But before we get too far—and since I am happy to be an equal-opportunity offender—let me also say that I am also anti-“simple church,” anti-“cell church,” anti-“mega church,” and even anti-“traditional church.”
What’s left you wonder?
How about just “church.”
What I Am Not Saying
Now, this is not a screed denouncing the church and announcing my deconstruction phase.
I am in no way opposed to churches gathering in homes. Nor do I oppose those churches who connect as networks or congregate across multiple campuses with livestream preaching and fog machines. The redeemed in all those places are my brothers and sisters in Christ, no matter the form of their gathering or polity.
What I am against is the extra qualifiers regarding size, culture, and shape that distract from the common nature shared by local churches that are expressions of the one true church.1
What Does It Matter?
When my wife and I joined together with three other people and were sent out to the Middle East as church planters, we realized we were just as much in need of a church as any other disciples. We determined before we left that the five of us would covenant and function together as a church. We gathered regularly in each other’s apartments on a weekly basis to sit under the Word preached, to worship in song, to admonish and to encourage one another, and to observe the ordinances.
I loved the intimacy of the church. It was a joy to gather together and to scatter to the responsibilities of the week as a church. We knew each other deeply and could pray for and speak into each other’s lives and ministry all throughout the week.
But when I would talk to other missionaries, I found myself saying that I was part of a house church—HC for short. When our team would talk about our weekly get together, it was second nature for us to call it HC. And when we shared with people back home, we would refer to house church as a life-giving element of our ministry.
Why did we insist on using “house” to qualify our gathering? With other missionaries it might have been to clarify that we were not members of a local Middle Eastern church. With each other, it was a force of habit. But I detected in myself in my conversations back home a need to explain our small gathering as something “other” than what my friends understood as church. If I said “church,” I expected they would smirk or tilt their heads, unwilling to recognize what we were doing as a church.
And perhaps, in my heart, I was also a bit unconvinced that we were the same kind of church as the one that had sent us out. And that is a problem.
The Effect on Church Planting Trajectories
Part of the reason that this is a problem is that if I was unconvinced that our “HC” was a full-fledged church, then I could be persuaded that perhaps we were also not expected to be and do all the things expected of a church by Scripture.
Beyond this personal anecdote, I fear that sometimes popular missionary strategies use “house” to qualify “church” to open the door to a more intentional kind of reductionism for the sake of rapid multiplication. Many models will look at the activities of a church and then encourage house-sized versions of these activities.
For example, in Acts 2:42, young believers sat under the apostolic teaching. Today, the Bible provides the apostolic instruction and therefore a house-based model can fit the pattern of Acts 2 by making the study of the Bible central.
However, a formal teaching time where a biblically-qualified elder instructs the congregation from the Word feels awkward and forced in someone’s living room or around their dining room table. Instead, house-church planting models often encourage a group of believers to conduct an interactive discovery Bible study in ways much more natural to the space. This, then, lowers the expectation of a leader—not asking them to be able to guard doctrine and fulfill their ministry (see 2 Timothy) but to facilitate a dialogue.
While small gatherings of believers can and should meet in homes—especially in areas where there is no ability to acquire a dedicated space to meet—the nature of that group of believing, baptized, and covenanted members is no different than the nature of the churches back home that own property, employ pastors and staff, and seat hundreds. Neither the nature nor the responsibilities of the church change on the basis of its size or where it meets.
Adding Qualifiers Dilutes the Church
When we add these qualifiers, we risk emphasizing the shape or form of the thing more than the thing itself. The extra language highlights the aspects of our church that make it unique rather than reinforcing the idea that our local church is to be an expression of the one bride of Christ—in both its nature and responsibilities.
Sometimes, this extra language can lower our commitment to the high bar set by Scripture for what it means to be a church. If the church is to be the household of God that will serve as a pillar and buttress of the truth (1 Timothy 3:14–16), then she must be committed to that task according to the biblical expectations laid out for her—no matter how big or small.
At the end of the day, if the qualifiers we use cause us to emphasize the shape or constraints of the church more than they point us to the biblical demands for a church, let’s do away with them. Let us be most concerned to be the church no matter where and how we meet.
1. I would also not say that recognizing the theological distinctives that make a church a Baptist or Presbyterian or Assemblies of God are in the same category as words that refer to structures and size. These theological descriptions inform the believer of what convictions are held by this particular local church and would be expected of someone joining as a member in ways that differ from words that simply serve to describe style and shape of a church.