Small Groups vs. House Churches: What’s the difference?

Sometimes a few crisp words can do wonders to illuminate differences and be the stimulus for significant new discoveries. Take these thoughts from the half dozen future church planters in my Church Planting Class this past Friday:

“Tell me the difference between a small group and a house church,” said the prof to the future world changers.

Five minutes of discussion yields the following:

Small Groups  vs.  House Churches

Small Groups

House Churches

Generally defined by affinity

Generally defined by geography

Subgroup of larger community

Is the community

Has to get permissions

Has authority to decide

Limited in time

Continuous over time

Contractual commitment

Covenant community

A slice

The whole

Usually centered on single felt
need or topic

Wholistic: ministering to the
whole person

So here’s your chance to join the discussion.  What would you add?  What questions does this list raise?  What does this list suggest?

Tell your friends to weigh in and begin the discussion.

Update: there is an updated and expanded chart based on the discussion thread here.

25 thoughts on “Small Groups vs. House Churches: What’s the difference?

  1. I would also add that organic house churches tend to be more participatory. Small groups usually have an agenda set forth by the larger church staff and are led by a “small group leader”. People can participate in the discussion in small groups, but teaching and leadership is usually only brought by a appointed person. Scripturally, we see that in a church meeting ALL have the ability to bring forth a short teaching as long as its edifying to the rest of the body.


  2. Good. Participatory for all. vs. Participatory for a few. What about this “agenda set by the larger church staff” idea? Doesn’t the house church leader set some type of agenda in the house church?

    Doesn’t the small group leader want short teachings that are edifying for the rest of the body assembled?

    Let’s keep this discussion going. What other differences are there between these two expressions of body life?


  3. Funny, I just had this conversation with George not very long ago. In addition to concurring with what has already been said, I would also point out that besides the responsiblity and privilege of participating in the meeting, the entire church performed many of the functions now considered the exclusive domain of clergy: dealing with sin (Matt 18:15-17, Gal 6:1); evaluating doctrinal matters (Acts 17:11, 1 Cor 14:29); and teaching (Col 3:16), to name a few. My experience has been that meeting in a house is no guarantee that the group won’t still function just like a traditional church.


  4. Having led a house church for a year and been a part of two small groups for the better part of the last 3 years, here’s my two cents:

    There doesn’t have to be much difference at all between a house church and a small group/cell. The “whole vs. part” distinction, and all that comes with it, is the biggest and most important one. One of the implications I see of the ultra autonomous house church (as with any ultra autonomous church) is an unhealthy separation from the larger body of Christ, versus the interdependence of house churches we see in the NT era.

    The nature of the authority/prerogatives of the leader/s who oversee multiple small groups is determinative, I think, of the shape that those groups take. A controlling, micromanaging leader (or group of leaders, i.e., oligarchy) might stifle creativity, the Spirit’s leading, and the use of group members’ gifts. But an empowering, releasing leader might help the groups and their leaders experience more of God’s blessing than they might experience without such leadership.

    At the core of my concern over hyper-autonomous house churches is the lack of connectedness and accountability for house church leaders. Related to this is the unfortunate fact that the percentage of believers who are biblically literate and exegetically competent enough to shepherd an educated group of people is much less than 10%, I’d say. But take that 5-10%, put them under the guidance and authority of a team of qualified elders who will empower them and hold them accountable to sound life and doctrine, and great things can happen. Get a good apprenticeship system in place and we can multiply leaders and groups while remaining under the protection of a body of elders.

    Back to the chart… I don’t think those differences are all inherent in the decision for a group to be autonomous or not. They are more a phenomenon of a particular small group model that has become pervasive.


  5. Matt….good point about totally autonomous churches being isolated. I would agree with you on that concern, but I don’t think its the house churches that don’t recognized traditional churches as legitimate. The skepticism is usually the other way around. If we want to be true to the biblical model we would have “city-wide” eldership working together to oversee and care for the respective works in local communities, but the elders would look more like supportive roles versus the professional paid elite who typically do all the work of the ministry.


  6. I think the the “professional paid elite who typically does all the work of the ministry” is an inaccurate caricature. More often, salaried pastors don’t understand that there’s a lot more to ministry than what they are paid to do. I would advocate a model of church that includes full-time salaried “clergy” who invest their energies not only in preaching and counseling, but equipping, multiplying, and sending leaders.

    I’m pleading for a more robust view of the pastorate in addition to a more robust view of the congregation as ministers. For example, I still believe that biblical instruction for adolescents and adults is primarily the responsibility of biblically/exegetically trained pastors. But I would also advocate putting pastoral care and practical ministry more into the hands of a small group and lay leaders. Vicholdsforth makes a good point that “laity” are to perform many of the roles that pastors do. The issue is a matter of degree. We are all to teach, admonish, encourage, and exhort one another. But there is a “quality” distinction between this teaching and the type of teaching entrusted to elders/overseers/pastors.

    I like your thinking, Rusty, about “city-wide” eldership (or regional/parish oriented eldership more generally), although I’d caution identifying this as “the” biblical model. I think Scripture presents various models appropriate to the variety of contexts in which we see the church planted. Different communities require different paradigms. For instance, a “city-wide” elder overseeing Chicago would look very different from a city-wide elder overseeing my hometown of 2,000 in rural Missouri. I believe we need as many competent ministers of the Word as we can get, distributed according to need. But we do need to be more creative about how they should function, so as to maximize their effectiveness/influence.


  7. Marty,
    This is a great synopsis. I would also add that house churches (at least the network I have been a part of over the last nearly 2 years) often emphasize multiplication whereas small groups tend to focus on addtion.

    I continue to pray for you Marty and much of what I learned in your classes continues to be extremely helpful in my ministry and the way I approach ministry. The Lord is using you in tremendous ways at TEDS! Keep laboring for the Gospel.


  8. Greg, thanks for the comment. I take it you think the practice of the ordinances are not going to happen in small groups and would in the house church.

    What would the biblical warrent for this be?


  9. Good quality discussion.

    Matt your comment on Rusty’s is helpful but I’m not completely unsympathetic to the issue Rusty raises. “Professional paid elite” does sound a bit pejorative (Rusty, be careful) but I think the point Rusty is trying to make is that in our current approach, pastors do more work than they need too, more work than they should do, and the wrong kind of work in many ways.

    Pastors should be doing more equipping, more modeling; they should be “with people intentionally” that is, their discipleship should rely less on great messages (and you know I love great preaching) and more on taking people with them and training people in a Deuteronomy 6:4-9 manner, much the way Jesus did as the twelve and he walked the countryside of Judea.

    Didn’t know you had already moved back to MO.


  10. Hey Marty,

    A lot I could say, but my main concern is, What is the pastor/elder’s role with respect to the Bible? Does he simply need to have a basic understanding of the gospel and of Christian discipleship? Or is he a steward of the Word of God as a whole? That is, is he responsible for teaching the whole counsel of God, or just repeating the elementary doctrines over and over to more and more people? If the former, then it has huge implications for how he allocates his time, and his approach to teaching (assuming that men qualified for this task are much more scarce than men qualified to do basic “pastoral” care and practical ministry).

    That said, I agree that “pastors should be doing more equipping, more modeling,” being “with people intentionally.” This leaves us with a couple of options, as I see it: (1) You have a lead pastor who spends adequate time studying the Word and preparing messages that adequately teach a teachable unit of Scripture in addition to spending adequate time “being intentionally with” congregation members. This adds up to a full-time workload and ought to be compensated as such. (2) You have a team of unpaid or p/t pastors who divide up the tasks of pastoral leadership—one will teach/preach, another will administer, another will counsel, another will mentor/disciple, and so on. While I’d advocate a plurality of elders, with their variety of gifts and perspectives, a strict division of labor would seem to sever the teaching pastor from the life of the church. He would hardly have time left over after doing his basic studies and teaching preparation along with his secular work, and let’s not forget, caring for his family. And that’s if he’s paid p/t. If he’s unpaid, then he’s working at least 40 hrs/wk outside of church (and who knows how sufficient a salary he could earn if all his education and experience are in ministry), with study/teaching duties on top of that. How healthy a family life, personal life, devotional life would he have?

    I guess the decentralized leadership model sounds good in theory, but when you get down to the nitty gritty—the dollars and cents, the days and hours, the amount of hard work it takes to comprehend this massive, complex book we call Scripture—I still see a structure that has at least one f/t salaried pastor to complement a team of elders and a bunch more lay leaders as the most practical model.


  11. Wow’ve said a lot in one paragraph so its hard to address everything in short. I’m not aware of any text in Scripture that tells us that it is solely the pastor’s responsibility to steward the word of God, disciple or teach. In fact, the word pastor is only formally used once in the New Testament, (poimenav) in Ephesians 4. It’s plural and a metaphor used to describe a function. I prefer to use the word “overseer” (episkopos) which I think describes the function of leader more accurately. They simply “oversee” the affairs of the church. An “elder” (presbuterav), on the other hand, describes the role in terms of age. These persons are much older and wiser in life and in spirituality.

    I think one thing to consider is the purpose of your gatherings. If your focus week after week is the sermon, then of course…someone needs to spend time preparing, laboring in the word for that message. This seems to be where the church is currently at in terms of liturgy and I find it has not done us much good causing the sole pastor to do everything else on TOP of preparing the sermon. However, if your focus is centered around the Lord’s Supper (as our fellowship is), then everyone has a chance to bring a short teaching, song, hymn, instruction, prophecy in line with 1 Cor. 14. In theory we reserve lengthy teaching times for another gathering.

    Lots of things to consider…I’m enjoying the discussion.


  12. Matt, I have some of the same concerns but the solution you describe seems to pretty quickly isolate the teaching pastor from the real world. In addition, it is a setup for an unhealthy division between “clergy” and “Laity”. How do we get the benefits of a teacher devoting his time to real labor over the text for the body, without this problem?

    Rusty, let’s go down that path a bit. When does that gathering for “lengthy teaching” occur and what does it look like?

    Trevor, thanks for your kind comment. I hope all of my former students can say the same. It would be great to hear from Jim on these issues. As a former pastor in the tradtional model and a current house church leader and trainer of chrch planters, what does he think about this discussion. Would you ask him to weigh in?


    1. I emailed him the link last night. I’m sure he’d love to weigh in. I think his biggest challenge will be putting his thoughts within the text limits. I’ll let him know of your particular interest in his perspective.


      1. Thanks Trevor. Would love to have a couple of links to things Jim has written on the topic.

        I am going to refer later to his artilce “Should I Say More About House Churches?”


    2. I think what we see mostly on Sunday mornings currently is a “teaching meeting” usually centered around a gifted individual or individuals (worship leaders). Not bad…but not mandatory. I can’t imagine that spending two hours staring at the back of a person’s head is what the writer of Hebrews was thinking when he/she said “do not forsake the assembling of yourselves as some have…”. I think that assembly should be happening on some other occasion outside of a larger corporate gathering of the “larger body” of believers. That “teaching meeting” could happen any other night, (I would prefer to meet together for church on Sunday afternoon or evenings). It’s not that we do away with these large meetings, but that our focus should be on the koinonia found in smaller simpler gatherings.


  13. You have made a very useful comparison of house churches and small groups.

    Coming from a house/simple church perspective, I agree with what others are saying about the dangers of isolationism for house churches. Part of the answer lies in interdependent networks of churches. There will never be all the Ephesians 4 ministry giftings that are needed for healthy, multiplying churches in one small house church, but in a network of several house churches they are more likely to be present. We are also beginning to see more done on a regional basis by way of conferences and other resources (often, interestingly, spearheaded by women).

    One of the things that most excites me at the moment in our city is simple/organic churches and mega churches working together using a simple church strategy for outreach. What might happen in our cities if it doesn’t matter who gets the credit?


  14. Felicity, we are honored to have an experienced practitionor like you interacting with us.

    In addition to teaching church planting at Trinity Seminary (TEDS), I am currently working on the planting of a cluster of house churches to deal with the issues you describe.

    Amen, on not worrying who gets the credit. It’s the name of Jesus by which men and women are saved, not the form of our churches.

    I’m going to let this discussion continue today and then give a new chart that summarizes some of the discoveries suggested by our time. Thanks to all.


  15. “Honey, I shrunk the church.” Clever. This has been a concern of mine as well. I find that many who are attracted to the house church movement seem to fall into this trap. The same trap by the way that traditional churches fall into.

    They begin their thinking about “making disciples” with those who have already believed and interpret making disciples as “deepening the faithful but immature.” But the command to make disciples is first evangelistic and then developmental.

    House churches and traditional churches will work best when the gathered believers, are on mission to the world. A house church that is not on mission, but is simply celebrating the expression of everyone’s gifts in edification of the body in a more egalitarian and participative way is sub-biblical. Whether we express the body in a house church or a more traditional church form, the people of God must live and act as sojourners in this world.

    Living out a “cross-bought and cross-shaped” lifestyle is not a cloister but a nomadic rescue mission to the world.


  16. What does it look like for an engineer, husband, father of three living in, say, Schaumburg, Illinois to be on mission? And what difference does the form of church of which he is a member make with regard to this? In particular, is there a substantive difference—a necessary difference—between what this man’s role in the mission would look like if he were a member of a house church or of a small group that functioned, more or less, like a house church?


    1. Let’s weigh in on Matt’s question. It’s a good one. Let me reframe it a bit.

      What is different between a small group “on mission” and a house church “on mission”

      I am going to let this run another day in hopes that Jim Eliff will join the discussion and because I have some meetings today that will keep me from participating until the evening. Have a good time.


  17. We long [to see] that new house churches start with a focus on missions and making disciples from the harvest. Otherwise it is too easy for the form of the meeting to become all important. Many new churches that start with existing believers do, what our friend John White calls, “Honey I shrunk the church!”

    When you are working primarily with the harvest, many of these problems don’t exist.


  18. Thanks, Rusty, for acknowledging that there are “different strokes for different folks” when it comes to how we do church (within the limits of Scripture, of course). What bothers me about some house/organic church proponents is their derogatory tone toward models different than their own, which happen to be very helpful contexts for very many people (perhaps many more people than their model).

    If large group gatherings (and all that comes with them) are rapidly becoming obsolete, particularly in post-Christendom or areas where it never existed (so the story goes), then I have a difficult time explaining the phenomenon of Mars Hill, Seattle.

    But for those who need the sum total of what it means to be and do church to happen at the “small group” and (let’s not forget) community/neighborhood level, I’m all in favor of bolstering those efforts.


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