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The Holy Spirit’s house?

One of the more stunning developments in the global church over the last half-century is the rapid expansion of “house church movements” in Asia. Countries such as China, Indonesia and the Philippines (among many others) now host congregants of house churches in numbers approaching or surpassing tens of millions. They continue to multiply regardless of whether they face persecution from regional authorities. In China, for example, Christians were nearly extinct in the aftermath of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution in the 1960s. Now some estimate that there are more than 100 million Christians in China alone – the vast majority being house church members. 

The incredible growth of house churches poses serious questions for all Christians, especially those in what are often dwindling Western churches. What accounts for their rapid expansion? What happens if the persecuted communities obtain religious freedom? Could we be witnessing the birth of a new, decentralized Christendom “of the East,” as it were? 

Disciple-making groups
Recent studies of house church movements in China have noted several historical and cultural factors contributing to their continued expansion. Among the most important are a popular distrust of government authority combined with rapid migration into city centres. This means large numbers of people are in close proximity looking for alternative ways of life, all of which is reasonable enough. Far more important, however, is the internal dynamism of house church communities, as well as their national and international organizing efforts. 

One of the leading world experts on house church movements in Asia is Dr. David S. Lim, National Director of the Philippine Missions Association. Dr. Lim’s historical and theological work is among the most important of its genre. It details the internal and external workings of house churches, and the unique dangers and opportunities they present for the witness of the global church. He also happens to be a national leader in house church movements in the Philippines and beyond. 

Lim’s vision for house churches in Asia does not mince words. In fact, the basics should be familiar for Reformed Christians: “Asia’s [house church movements] believe that God desires His people to bless all peoples to inherit eternal life in heaven and abundant life on earth [shalom/peace].” Unlike traditional denominational structures (Eastern or Western), however, these movements envision intentionally small, autonomous communities that lack denominational identity. A house church movement is a radically decentralized network of “disciple-making groups.” The task is to build and sustain small, egalitarian communities of roughly 20 people united by an active and consistent commitment to a common biblical identity. It also means missions. 

Missional communities
Lim’s term for the missional strategy of house churches in Asia is “cell multiplication.” The idea is simple enough: just as the cells in our bodies reduplicate themselves according to shared DNA patterns, so are disciples in a house church expected to reach out to members of society in an effort to spark yet another “disciple-making group.” Remarkably, it is not uncommon for this multiplication process to take a single year or less from start to finish. Individual leaders are often directly responsible for starting hundreds of house churches in just a few years’ time. 

Yet the most important aspect of the cell analogy is the fact of shared identity among “parent” and “daughter” cells. In other words, the church as described in Acts 2 is “in the DNA” of house church movements. This means among other things that their vision of missions or missiology is not something that can be theorized apart from the intrinsic identity of the community. For these disciple-making groups, doing missions flows immediately from being church in a simple and concrete way. 

Still, this evangelical energy presents questions for even the most ardent supporters. If such ceaseless evangelism is part of the core identity of house churches, how do they avoid the problems of missionary zeal with which we are so familiar today? Indeed, as Joel Comiskey has written recently in Christianity Today, house church movements receive criticism for their relative lack of accountability to shared authority structures. Others worry that their rate of expansion risks “chasing numbers” at the expense of building sustainable communities of worship. Of course, scholar-leaders such as Lim are aware of these dangers. In fact, Lim’s scholarly work and leadership vision features a key distinction made to address precisely these concerns. This is the distinction between “imperial” and “incarnational” missions. 

Imperial or incarnational?
According to Lim, “imperial” missiology has been dominant both traditionally and presently in most missionary movements in the Western church. It involves “the recruitment of ‘career missionaries’ who are sent out from middle class Western churches to plant their church’s [denominational] model in less developed regions from a position of wealth and power.” The term in this technical sense is not meant in a sinister way. Imperial missions can be laudable when executed in grace. Yet most Asian house church movements thrive precisely to the extent that they provide an alternative to this imperial model. As Lim often remarks, “The ideal results of incarnational missions are indigenous simple churches.” This means that house churches develop their own leaders, funding, ministry agendas, and theological judgment–all ordered towards the ultimate end of “community conversion to Christ.” At a 2010 conference at Calvin College on Reformed missions, Lim went so far as to resource the work of the great Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck. The incarnational missiology of Asian house churches aims at possessio, or “God’s grace permeating and taking over each culture uniquely.” 

House church movements in Asia convene for (mostly) yearly “summits,” where testimonies of unlikely communities continue to surface. The individual courage and zeal displayed by leaders in China, Japan and Singapore is considerable. It is clear, however, that the success of individual leaders deeply depends upon the fragile but simple structure of house church evangelism. 

At this point it is impossible to grasp the broader historical trajectory of house church movements in Asia. In fact, especially for those of us in the West, what we know is that we do not know much – except perhaps that it would be difficult to imagine a people more trusting of the spontaneous activity of the Holy Spirit.  

  • Joshua is a PhD Candidate at the ICS and Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, a teacher of philosophy at Providence College in Providence, RI, and CC’s former Global News Editor.

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