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Intergenerational Cell Groups
From Joel Comiskey's book, Children in Cell Ministry (chapter 4)
In 1969, Ralph Neighbour, Jr. formed a non-traditional church in Houston, Texas called “The People Who Care.” The church formed home cell groups, where unchurched friends were made to feel welcome. This was a completely different paradigm, but the church had an amazing impact on the city and began to teach others how to start cell groups. Neighbour had no idea that Paul Yonggi Cho was experimenting with the same thing and in the process of becoming the largest church in the history of Christianity.
In 1970, Neighbour visited Cho’s church in South Korea. He noticed a children’s cell group meeting on Saturday on the steps of a closed building. God spoke to Ralph, showing him that the family of God was being violated by the mentality that the children did not belong in cells. Neighbour returned to Houston and in the early 1970s began developing the idea of IG groups, in which children, youth, and adults mixed and ministered together. While Ralph started the process, it was Lorna Jenkins who perfected it. Lorna earned her doctorate degree at Colombia Bible College where Ralph was a professor. Under Neighbour’s mentorship, Jenkins researched children in cell ministry, from both a biblical and practical perspective.
In 1990, Neighbour moved to Singapore to help Laurence Khong develop FCBC, and they invited Lorna Jenkins to implement IG groups. A plethora of material developed on IG groups, equipping children, and connecting the cell with celebration, best captured in Lorna’s excellent book, Shouting in the Temple.
IG cell groups have a long history in the modern cell church era. They originated with Ralph Neighbour, were fine-tuned by Lorna Jenkins, put into practice in Singapore, and then circulated around the world. Daphne Kirk became a key player in developing children through IG groups and connecting the generations.
What Is an IG group?
Picture entire families—children, youth, and adults—coming together under the same roof. All those present experience fellowship before starting the meeting and maybe even a light snack. The meeting starts at the agreed upon time and begins with an opening ice breaker. Mary asks, “What is your favorite season of the year and why?” Mary calls on Nancy to start off, knowing her personality and eagerness to share. Everyone is given an opportunity to speak and the excitement builds as people become comfortable with each other.
Then the group begins worship. John, the fifteen year old, plays the guitar and leads the group in common songs with the words printed out. Some of the children sit quietly, while others sing energetically. Nancy, a five year old, can’t help herself as she dances to the music. John waits in between songs, giving time for God’s Spirit to move, someone to give a word of encouragement, a prophesy, or a prayer for healing.
James and Mary, the leaders, close the worship time in prayer and the kids, normally ages 3-12, are dismissed into a part of the garage which has been converted into an all-purpose room. Beatrice and Mary are taking their turn teaching the lesson to the children, and they make it dynamic, fun, and educational. They also will prepare the children to present a skit to the rest of the adults during the refreshment time at the end of the cell.
In the meantime, the adults apply the lesson, which was based on Pastor Jim’s Sunday sermon. Mary facilitates the discussion, asking questions, and avoiding preaching another sermon. After about forty minutes, the six men go to one side of the room to pray about specific needs, while the seven women have their own prayer meeting. At 8:30 p.m. everyone comes together for refreshments and to watch the children’s skit. People trickle out about 9 p.m., refreshed by God’s Spirit, a deep sense of community, and excitement to serve Jesus.
IG groups are as old as the New Testament house churches because those early groups were intergenerational. They connected the parents, children, and extended family. The Book of Acts speaks of entire households participating in the Christian faith and describes Church life happening in the believers’ homes. The Bible refers to the Church as the household of God or the family of God (1 Tim. 3:15; Eph. 2:19; Gal. 6:10). Family language is also used to describe our relationship to one another. The metaphors “God the Father,” “Jesus the Son,” “children of God,” “brothers and sisters in Christ,” along with a number of other family terms became a means to communicate a new Christian theology. It also built a foundation of church community and interactions between its members. Paul uses the terms “brothers,” “sisters,” some 118 times in his letters. Robert Banks writes,
The comparison of the Christian community with a “family” must be regarded as the most significant metaphorical usage of all. For that reason it has pride of place in this discussion. More than any of the other images utilized by Paul, it reveals the essence of this thinking about community (note 1).
Lorna Jenkins defines an IG group this way, “An Intergenerational Cell Group is a cell group that welcomes children as full members. It does not set up any age barriers. Although children may have a separate subgroup during the evening, they belong to the whole cell group, and they can bless and minister to the adults as well as be blessed by the adults. Such cell groups include the children in all their activities: prayer, praise, spiritual growth, and evangelism” (note 2).
Connecting the Generations
When York Alliance Church (YAC) in York, Pennsylvania first made the initial transition from a program-based church to a cell church, it made the determination that the cells would be intergenerational (note 3).
Pastor Brian Kannel would love to say that it was a wise, well-thought out decision with deep theological grounding. But the reality was that there were a lot of kids, and the church needed to know what to do with them. IG groups answered that question. And in the past fifteen years, they’ve seen growth and maturity in the children, youth, and adults.
The church began with homogenous cell groups, but they noticed a problem. The young married couples had questions and problems that were very typical for young married couples: How do I decide on a house to buy? When should we start trying to have a family? And so, they asked others in their community. Predictably, they had no good answers. So, they pooled their ignorance and made the best decisions they could.
Meanwhile, as the group of retirees connected with one another, they discovered that while they had a lot of answers, none of them really had any questions. When they talked to one another and compared aches and pains and the current ailment of the day, they found that they didn’t have the energy to even ask questions.
The church quickly discovered that IG cells were not simply a strategy to care for children. With an intentionally integrated community, young adults had older men and women speaking wisdom into their lives. Children suddenly had multiple adopted grandparents who loved and cared for them. The energy of young lives was somehow infused into an older generation.
Teens were no longer simply being mentored by a youth sponsor; they were being invested in by an entire family. Single men had a family to eat dinner with; widows had companionship; empty-nesters had children running through their living rooms again, which they could send back to their homes when they were ready to enjoy their hard-earned peace and quiet.
IG cells connect the best of both worlds. They bring families together to disciple children. They build up both the young and the old. Ideally, an IG cell consists of children, their parents, single adults, young married couples, and senior couples or singles. However, it doesn’t have to have all these ages.
Christian parents who have children in an IG cell can continue the discipleship process during the week in their own family. They are not separated from their children; rather, cell life becomes an extension of their family. This helps both parents and children. Yet IG cells also give an opportunity to reach children who don’t have Christian parents.
In the IG group, the children are accepted as full members and are encouraged to participate in the life of the cell group. Children have the amazing power to teach, convict, and mold adults. They don’t hold back. They share what they feel. Like adults, they can minister to those with needs.
The environment of the IG cell offers the potential for healing of the whole family. Daphne Kirk writes,
In the intergenerational cell everyone can realize their potential, not in a separate building, not just among their peers, but in the context of Church, in family, in the community that he has created! Here they can move into a relationship with Jesus and His people. Through that relationship they will discover that Jesus really is “the same yesterday, today and forever,” and know that they are loved, appreciated and valued (note 4).
Daphne Kirk points out that therapy today is offered in the context of the family, recognizing that everyone is important if change is to be effective, and that the interaction of family members is a vital part of that healing (note 5).
Together and Separate
The children in IG cells meet with the adults in the regular cell format during the icebreaker as well as the worship time.
The children are then dismissed during the lesson time. While the adults interact with God’s Word based on the pastor’s lesson, the children receive their own personalized cell lesson that is normally prepared by the church. The children meet in a different room of the same house after the icebreaker and the worship.
Some cell churches have a children’s ministry pastor or coordinator that oversees the IG groups, provides the material for the IG meetings, and coaches those giving the lesson. This same coordinator is responsible for getting the children’s cell guide to the right person. Many smaller churches find their resources in bookstores, the Internet, or by asking gifted parents to prepare the children’s cell guides. Some IG groups show a Christian video during the children’s time with questions for application.
When the group consistently has four or more children, many groups look for a more permanent team of leaders who feel called to lead the children (more in chapter six). This might be someone from the adult cell group, or from the church (note 6). If someone does not feel called to lead the children’s cell, the adults can rotate in ministering to the kids. Adults should be encouraged—not forced—to take a turn in leading the children’s cell group. Each week a different adult team takes the children and works through the cell guide with them.
The children’s lesson time is often called the “Kids’ Slot,” the time when the children go into a different room after the time of welcoming and worship. The Kids’ Slotcan be facilitated by members of the small group who are known and who have been in the small group for a period of time. It’s always best to have two adults in the Kids’ Slot for safety and ethical reasons. During the Kids’ Slot, children are encouraged to hear God’s Word, interact with one another, and build relationships with each other. Children have the opportunity to interact with different adults and to see God working in their lives. They get to see the “normal Christian life” as lived by the adults in the church.
Children need to have ownership of the small group. They should have the freedom to ask questions, express their opinions, and even give advice. They can be in charge of aspects of the cell meeting, such as prayer, choosing songs, evangelism, and even facilitating parts of the lesson. They should especially be encouraged to serve through the gifts of the Spirit to those in the cell group.
The ages of the children do make a difference. Many IG groups ask babies and toddlers to stay in the adult cell. Often, babies are held by mothers, dads, singles, and “grandparents.” The toddlers toddle around during the cell time, usually occupying themselves. Sometimes they fall asleep. At about age three, the children may begin attending the Kids’ Slot.Sometimes two to three year olds attend the Kids’ Slot, especially if an older brother or sister is also there. But as a general rule, those children younger than three years old should be encouraged to stay with their parents or sleep on a bed or in the parent’s arms. They might also play quietly. After a time, children can be trained to accept this and even be taken home asleep.
If those in the Kids’ Slot are ages three to six, they’ll need more activities, such as singing, games, visual aids or videos. This age group won’t benefit from the lesson time in the adult cell. They will need a dynamic, applicable lesson, complete with questions, drama, prayer, and other activities.
One cell reported having six two year olds in the group. They were disruptive in the adult cell and the Kids’ Slot. Therefore, this particular group created a toddler group. The cell placed an adult with the six in another room, equipped with praise music and toys. Another cell group had one family with six children under twelve. The baby, Michaela, began coming into the Kids’ Slotat about eighteen months. The group found a special role for her. She participated in the art activities and sharing time.
Benefits of IG Cells
One of the most important benefits of IG cells is that the kids are not compartmentalized into different age groups. The older kids can lead the younger ones and help coordinate places for them to participate. Those in the IG group learn conflict resolution skills about how to interact and make decisions as a team. It’s not easy to work with diverse ages and those involved in IG groups have to depend on Jesus to make it work. One IG leader found it was helpful for the children to prepare a dramatized story to present to the adults during the refreshment time. The leader writes,
The kids get excited about working together to present the story to the adults. Instead of the adults entertaining the kids, it’s the other way around. They feel an important part of the gathering. The kids are not just passively learning about a story—they are interacting with it in a meaningful, experiential way that facilitates learning and life application. The kids feel important and included in the festivities of the house church meeting. It’s fun! (note 7)
Children need to know and be known by adults who care about them and invest in them. Relationships can be built through small acts of attentiveness and interest, something as simple as an adult looking deep into a child’s eyes and saying, “I’m so glad you’re here.” In the pressure of doing ministry, we can too easily overlook such small acts of personal care (note 8).
God Will Do It
When the Bowman family first began leading a home group, their biggest concern was the children. Jessica Bowman writes, “My husband in particular was worried about this and afraid that they would interrupt and disrupt too much, that no one would be able to concentrate” (note 9). Their fears did not come true.
They learned to relax and allow the Spirit of God to move through the members of the group. They discovered that adults and children learned from each other and everyone grew together. Jessica discovered that ministering to the children in the home group was a fine line between preparing too much (overly formal curriculum) and too little (a wing-and-a prayer). Above all, the Bowmans grew in their relationship with Jesus and the family of God, as adults and children ministered to one another—a lot like primitive house churches in the New Testament.
As you learn to trust God and step out in your IG group, you’ll mature in your own faith as well as giving wings to children as they practice their own Christianity. In the midst of the struggles, you and your family will be transformed in unexpected ways.
- Robert Banks, Paul’s Idea of Community (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publications, 1994), p. 49.
- Lorna Jenkins, Feed My Lambs: A Handbook for Intergenerational Cell Groups (Singapore: Touch Ministries International, 1995), p. 22.
- A lot of the material in this section came from several blogs that Brian Kannel wrote on Joel Comiskey Group in May 2012: http://joelcomiskeygroup.com/blog_2/2012/05/30/our-journey-into-childrens-cells/. I’ve edited this material but some of the Kannel’s wording is verbatim.
- Daphne Kirk, Reconnecting the Generations (Suffolk, Great Britain: Kevin Mayhew Ltd., 2001), p. 39.
- Daphne Kirk, Reconnecting the Generations, p. 33.
- As much as possible, I like to call the children’s cell a fully functioning cell group, rather than just an extension of the adult cell. Yet to call it a separate cell, it’s important to have someone in charge, whether that person is appointed by the cell leader or the local church.
- Erik Fish, “What Do You Do with Kids at a House Church?” on CMA Resources at https://www.cmaresources.org/index.php?q=article/what-do-you-do-with-kids_erik-fish. Posted on November 23rd, 2010. Accessed on Thursday, December 11, 2014.
- Scottie May, Beth Posterski, Catherine Stonehouse, Linda Cannell (2005-09-15), Children Matter: Celebrating Their Place in the Church, Family, and Community (Eerdmans Publishing, Kindle edition), pp. 144-147.
- Jessica Bowman, “What Do You Do with the Kids during House Church?” February 27, 2012, accessed on Thursday, December 11, 2014 at http://bohemianbowmans.com/what-do-you-do-with-the-kids-during-house-church-part-1/