by Roger Thoman

What is Church?

House Church Basics — Part 1-A: What Is Church?

Our first challenge in grasping what God intends church to be, is to stop looking at it through the lens of our background and through the lens of 2,000 years of “church” as a formal institution.
Dee Hock says: “The problem is never how to get new, innovative thoughts into your mind, but how to get old ones out. Every mind is a building filled with archaic furniture. Clean out a corner of your mind, and creativity will instantly fill it.”
So our first challenge is to de-program old definitions and wrestle with some accurate new ones.
Let’s start with a basic New Testament definition of church. The Greek word for “church” is “ekklesia” which simply refers to those who were “called out” for an assembly or meeting. It was a non-religious word. It just referred to a group of people. In this case, the group of people who were followers of Jesus.
It really is and must be that simple! Church is not an organization, building, or meeting of any kind. It’s simply a group of people who follow Christ.
Robert Fitts provides some additional information at DAWN ministries: Jesus used a common word when he said, “I will build my church.” It was not a religious word. It simply meant a called out group, or crowd, or fellowship, or assembly. So we can use the word church when it communicates what we are saying, but we can also use the word fellowship, or gathering, or brethren, or saints, or disciples. It simply means a group of people.
It’s very helpful to define “church” clearly. The temptation is to go around this issue and ask secondary questions: “How is church expressed?” “What will the gathering of believers look like when they come together?” But these are secondary questions!! We must be clear first of all what church is, then and only then can we understand how church is to be expressed.
Church, in essence, is simply a collective group of followers.
Consider this definition of church:
A loose-knit network of Jesus followers who gather together to encourage each other in their spiritual life and who go out, moved by the Holy Spirit, sharing and demonstrating the Gospel.
Loose-knit. Not formal membership, just a love-commitment to God and each other.
Jesus followers. The basic requirement for membership in the church.
Who gather together. Gathering to build one another up and to worship.
Who go out. The purpose of believers… to GO with the message.
Moved by the Holy Spirit. The one and only LEADER of the church.
Sharing and demonstrating the gospel. The reason that the church GOES.
Neither the church gatherings, nor the church’s “goings” had to have anything other than believers + the Holy Spirit. Nothing else was necessary for church to be church. Sometimes apostles were present, many times not. Sometimes elders were present, many times not. The church really is the followers of Jesus who engaged in gathering and going.
As we think this through, I would like to suggest the reading of a “Description of a House Church.” This is an expression of church that is based upon, I believe, an accurate definition of “church.” This is not, by any means, the only expression of church. It’s just one of many. Early church gatherings and expressions were very diverse. But as you read this, ask yourself if it is built solidly on the definition of what church really is. Why? Why not? Click the link and read it!
I would love to hear some reactions to both the definition of church presented here (loose-knit network of Jesus followers, etc… ) and this house church description.
A. This definition of the church excites me. It leaves the floor open to what the Holy Spirit wants to do. Not just in a far off future sense, but right now, right here, today. It forces us to leave our preconceived agendas behind and move as the Spirit moves us. It is very freeing to think that God won’t be “infringing” on church if He wants us to drop everything and minister to someone. I am encouraged each time in our home church when we disregard “the plan” and just take time to be with God and his people.

I have to admit that I like a plan and a sequence of events to follow. Give me formula that’s worked once and I’ll apply it to every situation. It feels comfortable to give God parameters to work within. I have come to realize (I think I always knew deep down) that God does not operate very well inside a box he likes to spill over and be “unconventional”.

As I see God working in his people I am beginning to embrace the idea of unscripted encounters with God.

I think I’m ready to be unconventional!

B. Yes, I strongly believe we are tainted in our view of church by the “modern glasses” we wear. We must dump the baggage of “how we’ve done it”. Even the word “church” conjours up modern clutter. I think the church or body of believers is primarily a group of believers in the “way” of Jesus Christ. We believe He was and is the Son of God Almighty. That’s our structure! our purpose is to look after the body, not simply paying workers but rescuing orphans and helping widows and feeding the impoverished, as well as teaching and evangelism. Isn’t it interesting how our modern society has institutionalized most of this? – it all becomes invisible unless we seek them out and find what a disaster institutions are. Even the church is viewed as an institution! That should be enough impetus to change. I’ve found too often the modern church is not truly missional, except that it leaves this up to individuals to run programs. I hear that 20% of the body is doing 80% of the work. That’s a recipe for failure. I think the church should be simultaneously doing it’s mission and getting healthy – individuals get transformed when they can truly see God working among them. (Step 12 in AA: “Having had a spiritual awakening, we tried to carry this message to other (churchaholics) …”

C. Yes, yes, yes, there are other people on the planet who are thinking the same as I. I have been asking the same question for five years, “What exactly is this that we’re doing on Sundays?” I couldn’t find anyone who wanted to dialogue. I wondered why so few 20’s – 35 year olds were in church. It just occurred to me several months ago that the body (the metaphor Paul uses when speaking of the church), has really been distilled into one or two mouths and many butts (performer and audience model). We made a choice to withdraw from the familiar model and are presently feeling the pain of loss. It is a comfort to know there are those of you out there who are like-minded. Yes, dialogue is possible!

D. I love the definition, I love the thought of not having to have anything but believers and the Holy Spirit. I have prayed for the desired and needed vision and guidance to support the passion that has been building within my heart. Prayer has been answered!
E. My husband and I left the traditional church 3 years ago this month. We have been “doing” house church with one other couple, others have come and gone, mostly curiosity seekers or something like that. We were district pastors with about 120 people in our care, also responsible for section leaders and small group leaders. The church was one of almost 3000. We were paid pastoral staff and I was also the front desk receptionist at the “church”. I began asking the Lord, “Are we really making a difference for the Kingdom of God?” and “Am I willing to pay the price?” Admittedly, we were very comfortable, with two paychecks from the church that supplemented my husbands full time income, we had position and all the perks that go with that, not to mention a title! But the Lord began putting sticks and glass in the nest, thankfully! We made the decision to leave it all for the call to house church. It has taken at least 2 of the 3 years to change some mindsets we had! We have tried this or that, not sure how to do it. We have been encouraged, discouraged, ready to quit and refired up. We have attended seminars, read books, talked with other house church leaders and even attended another “house church”. Where we have seen the most fruit is right in our own neighborhood. It is not something that is accomplished in a short period of time. Building relationships with our neighbors takes time. I am so convinced that if we are not “harvest minded”, house church will just become another institution. I am also convinced that if we want to prosper in this we must be in prayer for the “house churches” or underground churches that are flourishing under persecution all around the world. I believe in this vision but I must admit, there are times when I wonder if we should just return to the traditional churchand allow our gifts to be used there. It does get lonely and it does get discouraging. Everyone is so busy, us included. We are trying to simplify our lives so that we aren’t spending our time on things, as my husband says, we are called to people, not things.
Recently we heard a message by Rojer Leahman. He spoke passionately about Power Evangelism, mercy and the miraculous working together to bring in the harvest. I have been reading, studying, and praying over Luke 10 since we have been home. I want to live this out in my life. We are not sure of the direction of our “house church” but I am convinced that our mission is to “go and make and disicples” with signs and wonders following. Having a house church just to minister to one another gets stale very quickly.
F. I agree wholeheartedly with the belief that the manuscripts from which we get our English translations have the nonreligious word “ekklesia.” It is a compound of the Greek “ek” (from, out) and a derivative of “kaleo” (call). Taken together, “ekklesia” means “called out” and applied to an assembly or a grouping together of individuals.

An examination of the Greek text shows that “kaleo” (call) occurs several times in passages that speak of believers or disciples of Christ. The following are examples of how Scripture uses “kaleo.” Matthew 9:13, Jesus came to call sinners to repentance. Romans 8:30, those whom God predestined he also called. Galatians 1:6, God called us by the grace of Christ. Galatians 5:13, God called us to freedom. First Corinthians 7:15, God called us to peace. Ephesians 4:1, we are to walk in a manner worthy of our calling. Second Thessalonians 2:14, God / Jesus calls us through the gospel. First Thessalonians 2:12, our walk is to be worthy of the God who calls us (First Peter 1:15). Colossians 3:15, God called us in one body. There are other passages I could cite, each using the word “kaleo” of God’s people.

As we ponder the significance of “ekklesia” in light of the many passages that speak of our divine calling, we soon discover the truth of our being the “ekklesia” of God not only when we are together but also when we are away from other believers

G. 1700 years of religious garbage that feeds our fallen nature. Food that seems to satisfy our old man. We have a Spirit living in us that is pure and holy that can only be satistied by the eating and drinking of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Remenber brothers and sisters we are the expression of Jesus Christ on the earth today. The Church corporately is Christ on the earth. My suggestion to saints looking for the community of believers is to find people that are pursuing the Lord corporately and ask for there help in your town or sell it all and move to where they are.

H: Have we ever really looked how leadership developed in the early Church. I find it interesting that the twelve spent 3 years with God himself to be prepared and approved to oversee Gods people.
The twelve then trained brothers & sisters for the work the same way after these brothers & sisters were living in the Church { not once a week but seven days a week} for years and were reconized by the saints in those churches. Leadership is organic to be developed in an everyday experience of the church. You will be approved or disapproved by the brothers & sisters. This is true protection from ambitous people looking for position. In short, the every day decision making in the church should be made by the brethern{ brothers & sisters}.

I: I personally do not believe a organized physical church was ever meant to be. I see throught out the new testament a spiritual church, and in the old testament a leading to the place of understanding of a spiritual church. All the activies of missions, ministries and all other helps were to be on a personal bases.
The religious organized church system is the most misleading teaching brought about by people that are religious for religions sake.

J: I’m wondering if the church hasn’t survived since Constantine despite the structures that have developed rather than because of them. It seems that Jesus intended that the life of the church would be organically passed from person to person and from household to household through relationships under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. With the leaders that the Holy Spirit points out (as per Gehring) it seems that church life can be quite simple while the movement and leading of the Spirit can be paramount. In other words, we truly become the church rather than form, organize, or build it.

K: You folks seem to be thinking alot like we are here in Alabama. We started a new fellowship about 12 yrs. ago that includes both public meetings, house churches, and several non-house gatherings each week. I’m really enjoying reading what is on your hearts. I struggle with these matters of going through the motions versus following the Spirit regarding how we do things (including house church) rather than spending our time with people. Our house church has 5 or 6 families that have been meeting for over 5 years now. We meet weekly in different homes rotating between 4 or 5 homes. I’m often concerned that we haven’t branched out more to start other house churches (my family included).

L: It is very interesting to see the discussion on house churches and the struggle it takes to define them. To oppose them to the traditional church shows its strengths in personal relationships, responsibilities to others and common responsibilities for the church itself.
I like the emphasis on ‘life’, personal involvement, patience and ultimately evangelism, practicing of the ‘five fold ministry’.
It could be a ‘rapid deployment force’ when disasters occur and a real help to the direct environment. I agree that even if you choose to be non denominationalist, as soon as you have a clearer definition of yourself and as soon as you have greater influence and thus power there will be a new denomination called House Church.
The same thing happened to the Plymouth Brethren in England a couple of centuries ago. They went out of the main (Anglican) church and just wanted to be called ‘the assemblies’, or ‘bretheren’.. church with no name…
They mobilised their ‘members’ (they had no membership) but after a number of years fossilized and turned inward. What made them become ‘traditional’ even though they hate written traditions?
What I see is this: lack of good leadership and the practice of the gifts and ministries of the Holy Spirit. If it is there the evangelist would help train reaching out to non believers. The apostle would direct and coordinate efforts of several churches in evangelism, growth. The prophets would encourage and show the people God’s heart. Teachers would teach on the ‘whole counsel of God’. Including ministry to the poor (Isaiah 58 etc), mercy ministries, healing (Isaiah 61), intercession, deliverance.
What makes me sad is that these things did not develop and leaders did not seek these things. So the movement became introverted, focussed mainly on fellowship, teaching and worship/ the Lord’s supper.
If leaders do not seek and develop the Church in the right way there will be little difference between a traditional or a house church.
So: practice the presence of God and the gifts of the Spirit to glorify God in personal and church life.