* This article is written for those who are looking for a healthy house church in their area, but have been unsuccessful at finding one.
* It is written for those who wish to start a house church, but would like some practical guidance on how.
* It is written for “simple churches” that are meeting, but desire a richer church-life experience.
* It is written for all who are involved in house church planting today.
Note: Each group (above) is addressed in different parts of the article.
I recently attended a national house church conference. While I was there, several people requested private meetings with me. Strikingly, each person asked me the same question. It was a question that I’ve been asked numerous times in letters and emails.
Here it is:
I’ve been looking for a house church that’s experiencing organic church life where I live, but I’ve found none. I’ve been to several house church web sites and have visited six or seven of the churches listed. All of them were basically smaller versions of the institutional church. They were either traditional Bible studies or church services in a home where there was an untitled pastor leading or facilitating it. I know I’m not ready to plant a house church because the Lord hasn’t sent me, and I’ve never experienced organic church life myself. I can’t move to another city to be part of an organic church right now due to personal circumstances . . . so what can I do?
In this article, I will offer my answer to that question.
Let me begin by saying a few words about church planting. I have some good friends in the house church movement who teach that planting a church is as easy as baking a cake. Add water and stir, microwave on high for two minutes, and voila, a bonafide ekklesia is born. And . . . anyone can do it. Do I agree with this idea? Well, it depends. In one sense, yes. In another sense, no.
Through the years, I’ve learned that when people have a disagreement over a particular issue, sometimes the disagreement is rooted in a semantic problem. The definitions and paradigms that are used are drastically different. To put it in proverb form: when two seemingly valid ideas are in disagreement, draw a distinction. I wonder if some of the disagreements concerning house church planting are a case of the latter. If so, reframing the question in order to draw out a distinction may resolve the disagreement.
That said, I propose that we step back from the question of who can plant a house church and ask a more basic question: “what kind of house church are we talking about planting in the first place?” For instance: if what we mean by “house church” is a group of Christians who meet in a home once a week, share a meal, sing some songs, pray, and have a Bible study, then I would agree with those who say that virtually any Christian can start a house church. In spiritual things, you can’t duplicate that which you’ve never experienced.
If you’ve experienced salvation, for example, then you can lead others into the experience of salvation. If you’ve experienced prayer, then you can teach others how to pray, etc. Repeat: if your view of “house church” is simply meeting in a home once a week to have a shared meal, some prayer, some singing, and some Bible study, then I would say that most Christians can start such a church. Why? Because most Christians have experienced these things.
But suppose that one’s view of “house church” is something different from the above? Suppose that what we mean by “church” is a group of Christians who are living as a shared-life community under the Headship of Jesus Christ. Suppose that this kind of “church” is a gathered community that’s having an ongoing encounter and experience of Jesus Christ together.
This community gathers often, not just once a week. And when the members gather, no human being is leading or facilitating. In other words, there is no pastor, no reverend, and no minister—whether titled or untitled. Instead, the members are gathering under Christ’s Headship alone. As to their meetings, they are not a Bible study, a prayer meeting, a songfest, nor a supperfest, but something different. Namely, the church meets to reveal and display Jesus Christ together out of a real, experiential, life-giving encounter with the Lord. And everyone is functioning on equal footing. No one is dominating. And few, if any, are passive.
This is a church where the members are learning to live by Divine life together and they are finding creative ways to express that life week after week, month after month, and year after year. They are living for God’s grand mission—incarnating His eternal purpose in the world. The members of the church see themselves as sisters and brothers. And they pursue the Lord throughout the week, not only individually, but corporately.
They also live their lives together as a family. They take care of one another. They don’t just talk about community; they are experiencing it in living color. In addition, the church makes decisions by consensus. They have no pastor or elite group of men who rule over or control them. Direction comes from the entire Body together. The members have learned to function in a coordinated way.
Also, they handle their own problems as they come up. (Incidentally, when a group of Christians meets once a week for a Bible study, songfest, or supperfest, they will experience minimal problems. But when they live in authentic community, the problems are endless.) Finally, in harmony with the New Testament pattern, the church receives the help of itinerant apostolic workers who are called by God to equip and strengthen it. And those workers always leave the church on its own after laying the foundation. They don’t act as local pastors nor as distant bosses over them.
With that said, let me rephrase our original question. Can anyone plant the sort of church that I’ve described in the last few paragraphs? And can they do it without imposing rules and laws on God’s people?
In addition, can they leave the church on its own—without human headship—once they’ve laid the foundation? The answer is clearly no. And the witness of the New Testament agrees. According to the Biblical record, God has called, equipped, and gifted certain members of the Body of Christ to raise up—and help sustain—this kind of church life. The last twenty years of my experience confirms this as well. (Note that I have seen organic churches come into being spontaneously, without anyone starting them.
However, in virtually every case, that beautiful experience dies rather quickly—typically between six months and two years. There’s one exception. If it is humble enough to receive outside help, its chances of survival
are very good.) In short, I have reframed the issue of who can plant a house church as a relative one rather than a black and white one where some stand one side of the fence (“anyone can plant a house church”) and others stand on the other side (“only certain people can plant house churches”).
The issue is not a black and white one. It’s a matter of seeing different shades of gray. Neither is it an issue of defining a valid house church over-against an invalid one—a superior one to an inferior one. It’s a matter of expression. Therefore, the difference between my friends and I is a relative one. Hopefully over time, this difference will shake itself out.
REVISITING THE APOSTOLIC MINISTRY
So how are organic churches like the one I’ve just described planted? And more importantly, how are they sustained?
I believe the answer is the New Testament ministry of the apostle. The New Testament teaches rather clearly that the apostolic ministry is that of raising up churches (Acts 13-19; 1 Cor. 3:5-12). And Paul is very clear that not all Christians are called to this ministry.
And in the church God has appointed first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, also those having gifts of healing, those able to help others, those with gifts of administration, and those speaking in different kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? (1 Corinthians 12:28-29, NIV)
Apostolic workers are people who are (first of all) called by God to plant churches.
They are then prepared for their ministry in the context of organic church life as non-leaders. Finally, they are sent out by a church to the work of raising up other churches. The preparation of an apostle is crucial for several reasons.
First, it teaches apostles what organic church life is all about from firsthand experience. This prevents workers from being arm-chair philosophers when they go out to plant or help new churches. Second, it allows them to receive the exposure and testing of church life, which is necessary for their breaking and spiritual maturity. (Their breaking makes them “safe” to God’s people.) Third, if they are truly called (and the church they are living in is healthy), they will receive the approval and sending of the church.
The twelve received such preparation when they lived with Jesus Christ for three-and-a-half years. They were called, prepared as non-leaders, and then sent. Silas and Barnabas received this preparation in Jerusalem for many years. They were called, prepared as non-leaders, and later sent. Paul received it in Antioch for about five years. He was called, prepared as a non-leader, and then sent. Timothy, Titus, Aristarchus, etc. received it in the churches they were part of as well (Lystra, Antioch, and Thessalonica respectively). They each were called, prepared as non-leaders, and then sent. This pattern is consistent throughout the entire New Testament. In addition, there are over thirty churches mentioned in the New Testament. Significantly, every one of them was either planted by an itinerant apostolic worker or helped by one after it was birthed.
This paradigm should not be ignored.1
(Note the word “itinerant.” This means that apostolic workers traveled. They didn’t settle down into a church to become the pastor over it.)2
Even so: Paul’s great argument in 1 Corinthians 12 and Romans 12 is that not all Christians have the same gift. So we should be very careful about stepping into a gift or calling that God has not given to us. As Paul says, If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? (1 Corinthians 12:17-19, NIV) Thank God that all “are not apostles.” Because few things are as taxing, distressing, and life-breaking than this calling. This brings us to the initial question that began this article. What about those who live in cities where there are no organic churches present? And what if they can’t relocate to be part of an organic church in another city? In addition, what if they aren’t called to or prepared for the apostolic ministry? Of course, some would say, “just plant a church in your town. It’s as simple as making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.” But again: what kind of church are we talking about?
If we’re talking about a mere Bible study, a weekly songfest or supperfest, then sure, you could probably start such a group yourself. But if your vision of the church is the living, breathing, ekklesia of God . . . If your vision is an authentic community that lives by Divine life . . . Then planting such a church on your own is not only monumentally difficult, if you’re not called and equipped to do it, the end result could be quite disastrous.
Consider the following emails from two people who were part of house churches that refused to have any kind of outside help. The first is from a man:
“In the beginning of last year, we attempted to start doing home churching. All the warnings that you stated in your writings came true. We had a few moments of glory, but a lot more heartaches. We are all Christians right, and as Christians we are supposed to get along right? Well. We were 5 families meeting together for about a year. My wife and I pleaded for outside help from the very beginning, but the loudest and most prideful brothers won out. We tried very hard to convince our group that we needed help, but most folks did not want outside help. After 12 months the home church is left in ashes, but prayerfully the Lord will raise up a new church of people. People who want to learn and be humble.”
This one is from a woman:
“I struggle to understand how people could even begin to think they are capable of experiencing the Lord in His fullness, just because locations have moved, without the involvement of a worker/planter. We are so ingrained with our western mindset and have no concept of the depth of that mentality. There are enough damaged/disillusioned/hurting/abused Christians that are hungering to know the Lord that it scares me to think of a bunch of them getting together without really comprehending what it means to die to self, and they end up hurting one another.
“You and I both know, it’s hard living in church life. And sometimes I think we, as believers, want so badly for others to have similar experiences of knowing and touching the Lord, that we present it as something attainable. Which, in my opinion, without a worker, is near impossible. And even though you have spoken about the assumption that exists in the house church movement about any Christian being equipped and called for God’s work, there are going to be those who think, House church.
“How hard can that be? Why, we’ve already got some folks who know how to ‘do’ this. How difficult can it be to learn about Jesus? What do we need a worker for? We’re all mature Christians.? You hit the nail on the head in addressing the issue of individualism. We are so steeped in that, even in the Church, because most of us are unable or unwilling to count the cost (loss) of knowing Jesus Christ.”
My heart is already sad for those who will overlook the importance of having a church planter from the onset. I could multiply many more examples of these sorts of letters. In fact, just last week, I received an email from a woman who had been meeting with a house church for the last year. It recently “exploded” (her words), and it wasn’t pretty. The re
ason was that the majority didn’t want any kind of outside help. They “knew it all” themselves.
A WORD TO SIMPLE CHURCHES
Let me get off the subject for a moment. Sometime ago, I was privileged to spend a weekend with a particular group of home churches that were connected relationally. They called themselves “simple churches.” Essentially, they met once a week for a Bible study and a shared meal. The saints in these groups were precious, and the weekend was very productive. They were introduced to fresh ways of knowing and expressing Jesus Christ together. Not to mention finding solutions to problems they had faced for years. Some testified that the weekend changed their lives. As a result, they came to appreciate the value of receiving outside help.
One of the things that struck me the most was a conversation I had with a woman who had been attending several of these home churches. As I was sharing with her what a first-century styled church meeting was like, she looked at me in amazement. I went on to explain to her my experience of being in hundreds of meetings where God’s people were equipped to display Jesus Christ in open-participatory gatherings. I rehearsed for her several occasions where unbelievers would observe such meetings in awe. They would literally fall down on their knees and come to Christ just by watching the saints express Christ together. (This very thing is mentioned in 1 Corinthians 14). I explained that this kind of gathering wasn’t a Bible study. It wasn’t a songfest. It wasn’t a prayer meeting. It was something quite different. I also shared with her how the members of the church prepared for these meetings by seeking the Lord together during the week—usually in pairs, sometimes in threes, and sometimes in fours.
She said to me, “I’ve never seen this before! This is wonderful. Will Christians actually do this? Will they really do this?” She wanted to know if God’s people would actually take the time to know the Lord in this way and express Him in a gathering in this fashion. In other words, she had never seen anything like this in the simple churches she was attending. My response to her was simply: “They will do it if they desire to see Christ revealed in this way and they are given a little help. I’ve been at this for twenty years, and that’s what my experience tells me.”
I told that story to say this. If you’re part of a simple church that feels there’s something lacking in your experience of church life and how it expresses Jesus Christ, give some prayerful consideration to inviting an experienced worker in to present the Lord to your group in a new way and “equip the saints” to function accordingly. You just may be surprised at how helpful and enriching the experience can be. Let’s now press on to what I believe to be a solution to the quandary we’ve been discussing. There is hope for those of you who can’t find an organic church in your town and can’t relocate to be part of one in another city.
THE FORGOTTEN MINISTRY OF PRISCILLA AND AQUILA
Paul uses two metaphors to describe the apostolic ministry in 1 Corinthians 3. One is the metaphor of planting a field. The other is the metaphor of laying a foundation for a building. For this reason, apostles are often called “church planters” and “foundation layers.” The foundation that is laid and the seed that is planted is Jesus Christ. Thus those who are called to apostolic ministry must know Christ well. They must also know how to show others how to know Him well. Why is this important? Because Jesus Christ is the only foundation for a church. Therefore, a revelation of Christ must be presented in order for a healthy organic church to be established.
This is how all the churches in the first century were planted.3 Christ was proclaimed and revealed with power and life (see Acts 13-20; 1 Cor. 3; Matt. 16; Eph. 2). Again: apostolic workers don’t come out of the womb planting churches. They are called by God, then they are prepared by experiencing the glories and gores of organic church life as non-leaders. Finally, they are sent out by a church to the work of church planting. (The word “apostle” literally means “sent one.”) Now consider these questions with me. Is there any work that needs to take place before a foundation is laid for a building?
Is there any work that must take place before seed is properly planted into the ground? The answer to both questions is a resounding yes. Before the foundation of a building is laid, something called “site preparation” must take place. The following is involved in site preparation: the soil must be tested. The ground must be cleared of any debris. The site must be graded, i.e. the high places must be leveled and the low places raised. Footings must be set in order to hold the foundation. And the building materials must be gathered. In like manner, before seed is planted in a field, the fallow ground must be broken up. The earth must be tilled, the ground cultivated, and the weeds pulled. Carrying this over into the spiritual realm, some work must be done before an apostle lays a foundation and plants a church. Priscilla and Aquila did this kind of work. This dynamic duo were “site preparers” and “ground cultivators” who prepared the way for Paul to plant churches.
By contrast, many contemporary churches—including many house churches—are not planted on the foundation of Jesus Christ. They are founded on something else, be it a certain set of doctrines, a charismatic personality, a particular mission, etc. Therefore, just because a church may consist of genuine Christians does not mean that it was founded upon Christ.
For this reason, Paul regarded them as “fellow workers” (Rom. 16:3). And the Gentile churches were indebted to them (Rom. 16:4). Although Priscilla and Aquila were not apostles, nor resident pastors, they were an integral part of “the work” of raising up churches. With this thought in mind, let’s return to our original question. If you desire to have organic church life, yet you cannot relocate, nor are you called (or prepared) to plant churches, then become a Priscilla and Aquila! Give yourself to the ministry of “site preparation.” And prepare the way for a church planter to lay a proper foundation for a new church so that God’s people can be equipped to function under the Headship of Jesus Christ and live as a Kingdom community.
A large part of the ministry of “site preparation” is to provide a womb wherein the church of Jesus Christ can be born. In the Kingdom of God, there are “initiators.” These are people who are gifted at gathering others together. They initiate meetings. Or to continue the metaphor, they gather the building materials. The ministry of Priscilla and Aquila was just that—they were initiators in the work of church building.
Every new church plant needs those who will initiate, who will bring others together, and who will prepare the soil for the church planter to do his work. The church planters’ job, once they visit the new group, is to build the members together whereby everyone becomes an initiator, and no one “leads” the group except for the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. But before this can happen, at least one or two people need to initiate and prepare the site.
Important observation: If the “initiators” do not take the second step and invite an apostolic worker in to lay the foundation and equip the new church to function under Christ, then those “initiators” will become the pastors of the group by default. Whether this happens wittingly or unwittingly, it will occur. Everyone in the group will look to these people for direction. The result? The group will become a miniature version of the institutional church. In my observation, the above scenario is happening all-too often in our day.
, because they are itinerant and constitute an outside resource for the group, keep this from happening. (Note that I’m speaking of church planters who are safe and trustworthy. False “apostles” abound. Workers who are legalistic, corrupt, arrogant, sectarian, or elitist end up doing great damage to the Kingdom of God.)
PREPARING THE SITE AND CULTIVATING THE GROUND
Let’s quickly look at how Priscilla and Aquila prepared the way for Paul to raise up churches. Before Paul went to the city of Ephesus to plant a church there, he sent Priscilla and Aquila ahead of him to prepare the building site (Acts 18:19). Priscilla and Aquila visited the synagogue to look for open hearts. They then opened their home to gather “building materials” for the new church plant (Acts 18:26). When Paul returned to Ephesus to plant the church (Acts 19), the members met in the home of Priscilla and Aquila (see 1 Cor. 16:19—Paul wrote this letter from Ephesus). Later, Priscilla and Aquila went back to their home-city, Rome, and opened up their house for a new church to gather (Rom. 16:3-5). Some scholars believe that Paul sent the couple back to Rome early to prepare the way for him to visit the city—just as he did in Ephesus.
New Testament scholars William Sanday and Arthur Headlam observe, That Prisca and Aquila should be at Rome is just what we might expect from one with so keen an eye for the strategy of a situation as St. Paul. When he was himself established and in full work at Ephesus with the intention of visiting Rome, it would at once occur to him what valuable work they might be doing there and what an excellent preparation they might make for his own visit, while in his immediate surroundings they were almost superfluous. So that instead of presenting any difficulty, that he should send them back to Rome where they were already known, is most natural (A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans).
As the New Testament closes, we find Priscilla and Aquila back in Ephesus (2 Tim. 4:19—Timothy was in Ephesus when Paul wrote to him). The preparation work of Priscilla and Aquila followed the same pattern of John the Baptist. John “prepared the way” for the first apostle—Jesus Christ—to do His work (see Heb. 3:1).
It is not without significance that many of the Lord’s disciples were first followers of John the Baptist. Consequently, John “prepared the site” and “cultivated the ground” before Jesus raised up the first embryonic expression of the church—which was made up of the twelve disciples and some women in Galilee. In a similar way, Cornelius, one of the first Gentile converts, gathered the building materials before Peter came and laid the foundation for the church in Caesarea. The text says, The following day he [Peter] arrived in Caesarea. Cornelius was expecting them and had called together his relatives and close friends. (Acts 10:24)
So . . . perhaps the Lord has called you to the “site preparation” ministry of Priscilla and Aquila in the city where you live. Or perhaps He desires to send you to another city to prepare the ground for a new church plant there. Either way: what follows are some practical helps that will aid you in your work of site preparation.
If you have eight adults (yourself included) who are committed to being church together, than I suggest that your group go through the booklet entitled Gathering in Homes. This is a practical guide that has been used by scores of new organic church plants to prepare the site for a strong foundation to be laid. It teaches a group of believers how to detox from an institutional/religious mindset, learn how to build community, and begin discovering how to function together as a Body. If you already have “critical mass” (eight adults or more) and you wish to invite a church planter to visit your group, either to lay a new foundation or to help build upon an existing one, you may contact www.HouseChurchResource.org and click on the “Invite a Church Planter” link. Be sure to fill out the entire form. If you do not have eight adults who are committed to meeting as an organic church, what follows are some practical ideas to implement. These have worked well in various cities to generate interest and create “critical mass.” (They don’t appear in any particular order.)
- Begin passing out books to your friends on organic church life. I wrote Reimagining Church for this very reason; to introduce the subject to others.
- Have a BBQ or picnic and invite those who have read these books to your home to discuss the possibilities of meeting as an organic house church. Do this regularly if need be. If you can get eight adults interested, begin going through the assignments in Gathering in Homes together.
- If you have friends who aren’t readers, pass out the little booklet The Organic Church by Milt Rodriguez.
- Begin a “Book Reading Group” in your local area.
- Advertise in your local Christian bookstores, newspapers, Christian radio, Barnes & Nobles, Borders, Books-a-Million, www.MeetUp.com, etc. Meet weekly and discuss one to three chapters at a time. Offer snacks and refreshments. I’d suggest choosing a book that’s listed at www.HouseChurchResource.org (see the “Books” link).
- Regularly pray that the Lord will raise up an organic church in your area. Ask Him to cause you to meet those who are interested in organic church life also.
- If you have the gift of evangelism, seek to bring others to the Lord who will become the ground floor of the new church.
- Visit www.HouseChurchResource.org and click on the “Find an Organic Church” link. Fill out the form in its entirety. If there are others in your city who have an interest in organic church life, you will be put in contact with them.
- Invite a church planter to host a weekend conference in your city. Hosting a conference takes time, energy, and money. If you are interested in exploring this option, write Jeanette at PTMIN@aol.com.
I hope that God will raise up many Priscillas and Aquilas all over North America and other countries. To my mind, the ministry of “site preparation/ground cultivation” is just as important as that of planting churches. Before a foundation can be laid, and before seed can be planted, the ground needs to be made ready and the building materials gathered. Prayerfully consider giving yourself to the Lord in this way. The Kingdom of God needs those who will stand in the lineage of Priscilla and Aquila so that God’s house may be raised up all over this earth.
1 First-century apostles planted churches by converting lost souls to Christ and forming them together into a believing community. This is because the first century was a “virgin-soil” situation. There were no independent Christians who weren’t living in Christian community. Such a situation did not exist back then. Note that the early apostles were not only gifted to convert lost souls, but also (and equally important) to build Christian communities. Contemporary apostolic workers do both. They convert lost souls, but they also build communities with existing converts. They are gifted to take isolated living stones and build them together so they may become a temple that expresses God through the Spirit. Today, we have millions of Christians in the West who are living outside of their natural habitat—the ekklesia. They are like isolated living stones. A large part of the apostolic ministry today is to bring those stones together to form Christian communities. And this is no small task. Thus the New Testament parad
igm applies today just as it did in the first century.
2 Some apostles, like Peter and John, were resident elders as well as apostles. When they were in their home church, they served as elders. When they traveled and laid foundations for other churches, they functioned as apostles. In like manner, Paul of Tarsus was a prophet and a teacher in the church in Antioch, Syria. But when he traveled, he was an apostle to other churches.
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