Why House Churches Are Flourishing

George Barna's rocked our world with a new book last year called Revolution. in it, he predicted that half the people who now attend conventional churches will attend house churches within a few years.

Attendance in house churches has had a nine-fold increase in recent years, growing from about 1% of the population to about 9% today. Compared to growth that is measured in fractions of a percentage point in conventional churches, this is pretty amazing. Overseas, the story is even more dramatic.

Why are house churches flourishing? Not for the reasons most people think.

House churches are not growing because people feel negatively about conventional churches

Four out of five house church participants also attend a conventional church. House churches are not replacing conventional churches; they are supplementing them.

There can exist and does exist a mutually respectful relationship between house churches and conventional churches, although both are autonomous. This relationship is similar to that of a church and the Association to which it belongs. One does not try to "lord it over" the other, as the Bible warns us not to do. The same people participate in both and benefit from both. They are not in competition; they simply serve two functions.  House churches and conventional churches can work together in the same way that Wal-Mart and Dollar General can both thrive in the same town.

House churches are not growing because of location

One of the craziest things I see churches these days doing is around this point. They are frustrated because Sunday School in their church is not doing so well. So, they abandon Sunday School in favor of home groups. They think the geography is going to make the difference. It is not.

If you take a sleepy, boring, lecture-oriented, content-oriented Sunday School class, (and, sadly we have to admit we have more than a few) and you change the geography of that group to a home, it is still a sleepy, boring, group. You have to change more than location. You have to change the people. You have to wake them up. If you wake them up, it won't much matter if they meet at a church or a home or a coffee shop or an office lunch room. It is the enthusiasm of the people that makes the difference, not the geography.

Home groups pundits often sing the glory of the warmth of the home. There is something to be said for that. It is unquestionably a warmer environment and atmosphere does matter. But, this warmer atmosphere is offset by three disadvantages of home groups:

  • It is difficult to provide a first-rate experience for a variety of ages of kids. If you have a dozen kids ranging from preschoolers to teenagers, most homes don't have the space to accommodate them.
  • It is not adjacent in terms of time to the worship service. I have to give up another time slot.
  • It is not adjacent in terms of geography to the worship service. I have to go another place.

In short, Sunday School has these advantages: it can provide a first rate experience for all ages of kids, it is convenient because it adjacent in terms of time and location to the worship service. It provides a kind of one-stop shopping for the participant; worship and small groups for the whole family at one location.

This is why Sunday School churches nearly always struggle to pull off  home groups. When given a choice between home groups and Sunday School style groups, people will generally prefer Sunday School style groups. Convenience trumps atmosphere.

This is why I tend to prefer Sunday School style groups over home groups, and it is why I am predicting Sunday School style groups will be around for a long, long time.

Note: notice I use the phrase Sunday School style group. Fewer and fewer churches are using the actual name Sunday School, and I agree that the name is dated and should be replaced. I use it simply because there is not a universally acknowledge alternative. Adult Bible Fellowships is one alternative.

Where home groups are working well, they are not replacing Sunday School at all. They are replacing Sunday night or Wednesday night. It is not Sunday School versus Home Groups. It is Home groups instead of Sunday night church.

So, why are home groups and house churches flourishing, not only in the United States, but especially around the world?


House churches release our God-given entrepreneurial spirit

The Bible teaches that God created man and gave him dominion over planet earth. (Genesis 1.26) There is enormous motivation to tap into the dominion principle. It is the difference between owning and renting. When we own something, we tend to take care of it. This is why people would naturally want to live in a neighborhood full of owner-occupied homes as opposed to rentals.  People don't wash rental cars. We have dominion over our own cars and it motivates us. Self-employed people will work 75 hours a week for themselves to keep from having to work 40 hours for someone else. They have dominion over that small business and it motivate. House church leaders rightly feel that they are responsible. They "own" the ministry and it motivates.

Members of the free church movement (including Baptists and a lot of others) see this same dynamic working out at a local church level. Each local church is autonomous and it motivates that local church to be and do all it should be and do. The pastor is motivated because it feels like his church. God has given him dominion over this part of the work.

Working for someone else is not that motivating. Helping someone else is not that motivating. I remember hearing a deacon answer the question, "What is the role of the deacon in this church?" His answer: "to help the pastor in his ministry." Well, I appreciate his attitude, but it occurs to me he had it 180 degrees wrong. Ephesians 4 teaches us that it is not the deacons job to help the pastor in the pastor's ministry. It is the pastors job to help (equip the saints) the deacon in the deacon's ministry. The deacon is to have dominion over a ministry. He is to own a ministry. He is to discover a God-given call for a certain part of the ministry and get what equipping he needs from the pastor.

We have churches full of people--good-hearted, able, willing people who see their job to help out where they can. But, what they don't see is that they have dominion. They don't see themselves as owning a part of the ministry and they are not all that motivated.

The more we can give ownership of the ministry to the people the more motivation we will get from them. It is not about the location. It is about releasing the entrepreneurial spirit.

But, won't they go wild?

One could only hope. I hope for a movement that will go wild. But, I think the real question is, "Will it go bad? Will they drift into heresy? Don't we need to control them? What about accountability?"

There is considerable evidence to suggest that free and open systems tend to go bad less often than tightly controlled systems. The Catholic system is very tightly controlled, and we would argue it has gone bad in many ways. The free church system is a very loosely controlled, low-accountability system, yet tends to stay doctrinally pure. (With some exceptions, of course.) Power tends to corrupt, not keep pure.

The most articulate answer to this control questions comes from a seventy-five year old writing by Roland Allen. He is writing in a missions context. The tendency for missionaries is to feel we must control the national churches. Here is Allan's response:

"We fear that it [the spontaneous expansion of the church] is something that we cannot control. And it is true. We can neither induce nor control spontaneous expansion whether we look on it as the work of the individual or of the church. . .‘The wind blows where it will,' said Christ."
If we cannot control it, we ought to rejoice that we cannot control it. For if we cannot control it, it is because it is too great, not because it is too small for us. Therein lies the vast hope. Spontaneous expansion could fill the continents with the knowledge of Christ: our control cannot reach as far as that. We constantly bewail our limitations: open doors un-entered; doors closed to us as foreign missionaries; fields white to the harvest which we cannot reap.

Spontaneous expansion could enter open doors, force closed ones, and reap those white fields. Our control cannot: it can only appeal pitifully for more men to maintain control.
-Roland Allan
 The Spontaneous Expansion of the Church


If Barna's findings are even approximately right, we will all do well to pay attention to this growing house church movement. We need to see ourselves as partners on the same team and learn to cooperate together in mutual respect for the advancement of the kingdom and the glory of our great God.