Saturday, April 21, 2007

Wolfgang Simson, the City Church, and the IMB

In recent years, the name of Wolfgang Simson has come to be identified with one stream of the “house church movement” around the world, with a special focus on church planting multiplication through “house church networks.” Sharing many common values with David Garrison’s “church planting movement” emphasis, Simson’s writings have influenced many within the IMB. His magnum opus, Houses that Change the World, has become required reading for new missionaries in several regions of the IMB.

I, personally, am in no way opposed to “house churches” or to “church planting movements,” in and of themselves, as a strategy directive. There is also much I have learned from and admire about Simson’s ideas and the missionary approach he advocates. I hesitate to point out my discrepancies, lest anyone use them as a pretext to censure many of the excellent contributions that Simson and “house church” ecclesiology have made to the work of the IMB. I am somewhat concerned, however, with the particular way “house church” ecclesiology and missiology have been implemented and are being implemented by many missionaries around the world, both within the IMB and otherwise.

My particular concerns have to do primarily with another topic on which I have written extensively here on this blog: the unity of the Body of Christ. In order to understand the context of my concerns, the following quotes from Houses that Change the World will prove helpful:

From Simson’s Fifteen Theses towards a Re-incarnation of Church

13. From Denominations to city-wide celebrations

Jesus called a universal movement, and what came was a series of religious corporations with global chains marketing their special brands of Christianity and competing with each other. Through this branding of Christianity most of Protestantism has lost its voice in the world and become politically insignificant and often more concerned with traditional specialties and religious infighting than with developing a collective testimony before the world. Jesus simply never asked people to organize themselves into factions and denominations, and Paul spoke of it as ‘worldly’, a sign of baby Christians.

In the
early days of the Church, Christians had a dual identity: they were truly His church and vertically converted to God, and they organized themselves according to geography, that is, converting also horizontally to each other on earth. This means not only Christian neighbours organizing themselves into neighbourhood or house churches, where they share their lives locally, but Christians coming together as a collective identity as much as they can for city-wide or regional celebrations expressing the corporateness of the church of the city or region. Authenticity in the neighbourhoods connected with a regional or city-wide corporate identity will make the church not only politically significant and spiritually convincing, but will allow a return to the biblical model of the city church, the sum total of all born-again Christians of a city or an area.

From The Reinvention of Church: Advantages of house churches over traditional churches

12. It resurrects the city church

I see the present church organized into 4 levels:

a. the house (where organic fellowship is possible, irrespective of what we call it);

b. the congregational church (the traditional meeting-oriented denominational church);

c. the city or region;

d. the denomination (the network, conference or organisation of denominational churches of an area).

While the traditional church is typically focused on two levels (b and d), the cell church would be focused on a and b. The house church, however, allows us to regain a focus on a and c. The church in the New Testament was named according to its geographical location, not denomination. With a new wave of house churches, this also opens up a way back to the ‘city church’, literally the church of the city – all Christians of a city or region together, meeting regularly or irregularly in city-wide celebrations, where the city’s most gifted Christians and humble servants of the Lamb forget all titles and politics and, in a new maturity, sacrifice their own name, denominationalism, reputation and single-handed success to the single advancement of the Kingdom of only one King, the Lamb of God.

Imagine the public tumult when this collective, city-based and authentic leadership regularly provides prophetic vision, teaches apostolic standards, stands united, blesses each other and speaks to the world with one voice. What the devil has tried hard to prevent at any cost will again come true: ‘the Romans’, ‘the Ephesians’, ‘the Corinthians’, ‘the church of Jerusalem’, Vienna, Singapore, Baghdad, KhartouÙm or Montevideo will reconnect with each other, each forming itself into a supernatural corporate identity and movement under one single Lord and Master, and speaking with a collective and powerful voice to its city and nation.

What happens at the small level of house churches will eventually spill over on a larger, city scale, where the church will ‘excel at the small and therefore excel at the large’. Instead of Christians being regularly excited top-down through imported motivators and speakers at artificial conferences based on names and topics, the healthy, authentic and infectious joy and excitement at the house level will bubble up and express itself city-wide, where no one can miss it any more, and people will repeat the statement first made in Jerusalem: ‘You have filled our city with your teaching!’ And if God should choose to repeat instances as at Pentecost, where 120 upper-room Christians suddenly face the challenge of accommodating 3000 converts in one day, they would be prepared, because the flexible structure of multiplying house churches would already be in place.

In many areas of the world, local and regional pastoral fellowships and prayer networks are emerging. I believe this can be the beginning of a regional process, a Spirit-led, intuitive and slow convergence of people with like-minded spirits, which creates healthy relationships first, which leads to the formation of a collective spiritual identity, a vessel of unity, into which, at a special kairos-point in history, a greater challenge can be placed: collectively to take on the challenge of discipling our city or region – together!

From House Church or Cell Church?: Thirteen reasons why house churches are the natural solution

10. The role of celebrations

“…The celebrations of cell churches often have a denominational character – it is our brand of cell groups that meet in our celebration – whereas the house churches favour and support more the regional or city-wide celebrations, where the whole local church comes together as the sum total of all Christians in an area. One builds a new denominationalism; the other builds the Kingdom. Which is more biblical?” (p. 150)

What specifically are my concerns?

Anyone who has read this blog to any extent knows that I am not against the concept of the “city church.” However, I am concerned about a supposed “city church” unity built on the ground of “house church” ecclesiology. The Body of Christ is broader than the “house church movement.” It includes true born-again believers in traditional and cell-church structures as well. It also includes those who belong to denominations and networks of various sorts.

There has been a tendency on the part of some, both within the IMB, as well as elsewhere, in the name of “house church” ecclesiology, to isolate themselves from the larger Body of Christ in the community in which they are working. Specifically, in the case of some IMB workers, this has included isolation from the denominational structures, congregations, and national leaders, with which we as representatives of the SBC have traditionally worked.

Simson himself acknowledges that isolated house churches, out of the context of the “city church,” or larger networks of churches, will oftentimes be lacking in necessary leadership and gifts to function fully as Christ meant them to.

My suggestion, in the light of this, is to continue to study and remain open to the contributions of “house church” ecclesiology and missiology, but not at the expense of fellowship and close working relationships with national churches and leaders. In the cases where national churches and leaders are not quick to “jump on the bandwagon” of the “house church movement” and the IMB’s CPM emphasis, I believe we must take the time to build trust, developing our relationships with our national brethren, and learning mutually one from another about how God is working, and what a “church planting movement” might look like in the particular cultural context in which God has placed each one of us.

Perhaps indeed God is doing something new in the world that involves both “house churches” and the “city church.” However, I do not believe a movement that is truly born of God will move ahead with His blessing on the basis of separation and isolation from other groups of true born-again believers, even if they are a bit “contaminated” with traditional-church DNA.


Don said...

Hi David,

I hear where you are coming from but let me try to hit it from a different perspective. Often, the need to work outside of the existing structure is not a choice. In many areas where the existing church is so embedded, it is difficult to introduce a radical change such as house church.

How do you go to a denominational structure that says in order to be a recognized church, you must have - a building, title, pastor, pastor with a seminary degree, X number of members, etc when these are unrealistic for the given society and reflect more of an American worldview than the receptor culture.

This does not excuse us from making efforts to bridge the gap but the bulk of the work must be spent on sowing a new missiology into the DNA of new believers. I would argue that it is not an either or but a both and. While we are going in a new model, it is often possible to continue to have a wonderful relationship with the existing church and help them come to accept new ideas.

I can point you to some very specific (wouldn't be prudent here) countries where the existing denominational structure is so closed to new methods and ways of thinking and so in the back pocket of well intentioned, ignorant US churches who are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars propping up broken structures that they are not open to discussing different models of church. As long as churches in the US overtly undermine the work of IMB missionaries with seemingly unlimited budgets, I do not the existing church structure changing. In these cases, the best option for missionaries is to move forward with their work in an effort to create a new heart for missions in the new works while at the same time working to better relationships within the existing convention structure.

While it may be true that in some cases the IMB has become isolated from the existing structure, I do not believe it would be accurate to assume that the IMB is the one that is always to blame for the isolation. Sometimes the best way to get people on board is to show others that it works. In many cases around Latin America, we need WORKING MODELS to show the conventions before they will buy into it. Gone are the days of our financial subsidy gaining us a seat at the table. Now we me must actually show them models that work.

Now that stateside churches have filled this subsidy role, they have artificially bought themselves a seat at the table... who am I kidding, sometimes they bought the table and the chairs.


Kevin, Somewhere in South America said...


Thanks for a good post. I have seen the negative side of the city church in full bloom. It was in the first placed we served for nine years. The pastor ultimately came to the sad conclusion that he was the only legitimate (if not "true") church in that city. All other work, in his opinion, was spurious and outside God's ultimate plan for South America. It was based on the concept that God only intended there to be one church for each city. That is not to say that there is anything inherently wrong with a city church. I struggle with the concept, given the strong diversity of most urban centers.

The other end of the spectrum of that, to me, is the house church. As you implied, to assert that this particular expression of the church (which in the proper context is a good methodology) is the purest form of church is a stretch of both biblical theology and the imagination.

The solution, I think, is to impose one thing and one thing only on the form of the church: God's vision for that particular population segment, people group, or urban center. That means the church will take on many expressions, some of which will be "contaminated" by those pesky traditional churches that seem to never go away. And, to me, it would seem that the Lord is pleased with that very thing.

David Rogers said...


Interesting observations. First off, I want to make very clear I did not mean to say the IMB itself is to blame for the isolation that has occurred in some cases. I personally have sensed nothing but encouragement from those in the supervision line ahead of me for continuing to develop close relationships with the nationals. For some reason, however, others have not. That is why I was careful to say: "there has been a tendency on the part of SOME..."

In Spain, I don't think we have probably had to deal with the question of subsidies from U.S. churches to traditional national churches as much as you have in Latin America. I imagine that can indeed get complicated. I think this is where we as missionaries have a responsibility to educate the churches in the States. Also, to walk side by side with our national brethren.

One rule of thumb for me is to never move ahead on a new ministry initiative completely on my own. No doubt, there are many traditional national pastors and churches that are never going to get on board with what God is doing. But, I believe God always has His choice servants who will be open and eager to join with us, if what we are doing is truly of God.

One thing Simson said at a conference where I heard him, when asked what was the most strategic thing we as Western missionaries can do to help further a CPM in our people group, was: "Find a national believer who is on fire for God, and pour gasoline on his/her fire." I firmly believe Simson was right on target with this comment.

David Rogers said...


Great comment! You have no doubt captured the essence of what I am trying to say.

David Rogers said...


I should probably also add that, in some cases, I would have nothing at all against going outside of the ranks of our traditional Baptist partners, if necessary, in order to find a "national believer who is on fire for God." In our case here in Spain, I have been blessed to find several who are in the Baptist Union. I would hope that would be the case in other countries as well, but since I have not worked there, I can't say for sure.

Grosey's Messages said...

G'day david,
Thanks for a good thoughtful post.
May I ask...
Does a regional conference event with guest (evangelical) Bible teachers (much like Promise Keepers events) constitute a "city church" : keeping denominationalism within an overall evangelical perspective?

Don said...

Hi David,

I understand where you are coming from and I know that you are not questioning the IMB commitment. I was only pointing out that there are often times when working through the existing structure is not feasible. There seems to be much more grey than black and white.

As far as working with nationals, in my field, we always see that this is the key. We start by looking for God fearers and pour lots of time and effort into these people of peace. Our job from day one is to push these people to the front so that we are there as equippers, catalysts, and encouragers.

In one field of service, I was accused of never working with nationals. I found that an interesting accusation considering the nearest Baptist church was 3 hours away and we had no Americans on our team. EVERYONE we worked with was a national... just not from within the existing structure.

Sometimes you must go outside of the structure if you are going to see true change. My desire has been that as results are seen, others will want to join. Too often we have gone to conventions and existing churches proclaiming that we have the answers but rarely have we taken the time to actually implement the strategy ourself before we try to convince them that it will work. If we will implement it and it yields results, what better way to get others involved?

Subsidy is rampant in Latin America. Educating the US church assumes that they want to be educated. Our region has been very proactive in this area and many are listening. At the same time, there are some state conventions and churches that have chosen not to work with the IMB. It would appear to me that they disagree with our strategy or they feel as if they can do it better their own way. Whichever is the reason, it makes our job extremely difficult. It is very difficult to gain influence with national conventions when they are being funded by people with alternate missiologies.

It is equally difficult to work with reproducing churches when a large church in the US comes in and offers instant financial support. While some struggling church leaders will see that the quick support will hurt long term growth, most will see it as a solution not realizing that it basically assures no more reproducibility. My experience has been that money causes most problems on the mission field.

Sorry if I am a little wordy. I haven't been able to post in several months and trying to catch up :)

David Rogers said...


As I understand it, a "regional conference event" like what you describe could well be an activity planned and organized under the auspices of the "city church," but it would not be the "city church" in and of itself.

David Rogers said...


In an area where there is no local church, we must obviously look for persons of peace, win them to Christ, disciple them, and work with them. Even in such a situation, though, I would always prefer to work with a team, if possible, with national believers from the beginning, in order to model community to the new believers.

In places where there is a local church, even if that church is not of our denominational background, I believe we should take them into consideration, and seek how we might work together with them in unity in order to win their community to Christ. That may not necessarily mean a totally merged inter-denominational congregation, or church planting team. But, at least, we seek to keep each other informed, pray together, and respect each other. Also, bouncing ideas off of each other to see how best to cooperate in order to see people in that community won to Christ and discipled.

I guess what I am saying, in essence, is we should not have a "Lone Ranger" approach. We are family. We are a team with all our brothers and sisters in Christ. And, in the locality in which we are working, we should try our best to take that into account.

GuyMuse said...

This post is right down my alley of personal interest! The comments above me are also interesting and helpful.

A number of years ago I corresponded with Wolfgang about a paper he had written on the "Three Streams of Church". The three expressions of NT church in today's world are: traditional (est. 450-million believers), cell churches (10-million believers), and house-city churches (est. between 200-450 million). The point of his paper was that we should stop trying to "convert" one another, and use that same energy to join forces in "making disciples of the nations."

My question to him then, and now to you, is HOW do we go about joining forces in a unified fashion to work together through its three main expressions? What needs to happen to actually make this a reality?

I look at our city and see the three expressions of evangelical churches. Where does one begin to get us all on the same page to be able to cooperate and working together, and especially to ACCEPT one another? Right now, we see each other as the "competition." There is suspicion of anybody not doing things the same way we do them. For the most part, we work independently of one another. Somehow, we have got to begin to listen to one another, take what is good from each of the three expressions, and adapt it to our understanding of the way the church should be structured and function. I am personally working very intentionally on this level in my own ministry. There are some exciting things shaping up on this front that I hope to be able to share in the coming months.

Certainly to begin reading outside of one's comfort zone on ecclesiological issues is a good start. It is how I got into the whole house-city church thing myself. It wasn't so much the IMB pushing it at the time, but my own investigation and exploring the issues that had long frustrated me as I looked at the evangelical world around me. Little by little I was won over to the conviction that what the NT refers to as "churches" are really more along the line of house-city church concepts than what is practiced by most traditional churches today. No one told me this is the "right way to do church" and all the rest are wrong. It was simply a growing conviction, while at the same time a realization that not everybody was going to agree with my new found discovery!

Tim Patterson has an excellent post on his blog entitled To Win As Many As Possible about some of David Watkins observations about these matters (click on the Watson link). It is really good stuff and I would encourage those interested in this subject to give Tim a visit for a thought-provoking read.

David Rogers said...


You bit the bait! I was actually sort of fishing for a comment from you on this one, and you have not disappointed. Your observations are very much down the line of what I am thinking.

Just a side comment, to start with. I am a bit surprised by the vast disparity in Simson's statistics between "cell churches" and "house churches." I would be very interested to know how he arrives at these figures. Sometimes I think it is hard to distinguish between some "cell churches" and some "house church networks."

Also, I found the following comment on the Wikipedia article on "House churches" which seems to me to be relevant here as well:

"Chinese house church - be aware that Chinese house churches typically have a leadership structure (including a pastor) that resembles "underground traditionally structured churches" (or "cell churches") in contrast to what is generally considered to be a "house church" in other areas."

In any case, I am very happy to see what Simson has written about "Three Streams of Church." I would love to get a copy of that paper. Do you know how I might do so? What you are saying here about this paper helps me a lot regarding some reservations I have had on Simson and his ideas up to now.

I imagine what you see in Guayaquil regarding mutual acceptance between the 3 streams is fairly typical of the Church around the world. We cannot force others to change. But I believe we can lead the way by our example and our attitude.

My dream is that we, as IMB workers, would be able to be a force for healing and reconciliation, and not further separation, in regard to all this. I very much look forward to what you hope to share on this in the coming months.

Regarding Tim's post, I can't believe that slid by me. I must have accidentally forgot to save it on my Bloglines checker. In any case, I had already seen the Watson article referenced on Steve Addison's "World Changers" blog, and was actually planning on posting a link to it on my next post here. Thunder stealer!! In any case, I am totally in agreement with what both Watson and Tim (aka mr. t) have said on this. I think this is a perspective that is very helpful and relevant for all of us m's at this stage of our journey into the realm of practical application of CPM methodology.

Let's keep up the dialogue. I think we are on to something important here.

GuyMuse said...


Yes, anytime you put out that kind of "bait" the fish will bite! :)

When I was writing my comment yesterday I looked everywhere on my laptop for the original Simson "Three Streams of Church", but could only find an English to Spanish translation that I had done years ago. I suppose the original English was in an email that has long been archived who knows where. I'll send you a copy of my translation by email (it is only 2 pages long.)

Please go ahead and post the Watson link along with any personal observations. I think the material is worth repeating. I may even blog on it myself!

Paul said...

David, if you don't mind a non-SBCer jumping in again...

I agree with your observations 100%. I am not that familiar with Wolfgang's work, but I have seen multiple "unity" movement throughout history who seem more bent on proclaiming that they are for unity than actually tooling it out with what presently exists in the city/region.

A clear example of this in our area are disciples of Witness Lee. They seem to want unity the way everyone always has--join us/do it the way we do it and we'll have unity.

A major flaw is that they seem to totally ignore the Christian leaders who are already in the city simply because those leaders, in their view, are corrupted by the existing system. I understand that that could be the case with some, but all of them?

Some of these then revert to the remnant mode--separating (in the name of unity) in order to preserve their "purity," all the while castigating those that they purport to want to join with them. They end up bitter and self-righteous in order to compensate for their disillusionment. They simply become one of the "competition," nothing more. So, they end up being exactly what they say they hate.

I know that's all pretty tough language, and none of this may apply to Wolfgang, but it seems to me that his approach is *one* approach to get to where we need to go.

David Rogers said...


Very practical point, which I think really gets down to the meat of the issue. I am currently reading up on Watchman Nee, Witness Lee, etc., trying to get a better idea on how Nee's original ideas, which to me seem quite biblical, got so off track in their application later on.

An interesting quote, from "The Normal Christian Church Life," that seems to me may have helped keep Lee and the Local Church folks more on-track, if they had kept to it, is the following:

"NON-SECTARIANISM. Some Christians think they know better than to say, “I am of Cephas,” or “I am of Paul,” or “I am of Apollos.” They say, “I am of Christ.” Such Christians despise the others as sectarian, and on that ground start another community. Their attitude is—“You are sectarian; I am non-sectarian. You are hero worshippers; we worship the Lord alone.”

But God’s Word condemns not only those who say, “I am of Cephas,” “I am of Paul,” or “I am of Apollos.” It just as definitely and just as clearly denounces those who say, “I am of Christ.” It is not wrong to consider oneself as belonging only to Christ; it is right and even essential. Nor is it wrong to repudiate all schism among the children of God; it is highly commendable. God does not condemn this class of Christians for either of these two things; He condemns them for the very sin they condemn in others—their sectarianism. As a protest against division among the children of God, many believers seek to divide those who do not divide from those who do, and never dream that they themselves are divisive! Their ground of division may be more plausible than that of others who divide on the ground of doctrinal differences, or personal preference for certain leaders, but the fact remains that they are dividing the children of God. Even while they repudiate schism elsewhere, they are schismatic themselves.

When you say, “I am of Christ,” do you mean to say others are not? It is perfectly legitimate for you to say, “I am of Christ,” if your remark merely implies to whom you belong; but if it implies, “I am not sectarian; I stand quite differently from you sectarians,” then it is making a difference between you and other Christians. The very thought of distinguishing between the children of God has its springs in the carnal nature of man, and is sectarian. If we look on other believers as sectarian and consider ourselves to be non-sectarian, we are immediately differentiating between God’s people and thereby manifesting a divisive spirit even in the very act of condemning division. No matter by what means we distinguish between the members of God’s family—even if it be on the pretext of Christ Himself—we are guilty of schism in the Body."