Take It to the House

I totally get why people are leaving the church. I used to dream about it—and I’m a pastor.

At some point during college, I sensed that God was calling me to devote my future to the local church. I had never aspired to this. It was not my heart’s desire to work in a local church, but it was undeniable at that moment for me. I spent many of the following years working in churches, doing some really good things with really good people with some good results. I was on some great platforms, running some great programs, recruiting some great people. But at some point, it all felt fairly dead to me. Though 2 Timothy 3:5 was intended for a different topic, I felt it still had application for what I had been doing in the local church. My work had “a form of godliness but [was] denying its power.”

I didn’t know what to do, but I knew I couldn’t continue as things were. I was still called to pour my life into the local church, but everything for me needed to change. So I left a great place, which by many metrics was a phenomenal church, and I planned to start something from scratch based on convictions that were forming within me in a deeply clarifying way.

But I didn’t know what to do next. Much of what I could see out there did not resemble what I read about in the Scriptures.

Failure to Multiply

Many churches seem to be either highly macro (centralized with a primary focus and dependency on people, programs and platforms) or they are highly micro (decentralized, isolated, individualistic, and without enduring accountability or oversight or discipleship).

My greatest consternation was that the clear, original mission of multiplying the gospel (as well as churches) was compromised by current models. Our approaches had been built for maintaining, while the early church model was obviously built for scaling, sharing and sending. The early church was built for and thrived during persecution and pandemics and political upheavals. Our contemporary churches seem to be too deeply affected by such things.

The problems at least seemed to include, but were not limited to, the fact that we had removed the newly empowered New Testament priesthood of the believer, and had returned to the Old Testament approach of elevated and separated clergy. We removed the ability for believers to gather together anywhere, knowing Jesus would be there with us, and we returned to the Old Testament approach of a sacred place for gathering. Our “modern” approaches had reverted back to Old Testament ways.

You want to minimize multiplication? Return to super centralization.

Something was broken deep down in the systems, and I had to at least try to go after it. Why not try to model something closer to what we see in the New Testament? I thought. Plenty of other people are all doing the same thing. If it fails, those other people will continue doing the same thing without me. But if it succeeds, maybe some things could start to change in the church world.

A ‘Church of House Churches’

When I studied the Scriptures, I began to see a beautiful hybrid of both macro and micro—light centralization for accountability, discipleship, oversight and combined strength, yet increased decentralization, where pastoral leadership is truly distributed to entrust non-clergy with full pastoral oversight of a house church community, where all the functions of a church take place.

This hybrid model of church planting that is articulated and exemplified in Scripture, created and fueled by the Spirit, was the carrier for a rapid multiplication movement of the gospel around the world. This model was immediately cross-cultural, creating a context for all people, in all places, for all times.

So I started a church with no name, no money, no place and no people, but with a developing ecclesiology that I was going to pursue to my literal and figurative death. To help bring clarity to what we were pursuing, I coined a phrase to describe the macro/micro hybrid ecclesiology: a “church of house churches.” One church, composed of many house churches, connected under one body of elders, pastored by many house church pastors.

Church Project, as we dubbed our church of house churches, has an eDNA (ecclesiological DNA) made up of three strands: distributed pastoral leadership, decentralized from primary place and priest, gathered into diverse discipleship communities.

What began as a conviction and a growing clarification, with just 40 people, has grown into thousands of people gathered in one community, and thousands beyond in other locations—all sharing this beautiful, simple ecclesiology. Two house churches have turned into hundreds locally and beyond, and one church has turned into dozens of churches locally and around the world (all with no marketing, no mailers, no phone number, no foyer, no receptionist, etc.).

Beyond this multiplication of house church communities, the generosity generated through this simplicity is unusual. Because of distributed leadership to house church pastors, who are 100% volunteer, this model allows for roughly 1/4 of the staff of other churches of similar size. And because of the super simple approach to Sunday gatherings, not needing “sacred space” for believers to gather, a building can be used cheaply, or even freely (as we do, through our mortgage neutrality approach) and can be shared with ministries throughout the city.

A Different Mindset

It takes continual discipling in the same, clear direction to reorient long-standing ideas of what people perceive church must be. No one has ever come to our church from a previous church where the values and behaviors are the same as what they experience in our church of house churches.

Each weekend at our first Church Project located in The Woodlands, Texas, roughly 4,000–5,000 people gather together weekly for a simple Sunday gathering. (It’s important to note that most house churches will never grow to this size.) Within this crowd of thousands, diverse levels of involvement in community and mission are present.

Recently, I joined a serving event where many people in our church served the community. We encouraged everyone to serve with a local ministry partner. We have few traditional-style serving places in our church. During the event, a lady in our church shared with me:

“It took me three years of hearing the same things from you to get to a point where I could even make a movement toward serving, and especially the significant step into this type of community. Today is my first day to serve alongside our church. And this week I am joining together with a house church for the first time. Thank you for continuing to push me toward these things. And, thank you for your patience.”

We have a vision and specified intent for people’s journey, but their past, present, struggles and deeply embedded pains or beliefs are unknown. Guiding them toward God’s plan requires both consistent discipleship and room for the Spirit to work its sanctifying power. It’s truly beautiful to witness this transformation, a sight we’ve seen thousands of times over.

Jesus said he would build his church—and he did a great job. He built a church that would spread the gospel of salvation and rapidly plant disciple-making churches around the world.

We would do well to get back to his original design. He’s the architect and the builder. We’re just workers carrying out his plans for his church.

Jason Shepperd
Jason Shepperdhttps://jasonshepperd.com

Jason Shepperd planted a “church of house churches” known today as Church Project (ChurchProject.org) in The Woodlands, Texas.