Methodist House Churches: Inviting and Recruiting

October 2nd, 2018

The following article is part six of a ten-part series exploring all aspects of organizing, worshipping, and growing as a house church community. Read the previous parts here.

If you’ve talked to anyone about growing church numbers in the last decades, you’ve probably heard about the importance of making disciples who make disciples. We should not be focused on adding people to our group, the thinking goes, but setting free the power of multiplication. Tony and Felicity Dale’s book about house churches, The Rabbit and the Elephant, makes the point with a simple analogy: small, fertile rabbits reproduce much faster than large elephants. Reducing the gestational period for churches is one way to speed up the church-planting process. “Simple,” “organic,” and even “viral” are terms I’ve heard used to describe this growth strategy.

I think this is a beautiful idea. I’m also intensely skeptical of it.

First, I need to affirm the truth of the multiplication concept: It’s true that disciples make disciples, and I do believe we need to think about faith, leadership development, and church planting in terms of mustard seeds. The Kingdom of God is supposed to grow more like yeast, kudzu, or dandelions (Matthew 13:31-33) instead of cedar trees (Ezekiel 31:3-13). We Jesus-followers should spread like a contagious disease. While “attractional” churches focus on adding people to an event, “missional” churches focus on sending people out to transform the world and multiply disciples.

But second, we need to disentangle our cultural trends and fascinations from our theological principles. In our current social moment, “going viral” is the aspiration of every political propagandist and every fame-seeking YouTube star. The church-industrial complex has so thoroughly bought into the theology of “mindshare” and “viral success” that we’ve lost sight of the equally-important concepts of pruning and subtraction. In church planting circles, the theology of success-by-multiplication is pervasive: Churches who grow fast are obviously blessed by God for having correct theology and loving Jesus. But how much of this multiplication mindset is inspired by the gospel, and how much by 21st-century capitalism? While I believe the Good News is attractive, is it true that popularity is a sign of divine favor?

Jesus’ own ministry gives us several examples of the limited marketability of the idea of “losing your life to save it.” After one particularly offensive sermon, Jesus shrank his entourage from thousands to a dozen, and he even worried he might lose his closest disciples (John 6:65-68). He told his followers that the path they chose would not be for everyone (Matthew 7:13-14).

I share this reflection on church growth because I often hear house churches lifted up as a multiplication strategy. In a denominational environment where people are desperate to stave off church decline, I do not want people to see house churches primarily through the lens of church growth. I also think we need to be realistic about the investment of time and energy in recruiting people and adding them as partners to house churches. In a house church, recruitment, discipleship, and member growth are slow. And there is nothing wrong with that.

All of the Math

One of my most important lessons in doing house churches is that all of the math is important: addition, multiplication, division, and subtraction.

Addition happens at the level of the individual house church. Since we are trying to reach folks who probably would otherwise not be in church at all, and since we use a community organizing model, one-to-one conversations are essential. As the pastor and church planter, I have multiple one-to-one conversations each week, both with partners (members) of our house church and with others in the community. I ask all of our partners to do the same. If we wind up inviting someone to visit one of our house churches, we do so with the expectation that it may be months—or even more than a year—before that person will follow through and visit. The folks we are trying to reach, the “nones and dones,” are just as set in their ways as church folks. Breaking the habit of not attending church, and creating a new habit, is a difficult task.

What has surprised me is how many people find our house churches just because they are looking for something different. A number of our new partners come to us by finding us on the internet, and simply showing up at one of our house churches. I think because we live in the age of Meetup, Lyft, and Airbnb, young people are especially less reluctant to show up at a stranger’s house than in decades prior. For this reason, it’s important to have a consistent and updated web presence. We’ve learned from experience that yard signs also help for people who are looking for the right private residence. Nobody likes knocking on a stranger’s door just to find out they are in the wrong place!

In a house church of ten people, if we add one person in a year, that’s ten percent growth! That would be huge at a mega-church. If we have multiple house churches, these simple acts of addition can represent huge numbers.

Multiplication happens at the network level. Two of our house churches have multiplied organically; that is, new partners felt a call to start a new house church in a different location or at a different time. When they split off from their previous home church (division), they recruited one or more households to form a new house church. When we start a new house church, we typically gain a few entirely new households as either core group or regular attenders. These open up new social networks and connections to new people.

While those house churches are growing organically, I’m still working at recruiting completely new groups of people into our network. If I can train new leaders to start new house churches, those leaders can bring nearly a dozen new people into the network by starting a house church.

New house churches are where the big growth comes from. While individual house churches add a few people each year, midwifing a new house church into existence creates new excitement and momentum.

Division is something we need to take seriously, though. When a house church multiplies organically, it can be a time of celebration. But any gestation or birth has a cost. Sometimes a house church needs to take “maternity leave” after giving up new partners to go and start a new house church. They can experience the separation as a loss of momentum or energy. “We brought these new people in,” they may lament, “and now we just send them away?”

I’ve heard growth-oriented pastors (usually men) speak callously about groups’ fears of dividing in order to grow. They ignore the biological principle that reproduction always takes energy, that birth is full of risk and often pain. I think any plan for organic growth reproduction needs to account for maternity leave for house churches that commission and send away leaders of new house churches.

Subtraction is just as much a part of growth as death is part of life. It is tempting, in a small church, to develop a scarcity mindset. We have so few people that the loss of just one or two hurts us disproportionately. A house church needs to have a clear enough sense of mission and ministry that these inevitable subtractions don’t get interpreted as “we must be doing something wrong.” As I mentioned above, Jesus lost thousands of followers between the time of his miraculous feeding and when he claimed that he was the Bread of Life which his followers must eat.

Jesus’ parable of the sower (Matthew 13:3-9) is a classic example of growth by subtraction. The sower casts a huge amount of seed, and most of it gets crushed, eaten, burned, or strangled. When I think of this parable in terms of planting house churches, it suggests to me that we need to have an attitude of detachment about the “success” or “failure” of planting new ones. We should fling them into unlikely places instead of carefully trying to engineer their success according to our egocentric ways of measuring.


In addition to weekly worship, I encourage our house churches to plan events that they would want to invite their friends to. This may be as simple as a cookout before or after the usual worship time, or a movie or game night on a different day of the week. The goal is simply to introduce people to each other, to create a low-commitment space in which the concept “house church” can be demystified.

House churches occupy an interesting space which can raise eyebrows from both conventional church folks and from the “nones and dones.” “Is it a real church? Do you have a real preacher? Is it like a cult?” can be the reaction from both church folks and from non-church folks.

All growth, of course, gets down to the simple act of invitation. House churches are about hospitality, and the advantage they have over conventional building-centered churches is that an invitation to a dinner table or small gathering is less fraught, in our age, than an invitation to a steeple church. Gathering in a house church feels naturally sacramental, and the act of sharing communion around a real dining table can be profoundly moving for those who have not set foot in a church building in a long time. As one of our partners said recently, “It felt less like going to church, and more like coming home.”

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