the weblog of Alan Knox

Breaking it down

Posted by on Jan 13, 2011 in blog links, definition | 5 comments

Breaking it down

A question that I have asked often on my blog (because I continue to ask and study the question myself) is this: at what point is a group of Jesus’ followers the church?

One of the ways that people have traditionally examined this question is to investigate how a particular group treats sub-groups. Or, to put this in more traditional terms, how does a church treat the small groups that are part of that church.

Guy at “The M Blog” has posted on one such summary in his post “What is the difference between a small group, cell church, and house churches?” He provides the following information (taken from a book listed in his post):

On one end of the spectrum, for instance, is the traditional church…[that] uses small groups (often misnamed ‘cell groups’)–this can be described as a ‘church WITH small groups.’

Further along the spectrum is the cell church that places an equal or greater emphasis on its mission-minded small groups (properly called ‘cell groups’) compared to its weekly large group services–this can be described as a ‘church OF small groups.’

However, the house church network sees each house church as a fully fledged, autonomous, church in itself–‘church IS small groups‘.

Guy also provides the following diagram:

Now, as Guy points out in the comments, the definitions and descriptions above are generalizations. But, for many, these are good starting points.

However (and unfortunately), I don’t think these definitions and descriptions answer the question that I’ve been asking. Let me explain. In the traditional and cell church models above, a subgroup of one of those churches would generally NOT be considered the church. But, what about in the “house church network” model? Would a subgroup of one of the house churches be considered the church?

Suppose a particular house church is composed of six families. Now, suppose that three of those families met together one evening. Would the “house church” consider those three families meeting together the church? Maybe. The definitions and descriptions do not tell us.

In fact, the only difference in the three models given above is the point at which a certain group or subgroup is recognized as the church. The models do not tell us if a sub-sub-group would also be recognized as the church. The models do not tell us if a mixed subgroup would be recognized as the church.

Each of the above models shares one very important aspect in common: the people decide at what point and in what setting they recognize themselves as the church. The number of people is not an issue here. If half the “members” of the traditional church, cell church, or house church show up to meet together, it is considered “the church” only if the group has decided it is “the church.” Typically, this is an organizational decision, regardless of the size of the organization.

On a Sunday morning (or whenever), those people would be the church. On a Wednesday (if it is set aside for such), they are the church. But, what about Friday evening at a local high school football game? What about at a birthday party or baby shower?

For me, this is the weakness in each of the models listed above. The people are recognized as “the church” by their own definition and delineation. They decide when they are or are not “the church,” and they decide which subgroup (parts of the whole) or supergroups (additions to the whole) are or are not the church.

When I break it down, (in my understanding) each of the above models actually represents the same explanation of what it takes for a group of Jesus’ followers to be “the church.” What do you think?

I think that it is very important for us to think about when we consider ourselves “the church” and when we do not. Agree or disagree? Why?


Comments are closed. If you would like to discuss this post, send an email to alan [at] alanknox [dot] net.

  1. 1-13-2011

    I think in order to define when a group of Jesus’ followers is to be considered “the church” we first have to define “the church”. The definition I have adopted as the one I like to use the most is “the presence of Jesus among His people called out as a spiritual family to pursue His mission on this planet.”

    When asked the difference in a “small group” or a “simple church” I often borrow some of the imagery taken from the book “The Starfish and the Spider” by Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom. I would consider the “small group” to be the example of the spider, when the larger body that it is connected to ceases to exist, the the “small group” usually does as well. The “simple church” would be the example of the starfish, when the group that started/planted it ceases to exist, it can continue to go own and reproduce or multiple without a dependence on the original group.

  2. 1-13-2011


    I think that the spider and starfish analogy is a good one. Again, though, we have to ask the question: what is it that causes one group to see themselves (or act) like the spider, while another group sees themselves (or acts) like the starfish?


  3. 1-13-2011

    I agree with you. And notice he left out “loner home churches” that are not part of a network. I wonder what he thinks about those?

  4. 1-16-2011

    It doesn’t seem to be that “church” is explicitly defined in in the New Testament. I think that our cultural context leads us to care more about how to organize things (usually to maximize “productivity” or “efficiency”). I’m not intending to imply that is the spirit behind the post though.

    If we attempted to arrive a more New Testament understanding of church we more likely be talking about the nature of a specific group, its values, purpose and function. It would be more like describing a family. A family isn’t defined by how large it is or where it meets but by the nature of the relationships inside the group and how people relate to each other. The question shifts from what is a family to what is a dysfunction/functional or healthy/unhealthy family.

    Just as an aside it is pretty clear that a group of believers that fit in one home was considered a church.

    Rom 16:5 Also give my greetings to the church that meets in their home. Greet my dear friend Epenetus. He was the first person from the province of Asia to become a follower of Christ.

    Col 4:15 Please give my greetings to our brothers and sisters at Laodicea, and to Nympha and the church that meets in her house.

    Phm 1:2 and to our sister Apphia, and to our fellow soldier Archippus, and to the church that meets in your house.

  5. 1-17-2011


    That’s a good question. I don’t know.


    You said,”I think that our cultural context leads us to care more about how to organize things…” and “If we attempted to arrive a more New Testament understanding of church… [i]t would be more like describing a family.”

    I couldn’t agree with you more!



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