More Differences

Institutional churches with small groups are still structured like a corporation pyramid, where everyone knows his place in the hierarchy. The people at the top may call themselves “servant leaders,” but they often are more like chief executive officers who are responsible to make executive decisions. The larger the church, the more distant the pastor is from the members of his flock. If he is a true pastor and you can get him to admit the truth in an unguarded moment, he will usually tell you he was happier when he pastored a smaller flock.

Similarly, institutional churches with small groups still promote the clergy-laity division. Small group leaders are always in a subordinate class to the paid professionals. Bible study lessons are often passed down or approved by clergy, since small group leaders can’t be trusted with too much authority. Small groups are not permitted to practice the Lord’s Supper, or baptize. These sacred duties are reserved for the elite class with the titles and diplomas. Those who are called to vocational ministry within the body must go to a Bible school or seminary to be qualified for “real” ministry to join the elite group.

Small groups within institutional churches are sometimes nothing more than mini-church services, lasting no longer than 60 to 90 minutes, where one gifted person leads worship and another gifted person gives the approved teaching. There is little room for the Spirit to use others, distribute gifts, or develop ministers.

People are often not seriously committed to small groups in institutional churches, attending sporadically, and groups are sometimes designed to be temporary, and so the depth of community is lesser than in house churches.

Small groups in institutional churches ordinarily meet during the week so as not to crowd the weekend with another church meeting. Consequently, a midweek small group is normally time-limited to no longer than two hours for those who can attend, and prohibitive for those who have school-age children or who must travel any significant distance.

Even when institutional churches promote small group ministry, there is still a building on which to waste money. In fact, if the small group program adds people to the church, even more money ends up being wasted on building programs. Additionally, organized small groups within institutional churches often require at least one additional paid staff person. That means more money for another church program.

Perhaps worst of all, pastors of institutional churches with small groups are often extremely limited in their personal disciple making. They are so busy with their many responsibilities and find little time for one-on-one discipleship. About the closest they can get is discipling the small group leaders, but even that is often limited to a once-a-month meeting.

All of this is to say that house churches, in my opinion, are more biblical and effective in making and multiplying disciples and disciple-makers. I realize, however, that my opinion is not going to quickly change hundreds of years of church tradition. So I urge institutional pastors to do something in the direction of moving their churches to a more biblical model of disciple-making.[1] They could consider personally discipling future leaders or initiating small group ministry. They could hold an “early-church Sunday” when the church building would be closed and everyone would share a meal in homes and attempt to meet like Christians did for the first three centuries. Pastors who have small groups within their churches could consider releasing some of those small groups to form house churches and see what happens. If small groups are healthy and lead by God-called pastors/elders/overseers, they should be able to operate on their own. They don’t need the mother church any more than any non-affiliated young church needs that mother church. Why not set them free?[2] The member’s money that is going to the mother church could support the pastor of the house church.

Does my endorsement of house churches mean that there is nothing good to say about institutional churches? Absolutely not. To the degree that disciples who obey Christ are being made in institutional churches, they are to be commended. Their practices and structure, however, can sometimes be more of hindrance than a help to reaching the goal Christ has set before us, and they are often pastor killers.


[1] One of my favorite definitions of the word insanity is this: Doing the same thing repeatedly and hoping for different results. Pastors can teach for years about every member’s responsibility to be involved in disciple-making, but unless they do something to change formats or structures, people will continue to come to church to sit, listen and go home. Pastor, if you continue to do what has not changed people in the past, it will not change people in the future. Change what you are doing!

[2] Of course, the primary reason that many pastors are adverse to this idea is because they are actually building their own kingdoms, not God’s kingdom.