More Than Fellowship

joelCommunity or fellowship is an essential part of any cell group. My next book, The Relational Disciple, is all about how God uses community to shape followers of Jesus. Yet, the cell group is not only about community. The greatest difference, in fact, between cell groups and other “small groups” is the emphasis on evangelism and multiplication in the cell. This emphasis doesn’t neglect community/fellowship, it just gives the community forward momentum. The vision in the cell is to get those outside the cell to experience God’s rich community, and thus the need to start additional cells. And of course, all elements of the cell (evangelism, community, spiritual growth, and multiplication) must take place under the power of Christ’s working in the cell. Ralph Neighbour, in his book Christ’s Basic Bodies, rightly reminds us that cells must be directed by Christ Himself.

Why am I saying all this? Every two months I drive 20 minutes to a large Christian bookstore in Redlands, CA, buy a book, and then sit in one of their soft chairs and read all the major Christian magazines. I was reading Leadership Journal yesterday and saw an excerpt (several paragraphs) from Larry Osborne’s recent book Sticky Church (Osborne is a megachurch pastor in California). Osborne strongly criticized the cell church’s emphasis on cell multiplication, claimed multiplication doesn’t work, and then concluded that the reason for small groups is fellowship.

I was reminded once again of how normal it is for churches like the one Osborne pastors to focus on the large celebration as the primary means of church growth, but then to use cells more like “holding pens” for people to get to know each other. Is there anything wrong with fellowship? No. It’s an important aspect of cell life.

In the cell church, however, we see the cell as the church. We believe that members need to exercise their muscles and reach out to their neighbors–not just depend on the “preacher” to do the evangelizing. There are way too few Larry Osbornes in the world, and if we depend on them, we will continue to lose the overall battle between population growth and church growth. In the cell church, members are seen as the ministers and encouraged to start their own cell.

Is this emphasis difficult in secular places like the U.S.? Yes. Is it easier to just ask the members to focus on their own needs (fellowship)? Oh yes!

As I’ve said over and over on this blog, some places in the world are far more receptive to cell growth. You might be ministering in one of those places. Other places are more difficult and see less cell results (the western world). Regardless of where you live, it’s best to emphasize HOLISTIC small groups, which turn your members into ministers by asking them to exercise their spiritual muscles through evangelism and leadership development. I believe it’s unhealthy to solely focus on personal needs in the name of fellowship. But what do you think?


21 thoughts on “More Than Fellowship

  • I agree I have seen my whole focus on evangelism, discipleship, and revival turn upside down through cells. I LOVE CELEBRATION! However, if I take my four kids, and my wife and sit them down once a week for a couple hours, play a worship cd and preach to them maybe some discipleship could take place but in all reality we will be disconnected from having the vision that my family can minister to others just as well as I can. I think the more we can touch each other, speak directly to each other, and listen to each other more discipleship takes place in that atmosphere than the teacher / student model. Again I believe in both but if I had to choose no doubt I would rather treat my family like a family rather than a business. Auditoriums are great, radio is great, TV is great but people are more impacted through personal touch than all of these other things we pour so much time, money and effort into. It worked for Jesus and he didn’t even have a place to lay his head!

  • Joel, per your request, here’s a link to my very detailed review of Osborne’s book and approach to small groups:

    I devoted a whole chapter of my book to this very topic. You are so right. If the goal of a group is fellowship, they’ll achieve it in just a few months and then the group stagnates. Fellowship is a wonderful byproduct of a small group of believers gathering together in Christ’s name and for his sake and to do his will by extending his kingdom to many many others.

  • Why stop at fellowship?

    Certainly, fellowship is necessary; it is the basic nurture and Christian “love one another” needed by spiritual newborns to thrive. No nurture, no spiritual growth. So cells provide fellowship.

    Once nurture needs are met in the developing Christian, curiosity asserts itself; the child wants to learn and ask a million questions. So cells provide teaching and training.

    Once child level needs are met, the teenage years lie ahead. Spiritual teenagers want to test their wings and go on meaningful spiritual adventures; they are attracted to missional service. So cells provide opportunities for mission trips and retreats like ENCOUNTER. In these, teens learn how to use their gifts and become servants of Christ.

    What lies beyond missional service? Evangelism and disciple making, where people function as spiritual parents… who, if they make spiritual babies, start their own spiritual families to raise their spiritual children to become spiritual parents (2 Tim 2:2).

    That’s why I like the image of the cell as a spiritual family. In healthy families, children are meant to grow up to be parents and form their own families.

    A family that only provided nurture … that only provided education … that only provided opportunities to do missional service … would be a poor family. Each of the stages of spiritual growth, I believe, are important and each is needed at the proper time in a young Christian’s life. When only one stage is the focus of any group, people get stuck there. To me it’s not the stage that’s important, but the cycle … and the ability to flex and flow to the current needs of those present and move them on to the next stage of spiritual maturity.

    Many gigantic “emergent” churches function as giant warehouses, bins for semi-mature Christians stuck in a spiritual infant stage. Of course it makes sense for them to set up lots of small group nurseries to hold all those babies as a means to care for them. The better way is to help them to grow up. You can organize a gigantic institutional program to do that … a spiritual orphanage, in other words … or you can just form families. Families are generally understood as the best and healthiest way for children to grow up. That’s why, for me, cells are spiritual families. And when people reach a stage in their maturity, they naturally want to form their own families.

    Just my own point of view!

  • I agree with Joel and others that cells should be holistic and that fellowship is definately one of the functions but it cannot the engine that drives them just an equally important component.

  • Fellowship disconnected from mission starts to become a bit meaningless after a while. If that becomes what church is all about I quit (I did) 🙂

  • Thanks for all your comments here! I believe we’re in agreement that fellowship is wonderful but it must never be THE GOAL. Yes, JESUS is the goal. But holistic small groups want to give their community/fellowship away to a hurting and dying world. Be sure to check out Randall’s link. . .

  • I liked what David Kueker said. I thought he took the spiritual parenting idea and really followed through in a logical way with his inferences. I read 1 Thessolonians 2 today. See v11, …we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children……

  • Hey, David, great comments! Do you follow Kreider’s spiritual parenting material or have you made your own? I loved your quote:

    “Many gigantic “emergent” churches function as giant warehouses, bins for semi-mature Christians stuck in a spiritual infant stage. Of course it makes sense for them to set up lots of small group nurseries to hold all those babies as a means to care for them. The better way is to help them to grow up.”

    thanks for your insight!

  • I began to develop this idea in 1994 of spiritual parenting and Christians going through stages of development similar to the normal human stages of development .

    In 2006 I discovered a beautifully written book which explored the idea thoroughly with pretty much the same general conclusions I had reached: “Transforming Discipleship: Making Disciples a Few at a Time” by Greg Ogden.

    While Ogden is more focused on discipling through triads and quads rather than cells, a lot of what he writes would be useful to cell leaders.

    For those who have access to them, there’s also a great audio tape by Ogden through the old “Pastor’s Update” series from Fuller entitled “Making Disciple’s Jesus’ Way”

  • Thank’s Dave. In a recent cell church course called SMALL GROUPS AND DISCIPLESHIP, I used Ogden’s Transforming Discipleship.

    You’re right that it doesn’t go down the cell road, but the students felt it was a good balance in my course.

  • Kreider is a great leader, but I’ve resonated more with your writing, Joel, and with Neil Cole’s work, especially “Raising Leaders for the Harvest” which outlines a step by step disciple maker making model. My DMin project, which is online free at, develops this idea as a system for small mainline churches. It’s not cells, but would help get a church ready for cells … sort of bridging the gap between them, an intermediate step.

    I also love Eliyahu Goldratt’s novels on business theories. The first and best is called The Goal, which is about overcoming process constraints. Whether you are building widgets or building “fully devoted followers of Christ,” people go through a step by step process. I began to try to identify the process in scripture for disciplemaking implied in Matthew 28:20.

    Goldratt’s work is about how to help get widgets through bottlenecks. And the way you identify a bottleneck in the process is by all the work stacked in front of it waiting to be processed. I was visiting Willow Creek in Chicago in 1999, looking over the huge auditorium where 20,000 people worship each weekend, and suddenly I saw that crowd in a different light: they were sitting in front of a bottleneck. The process they had developed was not moving people on to the next step, so they were piling up in a crowd. Those familiar with the Willow Creek model know the next step is their Wed/Thu “New Community” teaching service, again with about 6000 people … another bottleneck? This was my first indication that there might be something less than perfect about their process of disciple making.

    The Willow Creek people are authentic and with the deepest level of character and integrity you can imagine. They also identified this problem in 2004 and began to research it, publishing and putting their results online at If you go there, you will see the same four stages of spiritual maturity I identified in 1994 (everybody forgets spiritual grandparenting) with them identifying the bottlenecks in spiritual growth. They are right where I saw them earlier – at the two worship services I’ve mentioned. People come to those services and get stuck.

    The disciplines of the cell church, particularly at Yoido, overcome these bottlenecks through powerful networking of disciples through cells. It’s an interpersonal networking approach rather than an institutional approach. I call this a “network base design” as a cell church is organized around the network of cells.

    You can also have a temple base design (worship/event driven), academic base design (education), program base design (as originated by Ralph Neighbor) and the small church chaplain base design (nurturing pastor). Willow is basically a Temple base design church, attempting to use large events to disciple people; and they are the very best in the world at making disciples with this paradigm.

    Willow Creek is attempting to resolve the problems they see without changing their paradigm from an institutional world view based on the highest possible quality large worship events; it’s a huge paradigm shift to a cell model and I don’t think they could or would wish to change that much. They have small groups and do them with a very high level of quality, but I wouldn’t call them cells because (as your definition states) their primary focus is not evangelism but sanctification – becoming better disciples, not making disciples. Evangelism in their model is individuals inviting individuals to that highest possible quality worship event experience, whereupon the system takes over disciple making from the inviter.

  • Great thoughts, David. Thanks for keeping the rest of us on this BLOG informed on what’s happening in the various streams in Christianity worldwide. Will you be at the cell symposium in June?

  • Joel, one of the most discouraging things I see in Christianity right now is the shooting of each other versus affirming the unity of the faith. Anyone can shoot someone, its our default setting (criticize, condemn, complain) to compare systems, to say which one is right and this one is wrong, when the bottom line is, are people being discipleship evangelized? When I am tempted to shoot other ministries, systems, or even criticize a church system, I struggle with a question one of my professors at CIU stunned me with. He said, “Derek, why do you think God allows so many churches.” My answer changes regularly due to santification, idols of the heart, and brokeness. Is there bad doctrine out there, yeah… but as you so aptly put it many times, our role is faithfulness where God has placed us… Good article and good points…

  • God bless you,
    for the good work you are doing to preach the Gospel of the Kingdom.
    I need your more help of teachings about cells groups.We are praying for you to come to kenya africa on time God willing and Share with us good news of the Kingdom.
    Yours pastor Thomas Okinyi

  • Thanks Joel for being stiumlating but gracious while maintaining the course!.
    You are a joy.

  • Joel

    I wholeheartedly agree with your comments. The ‘Sunday experience’ alone in the traditional church cannot grow the church upward, inward, outward and forward enough to make a difference in the world today. We are continuing to lose valuable ground in the battle! In the ‘Sunday experience’ the professional pastor can singlehandedly ‘make believers,’ but he/she will fail dismally in ‘making disciples.’ The Spirit-powered cell is THE place where believers can become fired-up disciple-making disciples. I assert that the ‘Sunday experience’ should be the outflow of the cell-life experience. The ‘Sunday experience’ is the icing of the Christian life and cell-life is the cake of the Christian life. Note: The icing was made for the cake… the cake does not need the icing… the icing, however, needs the cake! The icing complements the cake. I’m for wholesome cake and complementary icing. Bill 🙂

  • Thanks for the stimulating comments to this blog and newsletter! My newsletter was more of a DEFENSE to why cell church emphasizes holistic cells rather than one aspect of the cell (fellowship). Yes, there have been abuses and errors in the cell emphasis in the past, like those who have said you must multiply in six months or close the cells, or those who have emphasized a particular number (e.g., 12). Perhaps Osborne was writing with those abuses in mind. I hope I presented a balanced approach of what the cell in the cell church is trying to accomplish–raise up ministers for the harvest.

  • Thank you for this newsletter. We had really focused on cell groups in October 2008 as a way to reach people for Jesus Christ. Personally, as cell leader of single women, we have not seen cell growth as we have hoped and prayed. We held a Friendship Banquet on Sunday May 31st and had 85 visitors and 63 or so children…somewhere in there we couldn’t count the children perfectly. What a tremendous thing for our church. We run at around 150-200 in our congregation and have stayed there for quite awhile. Although we have won and baptized many for the Lord somehow we stay at this same number. I wonder if even we realize what happened!!!. We have had banquets for friends and family before, but never have experienced this number of visitors. Please pray for us out here in San Jose Ca. That these many visitors can become part of our cell groups asap…Maybe this is the explosion that we have been hoping for.

  • Joel, I loved this newsletter! It’s simply what we have to be and to do. I’m so thankful for the fellowship in my cells, but I Know, by my own experience, that evangelism and multiplication are, in fact, the God desire. It’s so amazing when we see broken hearts changing your lives for Jesus! Thank you and God Bless!

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