Repost: The British House Church Movement (part 1)

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
  • Cross-cultural

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, 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.

Commercial fishing (part 2)


As I investigated the Scriptures on the subject of commercial fishing in the Gospels, several things became apparent.  There are several passages that talk about fishing:

  • Matthew 4:18-22 and Mark 1:16-19  Jesus calls the four disciples who are fishermen and tells them he will make them fishers of men.
  • Luke 5:1-11  Jesus tells the disciples who had fished all night but caught nothing to put down their nets again into the deep and they catch two boatloads of fish
  • John 21:3-11  After Jesus’ resurrection, seven of the disciples go fishing.  Again Jesus tells them where to cast their nets and they catch 153 large fish
  • Matthew 17: 24-27  Peter uses a rod and line to catch a fish that has money for the temple tax in its mouth.

There is obviously more than one way the disciples are fishing.  In the Luke example, they were in a boat and let down their nets.  In the John example, they throw out their nets.  In the Matthew and Mark examples they were fishing from the shore.  Further investigation reveals that although in English the word net is used in every example, in the Greek, different words are used signifying different types of nets.  For example, in the Matthew and Mark examples a specific purse net is described.

Commercial fisherman (which is what the disciples were) would have understood that you use different kinds of nets depending on the circumstances and the kind of fish you want to catch.

So in terms of the harvest where we are fishers of men, there may be different ways that we approach  “catching fish.”  What may work in other nations may not be best here in the West

There is one more passage.  This comes in Matthew 13 where Jesus tells a parable.  The kingdom of heaven is like a fishing net (literally a dragnet or seine which is a type of net used to catch large numbers of fish) let down into the water…

The question I am pondering these days is, “How do we ‘let the kingdom of heaven’ down into the community around us?  Especially here in the West where people are jaded and inoculated against the Gospel.  What kind of fishing net will catch a multitiude of fish?

Any ideas?

Commercial fishing

Modern day fisherman on the Sea of Galilee

While we were in Mongolia a few years back, I had a dream which over has had a profound effect on my thinking.  In the dream I was handing a small group of people a book.  “It’s about how to be a commercial fisherman,”  I told them.  The only other thing I remember about the dream was telling them that the important principle was to fish where Jesus told them.

This dream seemed to be more than a post pizza (or in the case of Mongolia, mutton) dream and it started me thinking.  For Peter, Andrew, James and John, who were all commercial fishermen, when Jesus told them, “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men,” they would have understood this in the context of commercial fishing.  They would not have thought hook and line (ie one fish at a time), they would have assumed fishing nets catching large numbers of fish.

I started investigating the different Scriptures on fishing in the Gospels.  More about that later.

Shortly after this we went to India and one of the people we were with works with fishermen on the coast of India.  So I asked him about how they fish.  (These would be primitive fishermen, probably very little different from fishermen in Jesus’ day.) He told me that they have different kinds of nets depending on the circumstances and what they are trying to catch.  They have a funnel net which is the kind of net they use when they don’t have boats.  They also have a drag net which is maybe 800 to 900 yards long for when they have more than one boat. There are actually several different kinds of nets that are used.

So what does it mean to be a commercial fisherman in the context of Jesus’ comments to his disciples?

More to follow.

Scary statistics

I’ve been compiling some statistics re the state of the church in this country for a book I’m helping to write.  I know you can make numbers prove anything, but is there a general trend? The question I’m trying to answer is this: Is the church in the West in crisis?

Here are some I found:

  • Of the self-identified Christians in the United States,  64% say they have confessed their sins to God and asked for his forgiveness, but only 3% say they have surrendered control of their life to God, submitted themselves to his will, and devoted themselves to loving and serving God and other people.
  • Less than one-half of one percent of adults aged 18 to 23 has a biblical worldview, compared to about 9% older adults. These figures can be doubled amongst “born-again” Christians. (A Biblical worldview is defined by believing in absolute moral truth, the accuracy of Biblical principles, the reality of Satan, God as creator and salvation through faith in Jesus.)
  • In the average year, half of all churches do not add one member per year through conversion growth.

While many churches are thriving, many more are struggling.

So what do you think?  Are we in crisis?

A church by any other name…

Brian used to host a Bible study group of 17 “unchurched” people in his home. Brian’s a chef and people love his food. They’d sing, read the Bible and talk. The pastor of his traditional church put the kibosh on it, however, because it was outside of his programs and control. So Brian did stop it. Now Brian is meeting in a home church somewhere else and has invited about 8 of those people to the house church. Only two have come (one who accepted Christ, PTL). He says, however, if he would restart his home group, all of those 17 would come back.

Dan left this story as a comment on one of my previous posts.

Some people may be far more willing to join us if what we present to them doesn’t include the word “church.”  “Church” has negative connotations for many people. They remember being dragged there as children, bored and restless when they’d much rather be outdoors playing. Or the word may smack of religious legalism, hypocrisy and judgmentalism. To others it is simply irrelevant.

So why do we insist on calling it “church” especially when we’re talking to not-yet-believers? It only makes it more difficult for them. A church by any other name is still a church. It’s not the name that’s important, but what goes on there. Is Jesus at the center?

Tony and I love to start church amongst non-believers, but we rarely call it that. We’ll invite people to get together for “a group that discusses spirituality,” or to “an evening when we can pray about some of the issues in their life,” or to “the Friday night group,” or to a “time to look at the Bible and talk about Jesus.” We’d much rather it’s in their home than ours, and they are probably not ready to have “church” in their home. It’s only later, when they’ve been won over by the friendship and authentic fun of what goes on and their lives have begun to change, that we tell them this is what the Bible means by church. Once they’ve surrendered to Jesus, we may or may not change the name.

It wouldn’t matter if the word “church” was never used; it’s what goes on that matters. Are relationships being formed? Is Jesus glorified? Is the Holy Spirit in control?

I like the term “missional community,” although that probably works best with believers. Are you familiar with I Am Second? They start I Am Second (the title implies Jesus is first) groups rather than churches.

I hope Brian does restart his home group.

Can you think of any other names that wouldn’t be a turn off for people?


Why is transition so hard? Death Valley!

Why is transitioning a church so difficult? Because when existing Christians get involved in simple/organic church life they have to go through a process that our friend Wolfgang Simson calls “Death Valley.” And it’s usually a slow and painful journey. Jesus told us in the parable of the wineskins that those who have tasted the old wine will say,  “The old wine is better.” Until the Lord changes people’s DNA, they are more likely to return to what they have known.

So what is Death Valley?

It’s as though someone on the mountain top of legacy church can see the mountain top of simple/organic church in the distance, and they assume that they can go straight from one mountain top to the other. What they don’t realize is that is a valley between the two–Death Valley.

Old traditions die hard. I remember one awesome family leaving us because the mother couldn’t handle not dressing her children in their Sunday best to come to church! In order to experience the liberty that simple church represents, people who have been Christians for any length of time have to die to some of the very good things that legacy church represents.

  • Professionally led worship–in simple church you are lucky to have an out-of-tune guitar.
  • Well prepared talks–there’s no pastor who can spend hours preparing a stimulating sermon. Everyone takes part in an interactive discussion.
  • Children and teens ministry–you can’t just drop your kids off at Sunday School to have an hour free from distractions.
  • Someone else to make all the decisions–in simple/organic church, everyone is involved.
Dying to these things is not quick. It’s a process… a painful process.
Some people get part way through the process and find it too hard. They feel guilty on Sunday mornings when they don’t have to get up for church. They miss the exuberant worship and praise.
They go back to their legacy church.
But for those who press through to simple/organic, it is worth it for
  • The sense of community–people are very involved in each other’s lives
  • Everyone can participate–not just a few in  leadership.
  • The Holy Spirit is in charge of the times together (unless you are doing “Honey, I shrunk the church!”
  • Freedom from religious expectations and traditions
  • The sense of being on mission with God, reaching out to a world that doesn’t know him
  • The excitement of giving birth to daughter and granddaughter churches

Interview with a pastor: why he’s committed to simple/organic principles

Even though David Havice has faced challenges in transitioning his legacy church to a network of simple/organic churches, he is still committed to simple/organic church. Here’s the conclusion of my interview with him. You can view the first two parts of the interview here and here.

Felicity: I know with the benefit of 20:20 hindsight, if you were to do it again, you might tackle it differently. What would you do? 

David: I think if I were getting ready to do it again, I would just resign as pastor of the legacy church, help find a new pastor, and then move to a new area to start from scratch, with an eye to reaching unchurched and unbelieving people. Jesus wants the old wine and the new wine to be preserved!

Felicity: In spite of all the challenges, you are still committed to simple/organic principles. Why?

David: There are several reasons.

  1. I see it as the best way to share the real life of what the church is to be about! Openness, transparency, shared life, prayer support, love and acceptance. Some of our people had been in traditional church together for years, but when they started participating In house church, they were amazed at what they found out about one another!
  2. I see it as the best way to get rid of “religious” mindsets and habits. People are able to be more real, more themselves and to be accepted that way, rather than trying to fit the “church mold” – the prevailing idea that congregations have of what their “ideal congregant” should be like! Its amazing to me that God created each individual uniquely different and then we as the church, often try to make everyone alike!
  3. It provides a way for everyone to participate, not spectate!
  4. I also believe that the house/simple/organic church movement is a bit prophetic in nature, and may very well be God’s preparation for a time yet to come, in which legacy churches would not be allowed. (That may sound like heresy here in America, but it has happened in other places!)
  5. Nodya (my wife) and I just love the simplicity of it! Being able to “wait” on the Holy Spirit to lead a meeting, not feeling the pressure of the clock and the program! Seeing the “light” come on in someone’s eyes as they get it! IT HAS REVOLUTIONIZED OUR LIVES!