By Milton Adams
28 April 2020 | Small, informal gatherings in homes on Sabbath were gaining popularity even before the corona virus pandemic. It is a way to have church without all the complications of owning property, boards, committees, departments, officers, and elections.
As house churches gain popularity, denominational leaders have to decide how they will respond to this trend. In general, denominations either (1) reject, (2) cosmetically adopt, or (3) wholeheartedly recognize and value Christ’s commission to believers to do all the work of disciple making. According to a recent news release from the Office of Adventist Mission at the denomination’s General Conference, the Seventh-day Adventist denomination has voted house church planting as a viable means to reach today’s mission fields “at a time when many view the traditional church negatively.” [Original here.]
Individuals involved with or interested in house churches see denominational interest in house churches as either: (1) unwelcome bureaucracy or (2) sanction by their faith community.
Yet, it is still early to be able to accurately determine whether the Adventist denomination will cosmetically adopt house churches or wholeheartedly recognize and value Christ’s gospel commission to the believers to do the work of disciple making. This article will not explore the Biblical job description of pastor (Eph. 4), suffice to affirm that there is a place for the spiritual gift of pastor alongside the other spiritual gifts given to the body in house church movements, although their function and job description will reflect Eph. 4 as compared to post-Constantinian priest/pastoral job descriptions.
Beginning with the bigger picture
Culture is changing around us. Thanks to the Internet, there is a developing global culture that is in many ways eclipsing local cultures. No matter where one lives, if connected to the Internet, one is being enculturated to accept Western views and values.
Additionally, power and control are being decentralized. Top-down supremacy is losing influence, while grassroots relational infrastructures are gaining influence. People no longer have to work within institutional systems to achieve their goals and add value
and meaning to their life. Consider these institutional systems as compared to their grassroots counterparts:
Institutional Systems Organic Systems
Encyclopedia Britannica Wikipedia.com
Microsoft Office OpenOffice.com
Garmin or Tom-Tom Google Maps, Waze.com
National Currencies Cryptocurrencies (i.e., Bitcoin)
Big box stores (i.e., Walmart) CSA (community supported agriculture)
Conventional school Home school
Conventional church House church
New grassroots possibilities give people alternative ways to bypass conventional systems and reinvent life. Policy-based systems are being replaced by relational systems where people are more important than the survival and/or maintenance of the institution they once championed. Learn more about this megatrend by watching this 20-minute TED Talk2 by Clay Shirky, a secular observer: Here.
In light of this cultural backdrop, how have Christian denominations typically responded to house churches? Generally, the responses fall into one of three categories: (1) Rejection of house churches; (2) Cosmetic adoption of house churches; or (3) Wholehearted recognition of the value of Christ’s gospel commission to the believers to do all the work of disciple making within house churches.
Rejection of House Churches
Conventional church systems typically reject house churches on four accounts. First, the denomination is not able to easily channel house church financial donations (tithe and offerings) into the denominational structure, which is foundational to the survival the conventional model. While working with conventional church leaders around the world for the past nine years, the number one question I have been asked regarding house churches is, “How does the tithe get to the conference office?” This is understandable in an age when researcher George Barna, in his 2016 report called Church Startups and Money: The Myths and Realities of Church Planters & Finances, states, “Because the giving landscape is changing, Barna researchers believe there is extraordinary urgency behind this research. The shifting landscape of generosity means that church leaders not only should grapple with these questions, but also they must do so. There is no time like the present when things are as good as they are likely to get—explore the current and future efficacy of funding models for churches and church planters.” [p. 47: here. ]
Second, denominations find it difficult to control house churches because in house churches there is no paid leadership (pastor, lay-pastor, or Bible worker) to hire or fire. As a general rule, house churches are 100 percent volunteer-led. This means that conventional church lines of authority have been decentralized.
Third, denominations typically measure their success based on tithe, attendance, and baptisms. House churches measure their success based on believers accepting God’s invitation to join Him in His mission. Since there are no salaries to fund or buildings to maintain in house churches, they are not driven by the conventional church success matrix.
Four, denominations are being driven by legal issues and risk management as much as mission. Legal requirements shape the institutional policies and goals.
These are the most typical reasons I have been given by denominational leaders. As Clay Shirky points out in his TED talk, it is functional institutionalism, in both secular and religious environments.
Cosmetic Adoption of House Church Terminology
Instead of outright rejecting house churches, denominational leaders may be tempted to adopt house church wording and expressions, where advantageous. However, in the absence of a new paradigm to accompany the terminology, the cosmetic adoption takes the form of writing new house church policies and guidelines that preserve institutional traditions and the conventional church success matrix. These policies and guidelines invariably include the control of tithe, authorization to baptize, and in some parts of the world, permission to administer communion.
Cosmetic adoption hurts Kingdom work. It inoculates people who hear house church lingo from within the institutional paradigm and find that there is no deeper Biblical foundation that truly re-empowers the believers to do all the work of disciple making. Cosmetic adoption seems to confirm the systems development theory articulated by Clay Shirky in the previously referenced TED talk, by suggesting that institutional self-preservation is a higher priority than the original mission.
Wholeheartedly Recognize Christ’s Commission to All Believers
For the sake of missional effectiveness, sustainability and scalability to reach the urban masses “at a time when many view the traditional church negatively,” denominational leaders willingly give up the institutional controls they have been accustomed to. Leaders recognize in the priesthood of all believers a Scriptural model for such a time as this.
What are some of the theological foundations for house churches which are non-negotiable for re-empowering believers to do all the work of disciple making?
A non-negotiable for Adventists is the primacy of Scripture. The Bible must be the final authority for both method and message, even when it conflicts with church policy or tradition. “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). “The grand principle maintained by the Reformers – the same that had been held by the Waldenses, by Wycliffe, by John Huss, by Luther, Zwingli, and those who united with them – was the infallible authority of the Holy Scriptures as a rule of faith and practice. They denied the rights of popes, councils, Fathers, and kings, to control the conscience in matters of religion. The Bible was their authority, and by its teaching they tested all doctrines and all claims.” Ellen G. White, Great Controversy, p. 249.
Equally non-negotiable is gospel commission authority. Christ’s authority, empowering His followers to do all the work of disciple making, takes precedence over man’s authority when human authority adds limitations and/or restrictions to the Gospel Commission. “And Jesus came and spake unto them, saying, All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world” (Matthew 28:18-20). “Those who stand as leaders in the church of God are to realize that the Savior’s commission is given to all who believe in His name.” Ellen G. White, Acts of the Apostles, p. 110. “There is no place for tradition, for man’s theories and conclusions, or for church legislation. No laws ordained by ecclesiastical authority are included in the commission. None of these are Christ’s servants to teach.” Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages, p. 826.
Another non-negotiable Biblical principle for Adventists is the priesthood of all believers. Every member is a minister; the priesthood of all believers still applies today. “But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light …” (1 Peter 2:9). “And from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, and the first begotten of the dead, and the prince of the kings of the earth. Unto Him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in His own blood, And hath made us kings and priests unto God and his Father; to Him be glory and dominion for ever and ever” (Revelation 1:5-6),
“The Savior’s commission to the disciples included all the believers. It includes all believers in Christ to the end of time. It is a fatal mistake to suppose that the work of saving souls depends alone on the ordained minister. All to whom the heavenly inspiration has come are put in trust with the gospel. All who receive the life of Christ are ordained to work for the salvation of their fellow men. For this work the church was established, and all who take upon themselves its sacred vows are thereby pledged to be co-workers with Christ.” Ellen G. White, Desire of Ages, p. 822.
Both the Gospel Commission of Matthew 28:18-20 and the Everlasting Gospel Commission of Revelation 14:6 command a global going. Without the availability of modern technology such as telephones, the Internet and social networking, the work once had to be organized geographically. This was done purposefully and effectively by church leaders in the past. The need has changed; we now live in a world without walls. Thus geographical boundaries that once served the mission can now hinder it if they are viewed as marking turf or territory. “Thus Christ sought to teach the disciples the truth that in God’s kingdom there are no territorial lines, no caste, no aristocracy; that they must go to all nations, bearing to them the message of love.” Ellen G. White, Acts of the Apostles, p. 20.
Freedom of choice is also foundational to God’s Kingdom. We are invited, not forced or coerced. And, in like manner, we are to extend freedom to others. “Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear My voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with Me.” (Revelation 3:20)
These non-negotiables impact a denomination’s response to house churches. And not only have denominations responded differently to house churches; individuals have responded differently to the recent Office of Adventist Mission decision to embrace house churches. I will now turn to these general responses.
How do individuals respond when a denomination “votes” house church? It depends upon one’s past experience with church leaders. It depends upon the country one lives in. It depends upon the subculture one lives in. It depends upon whether one is a paid clergy or lay person. And it depends upon whether one is a missional or Kingdom entrepreneur. All these elements contribute to one’s world view and influence one’s response to a denomination’s approval of house churches.
To oversimplify for the sake of an example, a person living in a culturally Catholic country may be more inclined to celebrate such a denominational decision because they value church-sanctioned programs, while a person who is a multi-generation United States citizen may be more inclined to see such a denominational “vote” as unwelcome bureaucracy. Most likely, there is a mix of thoughts, emotions, concerns and excitement as people wait and watch to see what a “vote” actually means—cosmetic adoption or wholehearted recognition and valuing of Christ’s gospel commission to the believers to do all the work of disciple making.
Does a denominational “vote” change anything for Simple Church planters? In terms of focus and missional authority to do all the work of disciple making, no! Simple Church creates a space for committed missionary-minded entrepreneurs to plant house churches focused on reaching secular and/or unchurched people, the dechurched, and “the nones and the dones” (also now referred to by sociologists as “church refugees”). This means taking risks. And, as with anything of value in life, it will likely receive criticism.
In terms of a spirit of criticism, Simple Church planters must continue on the high road by living and modeling the same non-criticizing principle they hope to receive from conventional church leaders. Simple Church is one way of reaching people — but it is not the only way. “Some of the methods used in the work will be different from the methods used in the past, but let no one, because of this, block the way by criticism,” wrote Ellen White long ago. (Testimonies for the Church, Volume 7, p. 25.)
In terms of freely sharing Simple Church wherever, whenever, and with whomever, the vote does not mean a change. One’s commission comes directly from the authority of Jesus Christ Himself. “And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, ‘All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.’ Amen” (Matthew 28:18-20).
Special Thanks, Special Welcome
Thank you, Simple Church planters! You are pioneers and spiritual entrepreneurs. Some of you have faced opposition and traveled a lonely road, and yet you have persevered. Thank you for accepting Christ’s invitation to join Him in His mission, whenever, wherever, and with whoever is Truth seeking. Thank you for leaving your churched comfort zone to reach people who will never walk into a church building.
Welcome to all who have recently connected with Simple Church Global Network. My prayer is that you will not become weary in well doing. Press on and trend Heavenward. It will not be until we reach Heaven that those who have worked diligently to help build God’s kingdom will come to realize the ripple effect that had such an impact on so many people’s lives.
Welcome to those who are just now reading and learning about this. I want to invite you to prayerfully consider becoming a Simple Church planter. May I offer a suggestion? Don’t do it alone. Connect with other Simple Church planters around the world who share the same missionary heart you do. Connecting with other Simple Church planters divides the burdens and doubles the joy. Together let us pray for an epidemic of tens of thousands of Simple Church planters around the world.
Recommendations for the Office of Adventist Mission at the Denomination’s General Conference
As this “vote” unfolds within the denomination, it is my prayer that:
1. The intent of denominational leadership will go far beyond a cosmetic adoption and will truly acknowledge, support, and promote the priesthood of all believers’ Scriptural authority to do all the work of disciple making; free from non-Scriptural traditions and policy.
2. Sixty percent of those sitting at the table charged with the task “to create a training manual for planting house churches” will be lay people (without denominational salary or stipend) who have been planting house churches in which they have been doing all the work of
3. Of this sixty percent, half will be Simple Church planting believers from a sampling of secular Western cultures who have helped plant house churches.
Milton Adams spent 15 years pastoring Adventist churches in the secular Northwest of the United States before starting the Simple Church Global Network. His award-winning doctoral dissertation at Andrews University focused on the development of this global network which now serves house churches globally. Milton enjoys working with church leaders around the world and re-empowering mission-minded believers who love Jesus and want to share the Everlasting Gospel with the secular and/or unchurched people who most likely will never walk into a conventional church. For more information go to: https://www.simplechurchathome.com/