An Appeal for the Use of House Churches to Extend Sanctuary-Style Churches

An Appeal for the Use of House Churches to Extend Sanctuary-Style Churches

As many of you know, along with all that I do with Christian Communicators Worldwide, I’ve been participating in a church plant as a founding pastor. This church is a family of home congregations using the homes of members as the principal meeting places. It is called Christ Fellowship of Kansas City (www.ChristFellowshipKC.org). I don’t receive income related to the church. Daryl Wingerd and Steve Burchett are also pastors in this church, as well as assistants for CCW. Jim Chrisman, a former SBC missionary, leads a home congregation also, and we have recently started a group led by Dan Pentimone, a man with many years of pastoral experience. Our ministry has always had close links to church life, believing that this has biblical merit and that it will help us stay on focus by being in the trenches. There is no formal or financial connection between the ministry and the church, but there are mutual benefits.

The house church experience has been amazing. We now have five home congregations which make up the one church. If God helps us, we will have six home congregations soon. There are exponential possibilities as we continue. We formally constituted with membership in October 2004, but existed prior to that for over a year. We now have just over 130 people attending each week. So, we are only beginning. Therefore, I cannot hold myself up as an expert on the subject of house churches, nor do I think that I will be one for some time.

Our church does not think that our pattern of meeting is the only acceptable way for churches to gather. There are too many examples of vibrancy in sanctuary-style churches to make such a statement. We do, however, believe that we have chosen the kind of meeting pattern that the early church enjoyed for perhaps 200 years.

This brief article is a plea. I’m not going to give an apologetic for the house church model, however. You may read some of this on our Web site or other places. I am only going to make an appeal for sanctuary-style churches to consider using the house church concept to advance their work for God. I am especially concerned that readers of our articles, most of whom have sound theology and practice, would pick up the burden for this now.

Though I would love to promote the initiation of as many house churches from scratch as possible, I know that most church leaders inherited existing churches with buildings to maintain and a traditional institutionalism of some sort in place. These may function with varying levels of effectiveness. Some of your churches, no doubt, are model examples of what church life should be in many respects. Should you even entertain the possibility of using the house church model to extend your work? I want to suggest that this should be considered for the following scenarios:

  • When the church is growing, the meeting space is limited, and you do not wish to invest more money in buildings.
  • When a pocket of members live in a town or neighborhood some distance from the church building.
  • When there is an unresolved disunity in the church related to either doctrine or philosophy, and a “planned division” is an appropriate consideration to bring to the people. (It goes without saying that there are many steps prior to division, and that there are other reasons churches divide that are not reasonable or acceptable.)
  • When the church has an abundance of leaders or potential leaders (such as seminary or Bible School students, or well-discipled leaders) who need to be used.
  • When an established church wishes to penetrate the various sections of the city, or neighboring towns, in response to a work of the Holy Spirit among you.

There may, of course, be other reasons to consider beginning house church extensions.

What then should be done? Again, I am not taking the time to spell out the entire mechanism of house churches. For one thing, there are variances among them. Some are without membership, statements of faith, and even regular teaching, while others have all this and more. Not all house churches are biblically sound and orderly, being as varied as sanctuary style churches. Unlike many house churches, we believe in meaningful church membership, church discipline, and consistent biblical exposition done by our pastors or, on occasion, other able teachers. You can find more of that, again, on our site.

Our meetings take place on Sunday afternoons. They consist of music (usually with several instruments such as violin, flute, cello, piano, etc.—all of our groups happen to have musicians, but this may not always be the case), an open time for members teaching each other and telling our stories and experiences (especially in evangelism), an extended prayer time, a somewhat dialogical yet substantive exposition of Scripture, communion (led by various men in the church), a shared meal, and relaxed discussion and fellowship until people want to leave. We start at 4:30 p.m. and the first people to leave are walking out the door around 8:30 p.m. Some stay much later. We also have some time for children to practice their Scripture memorization and to be taught accordingly, just prior to the start of the meeting, while our adults and young people greet each other and settle in.

The richness and intimacy of these meetings exceeds anything I have known to this point. Our groups have an exceptional interest in evangelism, which is a story in itself, so the meetings provide an opportunity to talk and pray about that. We do not use the home congregations, however, as evangelistic meetings. They are believers’ meetings. We are, in fact, somewhat reluctant to try to bring everybody we can into the meetings. It is vital that each group maintain a sweetness and true Christian intimacy. This is protected. So, we bring only those who have been made new believers or those who are in the serious stages of seeking Christ. We sometimes bring in, by our invitation, those who are believers already and are looking for a church. But, we make our beliefs and methods known beforehand in order to gather only those most interested. Of course, sometimes non-believers show up for one reason or another unannounced, and some of our children are not converted, but the intent is not to gear this meeting for the non-believer.

Every six weeks the whole church comes together for a larger “gathering” on a Sunday afternoon. At these meetings, we usually have two messages (of the more traditional stand-up type), with a meal in between. The whole church also participates in occasional study centers (three to six weeks duration), men’s or women’s meetings, mission trips, youth activities, or other ministry or fellowship related gatherings. Each home congregation is pastored by at least one biblically qualified leader, who together make up the team of pastors or elders. We currently have three interns who are young men being prepared for ministry. The elders and the interns meet weekly at a local Chinese restaurant for discussion and prayer. (As you know, all significant theological advancements take place at Chinese restaurants.)

Offerings are collected and missionaries supported by each home congregation. Some income is sent to the ministry center (the central office) by each home congregation. It is out of that money that elders are given part-time support where needed. But I won’t share the details of that now. Also, baptism takes place through the home congregation, and the Lord’s supper is taken there, etc.

I have left out much that is important, but I needed you to have some feel for the kind of pattern we use. How then can this be useful to your church?

I’m strongly suggesting that you consider using the home congregation model to extend your work in the following way. Consider having a home congregation that meets in another place on Sunday afternoons, giving the full church experience mentioned above. Then, about every six weeks, have that congregation come to the main building to worship and share with the larger church. This could be done on Sunday morning in addition to the regular home congregation meeting, or on Sunday evening in place of their regular meeting. You could call the congregation something like First Baptist Church, Westside Home Congregation.

Now this is a simple thing, actually, but one with huge potential. You must not make this just a cell of the larger church as in the typical cell multiplication pattern. By “cell” we are meaning a smaller group that meets each week alone and also each week together with the whole church. Rather, it must be a true congregation, functioning spiritually, financially, socially, as a church would, under elder(s) who are qualified biblically. The people attending must feel that they are part of something larger, but that church life together takes place mainly in the home. The leaders will meet with the other pastors for strategy, but the congregation must be able to support missionaries, take retreats, help the poor, etc., just as it determines. I do not mean to say that there would be no discipline if a leader got out of line, but that there should be real freedom.

If, later, the larger church wishes to pursue letting this home congregation be on its own, then a viable work for God has begun for which the church ought to be happy. If the church multiplies many of these and a larger network of congregations continues, then something beautiful has been done by your church to penetrate into all areas of the city or neighboring towns which might not have been done otherwise. Remember, however, that you are not just starting in homes and then moving to buildings, but continuing in homes, dividing and multiplying as the need arises.

I won’t pretend to know what your purposes might be if you start home congregations, or if our model would be best suited to your needs. However, I can say with relative certainty that there will soon be numerous house churches all around us in the United States. In fact, the first few thousand are already in place. Their permeation is notable, to say the least. I would prefer, sincerely, that many of these be started by people who have the best doctrine and practice. I also think you will see this very concept that I have mentioned (sanctuary-style churches extending through house churches) implemented from place to place. It will answer the need of many churches. It is too obviously right and reasonable to think that it will not happen. The financial considerations alone will dictate it. This will add greatly to the health of Christians in the United States, though there will undoubtedly be some aberrations. Paul faced these also. And, remember, sanctuary-style churches have their share of problems as well. The house church model will appeal to a large populace who care little for institutionalism and long for intimacy and reality. That portion of our society is increasing. We may find that the multiplication of house churches will surprise us.

Again, I have too much respect for God’s ability to work in a variety of circumstances, with or without buildings, to say there is only one way to do His work. And I realize that the terms “house church” and “sanctuary-style” church describe only a small part of what it means to be a church. But at the same time I am aware that there is something effective and attractive about meeting in the way that the early church met. God must have thought that the use of the home was the best way for the early church to gather, or He would not have instituted it and carried it forward for so long. At the very minimum, believers at large should not think it unusual if God leads your church this way. I think you will find that for every person who thinks it too strange to meet in homes, there are several who would deeply appreciate such warmth and care.

Your comments would be appreciated. Please write through my assistant at info@ccwtoday.org. You might find the Christ Fellowship article, “Why Do We Meet in Homes?” helpful. Find it at www.ChristFellowshipKC.org.