Dear Friends in the Philippines,
Some time back brother Molong Nacua invited me to write a letter of encouragement to your nationwide network—in fact, your thriving movement—of house churches. I feel humbled and grateful for the chance to do so. Of course, modesty prevents me from being too enthusiastic about the idea because I feel I too am always learning and growing in this thing that God is presently doing on the earth by restoring his grassroots church. But, equally, false modesty might prevent me from writing anything at all and miss the opportunity for me to share what I have from the Lord for you and for us to connect on a deeper level with one another. And so I have taken your invitation soberly. What I would like to do is simply highlight some important elements that I believe any Spirit-led, Scripture-based, and strategy-driven network of simple, organic, house churches should endeavour to include in their midst. These insights I have written about before in an article, but I wanted to make sure that I also send these to you at this time. I want to first remind us of what God has done in history, and is doing today, through small group and house church movements and then move on to give 10 specific points for your national network to consider.
The God of History
God has often shaped the last 2000 years of history through church planting movements (CPMs), mainly in the form of simple, grassroots, small groups and house churches. A CPM is a rapid multiplication of churches planting churches over a sustained period of time. A CPM is not just another man-made tactic or trend. It is, in fact, God’s work. And its purpose is to see people come to a saving encounter with Jesus Christ, grow in spiritual maturity, and then become change agents for God.
The first CPM, of course, is recorded in the New Testament, where we read about the Holy Spirit prompting the early followers of Christ to start a multiplying movement of simple churches. Christ send believers into the world to make disciples, baptize converts, and teach them to follow him fully (Matt 28:18-20; Acts 1:8). Apostles sowed the gospel in new geographic, cultural, and linguistic soil and felt an urgency to begin disciplemaking communities across the Roman world (Acts 13:1-3, 1 Cor 9:16-17, 1 Tim 2:7). Elders were more mature believers who nurtured a local body of believers and gave direction at certain decision-making times (Acts 15:2-6,22; 1 Tim 4:14, 5:17; Titus 1:5-11; Heb 13:7,17). These churches met primarily in homes, but also in large group contexts for training, healing, and evangelism (Acts 2:46, 5:12, 5:42, 8:5-8, 10:1-48, 16:15, 20:20; Rom 16:3-5; 1 Cor 16:19; Col 4:15; Philem 1:2). Church meetings were Spirit-led, interactive, and participatory as all believers used their gifts and abilities (1 Cor 14:26, Eph 5:19-20, Col 3:16, Heb 10:25). And these house churches were connected together into an outwardly expanding network at citywide, regional, and empire-wide levels (Acts 2:41-47, 5:12, 5:42, 15:3,36,41, 20:20; Gal 2:9-10). They turned the world upside down (Acts 17:6).
The following centuries were filled with stories of CPMs as people let go (to one degree or another) of the trappings of religious institutions to grab hold of a living breathing Christianity. Pachomius (290-346 AD) began a network of home-based monastic groups of a dozen members in response to the flaws of the institutional church. Priscillian (340-385 AD) and his followers multiplied home-based “brotherhoods” across Spain, France, and Portugal before being wiped out by the institutional church. Patrick (390-460 AD) started a missionary movement in Ireland that sent teams to take the gospel throughout the nations of northwestern Europe. Peter Waldo (1150-1206 AD) and his Waldenses drew a third western Christendom to their public and home gatherings. The Anabaptists (c.1520) of central Europe, who often met in secret home groups, grew to tens of thousands over a period of 80 years. The Quakers (c.1650) in Britain recruited 20,000 new members in a few years. The Moravians (c.1750) sent 3,000 missionaries to many parts of the globe. The Methodists (c.1750) in Britain and America by 1791 grew to 10,000 home groups and ignited the First Great Awakening. They saw many thousands of people changed and reconciled back to God in their generation. And they served as an example to others who would follow, not only about the victories that were possible by going back to the blueprint of the New Testament church, but also about the persecutions, criticisms, betrayals, and other difficulties that should be expected.
Today, CPMs are also everywhere. In China, the church has grown from 1 to 2 million believers in 1949 to almost 100 million believers today in underground house churches. In India, about 1 million house churches have been started between 1995 and 2009. In the USA, Church Multiplication Associates recently planted 1000 simple churches in 7 short years at home and abroad. In Ethiopia, the Meserete Kristos Church, which is a Pentecostal denomination, grew rapidly in the 1980s from 5000 to 50,000 members only after they went into underground house groups to avoid persecution by the Marxist regime. In Latin America, the Basic Christian Communities, which are house church-type groups, started in the 1960s among the marginalized and have grown to 1 million groups by 2007.
Past and present CPMs have been analyzed with modern research tools to discover key elements for high-quality rapid church growth. CPMs have been well documented in E.H. Broadbent’s The Pilgrim Church (1931), John Driver’s Radical Faith: An Alternative History of the Christian Church (1999), Peter Bunton’s Cell Groups and House Churches: What History Teaches Us (2001), David Garrison’s Church Planting Movements (2004), and my own books The Global House Church Movement (2004) and Nexus: The World House Church Movement Reader (2007). I would recommend getting your hands on one or several of these resources and use them to inspire and instruct the house churches with whom you are in contact, so that they will be better equipped with practical tools, intellectual insights, and moving stories to impact your entire nation with a saturation church planting movement.
Let me now briefly remind you about some of the vital elements often mentioned by students of CPMs. Perhaps more importantly, I wish to point out other factors that are almost never discussed. But, none of what I am about to write should be implemented mechanically in a contrived fashion, as if assembling these puzzle pieces will bring about God’s presence and a great harvest of souls. I am not trying to promote any kind of formula to see a CPM emerge. Instead, as you look to God and run after his wisdom, I believe the Lord wants to give you strategies about how and when to implement the following elements. With that acknowledged, let us now recognize that everything in the world has an anatomy, a geometry, a shape—and so do CPMs. And so, with that said, let us now briefly highlight some specifics.
The Big Picture
Some house churches wander about aimlessly. They have no direction and make no real impact. Some realize this is a problem, while others wrongly take pride in this and even mistake it for being “Spirit-led.” But, there is a better way! House churches that wish to thrive, grow, multiply, and make a difference must be captivated by a bigger vision beyond themselves.
The Bible tells us that “where there is no vision, the people perish” (Prov 29:18, KJV) and “except the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that build it” (Ps 127:1, KJV). Certainly, the early church was often directed supernaturally and spontaneously in the moment before taking any action (Acts 8:26-40, 10:1-48, 13:1-4). But, it was the Great Commission “mission statement” of Jesus that gave the apostles and the rest of the church a clear mandate for all they did (Mt 28:18-20; Mk 16:15-16; Lk 24:46-49; Jn 20:21-23; Acts 1:8).
Your house churches today, therefore, must get hold of what God is saying to them before they launch out. You must get the “big picture” of God’s main purpose for you locally, regionally, and nationally. I urge you to pray, fast, receive God’s supernatural power, watch the circumstances, discern your contexts, talk together, set measurable goals, and even craft mission statements. This can start in each house churches, but must also happen among leadership teams of elders and apostles across your country.
The Right DNA
Some house churches are unbalanced. They are strong in some things and weak in others. Instead of seeking to grow in their areas of weakness, they continue to operate only in their strengths. This is certainly a recipe for going nowhere fast. But, there is a better way! House churches that wish to be vibrant must have the right D.N.A., as noted by Neil Cole of Church Multiplication Associates.
“D” refers to Divine Truth and should include Bible study and allow for prophetic words, dreams, visions, miracles, and godly counsel. “N” stands for Nurturing Relationships and should involve honesty, affection, and practically doing life together. “A” means Apostolic Mission and should include reaching out in word and deed to family, friends, neighbours, workmates, and strangers. The early church had a good measure of the “D”, the “N”, and the “A” (Acts 2:41-47).
Your house churches today, therefore, must be brutally honest with themselves and take stock of whether they have the right D.N.A. for God to work through them. The D.N.A. should not be unraveled, but should be fully present within each individual believer, each house church, each leadership team of elders and/or apostles, and each network of house churches on local, regional, and national levels.
An Army of Leaders
Some house churches reject the whole issue of leadership because they feel that Christ alone is the only leader of their group or because they have been hurt by institutional leaders in the past. Some believe that only professional, seminary-trained, and denominationally-ordained clergy persons are legitimate leaders that can give proper spiritual covering to their house church. Some assert, on the other extreme, that every believer is, in fact, a leader in the real sense. But, there is a better way! House churches must look to the Scriptures and the Spirit to allow for the emergence of God-given leaders in their midst.
These extremes among some house churches of rejecting any kind of leadership, assuming that all believers are leaders, or looking only to ordained institutional clergy must be rejected altogether precisely because none of these are biblical ideas. Rather, we see in the New Testament that all believers were encouraged to use their abilities and gifts for the benefit of others in the Body of Christ (1 Pet 2:5-9; 1 Cor 12:1-31 and 14:1-40). But, they also recognized two main types of leaders, namely, local “elders” (Acts 14:23, 1 Tim 3:1-7; Tit 1:5-9; 1 Pet 5:1-5) and translocal “apostles” (Act 13:1-4, 15:6; Eph 4:11) to equip the church and reach the world.
Your house churches today, therefore, must also encourage the emergence of healthy leaders. Micro leaders (or “elders”) are unpaid spiritual moms and dads who nurture, train, and empower believers in their house church to do the work of the ministry. Macro leaders (or “apostles”) are pioneers, visionaries, and strategists who start new house churches, adopt existing house churches, link them together into networks, and then move on to repeat the process, and who should be financially supported when needed and when possible. I urge you to be vigilant to discern the leaders that are emerging from your house churches, give them opportunities to connect with each other, train them thoroughly in understanding the Bible, and give them practical instruction on how to effectively carry out their tasks.
Networking Your Groups and Leaders
Some house churches are utterly isolated due to circumstances. They soon become ingrown and irrelevant and eventually implode. Isolated groups simply do not work. Others create formal organizations that “brand” their house churches just like denominations with their various branch churches. And they will not work closely with others because they are of a different “brand”. Even worse, some house churches refuse to work with other house churches in the same town because of competition, limited vision, or petty differences. But, there is a better way! House churches that want to be fruitful must link arms with others nearby, relationally but cohesively.
The early house churches partnered together as citywide networks in Jerusalem (Acts 2:41-47), Rome (Rom 16:3-15), and Ephesus (Acts 20:17,20), and as a regional network in Asia Minor (2 and 3 Jn; Rev 2 and 3). They were linked through leaders meetings (Acts 15:6, 20:17), large group events (Acts 2:44, 5:12, 20:20), apostolic visits (Acts 14:23, 15:36; 3 Jn 1:5-8), and apostolic letters (Acts 15:22-23).
Your house churches today, therefore, must form relational, but cohesive, networks with others close-by in the cities and regions of your nation. Those who wish to continue laboring in isolation should be left to follow their own path, after several encouragements to plug into a network. Such partnership cannot be forced on anyone. But as for you, face-to-face cross-pollination will allow you to pool your resources, share experiences, permit accountability, engage in training, meet your own social needs, and impact an entire city or region. You will be able to accomplish far more together than you can separately.
Money and Resources
Some house churches have abandoned giving money or resources to mission at all. Because they rightly believe that 10% tithing is not a New Testament practice, they wrongly conclude they do not need to give at all. And they have become stingy and selfish with the things God has given them. Consequently, many things God wants accomplished never get done through these folks. But, there is a better way! House churches that wish to make a difference must take the locks off their wallets, open up their hearts and hands, and begin to give generously to God’s mission.
The early Christians were taught to give gladly. There were two groups of people they mainly gave money and resources to, namely, those in dire need (Acts 2:44-45, 4:32-35; 1 Cor 16:1-3; 2 Cor 9:1-15) and apostolic workers (Lk 10:7-8; 1 Cor 9:1-18; Philip 4:10-20).
Your house churches today, therefore, must ask God where he wants them to give. Each house church or network can do several practical things. They can give money to their own bank account or money bag. They can circulate amongst themselves good teaching resources such as books and videos. They can help the poor and destitute locally and abroad. They can give finances to apostles and apostolic projects that help house churches learn, grow, and connect with one another.
Some house churches are completely uninterested in (or unaware of) the economic, religious, philosophical, linguistic, political, artistic, and technological factors that shape their culture. So, their attempts at impacting non-believers and reaching church drop-outs are ineffective. But, there is a better way! House churches that want to influence people must be students of, and participants in, mainstream culture (except, of course, without sinning).
The early Christians related the good news of Jesus using culturally relevant methods (1 Cor 9:19-23). To fellow Jews, Peter would retell the familiar story of God’s dealings with the people of Israel and how Jesus was the fulfillment of that drama (Acts 2:14-41, 3:11-26). To philosophical Athenians, Paul felt free to quote from pagan religious inscriptions and poets to make his argument (Acts 17:16-34). Jesus, too, told simple stories about daily life to ordinary people (Mt 13:1-52), while debating theology with religious leaders (Mk 12:13-40).
Your house churches today, therefore, must engage society in relevant ways and live lifestyles that others can relate to. Have you seen the latest popular movie? Did you read the best-selling book in your country? Do you know about the economic issues shaping your city, region, or nation? Have you studied the world’s religions and cults, especially those that are prevalent in your country? If so, you will be much more effective in engaging people in spiritual conversations.
The Lord of Time
Some house church people want to grow and multiply easily and quickly. This is an understandable and noble desire. But, when they discover that God often takes a long time to do things, they quit. These folks are not true world-changers. Maybe they are not actually called by God to the work. Maybe they are fickle pragmatists with little real conviction. Maybe they are immature believers. But, there is a better way! House churches must recognize that our God is the Lord of Time who often takes longer to put his plans into action than we sometimes want.
Abraham waited 25 years before God fulfilled his promise of giving him a son. Moses spent 40 years in exile tending sheep before God called him to free Israel from Egyptian bondage. Joseph went through 20 years of obscurity, betrayal, imprisonment, and suffering before he became Pharaoh’s second in command over the entire nation of Egypt and in a position to rescue his family—the seed of Abraham—from the ravages of famine, thus fulfilling the vision that God gave him when he was a young lad of 17 years. David waited 17 years after his anointing by the prophet Samuel before becoming king. Jesus spent 30 years in obscurity before launching his public ministry. Paul had to wait over 10 years after his conversion before actually being sent as an apostle to the Gentiles.
Your house churches today, therefore, must be in this for the long haul if you are to see God firmly establish his “household strategy” among your neighborhoods, villages, towns, cities, regions, and nation. I urge you to wait on God, watch the circumstances, and discern the times and seasons that God has appointed for the house church movement in your nation.
Blood, Sweat, and Tears
Some house church people are absolutely unprepared to endure the necessary hardships and do what it takes to see God accomplish his purposes through them. They will only be involved if personal sacrifice is not required. But, there is a better way! House churches that want to produce quality disciples of Christ must be ready to be refined by the fire.
Jesus and his early followers knew this well. They spilt their “blood” as they were physically persecuted by civil authorities, religious leaders, and lynch mobs through arrests, trials, imprisonments, beatings, stonings, and assassination attempts (Jn 19:1-30; Acts 4:1-7, 5:17-27, 7:54-60, 8:1-3, 19:23-41, 23:12-22; 2 Cor 11:23-25). They poured their “sweat” from the hard work of praying, evangelizing, healing, teaching, traveling, battling physical hardship, and persisting in their concern for the churches (Mk 3:20; Lk 6:12, 8:1, 9:6; Acts 1:14; 2 Cor 11:23,26-28). They shed their “tears” as they were denied, betrayed, abandoned, and criticized by family, friends, and fellow Christians (Mt 10:34-37; Mk 3:21, 6:1-4; Jn 6:66, 18:1-3, 18:25-27; 2 Cor 10:10; Philip 1:15-17; 2 Tim 4:10,16).
Your house churches today, therefore, must be ready to expend blood, sweat, and tears, for God is asking you to help repair the broken foundations of his church in order to reach your nation.
Laser Beam Focus
Some house church people are not fully engaged and are not fully committed to God’s agenda. They are dabblers. They are sometimes too distracted by hobbies, ambitions, sinful habits, and participation in some good institutional church ministries. But, there is a better way! We must fully dedicate our time, energy, abilities, passions, and resources into the local, regional, and global house church movement that God is raising up today.
Anyone who puts other relationships ahead of following Jesus cannot be his disciple (Lk 14:26). Anyone who puts their hand to the plow and keeps looking back is not fit for the kingdom (Lk 9:62). Anyone who does not count the cost before embarking on a new venture will often fail (Lk 14:28-30). Anyone who allows the worries, riches, and pleasures of this life to dominate them will never bear fruit (Lk 8:14). Anyone who perpetually practices sin will get entangled and enslaved (Jn 8:34-36; Heb 12:1-2; 1 Jn 1:6-10, 5:18).
Your house churches today, therefore, must focus like a laser beam on the specific task God has for them. You must never allow the good things in life to replace the God things in life. You must sweep aside anything that would slow you down. You must run the race to win.
Some house church believers have not been genuinely called by the Spirit to get involved in this new, yet ancient, way of being the church. Maybe they are just looking for quick church growth results. Maybe they just want to follow the latest Christian trend. Maybe they just want a platform for their personal ministry. Maybe they are just reacting to past emotional hurts from institutional churches. Maybe they are just looking for a comfortable fellowship to belong to. But, there is a better way! House churches should gently encourage their members to do some real soul searching before God to figure out if they really should be involved at all.
Noah was called to help save a remnant from the flood of judgment (Gen 6:13-22). Moses was called to help deliver the Hebrews from Egyptian slavery (Exod 3:10). Gideon was called to deliver God’s people from the Midianites (Judges 6:14). Jesus was called to rescue the world from the spiritual darkness of sin by his sacrificial death on the cross (John 3:16). Paul was called to be the chief apostle to the Gentiles (Acts 9:15-17, 13:1-3). And only because they were genuinely invited by the Spirit to put their hand to the task did they fulfill their mission.
Your house churches today, therefore, must be 100% sure that the Spirit has truly summoned them personally to do what they are doing. If you are unsure at all, you may indeed be messing things up. So, you had better get into our proverbial prayer closets and stay there until you get an answer one way or another. Only then will you be able to endure the trials and accomplish the tasks that lay ahead.
Thanks again for the privilege of writing this letter to your national network of house churches in the Philippines. My hope is that God will use this meager offering and magnify it to help spiritually feed your emerging house churches, in the same way Jesus greatly multiplied the humble offering of a few fish and some bread brought to him. If I may be bold, may I say that I believe you must seriously consider and prayerfully implement these factors, among other things, to see God’s grand purposes accomplished in your country through the simple, organic, house church movement today. May Jesus Christ continue to get his spotless Bride ready in your nation and allow you to have victory in his holy revolutionary struggle!
All good things to you,
Rad Zdero ([email protected]), Toronto, Canada