House churches?

A manifestation of the view that community, not doctrine, should be the basis for choosing a church is the phenomenon of the house church. A small group of friends get together in each other’s houses on Sundays for worship and Bible study. There is no clergy and no institution at all, really. It is the polar opposite of the megachurch.

George Barna has said this is the wave of the future, and I know some people who “do church” in this way. Members of house churches claim that this is the model of the early church. What do you think about this? Could a house church constitute a valid congregation? Or is it intrinsically sectarian?

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • http://www.simdan.com SimDan

    What? The early churches had no clergy and didn’t use the prayers, and sacraments? They had little to no connection with a larger church body? Oh, but they did meet in houses to read Scripture!

    Methinks these modern house churches are confused.

  • http://www.simdan.com SimDan

    What? The early churches had no clergy and didn’t use the prayers, and sacraments? They had little to no connection with a larger church body? Oh, but they did meet in houses to read Scripture!

    Methinks these modern house churches are confused.

  • http://jdueck.net Joel

    I’ve was in a couple of “house fellowships” that I left only because I moved. Back then (about six years ago) some were even talking about “home churches” becoming a movement on the same scale as homeschooling. They were really good for encouragement, spiritual growth and accountability, and fellowship.

    Thing is, they’ve all fallen apart within a couple of years. I think they do constitute “a valid congregation” but they are missing something foundational that is vital to long-term health.

  • http://jdueck.net Joel

    I’ve was in a couple of “house fellowships” that I left only because I moved. Back then (about six years ago) some were even talking about “home churches” becoming a movement on the same scale as homeschooling. They were really good for encouragement, spiritual growth and accountability, and fellowship.

    Thing is, they’ve all fallen apart within a couple of years. I think they do constitute “a valid congregation” but they are missing something foundational that is vital to long-term health.

  • http://www.bikebubba.blogspot.com Bike Bubba

    I’m not quite sure that characterization of a house church fits in general. I’m told by a missionary friend of mine that in Japan, they have thriving house churches which preserve theological and denominational distinctives where the plan is more or less that nine or ten families support a full time pastor–and when that house church grows to 15 or so families, they split when a new elder/pastor can be chosen. Deacons are chosen from the men of the church, and so on.

    More or less, they lose all of the overhead, a very critical thing in land-scarce urban Japan, but keep someone dedicated to the ministry of the Word and prayer.

  • http://www.bikebubba.blogspot.com Bike Bubba

    I’m not quite sure that characterization of a house church fits in general. I’m told by a missionary friend of mine that in Japan, they have thriving house churches which preserve theological and denominational distinctives where the plan is more or less that nine or ten families support a full time pastor–and when that house church grows to 15 or so families, they split when a new elder/pastor can be chosen. Deacons are chosen from the men of the church, and so on.

    More or less, they lose all of the overhead, a very critical thing in land-scarce urban Japan, but keep someone dedicated to the ministry of the Word and prayer.

  • http://www.utah-lutheran.blogspot.com Bror Erickson

    As Bike Bubba points out you can have clergy and doctrine even in a house church. I don’t think we have to get to particular on where Christians meet to hear the word of God and partake in the sacraments. However, there is no mandate that Christians have to worship in houses. The Early Church did have clergy, the appointment and training of clergy was of prime importance from the very beginning of the Church.Acts 14:23 (ESV)
    And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed.
    You don’t get away from doctrine either. You have a choice in regards to doctrine. You either have very good and well thought out doctrine, or you have very bad doctrine.

  • http://www.utah-lutheran.blogspot.com Bror Erickson

    As Bike Bubba points out you can have clergy and doctrine even in a house church. I don’t think we have to get to particular on where Christians meet to hear the word of God and partake in the sacraments. However, there is no mandate that Christians have to worship in houses. The Early Church did have clergy, the appointment and training of clergy was of prime importance from the very beginning of the Church.Acts 14:23 (ESV)
    And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed.
    You don’t get away from doctrine either. You have a choice in regards to doctrine. You either have very good and well thought out doctrine, or you have very bad doctrine.

  • Ryan

    First century Christians weren’t sitting on the couch in the livingroom over Scripture and prayer, they specifically set aside “church” or sacred space in a house or, when big enough/wealthy enough, set aside a whole house.

    In its most minor form I suppose it would be like the Eastern Orthodox Icon Corner or Family Altar area. Which, by the way, is a practice that should be regained by Christians.

    I would suspect that Amish do house church more 1st century wise than does your typical suburbanite house gathering.

    Finally, Acts 2:42 all the way! Doctrine, Word, Sacrament right there. Though I would note in this section (Acts 2:42-47) even the so called home church congregations would avail themselves of the church spaces available (Temple in Jerusalem, Synagogues around the Roman world) until they were kicked out.

  • Ryan

    First century Christians weren’t sitting on the couch in the livingroom over Scripture and prayer, they specifically set aside “church” or sacred space in a house or, when big enough/wealthy enough, set aside a whole house.

    In its most minor form I suppose it would be like the Eastern Orthodox Icon Corner or Family Altar area. Which, by the way, is a practice that should be regained by Christians.

    I would suspect that Amish do house church more 1st century wise than does your typical suburbanite house gathering.

    Finally, Acts 2:42 all the way! Doctrine, Word, Sacrament right there. Though I would note in this section (Acts 2:42-47) even the so called home church congregations would avail themselves of the church spaces available (Temple in Jerusalem, Synagogues around the Roman world) until they were kicked out.

  • RawtotheBone

    “they specifically set aside “church” or sacred space in a house or, when big enough/wealthy enough, set aside a whole house.”

    I would like to see the evidence for that.

  • RawtotheBone

    “they specifically set aside “church” or sacred space in a house or, when big enough/wealthy enough, set aside a whole house.”

    I would like to see the evidence for that.

  • http://www.bikebubba.blogspot.com Bike Bubba

    I don’t know about the 1st century, but I do know that most medieval castles have a chapel for the use of the inhabitants, specifically the owning family and their servants. This is referred to by a great number of the medieval sagas, and you can see them today if you go to Europe.

  • http://www.bikebubba.blogspot.com Bike Bubba

    I don’t know about the 1st century, but I do know that most medieval castles have a chapel for the use of the inhabitants, specifically the owning family and their servants. This is referred to by a great number of the medieval sagas, and you can see them today if you go to Europe.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    I would have no problem with a house church as described by Bike Bubba (@3).

    I do wonder, though, how such a church goes about doing outreach. Is there fear of growing too much (the opposite problem of most churches), of having too many people to fit in the house? How do people find your church if they are not invited by a member? (Of course, if there is a larger organization that the house church is a part of, then this is not so much a problem.)

    I would also wonder about cliquishness. Of course, non-house churches have this problem as well. But in a church based on community and likely centered around a group of friends, how does someone who is a believer but not so much part of that group feel? I have friends at my church, of course, but it’s not because we share much in common — except, of course, our faith.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    I would have no problem with a house church as described by Bike Bubba (@3).

    I do wonder, though, how such a church goes about doing outreach. Is there fear of growing too much (the opposite problem of most churches), of having too many people to fit in the house? How do people find your church if they are not invited by a member? (Of course, if there is a larger organization that the house church is a part of, then this is not so much a problem.)

    I would also wonder about cliquishness. Of course, non-house churches have this problem as well. But in a church based on community and likely centered around a group of friends, how does someone who is a believer but not so much part of that group feel? I have friends at my church, of course, but it’s not because we share much in common — except, of course, our faith.

  • http://www.inlightofthegospel.org James Grant

    I pastor a church outside of Memphis, TN, and there was a “house church” movement at the time in our area. In fact, one of my good friends was part of it. Although there are numerous “house church” movements in the USA, there is a common thread that runs through them of often disgruntled and hurt Christians that have been beat up by the some type of institutional church. In my experience, the house church movement has often been an extension of a type of Baptist ecclesiology (and I say that coming out of that tradition).

    On the other hand, house churches in China and other parts of the world are there almost by necessity because of the persecution. I don’t think that some of the worldwide movements of house churches are quite the same thing that we see taking place in the Western world.

    I had to work my way theologically through the house church movement with my friend that came out of it. I think you make a great point about the movement from doctrine to relationship. I think there are errors on both sides. Many things that house church people were saying are true: individuals in our churches don’t know each other, there isn’t a sense of community and fellowship. But the opposite error is to think that we must have a face to face, deeply personal relationship with everyone in the church, including the pastor. That kind of relational intimacy is just as dangerous as the non-relational environment on the other side.

    Just my thoughts. JHG

  • http://www.inlightofthegospel.org James Grant

    I pastor a church outside of Memphis, TN, and there was a “house church” movement at the time in our area. In fact, one of my good friends was part of it. Although there are numerous “house church” movements in the USA, there is a common thread that runs through them of often disgruntled and hurt Christians that have been beat up by the some type of institutional church. In my experience, the house church movement has often been an extension of a type of Baptist ecclesiology (and I say that coming out of that tradition).

    On the other hand, house churches in China and other parts of the world are there almost by necessity because of the persecution. I don’t think that some of the worldwide movements of house churches are quite the same thing that we see taking place in the Western world.

    I had to work my way theologically through the house church movement with my friend that came out of it. I think you make a great point about the movement from doctrine to relationship. I think there are errors on both sides. Many things that house church people were saying are true: individuals in our churches don’t know each other, there isn’t a sense of community and fellowship. But the opposite error is to think that we must have a face to face, deeply personal relationship with everyone in the church, including the pastor. That kind of relational intimacy is just as dangerous as the non-relational environment on the other side.

    Just my thoughts. JHG

  • Nemo

    “A manifestation of the view that community, not doctrine, should be the basis for choosing a church is the phenomenon of the house church.”

    Are you sure it isn’t the other way around? Individuals (or families) get so fed up with what they consider false doctrine – the attitude that no church gets it right – that they do it on their own. Community sacrificed for doctrine.

  • Nemo

    “A manifestation of the view that community, not doctrine, should be the basis for choosing a church is the phenomenon of the house church.”

    Are you sure it isn’t the other way around? Individuals (or families) get so fed up with what they consider false doctrine – the attitude that no church gets it right – that they do it on their own. Community sacrificed for doctrine.

  • Larry

    I don’t agree that a “house church” is the opposite of the mega-church. The mega-churches produced this idea through their emphasis on small groups or “cells” meeting in me

  • Larry

    I don’t agree that a “house church” is the opposite of the mega-church. The mega-churches produced this idea through their emphasis on small groups or “cells” meeting in me

  • Larry

    ….member homes. This is just one step further.

    (For some reason my typing occasionally disappears from the screen.)

  • Larry

    ….member homes. This is just one step further.

    (For some reason my typing occasionally disappears from the screen.)

  • http://www.bikebubba.blogspot.com Bike Bubba

    Todd, in China, the house churches handle outreach at times by requiring that applicants for baptism/membership lead someone else to Christ. I don’t totally go along with that, but it’s an interesting concept, no?

    Personally, I think that we’re going to have to consider house churches as our culture turns against our faith. thankfully, the challenges there are about the same as anywhere else.

  • http://www.bikebubba.blogspot.com Bike Bubba

    Todd, in China, the house churches handle outreach at times by requiring that applicants for baptism/membership lead someone else to Christ. I don’t totally go along with that, but it’s an interesting concept, no?

    Personally, I think that we’re going to have to consider house churches as our culture turns against our faith. thankfully, the challenges there are about the same as anywhere else.

  • http://www.HempelStudios.com Sarah in Maryland

    I grew up in a home church and it was wonderful. The clergy where the male heads of households in the main homes where we met. The “pastor” would be the dad in whichever home we were at. Music would be whoever brought an instrument. We sang old hymns and sang the Psalms. Doctrine was very solid. We held communion using unleavened bread and wine. Baptisms were in the local swimming hole or someone’s hot tub. It was fantastic.

    For awhile, our home church grew too large for our living room. Fortunately my family had an outbuilding that fit just about everyone. Plus, it was near our “baptismal pond.” Home churches grow because there is definitely outreach because people build relationships with others in the community. They invite friends and those friends get baptized. We grew pretty fast.

    Because theology was the lanuage of everyday, my brother and I are very well versed.

  • http://www.HempelStudios.com Sarah in Maryland

    I grew up in a home church and it was wonderful. The clergy where the male heads of households in the main homes where we met. The “pastor” would be the dad in whichever home we were at. Music would be whoever brought an instrument. We sang old hymns and sang the Psalms. Doctrine was very solid. We held communion using unleavened bread and wine. Baptisms were in the local swimming hole or someone’s hot tub. It was fantastic.

    For awhile, our home church grew too large for our living room. Fortunately my family had an outbuilding that fit just about everyone. Plus, it was near our “baptismal pond.” Home churches grow because there is definitely outreach because people build relationships with others in the community. They invite friends and those friends get baptized. We grew pretty fast.

    Because theology was the lanuage of everyday, my brother and I are very well versed.

  • marci

    I submit brief comments from my pastor’s blog (Rev. Garrett Craw)
    http://anikisan.blogs.com/the_craw/2007/12/house-churching.html
    http://anikisan.blogs.com/the_craw/2007/12/house-churchi-1.html
    I love your blog, Dr. Vieth. Pithy, stimulating, timely.

  • marci

    I submit brief comments from my pastor’s blog (Rev. Garrett Craw)
    http://anikisan.blogs.com/the_craw/2007/12/house-churching.html
    http://anikisan.blogs.com/the_craw/2007/12/house-churchi-1.html
    I love your blog, Dr. Vieth. Pithy, stimulating, timely.

  • Farce

    I am currently at a Lutheran Church that promotes “small groups”, although I am leaving it here shortly. The order of the day in the small group is that all doctrines are accepted except those that actually take a stand for purity of doctrine. This thought came to me today concerning what the Church was. I doubt that many of the early Christians had as much leisure time as we do, so to go to church on Sunday and receive the Sacrament was very sacred. I think our culture and culturized Christianity lessens the importance of church. As well as, unity of doctrine.

  • Farce

    I am currently at a Lutheran Church that promotes “small groups”, although I am leaving it here shortly. The order of the day in the small group is that all doctrines are accepted except those that actually take a stand for purity of doctrine. This thought came to me today concerning what the Church was. I doubt that many of the early Christians had as much leisure time as we do, so to go to church on Sunday and receive the Sacrament was very sacred. I think our culture and culturized Christianity lessens the importance of church. As well as, unity of doctrine.

  • Don S

    I think the statement “A manifestation of the view that community, not doctrine, should be the basis for choosing a church is the phenomenon of the house church” is a generalization, applying only to a small subset of the so-called “house church movement”. There are many reasons for the growth of house churches, and, in general, they face all of the same issues as other types of churches. Doctrines vary according to the spiritual leadership of each house church — some worship liturgically, and some are very casual. Some teach topically, some teach expositorily. Some have a dynamic outreach orientation, some are insular. In our area (Southern California) they often start because acquiring a church building is not a possibility in this real estate market. Saddleback Church (just to clarify — I do not attend there, nor am I particularly fond of it) started in Rick Warren’s home in 1980.

    “For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst.” Matt. 18:20 (NASB)

  • Don S

    I think the statement “A manifestation of the view that community, not doctrine, should be the basis for choosing a church is the phenomenon of the house church” is a generalization, applying only to a small subset of the so-called “house church movement”. There are many reasons for the growth of house churches, and, in general, they face all of the same issues as other types of churches. Doctrines vary according to the spiritual leadership of each house church — some worship liturgically, and some are very casual. Some teach topically, some teach expositorily. Some have a dynamic outreach orientation, some are insular. In our area (Southern California) they often start because acquiring a church building is not a possibility in this real estate market. Saddleback Church (just to clarify — I do not attend there, nor am I particularly fond of it) started in Rick Warren’s home in 1980.

    “For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst.” Matt. 18:20 (NASB)

  • Don S

    Let me add one more thing. We are a homeschooling family, and I know that a few years ago many homeschoolers were opting for house churches because they were in sharp disagreement with the idea of separating families into age-graded worship. Many of us are not particularly fond of the 1930′s invention called “Sunday School”, and particularly of youth groups which meet during worship service, as an alternative. We want our families to worship together, and for the younger to learn to worship by observing their elders.

  • Don S

    Let me add one more thing. We are a homeschooling family, and I know that a few years ago many homeschoolers were opting for house churches because they were in sharp disagreement with the idea of separating families into age-graded worship. Many of us are not particularly fond of the 1930′s invention called “Sunday School”, and particularly of youth groups which meet during worship service, as an alternative. We want our families to worship together, and for the younger to learn to worship by observing their elders.

  • http://www.bikebubba.blogspot.com Bike Bubba

    One minor correction; Sunday School became an effort to disciple churched kids at the time Don mentions, but it itself had existed since the early 1800s as a way to teach unchurched kids how to read. It’s mentioned favorably in the 1871 McGuffey Readers, for example.

    Otherwise I tend to agree with what Don is saying.

  • http://www.bikebubba.blogspot.com Bike Bubba

    One minor correction; Sunday School became an effort to disciple churched kids at the time Don mentions, but it itself had existed since the early 1800s as a way to teach unchurched kids how to read. It’s mentioned favorably in the 1871 McGuffey Readers, for example.

    Otherwise I tend to agree with what Don is saying.

  • http://arekarlsen.blogspot.com/ Are Karlsen

    I love the testimony of Sara in Maryland. I am myself attending a house church every week. We attach great importance to be non-hierarchical, i. e. not traditional leaders, only servants. That assure the participation of all the members, and I think that is important for doing a sustainable community.

  • http://arekarlsen.blogspot.com/ Are Karlsen

    I love the testimony of Sara in Maryland. I am myself attending a house church every week. We attach great importance to be non-hierarchical, i. e. not traditional leaders, only servants. That assure the participation of all the members, and I think that is important for doing a sustainable community.

  • FullTime

    My main reason for considering a house church is doctrinal rather than social. I am looking for something closer to 1st century worship and it isn’t here. Maybe 2000 years is too long for such things to survive untarnished by politics and fashion.

  • FullTime

    My main reason for considering a house church is doctrinal rather than social. I am looking for something closer to 1st century worship and it isn’t here. Maybe 2000 years is too long for such things to survive untarnished by politics and fashion.

  • Arfies

    Some (maybe all) of the (charismatic) elders in my former parish withdrew and started a house church after they had gotten rid of me. Since I am no longer in that area, I don’t know how it has all worked out for them. I do know that those elders undertook to influence what I preached, and I doubt that they ever understood either my message or my methods. Their actions had a bad influence on the congregation, the people whom they abandoned.

  • Arfies

    Some (maybe all) of the (charismatic) elders in my former parish withdrew and started a house church after they had gotten rid of me. Since I am no longer in that area, I don’t know how it has all worked out for them. I do know that those elders undertook to influence what I preached, and I doubt that they ever understood either my message or my methods. Their actions had a bad influence on the congregation, the people whom they abandoned.

  • Patrick Kyle

    In Vol. 53 of Luther’s works, page 64, Luther talks of creating a house church for those who “desire to be Christians in earnest” in which a simple liturgy could be used, the sacraments received, and collections could be taken up for charitable purposes. This passage is part of a larger discussion on several types of worship services and their place in the church and life of the Christian. Really an interesting insight into Luther’s thought on the subject.

  • Patrick Kyle

    In Vol. 53 of Luther’s works, page 64, Luther talks of creating a house church for those who “desire to be Christians in earnest” in which a simple liturgy could be used, the sacraments received, and collections could be taken up for charitable purposes. This passage is part of a larger discussion on several types of worship services and their place in the church and life of the Christian. Really an interesting insight into Luther’s thought on the subject.

  • http://LK10.com John White

    Barna believes that house church is not just the “wave of the future” but that the future is already here. His research indicates that perhaps as many as 5 million people in the US currently see house church as their primary form of church. Because this movement is largely “under the radar” (try looking up house churches in the Yellow Pages), many traditional church people are largely unaware of what is going on. I would say that the comments on this blog generally reflect that lack of awareness.

    You all might be interested to know that there is a growing body of house church literature that is developing a solid historical, theological and practical framework for the movement. These books answer many of the questions and concerns that you all have raised. Some of the best are…

    “House Church and Mission: The Importance of Household Structures in Early Christianity” by Gehring.

    “Paul’s Idea of Community: The Early House Churches in Their Historical Setting” by Banks

    “The Global House Church Movement” by Zdero

    “Pagan Christianity: Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices” by Viola

    “Organic Church: Growing Faith Where Life Happens” by Cole.

  • http://LK10.com John White

    Barna believes that house church is not just the “wave of the future” but that the future is already here. His research indicates that perhaps as many as 5 million people in the US currently see house church as their primary form of church. Because this movement is largely “under the radar” (try looking up house churches in the Yellow Pages), many traditional church people are largely unaware of what is going on. I would say that the comments on this blog generally reflect that lack of awareness.

    You all might be interested to know that there is a growing body of house church literature that is developing a solid historical, theological and practical framework for the movement. These books answer many of the questions and concerns that you all have raised. Some of the best are…

    “House Church and Mission: The Importance of Household Structures in Early Christianity” by Gehring.

    “Paul’s Idea of Community: The Early House Churches in Their Historical Setting” by Banks

    “The Global House Church Movement” by Zdero

    “Pagan Christianity: Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices” by Viola

    “Organic Church: Growing Faith Where Life Happens” by Cole.

  • Ryan

    Dear RawtotheBone,

    For more on houses converted to churches and early church worship spaces:
    -Arthur Just, Luke 1:1-9:50
    Dr. Just describes his sources:
    -Vincent Branick, The House Church in the Writings of St. Paul
    -L. White (Phd Dissertation from Yale 1983) “Domus Ecclesiae”

    I’m an archaeologist by training so I like the raw data: Check out (on the web is easiest) the house church at Dura-Europos as well as Peter’s house (Domus Ecclesia) in Capernaum.

    Of course Christians worshipped all over, not just in homes… catacombs is one such example.

  • Ryan

    Dear RawtotheBone,

    For more on houses converted to churches and early church worship spaces:
    -Arthur Just, Luke 1:1-9:50
    Dr. Just describes his sources:
    -Vincent Branick, The House Church in the Writings of St. Paul
    -L. White (Phd Dissertation from Yale 1983) “Domus Ecclesiae”

    I’m an archaeologist by training so I like the raw data: Check out (on the web is easiest) the house church at Dura-Europos as well as Peter’s house (Domus Ecclesia) in Capernaum.

    Of course Christians worshipped all over, not just in homes… catacombs is one such example.

  • Ryan

    Oh I noticed Banks’ book “Paul’s Idea of Community” was mentioned. He is THE goto guy for history for those in the modern House Church movement.

  • Ryan

    Oh I noticed Banks’ book “Paul’s Idea of Community” was mentioned. He is THE goto guy for history for those in the modern House Church movement.

  • Booklover

    I agree that house churches can be wonderful by focusing on family groups and not splitting them up according to age; also the servant-leadership idea is good.

    I do know some house church people who, like some homeschoolers, have a holier-than-thou attitude and focus on “minors”–like having a non-Sunday Sabbath and on absolutely not celebrating holidays like Christmas. :-(

  • Booklover

    I agree that house churches can be wonderful by focusing on family groups and not splitting them up according to age; also the servant-leadership idea is good.

    I do know some house church people who, like some homeschoolers, have a holier-than-thou attitude and focus on “minors”–like having a non-Sunday Sabbath and on absolutely not celebrating holidays like Christmas. :-(

  • Toby DeHay

    Joel says, “Thing is, they’ve all fallen apart within a couple of years. I think they do constitute “a valid congregation” but they are missing something foundational that is vital to long-term health.”

    I wonder what falling apart after a few years has to do with a body being a valid congregation? I also wonder what the foundational thing is that is missing. Also what measures long-term health and why this important? Maybe the body was to only gather for a short time. If a body meets together for a time and stops is this not OK?

  • Toby DeHay

    Joel says, “Thing is, they’ve all fallen apart within a couple of years. I think they do constitute “a valid congregation” but they are missing something foundational that is vital to long-term health.”

    I wonder what falling apart after a few years has to do with a body being a valid congregation? I also wonder what the foundational thing is that is missing. Also what measures long-term health and why this important? Maybe the body was to only gather for a short time. If a body meets together for a time and stops is this not OK?


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