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HISTORY OF THE CELL MOVEMENT
By Joel Comiskey
A Ph.D. Tutorial
Presented to Dr. Paul Pierson
In Partial Fulfillment of the
Requirements for the Degree
Doctor of Philosophy In Intercultural Studies
The School of World Mission
FULLER THEOLOGICAL SEMINARY
TABLE OF CONTENTS
LIST OF TABLES
Chapter 1: Introduction
- How the Tutorial Fits into the Dissertation
- Problem Statement
- Research Questions
- Overview Of This Tutorial
Chapter 2: Small Groups in Biblical Perspective
- Small Groups In The Old Testament
- Small Groups In The New Testament
Chapter 3: Small groups before the Reformation
- The Demise Of The House Church
- Small Groups Among the Clergy
- The Rise Of Monastic Orders
- Small Groups In The Middle Ages
- An Examination of Small Groups Before the Reformation
Chapter 4: Small Groups during the Time of the Reformation
- Pre-Reformation Protests
- Martin Luther’s Protests
- Luther And Small Groups
- Critique On Luther’s View Of Small Groups
- Martin Bucer
- Anabaptist Movement
Chapter 5: Small Groups in Pietism
- Philip Jacob Spener
- Background Of The Times
- Small Groups in Pietism
- August Hermann Francke
- The Spread Of Pietism
- Critique Of Small Groups In Pietism
Chapter 6: Small Groups In the Moravian and the Methodist Tradition
- The Moravians
- Small Groups In The Moravian Church
- Small Groups In Methodism
- Critique Of Small Groups In Methodism
CHAPTER 7: The Modern Small Group Movement
- The Small Group Movement
- The Covenant Model
- The Serendipity Model
- The Meta Model
- The Pure Cell Model
CHAPTER 8: Conclusion
- References Cited
Chapter 1: Introduction
This tutorial is about history—the history of small groups. And yes, small groups have made a significant impact in the life of the church. John Mallison writes,
In the intervening history of the church, new spiritual life has been marked by the emergence of small groups. In the Middle Ages, amidst a church which had grown fat and short of breath through prosperity and muscle-bound by over-organization, dynamic Christians such as St Francis of Assisi gathered in small groups for prayer and study, and training and service. They kept a flame burning amidst the darkness of a decaying ecclesiasaticism. Various sections of the Anabaptist movement in Europe formed dynamic house-centered groups. The Hutterites in Moravia, Southern Germany, lived out a New Testament-style community life, which had a far-reaching impact….The Lutherans also used cells for nurturing (1989:6).
John Mallison is by no means exhaustive. Rather, I include this quote simply to set the stage for the rest of this tutorial. Small groups have had a significant impact upon the history of the Christian church, and therefore, I undertake this study with a great deal of excitement with what I might find.
In the history of the Christian church, small groups have been use both as an evangelistic (e.g., Monastic Movement, Moravians) as well as for discipleship (e.g., Bucer, Pietism). Small groups have also been used very effectively as an organizational tool (e.g., modern small group movement). The Historian Herbert Butterfield strong believes this by saying,
The strongest organizational unit in the world’s history would appear to be that which we call a cell because it is a remorseless self-multiplier; is exceptionally difficult to destroy; can preserve its intensity of local life while vast organizations quickly wither when they are weakened at the center; can defy the power of governments; is the appropriate lever of prising open any status quo. Whether we take early Christianity or sixteenth—century Calvinism or modern communism, this seems the appointed way by which a mere handful of people may open up a new chapter in the history of civilization” (Herbert Butterfield, ‘The Role of the Individual in History’, Writings on Christianity and History ed. C.T. McIntire (New York: UOP, 1979) p. 24. Quoted by Bill Beckham in The Two Winged Church Will Fly (Houston, TX: Touch Outreach Ministries, 1993), p. 119).
How the Tutorial Fits into the Dissertation
This tutorial will play a very important part in my overall dissertation. In fact, an edited, and very limited version of this tutorial will comprise chapter three of the dissertation which will simply be entitled, “A History of Cell-Based Ministry.”
For the most part, my actual Ph.D. research focuses primarily on the modern cell movement and more specifically, cell-based ministry in Latin America today. However, this tutorial will supply the needed background information in order to successfully complete the rest of my Ph.D. research. The truth of the well-worn phrase, ‘Those who do not learn from history, usually end up repeating it’ is very applicable to this study. The lessons that others have learned form the use of small groups will be invaluable for the future of the movement.
The purpose of this study is to trace the historical foundations for small group ministry in order to learn important lessons from history. My hope is that these lessons will both inform and warn the small group movement today. In a positive sense, the information gathered from a historical analysis of small groups can help guide those who would seek to implement cell ministry today.
At the same time, there are various warnings that must be heeded. For example, throughout the history of small groups, there have been times when small groups developed into factions and sects that became divisive elements in the church. Reasons for such factions and ways to avoid them will be helpful information for future small group leaders. On the other hand, the history of small groups is replete with examples of those who seemed to exercise too much fear and caution. Their hesitancy, choked and stagnated, a bold, confident approach to small group ministry (e.g., Luther, Zwingli).
I have identified at least three goals for this study:
- To trace the history of small group involvement in a broad, sweeping format, from the early Biblical times to the present day small group movement.
- To provide as much information possible about the small group strategy from each time period, as time and space allows.
- To evaluate each small group model from the vantage point of the current small group movement (i.e., with the modern day knowledge of small group effectiveness)
- To set forth principles that will offer correctives and affirmations for cell-based ministry today.
The central research issue of this dissertation is an analysis of the contribution of cell-based ministry as a positive factor for church growth in selected growing churches in Latin America.
- What have been the patterns of church growth that these churches have experienced before and after the implementation of a cell-based ministry?
- How have these churches utilized their cell-based methodology as a tool for church growth?
- What have been the patterns that characterize effective cell leadership in these churches?
- How have the cultural distinctives of these churches affected their cell-based ministry?
This tutorial has several limitations:
- I will not be covering all of the small group movement throughout history. For example, I will not be covering the Puritan small group movement, small initial bands in the Christian and Missionary Alliance, and other such movements.
- I will be using broad brush strokes in contrast to detailed ones. Each section will attempt to cover in a general sense how the church of Jesus Christ has used small groups throughout history. With 2000 years to deal with, it is obvious that I cannot expand and explore these movements in great detail. I will therefore only describe in a general sense various patterns of small group involvement throughout the history of the church.
- I will be critiquing historic small group movements with the present small group knowledge. I understand that this can be very dangerous. Times, cultures, and circumstances often provide the reasons why certain structures and methodologies were used as opposed to others. For example, the circumstances that gave rise to the monastic movement are totally distinct and foreign to our present culture. The same could be said about the state church concept found at the time of the reformation. In other words, I simply want to acknowledge the danger of projecting current circumstances and knowledge upon historical realities of yesteryear.
- I will not be able to provide a lot of contextual back ground and information about each particular era. This is a weakness in that it could lead to misinformation by the reader. However, for the sake of space and focus, I felt that I must use this approach.
- I will be emphasizing certain historical eras of church history more than others. For example, William Dean wrote 563 pages about cell groups in British Methodism for his Ph.D. thesis (1985). In keeping with my focus of painting broad strokes in this tutorial, I will try to cover each era in a balanced way without spending too much time on any one movement (note 1).
It might be helpful to introduce a few reoccurring terms that will appear throughout this tutorial.
Those churches will be considered cell-based if at least 60% of the regular adult attendees are also involved in a church related small group. These cell groups should regularly meets for the purpose of edification and evangelism. The cell group ministry is not considered to be just another program in the church but are viewed to be the very heart of the church.
Since this concept forms the heart of my Ph.D. research, I will spend more time describing what a cell-based church might look like. Although not all of the following characteristics will be present in a cell-based church, yet the vast majority will be present:
- Cells Form Part Of The Local Church Structure (commitment to cell and celebration)
- Emphasis Is On The Components Of The Cell (as opposed to labeling all small groups cells)
- Similarity Among the Cell Groups (with regard to teaching materail, format, etc.)
- Partnership In Evangelism (the group sees themself as an evangelizing unit)
- Groups Must Multiply In A Certain Time Period (or be dissolved)
- Uniformity Of Lesson Material (as opposed to each leader deciding what they will do)
- Strong Administrative Control (required reports, strict Jethro model)
- Ongoing Cell Leader Training (not optional)
- Rapid Releasing Of Leadership (due to rapid multiplication, many new leaders must be raised up)
- Very Few Programs Apart From Cells (other programs are discouraged or cut out)
- Cells Take Care of Basic Church Duties (cells replace volunteer help)
- Commitment Of Head Pastor To Cell Minsitry (or the cell ministry will not succeed)
- Cells form Basis for Pastoral Team (each pastor has a major role in the cell system)
- Goal Of 100% Participation Of Members In Cell Groups (normally between 70-90%)
A house church is a fully functioning, complete church that is meeting in the home. Although there might be interrelationships between various house churches, each one is a self-sustaining, self-propagating entity. Neighbour describes the difference between a cell group and a house church this way,
“There is a distinct difference between the house church and the cell group movements. House Churches tend to collect a community of 15-25 people who meet together on a weekly basis. Usually, each House Church stands alone. While they may be in touch with nearby House Churches, they usually do not recognize any further structure beyond themselves (Neighbour 1990:193).
The Moravian movement began in 1722 when a few refugees from the persecutions of Protestants in Bohemia and Moravia settled on the estate of Nicolas Ludwig, Count of Zinzendorf (1700-1760). Zinzendorf formed this group of refugees into a missionary minded church that sent missionaries all over the world. Like the Monastic Missionary bands, the Moravians used small group structures to spread the gospel.
My definition of a small group will be more general in this tutorial due to the historical nature of the subject matter.
Broader Definition For This Paper
The way that I have described small groups in my Ph.D. research thus far is:
Cell groups are small groups of people which are intimately linked to the life of the church (Acts 2:46). These groups meet for the purpose of spiritual edification and evangelistic outreach. Those in the cell groups are committed to participate in the functions of the local church and when new people outside the church are added to the group, they too are encouraged to become responsible, baptized members of Christ’s body. The cell group is never seen as an isolated gathering of believers who have replaced the role of the local church.
However, for this paper, I will need to expand this definition. The small groups that I will be studying in this paper cannot be neatly categorized in the framework of the cell church today. There are simply too many contextual and historical factors at work. For example, due to persecution in the early church, the house church movement was a different phenomenon than the small group movement today. Although, it can be argued that the house churches formed linked with the church at large in celebration events, those events were irregular due to the intense persecution.
The issue of small groups in the Monastic Movement also presents a different picture from the modern cell movement today. The same can be said of the Anabaptist small groups and those in the Pietistic movement. Another factor concerns groups size.
Larger Size For This Paper
In this tutorial, I will also need to adjust my concept of group size. For example, many small group experts today believe that the perfect size for a small group lies between eight and twelve people. Mallison, who is a veteran small group practitioner states, “Twelve not only sets the upper limit for meaningful relationships, but provides a non—threatening situation for those who are new to small group experiences…It is significant that Jesus chose twelve men to be in his group” (1989:25).
On the other hand, George sets the number at ten. He is more emphatic by insisting that the perfect size for a cell group is ten since it is “...the time-tested, scientifically validated size that allows for optimal communication” (1993:136). Although perhaps a bit dogmatic, George’s point is well worth hearing. He feels that in order for a leader to give quality pastoral care, the group must be kept small (1990:125-127).
Although I personally (along with others) believe that fifteen is a healthy limit, I will not strictly stick to my definition for the purpose of this historical study. We know that an early house church have had between 25 to 40 individuals (Mayer 1976:295). The Monastic Movement seems to be more ‘congregational’ in size than ‘cell’.
Rather than focusing on size and some kind of a precise definition, in this paper, I will define the term small group as a Christian group which is limited in size and that meets regularly for the purpose of edification and/or evangelistic outreach.
In a narrow sense, it signifies the movement for spiritual renewal that sprang out of the Lutheran and Reformed churches in continental Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (Bloesch 1973:103).
I hold to several assumption that might affect my interpretation in this tutorial:
- That the small group methodology is highly effective as a church growth paradigm and should be studied in order to better equip Christian leadership today
- That an effective small group will manifest both discipleship qualities as well as evangelistic qualities with the goal of eventually giving birth to a daughter group
- That it is God’s will that His Church grows.
Overview Of This Tutorial
This tutorial will cover a number of historical small group movements:
- The Biblical small group movement
- Small Group Teaching in the Old Testament
- Small Group Teaching in the New Testament
- The Early Church House Movement
- The Development of Small Groups Throughout the Middle Ages
- Small Groups in the Monastic Movement
- Small Groups in Among the Early Church Fathers
- Small Groups Among Early Sectarian Movements
- Martin Luther and Small Groups
- Martin Bucer and Small Groups
- Small Groups in Anabaptism
- Small Groups in Pietism
- Small Groups in Moravianism
- Small Groups in Methodism
- The Modern Small Group Movement
The justification for a the broad, historical approach to small group ministry is to depict general patterns and similarities that were utilized throughout history. For my current Ph.D. research, it seems more important for me to understand the interconnectedness of small group ministry since Biblical times, rather than become an expert on just one movement.
Chapter 2: Small Groups in Biblical Perspective
Small groups have played an important place in Biblical history. The book of Exodus gives us principles for the organization of a small group ministry (Exodus 18). Jesus demonstrated the power of small groups by personally organizing one and then dedicating His time and energy to that small group. The early church is also an excellent example of the power in a small group ministry. Yes, the Bible is complete with illustrations and instructions concerning small group ministry.
Small Groups in the Old Testament
History is often called His story. From the creation of the world, to God’s dealing with the nation of Israel, the Old Testament traces God’s handiwork. Many theologians have suggested overriding themes that best describe the Old Testament. The Kingdom of God motif has been chosen by many. Others prefer to see the concept of covenant as a unifying theme. There might even be those who would choose to look at the O.T. from the lenses of small group ministry (note 2). Although I will not try to force a small group paradigm upon the Old Testament, there does seem to be some noteworthy small group concepts.
Small Group Concepts
There are many general concepts from the Old Testament that establish the core values of small group ministry. One of those concepts is the community of God’s people. This perspective of God creating a people for the purpose of relationship is a common thread. G. Ernest Wright observes that community was God’s central act in the Old Testament (quoted in Gorman 1994:34).
Community and communion can first be seen in the Trinity. The first small group was between the Godhead. The relationship that existed from the beginning between the three in One is the perfect model of unity and harmony. Garth Icenogle suggests, “…from the beginning, God existed in community as group being in creative action. From a historically classic Trinitarian view of God, the divine group existed as three persons in conversation and mission” (1994:22).
After the pattern of this relationship between the members of the Trinity, it can be argued that God originally created man for relationship with Himself. Although it’s fruitless to argue that God needs man’s company, the Bible seems to indicate that God finds great pleasure in relating to mankind. Julie Gorman writes “God is not a force or a principle or an impersonal dynamic. God is a person enjoying and pursuing relationships. The entire account of Scripture is a record of His commitment to developing encounters with others” (1993:24). This theme of community and communion that is so evident throughout O.T. history is also a key small group theme (Watson 1978: 67-74).
In a general sense, the entire Bible can be linked to one of the focal points of small group ministry—the development of close relationships. However, it seems to me that one should be careful not to read small group themes into the Bible that might not exist (note 3). With this caution in mind, I will not attempt to extract small group themes from the Old Testament that are not specifically stated or that are not already commonly used among small group advocates. I will try to be as specific as possible.
One of those specific themes that is used widely in the cell church today is the organizational principle that Jethro first introduced in Exodus 18 when he gave timely counsel to Moses.
Jethro’s Advice To Moses
Moses was God’s man. It was he who had led the nation of Israel out of Egypt. The entire nation of Israel looked to Moses for advice and direction. Yet, Moses lacked the skills of delegation. He seems to have taken upon himself too much responsibility. Jethro’s advice to Moses is straightforward,
When his father-in-law saw all that Moses was doing for the people, he said, ‘What is this you are doing for the people? Why do you alone sit as judge, while all these people stand around you from morning till evening?…,’ ‘What you are doing is not good. You and these people who come to you will only wear themselves out. The work is too heavy for you; you cannot handle it alone….You must be the people’s representative before God and bring their disputes to him. Teach them the decrees and laws, and show them the way to live and the duties they are to perform. But select capable men from all the people…and appoint them as officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens. Have them serve as judges for the people at all times, but have them bring every difficult case to you; the simple cases they can decide themselves. That will make your load lighter, because they will share it with you. If you do this and God so commands, you will be able to stand the strain, and all these people will go home satisfied” (Exodus 18:14-23).
From this passage, it is clear that Moses was trying to do all the work himself. He felt that since he was God’s anointed leader, all of the work rested upon his shoulders. The counsel of Jethro not only liberated Moses to concentrate only on the ‘difficult cases’, but it also provided a better system of care for the people. George writes,
No one can listen to a hundred voices at once. Most leaders have a hard enough time keeping track of ten without the flock starting to feel uncared for. Further, just as Jethro’s judges were unsalaried locals who did their work when they could, out of their shepherding time so church lay workers can handle only so much span of care before they themselves burn out. For these reasons, small groups that grow beyond ten need to divide” (1991:125).
Principle Utilized In The Cell Church Today
This concept of ‘span of care’ and pastors over pastors is a major theme in the cell church today. Everyone is monitored, pastored, and accountable—from the high level pastor of pastors to the cell intern. Paul Cho is an example of someone who has done that. Even in a church of 750,000, Cho has been able to maintain an average of one lay leader to every ten to sixteen church members (Hurston 1995:68). For example, in 1988 alone, 10,000 new lay leaders were appointed for ministry (Hurston 1995:194).
Describing this phenomenon, Logan states,
Every one of the half million members of the church interacts each week in a cell-group body life. Whereas the typical church grows to a point where it stretches to the limit its pastors’ ability to minister to each member, a cell group church has no limit as long as you are effectively mobilizing laity to minister through cell groups (1989:120).
It seems that the cell group is uniquely furnished to provide ample opportunity for lay involvement. The cell leaders pastor, visit, evangelize, counsel, administrate, and generally care for their cell members. For example in pastor Cho’s church, it would be impossible to effectively minister to the 650,000 people apart from the cell groups. However, with 55,000 trained cell leaders in 22,000 cell groups, the church is fully able to disciple its members.
Levels of Leadership Assures Pastoral Care
The two major models in the cell church today (Meta Model and Pure Cell Model) both pattern their stratified leadership after Jethro’s advice to Moses in Exodus 18 (note 4). For example, the pure cell church is organized into groups of tens, fifties, five hundred, and several thousand. The fundamental unit is the cell leader over ten. Then there are the section leaders which are over five cell groups, for a total of fifty people. Next are the zone leaders who oversee five section leaders for a total of 250 (note 5). It is my understanding that the district pastor will oversee up to five zone pastors which make him responsible for a total of 2500 people (Neighbour 1990:195) (note 6).
Each leader of leaders is expected to visit, counsel, teach, exhort, evangelize and help the leaders or members under their care. The difference between the zone and district pastors is that they also perform marriages, funerals, preach, offer communion, baptize, and generally carry out the professional work of the pastor (note 7). In the pure cell church, the cells are categorized geographically into districts according to zip codes. These geographical districts will often act as congregations (Neighbour 1990:356) (note 8).
Jethro Model Maximizes Church Organization
After Dr. McGavran had visited Cho’s church in 1976, he called it ‘the best organized church in the world’ (Hurston 1995:192). I heard Cho say in 1984 that even when he is in the United States., he can locate every person in his 500,000 member church (now much larger) through the cell system (note 9). Cho could say this because every leader is accountable to another leader who is also accountable to someone else.
Weekly statistical, prayer reports are handed in each week. These reports provide the administrative strength to the cell church. It is through these reports that the powerful Jethro organization takes place. A normal cell group report includes the weekly attendance in the cell group, the location of the next meeting, those who were saved, and other important details (note 10).
Small Groups In The New Testament
The small group movement today does not see itself as an isolated unit. All of the small group literature that I have read finds an intimate link between present day involvement and early New Testament history.
Christ And Small Groups
The first New Testament example of a small group is the small group that Christ chose. Many have expounded upon Christ’s small group, and the fact that he spend so much intimate time with them. (Hull 1988:225-250). Icenogle comments,
Jesus modeled God’s way of transforming the world. He called out a small group of people to experience their own exodus journey together, to move from the enslavement of controlling social, political, and religious patterns to enter into the freedom of ‘pouring new wine into new wineskins’ (1994:118).
Beckham also notes that, “For three and a half years, He lived with twelve leaders who were His special community” (1995:135). Mark’s gospel tells us the first priority for this called out community, “He appointed twelve—designating them apostles---that they might be with him…( 3:14). For three years, this small group spent time with Jesus.
Yet, was there another, more far-reaching purpose behind the formation of this initial small group? According to Beckham, Christ’s example of spending time with twelve disciples is the perfect model for starting a cell church. He writes, “
The Leadership Core Stage provides a group to own and oversee the vision….Jesus called out a core group to model His ecclesia or ‘called out ones’….They formed His basic community through which He would prepare future leaders (1995:153).
In this study New Testament, I must focus my attention on the small group paradigm that is most relevant for he small group movement today—the early church.
The House Church In The New Testament
It’s worth noting that the early church did not have their own buildings. The record of the book of Acts mentions that from earliest times the believers met both in the homes and in the temple (Acts 2:46).
Paul substantiates this point in Acts 20: 20 when he recalls his ministry among the Ephesians, “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.” John Mallison, who has been actively involved in small group ministry for over twenty years, testifies to this truth, “It is almost certain that every mention of a local church or meeting, whether for worship or fellowship, is in actual fact a reference to a church meeting in a house” (1989:5). Hadaway, Wright and DuBose add, “From the beginning, homes appeared to be the place for the most enduring dimensions of early church life” (1987:40). In a day when home meetings are foreign and church meetings are a way of life, it’s important to remember the home context of the early church.
In Acts 12:5 we observe that the church was meeting and praying for Peter in the home of Mary, the mother of John. It appears that primarily due to the early church persecution, the role of the house church became normative (Barclay 1955:228). Murray notes,
It was necessary and appropriate in apostolic times,.. to make their homes available for the congregations of the saints....In a city like Rome or Ephesus (I Cor. 16:19) there would be more than one such congregation. Hence there would be other churches and it would be proper to speak of the churches of Rome (1957:228,229).
Bruce also supports this fact by stating,
Household churches are frequently referred to in the NT epistles. Sometimes the whole church in one city might be small enough to be accommodated in the home of one of its members; but in other places the local church was quite large, and there was no building in which all the members could conveniently congregate. This was certainly true of the early Jerusalem church; there we find one group meeting in the house of Mary, the mother of Mark (Acts 12:12); and although Luke does not specifically call that group the church in her house, it might very well have been described thus. Priscilla and Aquila were accustomed to extend the hospitality of their home to such groups in the successive cities where they lived--e.g. in Ephesus (I Cor. 16:19) and Rome (16:5). At Colossae itself Philemon´s house was used for this purpose (Philem. 2) (1957:309,310).
Bruce’s comment about Priscilla and Aquila are quite interesting. He mentions their home ministry in Ephesus and Rome, but it is also likely that Priscilla and Aquilla opened their home in Corinth as well. It was in Corinth where they first teamed up with Paul (Beckham 1995:106). Writing about these two, Beckham says, “They were leaders, and yet leaders who functioned at the most basic level of ministry. Aquila and Priscilla were home church leaders, the basic working unit of the early church” (1995:106).
Along with the Biblical evidence for the existence of house churches in the early church, there is also a plethora of archeological evidence. Mayer points out,
Students of archeological ruins point out that the Christians had no place for larger assemblies. If a community had a wealthy member who had a larger house, his largest room could hardly have accommodated more than this small group (1976:295).
More specifically, archeological discoveries in the city of Capernaum in Galilee indicate that a house church met in what appeared to be the house of Peter the apostle (Tan 1994:43). In Clementine Recognitions ( 10:17), Theophilus of Antioch used his home as a meeting place. From the descriptions of Clement of Alexandria in Egypt, it appears that a house church met in the home of a wealthy member of the congregation (Tan 1994:43). The list of such findings could go on. Suffice it to say, the house became the church in those early days. Although oftentimes forced to do so, it seems that God in His sovereignty permitted such a situation to exist. He knew that the His Church would best function in a intimate home atmosphere.
The Intimate Atmosphere Of The Home Gatherings
Many believe that the size and atmosphere of those early house church meetings greatly added to the effectiveness of the ministry of the early church. Thankfully, the impersonal atmosphere of a large gathering in a gothic like cathedral were not possible in those early days. Rather, the structure was simple and warm. Mayer describes the home meeting best when he says,
It is important to note that the Christians of Justin’s day, like those of Jesus’ and Paul’s time, usually came together in small groups. Most of these groups probably did not number much more than 25 to 40 individuals….In these small groups, Christians knew each other intimately, they loved and cared for each other, and the Gospel did its work with maximum effectiveness (1976:295).
Those of us who are Bible students know that one of the first principles of Biblical Inspiration is that inspiration only extends to the intent of the Biblical author when He was writing the Scripture. Application is an entirely different subject. Therefore, it’s essential to understand the context from which the New Testament authors wrote their inspired epistles.
In many cases, that context is the home. When reading the New Testament, it’s important to remember that the exhortations to love one another, to use the gifts of the Spirit, and to participate in the Lord’s Supper all have their roots in the family atmosphere of a home (Goetzman 1976:250).
A whole different set of dynamics and images exist in a larger building structure. It’s fair to say that Paul might have laid down a different methodology had he been writing to a church meeting in a huge cathedral or building. Because our church structure today is so often based upon the church building, it’s hard to place ourselves in the New Testament context when we read the Scriptures. Take, for example, the practice of communion. We practice communion in a much different atmosphere today than those early Christians experienced. Barclay writes,
There can be no two things more different than the celebration of the Lord’s Supper in a Christian home in the first century and in a cathedral in the twentieth century. The things are so different that it is almost possible to say that they bear no relationship to each other whatsoever” (Barclay quoted in Beckham 1995:111).
The Relationship Among The House Churches
It has already been suggested that the early house churches were not independent entities. Rather, they seemed to meet together both in the confines of the local house church as well as celebration events.
For example, in his letter to the Corinthians, Paul both addresses the individual ecclesia which met in the home of Aquila and Priscilla (I Cor. 16:19), but he also greets the ecclesia as a whole ( I Corinthians 1:2 and II Corinthians 1:1). This seems to indicate that a general relationship existed (Neighbour 1990:44). At this point, Banks agrees (1994:32).
The same can be said about the church in Thessolonica and in Rome (I Thess. 1:1; II Thess. 1:1; Rm. 16:23). It might also be suggested that on occasion the house groups gathered for special celebration events. The Love Feast of I Corinthians 11 and Paul´s visit to Troas in Acts 20:6-12 could be examples of this type of joint celebration.
The Biblical evidence has its support among scholars who have studied the New Testament texts. For example, F.F. Bruce comments, “Such house churches appear to have been smaller circles of fellowship within the larger fellowship of the city ecclesia” (1957:310). George Hunter writes,
The early church experienced two structures as necessary and normative for the Messianic movement. They met as cells (or small groups) in ‘house churches’; and the Christians of a city also met together in a common celebration or congregation (except for periods when persecution prohibited public celebrations and drove the movement underground, meeting in homes only) (1996:82).
However, in Paul’s later usage of ecclesia, Banks debates the view that the house churches were connected to a common celebration structure. He insists that the house churches were independent entities with no organizational framework to bind them together. However, it’s important to note that Banks does acknowledge that Paul did seek to link the various house churches together, although this was not through a common celebration model (1994:42,43). Banks believes that Paul intentionally planted these independent house churches, so that true Christian fellowship and community would be experienced (1994: 26).
Although the evidence can be debated, it does appear that the celebration/cell model was normative in the New Testament, especially when persecution was limited.
The Emphasis On Cell And Celebration
This structure of both the celebration and the cell structure is first seen in the first meetings of the church after Pentecost. In Acts 2:46 states, “Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and at together with glad and sincere hearts,…” It’s clear that the Jerusalem church both met in the large area in the temple (Solomon’s Colonnade) and in homes.
Acts 5:42 tells us that there were meetings both in the temple courts and from house to house. Finally, in Acts 20:20 Paul mentions that fact that he taught in Ephesus both publicly and from house to house (Malphurs 1992:212). There can be no doubt that both structure were used in the New Testament. Elmer Towns is quite insistent about the two pronged structure when he says, “To be a whole church, it must have the cell as well as the celebration. I conclude that the norm of the New Testament church included both small cell groups and larger celebration group” (Towns quoted in Geroge 1993.136)
Necessity Of Small Groups Due To Church Size
We have seen that the celebration (large gathering of the church) and the cell (gathering of a small group) were normative in the early church. The early church benefited both from the larger church (celebration) and from the small group (cells in homes). This was necessary because conservative estimates tell us that the size of the Jerusalem church along was probably around 20,000-25,000 people (Malphurs 1992:212).
With such a large congregation, it seems impossible that the Jerusalem church was able to care for such a large group of people. Much like the earlier counsel of Jethro, it was essential for the apostles to delegate their ministry into smaller units. As we’ve already seen from Acts 2:46, the huge church was broken down into manageable units through the home gatherings.
Necessity Of Small Groups Due To Persecution
In the early part of the first century AD the celebration/cell experience took place on a daily basis. However, due to persecution, as the history of Acts progresses, the celebration ceased to be a daily experience. We aren’t sure about the regularity of the celebration event because eventually the early church was forced to emphasize the home meetings more than the gathered celebration. Yet, even if the midst of persecution, it does appear that there were periodic celebration events. Beckham believes that one can find from church history an abundance of evidence that the church has always met in both homes and large celebrations (1995:108).
House Churches Today
The house church movement today has done a great service to the church by reminding us of our New Testament roots . This movement rightly points to the New Testament as the basis for their practice.
Restricted Area House Churches
Those house movement which are meetings in restricted areas to the gospel are probably even closer to the New Testament model. China is an excellent example. The house church model in China is working very effectively in an land where persecution to the gospel is a fact of life.
Yet, when there is liberty to meet openly and without restrictions, it appears that the celebration/cell paradigm is more Biblical. As we have seen, it appears from the Biblical evidence that there was a dual function of both the general assembly of believers and the individual house churches. Beckham wisely states,
The problem today is not in proving the church existed in both large congregations and small cells during the first century. That is evident in the New Testament. Our problem today is that the traditional church ignores the New Testament pattern and lives without New Testament community. In light of the overwhelming evidence, how can that continue? (1995:109)
Dangers Of Isolation And Lack of Accountability
Yet, many house churches today do not recognize any authority beyond them-selves and do not follow the cell/celebration paradigm. Neighbour asserts,
Usually, each House Church stands alone....Often they may not grow larger than their original number for years, having no aggressive evangelistic activity. They do not become a true movement of church expansion....In contrast, the cell group church recognizes a larger structure for church life. It is composed of many cells, but no one cell would ever consider existing apart from the rest (Neighbour 1990:203).
It is my opinion that if a house church does not recognize any authority beyond themselves, there are various dangers that can occur. One of those dangers is the issue of independence and isolation. When a small group leader exercises control without outside accountability, false doctrine and other problems can develop. The small group movement today which is intimately connected with the local church structure can usually avoid that problem. Hadaway explains,
Deviations of any major sort are unlikely in home cell groups, however, because, unlike house churches, they are closely tied to a host church. Leaders are trained and supervised by church leaders, and potential problems can be quickly spotted and resolved (1987:248).
Loose Connection Among House Churches
This is not to say that all house churches are independent entities. Many do have accountability structures among themselves. At least one group of house churches has even constructed a separate headquarters to meet the needs of the various house churches (Hadaway, Wright, Dubose 1987: 242). Some house churches seek a relationship with other house churches.
Del Birkey writes as a representative of the house church movement and as a house church pastor, “…single-cell house churches can grow by forming an interdependent nexus with one another. In this way each comes under an umbrella of fellowship while remaining dynamically single-celled” (1988:79). Yet, even when house churches exists under an ‘umbrella of fellowship’ between themselves, I have to wonder if this type of informal relationship does justice to the cell/celebration practice of the New Testament. Especially, under normal conditions, the primitive church clearly favored the approach that included both cell and celebration.
Along with the house church paradigm, so pervasive in the background of the New Testament, are several common apostolic teachings that tie in so beautifully the value of small group ministry (note 11).
The Body Of Christ Motif
The New Testament clearly teaches that the church is not a building or an organization. It is a living organism. As a living organism under the headship of Christ, it’s function is spiritual as opposed to political. In the early church, the atmosphere of the house church enriches this important concept.
Exercise Of The Gifts
In all three of the major passages (Eph. 4; Rom. 12; I Cor. 12-14) in which Paul talks about the body of Christ, he defines each member’s part by their corresponding gifts. In fact, when Paul talks about the church as the body of Christ, the implication is that the believers were able to participate in the exercise of their spiritual gifts. They had the opportunity to interact among themselves. Banks reminds us, “Paul’s communities were instead theocratic in structure. Because God gave to each individual within the community some contribution for its welfare, there is a strong democratic tendency. Everyone participates authoritatively in its activities” (1994:148).
How did everyone participate? Along with the united celebration (Acts 2:46a), we read that they also broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts (2:46b). Paul taught the people, not only publicly, but also from house to house (Acts 20:20). It is with this intimate atmosphere in mind that Paul could say, “When you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction...” (I Cor. 14:26).
Looking at the effectiveness of the early church and drawing from my own personal experience, it seems that there is no better atmosphere for the exercise of one’s giftedness than in a home group. The primary atmosphere of the early church was the intimate character of the home. This atmosphere of participation is being rediscovered in a fresh way through the cell group movement. Churches are realizing that as they grow bigger, they must also grow smaller. Only in the intimacy of a small, closely knit group will many Christians ever be able to exercise their spiritual gift. George reminds us that, “Because of the intimate, accountability-inviting context of an affinity-based group, participants will readily accept the call of God that accompanies the discovery of their gifts” (1993: 136).
Following the same line of thought, Dr. Ralph Neighbour asserts,
All are to exercise spiritual gifts to edify others. The early church did exactly that! Recognizing there cannot be total participation by every member when the gatherings are only made up of large, impersonal groups, the people of God moved from house to house in small groups. By moving among their residences, they became intimately acquainted with each person’s surroundings (Neighbour, 1990:41).
Ministry To One Another
The body of Christ motif also demands that we not only exercise our gifts, but that we also recognize other parts of the body, and that we are sensitive to meet their needs. It is this intimate sense of community in the body of Christ which the cell movement today has recaptured (Snyder 1975:143-148).
In so many churches today, those who attend are consumers and not participants. There is the tendency to go to a building on a special day of the week, in order to receive some type of ministry , at a price—the offering . The church at large has become an audience of consumers (Beckham 1995:43-45). Yet, the Scripture is filled with passages about our responsibility to minister to one another (e.g., I Thess. 5:10; 5:18). Yet, in so many large churches the ministry one to another is sadly neglected. Malphurs writes,
How do we implement these commands and ‘each other’ passages in the church? Most people note them mentally and attempt to apply them when possible. Small group meetings and ministries provide an ideal community in which these may be implemented” (1992:216)
In fact, this idea of community might indeed be the central contribution of Paul’s writings (Banks 1994:2). Those congregations that only stress the church service on Sunday morning do not truly experience the N.T. concept of the body of Christ as a participating, interacting organism. John Mallison captures this point when he says,
Small groups provide situations in which mutual ministry can take place. Only a small number can minister in a large gathering and then only in fairly superficial manner to each individual. The majority are denied an opportunity to exercise their ministry to the gathered church (1989:10).
George Hunter believes that Christians who attend ‘church’ without attending a small group are only experiencing ‘half’ of the Christian life:
Many people are involved in the congregation, and are thus involved in its proclamational, sacramental, and liturgical life, but not in the cell; they therefore never experience half of what ‘church’ has to offer. Only in the church’s redemptive cells do we really know each other, and support each other, and pull for each other, and draw strength from each other, and weep with each other, and rejoice with each other, and hold each other accountable, and identify each others gifts, and experience what it means to ‘members of one another (1996:48).
The People Of God Motif
The People of God motif is especially relevant to the cell- based church. The church is primarily a an organism and not a building. Thomas Goslin rightly declares, “When the early church founders spoke of churches, ecclesias, they were referring to gathered communities of believers, not buildings”(1984:2). Elmer Towns affirms, “In the early church it is clear that ‘church buildings’ as such did not exist until the second or third century” (Towns 1983: 257, 258). According to Donald McGavran, archeologists find no hint of church buildings before the year AD 150 ((McGavran in Goslin 1984: ii). This is not to say that the early believers did not meet to celebrate in the temple (Acts 2:46;5:20, 25, 42) and in the portico of the temple (Acts 5:12). Until persecution made such celebration events impossible, large gatherings were quite common in the life of the early church. However, it should be noted that oftentimes today we become so caught up in maintaining our expensive buildings that we quickly forget that the church must be primarily concerned with fulfilling her role as a ‘called out assembly of God´s people.’ Because of the anxious concern ‘to utilize’ the expensive building, the need for more intimate, body oriented gatherings can sometimes be overlooked.
Some would argue that the church today is still suffering from the days of Constantine. It was in those days that there was a definite transition from the home church model to the temple based paradigm (Hadaway, Wright, & DuBose 1987:70-72). . When the church met in the home, the dynamic of God’s chosen people was kept clear and focused. However, when the church became powerful, political, and institutionalized, it quickly forgot its moorings. It forgot that God was more interested in developing His people, rather than a powerful institution.
Chapter 3: Small Groups before the Reformation
The early church offers an exciting glimpse into the power and effectiveness of small group ministry. The atmosphere and nature of home meetings brought out the best in Christian community and fellowship. However, persecution made home meetings mandatory during those initial years. When Christianity became the state religion during the days of Constantine, large, sacred buildings became more esteemed than intimate home fellowships (Plueddemann 1990:4). From the historical data, it seems that these developments had an immediate negative impact on the church of Jesus Christ.
The Demise Of The House Church
Most historians point to Constantine to mark the major transition from intimate home fellowships to impersonal church buildings. It was during his reign that the church became legitimate in the eyes of the world. The immediate, negative effect of this change was the demise of the house church. David Tan writes,
The house or community church remained the normative form of church life up until the time of Constantine (c.274/280 to 337). He was the first Christian emperor of Rome. From that time on church buildings (basicilicas, chapels, etc.) began to replace the community church (1994:43).
Yet, even before Constantine came to power, there seems to have been certain factors that were working behind the scenes. One of those factors was the development of a distinction between the clergy and the laity.
Distinction Between Clergy And Laity
This distinction was a gradual one that became a factor early on due to the earnest desire to discern between the true church and teaching of Jesus Christ in the midst of falsity and deception.
The Need For Authority
In the face of sects and false doctrines, there arose a growing need to point to the true, visible Church. At a time when the body of Scripture was still emerging and the consensus was by no means unanimous, many voices were clamoring for authority. Gnosticism and similar religions were making widespread headway. It seemed clear to many that the only way to distinction between the true church and the false one was through the actual physical representatives of the apostles. In other words, the way to distinction the true church from the false one was to establish apostolic succession.
Apostolic succession became a quest to determine who were the direct disciples of Jesus Christ. That is, it was an attempt to point out the disciples of the apostles themselves up until the present time. If this could be shown, then it was thought that the ever-spreading heresies would be stopped.
In the first quarter of the second century, the case for apostolic succession is made very clearly by Irenaeus, an early church father (Latourette 1975:131). Latourette points out,
He insisted that the apostles had transmitted faithfully and accurately what had been taught them by Christ and had not, as the heretics asserted, intermingled with them extraneous ideas. He was emphatic that the apostles had appointed as successors bishops to whom they had committed the churches….These bishops had been followed by others in unbroken line who were also guardians and guarantors of the apostolic teaching. He hints that he could, if there were space, give the lists of the bishops of all the churches, but he singles out that of the Church of Rome,… (1975:131)
Irenaeus mentioned that he could point out the list of bishops from Christ to the present, if he chose to do so. A number of other early church fathers went beyond Irenaeus and actually attempted to establish such a link between the original apostles and the current leadership (note 11).
A Widening Gap
It’s understandable that the early church leadership wanted desperately to establish a barricade, a fortress of protection against the onslaught of Gnosticism and other heresies. At the same time, the result of their efforts was the establishment of a concrete wall that separated the ordinary lay person from the holy line of the bishops. This wall became wider and more fortified until the time of the reformation when the reaction was so great that the voices of protest were finally heard.
By the third century, this line of succession along with the distinct church offices had become quite developed in the church (note 12). In major cities, bishops began to grow in power, evolving into patriarchs and popes. Their word became the Word of God. It was they who established correct doctrine and condemned those who did not agree (note 13). This wall of distinction between laity and clergy is noted by Paul Johnson in his work, A History of Christianity,
It [Christianity] had also acquired many of the external characteristics appropriate to its new status: official rank and privilege,... elaborate ceremonial designed to attract the masses and emphasize the separateness of the priestly caste (1976:103).
The ministry of service which was so typified by Christ Himself began to develop into a profession. Although leaders like Tertullian protested vehemently against these hardened structures, their voices were drowned out (Johnson 1976:80,81).
By the time of Cyprian (fifty years after Tertullian), one can notice the distinct shift from the bishop as a servant-shepherd of God’s flock to an administrative ruler (Mayer 1976:296). Mayer writes, “What emerges in the people’s mind is the picture of an administratively strong pastor upon whom in many real ways their future hopes depend” (1976:296).
Inadequate Ministry Structure
It is not that Cyprian and other church fathers like him had lost their vision for the church or had stopped following Jesus Christ. Rather, there seems to be a change in the care structure that ultimately helped strengthen the separation between the laity and the clergy. Mayer notes, “…as the congregations grow larger and the intimate supportive relationships of the smaller groups disappear, the nature of Christian charitable work changes…(1976:297).
When the house church structure was functioning properly, there was liberty for the laity to minister. The priesthood of all believers was in full force and the needs of the church were being met. When the distinction between clergy and laity became too strong, a great vacuum was created. It was because of this artificial vacuum that Tertullian ended up becoming a Montanist. Johnson correctly sums up Tertullian’s frustration,
In his orthodox days, Tertullian had attacked the Montanist—type heretics because ‘they endow even the laity with the functions of the priesthood.’ Now, having denied the penitential power, he became a Montanist himself….He appealed to the ‘priesthood of all believers’ against the ‘usurped’ rights of particular office-holders, unspiritual ‘lordship’, the ‘tyranny’ of the clerics. Even a woman, if she spoke with the spirit, had more authority in this sense that the greatest bishop” (1980:81).
In many ways, persecution was a blessing in disguise. It helped to place the ministry in the hands of the laity. Although it didn’t prevent the ‘succession’ philosophy from spreading, it did help stem the tide.
Centralized Ministry Versus Decentralized
The frustration felt by Tertullian and others like him went largely unheeded. In fact, the gap between the laity and the clergy continued to increase. William Brown writes about that time period saying,
…the reversion to an ‘official’ priesthood or ministry…cast the laity chiefly into the ‘role of hearers of the Law and spectators of the mysterious tableau of the sacrifices. This passive role in worship became once more the normal experience of the people of God as the church developed (1992:37).
The spontaneity that was once so present in the local house church began to come under stricter control of the elected bishops (Rosell 1995:Tape 5).
It seems that when the priesthood of all believers is not esteemed and practiced, small group ministry usually dies out. Strong centralization which fears the ministry of lay people normally throws cold water on the flames of cell ministry. The word that perhaps best captures the true meaning of this type of ministry is ‘decentralization’. Decentralization means that ministry is taken out of the hands of a ‘chosen few’ and placed in the hands of the laity. No one is allowed to sit passively. Everyone must be involved. Like in the early church when the house groups began to grow and multiply, there was a constant need for new leaders, interns, song leaders, witnessing teams, etc. In other words, the responsibility has to be shared among many people (Hadaway, Wright, DuBose 1987:171).
It seems that during the period of 250-450 AD, the tendency was toward centralization in the hands of a few instead of decentralization in the hands of many.
Lessons For Present Day Ministry
The deadening of the early church due to an unhealthy distinction between laity and clergy should be a constant warning to the church today. I believe that there is a built in tendency for us to place the ministry in the hands of a few, instead of allowing the laity to do the work of the ministry (Ephesians 4:11,12)
The Need To Utilize The Laity
The ‘unemployment’ of the laity is a very serious issue that is facing the church today. The typical teaching and preaching ministry on Sunday morning does not involve enough lay people. Only very ‘gifted’ and ‘highly educated’ people are allowed to use their gifts. The Western church has in many ways contributed to the widening gap between lay people and clergy. Hadaway writes,
“The clergy-dominated Christianity of the Western world has widened the gap between clergy and laity in the body of Christ. This division of labor, authority, and prestige is common when a professional clergy exists (Hadaway, Wright, and DuBose 1987:203).
To correct this problem, it seems to me that we need to be constantly reminded that it’s okay to take risks with lay leadership, even to the point of allowing them to fail in their initial attempts.
The Need To Take Risks With Lay Leadership
I have heard on more than one occasion about the dangers of allowing lay leaders to do the work of the ministry through the cell groups. And yes, there are very real dangers involved.
Yet, examining the ministry of Paul, the apostle, one discovers that Paul was willing to take risks. As Paul evangelized the then known world, he trusted in the Holy Spirit to guide and direct the new lay leadership (Allen 1962: 84-94). I believe that God calls upon us to do the same. I have found, along with many others, that leading a cell group is an excellent way to give the laity ‘hands on experience’ (Malphurs 1992:217).
If cells are going to multiply rapidly, new leaders must be constantly sought and released. It seems to me that this is the key. Paul Cho agrees. He was recently asked by Larry Kreider why the cell church concept had not experienced the same, exciting fruit in America as it has in Korea. Without hesitating Cho said that the problem here in America is that pastors are not willing to release their lay people for ministry (note 14).
The Legalization Of Christianity
Besides the huge gap that developed between clergy and laity, the other factor that contributed to the demise of the house church was the sudden legalization of Christianity. Because of the incredible conversion of the emperor Constantine, a new chapter in the history of Christianity was opened for the persecuted church (Latourette 1975:91). Christianity was suddenly acknowledged and accepted as the state religion. Christians could now worship in public places.
It’s amazing to think that just 250 years before, many did not know of this little religion. Now the Christians are received with pomp and honor. Christians in Rome in 250 AD might have been 30,000. By 340 AD Christianity had grown to some 340,000 (Harnack quoted in Rosell 1995: Tape 8). For the first time in history, it was advantage to be a Christian.
Ornate Structures Replace Simple Ones
The initial surge of church building began to take place between 250-300 AD. Christians were willing to undergo much personal sacrifice and hard labor in order to erect huge, ornate church buildings. It was surmised that a holy, sacred God is worthy of a fabulous, magnificent temple. Large basilicas gradually began to dot the landscape.
Laxity Leads Toward Secularism
With the sudden freedom to legally be a Christian and with the great influx of undiscipled people joining the church, a certain complacency and tendency toward secularism began to develop. Prior to Constantine, Christians lived in a hostile world. They were threatened with death. They were on their toes continually. Martyrdom purified the church. To many it was the ultimate test. When Constantine came, everything changed so suddenly. Laxity developed in the church. This laxity did not go unnoticed. Paul Johnson writes,
In the second half of the fourth century, for the first time, we get hints of public complaints against the wealth of Christian clergy and the splendour of its buildings. Some Christian writers took note: ‘Our walls glitter with gold’, wrote Jermoe, ‘and gold gleams upon our ceilings and the capitals of our pillars; yet Christ is dying at our doors in the person of his poor, naked and hungry (1976:79).
When the church ceases to struggle against the world, something is desperately wrong. Yet, in the midst of this spiritual dearth, it seems that small group structures filled some of the void.
Small Groups Among the Clergy
Ambrose, the bishop of Milan (339-397 AD) lived during the time when it was acceptable to be a Christian. People were permitted to join the church legally, and therefore the churches received a great influx of people. Although there is no record that small group structures were established to care for the burgeoning needs of these growing congregations, we do know that Ambrose and his colleagues resorted to small groups to fill their own spiritual needs. Mayer writes, “Ambrose and his clergy associates continued to draw much of their own Christian strength from small group associations. Assistant clergy gathered around Ambrose and this group ministered the gospel of Jesus Christ to each other” (1976:298).
Apparently, quite a number of the early church fathers found a tremendous amount of strength in small community interaction. Mayer writes, “This was the common pattern for centuries: the real strength and vitality of the church lay in the small groups of clergy gathered around a cathedral and the bishop or in the small group of monks gathered around a strong and influential leader” (1976:298). One person who was significantly influenced by small groups was St. Augustine of Hippo. Again and again, Augustine writes about the powerful impact that small groups had on his life ( Mayer 1976:298).
The Rise Of Monastic Orders
Latourette explains the context of monasticism,
It was partially as a reaction against this laxity and partly because of the dissatisfaction which the teachings of Jesus and the apostles aroused with anything short of perfection that monasticism arose…To some degree it was a rebellion of the individual against the organization of the Catholic Church, regimented as that was under the bishops and clergy (1975:223).
Obviously there were a number of reasons. However, whatever the case, we know that from 300 to 700 AD many monasteries appeared.
From Isolation to Community
The call and attraction of the desert demanded a more radical obedience. Many solitaries were drawn to the Judean wilderness. Scores of monasteries occupying 1000's of missionaries rose up over the dessert of Palestine. In the beginning, many of these zealous reformers were hermits. They kept entirely to themselves. However, the balance between individual isolation and Christian community began to occur. Brown writes,
…gradually some of these hermits discovered that if they grouped together in small communities they experienced spiritual as well as practical benefits. In time many of the features of the Christian community in Acts 2 were reincorporated into monastic life, and yet there was still a separation from the people (1992:37).
At first this movement developed quite apart from the clergy dominated Catholic church. In fact, it was looked down upon by those in authority. Yet, the end of the fifth century, monasticism had become so extensive that it became characteristic of the Catholic church (Latourette 1975:222).
For many people, the terms monasticism and evangelism are contradictions. And yes, many forms and expressions of monasticism confirm that suspicion. However, for the most part, the monks have filled the role as missionaries of the Catholic church. Small groups of monks were sent out as evangelistic teams. These small bands of dedicated monks were small, well-disciplined, and closely bound to the other communities of their order (to receive prayer and support).
Monastic Evangelism in Ireland
In Ireland, it appears that the entire church was organized around the monastery. Since Patrick, the Briton, went to Ireland around 388 AD, Ireland seems to have been the ‘bastion of learning and Christianity’ (Pierson 1989:9). One of the outstanding features of the monastic emphasis in Ireland was that as the monks migrated to other countries, they zealously spread the Christian faith (Pierson 1989:10).
Monastic Evangelism in England
Celtic Christianity flourished and grew through the efforts of the great Celtic evangelists and missionaries like Aidan, Brendan, Columba, and Patrick (probably the most famous and revered of all Christian saints). Churches and monasteries were established throughout Ireland, Wales, and Scotland -- the most renowned being at Iona and Lindisfarne. The Celtic missionary movement probably began with Columba in 563 when he went to Iona with 12 helpers (Hardinge quoted in Pierson 1989:10). Speaking of the inner drive that motivated these Celtic missionaries Hardinge writes,
Individual response to a divinely placed inner drive to spread their faith, singly or in groups, impelled Celtic missionaries to go forth. Without credentials or material support, self-reliant and trust in God they accomplished more than their numbers would warrant. Spontaneity, lack of traditionalism, and individuality were the features of this movement (Hardinge quoted in Pierson 1989:10).
In 596 AD Gregory the great (bishop of Rome at the time) sent the monk Augustine and 40 companions to England. Gregory felt that England should be converted. Through this missionary band some 10,000 people were converted and the church was established (Rosell 1995: Tape 13). Concerning this Roman mission to England, Latourettes notes, “While…it did not win as many converts as did the Irish, it effectively forged a connecxion between the Church in England with the Papacy which was not to be severed until the sixteenth century…(1975:346).
Monastic Evangelism To The Rest Of The Continent
Using the same small group strategy, Columban and twelve companions went to Gaul around 590. They preached and taught, living and toiling with any who shared hospitality with them (Hardinge quoted in Pierson 1989:11).
Waves of these small bands of missionaries were sent out all over the continent. A community of monks(10-12) would settle in a non-Christian area in Europe and establish a Christian church. They would preach and congregate those converted. They would teach those converts. Once they had established the church they would leave to go to another part of Europe. It was a marvelous missionary strategy.
Small Groups In The Middle Ages
By the year 1250 AD, the Gothic cathedral had achieved the pinnacle of its success and popularity. Ironically, the catacombs which at one time hosted the early persecuted Christians were now bought by the Roman Catholic hierarchies. Ornate churches were now built upon these meeting places (Tan 1994:44). One could argue that the outward church began to be identified with a building instead of a community of God’s people.
Monastic Small Groups Continue
Yet, as Elijah discovered, God always has His remnant. That remnant continued to be seem in monasticism in the middle ages. Under the direction of Berno, in about 950 AD, the monastery at Cluny experienced a revival. From that one monastery about 300 monasteries sprang forth. Latourette notes that at Cluny along with the larger monastery structure, “…there were still more smaller groups, cellae, ‘cells,’ affiliated with the larger units” (1975:418). Although Latourette does not go into detail concerning the purpose or function of these cells, the general impression is made that the Cluny movement experimented with small group structures.
From 950 AD to 1350 AD, men such as Bernard of Clairvaux, St. Francis of Assisi, and Dominic entered the scene. These men were dedicated saints who followed hard after God, as they understood Him. From my knowledge, these men don’t stand out as having pushed the small group structure to new heights and depths. We do know that dynamic believers like St. Francis of Assisi did meet regularly with other like minded believers in small groups for prayer and study (Brown 1992:37).
Sectarian Groups Emphasize Small Group Structure
There were also various sectarian groups who were not favored by the Roman structure. Like the early church under persecution, these groups were forced to meet in small groups in order to survive. Our information about these groups is limited due to the awful persecution against them.
One of the more Scriptural groups was known as the Waldensians. Founded by Peter Waldo in 1176 AD, this group continued to preach the gospel even after being excommunicated by the Catholic church. Driven by the New Testament ideal, they began to preach against the abuses and non-Scriptural practices in the Catholic church (Latourette 1975:452, 453).
It seems that small group meetings played an important part among the Waldensians. Tan writes, “…the Waldensians met for simplified worship and fellowship in their homes” (1994:45). Because the Roman church branded the Waldensians as heretics, they were forced to go completely underground and were practically crushed (Latourette 1975:453).
Under the heavy hand of Rome, other such groups sprang up, desiring a more New Testament lifestyle. For example, there was a group called the Unitas Fratrum. Again Tan says, “In Czechoslovakia, just before the Reformation, the Unitas Fratrum assembled in homes to hear the teachings of Peter Chelicky around the 1400s (1994:45).
Other examples such as the Lollards and Hussites could also be cited (note 15). Yet, it wasn’t until after the reformation that the small group as a tool for discipleship and evangelism came of age.
An Examination of Small Groups before the Reformation
As one examines the types of small groups before the reformation and the priority given to these structures, a mixed message often comes across. On one hand, many of the principles of small group life are clearly there. On the other hand, there are many dissimilarities.
Obviously, my point of comparison is biased. My knowledge of small group ministry is founded not only upon my own personal experience, but also upon what is happening in the small group movement today. Yet, because I have no other yardstick, and because of my desire to draw out application from those historic examples, I will endeavor to compare the similarities and differences of small group ministry today with what took place before the reformation.
Small groups in Monasticism
For the most part, Monasticism was a purifying element to the Roman Catholic Church, as well as a powerful evangelistic outreach. To what extent, these monks were motivated by a quest for personal perfection or from a grateful heart due to the finished work of Jesus Christ, remains to be seen. Yet, what were the similarities and differences between small group ministry back then and today?
Similarities Among Small Groups
The study of monasticism is complex. There is a dizzying array of orders and reasons for existence. Not all of the small groups found in monasticism are applicable to this study. However, I have noted at least two small group values that were very prominent in the monastic small groups.
Sense Of Community
Apart from some of the more radical, legalistic orders, it seems that much of monasticism treasured and promoted community among the brethren (or sisters). The small group structure was utilized to promote this type of Christian community and brotherly relationship. In this sense, the monastic movement follows in the same vein of the small group movement today—a strong emphasis on community and relationships.
It also should be noted that monasticism fulfilled a prophetic role in a day and age when the Christianity had lost much of its meaning and intimacy. Monasticism arose because of a growing awareness that the Cathedral style of Christianity could not satisfy the God-given drive for a deeper, more personal relationship.
How true this is of small group movement today. For many, the church has become top heavy with programs. Pastors and lay people find themselves incredibly busy, but there is a growing uneasiness that the true purpose of the Church has been lost somewhere. For this reason, there is a renewed vision and quest for cell-based ministry. Small group ministry enables the church to meet face to face in intimate fellowship—much like the early house movement.
Certain similarities can also be seen in the evangelistic emphasis. In this tutorial, I analyzed in some detail, the small group missionary method that was so successfully utilized in monasticism.
Like the missionary bands in the monastic period, so also missionary bands are becoming a common feature of the cell church today. For example, Bethany World Prayer Center in Baker, Louisiana is using their 300+ cell groups for the cause of world mission. This summer (1996), they will send six teams of cell leaders for three week, on site visits to their unreached people groups ( Ministries Today July, 1996: 38). At Bethany’s conference I heard about one cell church in Singapore which is sending 140 cell groups (with all of their cell members) to unreached people groups (note 16). The ultimate goal of Bethany World Prayer Center is to send cells to plant churches among unreached people groups.
Differences Among Small Groups
On the other hand, there is quite a bit of dissimilarity between the two movements.
Emphasis On Asceticism
Although small group structures might have been utilized in fulfilling their particular purposes, these structures would have very little to do with present day models. For example, various monastic orders emphasized total silence or harsh asceticism---abstinence from some things normally considered good (e.g., marriage, family, sleep, etc.). Motivated by the example of the rich young ruler (Matthew 19:16-29), normal everyday activity was replaced by the practice of rigorous spiritual discipline such as fasting and prayer (Rosell 1995: Tape 12).
It also should be noted that oftentimes the monastic lifestyle was an attempt at saving one’s soul through the denial of the body’s entanglements and the pursuit of Christian perfection (Rosell 1995:Tape 12). Obviously, only the most holy and committed would undertake such harsh discipline (note 17).These motivations and values have very little to do with small group structure today.
Absence Of The Family
Another key difference in my mind is the absence of the family unit in the monastic small group. Plueddemann notes, “…unlike the house churches, monasticism had no room for the family, Christian instruction in homes continued, but it no longer had an integral connection with church life (1990:6). In other words, there was imbalance in the small group. The family atmosphere that permeated the New Testament house church was largely absent in the monastic movement.
Small Groups in monasticism never really bridged the gap between the clergy and the laity. In other words, those who joined the monastic orders were considered different from the normal lay person. It seems that there were three classes of people: the priest (clergy), the saint (monk), and the lay person. The sacrifices of celibacy and ascetic denial were far too great for the majority of the laity to make.
In contrast the small group movement today, seeks to involve everyone—from minister to those sitting in the pew.
Congregational Size Groups
I also found it difficult to compare monasticism with the small group movement today because of the size of the monastic small group. One can talk about community, relationships, discipleship, and evangelism among the monastic community, but we are really talking about these characteristics on a congregational level as opposed to a small group level.
It is true that some of the missionary bands were comprised of smaller groups, but the smaller groups seemed to be the exception rather than the rule. Really, these monastic communities were individual congregations which worshipped as churches, while at the same time maintaining the broader connection with the Roman Catholic Church.
Small Groups Among Other Pre-Reformation Movements
In this category, I lack information to compare adequately. Such groups as the Waldensians, the Lollards undoubtedly used small groups, but the information about their small groups is lacking.
Summary of Examination
From this brief study of pre-reformation small groups, it seems clear that certain small group components or characteristics were actively present in the small group movement before the reformation. Small Group evangelism and small group community were important characteristics of the monastic motif, as well as some of the later pre-reformation groups.
At the same time, any meaningful comparison between small groups then and now is limited due to contextual, religious, social, and historic differences. Monastic structures were more congregational in size, anti-family in practice, and legalistic in conviction. Yet, the monastic movement was God’s reforming voice to an increasingly top heavy church which tended to separate the clergy from the laity
Chapter 4:Small Groups during the Time of the Reformation
Before focusing on small groups during the reformation period, it’s essential to provide a few details about the reformation itself. As has been noted earlier, there were many cultural, political, and religious factors that shaped the march of Christ’s church from those initial house meetings to the sixteenth century. For various reasons, that initial lay-oriented small group movement had turned into a top heavy clergy who dominated the affairs of its followers. Yet the winds of change began to blow. J. Edwin Orr comments,
Just before the fifteenth century something started to change the church. It resulted in a progression of spiritual awakenings in which small groups either spearheaded, became strong catalysts or, or followed as nurturing environments to revivals (quoted in Plueddemann 1990:6).
These small group awakenings renewed the cry in the hearts of so many for a return to the priesthood of all believers, for the authority of Scripture, and for holiness of living. The voices of change which in earlier years were blocked out, could no longer be silenced. Probably the best way to describe their cry is to compare the protests of the three major pre-reformation movements.
It’s amazing to note how similar their cries were. The Waldensians (Peter Waldo) the Lollards (John Wycliffe), and the Hussites (John Hus) all had almost identical concerns about the religious structures of their day. The following table gives an overview of the teaching of these movements:
Although the Catholic Church was somewhat successful in quelling the voices of these pre-reformation prophets, it could not succeed in quelling Martin Luther, and those who subsequently followed in his train.
Martin Luther’s Protests
Luther was the lightening rod for the Protestant Reformation. Latourette says it well, “A humble monk and university professor of peasant stock dared to set himself against the weight of constituted authority in Church and state….he did so as the risk of his life (1975:717). Yet, as we have seen earlier, the foundation for reform had already been laid by those who went before him. Luther’s protests against the church were remarkably similar. The major difference was that Luther succeeded in igniting and maintaining a revolution that the Catholic Church, whereas the others were primarily used to plant the seed. The following table describes the principle teachings of Luther:
|TEACHING OF LUTHER
|TEACHING OF CATHOLIC CHURCH
Like David before Goliath, Luther stood up to the Catholic Church and won. Through his teachings, Luther liberated the church from its Babylonian Captivity (Latourette 1975:712). Perhaps his greatest accomplishment was rediscovering the truth of justification by faith alone and the submission to the Scripture alone. It was because of these two foundational teachings that the church was able to throw off the shackles of institutional religion .
Yet, for the purpose of this study, I will focus on Luther’s emphasis of the priesthood of all believers. This truth was the long awaited key that loosed years of separation between clergy and laity. However, one has to wonder whether Luther went far enough in the application of this truth. When it came to providing structures so that the body of Christ could minister freely and exercise their God given gifts, it seems that Luther was bound by his personality, culture, and political factors that surrounded him.
Luther And Small Groups
Luther’s attitude towards small group ministry undergoes a radical change due to the actions of the Anabaptist movement. He initially entertained the idea of using small groups as part of his reformation, but later he changes his mind in the light of contextual circumstances.
Earlier Positive Attitude
In a number of his tracts, Luther expressed his concern about the Mass and Liturgy, and he even hinted at the need for house gatherings. In his Preface to The German Mass and Order of Service, he talks about the need for the gathering of all people in a celebration service. He then adds,
The third kind of service should be a truly evangelical order and should not be held in a public place for all sorts of people. But those who want to be Christians in earnest and who profess the gospel with hand and mouth should sign their names and meet alone in a house somewhere to pray, to read, to baptize, to receive the sacrament, and to do other Christian works…Here one could set up a brief and neat order for baptism and the sacrament and center everything on the Word, prayer and love… (quote in Beckham 1995:116).
Tan notes, “Luther saw the potential of the house church and had a vision of meeting in homes for deeper expression of faith which was absent in the institutional church” (1994:45).
Later Negative Doubts
If Luther, therefore, saw the potential for small group ministry and even talked about forming small groups for the purpose of discipleship, why didn’t he follow through on this conviction? The answer to this dilemma is found in one of Luther’s letter that was discovered in 1982.
Luther wrote this letter on April, 14, 1529 AD to a fellow priest named Karl Weiss. Because Karl had begun to involve his parish in a small group ministry, he asked Dr. Luther to write down some guidelines about small group ministry. Karl Weiss had taken Luther’s advice seriously about the formation of small groups of ‘earnest Christians’.
In his reply letter to Karl, Luther confesses that he had ‘changed his mind’ about the formation of small groups (White, ed. 1983:274). Luther states that he no longer believed that ‘earnest Christians’ should meet together in the home in order ‘to pray, to read, to baptize, to receive the sacrament, and to do other Christian works… (White, ed. 1983:274).
Anabaptist Movement Influences His Thinking
It’s interesting to note that when Luther first wrote about earnest Christians meeting together in 1526, the Anabaptist movement was just getting under way. However, it was in February, 1527 that the articles of faith for the Anabaptist movement were written and officially declared. Just three months after the signing of those documents, Michael Slater, one of the key authors, was burned at the stake (Latourette 1975:782).
My point here is that when Luther first talks about earnest groups of Christians meeting together in 1526, he was thinking about the pure potential of small group ministry. However, by April, 1529, with the added concerns of the Anabaptists, Luther changes his thinking due to the present realities.
Reasons For Change Of Mind
Here are the reasons given in the letter for Luther’s change of thinking about small group ministry:
- People will fool themselves about who is an earnest Christian
Here, Luther’s doctrine of justification clearly comes into play. Luther came to realize that if one thinks that he or she is an ‘earnest Christian’ there is the danger of pride and a lack of understanding of grace. Luther taught that we are all on the exact same level due to our sin and the total sufficiency of Christ’s finished work on the cross.
- “…that such self-styled ‘earnest Christians’ will start to think of themselves as the one, pure church’ (White, ed. 1983:275).
Luther warns, “If we allow small groups of Christians to separate from the rest, to read the Word, to baptize, and to receive sacraments, we will have established a new church (White, ed. 1983:275). The above quote must be read in the light of the Anabaptist movement which had separated from the reformed church only a few years earlier. With this separation fresh on his mind, Luther fears the potential divisiveness of small groups. He says,
All the elements [of the true church] would be there in these small groups and, as sure as Satan seeks to destroy our souls, some Pharisaicial spirit will conclude that his little group is the church, and that everyone outside is damned. Indeed, it has already happened, if I am to believe the rumor I hear. Certain false brethren rebaptize themselves and then sneak away from God’s church to meet with other misled fools in various holes and corners. They claim that they are the only true Christians, and teach that they must separate from all iniquity (White, ed. 1983:275).
Luther arrived at the conclusion that a small group atmosphere would engender more divisiveness than unity.
- It is not Scriptural to separate from the church to set up a pure group of earnest Christians
At this point in 1529, Luther now believes that there is no Scriptural proof for such a small group endeavor. Rather, he quotes a plethora of Scriptures to indicate that the true church has always a mixture of both the pure and the impure (White, ed. 1983:276,277).
- The problem of spiritual pride
Here is another point against the meeting of small groups. He writes, “He [Satan] would be able to get us to isolate all the strongest Christians, and keep them from the weak. Then the strong would grow proud, the weak would give up, and all would go to hell in a handbasket (White, ed. 1983:278).
Summary of Luther’s Thinking
It’s safe to conclude that at one time Luther saw the importance of small groups as a means of spiritual growth and was even thinking seriously about utilizing them in order to disciple groups of earnest Christians. However, it appears that the emergence the Anabaptist movement had a profound, negative impact upon the attitude of Luther towards small groups.
Critique on Luther’s View of Small Groups
In my mind, Martin Luther stands out as one of the greatest figures of all times. God placed in this one man a rare combination of intellectual brilliance matched with an incredible courage and commitment to stand on his convictions. The reforms that Luther initiated have since altered mankind. Yet, with regard to his emphasis on small groups and his application of small groups, it is my opinion that his reforms did not go far enough.
Although he was successful in reforming theological thought, he was only partially successful in reforming ecclesiastical structure. The little that Luther did say about small groups in the church must be critiqued. I believe there are at least areas of weakness in Luther’s small group concept:
Limited View Of The Purpose Of Small Groups
When Luther does talk about small group ministry, it is primarily related to groups of ‘Christians in earnest’ who are willing to meet alone in a house in order to pray, read, baptize, and receive the sacraments (Beckham 1995:116). I believe that his original concept of small groups was far too limited. It included only a certain group of holy people who happened to be ‘earnest’ about their faith.
When he reacts later to the potential of an exclusive attitude in such groups, it seems to me that Luther’s real problem had to do with his initial limited definition of a small group. One can only wish that he would have amplified his thinking to include ‘not so earnest believers’ in these groups for the purpose of further growth. Better yet, such groups would have been further empowered had there been an evangelistic emphasis.
It’s also noteworthy that Luther makes no attempt to interconnect these small group meetings to the larger church gathering (note 18). Surely, he must have read and reread the many passages in the New Testament which testify to both the small home meetings as well as the large temple gatherings (Acts 2:46;5:42; 20:20). It seems to me that such a connection could have helped avoid many of the dangers that concern Luther so greatly.
Lack of Application of the Priesthood of All Believers
To his credit, Luther went far beyond the Catholic structure of his day in promoting the priesthood of all believers. He liberated the laity theologically and in some ways practically (note 19). Yet, many people felt that the reformation did not go far enough (note 20). Perhaps, the promotion of a small group structure that emphasized the priesthood of all believers, Christian fellowship, and evangelistic outreach could have prevented some of the deep divisions that took place.
Overreaction Against Anabaptist Abuse
Luther was not one to mince words. He said what he felt, and he felt what he said. Only a man such as Luther could have stood up to the powerful machinery of the Roman Catholic Church.
Yet, it seems that with regard to small groups in the church, Luther’s black and white personality hindered a balanced approach. I believe that Luther overreacted to the dangers of small groups seen in the Anabaptist movement and instead of warning against potential dangers and moving to middle ground, he ended up throwing out the baby with the bath water. D.M. Lloyd-Jones is insightful by noting that Luther was hindered from following through on reforming church lifestyle due to “…a spirit of caution, political consideration, a lack of faith in the people in the churches, and fear of losing the movement to the Anabaptists” (quoted in Beckham 1995:117).
We have noted that Luther’s retreat from the use of small groups in the reformation was largely due to the abuses and dangers that he witnessed in the Anabaptist movement. However, Luther’s disciple, Martin Bucer (Latourette 1975:709) also witnessed those abuses, but went one step further. Without abandoning the majority church, he nevertheless sensed the compelling need to reform the church by the creation of small home based communities.
Ecclesiological Reform through Small Groups
Even though Bucer faced continual pressure and criticism concerning what ‘might happen’ as a result of his small group reforms, he continued to press ahead.
Sanctification Through Small Groups
He, like Luther, believed strongly in justification by faith. However, he also emphasized Christian sanctification. He would not allow one to exclude the other. Bucer, being a sensitive, godly individual, clearly saw the carnality and superficiality in his own church at Strasbourg. He had continually stressed moral reform since arriving at Strasbourg, but the apparent futility of his labors almost shattered his patience (Wright 1994:137). Bucer became increasingly drawn to the model of the primitive church. Wright comments,
Bucer saw in the communities of the primitive church an exemplary and even normative model of a reformed church…when he lamented, often with bitterness, the deficiencies of his Strasbourg church by comparison with the communities of the primitive and ancient churches, he was in fact lamenting his church’s defective apostolicity (1994:136,137).
Implementation Of Groups In The Face Of Criticism
He was continually faced with criticism due to the Anabaptist movement that sought to take away people from the state church. As the well-known reformer of Strasbourg, he found himself at the heart of the Anabaptist debate due to the fact that there were many Anabaptists within the Strasbourg community. In 1534 AD we see Bucer debating with the Anabaptists about the need for a confessing church, but yet one open to all (Wright 1994:134).
It was in the mid-1540s that Anabaptism rapidly increased in number and influence. We read about groups assembling secretly at night in the forest of Eckbolsheim, on Strasbourg’s doorstep (Wright 1994:135). It was a very risky thing for Bucer to even dare mention the reform of the church, and far more risky to suggest the possibility of forming small groups for the purpose of discipleship and spiritual growth. Wright notes, “The more Bucer pressed the magistracy to devote all its energies to the introduction of a ‘true’ ecclesiastical discipline, the more the Strasbourg church seemed doomed to degneration and criticism. Nasty tongues spread scandal about the town and its Reformers…(Wright 1994:135). He goes on to say,
The creation of groups and other gatherings which…could easily be likened to the separatist ventures of the Anabaptists and other sectarians, exposed him to insidious criticism charging him with a share of responsibility for the fragmentation of Strasbourg’s church community (1994:140).
Yet, in spite of all of the criticism, Bucer was compelled to press ahead, because he so strongly believed in the two-fold structure of cell and celebration.
The Need for Cell and Celebration
For Bucer, it was not a matter of deciding to support the state church (Luther) or the gathered church (Anabaptist). Rather, he felt the need for both. Wright concludes, “This motif of twofold ecclesiology, at once both majority-based and confessing, played an important role in the slow maturation of Bucer’s plans for small communities (1994:134). Bucer felt that he would have actually been ‘unfaithful’ to Scripture by not promoting the gathering of believers in small groups (Wright 1994:137).
In the face of so much criticism, Bucer found himself having to explain the two pronged structure. Instead of creating divisiveness, the small groups aimed specifically at promoting unity among all Christians. The Sunday morning worship service would bring them all together. In fact, Bucer felt that the communion table on Sunday morning was the perfect time for the ‘true’ Christian community to meet (Wright 1994:141).
Focus of Groups
It appears that these groups met for the purpose of serious Christian discipleship. These groups provided an ideal structure for the church to grow in sanctification (Wright 1994:141). Earnest Christians gathered for the purpose of encouraging each other and thus growing deeper in the Christian faith. The goal of these groups was to make the church at Strasbourg “…more faithful to the primitive and ancient churches” (Wright 1994:142). Wright comments,
In specifying how the small communities would function, the Reformer sought ever closer conformity to the pattern of the organization and life of the apostolic communities, as described in the New Testament Acts and Epistles….Not only confession of the same doctrine, but also demonstration of the same practice must attest this apostolic faithfulness—hence, for example, the insistence on the sharing of good on the model of the communities described in Acts 2 and 4 (1994:142,143).
Only born again believers were admitted to these groups. In fact a potential member had to be interviewed by the pastor and the group’s elders. The interview dealt with member’s beliefs concerning doctrine, the sacraments, Christian behavior and repentance. If the person was willing to make a commitment into the community his name would entered into a register.
Critique of Bucer’s Small Groups
I can’t help but be completely impressed by the cell/celebration system developed by Martin Bucer. I find myself admiring Martin Bucer for at least three reasons:
- He did not allow the doctrine of justification to void the doctrine of sanctification. Or stated another way, while openly preaching the positional truth of our perfect standing before God, he did not neglect the importance of promoting practical holiness within the church (note 21).
- He followed the teaching of the Scripture both doctrinally as well as methodologically. He mined the Scripture for the riches of its methodology as well as its doctrine. He noted that the Christ-likeness of the early church was in part due to their cell-celebration structure, as well as to their obedience to the Lord Jesus.
- He pressed on in the face of major criticisms. Small groups had to have been a major priority for Martin Bucer for him to continue in the face of so many difficulties and criticisms. His examples gives me strength to press on with my small group convictions.
Granted, Bucer’s small group system was primarily discipleship oriented. Yet, the context was also quite a bit different from our context today. In that day, everyone in the particular state or region was required to attend church. Therefore, it does seem right that the major focus under those conditions be discipleship, purity, and Christian unity. On the other hand, in our pluralistic society, I believe that it is equally important that small groups maintain a dual focus—both focused on evangelism and discipleship.
I’ve already hinted at the beliefs and the practices of the Anabaptist movement while covering Martin Luther and Martin Bucer. Because of chronological order, I have waited until now to write about the Anabaptists. We have previously seen that it was this movement that provoked such fierce reaction in Martin Luther that he ‘changed his mind’ about the role of small groups in the church. It was also this movement that stirred untold criticism against Martin Bucer for his participation in small group reform. What were these strange beliefs of the Anabaptists?
Actually, the core beliefs and practices of the Anabaptists are probably closer to those espoused by Evangelical Christianity today. At the same time, the Anabaptist Movement cannot be pigeonholed into one neat category. There are a number of streams that flow form this movement. There are also groups that manifest Anabaptist characteristics in one area and not in another.
For the most part, it is safe to say that the Anabaptists followed reform theology. They were children of the reformation, as opposed to the institutional Catholic Church. They embraced Luther’s emphasis on justification by faith, Scripture alone, the priesthood of all believer, separation from the Catholic Church, and other key doctrines.
However, the Anabaptists believed that Luther and the reformers did not go far enough. They believed that there were two foundational truths that the reformers had overlooked:
- Adult baptism versus infant baptism
- The gathered church versus the state church
Adult Baptism Rather than Infant Baptism
The name Anabaptist means ‘to be baptized a second time’. They rejected infant baptism as contrary to the Scriptures and regarded only that baptism valid which was administered to conscious believers” (Latourette 1975:779) (note 22). Therefore, according to the Anabaptists, the true church of Jesus Christ consisted only of those who were born again and baptized as adults. This belief ties in with the next one (i.e., rejection of the state church), in that they did not believe that it was right to include all people in the church, just because they were born in a particular region.
The Gathered Church Rather than State Church
Latourette defines this aspect of their belief by saying, “They believed in ‘gathered’ churches, not identical with the community at large, but composed of those who had had the experience of the new birth” (1975:779). It’s important to remember that the church for both Luther and Calvin consisted of the entire community. It was through infant baptism that one entered into the state church (Latourette 1975:778).
However, it was the state church idea that the Anabaptist movement attacked most radically. It’s easy to now see why the Anabaptist were looked upon with such suspicion and skepticism. In that day, to separate from the church was akin to separating from society. Such actions threatened the very moral fabric of society.
It must not be thought that Anabaptism was widely accepted. It didn’t attract the multitudes that were drawn to Luther or Calvin. Probably the major reasons was that, as Latourette notes, “…they seemed to be dangerous revolutionaries, upsetting the established order” (1975:779).
And yes, the state church reacted by persecuting them severely. Surely, some of the persecution came as a result of theological disagreement, but most of it came because the Anabaptist challenged the normal cultural norms. Latourette says, “Late in the 1520’s and early in the 1530’s hundred of Anabaptists were killed, some by drowning, some by beheading, and others by burning” (1975:782).
Diversity of Belief
From the above cardinal doctrines that united the Anabaptist movement, there were an array of opinions and beliefs among Anabaptists on such matters as:
- Degrees of relationship to the State
- Forms of worship
- Return of Christ
- Nature of Christ
- Missionary emphasis
At a time when the Bible was being read in the vernacular, individual salvation by faith in Jesus was being preached, and the priesthood of all believers being emphasized, it was natural that a wide array of beliefs should develop (Latourette 1975:780). For the diversity of their beliefs yet unity in overall direction, the Anabaptist movement of the sixteenth century seems to resemble our modern denominational diversity today.
Commitment of Anabaptists
Many of the Anabaptists made a total commitment to the Lord and to the life of the small gathered community. The seriousness of their Christianity and their commitment to discipleship can be seen by the fact that they would often meet together four or five times per week (Tan 1994:46). Writing about their commitment Latham says,
When someone followed the Anabaptist doctrine, he/she was expected to separate him/herself from the world and follow a new way of life. The new way of life excluded them from most of their communities social functions. Activities such as weddings, christenings, banquets or archery matches were considered too worldly. When a person was converted to Anabaptism he/she would reject all former friends and neighbours as being heathen, devils, or Turks (1993:12).
Anabaptists and Small Groups
Small groups played a vital part among of the Anabaptist movement throughout the sixteenth century. However, it’s not conclusive that they met in small groups due to theological reasons or whether circumstantial reality (i.e., persecution) drove them to do so. Yes, they believed that only believers should meet together, but they seemed to be just as open to larger believers meetings as they were to smaller ones.
It was in 1522 that those with Anabaptist tendencies gathered in homes for small, private meetings. These meetings expanded into a wave of lay reading groups throughout 1522 and 1523, which met mainly in Zurich and the surrounding area (Latham 1993:13).
These small group meetings were directed toward strengthening the faith and expanding the knowledge of eager Christians. At first, the only motivation seems to have been deepening the reform movement. In fact, some of these small home studies were so effective in and around Zurich that Zwingli commented that as a result of these meetings certain lay people were better acquainted with the Scriptures than some priests (Latham 1993:15).
However, very subtly, it seems that the group meetings began to take a different direction. Latham comments,
The Brethren came together because they felt that the limits of the Zwinglian reforms were suppressing the truth. Meeting together in private, the Brethren hoped to discover the truth and obtain scriptural guidance for church reforms….Discovering the biblical truths, which they believed were being suppressed by Zwingli and the Town Council, was their primary concern” (1993:17).
It was in 1523 that Conrad Grebel and Simon Stumpf proposed that the church should be separated from the rest of society in order to establish a church consisting solely of ‘true’ Christians. Although Zwingli, the official reform leader in Zurich, strongly disagreed with their conviction, they would not be dissuaded (Latham 1993:17).
On January 21, 1525 the Swiss Brethren came together in a small group to officially dedicate themselves to a separate movement which they felt was the true church. As part of this ceremony, each person was re-baptized. Latham notes, ‘Their re-baptism was the action of disobedience which place them in direct opposition to the secular and religious authorities (1993:24).
Although it’s hard for us to believe today, the reformed church in Zurich actively sought out the Anabaptists in order to put them to death. Mantz was the first Anabaptist martyr, who was put to death by drowning for the charge of conducting illegal re-baptisms (Latham 1993:27).
The Anabaptists had a high view of community. They preferred to call each other brethren. Closely tied to the Anabaptist belief that the true church of Jesus Christ was composed of re-baptized, gathered Christians, was the conviction that the gathering of small groups for intimate Bible Study and worship were part of the true nature of New Testament community (Latham 1993:36).
Again, it’s hard to say whether or not the Anabaptists met in homes due to their theological convictions or because of circumstantial necessity. This point seems to come up again and again in my study of the Anabaptist movement. In other words, I did not discover in their teachings that small group meetings were part of their theological conviction.
Yes, they constantly met in small groups, but it seems that there was no other alternative. Did they believe that their small group meetings better represented the true church of Jesus Christ or was it more of a necessity? Perhaps, a little of both. Plueddemann writes,
The Anabaptists had no church buildings but met in homes several times a week for worship and nurture. This may have been partly because of the persecution they experienced from Lutherans, Calvinists, and Catholics combined. But Durnbaugh points out that even when persecution let up, the preferred to meet in homes because this was more faithful to the practice of the early church (1990:7). Latham concludes her dissertation on the Anabaptist movement by saying,
Critique of Small Groups in Anabaptism
This movement is a hard one to critique. I found it difficult to analyze their convictions or philosophy of small groups.
The Sad History Of This Movement
For me the study of this movement is one of the saddest in the history of the Christian faith. It’s sad because both the state church led by the reformer Zwingli and the Anabaptists believed the basic tenants of the reformation. There isn’t a doubt in my mind that both groups were solid evangelical believers! What a tragedy that these Christians killed each other for varying theological convictions! Yes, the intensity of their separation also points to the importance of the state church in religion and society at that time period.
Reconciliation and Forgiveness (added later)
"On Saturday, 3rd May 2003, a moving reconciliation service was held in Zurich's Grossmunster (Minster), where reformer Huldrych Zwingli preached," reports Christa Heyd-Westerhausen. The service was organised by the Swiss group "Stiftung Schleife". "Descendants of the Anabaptists, severely persecuted under Zwingli, entered the church to the accompaniment of bells. Mennonites and Amish, among other groups, had come from the USA and Canada specially for this event: the present-day heads of Zurich's church asked for forgiveness for the sins of the past, which was granted them by an Amish Bishop. Reverend Reich, head of the Zurich Church Council, was presented with a Brethren Table, at which the Brethren still celebrate Communion as in those days. Reverend Paul Veraguth, Reformed vicar in Wattenwil, Switzerland, himself from an Anabaptist family and whose church stands on confiscated Anabaptist property, has published a short history of the Anabaptists during the Reformation period (Schleife Verlag, Winterthur, in German). This day of reconciliation can reduce the tension between the State Church and independent churches for the future. Today's independent churches can now better identify with the pre-Reformation and Reformation-period Anabaptist movement."
Representatives of the Anabaptists in Switzerland and the USA, such as Mennonites led by Bishop Lloyd Hoover from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, spoke of the hurts resulting from their difficult history and Anabaptist fixation. "Today, I would like to speak about a part of the Anabaptist soul which is hardly ever mentioned," said Mennonite Janet Richards. "It is not true of all Anabaptists, and not all Anabaptist churches feel this way, but we have recognised that our church and even family life is far from the joy, peace, freedom, love and also rebuke which God wants from us. We have been formed by years of persecution, and hurts and sins have been handed down through the generations. They have caused great damage in the childrens' hearts, who themselves become fathers with their own unhealed wounds. My upbringing was the same as that of my parents and grandparents. It was at times as strict and unwavering as excommunication and church discipline of the first Anabaptists, or today's Amish. Discipline was exercised with little understanding of grace. The joy of the Lord was missing in our upbringing and schooling, which concentrated on being serious, and warning us against silliness. Legalism was handed down from father to son and daughter."
Ruedi Reich, President of Zurich's Reformed Church Council, spoke of a 'tragic rip' in the Reformation in Zurich. "Today, we recognise the independent and State Church expressions of Evangelical Church as of equal value; we need each other, can learn from each other and complement one another. At the time of the Reformation, nether State nor Church recognised this. The Swiss Reformed Church persecuted the Anabaptists. The wrongs done to Anabaptists and related movements over centuries was a betrayal of the Gospel, which we confess, shocked, before God. We declare that the Reformed Church and the Anabaptist movement are twigs on the same Evangelical branch of the large Christian tree. We must recognise and respect each other as brothers and sisters in Christ, even though we live our our Christianity in different ways according to our different traditions" (Source: Peter Schmid, www.livenet.ch, and Christa Heyd-Westerhausen, email@example.com as quoted in Friday Fax 2003 Issue 21, 23 May).
Focus on Beliefs Rather than Small Groups
With regard to the place of small groups in Anabaptism, there seems to be mixed signals. Granted, Anabaptism came into being as a result of small groups of Christians meeting together to study the Word of God. Yet, after discovering from the Word of God the truth that only baptized adults should form part of the gathered church of Christ, the focus shifts drastically to Anabaptist doctrine rather than Anabaptist methodology (small group theology).
Their writings are filled with references to what they believed theologically, but there is very little about methodology (note 23). They eventually came to believe that they were fulfilling the functions of the true church (as opposed to the state church), but the emphasis was on the fact that they ‘gathered’ together as baptized adults rather than their place of gathering.
Comparison to House Church Movement
It seems that the Anabaptist movement is better compared with the house church movement today. Unlike Bucer who promoted small groups as a way of purifying the majority church, the Anabaptists only knew one type of meeting—the cell. They are much like the house church today that see their home gatherings as independent churches and do not recognize other entities over them.
Warnings For Cell Group Ministry Today
Rather than extolling the virtues of small groups in the Anabaptist tradition, I have come to conclude that their example should serve as a warning to the small group movement today. While small groups can be a glorious tool of discipleship and evangelism, they can also be very divisive. This is my impression of the Anabaptist small group movement. I have several concerns about this particular movement:
- The lack of connection with any other accountability structure
- The ‘holier than thou’ type attitude. In my opinion, what Luther feared would happen seemed to be present among Anabaptist circles.
- Their dogmatic separation from the reformed church at that time. To me, this separation appears overly zealous and dogmatic, without sufficient patience and brotherly love.
More than my own personal convictions concerning the beliefs of the Anabaptists, my primary concern is that all of this happened within the context of small groups. These groups had no authority structure to guide them and lead them. They were lone ranger type groups that were permitted to teach, believe, and structure themselves according to their own whims and convictions (note 24).
I think that the Anabaptist Movement is perhaps a warning of what can happen in the church when there is a lack of control and accountability from the top leadership downwards.
Chapter 5: Small Groups in Pietism
Robert Moylan, in his excellent dissertation entitled, “Lutheran Pietism: Paradox or Paradigm, ” sums up the goal of Pietism in this way,
It was the intention of classic Pietism to recapture, as far as possible, the essence and power of the ‘primitive Church’---the church of the first and second centuries….The Pietists seem to have concluded that it could best be achieved through what has become recognized as the theme of the pietistic renewal movement: ‘Change the Church by changing the individual’ (1992: 156).
Donald Bloesch describe Pietism somewhat different, “Among the salient features of Pietism is the emphasis upon the religion of the heart….In the Pietist movement there is an existential emphasis, a call for personal involvement in the truth of the faith” (1973:106).
Philip Jacob Spener
Born in 1635 AD, Spener was a Lutheran. In 1663, he became pastor in Strasbourg (1663 AD) and then in Frankfort (1666 AD). One of the early influences on Spener that shaped his Pietistic thinking was the writing of Johann Arndt. Stoeffler says, “…one of the most pervasive religious influences among earnest Lutherans at this time was that of Johann Arndt, who through his Wahres Christentum helped to mold the thought and life of several generation after him” (Stoeffler 1973:2). Spender was certainly one of those heavily influenced by this reformer.
While in Frankfurt he sought to nourish and promote a deeper life among the church (Latourette 1975:895). Latourette notes, “…he gathered in his own home a group for the cultivation of the Christian life through the discussion of the Sunday sermons, prayer, and the study of the Bible (1975:895). This home Bible study movement spread and the groups became known as collegia pietatis.
It’s interesting to note that Spener’s conviction and the practice of Pietism did not cause him to become anti-intellectual. Rather, he believed that the two were complimentary. In fact, Spener himself earned a doctorate in theology from the University of Strassburg (Latham 1993:60) and was known for being a very intelligent man.
Background of the Times
Pietism was a renewal movement which took place in the wake of the tragic thirty year war in which much of Germany was devastated. It was a time when many were searching for answers. For the most part, they were not finding those answers in the Lutheran church. . Latham writes, “…the Lutheran Church in seventeenth century Germany consisted largely of nominal Christians who attended church services that were dull and boring. Ministers preached theological legalism that no one could, or wanted to, understand (1993:58).
There was also drunkenness and immorality among the clergy. The spiritual condition of Germany was very low (Latourette 1975:895). The church services were formal and sterile. Pietism must be understand in this context. Spener’s concern was for moral and spiritual reformation, rather than dry, doctrinal debate.
Small Groups in Pietism
Due to this dry, sterile, and immoral backdrop, Spener sensed the need to do something. He realized that it wasn’t enough for believers to attend church and leave unchanged. Spener felt that change could only take place as believers met collectively in small groups for the purpose of Bible study, prayer, worship, and fellowship. Sohn describes the importance of the small group to Pietism,
The small group meeting variously known as collegia pietatis, conventicles, ecclesiolae, or the collegium philobiblicum, was the internal dynamic of Pietism for the actual practical renewal and expansion of Christian ministry beyond the clergy” (1990:102).
Spiritual Reform Achieved through the Small Groups
Spener was a reformer. His earnest desire was to reform the church. The way that he felt would best achieve this type of spiritual reform was through small groups. As was noted earlier, he led the way. He gathered serious minded Christians into ‘little churches in the Church’. His purpose? The spiritual reformation of the church. These groups met for the main purpose of reading Scriptures, spiritual fellowship, and for mutual assistance. Latham writes, “The Pietist movement employed the concept of accountability with a small group, for the faces became people with needs who could care for one another” (1993:61).
The first such private meeting was led by Spener himself in 1670. He then set forth rules and regulations for self-discipline within these groups in his Pia Desideria which was published in 1675.
Various Aspects of the Groups
The following are only some of the chief characteristics that were present in Spener’s small groups:
Focus of the Group
The focus of the group can easily be seen by the subtitle of his Pia Desideria. It read, “Heartfelt Desire for a God-pleasing Reform of the True Evangelical Church, Together with Several Simple Christian Proposals Looking Toward this End. ” The obvious focus of the group was discipleship and holiness. It was for this reason that Spender only wanted born-again believers to attend (Latham 1993:63).
Concerning these groups, Doyle Young writes,
The purpose of the groups was to renew the greater ecclesia, Church. If the entire Church was to be renewed, a start must be made with those serious Christians in each congregation. These…little churches within the Church were not intended, however, to replace the institutional church” (1989:108).
It was necessary for a qualified leader to be present in these meetings in order to avoid false doctrine. It appears that this person normally was a pastor or a professor who was willing to take responsibility for the group (Latham 1993:67). However, the leader was not to dominate the discussion. Rather, he was to stir up participation among those who were present.. Spener writes,
The professor, as the leader, should reinforce good observations. If he sees, however, that students are departing from the end in view, he should proceed in clear and friendly fashion to set them right on the basis of the text and show them what opportunity they have to put this or that rule of conduct into practice (1964: 113).
As was mentioned, although the leader was always present, opportunity was given for each to operate his or her gift. The Sunday sermon might be the starting point for the discussion, but then each person was to contribute according to his or her own gifting and understanding. Referring to the lesson part of the study Spener writes, “This [the study] should be done in such fashion that each student may be permitted to say what he thinks about each verse and how he finds that it applies to his own and to others’ benefit” (1964:113).
Priesthood of All Believers
This concept has always been one of the foundational themes in Lutheran theology, but one rarely practiced. However, Pietism played a large part in changing that. Bloesch writes, “The priesthood of believers, though having a prominent place in the theology of the Reformers, was given concrete embodiment in Pietism” (1973:118). Spener was convinced that all believers were necessary. He writes,
No damage will be done to the ministry by a proper use of this priesthood. In fact, one of the principal reasons why the ministry cannot accomplish all that it ought is that it is too weak without the help of the universal priesthood. One man is incapable of doing all that is necessary for the edification of the many persons who are generally entrusted in pastoral care (1964:95).
By this writing, perhaps we can say that Spener was the John the Baptist of the modern day concept of the Jethro principle (Exodus 18).
Times of Meetings
Initially, the meetings were held in Spener’s home every Wednesday and Sunday. Both men and women were invited to attend. From what I understand, the meetings gradually changed from two times per week to weekly. The time of the meeting or the day of the meeting does not seem to be rigidly controlled or set in Pietism.
In Spener’s initial home meeting, Lewis Bayly’s Practice of Piety was used as a basis for the discussion (Latham 1993:62). However, in subsequent meetings, the Bible became the regular diet and foundation for further discussion. Also included were Scripture reading, prayer, and hymn singing at the meetings (Bloesch 1973:119). It also seems that Spener was primarily concerned with Biblical application in the meetings rather than Bible knowledge (Spener 1964:113).
Yet, Spener repeatedly stressed that the home meeting was not a substitute for one’s personal devotional life. He only wanted people to come together who had already spent time in private Bible study and prayer. Throughout his Pia Desideria, the theme of private devotions and personal holiness appear again and again.
Not to Replace Sunday Service
It was made clear that these meetings were only to supplement the Sunday morning worship service. In fact, Spener, unlike the Anabaptists, believed that the state church was the true church (Latham 1993:65). He didn’t even allow the people to call the groups ‘the true church’, so as to avoid doctrinal conflict (Young 1989:109).
Nor did Spener allow the celebration of the sacraments at these meetings. The communion was reserved for the entire congregation only (Young 1989:108) Spener was very careful to delineate his brand of practical Christianity from Lutheran ecclesiology. There is no doubt that Spener took every precaution possible to prevent his movement from becoming a separatist schism (much like what happened among the Anabaptists).
On Sunday morning , Spener would often urge the congregation to participate in the small groups and to fulfill their Christian duties. For example, he would urge the believers in the congregation to come together on Sunday for the sake of spiritual instruction and to review the Sunday sermon, rather than play cards (Spener 1964:13).
Criticisms of Spener’s Reforms
His Pia Desideria set off a wave of protests. Many accused him of being untrue to Lutheran doctrine. Latourette notes,
In this his opponents were not altogether incorrect. While he did not attack Lutheran orthodoxy, Spener held that if one had been truly converted and had a right heart, doctrinal differences were relatively unimportant (1975:895).
Some of the opposition arose at Frankfurt because there were those who went to the home meetings, but then did not attend the public worship services and did not partake in the Lord’s supper (Latourette 1975:895). Yes, and there were those who used the small group fellowship as an opportunity to narrowly interpret doctrine and to actually create a legalistic wedge between the truly converted and those who were not (Mackintosh quoted in Moylan 1992:159).
Like the rejection that Bucer felt and that Luther feared, many rejected Spener’s reform movement simply because it was too risky (Latham 1993:64).
August Hermann Francke
Francke was a teacher at the University of Leipzip when he became a born again believer in his mid-twenties He became a follower of Spener and Pietism and soon began small groups on the University of Leipzig campus. Franke’s reforms were not well accepted and the opposition increased to the point of asking Franke to resign his teaching post (Latourette 1975:896).
However, through Spener’s influence, Franke was able to obtain a teaching post at the University of Halle, which later became a chief center of Pietism. Latourette says about Francke, “…he was the dominant figure on the theological faculty and in the training of young men for the ministry. A faithful pastor in his own parish, he brought to his lecture room not only theory but also practical experience” (1975:896). From Halle, many missionaries were sent forth who promoted pietism around the world.
The Spread Of Pietism
The constant opposition toward pietism did hinder Spener’s reforms. We are told that in Frankfurt a suspicious city council ordered the meetings to be closed down (Young 1989:109). The criticisms eventually wore upon Spener. Young writes, “…by 1703 (thirty-three years after the beginning of the Collegia) Spener had become cynical and cautious about the groups and established no others when he moved from Frankfurt (Young 1989:109).
However, that’s just part of the story. Pietism did spread far beyond Spener’s own ministry. Many Lutheran churches began to practice Spener’s principles. Francke at Halle did more than anyone to spread the Pietist doctrine over the world. Zinzendorf, the founder of the Moravian Church, became an ardent follower of Pietism while at Halle. John Wesley himself was touched through the Moravians and the story goes on and on. As Sohn declares, “Missiologically speaking, it [Pietism] formed part of the launching pad of Protestant World Mission” (1990:50).
Pietism has also greatly influenced the small group movement today. The covenant groups that Roberta Hestenes has championed are really an offshoot of the small groups in Pietism (Moylan 1992:160-175). It can also be argued that the Bible study movement in general can be traced back to Pietism.
Critique of Small Groups in Pietism
It’s uncanny to me how closely the small group system in Pietism resembles the small community meetings in Strasbourg under Martin Bucer. Both small group systems were designed to spiritually reform a cold state church. One could compare Bucer’s movement to Spener’s movement in a similar way as the pre-reformation to the reformation (note 25).
There are several areas that greatly impress me about the small group ministry in Pietism:
- The emphasis on the participation in the groups
- The fact that a variety of spiritual disciplines were used in the group
- The cell never replaced the Sunday morning worship, but that there was a balance between cell and celebration
- The groups brought spiritual vitality to the participant, but they were never a substitute for personal devotions and private Bible study.
In my opinion the major weakness of small groups in Pietism is that they were strictly believer oriented. It’s interesting that the small group model today that is a direct descendent of Pietism is the Covenant approach. .Like the Pietistic model, this approach focuses almost entirely on spiritual development and growth among believing Christians. It is my strong conviction that small group partnership in evangelism plays a major part in the group’s spiritual growth as well as fulfilling Christ’s great commission (note 26).
Chapter 6:Small Groups in the Moravian and Methodist Tradition
I have placed these two movements together both because of chronolgical consideration as well as methodological considerations. As we shall see, the Moravian movement had a powerful influence on Wesley and the Methodist small group model.
The Moravian movement was closely linked to the Pietistic tradition. It began in 1722 when a few refugees from the persecutions of Protestants in Bohemia and Moravia settled on the estate of Nicolas Ludwig, Count of Zinzendorf (1700-1760).
In 1457, a group established a colony in Lititz, on the Border of Bohemia, where they planned to follow the teachings of Hus. In 1467, sixty years before the Protestant Reformation, they founded their own independent ministry known as the Unity of Brethren or in Latin, Unitas Fratrum. A hymnal was published in 1501 and between 1579 and 1593, the Bible was translated into the Bohemian language.
During the Thirty Years' War in 1620, the Brethren was forced to go underground. Their leader, Bishop John Amos Comenius fled to Poland with a small band of refugees. This group spread into Bohemia and neighboring Moravia and, eventually, to the estate of Count Nicholas von Zinzendorf who allowed the refugees to settle on his family's estate called Herrnhut which means "The Lord watches over." While Zinzendorf was trained in the law and was an ordained Lutheran pastor (the official state church), he worked to renew the Unitas Fratrum. He succeeded in establishing church centers in other parts of Germany, England, Denmark, Holland, Switzerland, Sweden and America. In the early 1700's "Moravians" became the popular name for church members because many were descended the the refugees from Moravia. In 1749 the Parliament of Great Britain gave formal recognition to "the Moravian Church" thereby making the name official (Boddie 1996: 2)
Zinzendorf had been educated at Halle and was a devout pietist. Interestingly, he was also the godson of Spener (McCallum 1996:4). Stoeffler notes, “During his time at Halle the special gifts of Zinzendorf, his linguistic ability, his leadership qualities, his ability to conceive novel schemes, had become abundantly apparent…(1973:134).
His first passion was for Jesus Christ. Karl Barth in talking about the rediscovery of Pietism stated, “…the present need is for a rediscovery of Zinzendorf with his Christ centered emphasis” (Bloesch 1973: 102). His ardent desire for Jesus and vision to spread the gospel to the ends of the earth were fulfilled in those refugees who made their abode on his estate. Latourette writes, “In the handful of persecuted refugees he saw the means of fulfilling that vision” (Latourette 1975:897).
Zinzendorf did not intend for the Moravians to become a separate church. Like Spener’s Pietist groups, the Moravian communities were to be ecclesiolae in ecclesia (little churches within the Church) whose purpose was to renew the whole church (1989:110).
Emphasis on Missions
Zinzendorf perceived the entire world as his parish. He was truly a world Christian. To send those missionaries out to the uttermost parts of the world, Zinzendorf finally consented to set up a new church structure, over which he became bishop. It was through this new church structure (in the succession of the Bohemian Brethren, the Unitas Fratrum) that many, many missionaries were sent around the world (Latourette 1975:897).
In 1733, the Saxon government refused to allow any more refugees settle on Zinzendorf’s estate. The Moravians took this as a sign to began to spread the movement to the uttermost ends of the earth. Sessler writes,
Consequently in the year 1734, a movement was inaugurated to spread Moravianism to the far ends of the earth. A new center for missions was begun in Greenland; a reinforcement of Moravians was sent to the West Indies; a Christian colony was begun at Disco Bay; and John Sargent began his labors among the Stockbridge Indians. This was also the year in which large groups of the Brethren started their trek to America (1933:72).
The mission zeal and effectiveness of the Moravians can be seen by the fact that by 1760 the Moravians sent out 226 foreign missionaries through thirteen stations in Greenland, Jamaica, the Danish West Indies, Autigua, Surinam, and Barbados, and among the North American Indians, with 3,057 baptized, 900 communicants, and 6,125 under Moravian care (Schattschneider quoted in Sohn, 1990:138).
Emphasis on Prayer
Prayer was an essential part of the early Moravian movement. Prayer vigils and prayer chains met around the clock. In History of the Moravian Church we read, “On August 27, 1727, the time from midnight to midnight was divided between twenty-four men and the same number of women, the hours being assigned by lot. Each spent his period in intercession, so that prayer never ceased in the community” (Hamilton 1967:36).
Emphasis on Singing
Along with the bands that met for spiritual growth and enrichment, choirs were established to promote singing and active participation by the congregation in worship. Zinzendorf actively promoted an appreciation of the spiritual power of hymnody and even developed a special type of service that was totally dedicated to public worship (Hamilton 1967:37).
Small Groups in the Moravian Church
As was mentioned earlier, Zinzendorf was never initially interested in establishing a denomination (Stoeffler 1973:160). Rather, his zeal was to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ. His original thinking was that people should remain in their own denomination but participate in addition in a more disciplined community. It was this emphasis on liberating freedom in the small group that the Moravians passed down to future generations. The Moravians also offered to the church-renewal movement the techniques of society, class, and band” (Doyle 1989:110).
In his doctoral dissertation on small group renewal, William Brown states,
Perhaps one of the most deliberate and successful uses of the small group principle in Church history is the band system of Count Zinzendorf in the middle of the eighteenth century. The micro communities of Herrnhut combined the aspects of fellowship and sharing, mutual correction and confession, prayer and an urgent sense of mission to send the gospel to the world and bring renewal to Christians. They made use of lay leadership and literally followed the kind of meeting advised in James 5:13-16 (1992:38).
Charateristics Of The Bands
Even before the Moravian church was fully operational, personal bands were formed for those refugees and people who had come to live at Herrnhut, the estate of Zinzendorf (Hamilton 1967:32). Here are some of the characteristics of those bands:
- To promote personal growth in grace and fellowship between kindred spirits
- Free and informal associations of those who felt drawn to each other
- Met in frequent conferences for prayer and intimate discussion of personal experiences
- Each member of the congregation could join the band most congenial to him or one in whose leader he had special confidence
- The leader had the right to request that the applicant join another group
- There were specific groups for women that Lady Zinzendorf promoted
Later on, Zinzendorf addressed the bands in a congregational format (Hamilton 1967:36).
Characteristics of the Choirs
The early Moravians divided their congregations into choirs or groups according to age, sex and marital status. Thus, there were groups of widowers, widows, married people, single men, single women, older boys, older girls, little boys and little girls. Each group had their own meetings and the adult groups had their own houses where members lived and carried out their usual activities. [Customs] These were homogenous groups that gathered according to age and gender for the purpose of hearing the Word and common worship (Hamilton 1967:37).
Zinzendorf felt that the merits of Christ have significant in a mysterious way when applied to individuals of varying gender and age. With this in mind, he formed the choir system. Zinzendorf would speak to the various choirs according to the needs of each age group. Each choir had their own service, but also attended a general service together. To grant even more participation, each choir was broken up into bands which met for prayer, song, and testimony (Sessler 1933:98).
Separate Housing for the Choirs
Later, those choirs that remained on Zinzendorf’s estate participated in the economic and educational development of the Moravian community. Houses were built for the various choirs, and these choirs were instrumental in supporting the missionary movement (Sessler 1933:94). Distinct housing was also offered for the choirs in other lands. For example, Sessler writes about life for the Moravians in America in the year 1748,
The older girls were then in Bethlehem, and the younger girls in Nazareth, while the small boys were on Henry Antes’ farm. The married men and the married women lived separately in two buildings a short distance north of where the Church in Bethlehem now stands. Even the children of pre-school age were taken charge of by the Church. Supposedly these conditions of the choir were temporary.
Subordination of Nuclear Family
Hamilton notes, “In time the voluntary associations cultivated in the band were supplanted by compulsory membership in the choir with the subordination of family life which this institution produced in its heyday” (1967:37). It appears that in time the mandatory, age-divided choirs became more important than the family unit to the Moravians. One of the Moravians, Spangenberg, writes from America, “Our married people are living as if they were still traveling, the husbands and the wives and the children each for themselves” (quoted in Sessler 1933:96) (note 27).
From the earliest years children were taught that they belonged more to the Church than to their parents. They became the property of the Church, and it was expected that when they grew up they should serve the institution which had nurtured and cared for them in their childhood and adolescence. The basis for the wide-spread mission work of the Moravians is found chiefly in their firm belief that the Church had first claim on their lives…The claims of the Church upon the individual completely broke up the family circle. The training of the children by the Church and for the Church meant that they were taken from their parents at a tender age and put under the strict religious discipline of the institutionalized Choir houses, which in many respects resembled military academies more than homes. When later they were called upon to go into distant mission fields, their past training made it easier for them, since they had very few parental and home ties to break (1933: 98,99).
The Diaspora was a term for a person who was religiously awakened in the pietistic sense to follow hard after God and to pursue Christian holiness. This person was approved and sent out from a Moravian church as a witness to Christ (Stoeffler 1973:161).
These diaspora workers would start home studies for the personal of edification and holiness. Stoeffler comments, “The members met regularly for fellowship and mutual exhortation and usually in private homes. There was singing, prayers, testimonies, and the reading of sermons (Stoeffler 1973:161). During the eighteenth century, the Moravian approach to religious reality (through the diaspora) had such a responsive chord in the lives of the people that these groups had entered most of the section of Germany (Stoeffler 1973:162).
Critique Of Small Groups In Moravianism
Small groups within Moravianism are very complex. The interconnection between the bands, choirs, and the diaspora groups is not easy to follow. One gets the sense that the Moravian small group vision was very creative and contemporary for its time. For example, there was more than one type of group (diaspora groups versus choir groups), and there was flexibility in adapting the small group emphasis (the choir concept evolved from the bands)
The most impressive aspect of the Moravian small group system was the way that small groups were used for the cause of world missions. One notices many similarities in the Moravian small group system with the monastic bands of the middle ages. Both went forth in small groups to spread the gospel.
Further research is needed to determine how these seemingly ‘closed choirs’ integrated new members and exactly how the small groups related to the church structure—especially when a new church was started.
I personally was taken back by the fact that the Moravian choirs were used to separate children from parents and parents from children—for the cause of Christ’s church. In a day, when we’re just beginning to see the devastating affects that such a philosophy has on so many missionary children, I personally reacted very negatively to that aspect of the choir groups.
It’s fitting to study the Methodist movement after Morvianism. Why? Because it was highly influenced by the Moravians. Wesley understood what it meant to have a personal relationship with God as a result of coming into contact with Moravians; He derived many of his small group concepts from them as well. Brown states,
Zinzendorf’s band system was adapted by John Wesley as the basis for his band meetings. Wesley introduced them to give opportunity for mutual confession (according to James 5:16) and offering encouragement and support in overcoming temptation and developing a Christian lifestyle (1992:38).
In fact, he was so impacted by the Moravians that he went to Germany, met with Zinzendorf and spent several days at Herrnhut. Although he was critical about some of the features of the Moravian movement, he adopted several of their methods in his own ministry (Latourette 1975:1025).
Basic Facts of Methodism (note 28)
The history of Methodism is a history of the Wesleys and their activity in England. A few brief details about the history of this early movement will serve as helpful material before studying their small group movement in more detail.
Methodism originated as a reaction against the apathy that characterized the Anglican Church in the early eighteenth century. John and Charles Wesley were the sons of the Rev Samuel Wesley and his wife Suzanna, and were brought up in the Lincolnshire village of Epworth, where Samuel Wesley was the Anglican Rector. John studied for six years at Christ Church and subsequently became an Anglican Priest, being ordained in 1728.
The American Experience
In 1735 John and Charles both went out to preach in Georgia, USA but they had little success. However, on the journey out to Georgia, the Wesleys had been on board ship with a group of German Moravians, and, in the midst of fierce Atlantic storms, John had been most impressed, and indeed challenged, by the faith in God and the assurance that these Christians had. John and Charles longed for that sort of assurance for themselves.
It was on a Sunday in 1738, while Charles was recovering from an illness, that he had an experience of God which gave to him that assurance. A few days later on May 24th John was to know such an experience too, which he described in the now familiar words,
I went very unwillingly to a Society in Aldersgate Street where one was reading about Luther's preface to The Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine (Wesleyan Home Page)
Small Groups in Methodism
Many believe that it was because of small groups that Methodism became so exceedingly successful. T.A. Hegre believes so. He says,
I believe that the success of Wesley was due to his habit of establishing small groups. His converts would meet regularly in groups of about a dozen people. If the group became too large, it would divide, and it might continue to divide again and again (Hegre 1993:8).
Wesley’s Orientation toward Small Groups
God in His sovereignty prepares us for our future ministry. So it was for John Wesley. He was no stranger to small groups. Plueddeman writes,
His own mother , Susannah, had initiated home meetings in the parsonage years before. These began with devotional times which Susannah led for her children. A few neighbors asked to attend, and eventually the group grew to over 200 people. This venture eventually came to an end because of opposition from Susannah’s husband and other church leaders, but the vision for home groups would become an important dynamic in the ministry of her sons, John and Charles (1990:8).
Wesley’s Talents for Small Groups
Not only did Wesley have a small group background, but he also had an incredible ability to administrate. In fact, Wesley himself felt that his primarily talent and gifting had to do with the ability to organize people (Latourette 1975:1026).
Not only was he incredibly organized, but he also was very good at adapting the methodology of other people to suit his own ends. Latourette notes that he had “…an unusual capacity to accept suggestions and to adopt and adapt methods from various quarters” (Latourette 1975:1026). Hunter picks this up as well in even a broader way,
He learned from exposure to the home groups (the ecclesiolae in ecclesia) that the Lutheran Pietist leader Philip Jacob Spener developed to fuel renewal and outreach, and Wesley learned particularly from the Moravians. Wesley also learned from Anabaptist groups and from the occasional ‘societies’ with the church of England, so his group movement was ecletic Protestant (1996:84).
Wesley’s Vision for Small Groups
Wesley believed in the church. He believed in the New Testament church. Like, Bucer and Spener, he wanted God’s people to experience the community of the King. Therefore he became a student of the book of Acts and the New Testament model of the church. Hunter says,
He sensed that if he drew people together in cells to challenge and encourage each other to live daily as Christians, through their protracted experiences, the contagion and power of Apostolic church would move in human history once again (1996:84).
Wesley’s Small Group Organization
Not only did Wesley believe that small groups were God’s instrument to implement change, but God also gave him the understanding concerning how to do it.
The fundamental unit of Wesley’s small group organization was the class system. They were the base, the foundation, and the cornerstone of the Methodist organization. Without them, the Wesleyans would not have experienced their amazing success. Really, the word class is not the best word to describe this small group. We normally think of a class room with black board and eraser. That image doesn’t even come close, as we shall see.
There seems to be at least two reasons for the origin of the class meetings:
- The classes were originally organized as a plan for raising money. Each member was required to give one penny each week.
- In 1742, four years after starting the bands, there was the realization that too many Christians were falling away (Doyle 1989:112). Something had to be done, so the classes were started-- out of necessity
A large part of the success in the class system had to do with the leadership. Here are a few key principles that Wesley established:
- The leaders were appointed . In the bands, the leaders were elected by the group, but not in the classes (Pallil 1991:110)
- The majority of these lay leaders were women (Brown 1992:39).
- Selection of leadership was based on moral and spiritual character, as well as common sense (Brown 1992:39).
- In the classes, there was also plural leadership, that is, more than one leader. Spiritual oversight was shared (Doyle 1989:113).
- Groups were not started unless there was leadership to manage the group. Hunter notes, “He [Wesley] saw no virtue in starting new ministry or group life that dies soon after birth, or is stunted in growth” (Hunter 1989:119).
- The class leaders were in fact pastors. Snyder says, “This was the normal system, based in part on Wesley’s conviction that spiritual oversight had to be intimate and personal and that plural leadership was the norm in a congregation (Snyder 1980:58).
- The class leadership met weekly regularly with the upper society leadership. In other words, they practiced the Jethro model. Watson says, “They met weekly with the preacher appointed by Wesley as minister of their society, both to report on their members, and themselves to receive advice and instruction” (1986:38).
- The leader was usually male in mixed groups or in all male groups. A woman would lead the female groups (Pallil:1991:108).
Activity In Group
The class meeting was not a highly organized event. Although they would only meet for one hour, the main event was ‘reporting on your soul’ (Snyder 1980:55). The class had a similar progression:
- Open with song or prayer
- Leader shared religious experience
- Leader made inquiries about others
- Each person gave testimony to his or her spiritual condition
- Each member contributed to support of ministry
- Close in prayer
- A song or prayer
- David Lowes Watson, who wrote the book, Accountable Discipleship, which is a modern day manual on the class system, writes, “It was a weekly gathering, a sub-division of the society, at which members were required to give an account to one another of their discipleship, and thereby to sustain each other in their witness” (1986:13).
Probably the best way to describe the emphasis is in the word ‘transparency’. The meeting was build upon the sharing of personal experience of the past week (Pallil 1991:107).
Along with the idea of transparency in the class meeting was the goal of participation. Everyone was encouraged to be a part of the class, to share his or her experiences. Mallison writes,
Wesley not only reached the masses, he provided a structure in the local organization of Methodism which gave an utterly new set of opportunities for men and women to know themselves valued and useful. The class meeting was the basis of every Methodist society; every member was expected to belong, to speak freely and plainly about every subject for their own temptations to plans for establishing a new cottage meeting or visiting the distressed. Under this scheme working class men and women, who had no vote, no say in fixing wages and nothing to do with making decisions in society, found that they were not expected to take responsible leadership. They learned self confidence and the ability to organize and to speak public (1989:127,28)
From early on, Wesley learned the importance of allowing each member of the body to use his or her gift. In the early days, various members from the classes began to preach the gospel. Wesley hesitated. Was this from God? Yet, he heard the Word of the Lord from his mother Susannah. She told him that by not letting them preach that he would be quenching the Holy Spirit. He yielded, and lay preachers became an outstanding feature of Methodism” (Latourette1975:1027)..
How did the class meeting contribute to the overall objectives of the Methodist society? It seems that the class meetings kept the society under tight control, or discipline. Snyder says it this way, “The class meetings were not designed merely as Christian growth groups, however, or primarily as cells for koinonia, although in fact they did serve that function. Their primary purpose was discipline” (1980:38). As we’ll see, the band was more of the confessional unit, while the class was to bring order and control into the movement.
Wesley did not hesitate to expel someone from the society, if they were not following the Lord wholeheartedly. Wesley knew the condition of each member through the class accountability structures. Cell reports were regularly received. (Snyder 1980:57)
Before a person could even be part of the Methodist society, he or she had to join a class. To put it another way, in Methodism, you weren’t allowed to join the large group (society) before joining the small group (class) (Doyle 1989:113). How did the rest of the society know if one had been faithful in attending the classes and following the Lord? The members were issues tickets which had to be renewed every three months (Pallil 1991:105). Hunter notes,
…every Methodist belonged to a class. Indeed, the class was Methodism’s main point of entry for ‘awakened’ seekers who had not yet experienced justification and new life but who desired such experience. People, believes, and seekers, first joined a class that met weekly (1996:85).
Division & Size
Classes were divided according to where members lived (Pallil 1991:110); Bands were divided according to age and status. It seems that the class averaged from six to twelve people
One of the most exciting aspects of the class system was the evangelistic emphasis. Brown says,
The groups also had a clear evangelistic function as people were converted during the meetings and lapsed members were enabled to renew their commitment to Christ. Wesley knew that the beginnings of faith in a person’s life could be incubate into saving faith more effectively in a warm Christian environment that it could in the chill of the world” ( 1992:39).
Hunter echoes that fact, “To Wesley, evangelism…took place primarily in the class meetings and in people’s hearts in the hours following the class meetings (Hunter 1987:58).
In other words, Wesley did not have the crusade mentality that is sometimes more interested in decision than discipleship. Wesley wanted to ‘see’ if he person was really saved according to the fruit, rather than the decision itself. The beauty of the class meeting was that it was an evangelistic tool and at the same time a discipling instrument. Doyle states, “The classes served as an evangelistic tool (most converstions occurred in this context) and as a discipling agent” (Doyle 1989:113).
According to George Hunter, Wesley was a church growth strategist. Hunter comments, “He was driven to multiplying ‘classes’ for these served best as recruiting groups, as ports of entry for new people, and for involving awakened people with the gospel and power “ (Hunter 1987:56). Wesley would preach and then invite the people to join a class. His first objective in his preaching was the starting of classes (Hunter 1987:57).
Wesley’s preaching always had two primary objectives:
- To awaken people
- To enroll awakened people in a class, that is a lay led redemptive cell (Hunter 1987:58).
At the same time, Wesley would not start a class, if he couldn’t manage it. He would only start as many classes as could be effectively managed and he would not preach where he could not enroll people into classes (Hunter 1987:56).
It seems that most classes started from scratch. In other words, there wasn’t a lot of actual cell multiplication. Dean says, “Cell division was much less common than might have been expected. The formation of new classes was by far the most frequent approach to growth “ ( Dean 1985:266).
Bands represented another level in Methodist organization.
- The bands were started in 1738--before the classes. They followed the Moravian pattern by forming the overall society into bands in order to aid the spiritual nourishment of each member (Latourette 1975: 1026).
- At one time, there were several types of bands, but eventually they were dissolved and the classes took their place (Pallil 1991:105).
- The Penitent Bands were provided for people who had fallen away from serious discipleship and were now seeking restoration (Hunter 1996:85)
- About six people were in each band
- The bands were organized according to sex, age, and marital status (Brown 1992:38).
- Only about 20% of Methodists ever joined a band (Dolyle 1989L112).
- Unlike the classes, attendance in the bands was not required.
There were several requirement for the band:
- Let nothing spoken in this Society be spoken again, no, not even to the members of it
- Every member agrees to submit to the minister in all indifferent things
- The members should have all things in common (material goods)
Activity In The Band
There were four questions that were asked in the bands:
- What known sins have you committed since the last meeting?
- What temptations have you met with?
- How were you delivered?
- What have you thought, said, or done which may or may not be sin?
Doyle sums up the purpose of the bands quite well,
…these were small groups of around six members, men and women in separate groups, who met weekly for confession of sin and pastoral care. Only people assured of salvation could join and only those who desired a deeper, more intimate fellowship (1989:112)
The society was the congregational level, as we know it. People who remained committed in their pursuit of a new life, and attended the class meeting regularly were automatically made part of the society after three months (Hunter 1996: 85)
Hunter makes an important comparison,
A Methodist Society was composed of the sum total of classes attached to it. As one’s membership in early Christianity was primarily to a house church and somewhat secondarily to the whole Church within the city, so in early Methodism one’s primary membership was in the class and somewhat secondarily in the society (1996:85)
Wesley acted very much like a Moses in the supervision of his system. He kept on stepping back and delegating to higher levels of leadership. Latourette says,
For a time Wesley himself visited each of the societies to supervise them and enforce discipline. As they increased this became impossible and he assembled his preachers in ‘annual conferences…“As societies and preachers further grew in numbers, he established ‘circuits’ with traveling preachers and soon, as an assistant to himself, a superintendent’ was placed in charge of each circuit. He himself kept an autocratic control of the whole (1027).
The Growth of the Movement
We are told that eventually, hundreds of thousands of people participated in the small group system (Brown 1992:39). Snyder reports, “By the time Methodism had reached 10,000 members at the end of the century, the movement must have had over 10,000 class and band leaders with perhaps an equal or larger total of other leaders (Snyder 1980:63). This system of bands and classes continued for over a century (Snyder 1980:62). Here are some exciting facts:
- 1738 movement began
- 1768 forty circuits with 27,341 members
- 1778 sixty circuits with 40,089 members
- 1788 99 circuits with 66,375 members
- 1798 149 circuits with 101, 712 members
Critique of Small Groups in Methodism
I only have the highest praise for Wesley and his small group system. In my opinion Wesley is the forerunner of the modern cell movement. Like no one before him, he combined discipleship with evangelism. One can ‘read’ Wesley from the stand point of his evangelistic emphasis (Hunter) or his discipleship focus (Snyder). Actually, both are true.
Wesley used the Jethro system before it was popularized. He was a master at delegation and organization, and the fruit of his system still stands as example for us today.
Chapter 7:The Modern Small Group Movement
I see five major streams or players on the small group scene today. I have included these five in the following chart:
|SMALL GROUP MOVEMENT||COVENANT MODEL||SERENDIPITY MODEL||PURE CELL MODEL||META MODEL|
|Small Groups in General||Pietistic Emphasis||Parachurch/church emphasis||Pure Cell/Celebration Emphasis||Adapted Cell/Celebration|
|Support Groups Church Groups||Roberta Hestenes||Lyman Coleman||Paul Cho and Ralph Neighbour||Carl George|
The Small Group Movement
In the U.S. alone, it is estimated that 75 million out of the estimated 200 million adults are in a small group (Wuthnow 1994:370). One out of six of those 75 million people are new members of the small group movement, thus disclosing, that at least in the U.S., the small group movement is alive and growing (Wuthnow 1994:371). After listing twenty new innovations in the modern U.S. church scene Schaller says, “…perhaps most important of all, 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” (1995:14). William Beckham wrote the book The Second Reformation to express forcefully his conviction that the church is the midst of a new small group revolution (1995:66,67).
The Covenant Model
As mentioned earlier, this model is a descendent of he Pietist movement. The main spokeswomen today for this model is Roberta Hestenes (1983) (note 29). Her definition for this model is the following: A Christian group is an intentional face-to-face gathering of 3 to 12 people on a regular time schedule with the common purpose of discovering and growing in the possibilities of the abundant life in Christ (Coleman 1993:4:5).
From the definition it is obvious that this type of group is directed toward committed believers. This model is being used today in the same way that it was used in the Pietistic movement—for the spiritual reformation of the church. One of the major goals of this model is to create long term community. There is a need for strong commitment and a high level of accountability (Coleman 1993:4:7).
Although strong on Christian responsibility and commitment, Coleman makes a wise observation, “Unchurched, non-Christians would not be interested in this type of group. There is no mechanism built into the system for the Covenant groups to multiply, or to close with honor. Frequently, Covenant groups will last until they die a horrible death” (Coleman 1993: 4: 7).
The Serendipity Model
The founder of this approach is Lyman Coleman, who has been a small group leader for some four decades (Coleman 1993: 4:17). Coleman was especially influenced by Sam Shoemaker, who the pastor of Calvary Episcopal Church in New York City. Sam believed that all of the people around his church were his parish. His church grew in its vision to reach out to the entire parish. This vision to reach out to all people has greatly influenced Lyman Coleman (Coleman 1993: 4:17). He says, “The heart of the Serendipity model is the broken people at the door…the intention is to create a small group system where people outside the church can find a place of entry and be transformed” (Coleman 1993:4:19).
Perhaps this model is best understood by the characteristics that distinguish it from other models:
- There is a definite beginning and end
Although his earlier models consisted of shorter time period groups, now Lyman Coleman suggest a one year time period. He says, “The end is marked by a period of releasing where everyone responds to his new calling” (Coleman 1993: 4:21)
- A democracy of options
People can be in a group whether or not they are members of the church or even attend the worship services. Coleman believes that this is a distinct from Paul Cho’s model (1993 4:21).
- Integrated model
There is a place for all kinds of groups in the church. “This model can also include traditional Sunday school, where people who are already involved can find a place for sharing and caring” (1993: 4:21)
- Collegiate system
This approach is similar to the old Sunday School system where there was a definite departure from one class and entrance into another class (Coleman 1993: 4:21). “This model has a two-semester structure, with ‘kick offs’ twice a year and closure at the end of each semester. There is also a graduation/celebration at the end of the year” (Coleman 1993: 2:21).
Dr. Coleman is truly an expert on small groups. In my opinion, his knowledge of how small groups function is second to none. The many books that his publishing house has produced have also had a powerful impact on the small group movement in America. Seminars about small groups are being conducted throughout the United States as a result of Serendipity and those influenced by this movement (note 30).
However, I feel that this model as a church based model was weak in several key areas. First, although cell group multiplication is mentioned as a possibility (or one option) in this model, it’s not given a high priority.
Second, it seems that the bulk of Coleman’s teaching relates to the quality of small group life, wherever that small group might be or whatever that small group might do (the variety of small groups that he promotes are dizzying). In other words, my general impression is that his model is not sufficiently centered in the church.
The Meta Model
The Meta Model was pioneered by Carl George. It is his attempt to adapt cell group principles and church growth found in the third world to a North American context (Coleman 1993:4:12). One of the key features of this model is the Jethro system which is based upon Jethro’s council to Moses to decentralize (Exodus 18), so that everyone would receive proper care (Coleman 1993:13).
Original Version of the Meta Model
In George’s first book dedicated to cell ministry, Prepare Your Church for the Future, the Meta Model is introduced. The underlying thrust of George’s thinking is that because small group ministry has worked so effectively in large, growing churches around the world, it should be adapted to work in any size church, whether in North America or overseas. His overriding emphasis throughout the book is that our current models of church ministry simply do not provide sufficient quality care to sustain a growing church (1991:57-84).
I like to talk about the original version of the Meta Model because it seems that his first book comes very close to describing the pure cell approach used in most cell churches around the world. Throughout the book, the clear, overriding focus is on the home cell group which emphasize both pastoral care and evangelism (note 31). The book had a powerful impact on the North American church scene because George gives fresh, new North American terminology to the cell-based concepts that have worked so well overseas. In Prepare Your Church for the Future, there is no doubt that George is setting forth a new model of ministry for the church in North America and around the world.
Latest Version of the Meta Model
In his most recent book, The Coming Church Revolution , George seems to redefine his so-called Meta Model. Instead of promoting a model, he now talks about a way of analyzing your church,
Meta-Church thinking examines the degree to which a church has been ‘cellularized,’ and its leadership linked… It tries to discern the degree to which group leaders are in fact convening their people, and the degree to which coaches are in fact working with group leaders. The Meta-Church, then,…is an X ray to help you look at what you have in order to figure out what’s mission (George 1994: 279,280).
In other words, instead of promoting a model, George is saying that he is providing the church with a way of discerning their small group involvement and how (or if) they are moving toward a purer cell group approach. George insists throughout his new book that the Meta approach is simply a way of seeing (X-ray machine) what you already have.
In this latest book, George spends most of the time describing his mapping strategy called the Meta Globe (note 32). In the end, George’s new thinking (or perhaps the real model that didn’t appear in his first book) appears much like the Serendipity model. For example, he says,
Cells include Sunday-School classes, ministry teams, outreach teams, worship-production teams, sports teams, recovery groups, and more… any time sixteen or fewer people meet together, you have a small-group meeting(1994:69,70)
He goes on to redefine the Sunday School, "The phrase cell groups refers to an encompassing care system that includes Sunday School. A Sunday school is simply a centralized, on premises cell system. Churches should have as many Sunday schools as they can afford"(1994: 284).
Meta Model in the U.S.
Many churches are experimenting with the Meta Model throughout the United States with some exciting results. In Carl George’s most recent book, The Coming Church Revolution, he provides vignettes about forty churches that are currently using the Meta Model (1994: 9,10). I did case studies on five growing churches in the U.S. that are all using the Meta Model:
|Willow Creek Community Church||approx.- 16,000|
|Saddleback Church||approx.- 11,000|
|New Hope Community Church||approx.- 4,000|
|Cincinnati Vineyard||approx.- 3,500|
|Fairhaven Alliance Church||approx.- 1,500|
The Pure Cell Model
It seems to me the most radical, exciting small group model today is the pure cell model. The growth in the cell churches around the world has been so incredible that it has caused the Christian church to rethink it’s strategies and priorities.
Key Spokesperson— Ralph Neighbour
The one who has written the most extensively on the Pure Cell Model is Ralph Neighbour (1990). He also seems to have done the most research on cell-based churches worldwide, thus increasing the reliability of his studies. His writings are not only based on the careful study of cell ministry, but also on many years of personal experience.
This concept of the cell being the church and the church being the cell permeates all of Ralph Neighbour’s teaching and writing. He views the cell church as ushering in the second reformation (1990:6,7). When reading Neighbour, you get the impression that you should be either totally committed to the Pure Cell Model or you are against it by remaining in the traditional church structure. There is no middle ground.
Large Cell-Based Churches Today
This so called ‘cell-based’ movement is primarily a third world phenomena which is now taken very seriously by the West. Hadaway, Wright and DuBose confirm this fact when they write,
The catalyst which transformed the many unconnected attempts at Christian house groups into a movement was the emergence of new forms of church in the Third World. For centuries the Third World has been the recipient of missions and has often seen forms of church organization created in the West imposed upon itself with little attempt at adaptation….This situation is changing, however. The growth of the evangelical churches has been so great in Korea, all over Africa, and in certain parts of Latin America that the direction of the flow may be reversing (1987:15).
Perhaps it is because of this amazing growth that so many are turning to the cell church concept. One should take heed when a veteran church watcher like Elmer Towns says, “...the wave of the future is in body life through cell groups” (Elmer Towns in George 1993: 136).
Although I could talk about the cell church in Japan, Thailand, Mainland China, Macau, Hong Kong, Africa, England, and Australia, I will limit my general overview to Korea, Singapore, and Latin America (note 33).
The Korean model seems to be the most widely watched and copied model in the worldwide cell church today. Paul Cho’s Yoido Full Gospel Church is credited with being the foundational model of the modern cell group movement (Hadaway, Wright, Dubose 1987:19-21). Cho’s system of pastoral care (Hurston 1995: 62-80) has been replicated by many pastors and churches, and his success at cell multiplication is esteemed by all (note 34). It is very hard to dispute the incredible church growth that has taken place at Cho’s church. With more than 625,000 members (note 35) and 22,000 cell groups, pastor Cho´s church grows at a rate of 140 new members per day. Due to this incredible growth, Cho has found it necessary to plant churches of 5,000 members (Neighbour 1990:24). Cho attributes his churches’ rapid growth to the cell group ministry (note 36).
Hadaway, Wright, and DuBose make this comment,
The word spread that Paul Cho’s church and several other huge churches in Seoul reached their massive size through home cell groups and that the technique will work anywhere. A movement began, and pastors have flocked to Korea to learn….Churches all over the world are beginning to adopt the home cell group as an organizational tool….In a real sense, the growth of the Yoido Full Gospel Church and the Young Nak Presbyterian Church has galvanized attention around a new idea, created a focus, and birthed a movement which is just beginning to impact mainline denominations in the United States (1997:17).
When one thinks of aggressive evangelism and church growth in Korea, Pastor Cho’s church usually comes to mind. However, it must remember that there are nine other churches in Korea which have more than 30,000 members. All of them, without exception, have experienced rapid growth by structuring their church around the cell group ministry (George 1991:50).
In the early 1970s, only two percent of Singapore’s population were considered Christian. Today that number is around fourteen percent (Johnstone 1993:487) (note 37). Some of the most radical, exciting growth has come from the cell churches (Neighbour 1990:27,28). One such example is Faith Community Baptist Church which started in 1986 with 600 people. On May 1, 1988, with the help of Ralph Neighbour, the church totally restructured itself to become a full fledged cell church (Tan 1994:8). Today, between the 7000 to 8000 people which attend this church are personally pastored by the 500 active cell groups. Founding pastor Lawrence Khong says this about their cell strategy,
There is a vast difference between a church with cells and a cell church….We don’t do anything else except the cell. All the things the church must do—training, equipping, discipleship, evangelism, prayer, worship—are done through the cell. Our Sunday service is just the corporate celebration (Farrell 1996:55).
Khong’s church has so successfully modeled the cell-based philosophy of ministry that some 6000 people now attend their yearly cell seminar. It’s interesting to note that the vast majority of those who attend are from the two-third’s world (note 38).
Patrick Johnstone describes Latin America as “one of the great evangelical successes of the 20 th century (1993:65). Evangelicals have grown from between 200-300,000 in 1900 to 46 million in 1990, which means that now more than eleven percent of Latin America is evangelical (Johnstone 1993:65). The lead article in the June edition of the magazine Charisma captures this incredible growth. It’s entitled, “ Latin America’s Sweeping Revival”. The subheading of this same article declares, “Researchers say 400 people are converted to Christianity in Latin America every hour (Miller 1996:32). I am currently doing research for Dr. Wagner to discover those churches in Latin America which have an average attendance of more than 5000. We have currently located over sixty such churches, but we expect to find at least one hundred before our research is completed. Yes, Latin America is in the midst of a great harvest.
As was mentioned in my problem statement, my research focus for the Ph.D. here at Fuller is to analyze prominent cell-based churches in Latin America. The five churches that were chosen include:
|Misi ó n Cristiana Elim
|Pastor Jorge Galindo||100,000 attending in 1996
|La Misi ón Carismática Internacional
|Pastor C é sar Castellaños||35,000 members en 1996
|El Centro Cristiano
|Pastor : Jerry Smith||10,000 attending in 1996
|El Amor Viviente
|Pastor Rene Pe ñalva||7,000 attending in 1996
|El Agua Viva
|Pastor Juan Capuro||5,000+ attending in 1996
One of the churches that I will study is called the International Charismatic Mission (La Iglesia Carismática Internacional). Pastor César Castellanos has led this church from eight members thirteen years ago to the present 35,000 (Guell 1996:42). Reporting on this church, Guell writes,
…the Castellanos attribute the church’s growth to their emphasis on home cell-groups---a focus they believe the Lord gave them after they visited David Yonggi Cho’s Yoido Full Gospel Church in South Korea….Today, Charismatic Mission has 2,600 home cell-groups for adults and 1,300 for youths. Each group meets weekly and has 10 to 15 members (1996:44).
Many cell churches are springing up across Latin America. Perhaps the cell church that is the most well-known is the Elim Church (Misión Elim) in El Salvador. This cell church has grown so rapidly that it now has a membership of 120,000 (note 39). Bethany World Prayer Center, the 7000 member cell church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana regularly sends their staff to the Elim Church to receive training in cell ministry. Other cell churches in Latin America have also received their initial vision from this church (note 40).
Chapter 8: Conclusion
This tutorial has been both stretching and rewarding. It has given me loads of insight, and at the same time, stirs me to want to do more research. In the upcoming months, I will be digesting the facts that I uncovered in this study.
However, I have learned some distinct lessons, as a result of this tutorial:
- The history of the small group movement must be seen within the cultural realities of each particular time period. In other words, it’s extremely hard to criticize past small group movements, due to the varied social, political, and religious situation.
- One must be cautious about the potential for small group divisiveness. This study has pointed out the potential for division in small groups. I believe that small groups encouraged the separation tendencies among the Anabaptists.
- One must grant liberty to the laity to minister through small groups. This is the other side of point three. Luther, for example, exercised too much caution concerning small groups, and therefore he did not take his reform far enough.
- The cell-celebration paradigm is the best model to follow. It seems to me that the most successful models maintained a healthy balance between cell and celebration (e.g., Early Church, Bucer, Pietism, Wesley, and the Modern Pure Cell System)
- Evangelism and discipleship are both needed. There seemed to be a tendency throughout church history to emphasize one or the other. In my opinon both are essential.
My favorites models due to their effectiveness and balance were:
- The justification for a the broad, historical approach to small group ministry is to depict general patterns and similarities that were utilized throughout history. For my current Ph.D. research, it seems more important for me to understand the interconnectedness of small group ministry since Biblical times, rather than become an expert on just one movement.
- In Gareth Icenogle’s book, Biblical Foundations For Small Group Ministry, he seems to imply that the key Biblical theme in the Bible is small groups. Personally, I could not agree.
- Gareth Icenogle spends 105 pages describing the Old Testament foundations for Small Group Ministry. From my perspective, Gareth tries to see the Old Testament from ‘small group eyes’, and he comes dangerously close to ‘eisagesis’ (reading into the text) instead of ‘exagesis’ (taking out of the text what it really says). I would therefore be hesitant to read small group implications into general O.T. concepts.
- I did case studies of five Meta Model churches and three Pure Cell churches. All of them, without exception referred to Jethro’s advice to Moses as the basis for their cell leader care. In fact, I would even be so bold to say that it is the one common element that unites both systems.
- In Larry Stockstill’s church ( Bethany World Prayer Center) the zone leaders are on staff.
- In practically all pure cell churches, the district pastor is on staff. In Cho’s church there are pastors of district pastors and the Jethro model continues to reach up to the very top.
- It should be noted that in some cell churches, the cell leader baptizes and serves communion to those under his or her care.
- At Bethany World Prayer Center, the district pastors would hold congregational Sunday p.m. services once per month. One of the district pastors would preach.
- Cho said this during the Church Growth Lectures at Fuller Seminary in 1984
- Some cell reports go into great detail. The reports at Bethany World Prayer Center include the activities of the cell leader during the week—number of visits, time spent in preparation, etc.
- Many of the early church fathers (e.g., Cyprian) made extensive lists that supposedly connected the bishops at that time to the Peter himself.
- Most of the background material used in this chapter were derived from the lectures of Dr. Rosell. I took a correspondence course in 1995 from Columbia International University in which Dr. Rosell, Ph.D.., was the lecturer. This course covered the time period from the birth of the church to the Reformation.
- A case in point is the Donatist & Novatian schisms. As I’ve studied church history, it always amazes me how seemingly minor differences could result in severe excommunication and possibly even death.
- Larry Kreider is the author of House to House (Touch, 1995). He referred to this conversation with Cho during his panel discussion at the Post Denominational seminar on May 22, 1996. Cho reportedly made this comment several year earlier.
- These groups were a persecuted minority, so I assume that they were forced to meet in small groups. However, I lack any information which states that small group meetings were a highlight of these two movements.
- I heard this comment during Bethany’s annual Cell Conference which I attended in June, 1996.
- In certain monasteries, they would only eat once a day and bath twice a year (Rosell 1995: Tape 12).
- Considering the authority and respect that Luther possessed at that time, it seems to me that he could have brought about this structural change.
- He allowed the laity to partake in the bread as well as the cup during the Eucharist. I also understand that he implemented various changes in the mass (emphasis on preaching, etc.)
- Obviously, the Anabaptist Movement reacted to the lack of reform that they detected.
- It seems to me that at times, Luther pitted the one against the other. Luther felt that small group meetings would give the wrong impression by ‘acting’ as if the group was more holy than the rest of the church. Bucer’s stance appears more Scriptural in that he held the doctrine of justification and sanctification in the proper tension.
- Latourette notes that Luther was not entirely in accord with this set up due to the fact that it did not ‘fully accord with his basic principle of salvation through faith’ (1975:775). Calvin avoided it somewhat by teaching that only the elect would ultimately be saved and not because one was baptized as an infant (1975:778).
- Through the inter library system, I obtained an entire dissertation about small groups within Anabaptism and Pietism. Although the dissertation was filled with quotes from Anabaptists about their beliefs, the author could only repeat the fact they they were always meeting in small groups, rather than providing references from their writings (or the writings of others) concerning what they believed about small groups. . Since this dissertation came from a Mennonite seminar, I’m sure the author had the resources available. Again, it could be that there are a lot of quotes about small group philosophy within Anabaptist circles; I simply do not know of it.
- I’m not saying that their convictions were wrong, but I am saying that there is a great danger in this type of independent Bible study atmosphere.
- It’s interesting to me that in all the reading I did on Pietism, no reference is made to Bucer’s influence on Spener with regard to small group reform.
- We often think of koinonia in terms of ‘fellowship’ in an intimate, spiritual sense. Yet, in Luke 5:7 the Greek word ‘Koinonia’ is used in terms of partnership (the disciples catching fish together). In cell group circles today this emphasis on small group partnership in order to ‘catch fish’ is a needed, and powerful emphasis. It’s not enough to sit around and ‘grow spiritually’. A group needs to have koinonia in the sense of working together to reach a lost world for Christ.
- I believe that the word ‘traveling’ is a reference to I Cor. 7:29-31 where talks about a married brother or sister acting as if he or she was not married.
- Most of this history was adapted from the Methodist home page on the world wide web. I did adapt their basic article.
- She has become very well known for her expertise in small group ministry in general and in particular for being the spokesperson for this model. She received her doctorate from Fuller Seminary and was also a professor there. Now she is the president of Eastern Seminary.
- Dr. Richard Peace has long been connected with Dr. Coleman and now has started his own seminar ministry called Pilgrimage Ministries. These small group seminars are having a powerful impact throughout the U.S.
- Chapter six called, “Identify Your Mice” promotes the identification of any type of small group in the church. This is unique from most cell-based churches. However, very little is mentioned about this philosophy in Prepare Your Church for the Future.
- According to George its a way of analyzing your church by placing all of the ministries into various categories.
- In these three countries, there are well-known cell seminars conducted from the major cell churches.
- Writer’s such as Carl George, Dale Galloway, and Ralph Neighbour use Paul Cho’s church as their primary example of success.
- This number has been disputed recently. For example, John Vaughn’s most recent list of the world’s 50 largest churches claims that there are 320,000 people attending Cho’s church each week with an additional 280,000 meeting in satellite locations. However, Karen Hurtson’s recent case study analysis ( Growing the World’s Largest Church, 1995) declares that there are 720,000 members at the Yoido Full Gospel Church (17).
- During his 1984 church growth lectures at Fuller Seminary, Cho oftentimes mentioned that the cell group ministry has been the key to the amazing growth that they have experienced.
- This number includes Catholics. The Protestant church stands at eight percent.
- This information comes from Jim Egli of Touch Ministry, Ralph Neighbour’s organization. He told me by telephone (week of June 24, 1996) that about 50 of the 6000 people who attend the cell seminar at the Faith Community Baptist Church are from North America.
- Dr. Ralph Neighbour mentioned this statistic in his presentation at the Post-Denominational Seminar on May 22, 1996.
- The 10,000 member Faith, Love, and Peace Church in Mexico sends their staff to the Elim Church for training.
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