Best known for drawing multiple thousands of people to high-profile worship services, one secret to the success of the megachurch, the dominant model for church growth in the 1990s, experts agree, is the less-noticed gathering of smaller “cell groups” for Bible study and emotional and spiritual support.
In what might therefore be the next logical step, large numbers of megachurch members now are leaving the large congregation altogether for small, home-based congregations in a developing movement called “house churching,” “home churching” or “simple church.”
“I’d never go back to a traditional church,” Jeanine Pynes, who abandoned a large church two years ago for a small gathering that meets in her suburban Denver home, says in an article on home churching in the March 6 issue of Time Magazine. “I love what we’re doing.”
Lacking trappings like choirs or praise bands, projection screens and even a sermon, house churches typically don’t have a pastor. That’s because most think distinctions between clergy and laity, even if well-intentioned, are wrong. They view ministries described in the New Testament–apostle, prophet, pastor, teacher and evangelist–as functions rather than offices.
The most common form of leadership, according to an FAQ section on the Home Church Home Page is “servant leadership.” That means, among other things, that any number of people within a group might offer leadership to different people at the same time.
Home churches differ from “cell churches,” the site says, because they generally have a less-formal leadership, without a recognized or titled pastor. Most home churches are ruled by consensus, rather than working through channels of formal authority like a senior pastor.
Home-churchers believe they are closer to the church modeled in the New Testament, as expressed by words attributed to Jesus in Matthew 18:20, “For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there among them,” than to today’s institutional church.
Such appeals to antiquity notwithstanding, the movement is decidedly high tech. An online network called HouseChurch.org lists basics of house churching, e-mail lists, forums and links for essentials like world missions, ministry and administering the Lord’s Supper
A main theme of the movement is that people don’t go TO the church; they ARE the church. Worshippers say traditional churches, while also a part of the Lord’s Body, are for people who are into buildings. While facilities and staff consume about 75 percent of a typical church budget, house churches can designate up to 90 percent of their offerings for ministry.
House churches are not known for denominational loyalty, but the movement is drawing interest from the nation’s second-largest faith group, the Southern Baptist Convention, which, according to Time, commissioned a poll and experimented in planting hundreds of house churches.
Allan Karr, director of the Nehemiah project in church planting, a joint venture of the SBC North American Mission Board and Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary, estimated to Time that three out of 10 churches founded today are “simple” churches. He surmised their odds for survival are better than those of the other seven.
“I want the denomination to prevail,” Karr said, “but I have an agenda that supersedes that: the Kingdom of God at large.”
But some traditional church leaders worry that small groups not led by a pastor can become doctrinally unmoored or in extreme cases even turn into a cult.
“I have no problem with where a church meets,” Thom Rainer, recently elected president of SBC’s LifeWay Christian Resources, who has written several books on church growth, told Time. “I do think that there are some house churches that, in their desire to move in different directions, have perhaps moved from biblical accountability.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.