From "House Church" to "Community Group"2
Here at Bridgeway we recently made a change in the way we refer to our small groups. From the time of Bridgeway’s founding in 1994, our small groups were called “house churches.” Why, then, do we now refer to them as “community groups”? Is this a meaningless toying with terms, or is there something more substantive behind the decision?
I’ll try to answer that question by first asking another: How should we define a local church? What are its essential characteristics? We would define a local church like this:
A local church is a group of baptized believers in Jesus Christ who meet regularly in corporate assembly to worship God, through Jesus Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit. Certain practices are essential to this gathered body:
They are under the authority and guidance of duly appointed Leaders
They are regularly taught the Word of God
They celebrate the ordinances of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper
They consistently practice Church Discipline
There are certainly other features and ministries that ought to characterize every local church, such as evangelism, mutual accountability and encouragement, missional outreach, the exercise of spiritual gifts, etc. But the absence of these latter factors only means that a local church is weak or is falling short of its responsibilities.
This means, for example, that Inter-Varsity chapters, CRU, Navigator groups, BSF, Young Life, and Youth for Christ clubs are not local churches. They may well be expressions of the life of the local church or efforts by Christians to achieve specific goals that the local church is unable to pursue, but they are not local churches.
Small group gatherings, likewise, are not in and of themselves local churches. They are the local church in smaller, more manageable embodiments, designed to facilitate community life, accountability, spiritual growth, exercise of spiritual gifts, mutual encouragement, prayer, discipleship, etc. But for a small group to be, in itself, a local church, it must have duly appointed leaders (Elders) who provide for the regular teaching of God’s Word, the celebration of the ordinances, and the exercise of church discipline where called for.
When Bridgeway was founded one of the goals of its leadership was to emphasize the fact that “church” was more than simply a Sunday gathering in a centralized location. It is certainly not less than that, but it is undoubtedly more. The desire was that all Christians serve and celebrate as believer-priests and that ministry be embraced by the whole body and not solely by those who are called “Pastors” or “Elders”. This, of course, is good and reflects our beliefs today no less so than when Bridgeway was first established.
However, over the past 20 years there has occurred a shift in how the language of “house church” is being used and perceived in the evangelical world. When people hear the term “house church” they don’t think primarily in terms of every-member ministry outside the confines of a Sunday corporate celebration. Rather, they are more inclined to assume that each small group gathering in a house is itself a local church that functions with all the responsibilities, rights, and authority set forth in Scripture.
Thus the language of “house church” has taken on an entirely new meaning and more often than not now refers to a movement that tends to be (although there are always exceptions) anti-traditional, anti-institutional, anti-building, anti-structure, and is suspicious about the centralized authority of duly appointed Elders. The “house church” movement also tends to minimize the importance and place of consistent biblical teaching and the NT emphasis on corporate assembly as an essential feature in the identity and practice of a local church.
Please don’t misunderstand. We are not saying that all house churches in this contemporary movement would embrace everything in the previous paragraph. Some simply prefer the smaller, less formal (what they call “organic” or “simple”) gathering that can occur in a private home over against the corporate gathering in a separate structure. We have no objection to “house churches” per se, so long as they meet all the criteria essential for a NT local church. We simply don’t think it is wise or biblically accurate to refer to our small groups at Bridgeway as “house churches.”
Consider this one example found in a recent article. The author describes this scenario: “a long-standing men’s prayer meeting decided to meet in a coffeehouse rather than their home. The very first week another customer noticed them and asked for prayer, and they introduced him to Jesus. In the next few years, as more customers became believers, up to 50 gathered there. For them, that was church” (“Small is the New Big: Making sense of the diverse house church movement currently sweeping across the U.S.,” Charisma, September 2012). Actually, no it isn’t. We applaud gathering to pray. We applaud evangelistic outreach. But men gathering in a coffee house is not a local church.
It’s important to understand what is not changing at Bridgeway.
Our emphasis on small group life and ministry is not changing.
Our belief in the absolute necessity of community is not changing.
Our focus on mutual accountability and encouragement is not changing.
Our belief in the importance of obeying the many “one-anothering” commands in the NT is not changing.
Our current strategy and structure for our small groups is not changing.
Our pastoral oversight of small groups is not changing.
Our commitment to “coaching” our small group leaders is not changing.
Our theology is not changing.
Our ecclesiology is not changing.
The only thing changing is terminology. But terminology is huge! Words are important! We want who we are and what we believe about local church life to be accurately reflected in the terms we employ and the labels we apply to our various expressions of ministry.
Therefore, we believe it will be more biblically faithful and practically beneficial to Bridgeway if we henceforth refer to our small groups as “community groups.” No one will be fined (!) or rebuked if they continue to speak of “house churches”! It will take time and patience and consistent communication on the part of everyone at Bridgeway to make this transition, but we are confident it will happen and will prove helpful to all we are and do as a local church.