by Joel Comiskey
Appeared in Cellchurchtalk, January 2002. Updated Winter 2013.
What’s the most important thing about the cell church? The training track? Transition strategy? Church growth? None of these even compare to the crowning jewel–the cell itself (the name for the “cell” varies and is not as important as the definition).
You wouldn’t be reading this article unless you were passionate about cells. You’ve experienced their New Testament feel. You’ve seen non-Christians transformed in this interactive environment. You’ve basked in true cell community. You’ve witnessed the transformation of Christians and the development of future leaders through cell groups.
However, small groups and cells have become commodities in today’s church. When someone mentions a cell, what registers is a Bible study, a social gathering, a Sunday school class or anything else (as long as it’s small and a group). And many “cell models” are even adding to this thinking by liberally sprinkling the word cell over all groups in their church. Certain churches have taken enormous liberty in defining their cell groups. Here are some of the latest definitions of cell groups:
- A group of people taking pre-marital counseling
- A six-week course meeting inside the church
- Kids in a bus on the way to church
- G-12 groups
Some of these “cell groups” meet in the church, others meet outside the church. Some meet weekly, monthly, or even once per quarter.
So what exactly is a cell group? How can we distinguish a true cell group from all the other small groups and programs within a church? What’s the biblical base for the following distinction? Let me suggest several components that help us define a true cell:
The cell helps people to grow in Christ. Cells are not simply social gathering that focus on fellowship and refreshments. No, cells must transform people for them to be effective. We can see this in Acts 9:31 where the house church members were spiritually strengthened and encouraged through the Holy Spirit.
Intimacy –Most agree that cells must remain small. With more than 15 adults, cells lose their intimacy and reason for existence. –The crying need today in America is for community. We must keep cells small, so that everyone has a chance to share and communicate. Scripture teaches that the image of the church as family is the primary one (1 Timothy 3:15) and cells must remain small to make sure everyone can share and communicate as an intimate family. The New Testament house churches were small and organic.
Cells must have a purpose beyond themselves. Cells are for others and must remain open to non-Christians. Small groups normally meet outside the church building to reach people where they work and live. This was a principle that I discovered in all of the growing cell churches worldwide.
I know it’s “vogue” today to use Sunday school classrooms, to break up into small groups after the Sunday morning worship, or to divide in sub-groups after the Friday night youth rally. However, the problem is that it perpetuates the “come and see” strategy, rather than the “we’ll go where you work and live” strategy. At the heart of the cell strategy is evangelistic penetration. I believe the church building is best suited for celebration, coaching, training, congregational ministry, and network activity. However, it’s best for the cell to remain in the community, whether that means the home, the factory, the university, a restaurant, or wherever else.
The New Testament believers primarily met in house churches that were part of the life and community where they lived (the frst inscriptions of the church’s own buildings were found nearly two centuries after Christ’s death).
Cells are born to multiply. The DNA of the cell is to give birth to a daughter cell. Yet, in reality, the goal isn’t multiplication. The goal is to make disciples who make disciples. A disciple must first be formed in the cell environment before multiplication takes place. Someone said, “Healthy cells give birth to new cells.” I agree. For this reason, churches need to focus on training and coaching for cell multiplication to happen. Reproduction happened continually in the New Testament as house churches multiplied throughout the Roman empire (e.g., Acts 2:46-47).
In the cell church, the cell is the church, just like the weekly celebration. The early church was a house church movement which gathered for celebration (sometimes daily but normally occassionally). Since churches primarily met in house churches, when Paul talks about the churches gathering on the first day of the week, he was referring to the regular weekly house church meetings (1 Corinthians 16:2).
When cells meet monthly or “once in a while,” while maintaining a weekly Sunday celebration service, the church is making a loud priority statement that says: “Our small groups are just one ministry in the church—not the very life of our church.”
Many have criticized the weekly aspect of cell ministry. Why not meet once in a while or every other week. However, Jim Egli and Dwight Marble’s 2011 book, Small Groups, Big Impact, confirms the importance of weekly meetings. 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).
Defining a cell with a quality definition in mind will assure the cells fruitfulness in years to come. It will keep it from drifting into meaninglessness. Granted, during certain seasons of the calendar year, individual cells might decide not to meet for a particular time period (e.g., Christmas, Easter, etc.). However, the norm is a weekly cell meeting.
What is a Cell?
Notice that I haven’t touched such things as “participation,” “cell lesson,” cell order,” etc. In reality, these questions are secondary to the above ones.
Because I’m referring to making disciples who make disciples when referrng to multiplication, I make it clear in the following definition that multiplication is the fruit of making disciples who make disciples:
groups of three to fifteen people who meet weekly outside the church building for the purpose of evangelism, community, and spiritual growth with the goal of making disciples who make disciples, which results in multiplication.
Big Bear Christian Center defines their cell groups this way:
At the core of Big Bear Christian Center are life groups of 3-15 people that meet weekly throughout Big Bear Valley. Empowered by Holy Spirit through prayer, their purpose is to make disciples through spiritual growth, community, and evangelism, resulting in group multiplication.
Randy Frazee in the Connecting Church describes his groups using the acronym SERVICE:
- S=spiritual formation. Personal goals of growth in Christ for each member of the group
- E=evangelism. Pray for at least three households within their neighborhoods
- R=reproduction. Each group is open to welcoming new people; there should be at least one leader in training and it’s important to reproduce the new cell each year.
- V=volunteerism. The cell promotes the local church
- I=International missions. The cell supports one international mission’s project
- C=care. Commitment to one another
- E=extending compassion. Commitment to on-site compassion projects per year
Jeff Basette, former lead pastor at Hope Christian Fellowship, defines his cells this way:
A group of 3-15 people who meet weekly outside the church building. Empowered by the Spirit through prayer, their purpose is to transform lives through community, discipleship, evangelism, and multiplication.
You might define your small group components differently. However, I would encourage you to maintain a qualitative definition. Although we should continually refine and perfect cell ministry, there are some things, like the cell definition, that we should leave unchanged for our own good and for the health of Christ’s body.