Laws of Entropy apply even to our church and our small groups. As many people have noted before me; structure is like the fireplace and the Spirit is the fire. No one is trying to suggest that the success of any group has to do exclusively with what it’s called or with it’s vision statement. Still, there is some value to intentionally going with no names…it just doesn’t go in the bulletin very well. I tend towards less structure but I value a sense of guidance and organization here and there.
What does your church use to describe or give purpose to your small groups? What are the limitations to giving groups of people some sort of name? What are the benefits?