by Josh Gibbon
“If you don’t have a disciple-making vision, you can’t call it a church. You can call it a worship centre or a ministry centre. If you want to call it church, you have to make disciples.” – Joshua Choi, reflecting on Matthew 28:19-20.
Martin Song (pictured left) and Joshua Choi’s passion for discipleship fuels their shared, crystal-clear belief: evangelism is the heartbeat of a thriving church.
Martin, lead pastor of Sydney Crystal Church (a church in the churches of Christ in NSW & ACT network), and Joshua (pictured right), lead pastor of Heartbeat Church (currently considering affiliation), see themselves as shepherds of shepherds. While they pastor two separate churches, Martin and Joshua are kindred spirits with similar callings. Their leadership is about empowering their flock to be disciple-makers who plant house churches that welcome unchurched people.
Martin and Joshua were drawn to churches of Christ independently of each other, but they were both seeking a network that would back their visions to embrace an agile house-church model of ministry. They found resonance with our network when they discovered the Restoration Movement roots of churches of Christ and its focus to return to simple, New Testament-inspired Christianity.
When they met through a network event, Martin and Joshua discovered they were both planting house churches using the same model, known as the ‘Three Axis Model’, pioneered by Ps. Youngki Choi of Seoul Baptist Church in Houston, Texas. As you can imagine, they got on like a house on fire.
Today, Martin and Joshua are ‘double networked’, as they call it. As well as being connected through churches of Christ in NSW & ACT, they meet with house church pastors using the same model around Sydney, encouraging and spurring each other on. This network, called ‘Ga Jung (house) Church’, has 70 churches across Australia and New Zealand from various denominations and is connected to another 900+ churches worldwide. churches of Christ in NSW & ACT has the largest representation in the Australian network, including John Park of New Direction Church and Stephen Yoo of Manna Church.
Martin and Joshua’s stories of becoming house church leaders share a very similar arc. As younger pastors, they both served in large churches with Sunday-centric ministries until they began questioning their definition of church success.
Martin reflected on his eleven years in a Sunday-focused church: “Over time, I watched many churches deteriorate, and they became very aged churches. The first reason is they didn’t know how to evangelise. Evangelism was not the key in their ministry; it was a side thing. The second is there was no generational transfer of their faith. There was a generational division.”
Unsettled by this reflection, Martin decided to reset his ministry. Twenty years ago, he started a house church in his two-bedroom unit with his family, a handful of friends, and one non-Christian. Six months later, the small group had grown and multiplied into three house churches. They gathered the three churches once a week at Telopea Church of Christ. From then on, while some house churches folded and others grew, each year they added, on average, two or three new house churches. Each year, an average of 10% of their total number were getting baptised. Today, they have 40 adult house churches and seven youth house churches across Sydney, each with a maximum of 12 people seeking to build relationships and invite people locally. They meet on Friday nights in their homes and every Sunday the 47 churches come together at their building in Granville for celebration services and a huge community lunch.
Joshua had a similar experience just a few years ago.
He shared, “I was serving in an English Ministry within a large Korean church in Sydney, and we had grown from 70 to 400 people in four years. It was successful! But I questioned the success of this ministry. I had to ask: is this all we have as a church? Because it became a very Sunday, event-driven focus to keep people in. We felt we had to show something always. Most of the members were smart people at universities, becoming professionals, but they didn’t know how to evangelise and make disciples! There was something wrong with the church I was leading.”
Joshua felt called to bring the rich and powerful evangelistic nature of Korean spirituality to English-speaking Asian Australian people. “So, I decided to do it differently when I started a church,” he said. “I decided to read the book of Acts again, and this led me to want to try house churches.”
Joshua found this hard work and was disappointed that the house churches he planted weren’t sustainable. He felt like he was trying to reinvent the wheel without experience on his side. In fact, after some research, he discovered that most house-church leaders burn out in less than three years. Determined to find a more sustainable strategy, Joshua began searching for a guide.
Through Facebook, Joshua found Ps. Eric Shin, senior pastor of the English-speaking Congregation of Ps. Youngki Choi of Seoul Baptist Church, who led a thriving house-church network in Houston, Texas. He contacted Eric while in the US and said, “If you will meet with me, I’ll fly over and meet you.”
A few days later, Joshua found himself having coffee with Ps. Eric, gleaning from twenty years of trial and error that had formed his Three Axis Model. That night, Joshua heard the testimony of a house-church leader who had joined in his early days at college, starting a house church for students. Today that church has multiplied into a ‘town’ of house churches, which he now oversees.
Joshua was hooked.
When he returned to Sydney to his five-year-old church, which had grown to 150 members, Joshua began to cast his vision for becoming a house-church network to the congregation. Making this transition came with sacrifice as many people left during that time. But two years later, the house churches are catching on and becoming more sustainable. They now have eight house churches in Sydney, six in Brisbane and two in Melbourne.
As Joshua and Martin explain, the Three Axis Model prioritises newcomers exploring faith. So much so that seekers are known as ‘VIPs’. The model holds one simple but radical principle: “We don’t accept people from other churches into these gatherings,” Joshua said. “That’s part of our philosophy.
While perhaps radical, this principle speaks to the model’s clear purpose: to prioritise relational evangelism.
The Three Axis Model has three ‘axes’. The fundamental axis is Friday night gatherings of house churches of 12 or fewer people, which meet in homes. This axis is about sharing life, engaging the heart and building relationships around a meal. The difference to a cell church or a small church is that they see this individual house church as a small church that is led entirely by unpaid, lay leaders called ‘shepherds’. These shepherds attend another regular mid-week gathering to be trained and equipped in their ministry, where Martin and Joshua do the grunt of their ministry. This axis is all about shepherding shepherds and maintaining the health of these ministers and their churches. The main program they lead in this axis is called ‘Living life Bible study’, which systemically teaches foundational Christian theology. The third axis is a Sunday gathering of all the churches to cross-pollinate and maintain the health that being in a larger, more diverse community brings.
The model prioritises sustainable, rather than explosive, growth by focusing on the health of leaders and house churches. House churches are organised into ‘villages’ and ‘towns’, with four churches in a village and few villages in a town. The purpose of this structure isn’t to build house churches into larger churches but to create support groups for shepherds to journey together in ministry and disciple each other.
Martin and Joshua believe that the earliest model we have for church planting – the house churches in Acts – might be the model that suits a rapidly changing 21st century. For them, the first-century church provided a solution to the problem that had been nagging at their hearts for some time: they were called to go and make disciples, not worship services.
“How do we unpack this in our society?” Joshua asked. “It’s not about gathering numbers on Sundays; it’s about making disciples. How do we make disciples? You can’t disciple people until you know how to take care of people, how to love them.
“When we say discipleship, often we mean a pastor teaching a Bible study. That’s not what we believe discipleship is.
“In the modern church, we don’t provide good examples for disciples,” Martin said. “It’s always about modelling. The teacher has a disciple, and the disciple watches the teacher, and they do it together. That’s what we’re trying to do in a house church.”
Martin and Joshua want to share more with our network about the strength and benefit of house-church planting discipleship, as they believe it resonates with our ethos and origins in a powerful way. Stay posted for more from them!
Read more stories from churches of Christ in NSW & ACT HERE