The idea of a house church began with the early Christians. It was illegal to practice Christianity at that time, so the church met in homes. However, house churches are not just for people who are trying to avoid persecution. Our dear fellow brothers and sisters in Iran obviously will not agree. In my view, the House Church movement is more authentic. There are a few reasons Barna makes similar claims, stating house churches are a more natural selection over cell churches (Barna, 2009, 88). Over the past three decades, the church has become a force to reckon with because of the sovereignty of God.
However, the church itself also played a significant role in her growth, specifically, because of her excitement to open herself to new ways (Read: The Future of the Church). The introduction to youth ministry, contemporary praise and worship, multi-sites, and seeker-sensitive churches, all define some of the newer ministries, that brought excitement and also confirmed the touch of the supernatural that is clearly upon the church.
At first glance, the cell church looks like a house church
The cell church movement was another considerable movement. Which is a congregation headed by a single pastor, who encourages the church members to join and multiply the cell groups. At first glance, the cell church looks like a house church. I know this because often when I share the vision of the house church with people, it is not unusual to hear someone say, “oh, basically like a cell group.” It is precisely for this reason that men like Barna believe we should look more closely into the subject and determine what makes house churches very different from cell churches. Especially, in light of the fact that the cell-based church has become what it fears the most, “a program-based design” (90). What are the differences between a cell church and a house church?
Driven by Agenda vs Being the Agenda
The house church is not driven by an agenda. It is the agenda. Unlike the typical cell church, there is an agenda to accomplish and a structure to follow. This agenda could be a written set of instructions handed to the cell leader from the senior pastor or an agreed-upon regular structure for each meeting. Often a cell leader is advised not to allow anyone to bring the word or teachings. Discernment is a necessity and “structure” can provide security, the point is, the house church itself is the agenda.
An apostolic network
Moreover, a house church is part of an apostolic network (Acts 2:42) within which the fivefold ministry is operating ( Eph 4:11-13). It is thus, designed not to become a “bless me club” of the pious chosen frozen. Operating as an isolated social gathering or an inward-focused, self-centred group. The house church is not a prayer meeting, even though there is prayer. The house church is not a bible study even though there is biblical teaching. Since Jesus is a person, the idea is that the house church is a meeting with Jesus. Since you love the person whom you meet, no meeting is ever the same.
Every meeting is creative, inventive and exciting. Likewise, the house church is everything but a predictable, sterile gathering of the saints. The cell church is predominately “structured” to be error-proof, where simply nothing can go wrong. Unpack the guitar and songbooks, sing, pray, share the announcements, listen to a Bible study or sermon, pray again, and close the meeting at 9 PM on the dot! However, in such a context, not much can go right either.
Programs over the people
Nothing is wrong with structure or programs, but if those things become the dominating program whenever Christians meet, they will soon become a tradition. I am afraid “lifeless traditions” define even the most spirit-filled churches today. This is why a preoccupation with Bible studies or even prayer can easily kill a healthy community. Each time the preoccupation of a program is emphasised over the people, this misplaced emphasis may seem safe and easy for the first few months. But eventually will require that we invent follow-up programs and follow-ups to the follow-up programs. Unlike the earlier house church, it grew without a follow-up program (Acts 2:47).
When any gathering such as a bible study, prayer meeting, cell or house church is driven with an agenda, for instance, the modern evangelical focused on “win the lost at all cost” within the contemporary cell church. Such a vision may seem biblical and virtuous, but with it comes the pressure to perform. Which accounts for much of the startling burn-out figures of cell churches. Even so, I’m certain a church out there winning the lost is better than a church in here, doing nothing?
The core reason Christians ought to come together is to share and transfer life. Since Le hayim (life) is not predictable, our meetings should not really be predictable either. This very issue of unpredictability makes house churches more attractive, at least for the younger generations, which may bring a more transformational side effect. Rather than seeing church or cell groups as a series of predictable weekly meetings. As they went from house to house in the New Testament, having church, the people were the resources, Jesus was the program, fellowship was the reason, multiplication was the outcome, and discipling the neighbourhood was the natural result.
Jethro system or the Fivefold Ministry
In the order of what characterises most of the cell churches today, they operate on a one-fold ministry, not a five-fold ministry, principle (96). The fivefold ministry is missing from the cell church. The reason for this handicap, many cell churches favour the so-called “Jethro principle”, a system of administration that delegates authority to several levels of leadership (Exo 18).
We should notice, however, that the Jethro principle was basically a structure for enforcing law and order (Barna, 2009, 96). It was not designed to build and empower the New Testament fellowship of grace and love. Moses was a mediator between the people of Israel and God, and this is exactly what Jesus did away with, as He Himself became the mediator once and for all. In a cell church, the leader (senior pastor, area leader “worship leader” or cell leader) typically based on the Jethro principle, seems to be the “mediator”. Everyone else is a spectator.
This Jethro structure often requires an enormous amount of counting, administration, bureaucracy, resources and, may I say it, control -often driven by fear or a ‘military-styled’ leadership. Who wants to live a life with the sense that they are number 6,665 in the tracking system of the central computer? Who wants to live a life where their every move is controlled and observed by the watchful eye of “Big Brother”? Who wants to serve God, where the authenticity of your faith is measured by an attendance register?
If a church’s impact depends on the senior pastor’s drive, the electricity to be paid up or someone not failing to do their duty, then what is Jesus’s role? Is He the builder? When the availability of senior pastor is limited, as it is in the cell church, and those with an apostolic gift may not even be senior pastors at all. If this is the case, doesn’t a house church seem much less threatened, especially because the elders of house churches have genuine relationships with people doing the fivefold ministry?
Pyramid or Flat Structure
Beyond the Tabernacle, which was a tent, the Temple was the only building God ever designed, and it was flat, not multistoried. The cell church usually develops quickly into a pyramid structure with the senior pastor on top, followed down- ward by assistant pastors, directors of pastoral care departments, district pastors, subdistrict pastors, section leaders, and finally, at the bottom, the home cell leaders with their assistant home cell leader and spiritual parents.
Isn’t it fascinating almost everything that human’s touch—buildings, companies, politics—grows into a bigger and higher structure, with any amount of levels, stairs, hierarchies, and pyramid schemes? Power-based structures bring with them the danger of politics, pride and a lack of accountability.
The closer you are to the man at the top
The cell church means the closer you are to the man at the top, the more power or influence you might have. Sometimes the only reason a person may join a church is because of what it does for their social image. But it’s worth another mention, the Temple, the house church, has a flat structure. The various tasks are not executed by people within a hierarchy, but by those who are uniquely gifted for particular ministries, people who are relating to each other as redeemed friends and submitting themselves to each other.
In the New Testament, there was no inferiority, superiority or partiality among members of the church, but equality (James 2:3). No one was more important than the others, but everyone simply had to fulfill a different function within the body 1 Corinthians 12:21- 25). Ministry leadership, therefore, is not to be delegated top-down, but instead should be earned through a spirit of humble servanthood.
The structure is flat because there is no one higher or more important than any other person. Because it is not all that impressive to be the humble elder of thirteen people—or even to serve as a teacher, pastor, or evangelist for a number of house churches—this structure limits the potential for corruption in terms of money, sexual sin and power in the church.
Lords and Kings or Elders and Apostles
The shift from a theocracy (where God rules) to a monarchy (where a king rules) in the days of Saul, was extraordinary typical-humans love leaders! Not only did this shift mean a very serious financial burden (royals cost, as the citizens of Britain) but it also introduced an extra layer of government that prohibited people from directly relating to God as He intended. This is another great danger of the cell church.
A ubiquitous problem
Here is a ubiquitous problem! The world—including the traditional church—wants leaders rather than servants. We actually want what God is not willing to give, but what is worse, instead of seeing the futility of our attempts, we carry on with what we think is persistence. Just like a human body, the body of Christ is not designed to have many leaders but many members, all with different functions. As those members function together in collective obedience to their Head, so the whole body is literally led by the Head (Jesus).
To call one member a leader over the others—in spite of the presence of the Head—would be grossly misleading. Jesus is the Head of the church, and He is all the leadership the church truly needs. The church is led when its members obey its Head. The church experiences leadership as people collectively obey their Head and function together in unity.
The church is God’s
If we want to see a biblical kind of leadership, we must stop blindly usurping Jesus’ leadership of the church. Humans assume there must be leadership in everything and I guess we should. It is part of our creational brief. Our creational brief is to rule over the animals and the land. However, the church is an exception because the church is not our invention or property. The church is God’s. This idea is contrary to our thinking.
Saul’s leadership choked its development as Saul choked Israel. The body of Christ requires humble and faithful stewards, functioning in obedience to Christ and in mutual love, respect, and submission to each other—not to highly professional “leaders” who build kingdoms around their own personalities or personal gifting. The church requires Christlike stewards to handle God’s oikonomia (the management of His household) (104). It requires people who know that they are led by Christ.