Understanding the ‘Simple Church’ Movement

Ed Stetzer & Daniel Im: “What defines simple churches is not location but emphasis.”

Many have expressed for years that the simple church structure will be prominent in the future. Observers of church growth have heard this claim during the Jesus Movement of the 1960s, the charismatic movement of the 1980s, and the simple church networks of the 1990s. But none provided a long-term viable model of church structure. When their visionary leaders passed, they dissolved or reverted to more common models.

However, the current shift in today’s culture may have the escape velocity the other movements lacked. This remains to be seen. There have been a few models but no great successes. Yet we cannot deny that the potential for simple churches is great in a culture that values intimate relationships, shared leadership, transparency, and teamwork. And signs indicate that house churches could be a significant part in the wave of the kingdom future in the West.

What is a simple church?

A significant amount of literature on simple churches has emerged. Since the newest emphasis on the house church started in the late 1990s, much of the literature is available on the Internet.6 J. D. Payne, a pastor and missiologist, has produced a cogent and coherent book titled Missional House Churches. Payne’s work is invaluable on this subject. In it he offers some helpful contrasts in describing simple churches.

More organic, less institutional. The church is always understood as the people, and the language employed (family, body, branches, sheep, etc.) reflects that conviction.

More simple, less structure.—Simple churches push back against rigidity, structure, and organization, in order to protect priority of community and relationships.

More participatory worship, less passivity. Simple churches exhibit high levels of member participation. Everyone has an active role in the corporate gathering of the church.

More community, less acquaintances. Genuine community is emphasized; surface-level relationships are eschewed.

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More ministers, less ministers. Simple churches desire to unleash the laity by elevating responsibility and expectation of church members.

Andy Lambkin was sent out in 2006 from a traditional church in Vancouver, BC. He shares his experience settling into a simple church model:

In 2006 we were sent out by a traditional thousand-plus-member church in Vancouver as an “experiment” of sorts, to see if there might be other ways of living as the people of God in this highly secular city. We spent a year in corporate discernment, listening to God’s heart for us. He spoke to us about things he wanted us to value: neighborhoods, relationships, generosity, alternative societies, etc., and in the end we asked, “What structure would best help us live out these values?” We had the idea that structures exist to give life to values (and so often churches get this mixed around—ending up bound to structures which actually prohibit them from living out their values). As we pressed into this question, we landed on a network of house/simple/missional churches as being a helpful way forward for us. The story of this year and our launch is a wonderful story of God’s leading. Nine years later we’re still going, thriving, and just now beginning to see the signs of new life. It’s been years of trial and perseverance, but we’re so thankful today for what God is shaping. It feels like just now we are coming into our own.

A basic understanding of the difference between simple church and home cells might be helpful. A home cell is a part of a larger church and supports the ministry of that church. Most churches planted in the past few years have had a large celebration service for worship accompanied by meeting in homes for small group care.

The simple church is different in that it doesn’t see itself as part of a larger body because it is a church, in and of itself. The simple church performs all of the functions of the church, such as baptism, Lord’s Supper, the preaching of the word, giving, and more.

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Simple churches do not start in a home with the hopes of moving to a larger rented or permanent facility “when they grow up.” The home is their permanent facility. The church is a church in a home.

I recently trained church planters in Romania. Their church planting strategy involved building a “mission house” or a “house church” where the missionary church planter would live. The missionary would reach out to the people of the village and invite members to meet with him in his home, which included an extended living room with benches. As the church grew, it would then build its own building.

The same pattern is common in Western church planting today. The vast majority of new churches start as churches meeting in a home. But they do not stay there. Eventually they move to a larger facility.

The simple church is different. Fundamental to its design is the idea that it will remain an autonomous simple church. As it grows, it will multiply into other homes, businesses, coffee shops, etc.—not enlarge.

Understanding Churches that Meet in Houses

Most readers have had some contact with house churches either by personal experience or by reputation. Defining the house church is difficult because it has so many expressions.

Committed believers meeting around the world worship in biblically balanced and theologically faithful simple churches. Unfortunately many people lump all simple churches in the same category. This is an unfair stereotype. This is why I am attempting to avoid this stereotype by using the term “simple” instead of “house” church.