4. Maturing the saints
The emphasis should be on nurturing, not just filling the building and concen-trating on size. Maturing of the saints is an on-going task. The house leader must be sufficiently mature and have the anointing of God on him/her, apt to teach and must have some ability to guide the saints on their respective paths to maturity. 1 Ti. 3:2.
Maturity is a relative thing for some. Evangelicals tend to think of maturity as intellectual knowledge, especially of the Bible, and an ability to spout scriptures freely. Taken alone, it would take years for one to attain such levels of knowledge. We see such striving to achieve scholastic excellence in our Bible colleges and degree-producing institutions. Obviously, this should not be the focus of a house group because of time restrictions and other limitations, such as the availability of teaching materials and teachers. Even at the present time, existing house churches continue to favor leaders with credentials in the natural. This may lead to a soulish congregation because of a reliance on natural abilities and accomplishments. This position also limits maturity to those who are highly educated. This smacks of the days when Jesus walked the earth and the Pharisees and Sadducees were the elite priesthood. The Bible, however, shows that most of the disciples were unlearned and house church leaders were unlearned people.
Intellectual growth cannot be expected from those who have not received a level of education that would enable them to pursue intellectual knowledge of the Bible. A farmer who only went to fourth grade is limited in his ability to become intellectual. Spiritual maturity, however, does not require mental excellence. It is mostly a matter of the heart and can be gained overnight. The book Lilies Amongst Thorns relates many stories of new converts who laid their lives down for the sake of the Gospel less than 24 hours after receiving the Lord. In one case, young missionaries preached the gospel in a remote village one day and many came to the Lord. The officials heard about it and sent police to apprehend the missionaries. Knowing the nefarious intent of the police, a crowd of new converts surrounded the missionaries. The police began shooting and clubbing the new Christians. Many died or were gravely injured, but the missionaries escaped unharmed. What was it that so changed the hearts of these new converts in less than a day, so that they were willing to lay their lives down for their brethren?
This writer knows a Christian who once attended an evangelical church. She informed me that she and a group of mature saints met for lunch every Tuesday. They no longer attended church because they knew the Bible as well as the pastor and they spent their time on volunteer work. Yet, none of these “mature” saints could speak in tongues, cast out devils, intercede for others, heal the sick, raise the dead or have visions, dreams, prophecies, word of knowledge, word of wisdom or other gifts of the Spirit. They were a proud, intellectual bunch and the love, gentleness, and other fruit of the Spirit were absent. They were purely intellectual. None was born again of the Spirit. Yet, they considered themselves mature Christians. This is symptomatic of the sad condition of the Church today.
Spiritual growth should be the aim of all saints. It involves matters of the heart and spirit. The fruit of the Spirit are no doubt, more desirable than good works according to God’s viewpoint. While the Bible does talk about the need to study the Word, it also speaks volumes about the fruit of the Spirit. Gal. 5:22. The two are interrelated in the sense that much is learned about God by studying the Bible. However, it is also clear that the deeper mysteries and understandings of God and Christianity can come only by divine revelation and actual change of heart comes mostly through trials and sufferings.
Surely, the fruit of the Spirit marks a true Christian. Therefore, spiritual growth should be the main concentration. Bible scriptures and knowledge must go hand in hand with spiritual growth. Otherwise, the chaste Bride, the true church of Jesus Christ, will never become a reality. As the apostle Paul said in 2 Ti. 3:7, “Ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth.”
The minimizing of spiritual growth and the return to temple worship with its professional priesthood has plagued the church since 325 A.D. For the most part, both the gifts and fruit of the Spirit have been lost or discarded in favor of intellectual knowledge of the Bible and cheap imitations or false appearances. Bible colleges and theological seminaries have proliferated and possession of a higher college degree has become the badge of maturity in evangelical and some Pentecostal circles. Without the Spirit, there can be little spiritual growth or meaningful and permanent change of heart. Obviously, the paramount focus of each house group should be spiritual maturity, which should include both the gifts and the fruit of the Spirit.
Once, this writer was praying and asking God about why the church is in such trouble today in terms of immaturity. Suddenly, I had a vision. I saw the yellow pages of a telephone directory. A forefinger pointed to the upper right hand corner where there was a word. As the word came into focus, the letters spelled the word “APPEARANCES.” God began to speak right into my spirit. The church is more concerned with false appearances, facades, pretenses and make believe than in true holiness, righteousness and spiritual maturity. Saints use key words such as, “God spoke to me,” “God told me,” “God showed me,” “The Holy Spirit spoke to my heart,” etc., in order to create an aura of maturity and sometimes to control and manipulate others. Most often, it is their own thoughts and ideas. They just want you to think that they are mature in Christ and worthy of admiration. Others quote scripture continually and even correct the pastor or teacher in an effort to show that they are anointed. It is a sham.
We are aware also that born-again, Spirit-filled Christians are often obsessed with the gifts of the Spirit, including prophesying, visions, dreams, praise and worship, and so forth, but are short on evangelizing and service to others. It reminds me of a dream that one of our members had. In the dream, the woman was in a large room filled with other Christians. The praise and worship was wonderful and people were prophesying all over the place. A young man ran up to her and said excitedly, “Isn’t it wonderful? The Holy Spirit is here!” After a while, the music died down a little and the young man ran up to her again and said, “We have to sing harder! The Holy Spirit is going away!” The saints whipped themselves into a frenzy of praise the worship. Suddenly, she heard a knock on the door. She opened the door and there was Jesus standing with a dead lamb in his hands. His eyes were both sad and angry. He said, “That’s now what I died for! That’s not what I died for!” He then turned around and jumped on a large white horse. Just before he galloped off, he turned about and said once more, “That’s not what I died for!”
In the second part of the dream, she saw a few Christians in a forest clearing. There was a long line of people coming to the Lord and another long line where people were being prayed for and healed of various diseases.
The next night, a young man had a dream in which he found himself in an old plantation setting. In front of him was an old, run-down house that had a new coat of yellow paint on it. The strange thing was that the house had no windows and the door was shut tight. When he put his ear to the walls, he could hear Christian music. He turned around to look at the front yard. It was huge and there were furrows as if the land had once been plowed and prepared for planting. But, the large garden was filled with weeds. End of dream.
Jesus is telling us that the church has become introverted and is no longer planting seed on the mission field as they once did. They are preoccupied with building castles at home and uninterested in preaching the gospel to all nations.
Pure autonomy is not desirable unless circumstances dictate it. House churches need to be accountable to others - to other house churches in the area, to the five-fold ministry and other recognized itinerant teachers of the faith and/or to a consortium of house group leaders in the area. Acts 2:34 says that the saints broke bread from house to house, eating their meat with gladness and singleness of heart. This indicates that there was an atmosphere of open-ness with all other house groups and they mingled with each other in unity of heart and love. There was much sharing of food and possessions. Although there were many house groups, there was only one Church, one body of Christ.
During times of persecution, these groups continued to work with one another and were not isolated. When this writer ministered in the underground churches in mainland China, he found that many house groups were represented at his meetings, some as far away as two hours by train. They all had one heart and knew each other well. This shows great accountability and love for one another. Even during times of persecution, the saints managed to maintain accountability and close relationships within a broad geographic range. Although eleven of their pastors were hiding from the authorities, all house groups were intact and functioning. All risked arrest and imprisonment if caught, yet all continued to worship openly and to fellowship whenever they could.
6. Loyalty to the Bible - Avoiding Heresy
During the peak of revival, laborers will be few and possess less training than at slower times. There will likely be a loss of contact with other groups and/or the central headquarters for the area. In the first century after our Lord returned to heaven, Jerusalem became the headquarters for the Jewish-Christian community, while Antioch became the headquarters for the Gentile Christians. We know that Peter, who ministered to the Jews worked out of Jerusalem and Paul, who ministered to the Gentiles, worked out of Antioch. We do not know to what extent there were other sub-centers, but it would appear that other geographic centers were necessary and probable.
When persecution came, the Christians were scattered all over the earth. This had the effect of spreading the gospel abroad quicker than otherwise. Ac. 8:1. However, during times of persecution, house groups will tend to disconnect with one another, especially where the authorities are arresting any house group caught assembling. . We note that Saul (who later became the apostle Paul) “made havoc of the church, entering into every house, and haling men and women committed them to prison.” Ac. 8:8. It is clear that the Christians met in houses in his day.
Underground churches will move around in order to escape apprehension, and this may result in isolation. This is another reason why ultimate autonomy or self-government is a necessary characteristic of house groups during times of persecution. Within the forced autonomy, however, there must be accountability wherever possible. In a spiritual sense, if all house groups are looking to Christ for leadership, there is complete unity with all other house groups. Christ is the head of the body and the body is comprised of all true house groups. If all look to the head as they are supposed to, the head will coordinate all activities.
Isolation and lack of teaching materials or persons mature enough to impart truth can result in distortions of scripture and lead the flock astray. That is one reason why there must be a consistent and correct system that will help house groups retain the truth even in times of isolation and persecution. Keep in mind that a house church system is not the ultimate goal. The ultimate goal is to produce a true church.
This is also the reason why leadership must focus on spiritual maturity. One who can receive from the Lord during times of danger must lead the less gifted sheep. In the early church, spirits of antichrist and spurious leaders already caused damage to the Church. It will be a fact, given the nature of man, but should be avoided wherever possible.
In Communist China, there were very few Bibles and some Christians never owned or even saw a Bible. However, whenever the saints were able to find a Bible, they would take it apart and assign each member a number of pages to duplicate by hand - say, ten copies of each page. When everyone completed his/her assignment, all the pages are compiled. Eventually, everyone in the house group had a complete Bible. This shows a dedication to the truths contained in the Bible and an unswerving loyalty to the teachings passed down by the apostles.
Watchman Nee once commented that he was often pleasantly surprised when he went to remote villages where most of the Christians were illiterate. He found that many, especially housewives, knew the Bible better than educated saints because they relied on the Holy Spirit. Therefore, reliance on the Holy Spirit is a prime requirement in each house group.
In China, brave people went underground to preach the gospel in prohibited areas of the country, risking imprisonment, torture and death. These traveling saints kept information and pure teachings flowing through the underground movement. Many of these itinerant preachers were young people in their teens or early twenties. Nevertheless, they were well versed in scriptures and the ways of God. We can only trust the Lord and give Him back His church so that He can lead the saints and fulfill His eternal purposes during the days to come. No planning or strategies devised by men can do the job. Our job is to trust and obey God.
7. Collective Leadership
At the outset, some system of accountability to collective leadership should be established. Accountability infers that independent, outside groups or persons are able to observe, receive reports about or be called upon to provide checks and balances and render assistance and counseling. Initially, a central church could act as the core to which all house groups must report and submit. As house groups proliferate however, this may be difficult because of geographical restraints. In an urban center such as a large city, however, it is possible to contact and monitor many saints by creating regional training centers subject to the central church, at least in peaceful times. David Yonggi Cho’s church in Seoul, Korea is an example.
There are situations that will make such a peacetime system impractical. One such situation can occur when the sprawl of house groups extends too far out geographically or is too scattered to enable people to move about freely. An example would be a large rural or agricultural area where houses are often located many miles from any urban center or other houses. Cagayan, in northern Luzon, for instance, is remote and spread out. Farmhouses can be miles apart from each other and villages are no more than three or four stores or houses in a cluster. Constant communications or physical contacts are difficult and minimal. Poor farmers will not likely travel twenty miles to attend a leadership meeting in the big city. Yet, these are the very ones who need help and training.
One possible answer is to have a central headquarters wherever possible and traveling representatives where it is not possible or difficult. I believe that the five-fold ministry, especially the apostles, filled the gaps in the first three hundred years. They were God’s traveling ambassadors and representatives to the Church, wherever the Church may be and wherever house groups may be located. That is why the Bible records that Paul’s four known travels lasted for years in some instances. He maintained contact with major groups in central locations such as in the cities, and with more remote church groups. Wherever he went, he trained, laid hands on and ordained leaders. At the same time, he suffered much in order to carry out his responsibilities. 2 Co. 11:23-27. The Bible indicates that many Christians were constantly traveling and in touch with house churches all over the then-known world. Paul was not the only one.
In the times to come, young, energetic Christians will play a major role.
Although house groups are largely autonomous in terms of being self-governing, they should always be accountable to outside church leaders. That is one of the reasons why I believe that God will restore the five-fold ministry. There has to be unity, purity of doctrines and accountability.
At the very least, and especially in rural areas, attempts should be made to form a consortium of sorts, which should include all the house group leaders in that particular area. Such a consortium could be as little as two leaders and as large as hundreds, but no house group leader can afford to be isolated and non-accountable. Periodic meetings should be held whenever possible. During times of persecution, a system of communication should be in place. This requires that all nerve centers be in touch with and have close personal relations with one another. A network of central control groups is necessary. In mainland China, for instance, the underground churches often had elaborate methods of communicating with other groups. If a house group is driven out of their homes and communities, they would have other house churches to go to for protection and sustenance. Closeness among house groups must be fostered in such times and should be nurtured even in peaceful times. No house group should be intentionally independent and isolated from other house groups.
As mentioned earlier, when this writer visited mainland China , eleven house group leaders were in hiding because the government had confiscated a computer containing all the names of the local leaders. Each group, however, was intact and we were able to minister to every one of them. They simply moved out of danger together. They all knew one another and other leaders stepped in to fill the void. That is God’s intention.
8. Central Church and Five-Fold Ministry
In times of relative peace, a central headquarters or church maintains contact and provides training for house church pastors and potential leaders. This must take place on a continual basis. In David Yonggi Cho’s church in Seoul, Korea, training goes on almost daily in the central building in the middle of the city. In outside areas, training also goes on every week in churches and headquarters for each region in the city. This training should start right away and even before forming house groups. A perpetual stream of trained leaders is necessary.
As the house groups begin to spread outward geographically, the centers of training will also extend outward. In the chain of command or organizational chart, there will inevitably be ever-larger levels of training - from the central church at the top to the regional training centers next below, to the sub-regional training centers below that and so forth.
Five-fold ministry teams will become vital, even during peacetime. These teams will help monitor and train leaders in every region, from top to bottom. Such teams will be the glue that will keep house groups sane and on the right path. Five-fold ministry teams will be even more vital in agricultural or remote areas where house group leaders cannot afford either the time or expense to travel to urban areas for training.
During times of persecution and hardship, these five-fold ministry teams will play an important role in keeping the body of Christ intact, encouraging and protecting the flock.
Only God can appoint and anoint five-fold ministers. At the present time, there are no apostles, prophets and evangelists in the mold of the first century apostles, prophets and evangelists. For one thing, there are no real “teams” as described in the Bible and no Christians functioning in the fullness of the gifts and power of the Holy Ghost as we see in the Book of Acts. Ac. 5:12-16. Some may be doing one or more aspect of the work of an apostle, mostly in the planting of churches, but cannot be truly equal to an apostle in the mold of Peter, John, Paul, etc., where miracles, signs and wonders were wrought by the apostles daily. Ac. 4:33. Modern-day prophets and evangelists are mostly individual ministries and not part of a team consisting of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers working to expand and perfect God’s kingdom on earth. Can there be an apostle who is not recognized by the body of Christ at large? At most, he or she is an apostle only to their particular group or denomination.
Mature spiritual leaders are necessary. Although the format and physical structure of a house church can be emulated, the true success of the house group is the presence and leading of the Holy Spirit. Leaders must be Spirit-filled, at the very least, and able to hear from the Lord. During persecution, many saints will be deceived and fall away from the faith, even some who are Spirit-filled. Da. 11:33,35. When it comes to people who are not Spirit-filled, whether they be evangelicals, Pentecostals, Catholics or Christian cults, they will not be able to survive the extreme pressures of persecution and will fall away. In the end, only Spirit-filled groups will make it through, although not all. 2 Th. 2:3; Da. 11:35.
9. Relationships in the local house church
The way to know if someone has the fruit of the Spirit is through his/her relationships with others. What a person has in his/her heart is quickly exposed, as relationships are fostered and nurtured. The house church format is uniquely suited to this process since one cannot easily hide behind the trees in a small garden as one can in a large forest. The small size of a house group allows everyone to know all the others more or less intimately. In a large church, people can hide behind the crowds of people.
In a born-again, Spirit-filled church, the leader must be more spiritually advanced than the other sheep in the flock and can “hear from God.” It is obvious that the spiritual ones should lead the less spiritual ones. Certainly, such leaders should not “lord it over” the others, but abuses of leadership should not scuttle God’s plan of delegated spiritual authority. The apostle Paul laid down specific requirements for an elder or bishop in 1Timothy 3, in order to distinguish the less spiritual from the spiritual leaders of God’s sheep, and the more qualified from the unqualified or less qualified.
In the end times, knowledge of spiritual warfare, deliverance and inner healing, along with gifts of healing, prophecy, and other gifts of the Spirit will become very important. The “everyone is equal” approach does not allow the teaching of discipline, submission and obedience to spiritual authority. In Joel 2:7,8, we find that the army of God is very precise in its placement of the saints: “... they shall march everyone on his ways, and they shall not break their ranks: neither shall one thrust another; they shall walk every one in his path….” This indicates that there are ranks and different positions in God’s army. Everyone has his own placement and walk and no one should try to usurp the position or try to walk in someone else’s position or path.
Each house group should emphasize love and service to one another. This will be crucial during times of persecution. An atmosphere conducive to encouraging close relationships among the members should be encouraged. As mentioned earlier, the saints daily shared bread from house to house gladly and with singleness of heart. The leader must be a person of love and trust since members tend to follow the leader. Some are more sociable than others are and others may have more knowledge and natural leadership abilities, but the one characteristic that must be present in each leader is love and spiritual maturity. The qualifications set out in 1 Timothy 3 should be adhered to.
One of the ways to encourage closeness is in the area of service and helps. Each member should be willing to come to the assistance of every other member wherever and whenever possible.
In the early church, the members sold their possessions and gave it to the apostles to distribute as they saw fit. Ac. 2:44-47; 4:34,35. There was such a concern for all saints that people willingly gave their life savings and possessions to the church. However, this is not a mandatory requirement. There should be, however, an attitude of genuine and deep concern for one another out of love. As the Bible says, we need to share the burdens of others, sorrow when one sorrows and rejoice when one rejoices.
It is obvious that the first step in establishing a viable house church is to bond with one another. Once the members and leaders bond together, the next step is to build the house church system. Without bonding, the effort becomes one-sided, with the leader standing alone at times and no one else desiring to support and uphold the vision of the church. Therefore, dedicate the first two months to knowing one another and bonding through daily activities. That third step is to multiply. Again, multiplication is difficult if only the pastor is interested in growth.
House church life is different from traditional church life. It is much closer and active. People visit every day sometimes and the people learn to work together as a team. Everyone has a singleness of mind and desire. Every member must contribute to the life of the house church.