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Models of Church: Is the House Church Best?

Will Riddle 8 minutes to read

House Church

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.

An Historical Overview

Broadly speaking, the church has gone through a few phases, overlapping in time. A sketch view:

People who are frustrated with the models of church painted above often desire to return to a more primitive version of Christianity. In the last decade, many Christians have been gathering in small groups to go deep with God and many even minister on the streets with signs and wonders.

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 to experience 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:Levels of Commitment from Community to Core - The Commons

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.

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.


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Mohan G

Mr Riddle this recent article might be of some interest:

Will Riddle

This article must have struck a chord, as you are the second person to share it with me! Evangelicalism as we know it does seem to be evolving doesn't it?

Jerry Bolton

Will, Good post. Always good to see you have a new post. I’m tired of hearing others bash the church, especially when it's Christians. Some Christians think that Church, as in established location, building and leadership , is a bad idea and not for those that really “get it”. I find many of these very immature or perhaps have adopted bad ideology because they’ve been treated bad, and they often want the benefits of church, including an opportunity to minister (after all they “get it” and just want God) but do not want to submit to leadership authority because that’s a claimed big fault of the church. They do often end up in a non-visible “church” that has no influence. That’s a weak view. I believe every believer should be a part of a church. AND denomination is not the problem, “denominational-ism” and bad structure is or can be. Some denominations are more like networks with not much granular control and policy, some networks are more like denominations. The church has gone through different phases as you point out with different emphasis at different times. The Church is not bad, Institutional Church is not bad, LOCAL church is not bad. These are important and helpful in accomplishing God’s will for us believers – front door and back door ministry. What if all of our churches were doing what we were supposed to, we were worshiping God, reaching the lost, making disciples, building up each other, influencing our community for God, etc. and we even joined together in a collection of church bodies to share resources, encourage one another, and help each local body and further God’s kingdom; somewhere along the way it would begin to have structure and guidelines and look “institutionalized”. Sure institutions have problems – they have people. However, collectively is how we accomplish much. An army of 100,000 can do a lot more than a few random guys with a gun. Sure, institutions can become a bureaucracy, but those things can often be changed. We as local churches and institutions must be flexible. We must continue to focus on God & His Kingdom more than our “kingdom”, but it’s time that Christians get in “The Way” and be supportive and change agents instead of just being in the way. Keep thinking and posting.

Will Riddle

Jerry, Thanks so much for your encouragement and feedback. Great points. How are things going down there for you? Our ministry has taken a positive turn. We're running freedom conferences to help pastors break their people free.

Jerry Bolton

Will, Things are going pretty good, just the usual challenges of pastoring a small church. It’s been a year since our church building burned down. We’re in a better building, but the fire and some key people having to leave really messed up our momentum. We’re seeing some good growth in some people, but we’ve been falling behind in evangelism. God is good and in a good mood and we ARE enjoying His goodness. Best wishes (I don’t care for that term), how about “best hope & faith” for your freedom conferences. I’ve prayed for y’all. Go well & Finish Well.

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