I am currently in Taiwan speaking at a conference. This is a repost.
Tim Thompson posted the following great question that I would like to try to answer:
“I’m interested in the potential for evangelism in house/simple churches in the USA. Jeff Gilbertson has already reported that most people in US house churches were believers before they came, and I’ve often heard from H2H sources about explosive house-church based evangelism taking place in the developing world. So this has left me wondering… Tony and Felicity, what was your experience during the emergence and growth of the HC movement in the UK? I’m guessing that it started out in ways that are similar to what we’re seeing in theUS: believers migrating from legacy churches to HCs. But as it progressed, did you see a shift, or signs that evangelism per se was ramping up in the houses?”
Let me start by giving a little history of the British HC movement. Note that this is only our viewpoint. We were involved almost from the beginning of the movement until we moved here in 1987. We were never at the national leadership level although several of the leaders of the movement were (and are) our friends.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the charismatic movement hit Britain. At that point in time, the church was in a sad state. Maybe 2% of the population was “born again,” although many more went to church, but in the area of London where we lived, maybe 0.5% went to church. Just like here in the US, all over the country, people were filled with the Holy Spirit, but whereas over here, the focus was on the gifts and power of the Holy Spirit, in the UK, it was more on the importance of the body of Christ and discipleship. Some chose to stay within the traditional denominations, but the Lord led many to leave and start churches outside the four walls.
You are right that the beginning of the movement was very similar to what we are seeing currently in the US. Spontaneously, all over the country, churches started in homes. It was a Holy Spirit thing in that again, like here, there was no one person or location around which everything revolved. Most of the leaders, although in their 20s and 30s were mature Christians, many of them from a Brethren background with a heavy emphasis on the Scriptures. The churches started primarily in homes, but without a theology of multiplying the small, they usually grew quickly to become the largest church in town. Of more recent years, they have become known as the “new churches.”
Our own situation was fairly typical. In 1971, we were involved in the start-up of a church in our medical school and had the “distinction” of being thrown out of Intervarsity as a result. In 1977, that church sent us out into the very poor and socially deprived area of the East End of London where we started another church. That grew, probably 50% by conversion (many of Tony’s patients became Christians) until it was one of the largest churches in the area. We started in homes, moved into church basements, a factory and various other places as we grew.
These were extraordinary times. The presence of God was very strong in our midst. Sometimes we would find ourselves flat on our faces on the floor. We would never dare to go into a meeting with unconfessed sin because the Holy Spirit was likely to reveal it publicly. I remember literally running to the meetings because I would not wait to get into God’s presence. We saw the supernatural at work, the gifts were frequently used and many people became Christians.
However, and also fairly typically, the church then went through a split. A couple of years later it merged with another church. It is still in existence and going strong.
There were many values that we learned in that move of God that are relevant to what God is doing here today. Let me list some of them in no particular order of importance:
- Church is built on authentic relationships
- Non-religious Christianity—a spiritual life lived from the presence of Christ within, rather than keeping a set of religious rules.
- Involvement in the community
- Team leadership
- The value of worship and praise
But did the church grow from new believers. I have tried to research the statistics, without being able to find anything definitive. Here is a graph from Christian Research.org.uk, the website of British pollster, Peter Brierley.
The graph shows that whereas the traditional church has declined considerably over the past 20 years, the non-institutional churches (which include the house churches) have remained relatively stable in their numbers.
The above graph shows the growth of the Free Independent Evangelical Churches, of which the house churches would be a major component (taken from The Battle for Christianity in Great Britain by Erroll Hulse.
So we are left with our subjective impressions. Tony and I have discussed it, and have come to the conclusion that the house church movement in the UK did become more missional. Many of those who went to house churches were actively seeking to reach out to unbelievers. However, the difference is that it was an attractional type of growth (come hear our special speaker). Perhaps it was easier to invite someone to a meeting than to create a friendship.