Simple church

03 Mar, 2017 | International
Julyan Lidstone
A church gathers under a tree for worship in Kanyemba, Zimbabwe
Simple Church is defined as small groups of Christians that fulfil the essential functions of church, including growth through multiplication. This has many names: house church, organic church, disciple-making movements or cell church. This upsurge of interest results from the confluence of two streams of thought. One is the rising tide of dissatisfaction with the church in the West. Critics charge that the trend towards mega-churches and seeker sensitivity promotes slick performances for passive consumers. Such churches have not staunched decreasing numbers or reversed the marginalisation of Christianity in society.

The second stream of thought concerns reaching the unreached. Traditional models with buildings, paid staff, programmes and budgets can never keep pace with population growth. For people in groups resistant to the gospel, the social price of joining such churches is too high, and often results in community alienation.

There is growing evidence that redefining church as multiplying small groups of disciples has great traction and impact. David Watson with the Bhojpuri of India, and Ying Kai in a resistant province of China, have demonstrated that rapid growth reaching tens of thousands of people in a few years is possible. We have heard of similar movements in Indonesia, Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Algeria, Iran and Jordan. But could it work in the post-Christian West? Lee Wood has seen 200 house churches planted among the poor and immigrants in Tampa (USA) in just two years, and the movement has jumped borders, with churches spontaneously forming in Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

Key to this growth is simplicity. Meetings are typically in three parts:

  • looking back for pastoral care and accountability.
  • looking up for Bible input through inductive Bible study centred on two questions: “What does this passage say to you?” and “What are you going to do about it?”
  • looking forward as members share how they intend to obey Scripture, pray for each other—and who they intend to share the story with.

The Disciple Making Movement calls these meetings Discovery Bible Studies (DBS). They are so simple that anyone can learn to lead one in a few weeks. DBS groups thrive even in the labour camps of the United Arab Emirates; already members of these groups have started groups with friends and family in their villages in Pakistan.

Staying focused

Obedience and discipleship are characteristic of these groups, where intimacy and support create an atmosphere for accountability; no one can be a passenger. Matt 28:19-20 defines discipleship as teaching believers to obey everything that Christ has commanded. In Simple Church, everyone is involved and experiences the excitement of spiritual growth. 

Another key is the focus on mentoring and training. The Model-Assist-Watch-Leave pattern makes group leaders’ priority the mentoring of new leaders who in turn mentor other new leaders. This chain of mentoring ensures ongoing spiritual health. Paul instructed Timothy to teach faithful men who would teach others also (2 Tim 2:2), covering four generations of reproductive growth—enough to guarantee transmission of the biblical DNA.

A movement of house churches does not consist of amorphous small groups, but is supported by a pyramid structure providing resources and coordination. In Acts 6, seven men were appointed to manage the feeding of widows. The church met in houses, and there were thousands of believers, implying these deacons were not appointed by individual churches, but the church in the city. In the New Testament, the word ‘church’ carried three levels of meaning: house churches, city churches and the universal Church. In Acts 6, the city church, not house churches, organised social welfare programmes. The five leadership gifts of Ephesians 4:11 operated in the city church structure, where leaders provided vision, oversight and direction. Teachers focused on equipping various levels of leadership to teach others. As appropriate, the city church could organise events for training or celebration for the movement, while not undermining house churches as primary centres of spiritual life and growth. 

This Simple Church model has enormous potential for OM. We should equip marketplace workers to start small discipleship groups wherever they go. We should train local workers to start multiplying house churches among the least reached everywhere. The Simple Church concept redefines church in a strategic way to see myriads of vibrant communities of Jesus followers among the least reached.

Julyan Lidstone joined OM in 1973 and went to India for four years. While there, God called me to serve Muslims, which resulted in me and my wife, Lenna, going to Turkey for 15 years. We had two children there and helped plant a church in Ankara. Back in Glasgow, we have ministered to Iranians and Turks. I am now the Ambassador for OM’s Muslim Ministries, helping with promotion and training. I am also a member of OM’s Global Board.

Credit: Julyan Lidstone · © 2017 OM International This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it


OM exists to see vibrant communities of Jesus followers among the least reached.


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