It is vital to understand that house church networks are not the same thing, in any way, as churches with small groups (even if those small groups are called “house churches.”
The cell church (I will adopt the term “cell” church to refer to all types of small-group-based churches) has been a strong movement in North America over the past 30 years while the house church network is only just beginning to emerge.
Nevertheless, in order to evaluate what God is doing in both of these streams it is very useful to recognize the differences:
1. Within the house church network, each house church is fully, and completely real church. The attitude of the member comes out of an awareness that “I am the church.”
The cell church is an extension of a larger church. It is a smaller piece, a ministry of, the larger, real church. The cell member tends to regard himself as one who “belongs to” the small group and is a “member of” the larger church.
2. House churches do not ever need to build buildings. They can reproduce and multiply without ever requiring a building project.
Cell churches are dependent on building structures to house the corporate church that meets weekly for celebration services.
3. In the house church the small, weekly, home service is the priority. The extended family and the relationships that develop within the small home service are the most important part of church life. The larger celebration service with the entire house church network takes place less often and is, therefore, a lower priority.
In the cell church the larger, weekly celebration service is the priority. If the church has to choose between the bigger all-church service or its cell groups, the big service wins.
4. House church models a way of life and a set of values that is unique to its structure. Larry Kreider says that because church takes place entirely “outside of the mentality of religious meetings” it causes people to become “involved in a lifestyle of everyday community” in which people live their lives “in an extended spiritual family as they focus on reaching the lost.”
The cell church tends to be an event (a good event) or a program that people attend. It certainly, vitally adds to the person’s life but would not normally lead to a “lifestyle of everyday community.”
5. House churches and house church networks can multiply rapidly.
Cells within the cell church tend to grow as a result of the corporate church itself growing (if it does).
6. House churches are guided by spiritual “fathers” but are free to follow the agenda of Jesus in their midst.
Cell churches are also often free to allow Jesus to shape the meeting and direction of the group, but they are also, just as often, set up with the agendas of the leaders of the corporate church.
7. House church networks have a “flat” leadership structure. This means that as leaders are developed and churches planted, the leadership goes sideways and remains flat. In essence, churches and church leaders are continually sent out.
Cell churches are designed with a hierarchical structure and administration so that leaders of cells are overseen by leaders of zones, who are overseen by pastoral staff, etc.
8. House churches consume less resources on facilities and administration which frees up more resources for missions and Christian charities.
Cell churches tend to consume most of the resources that come into the church on facilities and administrative needs.
9. House churches develop elders, shepherds, ministers, and church planters. It quickly raises up and encourages these kinds of ministries. Every gift is equally valued as every person sees his or her gift used and valued within the context of real church.
Cell churches develop home group leaders and encourage members to develop their gifts mostly for use within the small group. Often, these highly gifted people do not see themselves as ministering on the same level as the staff ministers in their church.
10. The house church can meet anywhere and is encouraging the church to change from being a Come-structure to a Go-structure. It stops trying to bring people “into the church” and brings the church to people.
The cell church is usually (not always) part of the larger church’s Come-structure, seeking to bring people into church and into small groups.