Understanding the ‘Simple Church’ Movement

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

At the same time, if a simple church is genuinely a church, it should function as one. As mentioned earlier, the Bible teaches that churches have pastor/elders and other leaders. Biblical churches covenant with one another. These churches participate in the Lord’s Supper and baptism. All the characteristics of a New Testament church need to be present in a simple church for it to be a biblical church.

In the New Testament “the word ‘church’ was applied to a group of believers at any level, ranging from a very small group meeting in a private home all the way to the group of all true believers in the universal church.” Many biblical passages refer to local house churches, and they clearly are churches (1 Thess 1:1, the church of the Thessalonians; Rev 2:1, church at Ephesus; etc.).

However, part of the challenge is that many enthusiastic simple church proponents have neglected some of the ecclesiology described in Scripture by deemphasizing New Testament patterns of leadership, misunderstanding the role of covenant and related church discipline, and failing to practice the biblically prescribed ordinances. As such, I think ecclessiology matters in churches of any size.

The biggest challenge to simple-church planting may not be the few well-meaning groups that have minimalized ecclesiological principles. In most cases these are errors of enthusiasm rather than doctrine. Instead, the greater problem for the biblical house church is the millions of believers who consider their brick, institutionalized, nonmultiplying church to be a more biblical model than the fifteen people meeting in a home with a passion to reproduce and multiply.

Martin Luther expressed it five centuries ago (in his preface to the German Mass and Order of Service): “Those who want to be Christians in earnest and who profess the gospel with hand and mouth should sign their names and meet alone in a house somewhere to pray, to read, to baptize, to receive the sacrament, and to do other Christian work.” Something so biblical should be an encouragement to us all.

How does it work?

How does the simple church work? There is no one answer. Some people say the house church should be as simple as possible—no paid staff, name, organization, or titles—just a group of believers gathering in Jesus’ name. Others say such churches need some of these things. But they all agree on one thing: simple churches do not need a building. It is fundamental to the new simple church that it meets in a nonchurch facility. As it grows in size, it multiplies into other houses but not to a church building.

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The house is a perfect place for such a simple church to meet. In some ways the culture has even begun to build houses that sometimes seem like sacred places. Ceilings are named for cathedrals. Stained glass is common in many houses. While people seek for their houses to look and feel this way, what better use is there than to actually place a simple church inside such a house?

A relational church stays relational by staying small. Simple churches usually multiply into smaller groups before reaching thirty people. It makes sense that emerging generations, with strong interest in authentic relationships, would be attracted to churches that are built on relationships and not highly organized systems.

Charles Brock, well-known church planter and trainer, explained:

Many years have passed since I wrote The Principles and Practice of Indigenous Church Planting. In that book I said there are four absolute essentials in church planting: the Seed, Spirit, Sower, and Soil. Today I am more convinced than ever that these are the four essentials which are indispensable. Caution must be observed when adding anything beyond these four essentials. Anything additional may be detrimental to healthy church planting.

Brock goes on to explain, “We must answer clearly what a church is before we can think of objectives and strategies. … I believe a perverted and tarnished view of what a church is constitutes one of the greatest hurdles faced by church planters.”

These things became confused over time. At some point people began to “go to” church instead of being the church. Church began to be recognized as a place instead of a way of life. This struggle was most pronounced on mission fields of the nineteenth century. Missionaries struggled to determine what made a church a church. Roland Allen sought to teach that what was needed was only what the Bible required: “[Believers] were members one of another in virtue of their baptism. Each was united to every other Christian everywhere, by the closest of spiritual ties, communion in the one Spirit. Each was united to all by common rites, participation in the same sacraments. Each was united to all by common dangers and common hopes.” It was simple, it was biblical, and it did not require a building or a budget.

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Simple churches often exist in networks. They are not solitary groups of Christians, but they are related to other churches in a given region. These churches may meet together for fellowship with other simple churches, but this is usually not done weekly, and it is not seen as “real church.” Real church takes place every time the church meets.

A Key Advantage of Simple Church: Reproducibility

Movements around the world are typically simple and reproducible. But where is that happening in North America? As Warren Bird and I have written in Viral Churches, we simply do not see the movements yet. Warren and I wrote: “Global church planting movements are generally unencumbered by buildings, paid clergy, and denominational credentialing processes. We have not seen such movements [in North America] (since 1810).”

Daniel and I believe the simple church model is needed in the West. As of now this approach has not yet produced the breakthrough that many expected it would. However, we believe it is a viable model that will open up more lanes for church planting because of its dynamic ability to reproduce. The fact is, the simplicity of this model allows churches to reproduce much faster than any other model.