by Rad Zdero
House church-planting movements confirm the broad
effectiveness of first-century apostolic strategies.
God is changing the Church around the world today. How? By streamlining it to be more biblical and effective. A fundamental design principle is that “function” and “form” are mutually dependent. If you change one, you will inevitably alter the other. Unfortunately, much of the Church today does not understand this.
Ever since church and state were merged in the early fourth century (Zdero 2007, 182-193), we have inherited a “cathedral church” model. It is characterized by the five myths of a special person running a special service in a special building on a special day for a special fee. Yet, it is complex, ineffective, expensive, and unbiblical.
To make disciples of Christ today, we must recover an approach that links function and form properly. Allow me to briefly describe the shape, authority, and effectiveness of the ancient apostolic strategy of multiplying house churches for mission today.
The Shape of Apostolic Strategy
The first-century Church maximized the effectiveness of its functions by minimizing the complexity of its forms. Consequently, followers of Jesus turned the world upside down (Acts 17:6). They were a Spirit-empowered, back-to-basics, inexpensive, and reproducible house church movement (see Banks 1994, 26-36; Birkey 1988; Filson 1939; Gehring 2004; Zdero 2007, 49-157). Let us look more closely at the functions and forms of the early Church.
Apostolic strategy is an ongoing lifecycle that produces multiplying
movements of new believers, new leaders, and new house churches.
To spread the gospel abroad in the first century, the function of “initiate” was practically implemented through the form of “apostles” (Zdero 2007, 102-118). The world needed to be reconciled to God through Jesus Christ (Acts 4:12). Yet, the world was not necessarily going to chase after truth. So, as the Spirit led, believers took initiative to go into the world, make disciples, baptize converts, and teach them to follow (Matt. 28:18-20; Acts 1:8), just as God had first taken initiative with them (John 3:16; 1 John 4:19).
The apostles, therefore, took the initiative by sowing the gospel into new geographic, cultural, and linguistic soil. They felt an urgency to start new disciple-making communities (Acts 13:1-3; 1 Cor. 9:16-17; 1 Tim. 2:7). They were mobile, worked in small bands of two or three, and were financially supported when needed (Luke 10:7; 1 Cor. 9:6-15; 3 John 1:5-8).
They used the “house of peace” approach that Jesus modeled to train future leaders (Mark 3:14; Luke 10:1-11). They would find a contact person in a new area and impact that sphere of influence for God’s kingdom (Acts 10:1-48; 16:13-15). Those who responded to the message formed a new faith community. Apostles provided coaching through personal visits and letters (Acts 8:14-15; 15:36; 20:17-20; 2 John 1:12; 3 John 1:13-14).
Integrate: Household Churches
To bring first-century believers into a faith community, the function of “integrate” was practically implemented through the form of “household churches” (Zdero 2007, 49-69). The early Church knew that spiritual growth happens best in a context of people working together, encouraging one another, and holding each other accountable (Heb. 10:25).
The Church was the household of God (Eph. 2:19; 1 Pet. 4:17), the living stones of a spiritual temple (1 Pet. 2:5), the Body of Christ (Rom. 12:4-5), the bride of Christ (John 3:29; Eph. 5:22-32; Rev. 18:23; 19:7; 21:2, 9; 22:17), the family of God (John 1:12-13; Eph. 2:19; Gal. 6:10), and a circle of disciples (Matt. 18:20).
The apostles, therefore, brought people together into the most plentiful and natural setting possible, namely, the homes of believers. Household groups were the main way Christians met in the first century (Acts 2:46; 5:42; 8:3; 16:14-15, 29-34; 18:4-8; 20:20; Rom. 16:3-5; 1 Cor. 16:19; Col. 4:15; Phile. 1:2).
These groups were no larger than thirty due to the physical limitations of first-century Mediterranean homes (Banks 1994, 35-36; Birkey 1988, 55). Many were probably only the size of Jesus’ circle of twelve. This house-to-house pattern was deliberate—not led by poverty or persecution, or merely an early developmental phase of the church (Zdero 2004, 21-25; Zdero 2007, 143-150).
Involve: Participatory Meetings
To encourage first-century believers to use their spiritual gifts, the function of “involve” was practically implemented through the form of “participatory meetings” (Zdero 2007, 71-72, 84-92). Believers’ skills, capacities, experiences, and Spirit-led promptings were given by God to benefit the Body of Christ (Rom. 7:4; 1 Cor. 10:16-17; 12:4-30; Eph. 4:11).
The idea of the priesthood of all believers (1 Pet. 2:5, 9) allowed them to move beyond dependence on religious specialists (e.g., Levitical priesthood). This may have found its origins in the radical counter-cultural “open table” fellowship Jesus modeled (Luke 7:34; 8:21; 14:12-24; 19:1-10).
The apostles, therefore, taught that church meetings were to be Spirit-led and participatory (1 Cor. 14:26; Eph. 5:19-20; Col. 3:16; Heb. 10:25). Meetings were so spontaneous that sometimes cautions were given to maintain order (1 Cor. 14:27-33). Furthermore, to visibly symbolize the Christian Church’s contributory and communal nature, household churches would share the Lord’s Supper as a full meal (Luke 22:14-20; 1 Cor. 11:17-34).
To ensure the ongoing health and vitality of the first-century household churches, the function of “instruct” was practically implemented through the form of elders (Zdero 2007, 93-101). Once apostles laid the foundations of a new church, they moved on to repeat the process elsewhere (Acts 16:12; 18:11; 19:8, 10; 20:3, 6, 31; 21:4, 27; 24:27; 1 Tim. 1:3-7; 4:12; Titus 1:5). But household churches needed ongoing instruction and care (Acts 15:36, 20:28-32; 2 Cor. 11:28).
The apostles, therefore, raised up a small team of local, unpaid, co-equal leaders in each group (Banks 1994, 139-148; Zdero 2007, 93-101; Acts 14:23; 20:17-28; 21:18; 1 Tim. 4:14; 5:17; Titus 1:5-11; James 5:14). These leaders were called “elders.” From a cross-comparison of the key scriptures and a look at the Greek words employed, it is clear that elder/presbyter, bishop/overseer, and pastor/shepherd were equivalent terms, rather than indications of a hierarchical leadership system (Cowen 2003, 5-16; Acts 20:17; 28-30; Eph. 4:11; 1 Tim. 3:1-13, Titus 1:5-9; James 5:14; 1 Pet. 5:1-3).
These elders were not part of a professionalized clergy system. They were ordinary, mature believers who spiritually parented and financially assisted their household church (Gehring 2004, 226; Zdero 2007, 93-101; Acts 20:33-35). Elders were the primary, but not the only, shepherds who nurtured local believers (1 Thess. 5:12-13). They were also strategists who gave direction at critical decision-making points (Acts 15:2-6, 22; Heb. 13:7, 17).
Interlink: Geographic Networks
To be faithful to a theology of unity among first-century believers, the function of “interlink” was practically implemented through the form of “geographic networks” (Zdero 2007, 126-129). The Body of Christ was comprised of a diversity of believers, each contributing to the common good (Rom. 12:4-5; 1 Cor. 10:16-17; 12:12-27; Eph. 1:22-23; 4:4-5). Division among Christians was like dividing up Christ himself (1 Cor. 1:10-13).
The apostles, therefore, encouraged believers to work together to change their part of the world. Multiple household churches in a city would form a network (Acts 2:41-47; 20:20; Rom. 16:3-16). The apostles always addressed their letters to the “church”—not the “churches”—of a city (Acts 8:1; 11:26; 1 Cor. 1:2; 2 Cor. 1:1; 1 Thess. 1:1; 2 Thess. 1:1). A team of local leaders provided mentoring and management to this citywide church, occasional citywide gatherings of all house churches would be organized, resources were shared, and mission teams were sent (Acts 2:41-47; 4:32-35; 13:1-3; 15:22, 36; 20:17-21; Titus 1:5).
Multi-city networks across regions were also fostered through the apostolic visits and letters (Acts 14:23; 15:36; Col. 4:16; 2 John 1:12; and 3 John 1:3, 7, 13; cf. Rev. 2 and 3). And multi-region networks across the Roman Empire provided financial relief for believers in crisis (Acts 11:27-30; Rom. 15:25-28; 1 Cor. 16:1-4; 2 Cor. 9:1-15; Gal. 2:9-10).
The Authority of Apostolic Strategy
The apostles viewed their strategies for church function and form as divinely authoritative, not optional (Zdero 2007, 151-157).
First, Paul congratulated faithful churches by saying, “I praise you because you remember me in everything, and hold firmly to the traditions, just as I delivered them to you” (1 Cor. 11:2). And he encouraged believers to “stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from us” (2 Thess. 2:15).
Traditions were ways of thinking or behaving and were not to be equated with the human-made traditions Jesus condemned (Mark 7:5-14). Nor were “traditions” (Greek = paradosis, meaning ordinance, custom, or precept) the same as “teachings” (Greek = didaskalia, meaning instruction, doctrine, or learning). Rather, traditions included the practices the apostles infused into the churches they started.
Another passage concerns an issue beyond the present scope, namely, women’s head coverings: “But if one is inclined to be contentious, we have no other practice, nor have the churches of God” (1 Cor. 11:16). The point Paul was emphasizing here, though, was the principle of common practice among all the churches. There were no other options.
Third, Paul wrote that church meetings should be Spirit-led and participatory, among other things (1 Cor. 14:1-35). He then reminded them that his instructions were God’s intentions for the church, rather than just his own ideas: “Did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only people it has reached? If anybody thinks he is a prophet or spiritually gifted, let him acknowledge that what I am writing to you is the Lord’s command. If he ignores this, he himself will be ignored” (1 Cor. 14:36-38).
Fourth, Paul expected the church to implement whatever it observed in his own life, teaching, and practice: “Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put into practice. And the God of peace will be with you” (Phil. 4:9). Certainly, this would have included the way Paul organized churches for life and mission.
Fifth, the Lord Jesus assured the apostles of their delegated authority: “The one who listens to you listens to Me, and the one who rejects you rejects Me; and he who rejects Me rejects the One who sent Me” (Luke 10:16). For first-century believers, adhering to the apostles’ words and practices meant they tried to implement them as fully as possible in function and form.
Sixth, permit me to suggest that the questions first-century believers asked themselves were not “Do we have to organize churches the way the apostles did?” and “Which alternative to apostolic practices should we implement?” Rather, they asked themselves, “Why would we want to do things any other way?” and “How can we be faithful to apostolic strategy?”
The Effectiveness of Apostolic Strategy
The ancient apostolic strategy of multiplying house churches and small groups has successfully engaged a variety of cultures and contexts throughout church history and today (Broadbent 1999; Bunton 2001; Driver 1999; Zdero 2004, 59-69; Zdero 2007, 161-381).
Long before the Reformation, Pachomius (290-346 AD) started a network of home-based monastic groups of a dozen members in response to the moral laxity and doctrinal rigidity of the established state Church. Priscillian (340-385 AD) and his followers multiplied home-based “brotherhoods” in Spain, France, and Portugal for several centuries before being stamped out by the institutional Church.
The Celtic missionary movement in Ireland started by Patrick (390-460 AD) used traveling missionary teams to take the gospel into Scotland, England, France, Germany, and Belgium for centuries. Peter Waldo (1150-1206 AD) and his Waldenses attracted one-third of all Western Christendom to their public and home meetings.
After the Reformation, house church and small group movements arose that were more “radical” (Latin = radix, meaning getting to the root) than the mainstream Reformation of Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin. The Anabaptists (c.1520) in central Europe grew to tens of thousands in eighty years. The Quakers (c.1650) in Britain gathered twenty thousand new members in their first five years. The Moravians (c.1750) sent three thousand missionaries to various parts of the globe. The Methodists (c.1750) in Britain and the USA by 1791 swelled to 100,000 people in 10,000 home groups and helped spark the First and Second Great Awakenings.
Today, the most explosive church-planting movements have challenged missiologists to rethink mission. Ten factors are always present (Garrison 2004, 171-198):
• Abundant gospel sowing
• Intentional church planting
• Scriptural authority for doctrine, church polity, and life
• Local indigenous leadership
• Lay leadership
• House churches rather than church houses
• Churches planting churches
• Rapid reproduction of churches
• Healthy churches characterized by worship, evangelism, discipleship, ministry, and fellowship
Consider several examples.
China is the world’s largest communist country. Ironically, since about 1980 it has increasingly embraced a relatively free market economy, making it a unique mixture of communist and capitalist ideologies. Although initially driven underground by oppressive measures in the 1950s by the government, the Christian Church by 2007 comprised 80 to 130 million believers meeting in house churches (Zdero 2004, 69-71; Zdero 2007, 294-303).
Many Chinese house church leaders have committed themselves to the following, even if a democratic political system emerges:
• Leaders are to be mobile evangelizers and house church planters.
• There is to be no construction of church buildings.
• Provision of financial support is given only to traveling apostolic workers, while local church leaders remain as unpaid volunteers.
India is the world’s largest democratic nation; it is a global leader in computer software production, and it even has a space industry. Yet, about 600 million people are extremely impoverished, with the average national income per person being only about 1.2% of the average American salary (Johnston and Mandryk 2001, 310).
Enter Dr. Victor and Bindu Choudhrie. In 1995, they started a church-planting experiment without church buildings, Sunday services, or paid clergy (Zdero 2004, 71; Zdero 2007, 304-309). They trained and sent young, lower-caste, church planters. Within a few years, they had started 3,500 house churches involving 70,000 believers. By 2009, this had grown to an estimated one million house churches (Simson 2009, 168).
America’s institutional Church is experiencing a net loss of forty-eight churches each week (Kreider 2001, 67), while house churches involved about twenty million people by 2006 (Barna 2006). The fastest-growing house church network in the USA is that of Church Multiplication Associates, which started one thousand house churches in less than a decade (Zdero 2007, 346-351).
Although their house churches average about sixteen people, their “Life Transformation Groups” of two to three people meeting for prayer, Bible study, and accountability are their basic building blocks. By the year 2025, pollster George Barna expects institutional church membership to be cut in half, while alternative expressions (such as house churches) will involve thirty to thirty-five percent of all Christians in the USA (Barna 2005, 49).
Similar networks of house churches are springing up in a variety of political, economic, religious, and cultural contexts, including Australia, Brazil, Canada, Cuba, Ecuador, England, Ethiopia, Myanmar, and the Philippines (Zdero 2004, 72-76; Zdero 2007, 294-381).
What has motivated these movements? Some mainly sought to return to first-century New Testament practices and were interested in “restoration.” Some primarily sought out better means of evangelism and church planting and were interested in “revival.” Some chiefly counteracted the persecution by religious and civil authorities by going underground and were interested in “response.”
organic, house churches in the USA and around the world in seven years.
This growth chart is common for many house church
networks arising across the globe today.
First-century apostolic strategies maximized the effectiveness of church functions by minimizing the complexity of church forms as a house church movement. The rapid expansion of historic and contemporary house church-planting movements confirm the broad effectiveness of this model. Let us conclude with a poignant observation made by a church historian from a bygone era:
Events in the history of the churches in the time of the apostles have been selected and recorded in the book of Acts in such a way as to provide a permanent pattern for the churches. Departure from this pattern has had disastrous consequences, and all revival and restoration have been due to some return to the pattern and principles in the Scriptures. (Broadbent 1999, 26)
Banks, Robert. 1994. Paul’s Idea of Community. Rev. ed. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers.
Barna, George. 2005. Revolution. Carol Stream, Ill.: Tyndale House Publishers.
Barna, George. 2006. “House Church Involvement Is Growing.” June 19. Accessed January 24, 2011 from www.barna.org.
Birkey, Del. 1988. The House Church: A Model for Renewing the Church. Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press.
Broadbent, Edmund H. 1999 . The Pilgrim Church. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Gospel Folio Press.
Bunton, Peter. 2001. Cell Groups and House Churches: What History Teaches Us. Ephrata, Pa.: House to House Publications.
Cowen, Gerald P. 2003. Who Rules the Church? Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman and Holman Publishers.
Driver, John. 1999. Radical Faith: An Alternative History of the Christian Church. Kitchener, Ontario: Pandora Press.
Filson, Floyd V. 1939. “The Significance of the Early House Churches.” Journal of Biblical Literature 58(2):105-112.
Garrison, David. 2004. Church Planting Movements: How God Is Redeeming a Lost World. Lubbock, Tex.: Fresh Wind Distributing.
Gehring, Roger W. 2004. House Church and Mission: The Importance of Household Structures in Early Christianity. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers.
Johnston, Patrick and Jason Mandryk. 2001. Operation World: 21st Century Edition. Ft. Washington, Pa.: WEC International.
Kreider, Larry. 2001. House Church Networks. Ephrata, Pa.: House to House Publications.
Simson, Wolfgang. 2009. The House Church Book. Carol Stream, Ill.: Tyndale House Publishers.
Zdero, Rad. 2004. The Global House Church Movement. Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey Library.
Zdero, Rad, ed. 2007. Nexus: The World House Church Movement Reader. Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey Library.
Rad Zdero obtained his PhD in mechanical engineering, specializing in bio-mechanics and bio-materials. He is director of a hospital-based research group in Toronto and has been actively involved in the house church and small-group movement since 1985. He is author of The Global House Church Movement and editor of Nexus: The World House Church Movement Reader. His writings and resources can be found at www.scribd.com/rzdero.
EMQ, Vol. 47, No. 3, pp. 346-353. Copyright © 2011 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.