by Joel Comiskey
I ate lunch with one small group guru a few years ago who wanted to pick my brain about the G12 philosophy. I also wanted to pick his brain about his definition of a small group, which I felt was inadequate. Early in my ministry, I had tried to follow this man’s “inclusive” small group definition and later had to backtrack when the cell system fell apart. So I asked him about it. He answered, “I believe if two men are pounding nails on a roof every six months, this constitutes a small group in the church.” He went on to say, “I define my small groups sociologically.” I countered, “why don’t you have the same loose definition of the celebration service?” We eventually decided to disagree agreeably and remain friends.
I believe that defining the cell holistically has long-term consequences. I define a cell as a group of 3-15 that meets weekly outside the church building for the purpose of evangelism, community, and spiritual growth with the goal of multiplication. The words “weekly” and “outside the church building” are the two most controversial points of the definition.
Let’s first look at the frequency question (weekly). I’ve noticed a trend among some churches doing cells to hold their meetings monthly or every other week. My heart always sinks when I hear this. Since the cell is the foundation of the cell church, it needs to be the first thing we dedicate our time to. Holding it monthly or bimonthly tends to weaken the quality, dilute the community, and dim the vision for outreach. It’s even hard to remember what happened from meeting to meeting. Other aspects of the cell system can meet less frequently (coaching, training, etc.), but the cell is the crown jewell of the cell church and needs to be prioritized accordingly.
I agree with the findings of Jim Egli and Dwight Marble’s 2011 book, Small Groups, Big Impact. The authors surveyed over 3000 small group leaders in 21 countries using a survey instrument and interviews to discover the right things that groups should do to be effective fishers of men. One of the factors was the need for small groups to meet weekly.
They wanted to know whether it makes a difference how often a small group meets. The research revealed that it makes a tremendous difference. Groups that meet weekly experience dramatically more health and growth than groups that meet every other week. The authors write,
Basically, we found that not much happens in a group using an every other week format. Why? Again the research tells us what but not why. However, having been involved in small groups for over 25 years, we don’t think it’s difficult to figure out. The main problem with an every other week group is that most people cannot make it to every meeting. Schedule conflicts, illness, family commitments, school programs and work projects keep almost everyone from making it to every meeting. Let’s say that the average person misses small group once a month or so. If you and I are in the same group and you miss the first meeting this month and I miss the next, we might only see each other every sixth week or so. Meeting every other week makes it very hard to form close and meaningful relationships. If you are currently in a group that meets every other week, you might want to reevaluate with the group whether you want to begin meeting every week or at least three times a month. Another alternative is to supplement your every other week meetings with an additional monthly meeting that is geared to fun and outreach. If you are starting a new group, we recommend that you plan for your group to meet weekly, realizing that you should vary the format of your meetings so that you are consistently planning events such as parties, cookouts, and mission or ministry outreaches into your mix of activities (Jim Egli, Dwight Marble, Small Groups, Big Impact: Connecting People to God & One Another in Thriving Groups, Saint Charles, IL: ChurchSmart, 2011, p. 42).
Then there’s the issue of penetration (outside the building). I love cell ministry because it’s a penetration strategy, as opposd to a come-to-the-building strategy. The thrust of cell ministry is to go where the people live, breath, and work. I don’t believe cells must only meet in houses. They might meet in a Starbucks, on a university campus, or at work. The principle is establishing a lighthouse in the midst of a dark world. I love Laurence Khong’s quote, “The devil wants to trap us within the four walls of the church. Criminals don’t care if the policeman is pushing papers—as long as he’s not out on the street” (Apostolic Cell Church, p. 38).
Of course, there are exceptions to these two principles, and we must avoid cell church legalism like the plague. However, if there’s one area in which I become dogmatic, it’s in maintaining a qualitative definition of the cell.