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Written by Kevin L. Howard*   

(Revised 9/27/2009; revisions underlined)


What is a house church?

A house church consists of two or more baptized believers who regularly meet in a house for worship and who perceive themselves as a church.  (Included in this definition would be issues like singing, praying, studying the Bible, pastoral or elder leadership, partaking of the Lord's Supper, etc.)  We want to say early on that house church is just one kind of model for church.  We're not saying that it's the only way to do church.  We need not think of house church as in opposition to the ministry of the institutional church that meets in a church building. (The institutional church is sometimes called traditional or community church.  These three terms just mean what we usually have in mind when we think of a church).


Typically, house church is different than a regular worship service in an institutional church building.  House church has the potential to be a more intimate experience.  There is less of a need for a rigid schedule.  People sit in a circle rather than in rows.  It is relaxed and reverent at the same time.  House church is personal, like you're among friends and family, rather than in a service.


Are house churches biblical? 

To answer this question, we have to ask, What is a church?  In Mt 18:20, Jesus said in the context of discipline and restoration, "For where two or three have gathered together in my name, there I am in their midst."  While Christ is always in the midst of his people, this verse teaches that there's something special about believers gathering in the name of Jesus.  A church is a group of believers who gather in the name of Jesus, and as we've said, who perceive themselves as a church.


Acts 2:42-47 seems to indicate that first-century believers worshipped in each other's houses.  This doesn't mean that house churches are the only kind of church that the NT permits.  Acts simply shows that house churches were the kind that emerged in the first century.  When the church first began, believers gathered in larger groups in the temple.  But when persecution hit later in Acts, Christians scattered throughout the Ancient Near East.  They spread the gospel to their new communities and became gospel tracts scattering the good news throughout the Ancient Near East.


The gospel quickly spread because the concept of church wasn't confined to a particular building.  First-century believers realized they were the church.  We would do well to adopt that same mentality. 


Although house churches will not likely have the sort of financial resources that an institutional church has, house churches typically have less red tape.  Thus, resources can more easily be given to people in need, to missionaries, and other ministries rather than being tied up in salaries and building expenses.


Why do we need more churches?

Many people will say we have plenty of churches and don't need more.  But we do need more churches.  Hypothetically, let's say there is a town of 30,000 people with 50% who claim some affiliation with a Bible-believing church.  Let's grant that all of these 15,000 people worship weekly with other believers at one of the 250 institutional churches in town.  (A generous assumption!)  This still leaves 15,000 non-Christians.


How many years would it take to reach the other 50% of the city?  If we built one mega-church and reached 2,000 of them, we'd still need to build 33 more (average sized) church buildings that seated at least 300 people in order to reach the rest of the population.  Even with the most hopeful statistics, it would take many years to reach the whole city, and it would cost millions of dollars for all of the buildings, utilities, and staff.  Realistically, not all of the 34 new institutional churches would reach the remaining 15,000 because many of these new church buildings would be populated by people who were disgruntled with their previous church.


The truth is, the longer a church exists the harder it is to win new converts to Christ.  Larry Kreider says, ". . . if a church is ten or more years old, it takes 85 people to lead one person to Christ.  If the church is 4-7 years old, it takes seven people to lead one person to Christ.  If a church is less than 3 years old, it takes only three people to lead one to Christ" (73).  So, yes, there is a serious need for more churches.  But not all of those churches need to be institutional churches. 


Take that same city of 30,000 people.  Let's say 10 of the 250 institutional churches in town send out 2 people to start 10 new house churches (that's 20 people total).  After a year of evangelism, each house church has 2 new converts.  Then, after the second year of training leaders, the 10 mother churches (and ten new house churches) send out two more people to start house churches.  That's 20 new churches in just two or three years.  Then, that following year, the same process takes place, and so on.  In just four years, there would be 250 new house churches started and possibly more than 500 new converts.  And if the process of multiplication continued, it wouldn't take long for a Bible study or house church to exist in every neighborhood or work place.   


Does house church really work?

The real issue is always whether a particular method is biblical not whether it works.  If it's biblical, it will work, even if slower than we would like.  We should never want to do something just because it gets results; the results we're seeing may not be biblical results.  For a good warning on how easy it is to fall into the pragmatic trap of always asking, "Does it work?" see Andy Johnson's article, "Pragmatism, Pragmatism Everywhere!"  Nevertheless, let's continue with the question "Does it work?" simply because people are still going to ask this one. 


Not everyone will like house church, but many people across the nation and around the world love them.  In fact, some restricted countries have few, if any, institutional churches.  They only have house churches.


Institutional churches would do well to develop home groups.  Churches with small groups only in the form of Sunday school classes-that meet on church property-are missing the blessings of the bond among people in house groups.  There's nothing magical or extra spiritual about meeting in a house or an apartment.  It's just that homes are where people live.  When we enter the homes of others, we enter someone else's world, their own personal culture.  And homes are usually safe places where people can remove their masks and be themselves.  Typically, we eat when we visit someone's home, and food offers a time to not only fill up but to relax.  Jesus used the table as an opportunity to eat with sinners and un-lovelies (Mt 9:10).  So yes, many house churches in the U.S. show that house churches do work.  (But again, we should always submit to what is biblical and not just what we think works.)


Who are house churches trying to reach?

House churches are an excellent way to turn non-believers into followers of Christ.  House churches provide an opportunity to transform groups into churches rather than a place for Christian transferees to temporarily stop in.  Some statistics show that 80% of non-believers who attend a small group, like a house church or Bible study, become Christians.  This conversion ratio is one of the big reasons why we should utilize house churches.  We need both the house church and the institutional church.  And we need all Bible-believing denominations working together. 


House church gives us an opportunity to take the message of Christ to where people live.  Here's an ideal situation-several non-Christians study the Bible with a Christian in a home.  After a while, they become Christians.  Then, the Christian trains the new believers to lead the group.  These new Christians then repeat the same process with their friends (or, better yet, have been practicing this model along the way with their non-Christian friends).  If the goal of a house group is to reach non-believers, we may have to start with believers first, train them, and then send them out to reach non-believers. 


What are the weaknesses of house churches?

First, any time a group gets closer to one another, there's the possibility for greater conflict.  But God still wants us to be close-knit.  Numerous endeavors in life posses the potential for conflict but they are worth it for the sake of intimacy and oneness.  Take marriage for example.  We shouldn't avoid marriage just because it has potential for conflict-it's worth the risk.  My wife and I have had our own share of fights, but we'd rather have each other with the occasional conflict than live in relative peace without each other. 


Secondly, with a house church comes the possibility of bonding so well that newcomers can't integrate.  House churches can become an impenetrable clique. 


But neither of these two dangers is particular only to house churches.  They need to be guarded against in any church setting.


Thirdly, some folks will not want the intimacies and vulnerabilities that come with small groups because people can't be anonymous in house churches.  So those who want anonymity won't feel comfortable in a small group. 


What about heresy? 

Many people raise the heresy question when they think of house churches.  However, worshipping in a house church doesn't necessitate that those believers never interact with other Christians.  Many house churches belong to networks with other house churches.  Yet, if the truth be told, large numbers don't guarantee pure doctrine.  The only way to guard against heresy is to know God's word, regardless of the number who worship together.  Heresy has always existed, yet Christ continues to expand his kingdom.


How will children be ministered to in a house church?

Children will be ministered to in a house church the same way they are in an institutional church-by people in that fellowship.  First, it's the parents' responsibility to minister to their children at home.  Parents can influence their children more than church programs can.  If parents shirk their responsibility and expect the church solely to teach their children Scripture, then those children will not be ministered to adequately.  Secondly, most any house church can have an effective children's ministry.  House churches often give children a chance to participate more in worship than many institutional churches allow them.  In a typical house church, children have more time to spend with their parents.  It is common in house churches to allow the children to not only stay with the adults for a while (to sing, pray, etc) but to participate in those events along with the adults.  Then, a team of two can escort the children to another room for more worship.  The same system will work for ministry to teenagers.  Granted, if a teenager is looking for dozens of other teens, he'll not find that opportunity in a house church.  But house church does provide the opportunity to get to know people, albeit fewer, on a deeper level.


Who is qualified to start a house church?

Any believer with some basic maturity in the Lord can start a house church.  This is not to play down the importance of pastors or other spiritual leaders, but Christians need to embrace the idea that every Christian is a minister (1 Cor 12).  Too often we've made minister a synonym for pastor or preacher.  A minister is a servant, whether ordained or not, and all Christians are ministers.  God has gifted all believers with at least one gift and sent his Spirit to dwell in each believer (1 Cor 12:1-31, Rom 12:4-8, 1 Pet 4:10-11).  Thus, all believers are ministers.  We must stop thinking of our buildings as churches.  Believers, not bricks, make up the church.  Pastors and teachers help equip the saints (Eph 4:11-12), but all believers are in the ministry.  We can minister when we're at work just as when at home.  We can minister to someone by listening, by encouraging, and by befriending them.


A person doesn't have to be ordained or earn a seminary degree to start a house church.  The key to starting a house church is being a Christian of integrity, possessing a passion for God's glory, and a desiring to learn from Scripture.  Starting a house church in teams with at least 2 people per team seems better than doing it solo.  The leaders of a house church may best function more like facilitators than teachers, although there's nothing wrong with them teaching.  Many folks feel unequipped to teach or lead a group, but it's simple.  The facilitator can ask some basic questions about any Bible passage to start discussions:


  • What does it say?
  • What does it mean?
  • What difference does it make in my life?


A teacher who doesn't let others interact, who just speaks the whole time in sermon-like fashion, will defeat the purpose of a house church.  The facilitator should ask questions and listen to what people say.  When the facilitator doesn't know something, he can admit it, or he can ask the whole group to search for an answer throughout the next week. 


Starting a house church isn't the only way a person can minister.  Christians can still minister effectively without even being a part of a house church.  But house church ministry seems to be a rich resource that's still mostly untapped in the U.S. 


How do we start a house church?

Do we have non-Christian friends or neighbors?  Do they know we're followers of Christ?  If we don't know any non-believers, we can ask God to open our eyes for opportunities to meet some folks.  If our friends don't know we're followers of Christ, isn't it time to let them know? 


Evangelism is a process rather than a one-time event.  It's shining a light in darkness-living and speaking the truth.  It's a journey, not a program or presentation.  Our friendship will be the most effective tract that we will ever give someone.  "For we are a fragrance of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing" (2 Cor 2:15).  Christ transformed us so we would daily demonstrate the love of God. 


If we live on a university campus, we could gather several of our non-believing friends for a time of spiritual questions.  If we don't know how to do this, we could seek out someone who works for InterVarsity, Navigators, or Campus Crusade for Christ to help us start such groups.  If we're employed, we might try meeting with some of our non-believing co-workers once a week, before work or during lunch break.  If we work at home, we could invite our neighbors over for a BBQ to build rapport and eventually start a Bible study. 


The key is asking God for opportunities and then looking for opportunities.  Have we prayed for more workers in the field?  Have we asked God to prepare our friends, relatives, and neighbors to hear about Christ?  Have we tried prayer walking in our neighborhood?


We aren't as likely to see great things from God apart from prayer.  It isn't just something we do from time to time, but something we live.  Prayer is how we should live as we walk to the mailbox, as we drive to work, as we email friends, as we push our cart through the grocery store, as we sit at a ball game, as we study in the library, as we gather with other Christians.


What should motivate us to start house churches?

In short, we want others to taste and see God's goodness.  We want them to see his glory and be changed just as Moses was so long ago (Ex 34; 2 Cor 3:7-18).  The apostle Paul said in 2 Cor 4:3-4 "And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, in whose case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving, that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God."  Satan has blinded many people.  You and I have an opportunity to demonstrate what Christ can do in someone's life.  Most of the world doesn't know Christ and they won't unless they have a Christian friend. 


Christ is the best thing (person) that we could ever give to another human.  We want to spread the fame of Christ and we want all people to know the wonder of delighting in him.  And house churches are a great way to begin that process.


What do we conclude about house churches?

Although house church isn't the answer to all that ails mankind, it does hold great potential to be a missile in the hand of God aimed at the heart of Satan.  House churches serve as a positive method to spread the good news of Christ to the hopeless throngs headed for hell.  The house church can be a great environment for people to worship Christ and bond with other believers.


Sometimes we resist things like house church, not because it's un-biblical, but because it's new.  We've never done it, and it threatens our comfort. 


No one will fault us for wanting comfort.  But it's to our detriment when we seek comfort at the expense of living in God's fullest joy.  House church is not the only way to experience God's fullest joy, but it could be a blessing that many are missing because they fear change. 


People will find the house setting very suitable for fellowship and worship-even quite comfortable!


*Special thanks to Allan Karr for his insight when this paper was written in 2003.  He earned his Ph.D. from Florida State University and works as Associate Professor of Church Planting at the Denver extension of Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary.  He has started two churches, one of which is a house church that he leads.




Allen, Roland. The Spontaneous Expansion of the Church.

Banks, Robert and Julia. The Church Comes Home: A New Base for Community and


Brock, Charles. Indigenousness Church Planting.

Dale, Tony and Felicity. Simply Church.

Donahue, Bill. Leading Life-Changing Small Groups.

Fee, Gordon, and Douglas Stuart. How to Read the Bible for all it's Worth.

Garrison, David. Church Planting Movements. {Also see Ed Roberts book review of Garrison's Church Planting Movements. 9Marks.org (Retrieved September 27, 2009)}.

Gibbs, Eddie. Church Next: Quantum Changes in How we do Ministry.

Hansen, David. The Art of Pastoring: Ministry without all the Answers.

_______. The Power of Loving your Church.

Hughes, Kent and Barbara. Liberating Ministry from the Success Syndrome.

Johnson, Andy, "Pragmatism, Pragmatism Everywhere!" 9Marks.org (Retrieved July, 2009).

Kreider, Larry. House Church Networks: A Church for a New Generation.

Lovejoy, Grant, ed, et al. Chronological Bible Storying: A Methodology for Presenting

the Gospel to Oral Communicators.

McIntosh, Gary. Make Room for the Boom...or Bust.

Neighbor, Ralph. Where do we go from Here? A Guide for the Cell Group Church.

Silvoso, Ed. That None Should Perish: How to Reach Entire Cities for Christ Through

Prayer Evangelism.

Wagner, Peter. Church Planting for a Greater Harvest.


Also see, Rethinking the Church

and other articles at The Church-Ministry




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