By Allen Palmeri
KANSAS CITY—The new partnership between the Missouri Baptist Convention (MBC) and the Canadian National Baptist Convention (CNBC) in the province of Ontario is being established with the hope that dozens of new house, or home, churches can be planted.
How does a house church work? Many would call it odd, but it is a Biblical way. Consider the story of www.ChristFellowshipKC.org, a house church network in the Kansas City metropolitan area founded by Jim Elliff, an evangelist, pastor, lecturer and author, and Daryl Wingerd, a former Los Angeles County Deputy Sheriff.
The Christ Fellowship home church plant began with 24 committed people and has grown to five separate congregations with 20-40 in each congregation, counting children. There are now about 170 attending, with a sixth congregation on the horizon.
Five pastors and two interns lead these flocks. The home congregation gathering is the main weekly meeting, on Sunday afternoons. Every six weeks all the home congregations come together. Men, women and youth also gather from all five congregations for midweek studies.
The network is healthy, Elliff said, in that the pastors go to bed at night knowing the spiritual state of every member. And yes, he said, every member really does mean every member as “loving accountability” is king in this system.
“The plan we have used has given us church health in ways that are far superior to any other churches I’ve known in the past,” Elliff said.
Canadian churches who follow this model will be tracing the footsteps of an innovative, disciple-making MBC church that has resisted the tendency of many house churches to be isolationist. Christ Fellowship is known as a cooperating MBC church that maintains an interest in denominational life.
The goal is to help the CNBC plant five platform churches in five major cities and then help plant 45 house churches in other towns or villages—in a healthy manner, which is how Christ Fellowship is attempting to do it.
“I’ve learned that the best leadership team of most churches cannot achieve true spiritual oversight based on their sincerity or leadership skills alone,” Elliff said. “Something must change in terms of structure to make this workable. (At Christ Fellowship) real pastoral care and involvement happen almost automatically. Every man in each congregation is mentored by a pastor, for instance. I could never accomplish such a goal in a traditional church structure, unless the church was very small.”
A typical Christ Fellowship meeting lasts from 4 p.m. to around 8:30 p.m. on Sunday with time set aside in “open session” for members to contribute. The Lord’s Supper is also practiced as a weekly discipline.
“Some of the men may open the Bible and teach the others,” Elliff said. “People may testify about Gospel encounters they’ve had that week, share prayer requests, or pray, or suggest a season of prayer, sing or play a song, confess sin, encourage the group, read a spiritually helpful poem or short article, read Scripture, or other such things. We will also have an exposition from a pastor or other qualified leader, but much of the time is given to the participation of the body.
“The people are taught to edify each other as a main goal of these meetings. That’s why we meet. And much more participation takes place during the week.”
One of the distinguishing marks of a healthy home church is something that Christ Fellowship can point to as part of its DNA.
“We have spiritual intimacy,” Elliff said. “I have rarely found spiritual intimacy in churches, yet it becomes a natural part of our lives together here. It is hard to avoid. Because we share our lives openly, praying for and helping each other, we build strong ties to each other.”
With a high level of love present in the church, “the biblical practice of church discipline can take place effectively,” Elliff said.
“Because the pastors know their flock well, we can usually deal with sin when it first appears. Our pastors, who meet for four hours each Tuesday evening, talk through particular needs and pray for our people.”
Developing male leadership, a challenge in many traditional MBC churches, can be done well in a house church.
“Our men are encouraged to speak up in our meetings, often teaching from the Scriptures for 10 minutes or so,” Elliff said. “They usually take their turn to lead the congregation in the Lord’s Supper, relating something from the Bible about Christ. They are mentored in a highly participatory manner by their pastor each week, usually going through a book of the Bible. There are men’s meetings that all the men of the congregations attend that call for their active participation. Add to this nursing home and prison ministries on Sunday mornings, and some of the men attend liberal religious gatherings on Sunday mornings also, for the purpose of loving people and witnessing to those who do not hear the Gospel. In this kind of context, it is hard for a man not to grow.”
The house church believer in a healthy context is highly committed to obeying basic Christian commands, Elliff said. And any new person coming in is examined closely to see if he or she is a true Jesus follower.
“Upon joining, they commit to a membership agreement that is a living tool for us to remind us of Biblical requirements for following Christ,” he said. “As a result, all the members attend the meetings, all give, all attempt to evangelize, all participate in the life of church. We are not perfect, but this expectation along with the size and intimacy of our congregations allows us to constantly stay on top of our basic responsibilities.”
Do house church networks in Missouri commonly consist of 500-1,000 members? No. Growth is defined a bit differently.
“Frankly, most people join our church because we are serious-minded in our Bible teaching and evangelism, first of all,” Elliff said. “They see a loving, active church supported by God’s grace. They then later become excited about our method of meeting. It isn’t hard to enjoy.”
Canadians in northern Ontario who wish to apply the teachings of the Acts of the Apostles more literally than they are typically applied in North American church settings can go to www.ChristFellowshipKC.org for clues.
“It is reasonable to believe that we can more easily carry out our life in Christ meeting in homes since the New Testament was written in that context,” Elliff said. “The ‘one anothers’ just work better this way.
“Of course, house church meeting patterns do not solve all problems. You still must have spiritual men and the grace of God. The early church, meeting in homes, still had ‘issues.’ We know that and are carefully watching out for the various problems that can occur. But we have been amazingly blessed with harmonious growth. God has been so kind to us.”