Meeting in homes is a thoroughly biblical practice. Given the right circumstances, a private home can be the ideal setting for a church meeting. The smaller, homey setting fosters genuine friendships. The Lord’s Supper celebrated as a holy meal in this relaxed, unhurried, comfortable setting helps build unity and love. Since a home is not big enough to accommodate a huge number of people, participatory worship wherein each person contributes according to his spiritual gift is much more intimate and meaningful. Without the burden of church buildings, more resources are freed up to fund missions and benevolence. House churches can be simple, wonderful, down-to-earth (yet touching heaven) expressions of new covenant church life.
NTRF first got involved with house churches in the late 1980s. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s we worked with churches meeting in homes both internationally and all over the US. We’ve learned a few things over the years. A house church can certainly be used of the Lord, especially if someone involved is qualified to be an elder (1Ti 3) who does not mind being bi-vocational and has time freed up to devote to the church (teaching, guiding, counseling, disciple making, etc). We have observed that most house churches have no one like this and fizzle out due to lack of leadership.
How did first century house churches overcome this lack of leadership? Scripture indicates early churches met in the homes of wealthier members. This was probably because of the larger size of the home and the ability of the host to provide much of the food for the love feast. There were large areas in a Roman villa where the church could gather, such as the atrium. New Testament house churches were big. Enough believers could gather to manifest a large variety of spiritual gifts (read through 1 Corinthians 11-14), to have a plurality of elders and even financially support qualified elders (who were thus freed to provide in depth teaching and leadership). They also probably had more of an Asian mindset to crowding than we do in the West; there may have been as many as 120 people in an early house church (Acts 1:15).
Many modern homes are simply too small to hold enough believers to have the strength of a New Testament house church. In modern Western house churches there often is no one qualified to serve as elder (such men are in short supply) and no one gifted to teach. Consequently, lacking leadership, the church becomes more of a “bless me” club. The fellowship at the Agapé is fantastic, the worship is wonderful and the kids have a great time playing together, but no discipleship is really taking place. Outreach is nil. The congregation is so small there is no way a pastor could be supported. Though house churches are at the opposite end of the spectrum from mega-churches, it is important to avoid the mistake of thinking too small. The size should be just right; not to small and not too big (neither micro mega nor mega). In all, to accomplish what the early church accomplished may necessitate not meeting in our modern homes (but rather some dynamic equivalent).
Though we thoroughly believe in the biblical basis for house church, it is simply not feasible in most situations today. We feel the real emphasis should be on New Testament church practice in general, not simply meeting in homes. Not helping the situation is the fact that house churches are seen as cultic by many in society as large, not taken seriously by the typical Western believer and (worst of all) attract an unusually high percentage of people who are anti-authority, have aberrant theology, are dysfunctional socially or hold secondary issues so dearly it has already caused them to separate from other believers.
Scripture reminds us that faithful are the wounds of a friend, but deceitful are the kisses of an enemy. We would not be serving you or the Lord well if we did not alert you to both the pros and cons of a modern Western house church. For many people contemplating starting a house church, their best option is to remain where they are and serve the Lord in their present church. However, if circumstances are providential to starting a house church with all the necessary pieces in place (leadership, large enough meeting room, plenty of car parking), go for it!
Many forward thinkers suspect the church in the West is headed for a relation to civil government similar to that existing today in China where the church has largely been driven underground. In progressive administrations, church teachings against homosexuality will be viewed as hate speech. Christians will be painted by the media and government as backwards, close minded, right wing bigots. The tax exempt status of many churches and Christian schools could be revoked as government legislation promotes sexual freedom over religious liberty. Worst yet, the power to tax is the power to destroy. In times of persecution, meeting in private homes becomes an attractive option.