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The Family Of God, taken from chapter 3 of Foundations

In the creation story of Genesis 1, God looked over all of his creation and declared it to be ’“very good” (verse 31). Each part of the creation was perfect because God made it. However, there was one missing ingredient: community.

God’s creation of the first human, like the rest of his creation, was perfectly designed. Made in God’s image, the human creation could think, feel, and act, just like God. But he couldn’t do one thing: he could not interact and enjoy communion, like his triune Creator, because there was no one to communicate with. God said in Genesis 2:18 “It is not good for the man to be alone.” Although God made various creatures to interact with Adam, they didn’t provide the community he needed. In other words, the animal creation was not able to provide the community and interaction that Adam required. So God created Eve, who enjoyed communion with Adam and completed him.

Adam and Eve gave birth to children and the family was born. Through the family, God wanted to display the community that exists within his triune nature. Although sin tainted family values and corrupted the course of history, God persisted to show his love to the families he created.

When family is in a right relationship with God, it’s a beautiful thing. When sin and selfishness reign, family relationships disintegrate. With the entrance of sin in Genesis 3, we see family lines characterized by pride, turmoil, and destruction. Yet, the story of the Old Testament centers on God’s love for the family, and how he strove to reach out to his creation.

Family Households

The first families after Adam and Eve saw themselves as rivals, rather than co-workers. The selfishness and disunity caused the first families to stray so far away from their Creator that God decided to start over. God brought Noah and his house into the ark, along with his sons and their wives (Genesis 5-6). God saved these families to start over based on a new covenant of love and commitment.

When Noah and his family left the ark, Noah made a covenant with God, and God made a commitment with Noah. He says to Noah and his family, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and have dominion” (Genesis 1:28; 9:1). God continued his plan of family reproduction in spite of continued strife and power struggles (e.g., tower of Babel in Genesis 11). In keeping with his promise, rather than destroying his erring creation, God chose a new family lineage in Abram (Genesis 12:1-3).

He commanded Abram to leave his ancestral home, so he could break away from the old, corrupted community in which he lived to lay the foundations for a new one. God gave Abram the promise of a personal blessing (“I will bless you”), which would translate into a national blessing (“I will make you into a great nation”). By leaving his old, broken-down community and by going toward a land of promise, Abram accepted God’s plan to establish a new community that would eventually bring together, in the church, believers from all the peoples of the earth.

Through the lineage of Abraham’s son, Isaac, God continued to bless and multiply families. Jacob, Isaac’s son and heir of God’s promise, established his family which extended into an entire household. As Jacob and his family traveled from Paddan Aram to the promised land, God encountered Jacob and changed his name to Israel. Israel’s household lived together in families—all twelve households along with their families. In fact, it was common for families in Old Testament times to live together in larger households.

When we think of families today, we think of our modern concept of nuclear families. However, in Old Testament times, households were much more extensive. Leo G. Perdue, a scholar on ancient Israel, writes,

Family households did not consist of nuclear families in the modern understanding of a married couple and their children but rather were multigenerational (up to four generations) and included the social arrangement of several families, related by blood and marriage, who lived in two or three houses architecturally connected.

The generations living in these households would spread over several dwelling places. In our modern society, we are accustomed to urban life, but the Old Testament context was mainly rural. The people lived in villages. Carol Meyers writes, “Most settlements of the early Israelite period were small, rural sites. Certainly for that period . . . the primary locus of family life was the village.” It’s been estimated that a normal size village might have been fifty people, whereas a large one would have about one hundred fifty people.

Those who formed part of the kinship grouping back then were focused on the entire family, rather than their individual needs. As a group-oriented, collective culture, economic survival extended beyond the individual household to the clans, tribes, and all the children of Israel. Perdue writes,

The modern concept of individualism was not known in ancient Israel and early Judaism, though a basic understanding of individual responsibility within the larger corporate whole began to develop during the exilic period (Ezekiel 19). On the whole, however, the strong sense of corporate solidarity and community dominated Israel’s and early Judaism’s social and religious world. The social and economic interdependence of members of the household produced the understanding of corporate identity and community that shaped people’s relationships and lives. In the household, individual will and needs merged into the collective will and needs of the larger whole. The behavior of the individual affected the whole, and this was especially true of the head of the household, who embodied within himself the whole of the household (Ex. 20:5-6; Josh. 7:16-26). This collective good transcended the good of any individual member.

The marriages were arranged by the parents of the two households, and the sons and daughters were not always consulted (Genesis 21:21; 34: 4-6; 38:6; Joshua 15:16; 1 Samuel 18:17-27; 25:44). Incest and marrying outside the tribal boundaries were strictly forbidden (Leviticus 18, 20; Exodus 34:11-16; Numbers 25:1-2; Deuteronomy 7:3-4; Judges 3:5-6; Nehemiah 13:23-27).

Group hospitality was highly valued and practiced among Old Testament households. Strangers could expect attention and care for long periods of time. Christine D. Pohl writes,

The Old Testament legacy of hospitality is instructive for us. First, the household into which a stranger was welcomed was the center of both social and family activity. Second, even in the earliest part of the tradition, care for strangers went beyond the household. It involved community responsibility and provision, and depended on legislation as well as on generous individual responses. There was never an assumption that individual households alone could care for large numbers of needy strangers. Third, strangers were often first encountered in a more public space. Such a setting allowed a preliminary interaction that reduced some of their “strangeness” before they entered a household. It also provided the larger community with an opportunity to encounter the stranger.

The household provided the care network for not only those related by marriage but also those who were marginalized and needed special assistance.

God’s triune community nature was reflected in group outreach to strangers, the homeless, and those in need. While loving all people, God continued to focus on his chosen family, the Israelites.

Family Expansion

God’s family grew and prospered in Egypt under Joseph’s oversight. Their incredible growth, however, threatened the new Pharaoh, and God led his family out of Egypt in fulfilling his role as Israel’s Father. God says to them later, “You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself” (Exodus 19:4).

According to Exodus 12:37-38, the Israelites numbered “about six hundred thousand men on foot, besides women and children,” plus many non-Israelites and livestock. Numbers 1:46 gives a more precise total of six hundred three thousand five hundred fifty. The six hundred thousand, plus wives, children, the elderly, and the “mixed multitude” of non-Israelites would have numbered approximately two million people (a more conservative estimate of 1.5 million is often used), which compares to the size of Houston or Philadelphia, respectively.

As this huge family journeyed from Egypt, it soon became apparent that they needed to re-organize. Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, seeing Moses’ desperate situation, counseled him to raise up leaders to care for the thousands, hundreds, and tens of people. Jethro summed up the problem succinctly, “You are wearying yourself and also those who hear you” (Exodus 18:18). Moses tried to be a responsible leader, but it was too much for him to do alone. Jethro recounted the advantages of this leadership approach to Moses, “You will be able to stand the strain, and all these people will go home satisfied” (Exodus 18:23).

Assuming a more conservative estimate of 1.5 million Israelites, this would mean there were one hundred fifty thousand family units (groups of ten), thirty thousand clusters of fifties, six thousand clusters of hundreds, and according to Exodus 24:9, seventy leaders who would have been over the thousands.

We often use the word “nation” to describe Israel, but we must remember that they were organized according to families, clans, and tribes. It was through this intimate web of household and tribal organization that any person could be singled out for inspection. There are various examples of winnowing out one person by tribe, clan, and families. When Achan disobeyed, we read:

Early the next morning Joshua had Israel come forward by tribes, and Judah was taken. The clans of Judah came forward, and he took the Zerahites. He had the clan of the Zerahites come forward by families, and Zimri was taken. Joshua had his family come forward man by man, and Achan son of Carmi, the son of Zimri, the son of Zerah, of the tribe of Judah, was taken (Joshua 7:16-18).

Even with such a large number of people, God organized them according to family units. God then cared for each unit through an organizational supervisory structure that many in today’s cell church call the Jethro Model. The family was the base of this care structure because this was God’s design from the beginning.

Family Failure

The Israelites were supposed to demonstrate God’s divine nature and unity to the nations. Sadly, the Israelites failed in this task, bickering among themselves and straying from the one who called them.

Yet, even in those dire conditions, the prophets envisioned Israel as a family, a household that would be restored. In Hosea 1-3, relations within the family provide the metaphor for their coming destiny. The prophets spoke out against wayward families, knowing that when a man is wayward, the children share in the trouble (Amos 7:17). Yet God says that even if the Israelite family were destroyed, it would also be rebuilt (Ezekiel 37:11-14). And a remnant of Israel did emerge to rebuild and restore the family connection (Nehemiah and Ezra).

Jesus and the New Family of God

Jesus came to start a new community, the new family of God (Matthew 12:46-50). Although the definition of the church needed further explanation, Jesus formed his new family by asking them to break with the old and make a total commitment to follow him. Joseph Hellerman in When the Church Was a Family, writes,

He [Jesus] chose “family” as the defining metaphor to describe His followers . . . one’s family demanded the highest commitment of undivided loyalty, relational solidarity, and personal sacrifice of any social entity in Jesus’ strong-group Mediterranean world. And the major life decisions were made in the context of the family.

Jesus himself says in Mark 10:29-31,

No one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age (homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—and with them, persecutions) and in the age to come, eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first.

Following Jesus meant leaving all behind and starting afresh. Gerhard Lohfink writes, “Those who follow Jesus . . . allow themselves to be gathered by Jesus into a ‘new family’ that stands entirely under the sign of the reign of God.”

Following Jesus was especially difficult in the collective culture of the New Testament because people saw themselves as part of the group. A person’s identity was collective, so following Jesus meant breaking with family, friends, and religion to follow Christ and his followers. Ritva Williams writes,

The Jesus movement was born in a group-oriented world where the household/family was regarded as the very basis of social life. . . . The group that gathered around Jesus in his lifetime consisted of family members, most frequently siblings and/or their mothers, who left the households of their fathers and husbands. In the Jesus movement they found a surrogate family.

Jesus often taught in homes to communicate to his followers what his new family would look like. He came to create a new, transformed people who were brothers and sisters. Although Jesus used the household family network that existed at the time, he transformed it with a new vision for love and sacrifice. He cemented the new concept of family by living among them and showing them how to love and serve one another (John 13:1-17).

Christ’s teaching on true greatness (using children as an example) takes place in the context of a house setting (Mark 9:33-36). The new family that Christ envisioned would have servanthood as its central leadership style and childlike dependence as the guiding light. Then he sent his disciples two by two to engage and infiltrate the heart of the culture: the family. The disciples went into the houses and transformed unbelievers from the inside out.

Jesus wanted his new family to enjoy the oneness he experienced with the father—a oneness that had originally been entrusted in creation, and already existed within the Trinity. For Jesus, the model for oneness among humans was the relationship between Father and Son (John 17:11, 21, 22). Referring to their oneness, the Son declared to the Father, “You are in me and I am in you,” and he could pray for his followers to be one to the same extent and with the same intensity (17:21). In his final prayer, Christ extends his concern for oneness to all believers of all times throughout the future of the church (17:20).

The Church as God’s Family

The Jesus strategy of house to house ministry and the early house church environment combined to create the atmosphere from which the theological doctrine of the family of God emerged. The early disciples were simply following their master in emphasizing the new family of God based in homes.

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 one hundred eighteen 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.

In Ephesians 3:14-15 Paul says, “For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom his whole family in heaven and on earth derives its name.” He was writing to the house churches in Ephesus and wanted believers to know their inheritance as the family of God, called and specifically chosen by God. Goetzmann writes, “What could be conveyed by the idea of the family of God had, in fact, already come into being in the primitive Christian community through the house churches.”

The household setting confirmed that believers were God’s family. In the heavily group-oriented Mediterranean world of the first century, the family was the most significant group. Belonging to a family provided the main focus for identity and at the same time, if that family were regarded as honorable, the person’s identity was enhanced. Hellerman says,

The most important group for persons in the ancient world was the family. It is hardly accidental that the New Testament writers chose the concept of family as the central social metaphor to describe the kind of interpersonal relationships that were to characterize those early Christian communities. There is, in fact, no better way to come to grips with the spiritual and relational poverty of American individualism than to compare our way of doing things with the strong-group, surrogate family relations of early Christianity.

The family image probably made a lot of sense to those early believers, because as Halvor Moxnes points out, “In the traditional Mediterranean culture, the family was the basic reference of the individual, and the channel through which he or she was inserted into social life. To be born in a certain family was a decisive factor, because family was the depository of ‘honor’ and of position in society, and the transmitter of economic resources.” It was in this family setting that a person found his or her sense of belonging. As Williams writes, “Without a family, without kin, one is nobody.”

God’s Household

“The family of God” and “household of God” are both used in the New Testament to describe Christ’s church. These two terms are the principal church images of the New Testament. They reflect two sides of the same coin and both extend from the house church. Helen Doohan writes,

Closely associated with the household image is the description of the church as family. Paul describes his relationship with the churches in terms drawn from family life, such as father (1 Cor. 4:14-15), mother (Gal. 4:19), nurse (1 Cor. 3:2), speaking in tender and endearing ways. The family reveals the essence of Paul’s thinking about community. Use of the homes of Christians for the gathering of the community reflects the family character of the early church. The atmosphere and attitudes in the community speak to fundamental family values, with trust, respect, love, patience, tolerance, resilience, and generosity, ensuring the kind of interaction essential to being church.

Although household and family are connected terms, the “household of God” goes beyond the idea of nuclear family and helps focus on the extended family. The authors of Home Cell Groups and House Churches explain,

Paul’s letters contain a number of figures of speech to describe the nature and function of the church. A major metaphor is that of a household, a family. This figure conveys an idea which has a deep rootage in the Old Testament where God’s people are often referred to in a variety of family-oriented figures. In writing to Timothy, Paul referred to the church as the “household of God” (1 Timothy 3:15). He used the same language in writing to the Ephesian Christians (Ephesians 2:19). In Galatians 6:10, Paul changed the language slightly and referred to the church as the “household of faith.”

The household in the New Testament was the center of Christian ministry. It provided worship, recruitment, mutual support, and the basis for the social embodiment of the gospel message. Paul says in 1 Timothy 3:15, “If I am delayed, you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God’s household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth.” In this verse, Paul extends the image of the house church to the church at large. Gehring says,

Scholars have correctly declared 1 Timothy 3:15 to be the central ecclesiological passage . . . The understanding of the church here goes beyond the metaphorical; the church is characterized, in its concrete organizational structures, by the perception of itself as a household, with the “household” understood in terms of the ancient oikos. For the Pastorals the church really is the household or the family of God. Viewed in this way, “house or family of God” becomes the model for responsible behavior as well as for church order and leadership structures, and thus the central, all-guiding image for the self-understanding and organization of the church.

The designation of the church as the “house of God” was understood by all the house church members quite literally. The image of the house is molded together with the family of God. To understand the church as God’s house also meant that God himself was the head of the church.

In 2 Timothy 2:20-21, the members of the church are described as objects in a large house. The local church leader (overseer) is the house administrator (Titus 1:7). This overseer is supposed to carry out the functions of the householder (1 Timothy 3:5) in the church of God, in that he manages, leads, corrects, and so forth. Dunn summarizes succinctly, “The model of the well-run household provided precedent for the well-run church.” Gehring says,

It was quite natural that household patterns impressed themselves upon the social reality of the congregation. The house churches of the Pastoral Letters understood themselves essentially as the “household or family of God,” and it is therefore fully legitimate to speak here of an oikos ecclesiology.

The family/household image naturally found its way into the mentality of the New Testament house churches. Only those who manage their own households in an exemplary fashion can be trusted to manage the church (1 Timothy 3:5), and they must set an example in having “submissive and respectful children” (1 Timothy 3:4), that is, specifically, children who are “believers” (Titus 1:6).

Because leadership developed naturally within the house church setting, people could examine whether or not the members were guiding their own families in a godly, Christlike manner. Those who were godly examples to both family and outsiders were the ones called upon to lead God’s household, the church of the living God.

Family Instruction

In New Testament times, the basic family group living in the same house consisted of father, mother, the unmarried children, probably one or more married sons with their own wives and children, and often workers and slaves.

Because the early church was organized around this extended family, the need arose for specific teaching on how to behave as the new, transformed family of God. In his letters to the house churches in Colossae and Ephesus, Paul includes instructions (often called the household codes) on how the family-oriented house churches should behave (Colossians 3:18 ff and Ephesians 5:22 ff).

Fathers, mothers, and children are all exhorted to care for one another and fulfill their roles within the family. John Barclay writes, “The household code assumes the solidarity of a Christian family, and projects an image of the household as the context in which Christian discipleship is given practical expression.” Paul gave his instructions to:

  • Husbands and wives (Ephesians 5:22-33; Colossians 3:18-19)
  • Parents and children (Ephesians 6:1-4; Colossians 3:20-21)
  • Masters and slaves (Ephesians 6:5-9; Colossians 3:22-4:1)

We know that children were present in those early house church meetings both through church history and also because Paul mentions children in his letters. Osiek, MacDonald, and Tulloch write,

That children were not merely chance witnesses at early Christian meetings but actually expected to be active listeners to early Christian discourse is made clear by the direct address to them (along with other family groupings) in the New Testament household codes (Col. 3:20; Eph. 6:1).

Many of the children addressed in the household codes of Colossians and Ephesians were probably slave children (some with no knowledge of or contact with biological parents), and many of the adult slaves who were instructed no doubt had children.

In the Roman world, the role of motherhood was often shared by a variety of people, including nurses, caregivers, and surrogate parents of various kinds. Osiek, MacDonald, and Tulloch write,

There must have been many cases in which children (especially of lower status) ended up, for all practical purposes, in the care of others, adopted by default; these orphan children may have been habitually fed, occasionally washed, and put to bed by different people. If we add to this the strong possibility that rescuing abandoned children would have been understood as an act of Christian charity . . . we end up with the likelihood that widows often were caring for children who were not their own. The second-century depictions of early Christian groups welcoming ragamuffin children with slaves and women in tow, therefore, was probably not too far off the mark—especially if one observed the ‘orphans and widow’ from an outsider’s perspective.

Paul gave his instructions in the plural to clarify that the rules are directed not only toward the one master, wife, children, and servants in one household, but rather toward all members in all households and all house churches—everyone in the entire church as a whole at that location.

The strengthening of the family simultaneously strengthened the house churches. A well-functioning household can only exist upon the foundation of a healthy, intact family, and so a close connection existed between the family and the New Testament house church.

Family Hospitality

Hospitality portrayed the message of God’s love through the new family of God. Because the early church met in homes, hospitality was a natural and necessary practice. It helped to foster family-like ties among believers and provided a setting in which to shape and to reinforce a new identity.

Paul encourages the church in Rome to practice hospitality (Romans 12:13), the writer of Hebrews reminds believers not to neglect hospitality (Hebrews 13:1-3), and Peter challenges the community to offer hospitality ungrudgingly (1 Peter 4:9). Hospitality, in each of these passages, is a concrete expression of love for the household of God and beyond to strangers, just as we see in the Old Testament. Osiek, MacDonald, and Tulloch write, “Hospitality emerges early as a key virtue in early Christian groups, as is demonstrated by the very hospitality offered by the missionary couple to Paul himself (Acts 18:1-3; see Romans 12:13; Hebrews 13:1-3).”

The gospel initially spread through believers who traveled widely and depended on the hospitality of others. The travel of church members and their ministry involvement would not have been possible without the assistance from believers. Paul asked Philemon to prepare quarters for him in his own house because he, like other traveling missionaries, depended on the homes of the early Christian believers (Philemon 22).

Such hospitality was not only practical, but was seen as actually participating in the gospel ministry. John the apostle says, “You are faithful in what you are doing for the brothers, even though they are strangers to you. . . . It was for the sake of the Name that they went out, receiving no help from the pagans. We ought therefore to show hospitality to such men so that we may work together for the truth” (3 John 1:5-8).

On the other hand, John also warned believers not to participate in the false ministries of anti-Christs and deceivers, writing, “Do not take him into your house or welcome him. Anyone who welcomes him shares in his wicked work” (2 John 1:10-11).

Hospitality to those first missionaries and the reception of their message were very closely connected. Jesus set the standard for the church in this regard, by sending his twelve and his seventy-two disciples out from village to village and house-to-house to bring the kingdom of God into their midst, reminding his disciples that those who accepted them, in fact, were accepting him and the good news of the gospel (Luke 9:1-6; 10:1-11). In Romans 15:7, Paul urges believers to “welcome one another” as Christ welcomed them. Jesus’ gracious and sacrificial hospitality, which was expressed in his life, ministry, and death, serves as the basis for hospitality among his followers.

Most of the ancient world regarded hospitality as a fundamental moral practice. It was necessary for the protection of vulnerable strangers and assured strangers at least a minimum of provision, protection, and connection with the larger community. It also sustained the normal network of relationships on which a community depended.

This generous hospitality and love among the believers was attractive to unbelievers. Reta Finger writes,

What attracted people to the community? In a crowded city where most people lived marginal and often desperate lives, many cut off from previous kin-groups back on the land, Luke has truthfully portrayed what was probably one of the great attractions of the new movement: the inclusive and joyful daily communal meals held in the next courtyard.

One principal way to offer hospitality was through eating meals together. Eating together in the household was one of the primary ways to share life together as well as to welcome strangers and those outside the household. Luke declared in Acts 4:34, “There was not a needy person among them.”

We like to quote Acts 2:46 concerning the Lord’s Supper in the homes of believers, but we are less likely to talk about Acts 2:45, “Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need.” Not only was the breaking of bread in the homes of believers a way to celebrate the Lord’s death, it was also a means to make sure no one went away hungry.

Unlike the church in Jerusalem, the church in Corinth was not celebrating the Lord’s Supper in the same way. They were not concerned about feeding the poor. Paul writes, “When you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, for as you eat, each of you goes ahead without waiting for anybody else. One remains hungry, another gets drunk” (1 Corinthians 11:20-21).

In the early church, believers gave and served to be like Jesus. After all, Jesus washed the feet of his disciples, told them to do likewise, and then said to them, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34-35).

God’s Family Plan

God’s plan throughout the ages is to call out a people to model his triune nature of love, unity, and purity. Even though Israel failed to exemplify this community, God’s plan did not fail. His family plan continued with Christ and the church. In fact, the primary image of Christ’s church is the family of God. But how does Christ’s radical call to discipleship and kingdom message relate to this new family?

Why develop cell ministry in a local church? Why are cell groups so important to what God is doing around the world today? What’s the foundation for small group ministry?

These are crucial questions. Over the years, thousands and thousands have tried cell groups. Sadly, many have started on foundations of sand, failing to dig deep enough to build upon the rock. In the mid-1990s, for example, cell groups became a popular fad.

In 1995, Ralph W. Neighbour Jr. returned to the U.S. from Singapore. Over the previous five years, his book Where Do We Go From Here? sold over one hundred thousand copies. He provided practical resources to help churches implement a cell-based approach in their churches. And his strategy had seen great success in the church he helped develop in Singapore. He had also created a resource called The Year of Transition, which he piloted with hundreds of churches in South Africa.

Carl George also sparked a lot of interest in small group ministry with his 1991 book, Prepare Your Church for the Future. George’s research was especially important because he contextualized the worldwide cell emphasis to fit a North American reality. Much of George’s initial research came from studying Dale Galloway’s New Hope Community Church in Portland, Oregon, but George went beyond NHCC to apply small group principles to the North American church in general.

Beyond Neighbour and George, some very large churches and significant denominational leaders embraced the cell-based approach. The cell church had suddenly shifted from an obscure idea to something that prominent seminaries taught about and offered in their degree concentrations.

However, in the Western world, people’s fascination with cell-based churches waned. Many moved on to hotter topics. What interests me, however, is how many significant leaders in those early days proclaimed that cell church was not just a program, but the way to do church. Oddly, many of those churches have set aside cell ministry. It’s no longer the priority.

We can learn from these examples. When a church does not develop a strong foundation upon which to build cell groups, the reason for doing cell ministry will also shift like sand.

It’s the basic “rubber band” effect that comes with the implementation of a new idea. Often people get excited about the potential of cell-based church life. They begin making the change and as they do, they are stretching a rubber band with a finger on their right hand away from an anchored and stable finger on the left. However, when they fail to establish sound foundations for what they are doing, they will experience a pull from the anchored left hand, which represents the traditional ways of doing church. Those traditional ways are buried deep in centuries of use, so the pull is strong.

At the same time, I’ve observed many churches successfully implement cell church ministry. One of the key differences in these churches was establishing a strong foundation for why they were doing cells. These deep convictions carried them through the tough times and caused them to stay firm while waiting for God to bring the results. In other words, they developed their small groups on a solid biblical rock, rather than sand.

Common Foundations that End up Being Sand

Jesus says:

Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash (Matthew 7:24-27).

If you base cell ministry upon shifting sand, when the rains come, the streams rise, and the winds blow, you will return to what is familiar. It’s human nature to go back to what you know to survive as a church. What I have observed over the years, however, is that these weak foundations of sand have become the main reasons for implementing cell ministry. Here are a few shallow foundations:

Church Growth

My PhD is in intercultural studies; practically, however, it’s a PhD in church growth studies. My academic mentor was Peter Wagner, the student of Donald McGavran, who became the marquee name synonymous with church growth theory during the 1980s and 1990s.

Although I embraced church growth in the early years as the key reason for doing cell church ministry, I’ve since come to view church growth as a foundation of sand.

When I first started studying cell ministry, I became enamored with its potential for church growth, but I didn’t prioritize the theological side of cell ministry as much as the pragmatic aspect.

My first book, Home Cell Group Explosion, focused on the rapid multiplication and evangelism of cells, and then my second book, Reap the Harvest, emphasized the growth of cell churches based on common principles. At that time, I was a missionary in Ecuador, and our cell church was seeing amazing church growth. I believed certain leaders in the cell movement were not pragmatic enough. I wanted to show the world that cell church had to work for it to have relevance.

In June 1998, I toured five major U.S. cities for Touch Publications, my book publisher. My seminar topic was cell church. Most of the pastors who attended were struggling. They simply were not experiencing the rapid church growth I highlighted in my books. Most of them talked about their long, long transition and the difficulties of cell ministry.

As I showed them PowerPoint photos of growing cell churches, they were impressed by the church growth examples, but were generally discouraged by their own lack of growth. I thought they were doing something wrong. They just don’t understand how to make cell church work. I will show them. I returned to Ecuador, critical of the North American church.

A few years later, I took another trip to the U.S. and met with a denominational superintendent who had developed material for transitioning churches. His strategy called for a long, slow process. I criticized his approach, thinking he really didn’t know how to establish a growing church. He looked directly at me and said, “Joel, you don’t understand ministry in North America. It’s tough and completely different from what you are used to.”

He turned out to be right.

I moved to North America in 2001 from Ecuador. I jumped right into the battle , coaching pastors, doing seminars, and even planted a cell church with another pastor. I intended to find the keys that would unlock a cell church explosion in the United States and the Western world.

Church growth was much slower in the West. I could “grow a church” more quickly by not emphasizing cell ministry! Some people told us they were looking for a church in which they wouldn’t be known. One Christian said to me, “I need a church where I don’t have to do much.” Very few were interested in the additional commitments of cell ministry. Some churches were “growing” by not requiring much of their members and allowing them to remain anonymous.

Church growth was slow in North America because spiritual revival was missing. Many didn’t have time to join a group and were not interested in close and personal community, going through an equipping track, practicing relational evangelism, and participating in a planned multiplication.

Over time, I became convinced that cell church was more of a purification or transformation strategy for the church in North America. Over a long period of time, I began to see cell ministry as much more than a technique of church growth. I realized that my former church growth theology was deficient. I came to understand that biblical truth is the final judge of church growth or any other philosophy of ministry.

I made a decision to base my life and ministry on Scripture, and the pieces of the puzzle began to fall into place. I found myself pleasantly surprised with how well the cell church strategy meshed with biblical theology. I came to believe that the key reason we do cell church is because of theological convictions, and that those biblical convictions should never be secondary, but rather, they should be the primary reason.

Theology gives wings to cell ministry because it provides the basis for implementation in both receptive and non-receptive areas. Following the cell church strategy does not result in instant church growth. It takes time to change traditional thinking, develop the lay people to do the work of the ministry, and engage in relational evangelism. Some churches might even lose members in early stages of the process.

Cell church principles and practices must be built on a biblical foundation if churches are to become healthier and make more and better disciples. It’s not a quick growth strategy, but rather, a biblical one. Cell groups provide the environment to form disciples. In certain receptive areas around the world, multiplication happens rapidly because people are coming to Christ, being trained, and starting new cells. In more resistant areas around the world, however, the process takes much longer because the soil is harder. No matter where the church is established, it must depend on biblical truth rather than outward results.

Church Health

In the early 2000s, church health became a hot topic. Pollsters like George Barna, professors like Peter Wagner, and pastors like Elmer Towns produced lists of characteristics that described healthy churches. Rick Warren in The Purpose-Driven Church, says, “The key issue for churches in the twenty-first century will be church health, not church growth” (note 1)

The most definitive guide on church health is Natural Church Development (note 2). After performing extensive statistical research on tens of thousands of churches around the world, Christian Schwarz and his team determined that there are eight quality characteristics of healthy churches. They include:

  • Empowering leadership
  • Gift-oriented ministry
  • Passionate spirituality
  • Functional structures
  • Inspiring worship services
  • Holistic small groups
  • Need-oriented evangelism
  • Loving relationships

Schwarz went even further by saying, “If we were to identify any one principle as the ‘most important’—even though our research shows that the interplay of all basic elements is important—then without a doubt it would be the multiplication of small groups” (note 3).

Many read this and saw cell groups as the answer to having a healthy church. Since the publication of Natural Church Development, further research has shown that cell-based churches are statistically healthier in all eight categories than those that are not cell-based (note 4).

These statistics are encouraging, but are they enough to sustain a small group ministry over time? Do they provide the strong foundational rails necessary to press on in cell church ministry when obstacles occur, church growth doesn’t happen, and a new, easier method presents itself? Schwarz’s research might be a motivation to start cell ministry, but can the church health argument sustain it over time?

Spiritual Revelation

Some pastors developed cell church ministry because of a spiritual encounter with God. Larry Stockstill, for example, wrote about his encounter in the opening chapter of his book The Cell Church (note 5). He sensed God telling him that two things were coming to America: harvest and hostility, and that the way to prepare for this harvest and hostility was through cells. This experience led him to discover the power of cell groups as a way of dealing with the coming harvest and hostility.

Stockstill’s book was a great inspiration to me and provided many valuable insights into Bethany World Prayer Center’s journey of becoming a cell church. According to the book, it seems that God’s direct word to Bethany was the primary justification for cell group ministry.

Many pastors have heard God directly speaking to them, and for this reason they start their cell church journey. But is this enough to sustain them over time? What will happen when the storms come? I do believe that God speaks directly to us today, and we need to constantly be hearing from him, both for direction and renewal of the vision. But again, is spiritual illumination sufficient to continue on the cell church journey?

Everybody Has Small Groups

Robert Wuthnow and George Gallup, Jr. have been instrumental in researching the resurgence of small groups across the United States. They estimate that seventy-five million adults in the United States participate in some kind of small group (note 6). These small groups include both church groups (e.g., Bible studies, Sunday school, cell groups) as well as non-church groups (e.g., support groups, recovery groups). One out of six of those seventy-five million people are new members of small groups; thus disclosing that, at least in the United States, the small group movement is alive and well (note 7).

Lyle Schaller has noted the explosion of small group interest in the U.S. After listing twenty new innovations in the modern American church Schaller says, “. . . perhaps most important of all, is the decision by tens of millions of teenagers and adults to place a high personal priority on weekly participation in serious, in-depth, lay-led, and continuing Bible study and prayer groups” (note 8).

Obviously a lot of people are participating in small groups. But is this a strong foundation? Some pastors are not aware of the biblical values that undergird their philosophy of ministry and end up choosing the most popular strategy at the time. “Of course I’m doing small groups,” says the pastor. Yet, if this is the motivation, it’s just as easy to quit, as it is to join.

Theology Breeds Methodology

If you want to continue over the long haul, your cell group methodology must rest upon a sure theological foundation. No one understood this better than the primary pioneer of cell church thinking, Ralph Neighbour. He has an entire section in his book Where Do We Go From Here entitled “Theology Breeds Methodology.” He would always start his cell conferences with a talk on this topic. And Ralph has seen his share of resistance to his core cell convictions. But to this day, even into his eighties, he is still traveling the globe helping to establish cell churches.

Bill Beckham also believes that a church or pastor should never change a structure until changing values. The values Beckham is talking about are biblical ones. Theological values must guide methodology. The biblical foundation must guide all we do and say.

Almost Biblical

I believe most of you reading this book may agree with me so far. You might even think that I’m “preaching to the choir.” But let me ask: What kind of biblical foundation is the one built upon the rock? You might be surprised that many foundations appear biblical but end up being sand. Let me identify some of these:

Biblical Idealism

By far the most quoted passage used to justify the cell-based approach to church is Acts 2:42-46,

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts.

This wonderful text has helped the church understand the connection between cells and celebration in the Jerusalem church (note 9). Yet, it’s not enough of a biblical foundation to carry a church through the storms of ministry.

Often churches with nostalgia, hopes, and dreams hold up this idea and proclaim something like, “If we just meet in small groups, worship on the weekends, and pray hard, the church will not be able to handle all the baptisms.” But after a year or two, nothing really changes, people become disillusioned, and the leaders move on to another idea.

We have to be careful not to erect entire models from a few New Testament passages. I’ve appreciated my colleague, Brian McLemore, a Bible translator with World Bible Translation Center, who has graciously reviewed many of my books before going to print. Brian consistently challenges my dogmatism and biased thinking, specifically with regard to extracting an exact cell church model from the pages of Scripture. In reality, the best we can do is to derive principles for cell churches from the Bible.

We must remember that the phrase “cell church” is a technical term for a particular present day application of biblical principles, not an exact practice of the New Testament. The early church never used the term cell church ministry.

We can, however, discern a descriptive pattern of small and large groups. Paul preached publicly and from house-to-house. The early disciples gathered to hear the apostle’s teaching publicly, but they also met in homes for fellowship, the Lord’s Supper, and spiritual growth.

In all honesty, I don’t believe God gave an exact prescriptive pattern in the New Testament called cell church. After all, the early church met every day in the temple courts and from house-to-house. If we wanted to talk about a once and for all cell-celebration pattern, should the local church meet every day? Few people would agree with this. It’s hard enough to meet in celebration each Sunday.

As we will see in the New Testament, believers met in house churches and at times those house churches celebrated together. In other words, there was a connection between the house churches. Today, modern day cell churches connect the cells into a celebration. Some cell churches are very structured, while other cell churches are simple and connect the cells less frequently.

Often we read the Bible looking for an ideal “magic pill,” which will make the church work and grow like it did in those early days. But meeting in houses and in the temple courts does not automatically make everything better.

Proof Texting

Another way to search for a biblical foundation is to look for proof texts that stipulate how we should meet (note 10). Of course, the New Testament contains many texts that talk about churches that met in homes:

  1. Acts 12:12: When this had dawned on him, he went to the house of Mary the mother of John, also called Mark, where many people had gathered and were praying.
  2. Acts 20:20: You know that I have not hesitated to preach anything that would be helpful to you but have taught you publicly and from house-to-house.
  3. Romans 16:3-5: Greet Priscilla and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus. . . . Greet also the church that meets at their house.
  4. 1 Corinthians 16:19: The churches in the province of Asia send you greetings. Aquila and Priscilla greet you warmly in the Lord, and so does the church that meets at their house.
  5. Colossians 4:15: Give my greetings to the brothers at Laodicea, and to Nympha and the church in her house.
  6. Philemon 2: to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier and to the church that meets in your home.

All the New Testament letters were written to first century house churches. Some people insist that anything that does not follow this pattern of meeting in homes is unbiblical.

Although we can say that the early church met in homes, we are unwise to try to build an exact pattern for every modern church. This is what I call proof texting because no absolute pattern for house churches exists. We can’t copy the exact prescription of frequency or the exact culture of the early church. Roger Gehring says,

The time span separating the NT from our present situation must be kept in mind, and here again we need to distinguish geographically: the ancient oikos as extended family including slaves, hired laborers, and clients, with its fundamental significance for society and economy, does not exist as such anymore, at least not in the Western world. Our term for family is no longer synonymous with that of the ancient household (note 11).

Dennis McCallum, lead pastor of Xenos Christian Fellowship, says, “Scripture never commands us to have our meetings in homes . . .” (note 12). McCallum goes on to say, “We can marshal some good, common sense arguments suggesting it might be a good idea” (note 13).

Rather than using proof texts, we have to do the hard work of putting the pieces together and filling in a few gaps to define principles for today’s church. The way the early church met was so second nature to them that their writings do not give us much information about how the churches actually functioned.

Searching for God’s Sacred Numbering System

A few years ago, the number twelve became significant in cell church circles. Many church leaders gave the number twelve great theological importance, saying it had a special anointing attached to it. If you could develop twelve leaders, you would reach a place of spiritual blessing. In fact, the International Charismatic Mission in Bogota, Colombia claimed to find special significance for the number twelve throughout the Bible.

If you were to visit the International Charismatic Mission, you’d see banners hanging from the ceiling, proclaiming the number twelve. All cell leaders are looking for their twelve disciples. Pastor Castellanos testifies that the vision of the government of twelve disciples was given to him by the Lord as a direct revelation (note 14).

The number twelve is not the only number that carries great weight in the Bible. There were three disciples who had special intimacy with Jesus, the resurrection of Jesus took place on the third day, and there were three crosses at Calvary. God created the heavens and earth in seven days and the sabbatical year occurred every seven years. The Day of Atonement occurred in the seventh month. Seven signified fulfillment and perfection. The number ten signifies completeness, as illustrated in the Ten Commandments. Forty is associated with God’s mighty acts in the history of Israel and the church.

While significance is attached to numbers found in the Bible, the New Testament provides no evidence that the apostles or other church leaders attached any significance to a specific number of disciples chosen in a church. In Acts, the New Testament history book, you won’t find the apostles diligently looking for twelve disciples to follow Jesus’ pattern of twelve disciples. To apply theological significance to a particular number of disciples in the church today, it would be necessary to find many more examples of this practice in the Bible. I find no reason to idealize the number twelve in Acts or the Epistles. In addition, this idea is absent in church history during two thousand years of theological reflection.

Small Groups as a Secondary Option

Over the years, most church traditions have concluded that since the New Testament does not give us specific instructions about how the church should function, we are left to figure out the best options regarding what works and what does not work in specific cultures.

As a result, most have found it much easier to focus their energies on getting people to attend the weekly large group worship service. When the writer of Hebrews states, “Do not forsake the assembling of yourselves together” (Hebrews 10:25), preachers talk about the importance of attending Sunday services.

Yet, when the writer of Hebrews penned those words, he was not imagining what many think about church, in the modern sense. Many today envision a worship service with a song set, a sermon, and some kind of invitation to respond. Others read from a common prayer book and serve communion at the altar. The writer of Hebrews, however, was thinking about something much more organic, relational, and informal—the house church setting.

Small groups are not new in the church. Small groups are not unique to the cell church or cell-based church structure. Church history reveals that small groups have been crucial to church life for a long time. However, in most cases, small groups have been a secondary option, not the basis of church life. Most leaders elevate the large group as primary and the small group as optional. The New Testament writers were thinking about church much differently than we do today.

A Sure Foundation

How then can we embrace a foundation that serves well through the rain and the wind? Let me state up front that this will require some thinking and reflection. We will have to understand the context in which the Bible was written. We must resist the urge to have our pragmatic questions answered. This will require us to slow down and listen.

During research for this book, many of my preconceived ideas disappeared, and I began to see related patterns and principles throughout the Old and New Testaments. The biblical stories began to mold and shape my thinking. This caused me to go deeper and deeper into the worldview of the New Testament church and then apply it to today’s church.

The process was similar to when I first went to Ecuador as a missionary. My wife and I had written academic papers on Latin American culture. Then we lived a year with a Costa Rican family in San Jose, Costa Rica. All the while we were testing and adjusting our theoretical base from the previous research. When we arrived in Ecuador, we made more adjustments, more midcourse corrections, and we eventually began to understand the core Ecuadorian values. After a while, the ways of Ecuadorian life became second nature.

This is how we will develop a sure foundation. In the following chapters, we’ll look at the nature of God and then discover how God’s nature overflows to his creation and ultimately to the character and function of the church.

Notes

  1. Rick Warren, The Purpose-Driven Church: Growing without Compromising Your Message and Mission (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1995), p. 17.
  2. Christian Schwarz, Natural Church Development (Carol Stream, IL: Church Smart Resources, 1996).
  3. Ibid., p. 33.
  4. A study comparing the Natural Church Development scores of cell churches and non-cell churches showed that cell churches overall scored significantly higher in all areas than non-cell churches. Combined cell church scores averaged 59 while combined non-cell church scores averaged 45. More information on this study can be obtained at: http://www.joelcomiskeygroup.com/articles/churchLeaders/cellChurchStudy.htm
  5. Larry Stockstill, The Cell Church (Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 1998), p. 13.
  6. Robert Wuthnow, I Come Away Stronger: How Small Groups Are Shaping American Religion (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994), p. 370
  7. Ibid., p. 371.
  8. Lyle E. Schaller, The New Reformation: Tomorrow Arrived Yesterday (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995), p. 14.
  9. When I use the word celebration in this book, I’m referring to the large group gathering to worship and hear God’s Word. Most celebration services take place on Sunday, but some churches have their large group gatherings on different days of the week.
  10. Proof texting is the practice of using isolated Scripture (with no regard for the original content) to support a previously held position.
  11. Roger W. Gehring, House Church and Mission: The Importance of Household Structures in Early Christianity (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2004), p. 301.
  12. Dennis McCallum, Members of One Another (Columbus, OH: New Paradigm, 2010), p. 119.
  13. Ibid., p. 119.
  14. César Castellanos preached that the twelve stones that Elijah used to build Jehovah’s sacrifice was the key to God answering his prayer (Claudia & César Castellanos, audio cassette, Como influir en otros [How to Influence Others] January 2002 conference in Bogota). Castellanos says, “The model of the twelve restores the altar of God that is in ruins” (César Castellanos, The Ladder of Success (London: Dovewell Publications, 2001), p. 25). We’re told that Elijah would not have chosen Elisha if Elisha would have been plowing with eleven instead of twelve oxen, and that the Holy Spirit at Pentecost came when Matthias had replaced Judas, thus completing the number twelve (Claudia and César Castellanos, The Vision of Multiplication, audio cassette [Bethany World Prayer Center: International Cell Conference, 2001]. César Castellanos and the pastors at ICM will tell you that the vision of the number twelve came directly from God, and therefore we must follow this revelation. They often justify this particular number by referring to a direct revelation from God.