What is the best way to understand and catalyze House Church Movements (HCM)? Recently, I have found a very helpful article to explain how and why HCMs work. It is “Kingdom Kernels: 4 Stages of a Movement” by Steve Smith, Neill Mims & Mark Stevens, published in Mission Frontiers 37:6 (November/December 2015): 38-41. As I summarize and quote from this article, I’ve indicated my few comments in [brackets].
The article observes that throughout history, most institutions go through four phases or stages, and sometimes back again through grassroots movements. Simplifying and describing this historical progression from the Unreached Stage to Institutional Stage can help us make mission strategies that can maximize church multiplication to fulfill the Great Commission. By understanding the strengths and weaknesses of each stage and what happens when we move from one to the other, we can become more effective in expanding God’s kingdom among the nations.
Stage One – Unreached [or Pioneering] Phase
In the beginning of a new mission work, the people group is unreached. Few believers or churches exist. Outsiders enter the context and lead people to faith. “Persons of peace” [POP, based on Luke 10:6] are discovered and networks of relationships are opened up through those who accept Christ. It is not uncommon to find some who may multiply gospel acceptance 30 times, 60 times and 100 times in their circle of influence.
In this early stage of what might become a movement of God, usually all forms and methods are rather simple. If they are not, then this mission work will never become a movement.
- The number of Christians…is relatively small. The new movement may be growing, but the main initiative of evangelism and church planting comes from evangelists from outside the people group. Growth is slow and incremental.
- The few churches meet in informal places – homes, under trees or in other places already built (storefronts, offices, etc.)… If buildings are built, they are usually funded by outsiders.
- Most important is the concept of the priesthood of every believer. Though outsiders are initiating the evangelism and church planting, this work can become a movement if they teach the believers not only to go directly to God but also to live out the priestly service of evangelizing and ministering to others. If they do not catch this concept, then the mission work can remain in the unreached phase indefinitely – outsiders leading all the evangelism, discipleship, church planting and ministry.
- Leadership development of local believers is very informal, usually happening in the churches or local context, just in time, mainly in the form of mentoring.
All of the forms are so simple at this stage, so that with the right vision and mentoring, they can easily be fanned into a Church Multiplication Movement.
Stage Two – Movement [or Multiplication] Phase
At this stage, multiplication of disciples and churches is occurring primarily because indigenous believers are captivated by the vision to reach their own people group and beyond. The number of believers begins to increase dramatically because of the practice of the priesthood of every believer. As the Spirit empowers them through simple forms and methods, new communities are reached with the gospel. [Movements can occur only when they are led by insiders (not outsiders).]
Churches continue to meet in informal places such as homes and multiplication is the norm for most churches as they live with these simple forms. Leaders are developed in the context of actual ministry. Locally connected leadership networks develop where leaders with more responsibility gain additional training in context.
Indigenous believers do not wait for outsiders to initiate evangelism, baptism, discipleship, church planting or leadership. The movement grows because of their confidence that they are commissioned and empowered to do the work of ministry. Most believers and leaders do not see a great “clergy/laity” divide. [In fact, most leaders are bi-vocational or “tentmakers.”] A movement can remain in this stage for years or decades. [In HCM, believers are discipled to stay (and multiply) permanently in this stage, and not formalize any further!]
Stage Three – Formalizing (or Established) Phase
As the number of believers continues to increase rapidly, a desire develops to standardize or formalize certain aspects of the movement (e.g. church formation, leadership development, etc.). As the movement formalizes, they begin to meet in purpose-built structures, often rented with the goal of building their own sanctuary as soon as possible.
Leadership development becomes more formalized as well. Training institutions begin to emerge to equip more leaders and to do it in a more systematic manner. Certificates and credentials begin to emerge in the process. Some very gifted leaders begin to stand out among the leaders. They are highly gifted evangelists, preachers, teachers and administrators. Lay pastoral leadership becomes less common and a professional leadership becomes more common.
The result is that normal disciples can be intimidated from doing the work of the ministry. They do not have the abilities or specialized training/credentials of the professional leaders. Therefore, the concept of the priesthood of the believer (in terms of “every member a minister”) wanes. A smaller percentage of disciples continue in ministering to others. No one intends for this to occur, and many pastors will do their best in stages three and four to build up their church members as ministers and leaders, but the “clergy/laity” divide becomes more profound.
Stage Four – Institutional Phase
As the movement becomes more formalized, it inevitably moves to an institutional phase. Overall the movement may grow for a while due to the sheer number of churches and believers bearing witness. However, it is not uncommon for the movement to plateau, unable to keep pace with their birth rate.
At this stage, multitudes of believers exist. Churches become common and accepted in society. The majority of churches meet in purpose-built structures and the requirements for what constitutes a church become more rigid. For a church to meet in a home is seen as odd and “not real church.” Some churches become larger and some mega-churches emerge, though in many denominations, the vast majority of churches still average under a hundred in attendance.
Extremely gifted leaders emerge. Virtually all leadership development is now done in institutions — seminaries or Bible schools — and credentials are expected. A majority of leaders serve in full or part-time capacities. Lay leadership is less common, or at least less visible. So the priesthood of all believers wanes drastically. Believers bring their lost friends to church rather than lead them to faith themselves. Professional leaders do the work of ministry and find it difficult to motivate the average person in the pew to serve in lay ministry.
Institutions by the church become common (seminaries, publishing houses, hospitals, mission agencies, etc.) and can effect great impact through the manpower and budgets they wield. [But historically they rarely reached this potential due to inertia, nominalism and maintenance costs]. This whole process can take years, decades or centuries to develop. The early church did not enter this final stage until the Fourth Century A.D.
Stage Four Workers in Stage One
All movements progress through these stages. The difficulty comes when we lack this historical perspective and try to make sense of movements at their earlier stages.
What happens when a missionary leaves a stage four church and tries to do evangelism and church planting in stage one? Inadvertently he tries to plant stage four disciples and churches because that is all he knows. One missionary realized that when his organization pioneered work in his tribal people group, they attempted to start stage four churches from the beginning (complete with brick and mortar). He calculated that on average it took 22 years to plant a stage four church in a stage one context.
When Mims taught a group of Korean missionaries, this question sparked an intense counseling session. Though a result of a mighty movement, Korean church culture is now extremely institutional. This 4-stage presentation gave these missionaries some understanding as to why their home churches and pastors expected them to start large churches or other institutions very quickly or be considered failures.
Leadership development also becomes a challenge. Local partners that Smith mobilized to reach an unreached people group in Asia needed one year of training-doing-retraining-doing-retraining before they understood basic reproducible patterns for evangelism, discipleship and church planting movements. Only after one year did they finally follow a stage-one-and-two pattern.
But when it came time to choose leaders, they still naturally reverted to seeing through stage four eyes. They could not find any believers from the harvest to appoint as pastors. The reason was not the lack of biblical qualifications. The problem was that they were envisioning leaders from back home (stage four) – extremely gifted, exceptional teachers, highly mature spiritual life, administrative abilities, etc. It was not until they grasped the basics of Scripture and abandoned stage four expectations that they could develop local leaders appropriately at stage one. These indigenous leaders would continue to grow and mature as they were trained in the years to come.
Stage Two Workers in Stage Four
What happens with believers from stage one or two who visit leaders and churches in stage four? A not-uncommon consequence is death of the movement phase and immediately entering the formalizing and institutional phase.
Leaders from an emerging CPM left their mountain homes and descended into the plains where stage four churches and institutions had existed for decades. When the leaders saw the marvelous buildings, institutions and gifted leaders, they longed to have the same thing. They returned to their mountain churches and immediately instituted stage four requirements for what constituted a church and who could lead. This effectively killed the disciple multiplication potential of their movement.
Stage Four Leaders Watching a Stage Two Movement
When our frame of reference is stage four, it is easy to criticize what we see in stage two. We can easily label the house churches as “not real churches.” Or, we can require that leaders meet certain credentials to be qualified to lead. Or, as we feel pity for pastors that are bi-vocational, we may donate money to support them full-time, thereby creating a benchmark that is no longer reproducible. We can kill a movement when we implement extra-biblical requirements that are a yoke too heavy into the early stages.
Recently, as Smith spoke to 400 pastors, seminary professors and mission leaders about launching HCMs in the American context, he encountered many such questions. The idea of every believer being trained to make disciples and potentially start churches was foreign to them.
He read them an account of the number of believers and churches multiplying almost ten-fold over the course of 20 years in USA. When they asked where this movement was occurring, he shared that this occurred in the American frontier among Baptists from 1790-1810.
He quoted from Baptist historian Robert Baker [The Southern Baptist Convention and its People: 1607-1972 (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1974): 87]: “Baptist ecclesiology and doctrine were particularly suited to the democratic atmosphere of the developing western frontier. The Baptist gospel was simple, minimizing complex theological formulations, and emphasizing a life-changing confrontation with Jesus Christ. Like Paul, most of the frontier Baptist preachers were tentmakers in the sense that they provided for their own livelihood. The distinction between “laity” and “clergy” existed only in the fact that the latter had fire in their bones to preach the gospel in response to a divine summons.
“The Baptist preachers lived and worked exactly as did their flocks: their dwellings were little cabins with dirt floor and, instead of bedspreads, skin-covered pole-bunks; they cleared the ground, split rails, planted corn, and raised hogs on equal terms with their parishioners.”
The fact that each Baptist church was completely independent appealed to frontier democracy and eliminated problems of ministerial appointment and ecclesiastical authority. It is no wonder, then, that the Baptists played a large part in the significant frontier movement and made great gains from their ministry among the people on the growing edge of American life.
Smith concluded by challenging the group, “This is our heritage! This is the way we lived just 200 years ago. Let us embrace our heritage and ask God for a renewal movement.” History is filled with this general story occurring over and over, nation by nation. It is also filled with stories of plateaued denominations in which fresh grass roots movements emerged by going back to principles of stage two.
[In China, the HCM stayed in stage two for 20 years, too (circa 1970-1990). It multiplied because of government persecution, which forced it to go underground, just like in the early church (Acts 8:1,4). It became effective in multiplying HC networks through teenage evangelists who went from town to town, without receiving formal theological education and ordination. These simple networks were led by elders who were ordinary farmers.]
[But by the 1990s the movement started to plateau as the younger leaders sought theological education and ordination, and began to have big church gatherings in the cities – becoming stage three until now! Learning from this experience, most of Asia’s HCMs are intentionally propagating stages 1 (for outsiders) and 2 (for insiders) to expand God’s kingdom in Christ-centered transformational communities where every home and office is a church.]
The article concludes emphatically: The challenge is to keep a movement as the movement stage as long as possible and to not let the formalizing impede the progress of the kingdom. But when it does begin to slow down, going back to simple biblical processes and methods of earlier stages can spark a new movement. Why not today? Why not in your context?