Starting Over

joelI remember when I visited Faith Community Baptist Church in Singapore in 1997. They had a policy back then that if a group didn’t multiply within a certain time NEWLIFEperiod, they would reshuffle the members around to other groups (I believe it was a one-year time frame). I personally don’t agree with such a strict policy, but on the other hand, there are times when a group is unhealthy and needs to start afresh.

The fact is that some small groups never go beyond themselves. No one is willing to enter the prescribed training and lead a new group (or be part of a new group leadership team). Eventually, the leader becomes over-burdened and decides to quit.

I led one group for a couple years and eventually had to close it. The group simply was not healthy. I decided it was better to integrate the remaining members into other groups and start a new group from scratch.

Have you every had to close a group? Start a fresh? Share you experience.

Joel Comiskey

16 thoughts on “Starting Over

  • I had to close a group a long time ago because no one in the group wanted to take over for the burned-out leader. It was a growing group too, but the leader refused to involve others in the planning and then experienced a great deal of emotional anxiety about it as well as life in general.

    That night, on the way home from the meeting, I cried like a baby. I felt like the guy who told a large family of children that their parents were abandoning them and they had to find new families on their own… even though I worked very hard to help every one of them find a new group.

    Sadly, only half found new groups and the other half, the new believers, completely dropped out of church life altogether.

    I vowed never to close another group but to do everything in my power to keep them vibrant, or cherry pick the group for new group leadership instead of closing it due to inactivity.

    I was a new group coach then. I should have seen it coming. Now, I can smell stagnation before the leader sees it and the members feel it and I take action. I visit the group, ask them what their plans are for outreach, knowing I will get blank stares and dumbfounded looks.

    Then I visit the group two more weeks in a row and ask them the same question every week until I hear them voice plans for growth and then we pray together about those plans.

    Never again. Closing groups is a forced divorce and only proves to me that the coach has been lazy or completely clueless, and moreover, the church leaders have done a poor job of casting vision to the MEMBERS of what a group is supposed to be about in a motivating way. Telling people what they’re supposed to do does not seem to work and this is not effective vision casting. Taking them by the hand and personally showing them how to reach out effectively is what is required and this is casting a vision that a group member can easily grasp because people learn by doing, not by hearing alone.

    If one of my groups refuses to reach out, I go to phase two of my plan. I work with my pastor as a coach to form a brand new group and ask one or two couples from the stagnant group to leave as “home missionaries” (the term really communicates a lot) and plant a new group. This changes the dynamics of their old group and gives them a new challenge. This often eliminates the need to dissolve a group.

    Group closure always creates strays… church members who “want a break” or “don’t have time for group life any more” or whatever. I’d rather take a couple out of a stagnant group every four to six months and insert them into a new group or a weak group that needs a couple with their life experience, age, or spiritual maturity than close the group down flat out.

    My opinion would be that if a church has to close groups often due to the groups being inward and stagnant, this is not the fault of the group leaders or the group members for that matter. The church leaders formed groups too quickly with members who knew what they were to do, but were never shown how to do it. And that’s what I call a “typical program based design launch:” Gather potential leaders, train them rapidly, set a date for launching as many groups as possible by counting “trained” leaders, and bada bing… instant stagnant cell groups.

    If the members of the first groups aren’t reaching friends for Christ and leading a life full of prayer, one cannot assume they will instantly start being this way when they join a group and are told to become a different kind of Christian overnight.

  • Thanks, Randall, for your insightful comments. I was in one large cell church which had the policy that it was a SIN TO CLOSE A GROUP. While I disagree with labeling group closure a SIN, I like what you said about failure often coming from the lack of coaching or overall cell structure.

  • I believe this is one reason why the preference at Yoido is to have group leaders be persons with the gift of evangelism. That would help evangelism to be more naturally the center of the group because it would be the natural interest of the leader – although they have many groups which likewise do not convert anyone in a years time, much less multiply.

    C. Peter Wagner estimates that 5-10% of church members have the spiritual gift of evangelism (Schwarz, Natural Church Development, 34-35).The theory I had in my DMin research – still basically untested – was that organizing groups around a persons with the gift of evangelism would help a group grow to the point of multiplication. Secondly, a group with no person gifted in evangelism who participated would be likely to not grow. Such a group could still work however to win the lost. Third, if such a group continued to reach out, it would begin to rapidly grow following the addition of a person with the gift of evangelism. As the new converts would likely be the fruit of that person’s work, there should be little resistance to them multiplying off with that person to form a new group… with a very high energy level for evangelism.

    I would also assume that a group with a balance of all five levels of maturity would be much more able to set a growing pace than a group where the average participant was very new to the faith – this would force the group to focus on the very elementary things – sort of a spiritual daycare. It would take a long time for leadership for a new group to develop.

    It’s so easy for a group to settle into taking care of “us” and forgetting the purpose of the Great Commission. Just as easy for me as well.

  • I think you’ve touched on a great point, David. The issue of how to keep a group moving forward is critical. I’ve found that fellowship/community comes naturally but reaching out and multiplying does not. Lately I’ve felt renewed passion to take group members through the training track. Most of the concepts of evangelism and multiplication are discussed in the training track and there’s more possibility for group members to really catch the reasons for evangelism and multiplication. The WITNESS time is important but often doesn’t do enough to change values. Thanks for your comments.

  • I formalized a process developed by Neil Cole into a recipe I call the “Prayer Tool.” It’s simple enough to teach cell members – you’ll find it on pages 9-11 of the download file entitled “Seminar Three – Decision” on the Resources page at http://www.disciplewalk.com. I also teach it in an extended version in my online course which is open to anyone.

    If the central purpose of the cell is evangelism, some part of this topic needs to be moved from discussion in the training track to discussion in the cell. Perhaps there’s some way to create “baby steps” which are within the reach of even the newest Christian. Otherwise we are left in the cell with the same failed “come structure” model as the traditional church on a smaller scale – evangelism is something the leaders do and the role of the laity is to invite outsiders to attend.

    How to avoid that reality is a huge challenge – one that may be beyond me as I find myself continually, despite all my awareness and concerns, simply repeating the old traditional methods in new ways that don’t work. It’s a constant struggle for me.

    PS In my system, I propose five levels of spiritual maturity. Fellowship/community cycles around level 1-2. Levels 3-5 involve reaching out and multiplying. It makes perfect sense and should work great for you to use the training track as a means to take people upward when they are ready for a higher level of service. Different events and experiences can function as “rites of passage” to help people move upward to the next higher level. What I struggle with is my desire for the group to move onward as a unit … but people ripen at different speeds.

  • Hey, Jeff, as far as I know, YOIDO doesn’t close groups. They do send leaders to prayer mountain to pray for their EVANGELISM goals, but the groups stay open while they are praying.

  • I believe you are both right but that the plan in principle is for new cell leadership to be appointed if the leader does not correct this failing. As this would be culturally embarrassing, it would be a strong motivator. That’s the plan.

    From Chapter 2, Resources page, http://www.disciplewalk.com, p. 74: “Conversion growth at Yoido Church is not uniform. Half of the cell leaders in one survey by Hurston reported no conversions in the previous year, while others reported from one to twenty-three; some groups, then, primarily provide pastoral care to their members. If the cell is left without the presence of an evangelistically gifted person, they are less likely to be successful in reaching out, but eventually growth will resume when an evangelistically gifted person is converted. Many section leaders over three to eight cells report conversions of over one hundred families in their section. Hurston reports one section in 1983 leading over three hundred families to Christ and church membership.”

    (Footnote #93: Karen Hurston, Growing the World’s Largest Church, 218, 73. This was a random sample of 340 cell leaders from eight districts.)

    I found Hurston’s book, now out of print, invaluable for understanding just how it all works. There are used copies available through Amazon.com.

    So, like all human beings, practice lags behind the ideals we commit to.

    The goal is for each cell group to win two individuals to Christ each year. That would be 140,000 converts annually with 70,000 cell groups. The reality, Cho said in 2001, is 20,000 converts – which is still unequaled. (From Seminar 1, quoting from Rick Warren’s Ministry Toolbox, Issue #17, 7/25/2001, http://www.pastors.com/RWMT/?ID=17&artid=578&expand=1)

    So they would have to close a LOT of cell groups – if they closed them for not multiplying or not even converting two people. It would take several years for a cell to grow to multiplication at that rate.

    What’s interesting is the pace of evangelism and other things seems to me to be very slow and deliberate at Yoido, although they are staffed with the 5×5 with plenty of leadership to fully exploit opportunities when the Spirit brings a mass movement of conversions.

  • Dear Brother in the Lord,

    I am thankful to receive your email about cell group which are not healthier to be closed.

    Personally I think that it is not closing that cell group which is the solution, but I think that the problem comes from the leadership because it is always known that the flock follow the example of their leader.May the leader need to spend much time with God in prayer, for power to see Spiritual revival come into his cell group.I believe much prayer, much revival, less prayer less revival and no prayer, no revival.

    We are not doing the work of God using our own stenght, we need the Holy Spirit to help us through prayer and meditation of the word of GOD.

    May God bless you so much as you are building His Kingdom,

    Yours in Christ,
    Gideon

  • ALL OF YOUR INSIGHTS INTO THE REALITY OF CELL MINISTRY IS SO TRUE. A CLOSE MIX OF SO MANY PERSONALITIES CAN BE CHALLANGING. ESPECIALLY IN THE USA. WE ARE SO ME ORIENTED, AN EXTREMELY SELFISH SOCIETY. A TOUGH SITUATION TO CONTEND WITH. GODS GRACE TO ALL…….

    S. EATON

  • Con respecto al comentario de cerrar una celula que no se biparte en un año como maximo, me parece que si se dió un trabajo de supervision y ánimo, al no bipartirse, debe mirar si hubo al menos algun bautizado que signifignifique crecimiento.Si hubo, entonces dejarlo un tiempo mas, alimentarlo y darle ánimo si aun no se biparte, entonces opino que debe cerrarse y mandar a los miembros a otras celulas que este creciendo. Gracias y saludos

  • Thanks Joel for the entry… being a novice house church network leader, I’m learning a lot about cell/house church dynamics and about people in general. I understand the points being brought up [in the responses] about poor leadership and the fact that if you lead well people will follow. I buy that mostly.

    But there’s an element of me that thinks it’s far more grey than just getting people on an outreach plan. And I think it’s unreal to hold the leader solely responsible… it’s as if the sheep bear no responsibility of their own. We’re not trying to grow a church, we’re trying to make disciples right? I find more and more that most Christians aren’t lacking good training… they’re just lacking a desire/accountability to be obedient. Of course… training helps a lot and leadership is crucial. I’m not discounting that. But our churches are filled with people who know what to do and just aren’t willing to do what they already know. Good leadership helps… helps a lot. But the people, especially those who have been Christians for quite some time shouldn’t be left without accountability. Even if they didn’t have a leader at all, most Christians know what to do… and are unwilling to step up and follow Jesus [as opposed to following a leader]. If we’re about making disciples and not just adherents to a group and a church… then we should be equipping our people to listen for the Holy Spirit, to learn to feed themselves and follow his lead… and not just getting them on a plan to get more people into groups.

    In response to Joel’s original post – there are times where people aren’t willing to do anything [me-ism?]… maybe the state of the NA church? One thing is reaching out to friends… the others are actively engaging scripture, genuinely loving others, living in obedience, being open to God bringing healing to deep pains, etc. Either way if there’s a lack of desire for outreach, likely there’s a lack of desire for all the rest too. And that lack of desire makes good leadership almost meaningless and closing a group a viable [though not preferred] LAST resort.

  • Steve Bowman gave me permission to post his email to me. here it is:

    Thank you for the your commitment to the cell church and the great website.
    I agree that there are times that a cell group should be what I call redirected. Outreach and individual spiritual growth are not an optional concept in the Bible. By allowing people to stagnate we build weakness into there lives. Unfortunately much of the church in America is overly concerned with making everyone confortable and happy, we don’t want to offend anyone. The Word of God clearly states that His Word is profitable for doctrine, reproof and correction that the man of God may be throughly furnished unto all good works.
    Many people if allowed, will sit in a church or small group for a lifetime soaking up doctrine and never apply it. We are to be doers of the word and not hearers only. Confronting weakness was a large part of Jesus’ ministry and should be a normal part our christian walk. We have become so politically correct and so much humanism has crept into the church that in to many cases we have lost our salt.
    I applaud the minister who walking in love can reprove and correct doctrinal and practical error to bring about growth and spiritual maturity.
    There are many tremendous biblical examples of exposed sin or error that once corrected led to great faith and movements of God.
    Joel, your minstry is blessing to the Body of Christ!

    In His love,
    Steve Bowman

  • Joel, I just forwarded your email to a church I am serving as a consultant. They have a history of a cell model but have lost focus in recent years. They are seeking to find their way back and your article and the links are some excellent resources for both leaders and coaches to leaders. Thanks, Roy

  • THANKS FOR ALL YOUR POSTS THUS FAR. Elton, you are absolutely right on that MEMBERS NEED TO BE HELD ACCONTABLE AS WELL. Aren’t we all priests of the living God? Leaders are not the only ones who should be helf accountable for sick cells. . . .

  • Joel,
    I have found in our demographic that gauge group health in 1-year is a little pre-emptive… meaning, groups are just staring to get to know one another, get transparent and understand the seriousness of committment. I agree with everything your saying in this article, but would change the numbers to be 2nd year…. IMHO… which aint worth much…

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