What is the difference between a small group church and a house church?

More than two decades ago, a new wineskin many called cell church started to flourish to meet a growing need within the contemporary church. Many people realized traditional church methods were not meeting modern believer?s needs. The church was building-bound, clergy-centered, and many Christians longed for a place to belong and be effective witnesses for the gospel. Churches soon realized that small groups (cell groups) could help people rediscover that they can ?do the work of ministry.? Left behind was a spectator mentality of church where the pastor does all the work.

Today, many churches utilize small groups that give everyone a job to do. Everyone?s talents and gifts can be exercised to benefit others, and people can gain on-the-job training for leadership through hands-on experience.

The small groups also provide a more natural setting for evangelism since they give the opportunity to do evangelism as a team. Together the small group can identify and pray for God to use their group to reach the people of their personal oikos (from the Greek word household in the Bible. Our oikos are those people with whom we relate on regular basis?our co-workers, our families, those with whom we share a common interest such as sports or music, our dentist, our car mechanic, etc.). In a small group setting, nonbelievers are more easily drawn in and find a place to be loved and cared for.

With the small group vision made famous through David Yonggi Cho?s successful church in Korea, multitudes of small group or cell churches emerged on the scene of church life and cut through all denominational lines. Some churches started as new cell-based churches; other churches transitioned to small group-based ministry and still others simply developed small groups within their current church structure. Today most every denomination has some kind of small group ministry operating within their church structure that aims to be a place where ministry and caring takes place on a more personal level.

However, current small group churches continue to function mainly within the traditional church structure. In other words, although believers meet during the week in homes, in many cases these small groups still function as complementary ministries to the larger Sunday church meeting. A senior pastor leads this larger gathering and also oversees all the leadership under him in the small groups. This structure, of larger meetings and smaller meetings, requires many small group leaders, assistants and zone pastors, all of whom are accountable to the senior pastor and his leadership team. Additionally, a small group church or church with small groups also requires a headquarters or a church building to accommodate the various church functions.

House churches are entirely different. Although they meet in homes like small groups, that?s where much of the similarity ends. According to Wolfgang Simson in his challenging and cutting-edge book, Houses that Change the World, house churches are not mere appendages of the larger church, but real, bon afide churches:

[Both] concepts look similar, but are really miles apart, because they build on different values, and a different understanding of church. Where the home group is a small part of the big, the house church in itself is the church in its fullest and most holistic sense.

Unlike the small group church each house church is meant to be a complete little church. Each church is led not by a small group leader and a team of assistant leaders, but by a spiritual father or mother who functions as the leader.. He or she does not simply lead a meeting in a house, but rather provides an environment for people to grow spiritually in the context of everyday life. There is no need for a church building in which to meet because each house church is a fully functioning church in itself, meeting in a home.

This is not to say that a house church consists only of one group meeting in a house. I believe a house church should encourage smaller ?cells? within the group to meet for prayer, encouragement and accountability outside of the actual house church meeting. One ?cell? of people could regularly meet for breakfast before work and another ?cell? could meet together to disciple a few new Christians in the house church.

House churches are simple to start, provide a natural setting for ministry, and are easily replicated. Could these new churches meeting in homes, places of business, coffee shops?anywhere people meet, be the new look of the modern church? House churches are a relevant way to engage our communities with the claims of Jesus, according to a successful house church network in Canada:

House churches are simple, easily reproducible, create platforms for gift identification and development, and are effective in showing forth the transforming power of Christ in our neighborhoods and our communities. The postmodern anti-institutional mind, which will not enter traditional church, will come to my home. The Muslim or Hindu neighbor may not go to church, but they will enjoy Canadian hospitality. In the context of everyday life, the message and meaning of the gospel can be communicated in effective ways.