Understanding House Churching

By David S. Lim, Ph.D.

Many are confused as to what “house churches” (HC) actually mean. This is understandable for the phrase is used in different ways by different people (including HC practitioners). May I try to clarify the five differing definitions of HC commonly used today.

But first, let me define the basic theology of “house churching (HCing).” House church networks (HCNs) in the “Global House Church Movement”1  today believe that God has given us a simple yet effective strategic plan which Jesus and the New Testament (NT) church used (Jn. 20:21). It is based on a simple doctrine (“priesthood of all believers”) and a simple practice (“making disciples”) in a simple structure (“HCNs”).2  In joining any “house church,” we belong to global Christianity; because when any Christ-follower is baptized in Jesus’ name, they automatically join the (invisible) universal Church and become members of every (visible) church in the world. Hence the common slogan: “Don’t go to church; be the church”!

New Testament church gathering
Church gathering at home in Acts. Illustration courtesy of Sweet Publishing via FreeBibleimages.

Each HC meets weekly in “family devotions,” like in the NT where each household (Greek: oikos) met with their slaves in their homes (Gal. 3:28; Eph. 5:21-6:4, cf. Dt. 6:4-9). Each HC is a complete church indeed – self-governing (with its own leaders), self-supporting (its own budget), self-propagating (its own mission program) and self-theologizing (its own beliefs & values, based on their reflection on the Bible).3 Since each cell is a church, they see no need to attend any other religious (worship or prayer) services. For the main expression of saving faith is “good works” (community services, not religious services = James 2:14-26; 1 Jn. 4:20-21) that demonstrate their love for God and for their fellows/neighbors locally and globally.

Now, here are the five definitions (and levels) of HCing:

1. Micro- or Mini-church

small group church meeting
Photo by kahunapulej on Foter.com / CC BY-SA 2.0

“Honey, we shrunk the church!” That’s the experience of those who have left their local church due to disappointment or disgust (the “dones”).4 Though they meet in small groups, many continue to use the liturgy that they used in the Sunday worship services from where they came: opening and closing prayers, singing, teaching of a preacher, collection of tithes and offerings, and even Sunday school for kids. If not taught to keep the group small and simple for multiplication, they would naturally grow into a fellowship and eventually another local church.

Great Wall of China

The original ones (esp. those in China) and many in restricted areas became HCs mainly due to religious and/or political persecution. Unless taught the “Little Flock” ecclesiology of Watchman Nee and/or intense persecution persists, the HCs also naturally grew into large fellowships as large as a few thousand congregants, even if they remained unregistered with the government. That’s why we prefer that they all transition to the four other ways of being HC as soon as possible.

2. Simple or Organic Church

Many mission workers have discovered that the best way to plant and multiply churches in “gospel explosion” fashion5 is to do “Church Planting Movements (CPM).”6 Churches are usually planted in small sizes naturally, for it is the main (if not the only) way by which rapid multiplication can happen in this mission strategy. Two of the popular approaches are “Training for Trainers (T4T)” which equips each convert to disciple five new converts in six sessions, and “Disciple Making Movements (DMM)” which focus on obedience-based discipleship through “Discovery Bible Studies (DBS).”7

The HCs of these CPMs usually retain some practices of Christendom traditions, too, like adult baptism (although some allow household baptisms that include infants), regular Lord’s Supper, singing/music, manualized small group meetings, and even regular celebrative gatherings, that may be foreign to the local culture. Since most are in the “church-planting mode,” there is a concern for numbers, usually because these “missionaries” (with or without “tentmaking” platforms) are accountable to their sending or supporting churches. So there has been concern to count and monitor up to the fourth and fifth generation of “discipling downlines.”

small, Western-style traditional church
Photo by pablohart on Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

This has contributed to the reports of “kingdom movements” (KMs) to reach the unreached people groups in the world today (centered on the lists made by Joshua Project), usually in West-centered missionary publications. This has helped introduce and promote cross-cultural missions (and the HCNs produced by such) among the Western (and Westernized) churches. Yet in their goal-setting, their vision is still to set up a network or association of Christ-followers separate from the religious or secular culture of the people being reached. Through this approach, the uncontextual HCNs have proven to be incapable of wining the entire tribe or community (for people movements), as they almost always become self-marginalizing and self-isolated, especially in restricted contexts (which is usually the case for the unreached).

3. Everyday Church = Kingdom lifestyle

Thankfully, many in Frontier Missiology have discovered and popularized a third understanding of HCs. In Asia (where most of the unreached peoples are), in the early 90s, many church-planters who have been working in the “saturation evangelism” strategy of Discipling a Whole Nation (DAWN) were learning from the underground HCNs in China.

Lydia with other believers at her home
Lydia’s house was a natural gathering place for Paul and other believers in Philippi (Acts 16:11-15, 40). Illustration courtesy of Yo Ministry via FreeBibleimages.

This has developed into the strategy to simply form HCNs that believe “following Jesus” is not a religion, but a lifestyle (Rom. 12:1-2; Col. 3:17). Each disciple views their whole life as worship or offering of love to the Lord (1 Th. 5:17; 1 Cor. 16:14). Each believer’s house is an “everyday church,” and God’s mission is to transform communities through incarnation, infiltration and subversion, so that all buildings in the world will be consecrated for God’s use “from house to house.” HCs multiply naturally (thus they’re also called “organic churches”) through “friendship evangelism” by simply sharing their Christ-centered faith and lifestyle with their neighbors, relatives, and friends – doing direct ministry and witness in their neighborhoods and workplaces. In Asia we call this strategy “Disciple Multiplication Movements (DMuM),” as originally conceived by Dawson Trotman of the Navigators, as well as promoted in today’s online blogs of Victor Choudhrie, Wolfgang Simson and Frank Viola.8

Ann with two women at their farm

Where no church exists, HC practitioners would just befriend and disciple a “person of peace” (Lk. 10:4-9), who usually starts an informal group(s) with relatives and friends to discuss how they can love their neighbors. They aspire to convert the entire village by winning the village (or tribal) leaders to Christ. These community leaders will then persuade the religious leaders to worship God in Jesus’ name – thereby transforming the existing religious structures into multi-purpose buildings for good governance there, without constructing another religious structure in the community. In Asia we call this “zero-budget missions” that set up “zero-budget churches,” which follow the contextual “Insider Movement” approach used in Western Frontier Missiology.9 The existing religion will gradually (sometimes immediately) be transformed – rejecting unbiblical (sinful & demonic) beliefs and practices, while retaining biblical ones (1 Tim. 4:4-5; 1 Cor. 7:17-24), as a community en masse.

Doy and Ann meeting with farmers at their farm

And where churches already exist, HC leaders will seek to bring the pastors and lay leaders together in unity, so they can partner together to influence the leaders in their village or town/city to serve the needs of the poor. Hopefully all Christ-followers will be teaching and submitting to one another, learning to work as fellow servant-leaders (usually called “elders”) who share common convictions on the essential doctrines, and allowing (and delighting) in the diversity of views on non-essential ones. HCNs will slowly lessen “celebrations” from weekly to monthly to quarterly, and eventually to just 3 times a year, as was instituted in the Torah (Deut. 16:16): Passover (for Holy Friday and Easter, Christ’s death & resurrection), Tabernacles (for Christmas, Christ’s birth), and Pentecost (for church anniversary, when the first baptism was done in each locality).

4. Covenant Community

Yet there is a fourth understanding of HCing: HCs can show their love and commitment for one another through sharing resources together (1 Jn. 3:16-18). They can collect and spend their own funds (so-called “tithes and offerings”), usually for benevolence to address needs as they arise. For mature ones, they can express their communal generosity through managing a “common fund,” like the economic koinonia (“fellowship”/communion) of the missionary bands of Jesus (Jn. 12:6; 13:29) and Paul (Ac. 20:33-35). Their disciples learned to do likewise, as the first church in Jerusalem with 3,000 new converts practiced koinonia “from house to house” (Ac. 2:42-45; 4:32-37; 2 Cor. 8:14-15).

early believers helping others
The early church helped those in need (Acts 4:32-37). Illustration courtesy of Sweet Publishing via FreeBibleimages.

Historically, many revival movements formed such covenant communities, like the Celtic missions led by St. Patrick that got the British Isles discipled, and especially the Anabaptist tradition of the Reformation that produced the Moravian, Mennonite, Amish and Hutterite communities. These were mostly in rural areas, since they were mostly farmers who chose simple and sharing lifestyles. But these were soon overwhelmed and marginalized by Christendom that naturally has power through their institutional resources and centralized structures. Today some youth movements, like Operation Mobilization (OM) & Youth With A Mission (YWAM) form “apostolic teams” (mobile covenant communities) that try to reach communities holistically, but only a few teams have been able to form self-governing sustainable communities effectively, so that the teams can move from place to place as soon as possible.

members of a community in Palompon, Leyte
Members of a community in Palompon, Leyte where Jaime Encienzo of Stargrass Coalition and his co-workers are doing transformational work

Today some HCNs in Asia, esp. those in China, India, South Korea and the Philippines have started to form covenant communities, too. They are organizing social enterprises where 5-10 families can share resources and invest together. In the Philippines, Lausanne Philippines, Stargrass Coalition and Asian School of Development & Cross-cultural Studies (ASDECS) are spearheading “Mission 2025” which promotes “(Faith-based) Cooperatives as Mission [CAM]” where DMuM is combined with cooperative development in and through their decentralized grassroots structures. We are mentoring HCs to become “savings and investment groups (SIGs),” which will eventually become “faith-based cooperatives” (or communes). As they save, plan, invest and share profits together, they can become self-sustainable and use their extra funds to multiply covenant communities as widely as possible.

Moses and the decentralized structure of Israel
Moses and the decentralized structure of Israel (Ex. 18:21). Illustration courtesy of Bible Pathway Adventures via FreeBibleimages.

Practically, it seems best to form small SIGs of about 10 HCs each that grow into federations of cooperatives in a zero-budget decentralized structure (cf. Ex. 18:21’s leaders of tens, 50’s, 100’s and 1,000’s). Small is beautiful, for it empowers more (if not all) people to become servant-leaders, and the more gifted ones can gradually rise to serve as facilitators and coordinators in local, regional, national and even global levels – from the bottom up (cf. Mk. 10:42-45). Then God’s kingdom shall have come on earth, for there will be no more poor (Dt. 15:4; Acts 4:34) and no more corrupt officials (Dt. 17:14-20), and all can become one big family, with one Father in Jesus’ name. It will not be perfect (Judas failed, and Ananias & Sapphira, too), but it will be significant and substantial.

5. Discipled Nation

Thus the result gives us the fifth meaning of HCing, on a global level, where entire nations all (panta ta ethne) become HCNs – for the majority of their citizens had been effectively evangelized and discipled, and the righteous leaders had legislated and implemented economic koinonia as “law of the land,” like the Jubilee laws in the Torah (Lev. 25, Deut. 15) and envisioned in the prophets (Isa. 65:17-25).10 This legislation exists today in the form (with various names) of Solidarity Economy, Social Democracy, or Welfare State.

Kibbutz Sa'ad
At the Kibbutz Sa’ad. Photo by ianloic on Foter.com / CC BY-SA 2.0.

Today, all of the “top 20 nations in the world” enjoy the fruits of the advocacies of past generations of Christ-followers. Most of them are in Europe: foremost may be the Scandanivian countries, esp. Norway (mainly through Hans Nielsen Hauge), United Kingdom (John Knox, John Wesley & William Wilberforce) and her former colonies (Canada, Australia and New Zealand), Germany, etc. Their values and structures have now been replicated by non-Christian nations (largely through the influence of individual Christ-followers, too), like Japan (Toyohiko Kagawa), South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia, Israel (with kibbutzim), and even Communist countries like China (Sun Yat Sen), Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos (with village structures called “communes,” like Switzerland’s cantons).

What all of the secularized (formerly majority Christian) nations just need are revivals, which actually have always been simply a return to HCing, where God is part of ordinary conversations. What the “non-Christian” countries (which enjoy cooperativized and humanitarian benefits) need is just simple DMuMs. They all need to understand and believe that the roots (or foundation) of the fruits/blessings of peace/shalom that they now take for granted are based in the Judeo-Christian worldview that everything good comes from the Creator-God who loves all, especially those who seek Him (Heb. 11:6; Jn. 3:16), and has revealed Himself in the ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth (1 Tim. 2:3-5).

Conclusion

All leaders in the house church networks should welcome all these five understandings of HCs. But obviously they prefer the third, fourth and fifth types, for they are the most effective ways for the Church to sustain revivals and maintain the multiplication model for world evangelization and transformation. May we all attain the understanding that “house churching” is the way forward, not just as the “factory reset” of the “better normal” triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic, but mainly as the “default mode” of the “first/original normal” that God designed to actualize His redemption plan for fallen humanity and creation to be reconciled to Himself through the cross of the Son and by the power of the Holy Spirit. “Father, Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” – not perfectly but substantially – by Thy people in and through the exponential replication and sustainable forms of HCNs until every family on earth will be blessed (cf. Gen. 12:1-3)!


1First popularized by the title of the book of Rad Zdero (2004).

2Sadly we have been trapped in Christendom structures, so that our churches become activity-centered rather than people-oriented. As our churches grow older and add more traditions, it becomes harder for us to practice “basic Christianity” (prayer, Bible study, fellowship and evangelism) in “basic Christian communities” (small groups, called “HCs”)! We easily forget that “where two or three are gathered in Jesus’ name, there’s the church,” and the Church exists on earth mainly in scattered (rather than gathered) mode!

3Doctrinal purity is nurtured through their group’s Bible reflection (Ac. 17:11), for the Holy Spirit will lead them into all truth (Jn. 16:14). See Appendix on “Doctrinal Development in HCNs.” On fear of heresy, see Dave Coles, “Doesn’t Rapid Multiplication Increase the Possibility for Heresy?” in 24:14 – A Testimony to All Peoples, edited by Dave Coles and Stan Parks (2019), and Jeremy Weber, “Christian, What Do You Believe? Probably a Heresy About Jesus, Says Survey,” Christianity Today, October 16, 2018.

4The “dones” have left the church, but retained their faith, while the “gones” have left the faith for good, both for various reasons.

5See http://btdnetwork.org/rapid-kingdom-advance-how-shall-we-view-it/ for a treatise on their rationale for “rapid multiplication.”

6For more information on the 24:14 Coalition, see www.2414now.net.

7See David Garrison, Church Planting Movements, How God Is Redeeming a Lost World (WIGTake Resources, 2004); Steve Smith with Ying Kai, T4T: A Discipleship Re-Revolution (WIGTake Resources, 2011); Jerry Trousdale, Miraculous Movements: How Hundreds of Thousands of Muslims Are Falling in Love with Jesus (Thomas Nelson, 2012); David Garrison, A Wind in the House of Islam: How God is Drawing Muslims around the World to Faith in Jesus Christ (WIGTake Resources, 2014); Jerry Trousdale & Glenn Sunshine, The Kingdom Unleashed: How Jesus’ First-Century Kingdom Values Are Transforming Thousands of Cultures and Awakening His Church (DMM Library, 2018); Trevor Larsen, Focus on Fruit! Movement Case Studies and Fruitful Practices (www.focusonfruit.org, 2018); Victor John with Dave Coles, Bhojpuri Breakthrough: A Movement that Keeps Multiplying (WIGTake Resources, 2019); Dave Coles & Stan Parks (eds), 24:14 – A Testimony to All Peoples (24:14, 2019).

8www.refornation.eu; and https://frankviola.org/2019/01/17/insurgencepodcast/. Also see the main Philippine HCN’s website: www.stargrassgroup.com, and my website: www.asdecs.academia.edu/DavidLim

9Cf. Harley Talman, and J. J. Travis (eds.). Understanding Insider Movements: Disciples of Jesus within Diverse Religious Communities (Pasadena: William Carey Library, 2015).

10Note that people still die, get married and bear children in this scenario.

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