Lately, much is being written about microchurches. With the intimacy of fellowship, community, worship, and driven mission, it is obvious why people are being drawn to this vibrant kingdom expression. As a practitioner and professor, I have the grateful ability to view movements from the field and vicariously live experiences through student planters and pastors. Being asked frequently about the differences between microchurches and house churches has propelled me to write a short article (and provide some graphics).
First, microchurch planting is not merely the new trending missiological term; it does have succinct differences and parameters. For the most part, they are catalytic and a decentralized movement creator. Microchurches do not belong to denominations or organizations, yet they develop strategic and dynamic networks.
As well, house churches also do not belong to denominations. For clarity, most church plants tend to begin as house churches until they are ready for a public launch. More precisely, traditional church planting is not being discussed in this article. A house church is not the same as a microchurch. Microchurch does not mean small church. Micro refers to the definitive mission focus. Microchurches are called to someone, something, or someplace. They do not have multiple outreaches, as they are “micro-focused” on one specific identity.
In the diagram below, a microchurch planter is moved by the Spirit, feeling called to reach a specific subculture of people in his community. The planter prays for these people every day as he joins them in skateboarding. Building a relationship with a “skater-dude,” the planter finds his person of peace (Luke 10:6). As the planter disciples the person of peace, he is baptized and seeks the Word of God and fellowship. Subsequently, the person of peace connects with many other “skater-dudes.” While he’s still being discipled by the planter/catalyst, the skater-dude helps cultivate a microchurch within a subculture.
As stated, microchurches are driven by a unified mission. Every believer is a participating missionary within the same mission. Undeterred by diverse outreaches, programs, or events, the microchurch collectively gathers, prays, and funds one single mission. Each person feels the same Divine calling to the mission. In our case, the microchurch focused on a skateboarding subculture, but it could be a people group or any specific component of culture.
While a microchurch is filled with one type of culture, subculture, people group, or affinity, house churches are different. A house church can be autonomous like a microchurch. Still, the house church model seeks to reach anyone and everyone, regardless of culture, subculture, geographic location, ethnicity, race, occupation, or any other defining label—that is a good thing! Below, a small diagram illustrates the diversity of a house church.
The church planting couple in the middle is discipling and leading many people to Christ. Perhaps, as the couple meets “farmer Bob” at a local farmer’s market, they share the gospel and invite him to their house church. Bob knows an inner-city police officer that he invites into the house church. The policeman knows a family with a small baby who lives in the suburbs and would like to join them. As visible in the diagram, there is a comprehensive perspective of people (farmer, policeman, single dad, businesswoman, family, etc.). While house churches may still utilize traditional church polity and liturgy, they enjoy the organic aspect of church. They seek the intimacy, fellowship, worship, and communion of a microchurch, but are not as mission-driven or unified. The policeman may want to start a food ministry in the city, in which several volunteers help him. Someone else may wish to build handicapped accessible ramps for the elderly and disabled. At the same time, another decides to start a single dad ministry. While none of these outreaches are bad, on the contrary, they are all good, just different than a microchurch.
Nevertheless, there is a need for every strategy and model within church planting. Understanding which model best fits your talents, gifts, and calling are vital. You may have read through this article and realized that neither is right for you. You may be gravitating toward missional communities, a launch model, a team approach, or an entrepreneurial strategy? In each scenario, it is essential to recognize the pros and cons of each strategy. While this article is a condensed version of each, hopefully, it has provided you with a clearer picture of microchurches and house churches. If you have any questions, concerns, or comments, feel free to connect with me.
“But I will stay in Ephesus until Pentecost, for a wide door for effective work has opened to me, and there are many adversaries” (1 Cor. 16:8–9).
Bloom Where You’re Planted
When writing to the Corinthian churches, the Apostle Paul provided insight regarding his mission work. Paul let the church know that he would come soon, but that God had “opened effective doors” of ministry for him—and so, he was going to remain in Ephesus for as long as the door remained open.
While our hearts desire to be frutiful in ministry, we shouldn’t prescribe this text as a justification for leaving “unfrutiful” areas—especially if God has called us to a people group or location. Follow God at all costs. But, Paul’s wisdom does demonstrate that when opportunity knocks, we’re to answer and to be hospitable.
The old saying, “bloom where you’re planted” sticks out. Paul desired to stay in Ephesus while the ground was fertile. While God was continuing to do mighty works—Paul wanted to keep up with His leading. It would behoove those in ministry, especially church planters and missionaries, to see Paul’s witness as a season for continual plowing and reaping.
Like a farmer during sowing and harvesting seasons—life can become overwhleming and busy, but there will be no harvesting without sowing. Whenever God grants us the ability to be effective gospel witnesses, we ought to take every opportunity to take advantage.
Recognize Seasons of Favor
As Paul desired to remain in Ephesus, he did so because he was able to recognize that God was at work. As ministers of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:18), we ought to have the spiritual receptivity to see, know, and “feel” when God is granting us a season of fruitfulness.
Recognizing seasons of favor is important. Again, to utilize an agricultural analogy, a farmer must acknowledge the seasons for planting and the seasons for harvesting. I know that in my life, there are obvious and evident periods of God’s overflowing favor—it is during these times that I want to be especially open to receiving the divine appointments that are set before me.
I know that I never want to miss a great opportunity. It seems that life is a finely spun web of intricate relationships. For the most part, I am where I am because of God’s divine appointments, open doors, and taking advantage of those seasons of favor. Whether I can “shoehorn” one more meeting in my schedule or not, I try to accommodate the appointments that God brings to me—especially those unannounced marketplace ones.
Big Opportunities will face Big Opponents
Lastly, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the four hundred pound gorilla at the end of Paul’s statement—those big opportunities caused some big opponents to appear. It is inevitable that when seasons of favor occur that you can (and should) expect some spiritual warfare.
Whenever the Lord begins to bless you and grant you favor, especially in gospel ministry that breaks through into the darkness, you can rest assured that evil will not cease to hinder the mission. As Peter stated, “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). When big opportunities arise, so does your adversary.
But, remember that you are never alone and never without the presence of God. The Great Commission is one big audacious “God-sandwich” (Matt. 28:18–20). The commission of Christ begins with Christ’s universal authority over all things, granted to us, and ends with Christ always being with us—the middle part is the commission work.
Reminding ourselves that wherever the Lord is sending, He has ultimate authority and is always with us. God will never leave you, nor forsake you.
The term “planting pregnant” may sound a little weird, but the premise is solid. It’s starting a new church while, at the same time, training potential church planters within your starting church team to plant.
Hence, the beginning church expects to birth another church—soon.
If the main goal of church planting is to gather and develop reproducible disciple-makers for the mission of God, then a key factor is the aspect of reproducibility.
Many times, I hear church planters with grandiose visions and mission statements. Yet, rarely do I hear of planters that desire to infuse a reproducible DNA from the beginning.
When I read the descriptions in the book of Acts of Paul’s church planting journeys, I tend to see him working with teams (Acts 13:1, 13; 14:21–28; 20:4). Seldomly do I read of Paul working as a Lone Ranger or “parachuting” (Acts 17:16–21). I also understand that the book of Acts is descriptive and not prescriptive—however—I can glean some good applicational insight.
One of the ways that Story Church will be planting pregnant is to start with the intentional ethos of reproducibility. This means that I will plant with guys that are apprenticing to plant and will eventually start a new church within the next few years—not a campus church—but an autonomous body of reproducible disciple-makers. These men will be able to watch, learn, and live out what it looks like and what it takes to plant a church.
While I am chronologically recording every move I make, I realize that every plant is unique and must be adaptable to culture. However, the principles and procedures for initial start-up, systems placement, and community exegesis will be eerily similar.
There is no cookie cutter approach to church planting, but by beginning to plant with the “pregnant” mindset and groundwork, the DNA of the mother church plant takes on an identity of reproducibility. And what that means is Story Church is not about building an empire but launching a multiplicative gospel movement.
For me, church planting pregnant is vital. However, I can plant pregnant because this is not my first time around and because I have put the time in to watch, learn, train, and be a part of other plant/planters. So, as I am planting Story Church, I will be apprenticing other potential planting candidates.
I realize that planting pregnant may not be the norm and I praise God for any and every church planter, but it is a means to birthing a gospel movement.
It’s no secret that my desire is to reach, equip, and care for service men and women, their families, and the communities that support them by living out God’s story of life, freedom, and community. Actually, that’s the specific vision of Story Church—the beginning of a church planting movement near military installations.
As my family and I have prayed through and been called to our specific task, I think about a Navy SEAL’s saying: SEALs don’t overcome a situation by rising to it, but by falling back on their training.
Over the years, I’ve been blessed to serve as a trainer, catalyst, and director of church planting. As well, I’ve been able to study the early church and the journeys of Paul within my doctoral work. So, as my family and I engage on our mission to reach and care for military communities by living out God’s story, I cannot help but to “fall back” on all of my training.
Much of that training is steeped in understanding biblical church planting strategies. Lately, I’ve been focusing on Paul’s church planting journeying—where he went, how he got there, and what he did when he was there.
To state that the Apostle Paul had connections and contact with the Roman military is an understatement. I believe Ephesians 6 and the armor of God is but one good example.
But, whether Paul, like many Roman citizens of the first century, used the Roman military roads for easier travel, safety, or convenience, or for the purposes of the spreading of the gospel within the military could be somewhat subjective.
However, we do know that Paul chose towns, villages, and cities that had a great Roman military presence. For instance, looking at Paul’s escape from Iconium to Lystra, the notable book of Acts scholar John Polhill observed that the small Roman colony of Lystra was connected to Pisidian Antioch by a Roman military road, “located in the hill country surrounded by mountains” employed and equipped “as a Roman military post.”
Reaching the military of any country is significant in the way that they are deployed throughout other countries—it resembles diapsora mission. The military as mission way of life takes on a two-fold meaning— (1) dutifully serving the mission of the country, and (2) living out God’s missional story of life, redemption, and restoration.
Eckhard Schnabel validates how Paul broadly reached the Roman military, “In Caesarea Paul had contact with Roman Soldiers, centurions and tribunes (Acts 21:32, 37)”We’ve also read the words of Paul, written to the Philippian church regarding how he witnessed and proclaimed the gospel to whole “Praetorian guard.” (Phil. 1:13). Regardless of arrest, imprisonment, or journey, Paul had much engagement with the Roman military.
Story Church’s vision is not only to care for service men and women, their families, and the communities that support them, but to see true gospel love, transformation power, enrichment, restoration, and reproducible disciple-making sending.