A large segment of radical Spirit-filled believers have an aversion to the modern expression of church. The house church movement has been around for decades, but for many, this sentiment was crystallized by the writing of Frank Viola, and especially Pagan Christianity, which he wrote with George Barna. The overarching idea of the house church movement is that the New Testament church was a “house church” (Acts 2:46) and so, we should be as well.
Having been a leader in three very different church plants, in different areas of the country with different types of people, I have had a great deal of time to reflect on what does and does not work in church.
I have definitely observed that contemporary megachurch system can leave people dry. With its high focus on production, and tendency toward the lowest common denominator, the most committed Christians are the one who struggle the most. It leads them to crave more authentic and organic expressions, such as house church and other similar expressions.
Those who are unfulfilled by traditional church expressions sometimes look at large church gatherings as mere religion. And it is definitely the case that religion will leave you dry. That’s why I wrote the book, No Exit, to explore what it means to move from dead religion to a living relationship with Jesus. I believe it is more about whether an individual or community puts Jesus at the center than the specific visible trappings.
The complaints that some of us have adopted about “the church” being bad, undermines this critical role that we play as the family of God. Although I’ve had my share of challenging church situations, this has more to do with the fact that people aren’t perfect, than “the church” being inherently flawed. In fact, some of the worst burns I’ve had have been in small house church situations, rather than big church situations. People are people.
Given this background, I’d like to share some of my reflections on what church is and can be. If you would like to read more about what a healthy and effective church looks like, and how to move your church in that direction, you may want to check out my book The Encounter Based Church.
A Historical Overview
Broadly speaking, the church has gone through a few phases, overlapping in time. A sketch view:
- Persecuted Church – The early church was a dynamic movement, operating inside a hostile society. This meant that it was constituted by nature only of those who truly believed. It’s misleading to say that this was strictly a “house church,” however. When you look at the meeting in the upper room, they had 120 people gathering regularly (Acts 1:15). Even today, I’m not sure that anyone I know could 120 people their house. The upper room sounds more like a rented space to me – much like many contemporary churches. The persecuted church was vibrant but had little influence or power in the larger culture. You can see forms of the persecuted church today in the Middle East and China.
- Institutional Church – With time the idea of a local leader in a city (bishop) developed. When Constantine converted to Christianity, he turned to the church as his power base, and made the church essentially a department of state, with these bishops as regional managers. We all know that the downside of this kind of structure was that it attracted worldly people into these positions of power. Most of us have not considered, however, the fact that it was only when the church came to power that major societal change was effected. It was only the institutional church that was able to put an end to such societal evils as infanticide, gladiatorial combat, and slavery. Today, as the institutional power of the church has waned, we see such evils as abortion and pagan sex practices resurging.
- Believers Church — The first reformers carried on a version of this church/state alliance, but ultimately the doctrine of salvation by faith that they were teaching could not sustain a state church model very well. This led to the notion of a church of only believers. The believers church has basically been the system in America since the founding. Regardless of what denomination you are a part of, you volunteer to join a church and stay there because you believe in it. The believers church has a tendency to think of itself only in spiritual terms, not in terms of reaching the broader culture for Christ.
- Outreach Church – This is what I’m going to call the dominant contemporary model of church that we’re seeing in the 21st Partly due to technology and partly for other reasons, the church has moved away from being exclusively a place for believers to a place where you host non-believers. Some form of this idea is at the core of all of the largest churches in America, with Bill Hybels’ “seeker-sensitive church” as the archetype. Sermons are tailored to reach unbelievers, and marketing, music, and image are all used to attract outsiders. While this model has proven to be the most effective way to introduce an increasingly secular culture to Jesus at a large scale, it must be shallow by definition, which can produce shallow believers. This kind of expression is part of what house church advocates are reacting to. They are starved for deeper fellowship and encounter.
People who are frustrated with the models of church painted above often desire to return to a more primitive version of Christianity. Recently there has been a move of cell churches coupled with street evangelism. Hungry for the close-knit community in Acts, Christians have been gathering in small groups and going deep with God. At the same time, they minister on the streets with signs and wonders accompanying.
While this model can be effective, in general, it has limited impact on the larger society. American culture is rocky soil, and people who get saved right off the street are the exception, not the norm. Even a miracle can leave an unsaved person going, “oh, cool,” instead of the instant conversions we imagine. Most unbelievers are going to need God in a series of steps to meet Jesus. I believe that the visible church is, or should be, the perfect place of encountering God for both believers and unbelievers.
Toward a Model of Church
A model that I have found helpful in delineating the role of the visible church in our era is one that Rick Warren developed. It helps to illustrate the function that a congregation plays in the mission of God:
You can see how on the outside of the circle are the groups that we want to reach, and on the inside are where we want people to become. The congregation is a crossover point. It is the place where they encounter Jesus and move from non-Christian to Christian. Thinking about this comprehensively, I think we can identify a few essential features of the church.
- The church is definitely a place of encounter. When people have difficulty in life, they often find themselves in a church — and usually one that is designed to reach them. Think of the church service like the crowd in Jesus’ ministry. These were people who were into Jesus and his ministry. They supported it, and want to learn from it. It’s not just lights and music though. It is a small taste of heaven. The congregation gives us and those who do not know him yet the opportunity to encounter him in ways that aren’t always possible privately or in a small group. A good corporate service creates an atmosphere into which you can enter.
- The church is a place of growth. It is a place where people who are coming to know Jesus can be loved by His family. It is true that a church which is focused on reaching new people is not going to be as deep as a fellowship of only believers, but if we are as mature as we say we are, then we should be able to meet those deeper needs in other ways, while creating a community that welcomes lost people. When I go to church, I come to give and minister more than I come to receive.
- The church is center of city transformation. It is a place where resources can be organized for the accomplishment of the purposes of God. This should be the prime feature of every church, and many churches function this way, but very few understand themselves explicitly in these terms. The church is a launch pad for changing a community. A thousand people pooling their resources can do massively more than 10, or even many groups of 10. A lot is possible with the support of a large body of people because of the resources that are implied both in finances and connections. For example, it’s very hard for a single person or even small church to start a campus ministry. But a large church can easily start one. A church that is not visible is not influential. The visible church with its public meetings has the potential to make its presence felt in the larger community. A church without meetings or with secret meetings, is, well, secret.
A church that is healthy is attracting a lot of people, but then it has systems in place that can help them grow personally and be launched in ways that will change the world around them. Many churches stagnate because they fail to do one or both of these. If you don’t outreach, you’re just a social club. If you outreach, but do not empower, then your leaders get frustrated and leave. I think that the Culture of Honor described by Danny Silk and modeled at Bethel has demonstrated that you can actually welcome and grow a large number of leaders in a single expression. We don’t have to keep people small.
The Encounter-Based Church
These are all elements of a model of church that I have termed the encounter-based church. Basically, the main service of the church is at the intersection, neither exclusively for believers or non-believers. It is a gathering of believers that welcomes the presence of the Holy Spirit while also being intentionally welcoming to non-believers. It should be a place where truth is preached in a way that can be heard by regular people. This takes tuning, but when done right, you can have a church service where both believers and non-believers come to have a deep encounter with God.
In my book, The Encounter Based Church, I go into depth on how to design your worship, message, and programs to host the Holy Spirit and lead Christians into deeper discipleship, while also bringing non-believers into an encounter with Jesus. You will learn how to apply structure in a way that facilitates the move of the Holy Spirit more, not less. And you will learn how to create supporting programs that lead people from the taste they have gotten in the Sunday service, to deeper intimacy with God.