The wonderful missionary work of house churches throughout the Majority World is no surprise to anyone reading this article. We continually hear reports of rapid church growth occurring through the ministries of such churches. However, when one thinks of house churches that are making an impact for the kingdom, he or she generally does not think such churches exist in North America.
In my recently published book, Missional House Churches: Reaching Our Communities with the Gospel1, however, I reported my research of thirty-three house churches in the United States which are both experiencing conversion growth and are planting other churches. The book is the first published work studying house churches and their missionary activities in the United States. Although these churches are not a representative sample of all American house churches, they do offer an encouraging model of what the Lord is presently doing in a Western context through non-traditional expressions of the Body of Christ.
Meet the Churches
The thirty-three churches represented in the study are located in every geographical region of the United States. They were found in rural areas, suburban communities, small towns, and large urban environments. Although the Anglo community was the most represented group among the churches, there was a great amount of ethnic diversity. The churches also consisted of people from every living generation. Such churches were not solely comprised of young adults, but age ranges extended from infants to adults in their seventies. Such churches had a high view of the Bible and espoused many conservative evangelical theological perspectives, especially related to salvation matters.
Many of the churches were only a few years old. Forty-six percent of the churches had been meeting for one to three years. However, twenty-one percent were at least ten years old. The average size of each of these churches ranged from fourteen to seventeen people, with one church consisting of more than thirty-four members.
Baptisms and Church Planting
The churches had to meet two screening criteria prior to being admitted into the study. First, they had to have baptized at least one person in the year prior to the study. Second, they had to have planted at least one church within the three previous years. Due to the low numbers of baptisms in the United States and numbers of churches involved in church planting, I set these two parameters very low.
The missional house churches in the study baptized an average of four to six people in the previous year, which gave them an average membership to baptismal ratio of approximately 4.3:1 to 2.3:1. It should be noted that the membership to baptismal ratio is one statistic used by missiologists to assist in evaluating evangelistic health. The statistic is the number of church members it takes in a given year to reach one person with the gospel and see that person baptized into the membership of the church. Therefore, it is expected that the lower ratios reveal a greater evangelistic effectiveness among the members. These churches had some of the lowest baptism to membership ratios in all of North America. Also, these churches consisted of many new believers, with each church consisting of twenty-four to forty-three percent recent converts.
The churches in this study planted on average four and six churches over the past three years. Three churches in the study planted ten or more. Clearly, such church planting numbers are dwarfed in comparison to many non-North American churches. However, in light of church growth in the Western world, these are outstanding numbers! Over the three years prior to the study, these churches planted between 132-198 churches.
What Can We Learn from this Study?
There are at least five important matters that can be learned from the study results.
1. Even in post-Christianized, Western societies, simple expressions of the church can be effective in penetrating certain sectors of those societies with the gospel.
2. If the sovereign Lord decides to bring about a church multiplication movement to the United States, it is most likely to happen among those churches embracing a biblical ecclesiology, without the numerous Western cultural expectations of what is required for a church to be a church. Although the house church model is not the key to multiplication movements, the churches in this study were probably poised in such a way that if such a movement occurred in North America, they would easily be able to adjust and grow accordingly.
3. These churches can teach us much about the importance of relationships in the evangelism, assimilation, and leadership development process. These churches placed a great amount of importance on significant relationships for witness and accountability. The church leaders surveyed believed their simple approaches to leadership development were working well.
4. Many of the churches in the study gave away between eighty and ninety percent of their offerings to missions and benevolence. Few of their pastors received a salary, and few of the churches met in a location other than someone’s house. Although this fact is not a call for churches to sell their buildings and stop providing their pastors with an income, the percentages reflected in these churches should give many of us cause to pause and reflect on our present church budgets and the kingdom.
5. If the attitudes of the church leaders are correct, then the United States will see a substantial increase in the number of house churches in the future. It was common to hear these leaders say, “Their numbers will explode” or “Such churches will become more and more prevalent.” Assuming the responses of these survey participants, do reflect the Lord’s will in the future, the question remains: “Will such churches be missional house churches?”
1. 2008. Carlisle, UK: Paternoster.