The Good News. Over the past few years we have seen over 250 house churches started. All of these have been begun by winning new believers and discipling them to the Lord. These new church plants are led by lay believers, many of them 2nd generation Christians coming out of the original church plants. Hundreds of souls have come to know the Lord through these church starts.
The Bad News. Less than 100 of these can be found today and remain active. We despair at the great number of church plants that start well and yet within weeks or months disintegrate into nothing. This of course has us trying to figure what is going on? Why do we have such a high attrition rate? I can only speculate at this point and openly invite input from others.
Some thoughts that come to mind from our own local experience:
1. Leadership of the new works do not really believe that the house churches are legitimate N.T. churches. Most of our servant leaders come out of the established traditional evangelical churches and carry with them huge amounts of extra-Biblical baggage. We do our best to teach them what the NT says, but breaking paradigms is hard. Our training is viewed not so much as planting new churches, but as a way to grow the already established churches (more converts=more money coming in=bigger facilities/staff=more ministries=greater prestige,etc.)
2. Failure on the part of us missionaries to properly spend necessary time with all of these church planters to teach, mentor, encourage, etc. There are so many of these folks scattered all over the city and province. We haven't figured out the best way to maintain meaningful relationships with them to be able to journey with them through the ups and downs of church planting.
3. As George Patterson teaches, slowness to baptize new believers may be a cause for many of the churches disintegrating. While baptism does not save, we do feel that until they are baptized, they are probably not saved. Baptism is the great deciding factor for most of our people. When they decide to be baptized, that is when they really have made up their mind to follow Christ. Even with our teaching on the subject there is often reluctance on many of the servant leaders to baptize because of years of evangelical traditions where only ordained ministers can fulfill this role. This is further complicated by the traditional churches not accepting the work and validity of the house churches or their leaders.
4. Lack of a clear network that ties all of the house churches together. We have tried many ways to keep alive some sort of network amongst the house churches but find it is difficult to achieve due to the size of the city, transportation factors, working with people from varied denominations and backgrounds.
5. Many have "closed shop" because they ran out of materials and lessons to teach. They simply "run out of gas" after a while and don't know what else to do. Ongoing training is one thing we stress and this has helped those who continue with the TEE and other training opportunities, but more often than not, what happens is that people fall back into their default mode and do not apply that which they are being taught. It doesn't take long for the blossoming new believers to notice that there are plenty of other churches around that seem to be doing it "better."
6. The attraction of the big, traditional established churches enticing the new believers into their machinery of programs, services, ministries. It is very hard to compete with the worship bands, trained preaching, nice facilities, programs for children and youth, etc. Many of our new believers in house churches will begin to compare their simple house church experience led by lay leaders with all that the bigger churches have to offer.
7. Lack of perseverance and/or lack of maturity by the lay church planter. They start out well and with enthusiasm, but begin to falter when the first problems begin to arise. They soon encounter problems that were not covered in our training (murmuring, jealousy, gossip, accusations, direction for the church, etc.) I really can understand better Paul's Epistles to the new churches in this light. There are so many problems in new churches and often the servant leaders simply do not feel equipped to handle a lot of what goes on. So the leader tends to shut down and it isn't long afterwards that the church shuts down too.
8. I have often thought of the parable of the sower in relation to church planting. Jesus speaks of several kinds of ground that the seed fell into. An abundant harvest takes place in only one of the types of ground while while the other three produce no lasting results. Maybe this is the norm and to be expected? Whether or not this is so, we long to see more permanent fruit, fruit that remains.
ANY INPUT OUT THERE WOULD BE APPRECIATED!!!--I am serious. For several years now, one of my frustrations as a church planting missionary has been our inability to get the necessary help/insight to be able to stop the hemorrhaging. We know how to start churches, we have what I believe to be great materials and training, but we aren't doing too well at sustaining them long-term.
More and more I feel the need for onsite "house church coaches" to walk alongside us and share what they are seeing. As Stepchild recently wrote about in an excellent article, church planting is more an art than a science. Our own vision gets clouded and we need a fresh set of eyes to help us see clearly what is happening. Someone who really understands our local situation and can advise from lived experience rather than simply referring us to an article/book/case study.