Years ago, this was the case for both of us (Randall and Scott). We reached the point where we did not want to meet a non-Christian, petrified with the thought of what God might call us to do.
In the Christian circles in which we both moved, evangelism was a strong emphasis. Although we went to different schools, we both heard pastors during our college years state, "If you don't share your faith at least once per week, you should question your salvation!" As guilty as that statement made us feel, it did not change us.
Then we both discovered a different way. In his book Successful Home Cell Groups, David Yonggi Cho describes how an unbelieving family was reached by the persistent expressions of love and prayer from a cell group. Upon reading the story, we both thought: I can do that. I can be a part of a team that reaches out to the lost through acts of love and prayer.
In most churches, small groups and evangelism are two different programs. Small groups are for discipleship, and evangelism occurs through special events and programs. But the most effective churches that utilize cell groups define them around these two simple elements: (1) learning about God together; and (2) reaching out to the lost together. In other words, they don't separate evangelism from discipleship.
These churches have redefined evangelism. The old view of evangelism sees reaching out to the lost as something an individual does to win them over to one's way of thinking so that they might be added to one's church.
Like fishing with a pole, individuals cast as many lures as possible hoping for a bite, never realizing that the "hook" may actually damage many unresponsive people, pushing them further from the gospel.
A different paradigm of evangelism, "net fishing," best describes the paradigm envisioned in the Gospels when Jesus said to His disciples, "'I will make you fishers of men'" (Matt. 4:19, NKJV). They did not envision a rod, a reel and a hook. They pictured nets, a lifestyle of spending time with other fishermen and working together as a team each day to catch fish.
Cell groups that reach the lost successfully, pray often for lost friends, neighbors, family members and co-workers. They love these people by serving them as a team and inviting them to social gatherings. As lost people see a small group sharing life and love, they experience Christ through that group. Through the new relationships and the continual prayer lifted up by their future spiritual family, they discover Christ and then make a decision to follow.
Net fishing (versus pole fishing) yields far more disciples and fewer false conversions. Why? Because unlike the individual evangelist's converts, the small group has invited the unbeliever to become part of the fellowship before they commit to Christ.
A few years ago, I (Randall) received a call from a pastor in another state. He told me that a Chinese couple he knew had just moved to Houston from his area and would be open to visiting a cell group if they were invited. My cell group was having a game night later that week, so I called to invite them to come over and join us.
Not only did they come to the game night, but over the following weeks both Jing and Ling worked through the discipleship materials our group was using--even though they had not made a decision to follow Christ. My wife and I began to disciple these pre-believers as if they were new babes in Christ, and soon both Jing and Ling made public professions of faith and were baptized.
In his book Evangelism Outside the Box, Rick Richardson writes: "Evangelism is about helping people belong so that they come to believe. Most people today do not 'decide' to believe. In community, they 'discover' that they believe, and then they decide to affirm that publicly and to follow Christ intentionally. People are looking for a safe, accepting place to develop their identity and sense of self in community."
According to Ephesians 4, the role of those in the fivefold ministry is "for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry" (v. 12). While an evangelist will personally lead a number of people to the Lord, his or her role is actually much greater: The Ephesians 4 evangelist is an equipper of others, not just the doer of evangelism.
The equipping evangelist must go beyond the previous paradigm that tended to confine the role of an evangelist to that of an itinerant crusade preacher. The equipping evangelist trains and empowers individuals and groups to minister to the lost through ongoing, deepening relationships by teaching them to fish with a net.
In the context of a cell group, the equipping evangelist must work to establish two types of community: bonding community and bridging community.
Bonding community occurs inside the group. It strives to deepen connections between those within a group. Bridging community looks outside of itself to include others who are not part of the group.
Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam writes, "Bonding social capital constitutes a kind of sociological superglue, whereas bridging social capital provides a sociological WD-40." Bonding and bridging community work together to reach people for Christ.
It has been said many times that the church needs to get outside its walls and reach out to the world. With such beliefs as a premise, the church has developed enough evangelism strategies to fill up a university library. Whether it was "each one reach one," "lighthouse prayer," "ecumenical crusades" or a "small group campaign," the church always has a plan to get people outside the walls.
In John 17:21, Jesus prayed for the church that we would be one with one another as Jesus and the Father are one. Then He states the purpose of this unity with one another: so that the world might know that Jesus was sent by the Father. If we take this prayer to heart, His evangelism strategy begins first inside the four walls of the church itself, with bonding community.
Too many churches are going outside the walls when what is happening inside the walls is not worth the cost of a printed invitation. Outsiders look at the church and fail to see a way of life that is different from their own. Divorce rates are just as high inside the church. Church members are often just as materialistic, work just as much overtime, compromise their morals and are often just as depressed and downtrodden as the rest of the world.
Through the eyes of the unchurched, the only difference is that churchgoers attend a weekly service, listen to a sermon, give away money and try to live morally upright.
Jesus said, "'By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another'" (John 13:35). Most churches need much more than a new evangelism program that will help them develop bridging community. They need to establish bonding communities so that they will have something attractive to offer those outside the church.
Cell groups specialize in developing this bonding community. They provide a place where people can share their struggles, pray for one another and see personal transformation. Such practices establish a strong bond between members that stands in contrast to the way the world operates.
Research has consistently revealed that between 80 and 90 percent of all the people in churches today were led to the Lord by a friend, neighbor, co-worker or family member. Bridging community is about becoming friends with people, loving those who are close and then helping them discover Christ in the midst of a new Christian family.
When a group breaks through to bonding community, the members are surprised by how good it feels. Typically, a protective mechanism from the flesh rises up, and group members want to hoard that which God has given. The flesh yearns to turn inward and raise walls. Bonding can become so strong in a small group of Christians that a desire to cocoon becomes the purpose for its very existence.
This protection often comes in the form of making outsiders feel unwelcome. Group members use words that are foreign to outsiders such as "sanctification," "justification" or "washed in the blood." Sometimes, they pray loudly and quote Scripture as if it were a weapon formed to hurt. Outsiders rarely feel comfortable in this environment, and they don't stick around.
Without the help of the evangelist to equip the group to develop bridging community, a local church's small groups will get stuck being a religious club. Effective groups must be coached to consider the lost as more important than themselves and to receive the stranger without the expectation that they will change.
When bridging has been taught and embraced by the group, many different outreach strategies will work. We don't have to cajole people into accepting Christ's love. We only need to allow them to experience our God-given joy and join us.
Cell-group leaders and members need more evangelists within local churches who understand their roles are to equip the saints to live in both bonding and bridging community. To fulfill the Great Commission, evangelism must become more than a leadership role or a program in which only a handful of members feel gifted enough to participate.
Casting the Net: Strategies for effective evangelistic cell groups.
Friendship prayer list: Have every group member identify three unchurched friends, neighbors, co-workers or family members and pray for these people in every meeting.
Set goals for outreach: This helps communicate to the group that the leaders expect God to bring an increase.
Hold a 'Matthew Party': Invite people from the Friendship Prayer List to a party.
The empty chair: Always keep one empty chair in the group meetings to communicate that the group is always open.
Sponsor an interest group: Two or three group members could lead a short-term group around an interest such as scrapbooking or volleyball.
Conduct a service project together: Hold a free car wash, rake leaves for neighbors, wash toilets of local businesses to demonstrate God's love in practical ways.
Train people to share their testimonies: What is God doing within you today? This is what an unbelieving world needs to hear, not just the prayer a believer prayed when they were a child.
Redundancy of contact: People require consistent and repeated exposure to God's love and message before commitment.
No one wants more meetings: Bridging is about developing deep relationships, not just inviting unchurched people to yet another religious gathering.
G-12, free-market, mixed, meta-church ... before choosing a cell-group model, ask these four questions.
1. What is the purpose of the cell group? The term "cell group" is used for many different kinds of groups in the church, including home groups, evangelism target groups, task groups and even Sunday school classes. Because different churches define their "cell groups" differently, deciding what is and what is not a cell group often proves confusing.
Some models define their groups as having a holistic purpose. In other words, they aim to see both edification and expansion happen through their groups. Other models create groups with more specific purposes based on a task, special interest or Bible study. Consider asking:
Are the groups holistic in nature? Are there groups that meet for a task without an emphasis on mutual ministry to one another? Do the groups have a stated purpose of reaching non-believers? Do the groups have a plan for raising up new leaders and multiplying groups?
2. How are cell-group leaders supported? All of the successful cell-group models have developed extensive strategies for supporting their cell leaders. Cell-group models dedicate resources, time, personal relationship and money to the support and care of group leaders. But the methods for providing this support vary among the models. Consider asking:
How is the senior pastor involved in the oversight of the cell groups? What kind of personal support do cell leaders receive from the pastoral staff? Does every cell leader have a coach who invests personal time in mentoring him or her? How are networks of cell groups organized? How often do the cell leaders meet for continuing training and mentoring?
3. What priority is given to cell-group life as compared to activities in the church? Few churches will state that cell groups are unimportant, but many will argue about the priority they should have in the ministry of the church. Model churches place a very high priority on cell groups. The cell groups are weekly groups and churches clearly articulate the importance of participating in a cell group as part of walking with the Lord. Here are a few additional questions:
Do other ministries compete with cell-group participation? Are non-cell members allowed to take on ministry roles in the church?
4. How does the church equip cell members and raise up new cell-group leaders? Almost every church that starts cell groups complains about the shortage of leadership. Model churches have developed patterns for equipping every member for ministry. This means creating a discipleship track that will take cell members from "new Christian" to "minister" to "leader."
In other words, model cell-based churches do not expect leaders to develop out of thin air. Instead, they have an intentional development process that disciples each person according to his or her level of maturity: new-believer training for new believers, ministry training for growing Christians and leadership training for future leaders. Additional questions include:
How does the church equip new believers who join the cell groups? How does the church prepare cell members to minister to other people in the cell and to non-believing friends? How does the church train new cell-group leaders?