I’m not sure that house/organic/simple churches are the complete answer for reviving or “greening” the American Church. Historically, I can think of several movements in which small groups or house churches played a very positive role. For example, while the early Church met in people’s houses (see 1 Cor 1:11, Col 4:15, and Philemon 1:2), larger “church” buildings began to appear in the late second and third centuries (although the Romans tended to burn them down during pogroms, which is why we only have a few examples). Some of these were quite large (we know that they were Christian rather than just Roman by the baptismal tanks). Why? Perhaps we were copying the Romans in outward piety, or perhaps people just love to get together. And, of course, all the house churches of a city appeared to cooperate together, whether they used a “Council of Elders” or whether they submit themselves to someone that they elected Bishop, from very early days in the Church.
There are other examples, but none as clear as in the 1500s, late 1600s and early 1700s. In the 1500s Anabaptist groups were forced into a house-church model (persecuted by both Reformed and Roman Catholic churches) and grew. In the late 1600s and 1700s the Pietist movements in Germany and Scandinavia used small Bible study groups to teach and pray, and the Moravian revival in the 1700s was birthed by “choirs,” groups gathered for prayer and accountability (although the Moravians always had a dedicated “church” building). The Methodist revival in the British Isles (1700s) discipled its converts through small “bands” and “classes,” and the Methodist circuit riders of the 1700s and 1800s conducted what were essentially house churches on the American frontier (there were no church buildings, so Willie invited his neighbors in for preaching and prayer). The Plymouth Brethren, the Catholic Apostolic Church, Baptist, and Pentecostal churches all had their start in small groups that challenged the existing church order. All of these promoted discipleship and accountability in a “body” or family kind of structure.
On the other hand, none of these movements lasted as “house-church,” or simple/organic church structured movements. Most of these home church movements were essentially reabsorbed into the institutional church, whether one already established, or one that was founded as the culmination of one of these movements. The early Church gets legit and so goes Byzantine. Anabaptists are usually organized under bishops and meet in a central “church.” The Pietists were absorbed into the extant Lutheran churches, and the Methodists created their own hierarchy and church buildings. So, we see a pattern of the life of the church renewed as people become hungry enough to meet outside of the liturgical assembly, but a new generation or new circumstances calls the group to a greater order and spawns institutions. I cannot think of a single movement that did not either become completely reabsorbed into an existing groups or result in a new church institution.
I would also point out that the movements that were the longest lived (since the Reformation) are those groups that successfully combined a both/and approach. The Pietists, Moravians, and Methodists all had small groups which supplemented the liturgical service (what some call “temple” churches today), and all these movements exist today. Most of these, like many Pentecostal groups, have stopped small house groups in favor of “going to church” for prayer, Bible study, etc., and I might argue that the lapse of small group gatherings in these now institutional churches has drained the spiritual life from them, but their long history of spiritual life and growth was historically enabled by having both small groups and the larger liturgical gatherings.
The movements that I have mentioned, as well as the revivals of the 18th and 19th centuries, have been the most powerful in “greening” the Western churches over the last 500 years. They are also movements that had very clear authority structures and who obeyed certain central tenants, taught by the leaders of those movements. Wesley is probably the best example of long-term fruit and a clear hierarchical structure. This is another reason why I think that “organic” churches – those who not only espouse small-group meetings, but a flat hierarchy or authority structure – can be helpful for the spiritual life of the Body of Christ, but they are not the complete answer. Without a theological center and clear lines of authority, such movements seem to inevitably become about something else than a disciplined and joyous relationship with God and each other. Whether that other is social action, or the experience of worship, or spiritual enlightenment, or whatever, the spiritual greening, the family dynamic, appears to wither.
This is one reason why Jack Hayford’s model in the early days of Church on the Way has appealed to me. The life of the assembly was in the small groups that met under the leadership of an elder each week, but the teaching, the sense of purpose, and the direction of the assembly-at-large was given by Pastor Jack in the “liturgical” service. I’ve seen this model work in more than one place, if the elders who lead the group are able to teach the Bible (or at least to teach a prepared lesson), and are able to pray with power for the needs of the people (worship can vary). And I suspect that liturgy (rather than more freedom) is also desperately needed in all forms of Evangelical, Emerging, Charismatic, etc. churches (another discussion). Personally, I think a Rabbi model might work well for us. Rabbis are well-trained, but they don’t expect, necessarily, to make their living leading a synagogue. They sacrifice themselves to work outside of their office as Rabbi to make a living, even while being thoroughly enmeshed in the lives of their people. I know hundreds of pastors who work part- or full-time to feed their families while leading small assemblies. Since rabbis are father figures, as well, I wonder if this model might work well for Millennials who have such a hunger for father figures.
What I have tried to set out here are historical reasons why I am all in favor of small groups as the focus of the life of the Body, and even small “churches” (the average American church is still under 100 people), but also why it is not all that clear to me that “simple” or organic churches are the answer. Of course, thousands of established congregations already have a “flat” authority structure (the congregation votes on everything), so perhaps this model can work on a smaller scale. Yet, I would venture that it is not the issue of “organic” versus “institutional” churches (I have seen organic churches go very wrong) that is the key, but the method or model of leadership that is the real issue. Do leaders feed the congregation, or feed off of it for their emotional, mental, and physical needs? Are leaders humble, transparent, and strong enough in faith to survive emotional attacks and the stress of working to heal wounded people? I suspect that character issues are the greater issues, and, of course, there is the fact that Americans reserve the right to get in a snit any old time they feel like it. In all this, I’m thinking out loud, rather than stating what is my absolute position. I look forward to your responses.