I tried hiring someone to do it; I tried not being involved; I tried having it as a department. I tried every way I could, but there was just no way to make cell groups work in my church without my personal involvement.
I had heard David Yonggi Cho--pastor of the largest single church in history, the Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul, Korea--say many times, "The pastor must be involved." However, I was sure that I could find a way not to be. I would encourage cells. I would teach and preach about them, but I would let someone else be in charge. After all, I was a busy pastor with many other important responsibilities. Therefore, I could just hire someone to run the "program" like every other department in the church. How wrong I was!
My frustrations were typical of pastors who have tried implementing cells in their churches, only to find that they don't work for them. They keep hearing about churches overseas that are growing and transforming their communities and cities and attributing their growth to cells. So they wonder why they're not working for them here in the United States.
A new reformation. As one perplexed pastor asked: "It worked in the first-century church. Why not now?" One of the main reasons is our failure to look at the church holistically. We have been looking at the church through the dimmed eyes of the Dark Ages. We must literally rethink what the church should be and ask ourselves what kind of a church Jesus envisioned when He said, "I will build My church?"
Was the meeting in homes just a "necessity" for the early church, or was it a divine strategy? History shows us it was only after Emperor Constantine ended the persecution of the church and began to build church buildings in A.D. 323 that the church began its decline. Are buildings bad? No, that's not the point. But this was a major shift for the church in several areas.
Other events marked the departure from a focus on small groups (or care cells) meeting in homes to a focus on holy buildings. Believers made a shift from forming a sharing community to attending large impersonal gatherings. Leadership no longer emerged from those with spiritual gifting, but became hierarchical, with positions being sought after and titles passed down.
In the early cells, gifted laypersons (both men and women) formed the leadership. In the fourth century the focus moved to trained clergy ("holy men") who served the people from a distance. To further isolate believers, even the Scriptures were no longer available to the ordinary Christian. The Dark Ages took its toll on the life of the church.
History also shows us that God was still working. In the 16th century, Martin Luther began what some refer to as the Reformation of Theology. Then, the second reformation took place with John Wesley and his contemporaries in the 1700s and was called, by some, the Reformation of Spirituality. In the 20th century we began experiencing what can be called a third reformation--Reformation of Structures.
John Wesley actually was getting back to first-century principles when he started small groups and began training and releasing lay preachers. He also said that a woman's spiritual gifts make a way for her in ministry. As time went on, however, the small-group concept declined in Methodism as well.
Then the restoration of the fivefold ministries in the Pentecostal and charismatic movements of the 20th century began to enable the church to again be empowered as she was in the first century. God used David Yonggi Cho to bring an awakening concerning the importance of cells to churches worldwide. Structures began to change. The "priesthood of the believer" became more than a principle given lip service, as churches began a journey back to small groups meeting in homes.
Many small groups or cells we have today, however, do not truly reflect the care cells we see in the book of Acts, though their form may have some resemblance. As David Mohan, pastor of New Life Assembly in Madras, India, discovered: "I realized that just gathering people for prayer and dividing them into small groups does not make them a cell because they do not have the structure nor the tools to grow."
Mohan should know--he suffered the frustration of stagnation until he learned the whys and hows (a new infrastructure) for cells. He has made the transition from a program-based church to a cell-based church. As he made the transition, he grew from 2,500 to more than 17,000 members today.
Back to the Acts model. In looking at the small-group pattern in Acts 2, we find certain obvious characteristics. First, while they did devote themselves to the apostles' teaching, there was more to what we have come to term care cells than just Bible study.
If you want your care cells to impact and transform your community, they cannot be primarily Bible study groups. Bible study will attract mostly Christians. The very name will discourage non-Christians from coming. In fact, we prefer to call such persons "pre-believers." Being called a pre-believer is not as excluding as being called a non- Christian.
Second, the Acts care cells were not only prayer groups. The early church was known for its fervent, effective prayer, but to label the groups "prayer cells" would definitely be too narrow. Yet, did they pray in the care cells? Definitely.
Third, there was much more than mere fellowship going on in the cell groups in Acts. A deep bonding of relationships took place and true community was developed. Members experienced a sense of belonging and manifested caring and sharing in tangible ways. Real pastoral care was extended to everyone. Accountability was there; support and community life were real and valued.
What you call it does matter. What we call our small groups is important. Believe me, I tried a few different names before I realized that our name could be both a stumbling block to evangelism and a miscommunication of our objectives for cells.
After several name changes, we finally prayed again and eventually adopted the name CareCells. CareCells communicates our objective: Contact And Relate to Everyone. The groups are not to be inward looking, but are to focus outward to the community, to believers, pre-believers, churched and unchurched--to everyone. Yes, there is also mutual caring and sharing that are experienced in every cell. This change of name has helped keep the CareCells focused on their primary objectives: (1) evangelism and nurture, (2) pastoral care, and (3) leadership development.
Keys to Making Cell Groups Work
There were several underlying principles that made the first-century cell groups work. Without these principles, any attempt at implementing cell groups is doomed to fail.
1. Cells must be the basic unit (building block) of the church. Everything--and I mean everything--flows in and through the cells in the local church. Through these cells relationships are built, evangelism takes place, new Christians are nurtured, pastoral care is given and new leaders are developed.
Carl George, in his book, The Coming Church Revolution, explains what he calls the "Meta Globe" way of looking at your local church. It is possible to use his concept to analyze your church and diagnose where and why you may be having problems. Our team, led by Chee Kang Seng and Dominic Yeo, has modified and used this tool (with George's permission) in many countries of the world, with amazing success. It is a real eye-opener for pastors to see the importance of restructuring cells in their churches.
2. Every believer can and should be a spiritual parent. A spiritual parent is one who has been trained how to share their faith with others and then to nurture that "new baby" to become a reproducing disciple of Jesus Christ. Every trained and commissioned spiritual parent will make a commitment to pray for, win and nurture at least two people every year. Few may realize that the genius strategy of the world's largest church is really very simple: Each cell group is to grow annually by an average of just two people. This is a very manageable goal, and it produces amazing growth.
Larry Kreider wrote in his book, The Cry for Spiritual Fathers and Mothers: "Cell ministry without the dynamic of spiritual fathering and mothering [spiritual parents] will quickly become a dead church program."
For too long the laity have been relegated to the spectator stands and made to watch as the clergy have done the work of the ministry. The apostle Paul reminds us in his second letter to the church at Corinth that it was God Himself who gave everyone a ministry and committed to everyone a message. Therefore every believer has the "ministry of reconciliation."
According to Ephesians 4:11-16, it is the saints who must do the work of the ministry, not the pastor. The Great Commission is such a mammoth task that God knew it could not be fulfilled unless every believer was mobilized (see 2 Cor. 5:18-20).
3. Leaders must be developed through relational discipleship. Jesus invested most of His time with the 12 disciples. He was not distracted from His task of making disciples, even though speaking to the adoring crowds seemed much more glamorous. These disciples were on a three-year internship with Him. They received on-the-job training. They were taught both by instruction and by modeling.
In order to disciple them, Jesus did not separate His disciples into a monastery, nor did He try to just instruct them in a classroom. He taught them in a life-related context. He gave each disciple the opportunity to relate to Him, to be with Him and to do what He did (see Mark 3:14).
Joel Comiskey, in his book, Reap the Harvest, writes: "Cell ministry presents what is perhaps the most excellent opportunity for every person to fulfill his or her role as a minister. Small-group leaders are enabled to minister, pastor, counsel, visit, evangelize and exercise their leadership." In the cells, each new leader is mentored and trained on the job. That constitutes relational discipleship.
4. The purpose of cells is evangelism and nurturing. Our CareCells are focused on three very clear objectives. First, they are to evangelize and nurture people in their community. Second, they are the primary pastoral caregivers of the church. Every cell leadership team is trained in the skills necessary to fulfill this ministry. Third, it is in the CareCell that potential leaders are discovered. Their spiritual gifts are developed in the cells and they are then released into a larger sphere of ministry.
Many other things begin to happen in the process of meeting the main objectives. The Bible is discussed, prayer goes on at every level, and deep relationships are formed as cell members fellowship together by drinking coffee, prayer walking the community or going to the hospital to pray for someone. But these could be termed the by-products, not the primary objectives. The overall goal of the CareCell is community transformation through multiplication.
5. The leader is a facilitator, not a teacher. There is no preaching or teaching in our CareCells. Each cell-group leader is a facilitator. He or she facilitates discussion and self-discovery among all who attend.
The emphasis is on life application, not knowledge accumulation. This alone will free many people to become involved as leaders, as the fear of having to have all the answers is removed. It is all right for the leader to admit he or she does not know something and to call in another leader to facilitate the discussion of a specific topic.
6. Nurturing tools must be able to be used in a repeatable cycle. In our open CareCells, the primary objective is evangelism.
Rarely would the pastor's sermons offer consistent content that would allow people at different levels of spiritual maturity to grow effectively. Thus you need to have a separate set of tools to be used in the cell groups that are limited to the objective, yet allow for a repeatable cycle to take place every time a new person comes into the cell.
Functional steps would follow this pattern: First, a person will experience the materials (tools), then they would combine those with their spiritual parent or leader. Later, they are trained to use the tools as they become leaders of new people who come into the cell groups.
Because your tools are producing your desired product, you do not change the tools each time you have a new person in your cell. The same tools produce the same kind of product. First you are a learner, then you become a leader. You continue to use the tools again and again--it's a repeatable cycle.
7. The subgroup concept is essential. One of the unique features of our CareCells is the way their meetings are conducted. Cell members can come together as one group. They have times of prayer and maybe testimonies, but when it comes time to discuss the lesson for the evening, they create subgroups.
Each subgroup is formed according to their various levels of spiritual maturity. For example, you could have three subgroups: one for pre-believers, one for new Christians and another for the older or more mature Christians. This way you can focus on meeting needs and discussing and answering questions, which will be coming from similar levels of understanding. This also means the cell group is always ready to assimilate new people, while meeting the needs of growing Christians.
8. Two tracks are necessary for the train to run. Every church needs to have the necessary infrastructure to facilitate its vision. For instance, there are two tracks that must be in place. One track is the care-cell track in the structure of the church. The second track is the equipping track in the church.
Each track is running parallel. In a classroom environment, the equipping track should do the empowering and training of believers in Bible knowledge and the skills necessary for ministry. The cell groups should emphasize the evangelism and nurturing of converts.
Practical Ministry Within Cell Groups
Transitioning into a cell-based church requires a paradigm shift in our thinking concerning who does the work of ministry. It also spells major changes in the way we do ministry.
1. Evangelism. The saints are to do the work of the ministry, and the fivefold ministries must equip them to do the ministry. The laypeople are in contact with the lost (pre-believers) every day, and they have access to networks of relationships that the full-time pastor and evangelist does not have. The responsibility of the evangelist, then, is to equip the saints to win souls. Each of the fivefold ministries should equip believers according to their gift to the body.
2. Pastoral care. The primary task of the pastor is to equip the saints for the work of the ministry. If this is to take place effectively, then the pastor cannot spend all of his or her time praying for people, visiting the sick and dedicating babies. There will not be enough pastors to go around. These are ministry tasks that laypeople can be trained to do effectively. Members should also be taught that their pastor will not be there on every occasion.
3. Nurture and discipleship. We are commanded to make disciples, not converts. The disciple-making process starts with evangelism, but it does not end there. Every new Christian must be nurtured, and every growing Christian must be discipled. This nurturing takes place not in the classroom, where a teacher lectures from a didactic point of view, but first in an open (evangelistic) cell. Then as the individuals grow spiritually, they become spiritual parents and part of a leadership care cell in which there are relationships, transparency and accountability.
4. Equipping. For too long we have confused Sunday school with equipping. Sadly, even seminaries have trained people in Christian education, with their main focus on preparing pastors and leaders to work with children, rather than producing pastors and leaders who know the demands of Christ or developing an equipping track to prepare every believer for their divine calling and destiny.
In Matthew 28:19-0, Jesus said: "'Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you'" (NKJV).
The word "teaching" that Jesus used has the meaning not of didactic impartation, but teaching that equals training. This means teaching and training that include both Bible knowledge and skills for ministry. Unfortunately, we have concentrated on the formerthe Bible knowledge. This has been done to the neglect of training (equipping) the saints in the necessary skills for them to do the work of the ministry.
The Pastor is the Key
Cell groups are not an "end";they are only the beginning of a process required to fulfill the Great Commission.
1. Make leadership development your priority. John Maxwell puts it this way: "Add a follower, and you add one person to your organization. Develop a leader, and you add 15 people to your church."
Jesus had a "leadership care cell" of 12. He invested most of His time with them, not with the crowds. In fact, He seemed to want to get away from the crowds and spend time teaching them. Because Jesus developed them, these disciples became the leaders of the first-century church.
2. Be willing to pay the price. The full-time pastor must give up his or her need to be needed. There is also the temptation to seek the personal fulfillment that comes from being in close contact with every member. You must now multiply yourself by relating with and mentoring mainly your leaders--your inner circle. They will then minister to the membership.
3. Equip and mentor people for ministry. If the believers do the work of the ministry, what do the pastors do? Pastors, along with the other fivefold ministries, "prepare God's people for works of ministry" (see Eph. 4:12). Pastors, trust your laypeople! Don't be afraid to share the tricks of the trade with your leaders. Equip them and release them to serve. Let them know you will be there to help if they should encounter any difficult situation. You are their coach.
Steps Toward Implementing Cell Groups
1. Expect growth, but not instantly. If you think cell groups are a quick-fix method for growth, you will be disappointed. Initially, it may seem to be slow, but cells gain momentum as you begin to see steady growth in the church.
However, in some instances, cell groups could have the opposite effect. Some people simply don't want to do more than warm a pew. But then again, we cannot totally blame the people--we as pastors have failed to teach and train our congregations properly. As a result, they are still living with clergy/laity concepts and functions that are carryovers from the Dark Ages.
For example, the pastor of a certain church constantly depended on big-name speakers and events to attract crowds. He soon discovered that the people began to enjoy being "entertained." Thus, when he changed his focus and vision for the church to cell groups and ministry involvement, suddenly half the congregation decided that God had called them to another church. The question is this: Is the pastor willing to pay the price when it is obvious change must occur?
2. Cells must be more than just another department. Ever tried having cells as an appendage in your body? You can't. It is impossible. Cells are the building blocks of every organ in your body; they are the basic components of life.
In the same way, you cannot have cell groups as a ministry or department in your church. Cells are the basic life-form of the cell-based church. The cell-based church is organized and functions in and through cells. They must become the basic building block, or cells will not work at all.
In some ways, having cell groups is like having children. You cannot have kids "on the side" and hope for minimal disruptions to your lifestyle. Once you have children, you are in it for the long haul. Similarly, cell groups are not something you try, or merely dabble in. Either go all the way or not at all. Both Carl George and George Barna would agree that churches that are not cell based in the new millennium will become a declining breed.
3. Values must change before structure changes. Just dividing people into small groups does not make your church a cell-based church. The cell-based church is not only a structure; it carries with it inherent values. For instance, does your church value the priesthood of all believers? Leadership development? Vision? Evangelism? Nurturing? Spiritual gifts? Community life? Expectant prayer? Without these values, you will not have an effective cell-based church.
Carl George quotes David McKenna in his book, Prepare Your Church for the Future, saying, "Church leaders must remember that the Information Age brings with it a set of values and priorities, just as does every other 'ism' and trend." This would leave us to answer the question, Are we, the church, prepared for the rapid changes going on in today's society? George even suggests that unless we are able to cope with change, our ability to influence others will diminish.
4. Methods and materials alone are not enough. Healthy churches are a result of applying God's principles, not merely methods and materials. All too often, pastors get inspired by what someone else is doing and apply it without distilling the principles from the methodology. You must depend on God, not methods alone, and have a transferable model.
Remember, principles are timeless and transcend culture. The model of cell groups has proven to be a transferable model. Romania has pioneered churches using cells. In India, churches have grown from 120 to 500 in two years. Another church grew from 800 to almost 4,000. In Mar de Plata, Argentina, pastors in the city are adopting cell groups as part of their city-taking strategy.
Churches in India, Asia, Latin America, Romania, Poland and Africa are all experiencing dynamic transformation since transitioning from old methods to cell groups. Now is the time for dynamic transformation in the United States--but the pastor is the key.
Check out different models for cells. Hear from God, know His vision for your church and then choose one model of cells that will achieve your desired objectives.
A word of caution: Don't mix different methods together. Each method has been designed to achieve certain objectives; mixing them makes it difficult to determine your outcome.
But I am convinced that God wants apostolic people and apostolic churches powerfully invading the land and establishing God's reign. As we move out in the power of the Holy Spirit, we will see the harvest fields of today become God's harvest force for tomorrow.
Naomi Dowdy pastors Trinity Christian Centre in Singapore and apostolically leads the Global Leadership Network.
Healthy Church Cell Groups
By developing the right cell-group philosophy and structure, you can better equip people
for ministry and impact your community for Christ.
by Naomi Dowdy
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Reap the Harvest
Touch Publications, 1999
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The Cry for Spiritual Fathers and Mothers
House to House, 2000
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Wagner, C. Peter
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