Don’t Throw the Weekly Gathering of Cells under the Bus


by Ralph Neighbour (Jeff Tunnell is on vacation for two weeks)

Recently one of my doctoral students was challenged by some pastors of traditional churches, stating that the early church only met in house groups and that there was no need for cells to gather in a public service. The current house church community endorsers take great pains to defend the position that regular gatherings of the house groups is unnecessary.  One view they endorse is that we should be guided by the Jewish Old Testament festivals and meet only a few times a year.

This flies in the face of important facts:

1. From the start of the ecclesia’s life in acts, they went from house to house and to the temple to hear the Apostles teach. We are also told that the Apostles taught both in the Temple and from house to house. That sounds to me like Bill Beckham’s reference to a “two winged church” was present from the start.

2.  1 Corinthians 16:2 reveals Paul directs that upon the first day of each week (Sunday) the congregation should set aside support for the needs of the brethren in Jerusalem. Obviously in addition to the daily house meetings there were gatherings on a weekly basis. Sunday was the chosen day for the congregational meeting.

3.  By the time Hebrews was penned (AD 65), the weekly gathering is obviously referenced as the writer says in 1 Corinthians 11:33-34, So then, my brethren, when you come together to eat, wait for one another. If anyone is hungry, let him eat at home, so that you may not come together for judgment. And the remaining matters I shall arrange when I come. (NASB77)

In the next blog, I will add additional reasons why the cell church that is allowed to grow and grow by the cleaving of its basic communities brings an impact to a community never possible when the house churches all exist in semi-secret in home groups.



11 thoughts on “Don’t Throw the Weekly Gathering of Cells under the Bus

  • Hi Ralph,
    I once attended a house church seminar near London, Ontario where Rad Zdero (The Global House Church Movement) spoke. He was teaching that the large gathering was not necessary for the house churches to continue to effectively grow. If I remembered it right, he was even saying that the large gathering would be a negative factor for growth.
    I asked him to explain how the 1st century church met in temple courts and house to house (Acts 20:20). He brushed me aside by saying that in the temple area, they were simply evangelizing. Not wanting to rain on his parade, I kept quiet not convinced at all with his explanation.
    Why would they (house church movement) ignore this fact and create such an explanation that is clearly erroneous? What is wrong with meeting as a large group.
    In my experience as a church planter and training church planters, I realized earlier and encourage my trainees to meet as a large group as soon as practicable for the following reasons:
    1. Most new believers are used to going to a large gathering and without replacing what they had, will create a problem as to their decision to stay within the group and likely look for another large gathering to go to. As for the believers who joined the group but did not have a large gathering to totally pull them out of the previous church they were connected with, their commitment will remain less than full.
    2. Giving is somehow seldom very good in the cells of our new church plants.
    3. There is something about meeting as a larger group that excites people. Bill Beckham explained it as the experience we have of the “immanent” and the “transcendent” God.
    Long time no see. Please say hi to your lovely wife.
    God bless.

  • Great comments. I am planting a cell church in the Twin Cities area and have decided to start meeting together in a celebration quicker than I anticipated for the same reasons you mentioned, Alex, especially your first point. In this part of the country anyway, people simply can’t understand a church that doesn’t meet together in a large group. The celebration is another way to move people into cells, but also shows them something that they have an easier time wrapping their minds around (before we transform them completely 🙂 It’s interesting that you tell planters to start meeting together as soon as possible, because most of what I’ve heard from folks is to wait as long as possible.

    Can’t wait for the next blog, Ralph. Thanks!

  • I’ve never had a better mentor in my life than Ralph. At the Cell Symposium a few months ago we were challenged by several who are doing Home Churches in areas such as China where they do not meet as a big church, yet are growing significantly. Some would suggest this opens the door for misteachings. If the Home Churches are birthed out of healthy relationships and teachings, submission one to another and openness to submit to elders helps the distortions from taking place. As we see many “big church designed churches” experiencing great distortions through the years, and especially currently, many lead pastors dominate in unhealthy ways. It seems that God had a design throughout time where worship took place in the home, then corporately 3 times a year (Lev. 23). Man came up with his own design during the exile around 513 BC when the synagogue and clergy were established for worship instead (priests’ role was always for sacrifice not teaching). That distortion continued through Jesus ministry until He ascended and the Holy Spirit came. He thrust the church back into the homes for worship and continued the corporate three times each year for concentrated worship which we see throughout Acts. Scripture never stopped these times of corporate or home worship. Around 300 AD man created the “synagogue/clergy” christian alternative which continues to this day.
    In “Where Do We Go From Here” we were all challenged to open our eyes to more than what we had seen before. Although there was significant reaction to that and the cell movement here in the US and across the world. Perhaps, as we see countless people leaving the big church design to pursue the design of the OT and NT, God is taking us back to a different picture of what the two-winged church should look like – one wing the Home Church and the second wing the 3 corporate meetings.
    Perhaps in 1 Cor 16:2 God is talking through Paul for each individual to set aside the money and he says “save it up” not take it to a church meeting. Could our presupposition of church on Sunday cause us to read into Scriptures such as this?
    I’m just trying to seek with everything I have and hear what Jesus is doing.

  • It mystifies me how we can miss the fact that the churches in Paul’s day met on the first day of the week as a congregation! It is irrelevant whether Israel gathered for special feasts 3 times a year. That is a new one to me. Where in church history have ecclesias ever been described as meeting 3 times a year instead of 52 Sundays a year?

    Bill Beckham’s book, free for download at does a masterful exposition of the various patterns of church life now appearing. A church with one wing flops around in circles, never flying.

    I am also interested in the comparision of the dismembered “body parts” where single Christians are never joined to the hands, legs and inward parts by the Holy Spirit and the house church movement where once again we have the repeat of “dismembered body parts” in a larger dimension.

    What is so evil about the cells gathering for worship and Biblical exposition on the first day of the week, as well as moving from house to house to break bread (the place the Lord’s Supper rightly belongs)? I cringe when I see a cell church following traditional patterns by serving the Lord’s Supper in an unbiblical form in large group gatherings. Whether it is passing cups down rows or having all walk to the front to get a cup and snitch of bread, it violates the clear teaching of Paul. “Discerning the Body” in 1 Cor. 11 is not a reference to Jesus’s body but his new body, the ecclesia. Many commentaries validate this point.

    What say you?

  • It seems as if everyone here has not figured out something rather simple about the house church movement….

    House church = small congregation, NOT cell group

    Within many house churches, there are men’s and women’s subgroups that meet for accountability, discipleship, relational evangelism, prayer, and so forth. Xenos Christian Fellowship is an excellent example of a house church network that has men’s and women’s cell groups AND weekly teaching times (which are not worship times, but straightforward deep teaching times. Worship happens in the house church meetings).

    So, get this in your head good and firm:

    House church = congregation
    men’s and women’s sub groups = cell groups

    There is no mandate (biblical or otherwise) for small denominational congregations (cell-based or otherwise) around a city to meet together weekly. They’re independent of one another, although affiliated. House church networks maintain the same relationship.

    I also do not see the house church movement as being “semi-secret.” They simply choose to meet corporately in smaller groupings, and the meetings are not underground and secretive the way house churches in China must operate.

    I’ve been inviting my neighbors and friends to my cell group and church’s wonderful corporate weekly services (which, by the way, meet in a big brick building and we have a full time pastoral staff of six) and they want nothing to do with either one. However, when I asked them if they would come to my house if I started a church there, they said they would enjoy it and to let them know when our first meeting will be scheduled.

    There are millions of Americans (believers and pre-believers) who have no desire to walk into a brick and mortar building led by a paid pastor … or visit a cell group that calls that building their central gathering place.

    There is room for healthy cell churches and healthy house churches who form networks in the Great Commission. And healthy house church networks can and do make a huge difference in a city the way that a cell-based megachurch might do… and more organically and member-driven (without radio stations, TV broadcasts, etc.)

  • Very good word, Randall. This is worth repeating:

    There are millions of Americans (believers and pre-believers) who have no desire to walk into a brick and mortar building led by a paid pastor … or visit a cell group that calls that building their central gathering place.

    There is room for healthy cell churches and healthy house churches who form networks in the Great Commission. And healthy house church networks can and do make a huge difference in a city the way that a cell-based megachurch might do… and more organically and member-driven (without radio stations, TV broadcasts, etc.)

    CELL CHURCHES and HOUSE CHURCH NETWORKS are able to reach different types of people, and I personally like both flavors. When we first started Wellspring, we were a house church network, only meeting once per month in celebration (for about 4 years). Now we meet weekly in cell and celebration. Both stages had their strengths and weaknesses.

    I DO BELIEVE THAT REGULAR GATHERINGS OF THE HOME GROUPS IS NECESSARY AND SHOULD BE PROMOTED (CELEBRATION), so I do agree with Ralph’s blog. However, I don’t believe that those celebration gatherings have to be weekly.

  • Let us remain entire honest and transparent before the Word of God.

    1. There is no indication that early messianic believers held celebrations at the temple, only that they went to temple, a normal Jewish practice.

    2. First day of the week was likely Saturday evening as in Acts 20:7. Thus, in the NT there is no clear example of a ‘church’ meeting on either the Sabbath or Sunday!

    3. “When you gather” says nothing about the size of the assembly nor its frequency. Remember, they broke bread from house to house.

    “You were called to freedom, brothers. … Through love serve one another.”

  • And now for something from left field … the third meeting of the early church.

    In our culture, a “celebration” is a worship service; I’m not sure that it is accurate to call the gatherings of the disciples in the temple in Acts a worship service as we understand it with singing, music, sermons, etc. When the priests begin to be converted in Acts 6:7, you can assume that there would begin to be pressure to develop Christian worship forms. Immediately persecution arises, Stephen is martyred and they are driven out of the temple and Jerusalem (Acts 8:1) – the minute there is conceivably an attempt to change worship forms of the temple. I’m not sure a convincing argument can be made that the early church did large group worship at all but simply, quietly participated in the traditional temple worship that glorified God but not specifically Jesus. I believe it is equally hard to demonstrate that Jesus ever conducted a large group worship service in the gospels.

    What is very likely that the disciples did in the temple was to repeat what Jesus did – train believers to become disciples and eventually disciple makers. In other words, the New Testament equipping track: Acts 5:12 Now many signs and wonders were done among the people by the hands of the apostles. And they were all together in Solomon’s Portico. 13 None of the rest dared join them, but the people held them in high honor. 14 And more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes both of men and women …

    Think about the math – 12 apostles running 12 training groups for 12 people each would provide an hour of equipping and supervision for 144 people every hour and up to 5760 leaders in a 40 hour week. Imagine the potential for multitasking … the bible is being taught over here, conducting a cell meeting is happening over there, teams are being organized to help feed the hungry here, visit the sick there, paint a widow’s house in that corner, operate daycare for orphans in another, and all the diverse equipping needs for a church to develop leaders. We can see that same pattern of multitasking throughout the gospels. People can drop in, participate in whatever they need, leave for a while or stay all day. Totally flexible, totally open to how the Spirit wishes to guide the church.

    To me the major problem of the cell/celebration model is that it does not adequately provide for equipping that keeps the machinery running while at the same time keeps the focus on evangelism from fading. We need an equipping track to do that – and I believe the gospels detail that equipping track. It is exactly what Jesus did.

    As for the equipping track in cell and house church settings, it is also there.

    Yoido has a system of classes which support the cells in training new believers and training leaders. and

    In Church Planting Movements, the basic equipping track is called T4T or Training for Trainers. In this weekly or biweekly meeting, disciples are supervised and trained to become disciple makers and thereby plant new churches.

    In movements using Neil Cole’s thought the equipping track is the small group within the house church, the “Life Transformation Group”, plus the monthly gathering of leaders in the local “Greenhouse.”

    The best book on equipping tracks that I know is Joel’s book Leadership Explosion.

    In summary … I believe the disciples in Acts met in three gatherings: from house to house, gathered together for apostolic training as an equipping track at Solomon’s Portico in the temple, and participated as participants (not leaders) in Jewish worship services in the Temple.

  • Joel wrote “…I don’t believe that those celebration gatherings have to be weekly.”

    This debate has been going on for way too long within the cell-church movement. And, I personally believe it to be, if not “THE”, then at least one of ‘THE” root causes of the failure to implement cell-based churches in the US of A.

    Bottom line is this — If a cell church is defined by having cells meet in smaller groups throughout the region during the week and then, weekly gatherings of these scattered cells for a celebration then why not just start out that way?

    Joel, I once visited an ‘Association of House Churches’ gathering near Round Rock, Texas. And Brother, what a experienced was a heaven and earth difference between the house-church and cell-church movement. Do I despise the house-church concept? No. Thankfully, it serves a purpose in reaching a certain segment of our society. But, do I endorse the house-church? NOT AT ALL! Again, there is a heaven and earth difference between the house-church and cell-church movements.

    Please read on…


    While attending a cell church conference at Bethany World Prayer Center (1995), in a session titled, Picture of a Pure Cell Church1, Brother Billy Hornsby taught:

    1. It is imperative that we have a clear picture of what we want to be in our mature and final state. We can’t just hope that we end up that way; we must start out that way! To do so, we must have a mature template to follow throughout the entire process. A highly developed model can be reproduced endless number of times until the city is saturated with cell groups that are part of a predictable system where the Holy Spirit can move freely.

    2. We need a predictable system to fully utilize the unpredictable people in our churches; people with different gifts, backgrounds, and temperaments.

    3. Each component must be simple, easy to learn and have predictable results.

    4. We cannot ask people to go out and create their own groups or ministries and expect a large percentage to be successful. We must plug them into a successful system. Example: 80% failure rate for small businesses compared to 80% success rate for franchise stores with proven systems.

    5. With a proven system, we will have an 80% or better success rate.


    Sharing the Journey,
    Rick & Becky Diefenderfer

  • Dear Friends,

    I am responding to the comment made by Alex above about house churches and large group meetings. I am sad to hear that he felt I “brushed him aside” in my response about house churches and small groups. I certainly would not have done so deliberately. I try to take all questions posed to me seriously. My whole point was that large group events — in and of themselves — are not absolutely necessary for house churches to keep growing, like they grow in many parts of the world without frequent large group meetings. Moreover, sometimes large group events can be negative factors, if they are not used properly since, as anyone whose been around the block knows, they often breed a spectator church experience if attenders are not also involved in an interactive small group or house church. How often a network of house churches decides to meet as a large group is up to them and their perceived needs and how God leads them, whether weekly, monthly, or yearly. In Canada, we use large group gatherings often, eg. weekend retreats, campouts, conferences, regional meetings, etc. In my books, The Global House Church Movement and Nexus: The World House Church Movement Reader, I explain in a number of places that large group gatherings have their strategic use for house churches. So, it is not true that I am against large group meetings of multiple house churches. But, large group meetups should not become the main ingredient for a Christian’s experience in place of the small group, like it does unfortunately in many traditional churches. Of course, all this cannot be said in a limited Q/A session in a seminar. I hope this clarifies my view.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *