Some twenty-five years ago theologian and philosopher Dr. Francis A. Schaeffer wrote a book documenting “The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture.” The title of his work was taken from Ezekiel 33:10, How Should We Then Live? Ezekiel 33 is, of course, the great “watchman” passage in which the Prophet Ezekiel is warned of God’s impending judgment if Israel does not repent of its sin. The culmination of the passage comes in verse 10 where Israel declares, “If our transgressions and our sins be upon us, and we pine away in them, how should we then live?” While this may sound like a lifestyle question, it is not. Rather, it is a survival question. The Israelites were wondering, if everything Ezekiel had said was true, how could they possibly survive the pending judgment of God. In the end, Israel did not survive. She did not repent. The nation was taken into captivity by the Babylonians andJerusalem was destroyed.
Twenty-five years ago Dr. Schaeffer wrote his book in the hopeful prayer that the coming generation (in which we now live) “may get its feet out of the paths of death and may live” (Schaeffer, page 258). Unfortunately, the decline which Dr. Schaeffer so ably analyzed and documented has continued, even accelerated, during the intervening years. And in the ensuing struggle the organized and institutional Church as most of us have known and experienced it has become caught up in and overwhelmed by this cultural collapse of historic proportions.
Now, chances are that you are reading this introduction for one of two reasons, out of either curiosity or frustration. You may simply be curious concerning what house churches are all about. You may even have had some experience (good or bad) with a house church. After all, the concept is not new (as we shall see) and it is growing.
But then you may be among the growing number of Christians who sense that something is desperately wrong both in our culture and in the Church, and who are increasingly frustrated (some would say they are “burned out” or “fed up”) with the institutional/denominational Church as most of us have known it. In a word, you are tired of “trying to ride a dead horse.”
A Tale of Riding Dead Horses
In a recent article for Focal Point, a publication of Denver Seminary, Dr. Haddon Robinson gave an illustration regarding organizations and dead horses. One bit of wisdom addressed to organizations is “When the horse you are riding dies, dismount.” That sounds like keen insight into the obvious. Unfortunately, many organizations refuse to embrace it. Writer Karen Peterson came up with some alternative strategies that organizations often use to deal with the problem of dead horses.
Change riders (If you can’t do the job of riding this horse we’ll find someone who can!).Appoint a committee to study the horse (After all, we mustn’t rush to judgment. Perhaps the horse isn’t really dead, but sleeping).Attend a seminar to increase riding ability (When in doubt, blame the rider and question his abilities).Get a stronger whip (even if this doesn’t motivate the horse, it will make the rider feel better!).
- Enroll in a seminar to learn how others ride dead horses (Perhaps if you improve your technique no one will notice that you lack substance).
- When there is nothing else to do, remember, the time honored wisdom of desperate organizations: “No horse is too dead to beat!”
Dr. Robinson added a couple of ways that churches and other Christian organizations handle dead horses:
Preach a series of sermons assuring listeners that “this horse is not dead!”
- Keep reminding people of how strong the horse looked when it was alive and hope that they won’t notice that it has died.
- Pray that the dead horse will be resurrected.
- Move the dead horse to a new location.
- Label anyone who points out that the horse is dead a “heretic” (or a person of “no faith”).
Are You Tired of Trying To Ride A Dead Horse?
So let me ask you: Are you trying to ride a dead horse? In recent years many committed Christians have become tired, frustrated and disillusioned with the institutional, organizational and denominational structure of the Church as they have traditionally known it. As one ministry friend of mine declared with a note of frustration, “If Moses had relied on a committee he’d still be wandering around in the wilderness!” Many of those Christians who are disillusioned with the Church as it exists today are among the 20% who have been doing 80% of the work of the ministry. They are tired of trying to ride a dead horse!
The traditional institutional church seems to have lost its Kingdom vision and has replaced it with a committee or a program. The church has lost its power. This powerlessness in the face of a wave of cultural collapse has taken its toll. According to Christian Sociologist and trend-watcher Dr. George Barna, his research has revealed that:
- Our evangelism is ineffective. A majority of the people who made a “decision” for Christ in one of our evangelical churches “were no longer to be found in a church context within eight weeks of having made such a decision.” We have evangelized for decisions rather than conversions. But conviction is not conversion and a decision does not produce a disciple. Our evangelism has degenerated to little more than a slick ad-marketing campaign, so we shouldn’t be surprised that the commitment of the average “convert” is about as deep and authentic as a celebrity commercial endorsement.
- We close more churches each year in America than we open. I was recently stunned to hear that the evangelical denomination from whose seminary I graduated recently declared that it was closing some 50 churches in the Northwestern United States. Across America we are closing down more churches each year than we are starting. In Scotland, the Church of Scotland recently announced that it will close 600 of its 1,400 fellowships.Dead horses litter the landscape.
- A minority of born again adults (only 44%) are certain of the existence of absolute moral truth! (US figures)
- In a typical week, 41% of the adults attending Christian churches are not born again! (US figures)
- Four out of ten born again Christians do not attend Church, and there are more than 10 million born again Christians who are not attending Church. (US figures)
As a result of this collapse of our culture and its impact upon the church, many institutional churches are looking (and praying) for revival in the hope that God will somehow revive and breathe new life into their dying institutions and programs; in other words, they are asking God to resurrect their dead horses. But the history of revival demonstrates that God revives and breathes new life into people, not buildings, institutions or programs.
With precious few exceptions the institutional church structure is inefficient and inflexible for the times in which we live, and for the difficult times that may soon be coming. The Church seems equally unprepared for either revival or for difficult times.
Is Your Church A Mule Or A Rabbit?
A mule is a creature that has been bred for extinction. A mule is created when you breed a male donkey with a female horse. The resulting creature is a prized work animal. It will work hard as a beast of burden and will live out its life with no particular ill effects, other than a complete inability to reproduce. A mule will never produce another mule. It is that simple.
Rabbits on the other hand are legendary for their ability to reproduce and to produce more rabbits. It comes natural. They just can’t help themselves!
Most churches today are mules. Whether by design and intent or by accident and inability, they never reproduce. In America today we close more churches than we start, like mules incapable of reproducing themselves.
There is an important movement underway today which I believe is a genuine movement of God. Thousands of Christians are moving out of traditional, institutional and denominational churches and are beginning to meet as house churches. This phenomenon is widespread and it is growing! In order to meet the challenges of the 21st Century I believe that God is raising up thousands, even tens of thousands of house churches, prepared to provide the needed leadership for the times in which we live. I believe He is raising up thousands of home & cell churches which will be vehicles for the new wine of the coming revival, and to disciple the tens of thousands of new converts who will be the fruit of that revival. And I believe He is raising up thousands of house churches which will be havens of shelter and preparedness during the difficult and turbulent times that I believe may lay just ahead. Yes! God is raising up His end-time church, and He is preparing and equipping them for effective ministry during the difficult times that may soon come upon both the Church and the world.
What Is A House Church?
There are several types or levels of home-group meetings, such as:
Home fellowship groups – these are usually extensions of an on-going institutional (“bricks & mortar”) Church ministry which meets in the homes of individual members. It may meet for prayer, for fellowship, for bible study or for any number of other reasons. Generally speaking they are not led by elders the sacraments are not administered. They can be very popular and very successful, depending upon the group and the church of which they are a part.
A House Church – This is different from a home fellowship in that it is a self-contained Church meeting in the home of an individual believer. It has clearly defined leadership (what we would call “elders” and perhaps even “deacons”) and meets regularly for all of the functions normally associated with “Church” including fellowship, prayer, worship, instruction & the Lord’s table. The Church will vary in size, and it may or may not be related to any other home Church. This is what I call the “Wolfgang Simson Model,” as described in his book “Houses That Change The World.”
The house church is based upon the model of the church in the New Testament. The home was a central meeting place for the early church. The gospel was preached in homes (see Acts 5:42 & 20:20) and the Lord’s supper was celebrated in homes (Acts 2:46). The creation of these churches-in-houses was of the greatest significance for the spreading of the Gospel. By means of its network of house churches the early church personalized its ministry and placed the gospel at the center of the natural order of life. This became the regular pattern of the early church for the next 200 years.
A house church is a body or group of believers (a “church”), consisting of 4-to-6 families (around 15-to-20 adults), led by elders, served by deacons and overseen by an itinerant 5-Fold ministry of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers (Yep, just like in the New Testament and described in Ephesians 4). This New Testament body of believers meets in the home of one of its members for fellowship, prayer, encouragement, study of the word, and ministry. It is within this group and context that the primary ministry of the church takes place. These individual house churches may meet together with other house churches in their area for corporate worship and celebration of what God is doing.
I believe that the house church movement is the “new wineskin” that God is preparing to receive the new wine of renewal and revival, and to serve as a support and ministry network during the difficult times which may soon come upon the world and the Church.
Are House Churches A Threat To The “Local Church?”
No, because the house church is the local church. If the “local church” is defined as a body of believers meeting together for fellowship, prayer, encouragement, study of the word, and ministry, then the house church is the local church in its purest and simplest form! Also, any institutional Church could re-orient its ministry around a house church structure. Their refusal to do so may demonstrate a failure to acknowledge that the horse they are riding on has died! We need to stop defending institutions and invest our time and resources into advancing the Kingdom of God.