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
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
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
- 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
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
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.