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First-century styled church planting for today ...

So You Want To Start A House Church?

Frank Viola      

Practical keys to a healthy and successful church plant.

So You Want To Start A House Church?

The principles set forth in this book are not untested theories.  Unlike most books on church planting, you will not find arm-chair philosophy or bloodless abstractions within its pages.  Neither will you find any hype or hoopla about a coming "apostolic wave" where God is going to raise up "thousands of apostles" at some elusive date set off in the unseen future.

Rather, the principles described in this book have been hammered out on the anvil of experience.  There are church planters, past and present, that have fleshed them out.  In addition, these principles are for today.  They apply to this day and this hour.  They are also supported by the voice of Scripture and the weight of NT scholarship.

Since I have been a Christian, I have made a number of observations regarding the problems endemic to the modern church — both institutional and house church.  All of these experiences led me to the following conclusions:

1.  Most modern churches, including the majority of house churches, have strayed far afield from the experience of the first-century church.  The chief reason being that we have utterly ignored what Scripture has to say about God's way of planting churches.
2.  Many of the problems germane to modern house churches could be resolved if we returned to the first-century principles of church planting and nurturing.

Granted, these conclusions are built on pragmatic observations.  But they also carry the force of Scripture to support them, and they are the seedbed that provoked this book.

Three books precede this one in a series on radical church reform.  Pagan Christianity traces the origins of every modern church practice, showing that the institutional church does not have a historical right to exist.  Rethinking the Wineskin and Who is Your Covering? compare the modern church to the NT church.1 Both books present a living color image of first-century church life.  To put it metaphorically, they give a detailed portrait of a very special woman.2  They describe her appearance, her personality, her passion, and the unique way she expresses herself.

This book picks up where Rethinking and Covering leave off.  It seeks to take a snapshot look at how this woman is born and how God intends for her to grow.

Tragically, many modern Christians have the benighted idea that beginning a NT-styled church is like asembling Lego blocks.  One simply has to stick their nose in the Bible, extract from its pages the practices of the early church, imitate them, and voilá, a floatable "NT church"is created.

But this way of thinking is profoundly flawed.  A NT-styled church cannot be started by the bare hands of men — no more than a woman can be constructed through human ingenuity or imagination.  A woman must be given birth.  And once born, she must be nurtured to the point where she develops on her own.

Forgive the crass illustration, but lashing together two female arms and legs onto a torso and propping a female head on top will never produce a girl.  To the naked eye such a concoction may resemble a human being.  But it will always lack the essential quality of hummanness — life.  And life is the product of birth.  This principle holds true when we consider "starting" an authentic church.

I have written this book for three different audiences.

First, it is written to the scores of people who desire to return to a first-century expression of church life.

Second, it is written to those who have set out to start a house church and have been unhappy with the results.

Third, it is written to every person — including pastors, missionaries, and house church leaders — who feels called to plant churches.

The purpose of this book is quite simple:  To provide a survey of how churches were planted in the first century.  And to show that the first-century way of planting churches is directly related to God's eternal purpose.

It is my contention that most Christians are stuck in the prevailing paradigms that dominate the Christian world today.3 Accordingly, they have been blinded to God's highest intention.  Let me illustrate with a historical example.

In the mid-20th century, Swiss watchmakers had the corner on the world market share of watches.  But that changed when one of their own countrymen came out with a revolutionary new idea:  The quartz watch.  He presented this idea to the Swiss manufacturers and they laughed at him.  They concluded it could never work, so they refused to patent the idea.  Seiko, on the other hand, took one look at the quartz watch and the rest is history.

The power of a paradigm had so influenced the Swiss watch manufacturers that they could not understand the new concept of the quartz watch.  Because the quartz watch had no gears, no mainspring, and no bearings, they rejected it.  Their present paradigm did not allow for the new innovation.  The net effect was that they lost the leading edge on watchmaking and they were forced to lay off thousands of workers.  It was all because the quartz watch did not fit into their world view.  It did not fit within their paradigm.  They did not appreciate the new way because they were blinded by the old way.

In the same way, a paradigm shift concerning the practice of the church and church planting is needed if the Body of Christ will be restored to her pristine glory.  Note that a recovery of both church practice and church planting are needed.  Both elements must be kept together.

The principles outlined in this book cannot be adapted to the present-day practice of the church.  Modern church practice has few points of contact with the NT church.  Thus using Biblical principles to plant institutional churches or to renew dead churches is futile.  (It is far easier to have new born babies than to raise the dead!)

If our understanding of the church remains institutional, we are in danger of merely transplanting the prevailing church model that is characterized by top-down leadership and a passive laity.  To do so is to perpetuate a defective ecclesiology.  In the same way, using modern institutional methods to plant NT-styled churches is a study in foolishness.  It simply will not work.  Sophisticated methods, even if they are built on ageless principles, cannot offset a contaminated system.

What is needed is a recovery of first-century styled church planting principles to produce first-century styled churches.  Put another way, an entirely new paradigm must be embraced for both church practice and church planting.  As Roland Allen puts it,

Men have wandered over the world, "preaching the WOrd," laying no solid foundations, establishing nothing permanent, leaving no really instructed society behind them, and have claimed St. Paul's authority for their absurdities . . . people have adopted fragments of St. Paul's method and have tried to incorporate them into alien systems, and the failure which resulted has been used as an argument against the Apostle's method . . . unless we are prepared to drag down St. Paul from his high position as the great Apostle of the Gentiles, we must allow his methods a certain character of universality, and now I venture to urge that, since the Apostle, no other has discovered or practiced methods for the propagation of the gospel better than his or more suitable to the circumstances of our day.  It would be difficult to find any better model than the Apostle in the work of establishing new churches.  At any rate this much is certain, that the Apostle's methods succeeded exactly where ours have failed.  (Missionary Methods: St. Paul's or Ours?)

The rediscovery of the NT approach to church planting is an explosive that has the power to break traditional thinking and demolish institutional practice.  For this reason, may you open your heart to behold a new way — which is really an ancient way — handcrafted by God Himself.



  1. It should be noted that I am using the word "church" throughout this volume as it is used in the NT: "Church" is not a building, a denomination, or a religious service.  Rather, "church" — translated from the Greek word ekklesia — embodies two ideas:  Community and assembly. The NT envisions the church as a close-knit community whose members share God's life and who assemble together regularly.
  2. I speak of the church (2 Cor. 11:2; Eph. 5:23-32).
  3. A paradigm is the overall understanding or model that is accepted by an intellectual community. A paradigm shift refers to a drastic change in that understanding or model.


More Good Stuff:

Church Practice and God's Eternal Purpose — From the beginning, God wanted a bride to marry, a house to dwell in, a family to enjoy, and a visible body through which to express Himself.  This, and not simply weekly meetings, is what the church is all about.

Finding Organic Church — This detailed manual on how to start and sustain an organic church includes practical and effective tools for finding vibrant Christian communities.

From Eternity To Here — This is the rewritten, expanded version of God's Ultimate Passion.  It is a moving view of God's passion for His people, presenting the Bible as a love letter written to us by the Father of all love who gave us Himself without reservation in His only begotten Son.

Reimagining Church — The model of church community envisioned in the New Testament has been abandoned in America and replaced with corporate structure.  This is an effort to regain what has been lost.

Rethinking the Will of God: A New Look at an Old Question — God has a moral will for us and gives us room to roam within the boundaries of His Kingdom.  This book explores the Biblical priorities that will help you make optimal decisions.

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