Chapter 1 : Theological Foundations of Cell-based Ministry

Joel Comiskey’s Ph.D. Dissertation

Cell group ministry is intimately linked with the theology of the church. In order to understand cell-based ministry I believe that it is essential to understand what the church is and what it does. Throughout this chapter, I will focus on the doctrine of ecclesiology with specific reference to its relationship with cell-based ministry.

The Church: What it is

Jesus told us that He would build His church (Mt. 16:18). Throughout the centuries Christ has been fulfilling that promise. In order to define Christ’s church, I will be drawing from Scripture and from various historical definitions of the church. My purpose is to better understand the role of cell ministry as it relates to the church. The bedrock teaching about the church comes from the inspired Word of God. It is from this source that any other definition must be judged.

Description from the Biblical Text

To understand the New Testament church one must first examine the Hebrew background. There are two significant Hebrew words which are helpful: qahal and edah. The word edah is regularly used to refer to the gathered congregation of Israel as a whole (Coenen 1975:294-295). However, it is the word qahal which serves as the basis for the New Testament concept of the church. The word qahal refers to the summoning of an assembly as well as the actual act of assembling. Millard Erickson helps clarify this meaning when he says,

It is not so much a specification of the members of the assembly as a designation of the occurrence of assembling. A religious significance sometimes attaches to the word (e.g., Deu. 9:10; 10:4; 23:1-3). The term can also denote a more general assembly of the people. . . . Women (Jer. 44:15) and even children (Ezra 10:1; Neh. 8:2) are included. The term is also used of the gathering of troops, and in Ezekiel it refers to nations other than Israel (1984:1031).

The key concept, then, is that of the assembly. However, there is a distinct difference between the assembly that is represented by edah and the assembly represented by qahal. According to Lothar Coenen, unlike the word edah, which is the common term for the assembly of the ceremonial community as a whole, the word qahal is the expression of the assembly which results from the covenant (1975: 295). This can be seen by how the Septuagint translates these two Hebrew words.

The word ecclesia, which is the common word for church in the New Testament, is only used to translate qahal and not edah. It is this concept of the assembled, covenant people of God that qahal represents in the Old Testament. And it is this meaning which serves as the basis for the word ecclesia in the New Testament. David Watson provides additional background information on the implications of the word ecclesia in the New Testament by emphasizing that it was a “called out” community (holiness), a “called for” community (God’s purpose), a “called together” community (unity), and a “called to” community (future inheritance) (1978: 67-74).

The assembled, covenant people in the New Testament, which is represented by ecclesia, is referred to in a variety of circumstances. For example, Paul, John, and Luke use the term to refer to the assembled believers in a specific city (1 Co. 1:2; Rev. 1-3; Ac. 5:11). The word is also commonly used to refer to all believers in a given city (Ac. 8:1; 13:1). More specifically as it touches this dissertation, the word is used to designate churches which met in particular homes (Rom. 16:5; 1 Co. 16:19; Co. 4:15).

Biblical Imagery of the Church

The Biblical text is rich with a variety of images that help clarify the theology of the church and its relationship to cell ministry. A few of these images are worth noting.

People of God

The church is made up of people who have been chosen by God (2 Co. 6:16). This New Testament concept has deep Old Testament roots. Israel, God’s chosen instrument, was often depicted as the people of God (Erickson 1984:1033). The People of God motif is especially relevant to the cell-based church. Thomas Goslin rightly declares, “When the early church founders spoke of churches, ecclesias, they were referring to gathered communities of believers, not buildings” (1984:2).

Elmer Towns affirms, “In the early church it is clear that ‘church buildings’ as such did not exist until the second or third century” (1983: 257-258). According to Donald McGavran, archeologists find no hint of church buildings before the year A.D. 150 (quoted in Goslin 1984: ii).

This is not to say that the early believers did not meet in the temple (Ac. 2:46; 5:20, 25, 42) and in the portico of the temple (Ac. 5:12). However, even before persecution made frequent celebration events impossible, the primitive church grew in its self-understanding of the people of God as they met in home gatherings (Ac. 2:46; 5:42).

The church as the people of God stands in direct contrast to the view of many that the church is primarily an institution. Rather, the Bible paints a different picture. It is seen as a living, spiritual household of God’s people. Howard Snyder punctuates this point by saying, “The power of seeing the church as the community of God’s people has been challenging and undermining entrenched models of the church as a religious institution dedicated to a kind of technical spiritual work . . .” (1983:15).

Body of Christ

The church is also described as the Body of Christ (1 Co. 12:27). Christ is seen as head of His body (1 Co. 1:18; 2:9-10). He has chosen the members of His body and every part is of equal importance (1 Co. 12:12-26). Just as in the human body there are many different parts with various functions, so also in the body of Christ. However, the differences do not affect the fact that there is a fundamental unity (Morris 1958:173). In fact, Ladd believes that the primary emphasis of the body of Christ metaphor is the unity of all believers (1974:545).

In all three of the major passages (Eph. 4; Rom. 12; 1 Co. 12-14) in which Paul talks about the body of Christ, he defines each member’s role by his or her corresponding gifts. In fact, when Paul talks about the church as the body of Christ, the implication is that the believers exercised their spiritual gifts. They had the opportunity to interact among themselves. Robert Banks reminds us, “Because God gave to each individual within the community some contribution for its welfare, there is a strong democratic tendency. Everyone participates authoritatively in its activities” (1994:148).

How did everyone participate? Along with the united celebration (Ac. 2:46a), we read that they also broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts (2:46b). Paul taught the people, not only publicly, but also from house to house (Ac. 20:20). It is with this intimate atmosphere in mind that Paul could say, “When you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction . . .” (1 Co. 14:26).

I believe that the most liberating atmosphere for the exercise of spiritual gifts is within the community of a small group. Carl George reminds us that, “Because of the intimate, accountability-inviting context of an affinity-based group, participants will readily accept the call of God that accompanies the discovery of their gifts” (1993:136). Along these same lines, Ralph Neighbour asserts, “Recognizing there cannot be total participation by every member when the gatherings are only made up of large, impersonal groups, the people of God moved from house to house in small groups” (1990:41).

The body of Christ motif also demands that we not only exercise our gifts, but that we also recognize other parts of the body, and that we are sensitive to meet their needs. It is this intimate sense of community in the body of Christ which today’s cell movement has recaptured (Snyder 1975:143-148).

Family of God

The church as God’s people is closely tied to the understanding that the church is the family of God (Eph. 2:14-15). God is our Heavenly Father and we are God’s chosen people, adopted into His family, the church. Banks contends that Paul’s metaphor of the family, “. . . must be regarded as the most significant metaphorical usage of all” (1994:49). We should primarily see each other as members of God’s family. We have been adopted into His heavenly family, and therefore can honestly call each other “brothers and sisters.” The home cell group highlights this truth by the simple fact of meeting in houses. J. Goetzmann confirms this reality when he says,

What could be conveyed by the idea of the family of God had, in fact, already come into being in the primitive Christian community through the house churches. The household as a community . . . formed the smallest unit and basis of the congregations. The house churches mentioned in the N.T. (Ac. 11:14; 16:15, 31, 34; 18:8; 1 Co. 1:16; Phl. 2; 1 Ti. 1:16; 4:19) no doubt came into being through the use of the homes as meeting places. The gospel was preached in them (Ac. 5:42; 20:20), and the Lord’s supper was celebrated in them (Ac. 2:46) (1975:250).

There is nothing quite like the atmosphere of a home to confirm the fact that we are indeed God’s family. The decorations on the wall, the arrangement of furniture, and the smell of food all add to the flavor of family living. As a result, the cell members normally warm up to each other more quickly in the home than during a similar meeting in the church.

Marks of the Church

The church has traditionally been defined as one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. While not discounting the four traditional credal marks of the church, the Reformers emphasized the importance of Biblical preaching and properly administered sacraments (note 1). Through the preaching of the Word, the Reformers hoped to bring the church back to its purity (Van Engen 1981:91). Evangelicals have largely embraced the marks set forth by the reformation to identify the presence of the true church. Donald McGavran and Arthur Glasser write,

Evangelicals also hold a high doctrine of the church. They will, however, not limit the church to the Church of Rome. For example, the Dordrecht Confession of Faith says the church consists of those who have truly repented, and rightly believed; who are rightly baptized, united with God in heaven, and incorporated into the communion of the saints on earth (1983:186-187).

Like the Reformers, evangelicals point to the purity of Christ’s church. Yet, there has been growing concern that the Reformer’s definition of the church gave little attention to the church’s missionary role. This missionary theme has increasingly been recognized as a vital mark of the church of Jesus Christ. Charles Van Engen writes, “. . . when a local congregation understands that it is, by its nature, a constellation of mission activities, and it intentionally lives its life as a missionary body, then it begins to emerge toward becoming the authentic Church of Jesus Christ” (1993:70). Jurgen Moltman adds, “. . . Mission does not come from the church; it is from mission and in the light of mission that the church has to be understood” (1993:10).

Cell Groups and the Marks of the Church

Can the cell group by itself be considered the church of Jesus Christ? Proponents of the cell model would propose that the true church takes place in the cell (Beckham 1995:28). It is true that in some cell groups the Word of God is preached and the sacraments are administered. However, it seems that in most cell groups this is not the case. For example, none of my cell-based case churches in Latin America allowed the cell leaders to administer the Lord’s supper within the cell group and only one of them allowed the cell leaders to baptize cell members.

It is also important to remember that most cell group leaders are not called nor equipped to be full-time pastors and teachers. They are not expected to take ultimate responsibility for those under their charge. Rather, they function more as “under shepherds.” As a facilitator, the cell leader focuses more on guiding the communication process, praying for cell members, visitation, and reaching the lost for Christ.

Cell Groups as an Arm of the Church

Therefore, it is probably best to view the cell group ministry as an arm of the true church, an instrument in the hands of God to enable members to experience the fullness of Christ’s church. It is not a matter of choosing between the celebration time in the church or the cell in the home. Rather, it should be a both/and proposition for every believer.

Cell-based ministry allows the believer to experience Christ’s church in a more dynamic way. In the cell church, it is not sufficient only to attend the Sunday morning worship service. Cell and celebration attendance is expected of every member. George Hunter echoes this thought,

Many people are involved in the congregation, and are thus involved in its proclamational, sacramental, and liturgical life, but not in the cell; they therefore never experience half of what “church” has to offer. Only in the church’s redemptive cells do we really know each other, and support each other, and pull for each other, and draw strength from each other, and weep with each other, and rejoice with each other, and hold each other accountable, and identify each others gifts, and experience what it means to “members of one another” (1996:48).

The Church: What It Does

Understanding the church of Jesus Christ requires not only reflection on its nature but also its functions. In this section I will analyze the latter, giving special attention to how cell ministry enhances what the church is called to do.

Engagement in Discipleship

An analysis of Matthew 28:18-20 demonstrates that of the four principle verbs listed in Matthew 28:19-20, only the verb “to make disciples” is used as a direct command (Bosch 1983:228-233). Since the Lord left His church with this one command, a correct understanding of it is essential for the church to function properly.

What does it mean to make disciples? Some have tended to emphasize the spiritual perfection of existing Christians (Hull 1988:135-140), while still others interpret Christ’s command in terms of evangelism (McGavran 1980:123). In reality, the church is called to do both simultaneously. One should not be emphasized at the expense of the other.

The Evangelistic Emphasis of Discipleship

When the disciples received Christ’s last command, there were only a handful of believers. Therefore it is necessary to interpret the command of Christ to disciple the nations as a call to evangelism. We know that a major part of the evangelism in the early church took place through the house church. Hadaway, S. Wright, and DuBose write,

Another significant matter about evangelism in the New Testament is that much of it–if not most of the more enduring type–took place in the house churches. This was true not simply because the larger homes were able to accommodate the function. It was also true because proclamation took place as a result of the total witness of the interrelated functions of church life in the homes (1987:66).

It appears that the effectiveness of this evangelism was due to the lifestyle of those who met in these homes as well as their aggressive outreach.

Lifestyle Evangelism

Jesus declares in John 17:23, “I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” According to Jesus, the church will win the world by demonstrating its unity and love for one another. As the world beholds this type of practical love and unity in action, Christ tells us that they will be won to Himself. Several veterans of small group ministry team up to write,

And that is the purpose of all this–of caring for one another, . . . so that the world will know that Jesus Christ is Lord. That’s why the church exists in the first place. The ultimate goal of the small group is to expose people who don’t know Jesus Christ to His love. We have small groups so the world can see Christ fleshed out. It is our way of taking Christ to the world (Meir, Getz, Meir, Doran 1992:180).

This “lifestyle” evangelism in the small group often takes place through friendship. Frequently a non-Christian is hesitant to immediately enter the doors of a church. It is much easier to first participate in a cell group in the warmth of a home. Dale Galloway writes, “Many people who will not attend a church because it is too threatening, will come to a home meeting” (1986:144). Later, these same non-Christians will enter the church by the side of a friend that they have met in the cell group. Richard Peace writes,

. . . in a successful small group, love, acceptance and fellowship flow in unusual measure. This is the ideal situation in which to hear about the kingdom of God. In this context the “facts of the gospel” come through not as cold proposition but as living truths visible in the lives of others. In such an atmosphere a person is irresistibly drawn to Christ by his gracious presence (1996:36).

Pro-Active Evangelism

Although non-Christians will be attracted by the lifestyle of cell group members, the cell group outreach must also be intentionally planned. The Scriptures teach that the world is lost and on the edge of a Christless eternity (Jn. 3:36; 2 Th. 1:7-9; 1:16; Jude 23). In the parable of the wedding banquet the king told his servants to “Go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find” (Mt. 22:9). Paul felt compelled to preach the gospel (1 Co. 9:16) because of the love of Christ which controlled him (2 Co. 5:14). Another inner compulsion to persuade people was the fact that every person would stand before the judgment seat of Christ (2 Co. 5:11). It was this same urgency that stirred Paul to say in Romans 10:14, “How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?” Some have labeled this type of concern “urgent evangelization” (note 2)

For most cell churches, this aggressive or “urgent evangelism” is graphically seen in the rapid multiplication of cell groups. The pastoral leadership encourages the cell leaders to reach the unconverted through rapid cell multiplication. In many of the most rapidly growing cell churches around the world, the time that it takes for the individual cells to multiply is six months (Neighbour 1992:32-35).

Aggressive, pro-active evangelism, must be a vital part of cell group ministry if the church is going to fulfill the great commission today. Many churches are finding this true as they reach out to their non-Christian neighbors through a cell group ministry.

The Perfecting Emphasis of Discipleship

Christ’s command to disciple the nations also involves the “perfection of the saints.” Christ punctuates this fact by adding the words, “. . . and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Mt. 28:20). God gave gifted leaders to the church so that, “. . . the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:12-13).

It is through the church that discipleship takes place. Yet, much of the writing about discipleship ministry comes from parachurch organizations. George Peters comments,

One on one discipleship is not the New Testament norm. . . . Pentecost introduced a new method of making disciples. The Church of Jesus Christ . . . was born on the day of Pentecost. From then on the “making of disciples” was different. The maturing and equipping of Christians happens in the body of Christ and in the temple of God as manifested in local congregations (1980:13,14).

As an instrument of the church, cell group ministry can play an important role in the discipleship process through the care of converts, aiding the sanctification process, and providing fellowship for the believers.

The Care of Converts

Cell ministry is an important tool for individual caring. It is not uncommon for churches to name their small groups, “Kinship Groups,” “Tender Loving Care Groups,” “Shepherd Groups,” or “Care Groups” (Logan 1989:125). These names reflect the indispensable calling to care for one another. When new people are linked with members who care, they are much more likely to continue the discipleship process. It is because of lack of care that new believers in so many churches “fall by the way side.”

Cell churches around the world care for their new converts through the cell ministry. Oftentimes this care is accomplished first, through directing the new converts to a cell group in accordance with their location, age, and/or civil status; second, contacting the new convert immediately through a visit from a member of the cell group; and third, assigning the new convert to someone in the group who will help him become established in his or her Christian walk (Neighbour 1992:26) (note 3).

The Sanctification Process

Paul tells us that God in His sovereignty has called us “. . . to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, . .” (Rom. 8:29). Becoming like Jesus Christ requires a lifetime. This maturation is most accurately depicted in the Biblical doctrine of sanctification. The Bible tells us that sanctification is both an instantaneous action as well as a progressive experience (1 Co. 1:30; He. 10:14). While the church does not sanctify anyone, it does facilitate sanctification through the preaching of the Word, the partaking of the sacraments, and other church ministries.

The small group is particularly helpful in the sanctification process. Through worship, exhortation, ministering to one another, and vision casting a believer is helped in his spiritual growth (note 4). The Bible tells us that we should encourage one another daily so that we are not hardened by sin’s deceitfulness (He. 3:13). Snyder points out,

The priority of sanctification is another reason why the church needs close-knit small groups or covenant cells to under gird its life. Such groups are just as important as the other aids toward spirituality and edification which the church provides (1983:89).

Aubrey Malphurs adds,

There is one major, all-encompassing purpose for small groups. That purpose is the transformation of a person’s life or life change through community. It is often in the small group that sins are exposed, confession is made, love is experienced, community is felt, and thus, spiritual growth and sanctification takes place (1992:213).

The Fellowship of Believers

Particularly helpful in the growth and edification of the believer is Christian fellowship. The apostle John declares, “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin” (1 Jn. 1:7). John uses the word koinonia which literally means, “having all things in common.” Jesus is the common ground for Christian fellowship, and He is the one who binds Christians together. Dietrich Bonhoeffer comments,

. . . the Christian needs another Christian. . . . He needs him again and again when he becomes discouraged, for by himself he cannot help himself without belying the truth. He needs his brother man as a bearer and proclaimer of the divine word of salvation. He needs his brother solely because of Jesus Christ. The Christ in his own heart is weaker than the Christ in the word of his brother; his own heart is uncertain, his brother’s is sure (1954:23).

Like sanctification, the need for Christian fellowship can probably best be met in the context of a small group. The cell group takes the believer from the large, impersonal church gathering, and lovingly compels him to communicate and interact with other believers on a deeper, more personal level (Hamlin 1990:52-59). It is this fundamental need for fellowship, warmth, and understanding that makes the small group ministry so attractive (Peace 1996:36).

The Use of the Laity in Ministry

I have been describing the perfecting state of the discipleship process which involves personal care, sanctification, and fellowship. We have seen how these three aspects of the Christian life are uniquely fulfilled in the context of the cell group. However, the church’s discipleship role is not complete until the believer is actively involved in ministry. The role of the church, according to Ephesians 4:11,12, is to raise up the laity to do the work of the ministry. Revelation 1:6 declares that Christ has called the church to be a kingdom of priests.

As children of the Reformation, most Christians would agree that every believer is a minister. However, from a practical perspective the church has allowed only certain specially chosen people to do the work of the ministry. As David Sheppard points out, “We’ve settled for the priesthood of all educated believers” (1974:123). Only very “gifted” and “highly educated” people are allowed to use their gifts in the typical teaching and preaching ministry on Sunday morning. The rest of the saints sit and listen. Hadaway writes, “The clergy-dominated Christianity of the Western world has widened the gap between clergy and laity in the body of Christ. This division of labor, authority, and prestige is common when a professional clergy exists” (Hadaway 1987:203).

One of the solutions to this division is the cell church model. Ministry is taken out of the hands of a “chosen few” and placed in the hands of the laity. No one is allowed to sit passively. Everyone must be involved. Due to the rapid multiplication of cell groups, there is a constant need for new leaders, interns, hostesses, song leaders, and evangelistic teams. The responsibility is shared among many people (Hadaway 1987:171).

Participation in Social Activity

The functions of the church of Jesus Christ are numerous. We have analyzed one of those functions called discipleship and tried to relate it to cell group ministry. In addition to the edification of believers and the evangelization of the lost, Jesus calls the church to practical social outreach.

The New Testament Pattern of Social Concern

Perhaps the subject of social concern can be best summed up by the words of John the apostle, “If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love in words or tongue but with actions and in truth” (1 Jn. 3:17-18). Francis Shaeffer addresses the church by using the same biting language,

Let me say it very strongly again: there is no use talking about love if it does not relate to the stuff of life in the area of material possession and needs. If it does not mean a sharing of our material things for our brothers in Christ close at home and abroad, it means little or nothing (1985:73).

This subject of social concern is not only about feeding the hungry. It includes the condemning of unrighteousness as well as meeting physical needs. At times it involves simply alleviating the hurt, while at other times it requires changing the circumstances that have caused the problem. Jesus, the head of the church, is our example. He healed the sick and hurting (Mt. 9:35-38) and fed the hungry (Mt. 15:29-39). At the same time, he boldly condemned hypocrisy and oppression (Mt. 21:12-16; 23:13-36). Gustavo Gutiérrez reminds us that, “During all his public life, Jesus confronted the groups in power over the Jewish people” (1988:132). He expected believers to follow His example (Lk. 10:25-37).

This same emphasis on social outreach is found in the epistles. James reminds the believers to look after the orphans and widows ( 1:27), clothe and feed the hungry ( 2:15-17), as well as condemn the unjust social structures which cause poverty (5:1-6). Paul writes to the church in Galatia, “Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers” (6:10).

The church of the New Testament is an excellent example of practical outreach to “those who belong to the family of believers.” They demonstrated their practical social concern by helping each other in time of need. Many passages in the Bible set forth this truth (Ac. 2:43-47; 4:32-37; 5:1-11; 6:1-7). For example, in Acts 11:29 the Gentile church in Antioch sent money to help the Jewish congregation in Jerusalem. The Macedonian congregations were commended for their rich generosity in times of severe trial (2 Co. 8:2).

Jesus even helps the church carry on His social work by providing the necessary gifting. Stephen Mott comments, “Christ has given to his body, the church, gifts for carrying out the work of his reign. These spiritual gifts include a social ministry: giving to the poor (2 Co. 8:7), service, sharing, giving aid and acts of mercy ( Rom. 12:7-8)” (1982:134).

This quote by Mott sheds light on the social task of the church. For what separates the social ministry of the church from the work of other secular institutions? The answer seems to lie in the area of empowering. The church is empowered by Christ through the gifting of each member. This giftedness can be harnessed on a centralized level (e.g., church offering for a particular need, church action against abortion), but to meet more specific social needs, the level of cell outreach appears to be more effective. It is upon this subject that we will now focus.

The Opportunities for Social Concern in Cell Ministry

As was just mentioned, the church can and should carry on a program of social concern. Many churches take an offering once a month after the communion service. This offering is called a “benevolent offering.” Such money is placed into a special emergency fund for the purpose of providing help to hurting members of the congregation. However, oftentimes such help is limited. First, it is normally not sufficient that a church member simply has a need. Rather, such needs must be “judged worthy” by those in authority. Second, many hurting people will never make their needs known to a board of elders, head pastor, or church board. The process is often too formal and wooden. Third, it is not always possible for a pastor or elder board to understand the person’s need from an insider’s perspective. The request is often judged on a more superficial basis.

Yet, the same cannot be said about a cell group. “Knowing each other” and “sharing needs” are essential aspects of the cell group. John Mallison asserts, “Small groups can play an important role in helping each other hear and respond in practical ways to the cry of our suffering brothers and sisters in our alienated, hurting world” (1989:11) (note 5). Ron Nicholas gives a personal example,

When my car failed to start once in ten-below-zero winter weather, Steve and Cathy (a couple in our Koinonia group at church) loaned me their brand new car so that I could drive to work. When my wife, Jill, returned from the hospital with our new twin girls, we enjoyed several meals brought in by members of the same small group. We cried together when one member told of a car accident and problems at work. We all feel the pain when a couple’s child is in the hospital (quoted in Johnson 1985:25).

In David Yonggi Cho’s cell church in Korea, it is not uncommon for the cell group to take an offering or to find some other practical way to meet a difficulty. Simply put, the leaders and members are encouraged to “find a need and meet it” (1981:59). Members intentionally seek to discover ways to show acts of kindness to the non-Christians around them. In addition, to “doing good” to those around them, the members are instructed to invite to the cell groups those who seem particularly needy (e.g., in the midst of a divorce, problems with alcohol). Oftentimes, it is the “needy people” who find the cell group the most helpful. They are the ones that are the most receptive, and it is these people that often find the answer to their dilemma in the midst of a warm, loving group of God’s people (Hurtson 1995:104).

The Living Word Community Church in Philadelphia is another example of practical love in action. The church reorganized its entire structure in 1970 around the concept of home cell groups. As a result, the church began to grow both in numerical expansion and community living. The cell groups maintained their spiritual dynamic while meeting the social needs of the members. Ron Sider writes,

Members of home meetings have dug into savings and stocks to provide interest-free loans for two families who purchased house trailers for homes. When members went to sign the papers for an interest-free mortgage for another family’s house, secular folk present for the transfer were totally perplexed! (1984:185)

It must be admitted that many cell groups do not function at this level. Not all cell members are close enough to provide this type of personal care. Although I have given several examples of how social concern can be practiced in the cell group, the cell movement needs to be critiqued at this point. I would agree with Sider’s commentary, “Though the numerous small groups flourishing in the churches today are useful and valuable, they seldom go far enough” (1984:188). At the same time, there is reason for hope. The potential for social outreach through cell ministry is unlimited. As cell leaders and members are instructed to reach out in practical ways, needs will be met and Christ will be glorified through His church.

Testimony to the Kingdom of God

A third function of the church is to testify to the kingdom of God. The first recorded words of Christ in Mark’s gospel are, “The time has come, The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news” (Mk 1:15). Matthew reiterates this important message in 24:14, “And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.” Perhaps, the concept of the gospel of the Kingdom brings together the truths about discipleship and social action in the clearest, most effective manner.

Yet, it must be remembered that the church is not the Kingdom. The Kingdom is far greater than the church since it was the preaching of Christ’s Kingdom message that created the church (Ladd 1974:111-119). Rather, the church is an instrument of the Kingdom. It is called to testify of the Kingdom of God through the gospel message.

Kingdom Concepts

Many believe that the central, unifying theme of the Bible is the kingdom of God (Hasel 1982:52). In both the Old and New Testaments this theme appears again and again (e.g., Dan. 2:21; 4:24-25; Mt. 13). George Ladd, an expert on this subject, defines the kingdom in terms of the “rule of God.” He states, “. . . the emphasis is not upon the state of affairs or the final order of things but upon the fact that God will rule. The state of affairs to be finally introduced is but the inevitable result of the final vindication of the divine rule” (1972:46). For example, the psalmist says, “Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and your dominion endures through all generations” (Ps. 145:13).

Ladd believes that when Jesus says that the reign of God is near, it is used in the sense of “reaching out” without the full experience of all that the Kingdom is to involve. In other words, the Kingdom has come in the person of Jesus Christ, but will be fully experienced in the future (1959:127). René Padilla talks about Christ being the “autobasileia”, the kingdom in person (1986:86). Matthew 12:28 brings this out very clearly when Jesus says to the unbelieving Pharisees, “But if I drive out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.”

Kingdom Concepts and Cell Ministry

As instruments of Christ’s church, cell groups must testify to the Kingdom of God. Each cell group is a community of the living King who is actively reigning here and now. For this reason, the cells should expect the intervention of God’s reign in each meeting. Every time a person is set free from sin, healed of sickness, or delivered from Satan, it is a manifestation of God’s Kingdom on earth. Wilbert Shenk writes,

The context for mission is the cosmic struggle between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of this world. Christ is displacing Satan’s rule by His own. This struggle is being carried on within history. . . . To announce the gospel of the kingdom is to side against the kingdom of this world (1983:213).

It is the “gospel of the Kingdom” that cell ministry must proclaim to the far corners of the city and ultimately to the ends of the earth. Padilla’s exhortation is relevant to cell ministry, “Impelled by it [the kingdom message], Christians are able to act in response to human need–not in order to bring in the kingdom but because the kingdom has already come in Jesus of Nazareth and is yet to come in all its fullness” (1986:91).

The already/not yet reality of the kingdom message must guide the cell ministry away from a theology that promotes violence in order to establish God’s kingdom. Ultimate judgment belongs to God alone. However, this distinction is not always clear in Liberation Theology. The emphasis of this theology is on practice rather than theory (Costas 1976:73). It promotes the establishment of God’s rule among the poor, disfranchised, and downtrodden of Latin America (Costas 1982:128). Through the organization of thousands of small groups called “base communities” this theology has practically reached out to the poor and has been concerned for justice (Dyrness 1990:99-102). However to promote social justice, a Marxist analysis has been adopted which is not opposed to the use of violence. In fact, at times it is believed to be necessary to promote their gospel (Escobar 1987:118-119).

In contrast, Christ’s kingdom message does not espouse violence as a means to establish God’s reign (Yoder 1972:123-134). However, it does promote spiritual and physical liberation in the life of every person. It includes good news for the poor, freedom for the prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind, and release of the oppressed (Lk. 4:18).

Finally, the message of the God’s kingdom provides great hope for cell ministry. As God’s present reign is manifested in the cell through glorious moments of fellowship and spiritual refreshment, the group should be reminded of a much grander and majestic future reign. It is the hope of Christ’s future kingdom that should compel cell ministry to continue reaching out to a lost and hurting world.


This chapter has sought to define the nature and activity of Christ’s church. It has attempted to reflect on cell-based ministry as a powerful instrument of Christ’s church. In order for a believer to fully experience the church of Jesus Christ, cell ministry is vital.

Cell ministry brings God’s people together in a way that no other ministry can. It allows the people of God to exercise their gifts, minister to one another, participate in the body of Christ and truly be the living organism that Christ has intended for His Church. Cell ministry also empowers the Church to fulfill the Great Commission.

Social outreach is another function of Christ’s church. This chapter has highlighted how small group ministry can meet deep human needs. The local church at a congregational level often does not know the intimate needs of its members’. Small groups uniquely meet this need by providing close, intimate sharing.

Finally, the church of Jesus Christ is called to proclaim the gospel of the Kingdom. Healing, miracles, power encounters, and outreach to the poor are present day signs that God reigns. The Kingdom of God paradigm reminds us that God’s ultimate rule will be perfect and just. It is Christ’s rule that must guide every aspect of cell ministry.


  1. To a lesser extent the Reformers also emphasized the place of discipline in the church.
  2. I first became aware of this terminology from Ian Presley, international director of the Overseas Missionary Fellowship. He used this phrase in his D.Miss. proposal to describe the church’s urgent task to evangelize unreached people.
  3. The results of the follow-up process (whether or not the new convert actually attends the group) are carefully controlled, normally through a computerized system (Galloway 1986:149).
  4. In many “charismatic” churches throughout Latin America, the sanctification process in the cell group involves prophesy, words of knowledge, praying for the sick, and other diverse miracles.
  5. In Ecuador, my wife led a cell group in our home. A poor, single lady named Maria began to attend. Her family lived in another province in Ecuador, and she was alone and hurting. Maria’s trusted boyfriend had deserted her, and she suddenly was forced to face life alone, but worse yet, as a pregnant woman. The cell group became a family to her. They prepared and planned for the baby as if it were their own. As the birth date drew near, one of the regular cell group meetings was converted into a baby shower for Maria. When the baby finally came, one cell member drove her to the hospital, another took her home, and the cell members provided meals for her for over one week. It was a joyful Maria and baby that attended the cell group in the weeks that followed. I cannot help but think of the emotional scars that might have befallen Maria had it not been for the loving outreach of my wife’s group.