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House church, or "home church", or in Mainland China 家庭教会 (literally "Family Church") is used to describe an independent assembly of Christians who gather in a home. Sometimes this occurs because the group is small, and a home is the most appropriate place to gather, as in the beginning phase of the British New Church Movement. Sometimes it is because the group is a member of an underground Christian movement, which is otherwise banned from meeting, as in China. Some recent Christian writers have supported the view that the Christian Church should meet in houses, and have based the operation of their communities around multiple small home meetings. They claim that this approach is preferable to public meetings in dedicated buildings because it is a more effective way of building community and it helps the group to engage in outreach more naturally. Some believe small churches were a deliberate apostolic pattern in the first century and intended by Christ. Cell churches are usually associated with larger churches: they also meet in homes and share some characteristics of house churches. They are not normally considered to be a house church, as they are not self-governing.
Some within the house church movement (associated with Wolfgang Simson, Frank Viola and others) consider the term "house church" to be a misnomer, asserting that the main issue for Christians who practice their faith in this manner is not the house but the type of meeting that takes place. Other titles which may be used to describe this movement are "simple church" "relational church," "primitive church," "body life," "organic church," or "biblical church." However all of the practices implied by these terms are shared with many other churches outside the movement.
The first house church is recorded in Acts 1:13, where the disciples of Jesus met together in the "Upper Room" of a house, traditionally believed to be where the Cenacle is today. For the first three centuries of the church, known as Early Christianity, Christians typically met in homes, if only because intermittent persecution (before the Edict of Milan in 313) did not allow the erection of public church buildings. Clement of Alexandria, an early church father, wrote of worshipping in a house. The Dura-Europos church, a private house in Dura-Europos in Syria, was excavated in the 1930s and was found to be used as a Christian meeting place in AD 232, with one small room serving as a baptistry. At many points in subsequent history, various Christian groups worshipped in homes, often due to persecution by the state church or the civil government.
Christians who meet together in homes usually do so because of a desire to return to basic Church meetings as found in the New Testament. The New Testament shows that the early Christian church exhibited a simplicity of fellowship and interactive practice that is typically not the case in conventional denominations. They believe that Christians walked closely with each other, in close fellowship, sharing their lives in Christ together. This is expressed by 50 examples of the phrase "one another" found in the New Testament. Some Bible passages that indicate the atmosphere of early church life include:
Some assemblies have a conventional leadership structure; others have none. A commonly held belief in the modern-day house church "movement" is that the Protestant Reformation did not go far enough to demonstrate a New Testament belief in the "priesthood of all believers" and that Jesus Christ alone is the Head of the Church, and the believers the body. The absence of hierarchical leadership structures in many house churches, while often viewed by the Protestant church at large as a sign of anarchy or rebelliousness to authority, is viewed by many in the house church movement to be the most viable way to come under true spiritual authority of love, relationships, and the visible dominion of Jesus Christ as Head of his own bride (i.e. the church). This does not mean that they reject all leadership, however. Many house churches develop elders and deacons who serve the members. Some house churches also accept ministry from church planters and itinerant workers whom they consider to be apostles.
Many house church gatherings are free, informal, and sometimes include a shared meal. Participants hope that everyone present will feel free to contribute to the gathering as and when they sense the leading of the Holy Spirit to do so. Leadership structures range from no official leaders, to a plurality of appointed elders. There is a deliberate attempt within most house churches to minimize the leadership of any one person. Having a lone pastor is generally considered unscriptural and such meetings prefer an openly plural responsibility of leadership.
The house church movement today also owes much of its networking and exchange of information to the use of the Internet; HC is generally used as an abbreviation for "House Church" and IC is used to designate "Institutional Church", which is the generalized term for more traditional church structures, including a church building and/or sermon-centered church services directed by a pastor or minister. More recently local networks of house churches have begun to form, with gatherings of house churches in an area getting together periodically for celebrations.
The origins of the so-called house church movement are varied. In North America and the UK particularly, it is often viewed as a development and logical extension of the 'Brethren' or Plymouth Brethren movement both in doctrine and practice where many individuals and assemblies have adopted new approaches to worship and governance, while others recognise a relationship to the Anabaptists, Free Christians, Quakers, Amish, Hutterites, Mennonites, Moravians, Methodists, and the much earlier Waldenses and Priscillianists. Another perspective sees the house church movement as a re-emergence of the move of the Holy Spirit during the Jesus Movement of the 1970s in the USA or the worldwide Charismatic Renewal of the late 1960s and 1970s. Others see it as a return to a New Testament church restorationist paradigm and a restoration of God's eternal purpose and the natural expression of Christ on the earth, urging Christians to return from hierarchy and rank to practices described and encouraged in Scripture.
Historically, there have been tensions between house church movements (along with other restoration and revival movements) and traditional churches. Therefore, many house churches do not have formal links to larger Christian organizations as a matter of principle. (A home group / bible study which is connected with a denomination is usually referred to as a cell church.)
Recently, however, a number of established Christian denominations and mission organizations have officially supported efforts to develop house church networks. These include the following: The Free Methodist Church in Canada, The Foursquare Gospel Church of Canada, The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, The Presbyterian Church in Canada, Partners in Harvest, The Southern Baptist Convention (USA), Dove Christian Fellowship International, DAWN Ministries (Discipling a Whole Nation), The Progressive Christian Alliance, and Youth With A Mission (YWAM), Eternal Grace, and the recently launched Underground Churches among others.
In a social sense, the movement towards house churches may be linked to other social movements as well, such as the "emerging church movement", missional living, the parachurch movement, and perhaps even larger social phenomena such as panocracy and intentional living movements.
Today, the spread of house churches is largely found in countries such as China, Vietnam, India, Cuba, Brazil and African nations, but they are also seen in small, but growing, numbers in the Philippines, Europe, and North America. A modern day example of the house church movement is the group known as "the local churches" which began in China with Watchman Nee and spread all over the world through Nee's co-worker, Witness Lee. The local churches have grown to over hundreds of thousands meeting together according to the New Testament pattern of Christian meeting and have been commended by several Christian leaders in the United States.
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(Statistical Sources: Rad Zdero (2004), The Global House Church Movement; Rad Zdero (2007), Nexus: The World House Church Movement Reader; Dawn Friday Fax; Wolfgang Simson (2007), The Starfish Manifesto; Wolfgang Simson, EaSi Newsletter, July 2007; Wikipedia)