The first church I pastored was a fairly traditional First Baptist Church (FBC). We met in a brick building. The Sunday morning gathering had the largest attendance, and the numbers dropped off significantly on Sunday evening and Wednesday. The sanctuary itself was typical, with pews arranged in rows and a stage at the front with a pulpit and choir loft. Our meetings had Scripture reading, prayers, singing, and preaching, as you might expect. When I arrived, there were 155 people on the membership roster, but only about 45 members attended the main service regularly (with an additional 30 guests and non-member children).
I have many fond memories of FBC. Even though the church suffered a painful split a year into my tenure, I prefer to remember when God led a number of the remaining members to embrace the authority and sufficiency of Scripture, and when a young college freshmen who was doubting the resurrection of Christ came to the truth and four years later was sent out to the mission field.
Fast-forward to the present day. I am one of the pastors of Christ Fellowship of Kansas City (www.ChristFellowshipKC.org). We are a fellowship of home congregations. In other words, the home congregations (house churches) make up one church, and the main weekly meeting happens in homes throughout the city, usually for several hours Sunday evening. Each home congregation has a pastor (or a leader in the process of becoming a pastor), and the size of each congregation typically ranges from 20 to 35 people. The whole church gathers together numerous times throughout the year in a rented facility, the congregations within geographical regions meet nearly every six weeks, and men’s, women’s, and youth meetings are sprinkled in on Wednesday evenings. We take membership seriously, striving to receive only those who display evidence of regeneration. We also practice church discipline. Our chief concern is to obey Christ, the head of the church.
I refuse to join the ranks of those who bash building-based churches. Any gospel-proclaiming church is precious to God. Some of my friends are pastors in traditional churches, and I respect them and their churches highly. I have preached in their churches, I anticipate doing so in the coming years, and I hear often about the work of God’s Spirit in those churches and the growth of the kingdom in their communities because of their faithful witness.
God loves churches that cherish the gospel, and so do I. He is, without a doubt, at work in churches that meet in brick buildings and storefronts and movie theaters. However, it’s worth comparing my current situation with my previous experience. I’m not intending to make a biblical argument for house churches, nor will I discuss the propriety of multiple services and/or the idea of one church meeting simultaneously in multiple locations. I simply want to share, by way of comparison, what I see are several advantages to the house church model I now enjoy versus what I came from:
Each member is carefully pastored.
This was my desire at FBC, but the unbiblical church government (consisting of a single pastor with a deacon board that functioned on occasion like elders) and the bloated membership roster made it impossible. We did remove members we could not find and those who refused to regularly attend the main weekly meeting (exceptions included those in the military and the homebound), and we attempted to get the deacons to care for the members. We eventually got the membership numbers cut in half, but careful pastoral care was still not possible for everyone. The two deacons who remained after the split made attempts at shepherding the people, but most of the members were not satisfied with such care unless it came from “the pastor.”
What about Christ Fellowship? Our goal is to have one pastor in each home congregation. In my current home congregation, there are 28 people in attendance, but only 11 members (including myself). Therefore, even if an elder leads two congregations, it is still possible to carefully shepherd every member. All of the pastors together lead the entire church, but each pastor knows a small segment of the people extremely well. We each could give a detailed account of how our people are doing because we don’t have too many people to oversee. In fact, we do just that. A significant portion of our weekly four-hour elders’ meeting is about helping each other pastor the members effectively. Our structure is helping us to be ready to give an account for the souls God has entrusted to our care (Hebrews 13:17).
Perhaps you might respond by saying, “Even building-based churches can have members who are carefully pastored if they install a plurality of elders.” Every church has a measure of pastoral care, and having multiple elders who take their shepherding seriously benefits a church. However, pastors of building-based churches struggle to have built in, face-to-face time with every member each week. It is theoretically possible, but rarely (if ever) happens. Yet in Christ Fellowship we not only know who the members are, but we know them well. Because of our structure we would find this difficult not to be the case.
Accountability and fellowship are enjoyed.
Before moving to Kansas City, one well-meaning person questioned the level of accountability that would be found in our new church. He probably had read an article on the internet that said house churches are usually made up of disgruntled former members of building-based churches who despise authority and would rather be in a church that didn’t have much structure or responsibility. I’m sure such churches do exist, but I’m not a pastor of one.Every person who joins Christ Fellowship signs a membership agreement (a church covenant), church discipline is practiced, and because meeting in a house promotes authentic relationships, everyone knows if you are present or absent. We are so close to each other that nearly every time somebody has to miss the meeting, he or she communicates that in advance. We enjoy praying for one another and we would be concerned for the absent person’s well-being without such knowledge. We also enjoy sharing a meal together every week. Further discussion about something shared in the open session or in the extended exposition often ensues. There is usually a combination of laughter and serious dialogue. This fellowship extends into the week at various gatherings, sometimes for Bible study and prayer, or at a fun outing, or when we stop to enjoy a cup of coffee and stimulating conversation together.
At FBC, it was fairly easy to arrive in the opening minutes of the meeting, and then quickly leave after the closing prayer without developing any significant relationships with other members. We sought to change this, and saw some success, but we experienced what seems to be a common phenomenon in a church that meets in a building: Members often fall through the cracks. Once again, having enough elders in place addresses this problem to a point, but usually not when the church grows larger. Seeking to establish a small group ministry will also corral some drifters, but in my experience not many churches require every member to be in a small group.
To summarize: what happens naturally and easily for us, takes a lot of intense effort and oversight in most churches—and even then might not work.
Dialogue during the main message promotes learning.
While teaching in my home congregation about what happens to people who never repent and believe in Jesus, I used the expression “apart from Christ.” Almost immediately after I used that phrase, a nine-year-old boy spoke up and said something like, “Huh? What do you mean ‘apart from Christ?’” At that moment, I had a choice: I could refuse to address his sincere question, or I could explain to him (and to all of his young friends who were now eagerly listening) what I meant. I chose the latter (he knew I would). After the clarification, I asked him if he now understood (he did) and if he had further questions (he did not).
I enjoy sermons that are monologues (one voice speaking). I preach like that when I travel to other churches, and at the larger gatherings of all the Christ Fellowship house churches. But in a meeting in a home, dialogue facilitates learning.
Some may argue that the main weekly sermon must be a monologue because that type of message upholds the authority of Scripture. Consider, though, the apostle Paul’s teaching on a Sunday evening with the church in Troas. Beginning their meeting at sunset, Paul “prolonged his speech until midnight” (Acts 20:7). Then, after raising Eutychus from the dead, “he conversed with them a long while, until daybreak” (v. 11). In his commentary on Acts, pastor and author John Stott, whose book Between Two Worlds: The Challenge of Preaching Today has made him a preaching guru to many who speak against dialogue in preaching, writes this about Paul’s teaching of the church in Troas:
Not that we are to envisage Paul’s preaching as purely monologue, since Luke uses the verb dialegomai twice (7, 9), which implies discussion, perhaps in the form of questions and answers. The other word he uses is homileo (11) . . . It was clearly more free and open than a formal sermon.
FBC did have two settings each week where interaction could take place during the teaching, but the main meeting required (sometimes because of the size, but mostly because of expectations) only one voice. Again, I don’t think that was wrong. I just like the freedom to pause for a question during the weekly exposition, or to discuss something the text says in order to make sure everyone is tracking. Sometimes, I’ll say something like, “Do I need to clarify what I just said about that verse?” If someone says, “Yes,” I’ll ask what is still unclear, and then I’ll try again. Though this wouldn’t earn a good grade in a seminary preaching class, my goal is not a sensational presentation, but thorough comprehension that leads to joy and obedience. This is not oratory, but instruction.
All men are trained, not just a few.
In churches like FBC, the goal is to help men grow in godliness. Hopefully this happens as they are exposed to sound doctrine through the various avenues of teaching, but because of the ratio of pastor (or pastors) to men, a choice has to be made: which men will be mentored by the pastor(s)? Out of the pool of men, leaders in this common scenario have to select whom they will meet with weekly for further training. Typically, not every man is privileged to this type of intentional attention. Worse yet, many pastors do not personally mentor anyone at all.
Every male member of Christ Fellowship is mentored by a pastor. This is possible because we have enough pastors to cover each man. This weekly mentoring is typically not one-on-one, but in small groups. For example, I currently meet with four men early Wednesday morning, and two men on Thursday afternoon. Each pastor’s mentoring schedule differs, but we all enjoy lively discussion over open Bibles, praying together, and discussing church life and personal issues. Some men, like future pastors or missionaries, do get more training than the others, but no man is left out.
The men of Christ Fellowship also receive training though regular opportunities to teach. In a building-based church, only a select few are tapped to fill in when the preaching pastor is absent, and other teaching positions are limited. In Christ Fellowship, each man is free to teach something from the Bible for 5-10 minutes (sometimes longer) during the open sharing session of the Sunday meeting. This teaching isn’t simply in the “I kind of like this passage” category, but it’s more like a shorter version of a longer teaching time. Everyone listens eagerly, interacts when appropriate, and gains much. The men take this opportunity seriously. Also, a different man each week shares briefly from Scripture in preparation for the Lord’s Supper. One of the benefits of encouraging all of the men to participate in the teaching ministry of the church is that increased time in Scripture produces men who are better leaders in their homes. Some of the men develop into elders.
Successful meetings are about mutual edification, not a well-choreographed presentation.
Christ Fellowship’s meetings are not only about worshipping the Lord together, but also edifying one another (cf. 1 Corinthians 14:26). The success of the meetings is largely dependent on the participation of the body as they gather to “stimulate one another to love and good deeds” (Hebrews 10:24). Members are encouraged to participate in a variety of ways, including testimonies, teaching, and praying. Someone may even bring “a psalm” (1 Corinthians 14:26). People are usually not hesitant to participate because no one is expected to “wow” the group with a great performance. A spirit of grace pervades our gatherings as we seek to be led by the Spirit.
The main weekly meeting of a building-based church is usually significantly choreographed. Whether it is a liturgical service or more contemporary, the order of the meeting is not only known in advance, but the hope is that each element will come off looking excellent—even professional. The expectations for a “great” service are often so high that the leadership feels defeated if the music didn’t noticeably move people, or the praying wasn’t eloquent, or the technology miscued, or the transitions between the various parts of the service were awkward. And, above all else, some pastors sit in their studies on Monday and contemplate quitting if their sermon the previous day seemed flat. Success is dependent on a select few who too often fail to live up to the desires of those who sit and spectate.
I am not adverse to just listening when appropriate. In First Corinthians 14, Paul is primarily pleading with the church to meet together “in an orderly manner” (v. 40). Part of orderliness is letting people take their turn (vv. 27-33) and learning from them (v.31), but participation by more than just a few is expected. The result is that a “performance mentality” is removed as the various members of the body come ready to serve and receive from the others.
The pastors of Christ Fellowship train members to participate effectively in the group meetings, and they are ultimately responsible to keep the meetings orderly. However, the best gatherings include much interaction among the members that could never have been planned. Spontaneity is not the enemy of the Holy Spirit, but is often the result of being led by the Spirit. The meetings are not a “free-for-all,” but there is freedom to edify in multiple ways without the pressures of looking like pros. Exalting Christ corporately is easier when the entire church is pointing one another to Jesus, not looking primarily for a super sermon. And then, on Monday, if I think my teaching wasn’t as helpful as it could have been, I’ll pray for, and work toward, a different result the next Sunday. But I don’t have to despair because the truth was heard, and the church was edified in a variety of ways.
If your church loves and lives the gospel, then I rejoice in our partnership in the truth. Perhaps, though, some of the advantages above need to be thought through by those in building-based churches. Though I would argue that the commands of the New Testament are more easily lived out in a house church, every church is responsible to hear and obey Christ, the head of the church. I will be delighted if what I have written inspires churches like my previous one to implement needed changes. Also, if you are planting a church, it may be God’s will for you to have a building, but because of the advantages above (and more), I would encourage you to consider a house church model.
I once saw a lawnmower at a yard sale. I bought it, and it works very well. Before purchasing it, though, I asked its owner, “Why are you selling it?” He responded, “I now have a Toro. Once you have a Toro, you’ll never want any other mower.” In a way, that illustrates my view of local churches. For years, and with God’s help and pleasure, I mowed effectively with an FBC, but now that I pastor a house church, I don’t think I’ll ever change brands.