From Large to Small Group
By Joel Comiskey
Small Group Network (August 2002)
In March 2002, I met Mark, the pastor of a growing Southern Baptist Church in Nashville , TN. His church started in 1995 and had grown to 1000 worshipers and 100 cell groups. He was sold on cell-celebration ministry, telling me that it was the most Biblical and effective way to reach people in the 21st century.
“I train our cell leaders to be ready to pounce on every visitor in the church. Our cell leaders immediately try to assimilate the newcomers by inviting them to their cell groups. We’ve discovered here in North America people prefer to first attend a large celebration service and afterwards attend a cell group for fellowship and growth.”
“What about cell evangelism?” I countered. “Shouldn’t we be training and encouraging cell members to evangelize their friends and neighbors?”
Pastor Mark agreed wholeheartedly with me. “It’s not an either-or situation. We should ask our people to do both,” he said. “Most of our small group growth, however, comes through assimilating people from the large group gathering.”
Tap into your Large Group Potential
We’ve heard over and over the need for small group evangelism. And yes, we need to constantly exercise our small group evangelism muscles. But let’s not forget the large group context. The ideal is that everyone in the church attends both cell and celebration. In reality, there will always be a pool of those who attend only the celebration. Some of these people are visitors; others have attended the church for quite a while. Some will participate in a cell group after one invitation; others require a shove.
My advice is to aggressively invite all people at the celebration service to the cell: “I’d like to invite you to my cell group on Friday night at 7 p.m. I think you’d really like it. Do you need a ride?” Cell leaders don’t need to worry about competition among themselves. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if five different cell leaders or interns invited the same visitor?
You’ve heard that “it’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks.” Well, it’s true in churches, too, so don’t be discouraged by the resistance of some. Go after the visitors and the new converts. These are the people who still have non-Christian contacts to invite to your cell group. Perhaps, the person will come to your small group after only one invitation. The reality is that many will not. They first need receive personal contact.
Visiting newcomers right away makes a huge difference. After carefully analyzing growing churches, Herb Miller reaches this conclusion in his book The Magnetic Church:
No other single factor makes a greater difference in improving annual membership addition than an immediate visit to the home of first-time worshippers. … When lay persons make fifteen-minute visits to the homes of first-time worship visitors within thirty-six hours, 85 percent of them return the following week. Make this home visit within seventy-two hours, and 60 percent of them return. Make it seven days later, and 15 percent will return. The pastor making this call, rather than lay persons, cuts each result in half.[i]
Note how much more impact that visit has if it comes from a lay person rather than from the clergy.
Cell leader, if you want your cell to grow, develop, and multiply, one of the keys is immediate visitation of newcomers. When someone visits the celebration service in your church (or your small group) plan an immediate follow-up visit, send the person a card, and/or pick up the telephone and call. Offer to give the person a ride to your small group. Do what it takes to assure the person from the large group actually shows up in your small group. The saying, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care” is true, so care for the newcomers.
Growing cell churches around the world have implemented systems so newcomers don’t “fall through the cracks.” Visitor cards are collected in the church and distributed to the various cell groups, who in turn contact the newcomers. Because of this organized approach to reaching out, many visitors attend a cell. These churches track newcomers to ensure that they receive proper follow-up and care.
At Bethany World Prayer Center , any person who receives Christ or visits the church’s celebration service is immediately met by a cell leader. That cell leader then visits the person’s home with a gift of bread. The sorting of visitor cards, distribution to cell leaders (normally according to geography), and visitation of these newcomers takes place within 24 hours! The cell leaders pray for the visitors and invite them to attend cell.
Just Do It
While refusing to only fill our small group through large group assimilation, let’s take advantage of people who God has already brought to the church through the large group gathering. These people need community, accountability, and perhaps salvation. Boldly invite them to your small group. Then do what it takes to assure that they actually come.
[i] Herb Miller, How to Build a Magnetic Church. Creative Leadership Series. Lyle Schaller, ed. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1987), pp. 72-73.