Urban Home Church Planting


Dennis McCallum

This paper was part of the Christian Leadership 3 class that was offered to upcoming home church leaders.




Dwell sees itself as an underground indigenous house church-planting movement.

  • Underground means that our growth is primarily through neighborhood groups, not through large worship services or seekers meetings. It also implies the leaders of home churches are all lay people (i.e. they are not professionals, but "tentmakers"). Even when staffers lead home groups, they receive no compensation for that part of their ministry. A church planting movement is a grassroots movement, not a staff-driven movement.
  • Indigenous, means the leadership for the home churches has to come from within the home churches themselves via a process of personal discipleship.Dwell leaders would ask even experienced leaders from other churches to spend time in a home church becoming one of the trusted leaders in that group before sending them out with their own group.
  • House Church-planting movement, means the development of such groups, if carried out properly, should lead to multiplication, or exponential growth, unlike plans where a central office arranges groups from lists of applicants and leaders. In a church planting movement, the impetus for planting churches comes from within each group. Church planting also implies that the groups are relatively self-sufficient for ministry, as opposed to groups that are heavily dependent on program-heavy worship services or the central leadership of the church.

In addition to the self-replicating house churches, Dwell fields a large central leadership and programs directed by paid staff. We also have a main campus, or facility for headquarters. The reasons for the staff and programs are:

  1. The early church seems to have had unified elderships in each city, but multiple house churches. For instance, the church in Jerusalem had thousands attending, but they all related to the single eldership of the apostles, while also meeting "from house to house." (Compare Acts 2:41; 42; 46) In Ephesus, the group must have numbered in the hundreds or (more likely) the thousands, judging from the size of the pile of books and charms they burned (Acts 19:19), yet they had a single eldership. (Acts 20:17) These examples suggest the existence of both self-replicating house churches and a central leadership group. We also see the early church's ability to form special ministry teams or programs, like collections for the poor in Judea or mission teams to go out to other cities. (Acts. 11:28-30, 13:1-3, 2 Corinthians 8,9) Specialized teams or programs are appropriate for specialized ministries.
  2. We think house churches can draw strength from each other by banding together for these special cooperative, joint ministry projects and programs. These could include:
    • Large meetings where home churches can come together to share in the special gifting some strong teachers, preachers and evangelists offer;
    • Missions-sending efforts which usually cost too much for any home church to fund on it's own;
    • Ministry to the poor—home churches are usually weak or completely ineffective at developing meaningful community development ministries;
    • Ministries to children and students—home churches tend to gravitate to a given age group and find it difficult to diversify into different age groups. Special thrusts to reach students are usually more effective when program-based. Even groups that started as student groups tend to "grow up" and lose their connection to student ministry unless concerted efforts are made to stay young;
    • Counseling and support ministries that require more expertise than most home churches can deliver;
    • Sharing expertise in home church ministry—many home churches are very low on experience, so it makes sense to have some of the most experienced home church leaders available for consultation and advice. These usually have to be paid staff because the time demands of such availability would be too great for tent makers;
    • Sharing Theological Expertise—Theologians and scholars follow a special calling that is impractical for most home church leaders. It makes sense to arrange for clusters of home churches to share access to theologically trained equippers who can take people's learning to the next level. By banding together, home churches can afford to have their own staff theologians and classes.

Clearly, combining a cell-based and program-based approach seems promising, but contains dangers as well. Organizational theorists have noticed the program-based portion of the church tends to attract personnel and resources away from the church-planting movement. The eldership has to be vigilant for unnecessary programmatic growth while holding all programs to the same standard—that they are facilitating the church-planting movement, not restricting it. At Dwell, we agree the cell-based portion of the church must predominate over the program-based portion.

Elements of Successful Urban Home Church Planting at Dwell

A church planting movement will not just happen. Only if we clearly mark our goal and strive toward it with careful planning, can we expect God to deliver results. Some of the important elements of success in our opinion are:

  1. Commitment to an ecclesiology compatible with New Testament practice - Unless we believe strongly in the concept of body life as described in key New Testament passages like 1 Corinthians 12 and 14, Ephesians 4, 1 Peter 3, Colossians 2:19 and the book of Acts, we will never achieve such a movement. American churches, in particular, will likely follow successive spiritual fads that sweep the church in America every other year, resulting in a divergence of effort into unfruitful endeavors. In particular, we believe the church must move away from an emphasis on revivalism. Under revivalism, the key to spirituality is revival—an event where the Spirit of God catches the church up in a spiritual experience of rejuvenation and catharsis that converts the lost, heals the sick, and delivers sinners. We believe revivals happen (and we have enjoyed them in our church), even though this is not a New Testament emphasis. New Testament Christians are never instructed how to bring about a revival. Further, the ideology that places revival as the key to success in the church can be destructive to the notion of a church planting movement. People may look to such supernatural events for a shortcut. This expectation drains energy from regular daily evangelism, living for God, and disciple making, which seem mundane and unremarkable by comparison. Church multiplication takes daily effort, often exerted in very non-showy, quiet ways, such as building up fellow believers and engaging in friendship evangelism as a way of life. Consistency is essential. If a spiritual revival comes, we should accept it with joy. But waiting for the Spirit to "fall" often runs counter to the lifestyle needed for successful church planting, under our model.
  2. A commitment to the concept and practice of personal discipleship - A house church is not based on any amazing music groups or drama acts. At the center of each fruitful home church is a group of sincere, spiritually-minded, loving people. It is our leaders and workers who draw people into a home church. Likewise, to plant another home church, nothing will do but the duplication of a similar group of leaders and workers for the new group. Home church planting doesn't depend on any secret structural or programmatic approaches. It depends on discipleship. This process of moving individuals from unbelief, self-centeredness, sin-dependency, and ignorance to a place of spiritual maturity takes years of patient investment, training, friendship, and sacrifice. Recent studies of American Christianity have demonstrated the church in America talks about personal discipleship, but does not practice it (see George Barna, Growing Effective Disciples). In healthy home churches most of the members should either be trying to disciple others or be under discipleship by others. We need clear goals for discipleship. We should also avoid any conception of discipleship that implies control or authoritarian theories.
  3. A team approach - At Dwell, home churches are usually led by teams, not individuals. Likewise, the average home church has a "second line" of workers. These are relatively well-trained and motivated members who back up the leaders and are themselves in preparation for leading their own home church. When planting a new home church then, we have to look at the group as a team made up of four to six leaders and another four to eight second-line workers. Under a team theory, the team is greater than the sum of its parts. In other words, we need to look at how a group works together, and the balance of different gifting, personalities, maturity levels and ministry development. If we know of specific weaknesses in key leaders, these might be offset by strengths in others on their team. Part of the process of planting a home church is to work with members of the new team to help them understand their individual contributions to the team. Young Christians who doubt themselves when it comes to leading a group by themselves, may feel a good level of confidence about their contribution to a team. This approach also suggests we should try to define the outline of the new team as soon as possible after the previous church plant. While we see team leadership as preferable, especially for larger groups, we do not feel this should be a precondition for planting new house churches. Many groups may plant without team leadership and build a team up later.
  4. A commitment to organic church growth. We believe God grows his church as he wills, and we are to be "coworkers with God" (1 Corinthians 3:9) seeking to cooperate with what he is doing. If we believe the Spirit needs to lead the church, one implication is that God brings about relationships and ministries that tend to order the church a certain way. (1 Corinthians 12:18 "He has placed the members in the body just as he wills.") Based on this notion, leaders of an existing home church will look for ways to plant a new home church naturally, not artificially. By natural, we mean they will seek to keep young Christians together with those to whom they minister and with whom they have invested relationally. An artificial plant would be one in which leaders are established by seniority over people they did not win or disciple, and with whom they do not have established relationships. (This is a problem with centrally organized small group systems that create entire groups through a bureau or geographically. Referring people to existing groups would be a different proposition). If our younger Christian workers see themselves building a team that will eventually go out with them to lead a home church, we can anticipate a high level of motivation. If we shuffle people around too much, we can expect people to feel "jerked around" and disgruntled. Planting a new church will not be viewed as a victorious event beginning a new adventure, but as the occasion of loss and heartache. To avoid this, groups need to plan well in advance, watching what God is doing and reacting accordingly.
  5. A strong prayer ministry - At Dwell, we have seen that successful church planting is associated with dedication to prayer. Our best church planting teams have regular times of prayer together for the mission of the church. A good prayer meeting should be based on a prayer list prepared in advance by one of the members. Praying for non-Christian friends by name as well as key goals in the home church will help turn back the attacks of the evil one and unleash the power of God into the church.
  6. A mission-oriented self-concept - We are familiar with cases in other churches as well as in Dwell where a home church reached the point where they were full and needed to plant a new group, only to have the members and even the leaders refuse. The refusal to plant a new church was usually based mainly on the fact that members didn't want to upset a situation they saw as very happy and wholesome. In our view, such groups are far from wholesome. They are desperately sick! The members have come to see the home church as something that exists for their well-being and happiness, not for accomplishing the will of God. A well-led home church sees itself as a team setting out to accomplish a mission, even at the expense of acute personal suffering. If the planting ethic or an outward, missional focus is taught and modeled from the beginning of a home church, people come to the time of church planting with excitement and joy that their mission has been successful. This joy may possibly be combined with tears about the friendships that will undergo change in the future, but never to the point where members would even consider not going forward. Members in a successful church-planting movement see themselves as participants in a vast, spiritual war. Both concern for the lost and excitement over the fact that we are going to win drive them forward to a position of self-sacrificial love.
  7. A willingness to fail - Church planting should be done carefully and every group planted should have good prospects for success, based on the best estimates of the leadership of that group and the central leadership of the church. However, approaches that seek to eliminate the possibility of failure become so conservative and cautious they cannot generate the excitement and motivation needed to drive a movement. God wants those to serve him who are willing either to fail or succeed and be faithful in either case. (1 Corinthians 4:2) Only leaders and workers who are egocentric will refuse to risk the perils of failure in ministry. At the same time, the church's leadership needs to develop a program for failed groups that will recover as many people as possible and nurture them back to readiness to try again.
  8. Centralized support for equipping - While not really necessary, it makes sense for the larger church to band together and form a program to assist home churches in equipping their people. This kind of program usually includes classes taught by leaders with some kind of expertise. Although home churches could equip their own people, a central program will speed up the process and relieve home group leaders from part of their burden. We do not believe such a program will work apart from personal discipleship in the home church. At Dwell, our class system adds an outside source of knowledge to the leadership training program in the home church. 
  9. An actual plan for planting - If everything else is in place and a home church is growing to capacity, leaders need to decide how they will plant. There are several possibilities here, and material has been written on how to decide the planting method.

Constraints on Church Planting

While the notion of church multiplication is common in contemporary ecclesiological and missiological theory, successful examples of church planting movements are hard to document, especially in the U.S. Why is such a promising and biblical concept so often unsuccessful? There are probably many answers to this question, but in our view, most failures fall into a few basic categories:

1. Superficiality

American church leaders tend to interpret the biblical picture of church planting in very superficial and non-demanding ways. Leadership in a home church is seen as something that must not significantly interfere with typical bourgeois American middle-class living. American culture already places heavy time demands on the modern family that may interfere with an adequate family life. Most American families are convinced they have to:

  • work long hours;
  • be available for any travel demands their careers may dictate;
  • belong to sports leagues;
  • keep their houses and yards immaculate;
  • clean and care for their late-model cars;
  • shop for the latest styles;
  • maintain their hobbies;
  • keep up with several weekly TV serials;
  • take their kids to every sports league and activity available at school;

If we add attendance at one or two church meetings per week, who has time to do any more? 

When we compare American living to the early church, we see a striking contrast. In the early church they were "day by day" having meals together and meeting from house to house. (Acts 2:46) This expression suggests Christian community took up a very large part of people's lives. Deep community like that described in the New Testament requires significant time investment into relationships. We can't drive up to the McDonald's window and demand community be handed through the window! How can the "one another" passages in the New Testament be viewed as realistic apart from heavy time investment? Likewise, the training needed to become competent as Christian leaders takes a great deal of time investment. Becoming a man or woman of God ready to lead a flock for him will certainly interfere in a massive way with materialistic and entertainment pursuits that so dominate the schedules of adult Americans today. Like the rich young ruler, many American church members must turn away in sadness at the New Testament picture of radical Christian living. 

The result of the divergence between the radical commitment of the New Testament church and today's convenient approach, where only our leftover minutes are devoted to spiritual growth and community is superficiality. Church leaders try to patch together some form of community outwardly like that in the New Testament, but without the devotion and investment assumed in the New Testament. They feel they don't dare call on their people for their time (or, they realize whether they call on them for time doesn't matter, because they aren't going to get it anyway). But simply introducing a structure involving home groups to a church is not going to produce New Testament-style fellowship, let alone a church-planting movement. Although such groups may superficially resemble New Testament house churches, the heart of the matter is missing—men and women of God sold out to each other and the non-Christian world in the love of Christ! 

Superficial groups may substitute artificial exercises for real relational closeness. Members may be called on to share something embarrassing, or huddle in prayer while revealing a key need in their lives. People who aren't really close at all, try to act like they are close. Likewise, superficial groups may substitute a scripted approach to ministry for real ministry. Leaders are told what to say and do during a meeting and during personal encounters because they don't understand the Bible or other people well enough to respond to situations creatively and spontaneously. People who are seeing each other in a personal setting for the only time that week, or even the only time in two weeks cannot be expected to know each other's needs or how to meet those needs. The demands of personal discipleship virtually always are too high for today's superficial approaches to home church ministry (unless personal discipleship is also redefined in superficial terms). But without effective, deep discipleship we see little prospect of multiplication, either of disciples or of home churches.

2. Impatience

We believe the American church is enamored with spiritual shortcuts. For instance, we want shortcuts to spiritual health and deliverance from sin through a variety of pathways involving miracles or esoteric insights. Plodding, steady spiritual growth seems too unmiraculous for quick-fix Americans. Likewise, when it comes to evangelism and church growth, Americans are fascinated by approaches that provide quick growth. Our media resounds with stories about churches that went from nothing to thousands in a few years or even a few months. And we admit God does work this way in supernatural revival, and he has worked that way at Dwell during certain periods. But is explosive growth in a short time really the norm for Christian ministry? Is this something we should seek or desire? We think building quality and depth in a self-replicating, church-planting movement is more important. Such quality will eventually result in big numbers of people being reached, in fact bigger numbers than revivalism by itself can ever hope to achieve. But leaders and members have to take the long view if they are to successfully pursue a house-church planting strategy. 

Many impatient churches aren't even willing to pursue home fellowship in any meaningful way, but focus almost exclusively on public shows or musical programs that promise more rapid growth. Such groups are unwilling to invest in any pursuit that takes manpower or resources away from the worship services. We believe most of the growth gained in this way is pseudo-growth. The fancy services are attracting believers away from other believing churches. 

In the field of home groups, the Yonngi Cho experience in Korea may have caused problems here for the American church. Cho's formula involves doubling and planting small groups every six months. This model is so aggressive it could begin with one six-person small group, and win every adult on earth in 13 years! We think that's a bit impatient, and it should also be clear that something isn't working in the model. We fear the peril of planting such rapidly reproducing groups is unavoidable shallowness in practice. "Ministry" becomes oversimplified to mean nothing more than praying God will "fix" or heal those with complicated problems. Our reading of the Bible suggests to the contrary, people have to grow out of their problems through a gradual process including struggle, learning, slow growth—and prayer, too. In extreme cases, members of groups with oversimplified ministry models may even pretend to be changed and keep their hurts or sins secret in the future. 

Our own ministry has suffered in the past as a result of impatience. Overheating the growth of the church can have catastrophic results as groups are duplicated in numbers, but steadily decline in depth, quality, and maturity. Eventually, people begin to lose confidence in the whole project because they sense their lives are as messed up as ever and that their relationships are shallow and transitory. An overheated, impatient church planting ministry may eventually become unstable, like a house of cards in danger of complete collapse. In the ensuing chaos, the leadership of the church may turn away from house-church planting completely, the membership may become very demoralized, or a division of the church could result. 

One thing that always suffers in an impatient atmosphere is personal discipleship. Experience suggests most new Christians need to undergo a process of discipleship lasting some years if their characters are to mature enough to lead successfully in the long haul. Some of this training can go on after a person has already become a leader. But impatient leaders can't stand the long haul implied in a disciple making approach. 

Learning also suffers in impatient churches. Justified theologically, the ignorance of members is excused and even glorified over against "bookworms" and "ivory-tower" theologians who are "do-nothings." While we recognize these dangers, we also believe that under this super-spiritual approach, New Testament admonitions to "study to show yourself a workman approved by God, having no need to be ashamed, and handling accurately the word of truth" become nonsensical. Neither are we able to "preach the word," as Paul urges Timothy (2 Timothy 2:15; 4:2) unless we do the study. Impatient churches usually shortcut to formulaic teaching that holds no one's interest or highly subjective "the Lord is telling me" teaching that cannot offer the answers we need to cope with the falsehood of the world system. The result of an ignorance-based, church-planting approach is a steady reduction of quality in churches planted. Such weak and confused churches tend to collapse over time.

3. Inward Focus

We have talked with quite a few churches who started a home church ministry, only to see the groups turn inward and lose evangelistic effectiveness. Such groups are mainly interested in blessing each other and have lost the excitement of evangelism. This pathology is desperate because it is extremely hard to turn around. If anything, we believe that groups who turn inward are in even worse shape than impatient or superficial groups.

We detail elsewhere 11 other reasons why such church planting movements have not sprung up in America. But church planting movements do spring up in other cultures! This is not a pipe dream or a historical curiosity from the first century.