Methodist House Churches: The Basics of Organizing

June 26th, 2018

The following article is part two of a ten-part series. Read the introduction here.

Assembling the Group

The main activity of a house church is worship. Worship distinguishes a house church from a “small group,” which may be a program of a larger church. This is not a class meeting, or a Sunday school class, or a Bible study, though it may share elements of all of those, and all of those may share elements of worship. (I’ll share more about what worship looks like in the fifth blog post in this series.)

It’s important that participants understand how a house church is different from a small group. If the core group signs up expecting that they’ll one day “graduate” to a building with a “real” worship service, they may be disappointed. While I always leave open the possibility that the Holy Spirit will lead a particular house church into a different expression of church someday, I try to make it clear that becoming an attractional, event-focused church is not the main agenda.

The first step in organizing a new house church is to identify and teach the core group about what a house church is and isn’t. These need to be folks who buy into the vision of creating a network of organically-reproducing house churches. They do not need to be folks who merely have an ax to grind (although some ax-grinding is probably fine) with “the institutional church.” (I’ll share more on group dynamics and ax-grinding in the seventh blog post in this series).

There are a few hard lessons I’ve had to learn about starting house churches. In particular, there are three rules that I try to follow about starting a house church:

  1. A house church requires a core group of three households. A “household” can be a single person or a family, but three is the minimum number who will make a commitment to be there nearly every week. This way, if someone is sick or out of town, we can still have church, because wherever two or more are gathered, Jesus is there.
  2. The three households do a trial run for four to six weeks, during which they figure out stuff like childcare, structure, and what will work for them.
  3. At the end of the trial run, they commit to join as members (we call them “partners”) and to meet consistently for eight months. We’ve tried starting house churches with people who are not partners, or who were members of another church but who volunteered their home, and it simply hasn’t worked for us. For the core group, this needs to be their church.

Simple and Flexible

It’s also important to keep it simple. We use a liturgy, pray, read scripture, and share a message with discussion. We conclude with communion, then share business and announcements at the end. We do not pass an offering plate, as that feels awkward in a small group and all of our giving is done online. I use the Book of Worship and Board of Discipleship resources when appropriate, but everything we do is designed to be easily-replicable. If the pastor is not available, the members need to be able to carry on without me.

I also emphasize to the group that this is their church — that means our schedule, how we structure worship, and any local traditions we develop are up to them. For example, one of our house churches is not big on singing, so we sing rarely if at all. But for another, singing is an important part of their worship experience, so we sing every time we gather. In one church, in order to include children in more aspects of worship, they process parts of the table setting into the room: table runner, flowers, a candle (battery powered — we’ve learned from experience), chalice and patten.


The idea of hosting sometimes makes people nervous. It’s one thing to talk inspirationally about “radical hospitality,” but it’s another to ask potential strangers into your home week after week. For this reason, it’s important that core families have an alternative location, both to give hosts a break and to have an option for when folks are sick or on vacation.

While providing snacks, coffee, or other signs of hospitality make community more intimate, and we want the space to be comfortable, we prefer what Rev. Jack King calls “scruffy hospitality,” so that people without the resources, fancy furniture, or privilege of wealth feel comfortable hosting. A little dog hair on the couch is okay, as long as we’re sure nobody’s allergies will suffer too much.

Another important thing I tell hosts is that house church is not meant to be a burden on one household. If meeting weekly becomes stressful, I’d rather people not host, or take a break. What I find, though, is that hosts come to enjoy cleaning up and preparing for guests once a week. It certainly helps us keep our house tidier, and some hosts tell me it feels like a luxury to not scramble to get loaded into the car every week. When church comes to you, it can reduce stress instead of increasing it.

This is also why the trial run is important. Hosts get to try out how hosting a house church will fit into their lifestyle, we get to see what will work and what will not in a new location, and we get a chance to see what the personality of the new house church will be.

I also tell the core group that if it doesn’t work out, it’s okay. In the parable of the sower, the farmer casts seeds far and wide, and not every seed will take. While we’d love for every single house church to germinate and flourish in fertile soil, we have to be willing to fail and call it quits. Making lots of mistakes is how we’ve succeeded so far.

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