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