House Churches in the United Kingdom

At the time, it seemed very innovative, and, indeed, odd. Go to worship God in someone’s home? But while the Chinese Home (or House) Church Movement had started in the 1950s as a reaction against the religious clamp-down of the Communist takeover in 1949, and the burgeoning African Independent Churches had been meeting in homes for several decades by the 1960s, nevertheless, in relatively staid British church life, meeting in a house was unusual and viewed with much suspicion.

Initially, it was known theologically as “The Restoration Movement”; however, in the 1970s the more popular term was “The House Churches.” As the different fellowships grew and meeting in houses became physically impossible, in the 1980s the then-apostolic leadership changed their name to “The New Churches.” However, old habits die hard, and the mental picture that many outside the movement have is still “House Churches.”

Early History of House Churches in the UK
The formative influencers in Britain were two men from a Christian Brethren background—Arthur Wallis and David Lillie—who convened three conferences in Devon in 1958, 1961 and 1962 to explore the restoration of the New Testament Church. Wallis started the first house church in 1964, and others, increasingly inclined charismatic Bible teachers, joined the effort. Those attending them delighted in a new freedom of worship away from traditional practices and restrictions. It was the beginning of the impact of the charismatic movement outside the Pentecostal churches which has now touched (and transformed) thousands of churches of all denominations in the UK and abroad.

The early 1970s saw leaders such as John Noble, Gerald Coates, Terry Virgo, George Carleton and David Mansell, who not only started a series of house churches (each of which were later called “streams,” although in most respects they were like small denominations), but began to meet together. Independently, a former Guyana missionary, Bryn Jones, started a “community church” in Bradford. A series of Bible Weeks began (initially at Capel and then in 1976 in Harrogate). These events drew thousands of people and many of those attending enjoyed their vitality and exuberance without embracing the Restorationist philosophies of “covenant relationships” and “apostolic ministries.”

The numbers attending House Churches grew rapidly in the 1970s; the two hundred operational in 1980 were attended collectively by some ten thousand people.

A conference called by Wallis in 1971 was a catalyst in identifying seven key leaders, subsequently augmented to fourteen, who were considered to have apostolic authority. Humanly speaking, it is these fourteen who were the engine behind the growth seen in the 1970s. Eschatologically, the movement sought the emergence of a spotless bride ready to welcome the returning king. In practice, the leaders were bound together in covenant relationships, joined together in a way which would supersede the broken state of the old denominational churches. The fourteen charismatically gifted and proven men were called “apostles.”
 

Growth in the 1980s
The 1980s was an interesting decade for the British Church. Several noteworthy things happened:

  • Billy Graham came to the UK with the widely-acclaimed Mission to England in 1984 and 1985; Luis Palau held his Mission to London in 1983.

  • Clyde Culver became the new young general secretary of the Evangelical Alliance, and proceeded to transform the image of evangelicalism over the next twelve years.
  • The British Church Growth Association began in 1983, following and promoting the work of former Indian missionary Donald McGavran. It focused on helping church leaders to have hope that their congregations could change.
  • Teenagers aged 15-19 began leaving the Church in large numbers; courses for youth workers began to help slow down the rate of decline.
  • The Jubilee Centre began in 1983 with an emphasis on researching crucial societal changes.
  • MARC Europe began in 1983 with seminars to train Christian leaders in management and leadership. From 1984 to 1991 some ten thousand leaders attended two seminars each; this was equivalent to one-quarter of all clergy.
  • Although Spring Harvest began in 1979, it was during the 1980s that it expanded with huge popularity, bringing charismatic influence and the desire for change to numerous evangelical (and other) churches. By 1989, one in eight evangelical churchgoers in the UK had been to a Spring Harvest event.

It was in this atmosphere of change and challenge that the “House Churches”—now named by the Apostolic Brotherhood as “New Churches”—grew rapidly. In numerical terms, they increased almost eightfold, from ten thousand members in 1970 to 76,500 collectively by 1980, and in number of churches from two hundred to 1,100. They saw substantial growth in the Midlands and Southeast of England, and especially in the counties along the southern coast.

Their desire, as expressed by David Winter in his 1988 book Battered Bride?, was “to liberate its members from the constraints of a dead religion: from traditional church order, liturgy, clericalism and formality.” In a sabbatical thesis, Derek Hills of Tonbridge Baptist Church summarises the Restorationists as desiring and attempting “to return to a pure Church, a Church restored to the pattern of Jesus, to pour new wine into new wineskins.” As their leadership was recognised, more and more churches put themselves under their authority.

A key element in New Church practice was the importance of discipling Christian people. Members were relationally linked to others, within which each one was “covered” by someone else, and these then went on to cover another member. Those thus covered shared their daily lives, jobs, friendships and recreations and found much freedom and joy in so doing. However, there was the constant danger of authoritarianism or legalism creeping in, and sometimes the covering simply went too far.

There were also many churches which followed the charismatic and discipling principles of the New Churches but held back from being formally part of one of the streams. These were often called the “XXX Christian Fellowship,” where “XXX” was the name of a town or village. It has always been difficult to estimate the total number of these one-off independent churches; however, in Religious Trends No. 2 they were estimated at 150 churches with five thousand members in 1980. This number grew to eight hundred churches with forty thousand members by 1990 and was subsequently estimated to be 1,400 churches with seventy-five thousand members in 2006.

Fracture in the 1990s
The rapid growth of the New Churches in the 1980s continued in the 1990s, but not easily. Rapid growth requires a time of consolidation, and this did not always happen. Disagreements about the type and nature of leadership appeared and two of the most well-known streams, Harvestime, under Bryn Jones, and Ichthus, under Roger Forster, saw severe splits in their churches, with Harvestime becoming Covenant Ministries in the process.

Nigel Wright, in the 1998 book Charismatic Christianity, describes ten groups of New Churches:

  1. Two older clusters associated with Pastor North and the town of South Chard, where baptisms were in the name of Jesus only.

  2. The Jesus Fellowship, initiated by a Baptist pastor, Noel Stanton, who practised the sharing of goods in community and who developed the Jesus Army, an aggressive but effective means of evangelism among the marginalised sections of society.
  3. The “Basingstoke” group called “Salt and Light,” led by Barney Coombs. This group developed the shepherding or discipling process already described.
  4. The churches associated with Bryn Jones and his brother Keri. At one stage, these churches were probably the most negative toward traditional denominational structures; however, as both brothers gained degrees in adult life, greater opportunity for debate was given. Bryn died in 2002, and in 2004 Covenant Ministries (CM) split into Lifeline International, Ministries Without Borders or remained as CM but re-named Together.
  5. Terry Virgo and New Frontiers, based in Brighton, has been one of the streams most prodigious in planting new congregations. Wright describes Virgo as having “pastoral concern, teaching ability and wise counsel plus (an) ability to gather and maintain a strong team of leaders around himself.” According to Religious Trends No. 7, Newfrontiers (with the two words now joined together) is by far the largest stream with 27,300 members across 191 congregations in the UK in 2006.
  6. A small group of churches centred on King’s Church in Aldershot under Derek Brown and Mike Pusey, who were originally Baptists.
  7. Gerald Coates and John Noble (initially of Team Spirit), who came together as Pioneer. Coates is a colourful entrepreneur, Wright says, “an outstanding communicator” but more as “a prophetic preacher than a biblical expositor.” Coates made an important prophecy about the Salvation Army very publicly at a 1992 Challenge 2000 Conference, which has been partially fulfilled.
  8. The Ichthus Fellowship in South London under Roger and Faith Forster, whose theology is Arminian and Anabaptist and who was strong on church planting, rigorous in challenging the societal norms of the day and saw women as on equal terms with men. Both Forsters have played significant roles in the leadership of the Evangelical Alliance and Spring Harvest.
  9. The Sheffield House Church under Peter Kenwick and other like congregations. Peter, “an astute and sane counselor,” as Wright describes him, distanced himself from the mid-1990s Toronto Blessing, which brought some restoration streams closer together, but overall caused part of the 1990s fragmentation.
  10. Dave Tomlinson, based in Brixton, who subsequently became a Church of England clergyman. He wrote The Post-Evangelicals in 1995, which argued that evangelicals need to keep abreast of modern, critical biblical scholarship, and come to grips with the world as it is. He began a church called “Holy Joe’s,” which was based in a pub.

 

New Churches in 2006
Where are the various streams today? Their overall attendance numbers in England, as measured by successive English church censuses, have begun to decline:

In… 

there were… 

across… 

1979  64,000 people in attendance  419 churches
1989  167,000 people in attendance  1,026 churches 
1998  200,500 people in attendance  1,389 churches 
2005  183,600 people in attendance  1,307 churches

The largest streams, with five thousand or more in attendance, were in 2005: Newfrontiers had 34,600 people attending, Association of Vineyard Churches had 11,600, Salt and Light had 10,700, Ground Level had 8,100, Pioneer had 7,000 and Ichthus Christian Fellowship had 6,800. Their strength is still largely in the southeast of England and along the southern coast. One leader in seven (fourteen percent) is female. 

The New Churches remain a significant movement, accounting for six percent of total English church attendance. Much of their charismatic influence and social concern has been caught by and shared with other denominations; this is not the case with their discipling programme. Many of the leaders in the 1970s are still leaders, and one of the key challenges they face is the consequential transition that will have to take place in the next decade if House Churches are to gain momentum. They have made a major contribution to English Christianity over the past thirty years; however, they are now very much in a watershed situation as they face the next thirty years.


Dr. Peter Brierley, a church consultant, is the Senior Lausanne Associate for Church Research. He attended Lausanne I in 1974 and has been involved with the Lausanne movement since 1984. He is former executive director of Christian Research, a UK charity which produces resource volumes like Religious Trends and the UK Christian Handbook. Brierley can be reached at peter@brierleyres.com.