By Joel Comiskey
A Ph.D. Tutorial
Presented to Dr. Van Engen
In Partial Fulfillment of the
Requirements for the Degree
Doctor of Philosophy In Intercultural Studies
The School of World Mission
FULLER THEOLOGICAL SEMINARY
TABLE OF CONTENTS
CHAPTER 1: INTRODUCTION
- How the Tutorial Fits into the Dissertation
- Problem Statement
- Research Questions
- Definition Of A Cell Group
CHAPTER 2: CELL GROUPS AND THE TRUE CHURCH
- The Meaning of the True Church
- A Biblical Perspective
- Meaning Of The Key Words
- Biblical Imagery .
- Definitions Of The Church Throughout History
- Cell Groups As They Relate To The True Church
- Cell Groups And Biblical Imagery
- The Body Of Christ
- Temple Of The Holy Spirit
- People Of God
- Family Of God
- Cell Groups As Part Of The True Church
- Cell Groups As A Key Way To Experience The True Church
- Cell Groups As An Arm Of The True Church
CHAPTER 3:CELL GROUPS AND THE BIBLICAL FUNCTIONS OF THE CHURCH
- The Evangelistic Emphasis
- Life Style Evangelism
- Aggressive Evangelism
- The Perfecting Emphasis
- The Care Of Converts
- The Sanctification Process
- The Fellowship Of Believers
- The Use Of The Laity In Ministry
- Social Concern
- The New Testament Pattern Of Social Concern
- The Opportunities For Social Concern In Cell Ministry
CHAPTER 4: CELL GROUPS AND THE KINGDOM OF GOD
- The Concept Defined
- The Gospel Of The Kingdom
- The Power Of The Gospel
- The Completeness Of This Gospel
- The Church And The Kingdom
- Cell Groups And The Kingdom Of God
CHAPTER 5:THE ROLE OF CELL GROUPS IN THE EARLY CHURCH
- The Function Of The House Church In The Early Church
- The Relationship Among The House Churches
- The Emphasis On Cell And Celebration
- New Testament Patterns Utilized Today
CHAPTER 6: CONCLUSION
REFERENCES CITED ..
Chapter 1: Introduction
In this tutorial, my hope is to interrelate bedrock theological truth with the methodological practice of cell-based ministry. This tutorial will not only focus on theory but on application as well.
I found that this tutorial was an exercise of ‘picking and choosing’. Among the many theological riches from which to choose, I had to choose which ones were most appropriate for my topic. Due to the theme of my Ph.D. research (cell-based ministry), I decided on two important Biblical truths, namely, the Church and the Kingdom of God.
With regard to the church, in this tutorial I will attempt to answer the questions, What is the nature of the true Church of Jesus Christ and what are the key Biblical functions of the Church? To answer the second question, I will attempt to define the Kingdom of God and explain how that the gospel of the Kingdom must affect our preaching right here and now. While exploring both of these theological truths, I hope to analyze both the Biblical perspective as well as contemporary aspects.
Again, this tutorial will not only focus on theological issues. Throughout the tutorial, I will be defining the meaning of ‘cell-based ministry’ as I interact with the considerations of the Church and the Kingdom of God. My goal is show how a’ Theology of the True Church’ and ‘A Theology of the Kingdom of God’ apply to cell-based ministry today.
How the Tutorial Fits into the Dissertation
This tutorial is designed to lay the theological foundation for the rest of my study. As mentioned earlier, my Ph.D. research focuses on cell-based ministry in the church. Because I will be studying small groups within the church, it’s essential to begin by studying the Church of Jesus Christ.
How will this tutorial fit into my actual dissertation? This tutorial will serve as the very first chapter, an introductory chapter . It will set the tone of the rest of the tutorial, by giving direction and substance to that which follows.
It will also be an important guideline as I visit my five case study churches and attempt to understand how their cell-based structure allows them to more fully become the true Church of Jesus Christ and serve the interests of the Kingdom of God.
The purpose of this dissertation is to lay a theological foundation for cell-based ministry. It is to show how that cell-based ministry relates not only to the true church of Jesus Christ but also to the Kingdom of God.
Many people view cell-based ministry in the church as merely a methodological tool for church growth (Hadaway, Wright, & DuBose 1987:34). Others promote small groups as an effective tool outside of the Church of Jesus Christ. Support groups today come in all shapes and sizes. There are also various parachurch organizations which operate outside the church, yet seek to use small groups to indirectly build the local church through a systematic program of evangelism and discipleship.
In this tutorial, my purpose is to show how that a Biblical cell group ministry should be placed at the very heart of the church. It is to examine how that cell group ministry can add vital life to the true Church of Jesus Christ and even lead a local church to experience of Christ’s presence and fellowship with one another in a new, exciting way.
Many scholars believe the Kingdom of God motif is the central thread of both the Old and the New Testaments. Because this concept is so central in the Bible, I will seek to apply it to cell-based ministry today. I will also critique the small group movement from this theological concept.
My goals in this tutorial are:
- To clearly define the theological meaning of the true Church of Jesus Christ To analyze how small groups fit into the overall structure of the church
- To show how cell-based ministry can add vital life to the true Church of Jesus Christ.
- To define the theological meaning of the Kingdom of God
- To show how the Biblical truth of the Kingdom of God can both critique as well as give vision to the cell movement today.
The central research issue of this dissertation is an analysis of the contribution of cell-based ministry as a positive factor for church growth in selected growing churches in Latin America.
- What have been the patterns of church growth that these churches have experienced before and after the implementation of a cell-based ministry?
- How have these churches utilized their cell-based methodology as a tool for church growth?
- What have been the patterns that characterize effective cell leadership in these churches?
- How have the cultural distinctives of these churches affected their cell-based ministry?
- There are at least two major delimitations to this tutorial:
- Scope of the theological topics
- I know that there are other theological topics that could be considered. For example, it would be helpful to study specific aspects of God’s nature or perhaps the study of man. These topics would lead toward a better understanding of small group ministry. Basically, I have made a ‘judgment call’ by focusing in on two particular theological truths. Because of my many years of experience in small group ministry (both leading small groups and small group ministry), I believe that these two truth are at the very heart of my research theme.
- Depth of the theological topics that are covered
Volumes have been written both about the church and the kingdom of God. It is not the purpose of this tutorial to add new knowledge to the extensive literature that is already available. Neither will this tutorial try to extensively cover these two theological truths in great detail. In fact, I will only give introductory coverage of these two foundational truths. My aim is to arrive at a better understanding of cell-based ministry as I interact with the nature of the Church and the Kingdom.
Definition Of A Cell Group
What does the term ‘cell group’ actually mean? The communists have their form of cell groups. Liberation Theology promotes their brand of cell groups. Across the land, various types of cell groups are forming to help heal physical disorders, chemical dependency, marital problems, and the list continues.
In the U.S. alone, it is estimated that 80 million out of the estimated 200 million adults are in a small group (Wuthnow 1994:370). One out of six of those 80 million people are new members of the small group movement, thus disclosing, that at least in the U.S., the small group movement is alive and growing (Wuthnow 1994:371). After listing twenty new innovations in the modern U.S. church scene Schaller says, “…perhaps most important of all, the decision by tens of millions of teenagers and adults to place a high personal priority on weekly participation in serious, in-depth, lay-led, and continuing Bible study and prayer groups” (1995:14). William Beckham wrote the book The Second Reformation to express forcefully his conviction that the church is the midst of a new small group revolution (1995:66,67).
Yet, how does one define a small group or a cell group? The reader will become aware that I often interchange the term cell group with small group. I do that because in one sense, cell groups are small groups. However, I believe that there is also a danger in equating the two because my definition of cell groups really refers to a particular type of small group. In a nutshell, the small group that I’m defining in this tutorial is one that is squarely based within the church. Here’s a sample definition: Cell groups, as they are used in this paper, are small groups of people (between 5-15) which are intimately linked to the life of the church (Acts 2:46). These groups meet for the purpose of spiritual edification which overflows in the form of evangelistic outreach. Those in the cell groups are committed to participate in the functions of the local church and when new people outside the church are added to the group, they too are encouraged to become responsible, baptized members of Christ’s body. The cell group is never seen as an isolated gathering of believers who have replaced the role of the local church.
My definition makes it clear that I’m referring to church based small groups. They are not isolated units. Rather, they are intimately linked to the life of the church. Those who attend the cell groups are expected to attend the church. Those who attend the church are expected to attend the cell groups. This is precisely the model that is used in Korea. In referring to Cho’s model, Hadaway states,
“Members of Cho’s home cell groups are also expected to attend the meetings on a regular basis. Attendance is not taken lightly, and when a member is unexpectantly absent from a cell group meeting, the house church leader contacts the absentee person the following day to learn why” (1987:99).
I reiterate this point because of the growing ‘house church movement’ that is expanding rapidly throughout the world and especially in such places as China, England, and Australia. Dr. Ralph Neighbour’s makes a helpful distinction here,
“There is a distinct difference between the house church and the cell group movements. House Churches tend to collect a community of 15-25 people who meet together on a weekly basis. Usually, each House Church stands alone. While they may be in touch with nearby House Churches, they usually do not recognize any further structure beyond themselves (Neighbour 1990:193).
I’m also making a clear distinction between small groups in general and those which are based in the church. For example, many Christian authors, seeing the positive potential of small groups for Christian growth and discipleship, have produced a multitude of literature which extols the virtues of small groups in general. Two Christian organizations, Serendipity and Navigators, are known for their numerous books and study guides on small group ministry. Kunz (1974), Johnson (1985), and Price and Springle (1991) are examples of a more general type of small group literature. However, most of this type of literature apples both the sodality as well as the modality structure of church life, and therefore will not be as uniquely specific to my research.
Even within the church, there are a number of ways of defining small groups. Hadaway, Wright and DuBose refer to the home Bible study, the home fellowship group, base-satellite units, the house church, and finally the home cell group. It is this latter definition that is more in accord with my overall thrust in this paper. They say,
“Home cell groups are…controlled and organized by the host church. This is the model coming out of Korea where a congregation is divided into small groups which meet in the home during he week for prayer, singing, sharing, Bible study, and other activities” (1987:13).
Their definition places the focal point on the church and not on the cell. The other types of small groups, according to these authors, are viewed as connected to the church, but in a more independent way (1987: 11-14).
There is another aspect of my definition which I must emphasize. For the most part (there will be exceptions to this generalization), I will be investigating ‘open cell groups’ as opposed to ‘closed cell groups’. For example, there are some churches that use cell groups exclusively for discipleship. It’s a system of closed cell groups (Price & Springle 1992: 46,47). The goal of these groups is spiritual growth with little reference to evangelistic outreach (Hull 1988: 225-250). It is my opinion, that churches which primarily use cell groups in this closed manner do not grow numerically and often stagnate.
The cell group ministry is certainly an important tool in the hands of God to help the church grow rapidly in number without losing the quality care of each member. However, it is my conviction that the cell groups by themselves should not be the principal focus. The growth of the church must be the priority. If the cell groups do not contribute to the growth of the church, it is often better not to use them because of the resulting ‘cliques’ that develop.
Therefore, for the most part, the small groups that I will be studying will be comprised of not only believers, but also unbelievers, since the group must be constantly evangelizing. This point is made very clear by Carl F. George when he states,
“Show me a nurturing group not regularly open to new life, and I will guarantee that it’s dying. If cells are units of redemption, then no one can button up the lifeboats and hang out a sign, ‘You can’t come in here.’ The notion of group members shutting themselves off in order to accomplish discipleship is a scourge that will destroy any church’s missionary mandate (George 1991:99).
Although ‘outreach’ will be one important distinguishing feature of the cell groups that I will be studying, the edification of believers is the central concern. Since these cell groups are church based, it’s expected that believers will comprise a majority of the cell group. In the cell-based churches that I will be studying for my actual dissertation research, sixty percent or more of those who attend the church, also regularly attend a cell group.
What is then the relationship between Christian edification and effective outreach. Perhaps it can be summed up in the prayer of Jesus in John 17:21, “…that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” We have found that the open sharing of believers in spiritual communion is often the most effective evangelistic tool. The main objective, then, of the cell group is that each cell group member experience true koinonia fellowship (Neighbour 1992: 60-65) which results in the evangelization of those who don’t know Jesus Christ.
Chapter 2: Cell Groups and the True Church
Since I will primarily be exploring the theological foundations for cell-based ministry, I will seek to analyze four important essential theological issues:
- The Meaning Of The True Church Of Jesus Christ
- The Functions Of The True Church Of Jesus Christ
- The Kingdom Of God And Cell Groups
- The Role Of Cell Groups In The Early Church
The objective in this first chapter will be to discern how cell ministry relates to Christ’s church and whether or not it should be an integral part of Her life.
The Meaning of the True Church
What is the true church of Jesus Christ? In Ecuador, where I’ve served as a missionary for the past four years, the Catholic Church claims to be the sole representative of Christ. There are other groups and sects which make similar statements. How does the Bible define the true church of Jesus Christ?
A Biblical Perspective
Although the size of this paper limits a detailed study of all that the Bible says about the church, the effort will be made to explore basic Biblical truths about the church and then to determine how the cell groups relate to those concepts.
Meaning Of The Key Words
To understand the N.T. church we must first examine the Hebrew background. There are two significant Hebrew words which are helpful: qahal & 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 N.T. concept of the church. The word qahal refers to a summons to an assembly and the 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., Deut. 9:10; 10:4; 23:1-3). The term can also denote a more general assembly of the people ((e.g., I Kings 12:3). 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 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 N.T., 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 O.T. It is this meaning which serves as the basis for the word ecclesia in the New Testament. David Watson provides additional background information into the implications of the word ecclesia in the N.T. 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 N.T. , 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 (I Cor. 1:2; Rev. 1-3; Acts 5:11). The word is also commonly used to refer to all believers in a given city (Acts 8:1;13:1). More pointedly touching the bounds of this paper, the word is used to designate churches which met in particular homes (Rom. 16:5; I Cor. 16:19; Col. 4:15).
Before we touch on how cell groups in particular relate to the Biblical perspective of the church, we must first examine a variety of imagery that the Bible uses to describe the church.
People of God
One such example involves the church as the People of God (2 Cor. 6:16) . The church is made up of people who have been specifically chosen by God. This N.T. concept had deep O.T. roots. Israel, God’s chosen instrument, was often depicted as the people of God (Erickson 1984:1033). With the O.T. background in mind, Paul writes to the church in Thessalonica, “But we are bound to give thanks to God always for you, brethren beloved by the Lord, because God chose you from the beginning to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and believe in the truth” (2 Thess. 2:13-14).
Ladd´s contribution helps us understand this Biblical concept, “The term ‘people’ in biblical thought often has a technical sense designating those who stand in a special relationship to God. This usage is by no means unique to Paul but appears frequently in the New Testament” (1974: 537). 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. 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). Banks points out that although the New Testament world had a general understanding of community life, Paul vastly enriches this idea and brings it to a higher level (Banks 1994:14).
Body of Christ
The church is also described as the Body of Christ (I Cor. 12:27). Christ is seen as head of His body (Cor. 1:18; 2:9-10). He has chosen the members of His body and every part is of equal importance (I Cor. 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, some believe that the main emphasis of the body of Christ metaphor is the unity of the all believers (Ladd 1974: 545). In other places we find that the members of the body of Christ need to bear each others burdens (Gal. 6:2), have genuine fellowship with one another (I Cor. 12:26), and be instruments for the extension of Christ´s kingdom (Mat. 28:18).
Temple of the Holy Spirit
Finally, it must be added that the church is the Temple of God or the Temple of the Holy Spirit. This metaphor first of all reminds us that the Church is not a human work. Jesus said, “I will build My Church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it” (Mat. 16:18). The Church is God’s work from beginning to end, and He is the One who dwell within it. This can be seen as well by several other metaphors used to describe the church. The church is also seen as: God’s building, His planting, His vineyard, His temple, His household, His olive tree, His city, and His people (Robinson 1983: 124). He established the N.T. church through the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 2) and new members are added only as they are baptized into His body by the Spirit of God (I Cor. 12:13).
The church, as the temple of the Holy Spirit, has a threefold emphasis. First, the individual believer is the temple of the Holy Spirit because God dwells in him (I Cor. 6:19). Secondly, the entire congregation is indwelt with the Holy Spirit (II Cor. 3:17). Finally, Paul applies this metaphor to the universal church (Eph. 2:19-22). With this in mind, Ladd reminds us that,
“The fact that Paul uses the metaphor of the temple to designate both the local and the universal church reinforces a fact already evident in the use of ecclesia, namely, the unity of the church in its diversity. The local congregation is not part of the church; the universal church is not thought of as the sum and total of its parts; rather, the local congregation is the church in its local expression” (1974:541).
Definitions of the Church throughout History
The church has traditionally been defined since earliest times as one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. During the Reformation, the Reformers added yet another mark to that of the true church (while not discounting the four credal marks) by underscoring the place of the ‘Word’. Through the preaching of the Word , the Reformers hope to bring the church back to Her true purpose” (Van Engen 1981: 91).
In their significant work Contemporary Theologies of Mission, Donald McGavran and Arthur Glasser summarize several key definitions that the church has held down through the ages,
“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.”
“The Westminster Confession holds that the ‘visible Church, which is also catholic or universal under the gospel…consists of all those, throughout the world, that profess the true religion, and of their children; and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.”
Speaking of the centrality of the church, McGavran and Glasser make this comment, “Evangelicals believe that outside the church ‘there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.’ They also hold, therefore, that the proper expansion of the church is of the highest priority if we are to meet the deepest need of the human race” (1983:186,187).
Snyder shows his agreement with the Westminster Confession by asserting,
The truth is that no one can be joined to Christ the head without being joined to Christ’s body. And the error is to think, first, that a person can become a Christian without being born into God’s family in a visible way and, second, that evangelism can be authentic while ignoring this dynamic relationship of head and body. We need to recover the classical doctrine that ‘outside the church there is no salvation (1983:149).
These authors are writing against the notion of an ‘individualistic salvation’ that finds meaning apart from the body of Christ. They are not trying to set up a competing religious institution to the Roman Catholic Church that demands outward membership in order to be saved. Rather, they are referring to a very natural, Holy Spirit guided process that involves at the same time, both regeneration and inclusion into the body of Christ.
The true church of Jesus Christ is not only in the business of ‘receiving members’ Rather, it is actively engaged in reaching non-Christians. Dr. Van Engen has helped us understand the true nature of the church of Jesus Christ as a missionary church. The thesis that he develops is that the church of Jesus Christ only enters into the fullness of Her calling as a missionary church (1991:17). The church is not a static entity but one of action and engagement (Van Engen 1991:66). He states,
“…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” (1991:70).
Jurgen Moltman is also clear on this point as well, “…the mission of Christ creates its own church. 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).
Recognizing that too often the church becomes a fortress instead of an outreaching body, Jim Peterson in his book Church Without Walls offers this definition, “…the ecclesia of the New Testament describes God’s people, indwelt by the Holy Spirit, who are being transformed and gifted for service among their brothers and sisters and the unbelieving world” (1992:13).
Cell Groups as they Relate to the True Church
In this chapter, though in a limited way, I have tried to describe the meaning of the true church. However, the purpose of this tutorial is not primarily to study the nature of the true church. Rather, I hope to relate this key foundational teaching to the concept of cell-based ministry. I will attempt to do this primarily by looking at the Biblical imagery of the church and how that relates to cell ministry.
Cell Groups and Biblical Imagery
It is my contention that much of the imagery used to describe the church can best be grasped and experienced in a cell based model of church ministry. The key word here is experienced. Small group ministry has the unique advantage of bringing the church into such a close proximity that they experience the true meaning of the body of Christ.
The Body of Christ
In all three of the major passages (Eph. 4; Rom. 12; I Cor. 12-14) in which Paul talks about the body of Christ, he defines each member’s part by their corresponding gifts. In fact, when Paul talks about the church as the body of Christ, the implication is that the believers were able to participate in the exercise of their spiritual gifts. They had the opportunity to interact among themselves. Banks reminds us, “Paul’s communities were instead theocratic in structure. 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 (Acts 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 (Acts 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…” (I Cor. 14:26).
It is my contention that there is no better atmosphere for the exercise of one’s giftedness than in a cell group. As we will study more thoroughly later on in this tutorial, the primary atmosphere of the early church was the intimate character of the home. This atmosphere of participation is being rediscovered in a fresh way through the cell group movement. Churches are realizing that as they grow bigger, they must also grow smaller. Only in the intimacy of a small, closely knit group will many Christians ever be able to exercise their spiritual gift. 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).
Following the same line of thought, Dr. Ralph Neighbour asserts,
All are to exercise spiritual gifts to edify others. The early church did exactly that! 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. By moving among their residences, they became intimately acquainted with each person’s surroundings (Neighbour, 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 the cell movement today has recaptured (Snyder 1975:143-148).
In so many churches today, those who attend are consumers and not participants. There is the tendency to go to a building on a special day of the week, in order to receive some type of ministry , at a price—the offering . The church at large has become an audience of consumers (Beckham 1995:43-45). Yet, the Scripture is filled with passages about our responsibility to minister to one another (e.g., I Thess. 5:10; 5:18). Yet, is so many large churches the ministry one to another is sadly neglected. Malphurs writes, “How do we implement these commands and ‘each other’ passages in the church? Most people note them mentally and attempt to apply them when possible. Small group meetings and ministries provide an ideal community in which these may be implemented” (1992:216)
In fact, this idea of community might indeed be the central contribution of Paul’s writings (Banks 1994:2). Those congregations that only stress the church service on Sunday morning do not truly experience the N.T. concept of the body of Christ as a participating, interacting organism. John Mallison captures this point when he says,
Small groups provide situations in which mutual ministry can take place. Only a small number can minister in a large gathering and then only in fairly superficial manner to each individual. The majority are denied an opportunity to exercise their ministry to the gathered church” (1989:10).
George Hunter believes that Christians who attend ‘church’ without attending a small group are only experiencing ‘half’ of the Christian life:
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).
Even the so called ‘seeker sensitive’ churches of today are discovering that the true body of Jesus Christ must provide opportunity for believers to come together and experience their membership in the body of Christ (Hunter 1996:45-65). Rick Warren who is the founder of one of the largest churches in America (10,000 people attending each Sunday) says,
One of the biggest fears members have about growth is how to maintain that ‘small church’ feeling or fellowship as their church grows. The antidote to this fear is to develop small groups within your church. Affinity groups can provide the personal care and attention every member deserves, no matter how big the church becomes….One of the sayings I quote to our staff and lay leaders repeatedly is, ‘Our church must always be growing larger and smaller at the same time….Large groups celebrations give people the feeling that they are part of something significant. They are impressive to unbelievers and encouraging to your members. But you can’t share personal prayer requests in the crowd. Small affinity groups, on the other hand, are perfect for creating a sense of intimacy and close fellowship. It’s there that everybody knows your name. When you are absent, people notice (1995:325,326).
Temple of the Holy Spirit
The church as the temple of the Holy Spirit punctuates His working in our midst. It is the Holy Spirit who refreshes and ministers Christ’s healing through the participation of each member. Addressing the church at Corinth, Paul declared, “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you? (I Cor. 3:16).
Just like the imagery of the body of Christ, this description of the church as the temple of the Holy Spirit is tied closely with the gifts of the Spirit working through the living body of Christ. It is the Holy Spirit who sovereignly chooses and distributes the gifts to each believer (I Cor. 12:11), and He is also the One who directs the exercise of the gifts (Acts 13:1-3).
Much of the cell based literature underscores the leading of the Holy Spirit in the cell. The ministering to one another through the gifts of the Holy Spirit is an oft-repeated emphasis. Effective cell leaders are those who invite the Holy Spirit to guide and lead each part of the cell experience (Neighbour 1992:124-127).
People of God
The People of God motif is especially relevant to the cell based church. The church is primarily a an organism and not a building. 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” (Towns 1983: 257, 258). According to Donald McGavran, archeologists find no hint of church buildings before the year A.D. 150 ((McGavran in Goslin 1984: ii).
This is not to say that the early believers did not meet to celebrate in the temple (Acts 2:46;5:20, 25, 42) and in the portico of the temple (Acts 5:12). Until persecution made such celebration events impossible, large gatherings were quite common in the life of the early church. However, it should be noted that oftentimes today we become so caught up in maintaining our expensive buildings that we quickly forget that the church must be primarily concerned with fulfilling her role as a ‘called out assembly of God´s people.’ Because of the anxious concern ‘to utilize’ the expensive building, the need for more intimate, body oriented gatherings can sometimes be overlooked.
Some would argue that the church today is still suffering from the days of Constantine. It was in those days that there was a definite transition from the home church model to the temple based paradigm (Hadaway, Wright, & DuBose 1987:70-72). . When the church met in the home, the dynamic of God’s chosen people was kept clear and focused. However, when the church became powerful, political, and institutionalized, it quickly forgot its moorings. It forgot that God was more interested in developing His people, rather than a powerful institution.
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). As God´s chosen people we have been adopted into His family, the church. The home cell group highlights this truth by the simple fact of meeting in houses. J. Goezmann, 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. (Acts 11:14; 16:15, 31, 34; 18:8; I Cor. 1:16; Phlm. 2; I Tim. 1:16; 4:19) no doubt came into being through the use of the homes as meeting places. The gospel was preached in them (Acts 5:42; 20:20), and the Lord´s supper was celebrated in them (Acts 2:46) (1975:250) .
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 a God’s family. We have been adopted into His heavenly family, and therefore can honestly call each other ‘brothers and sisters’.
And quite frankly, there is nothing quite like the atmosphere of a home to confirm the fact that we are indeed, God’s family. The atmosphere of the home has a way of confirming our familial relationship. I suppose that this is true due to the fact that the home adds a distinct flavor of family living due to the decorations, furniture, kitchen, etc. It doesn’t take long to taste and feel the presence of family interaction. As a result, it has been our experience that members warm up to each other much more quickly in the atmosphere of a home than they would during a similar meeting in the church.
Cell Groups as Part of the True Church
I’ve attempted to show how that cell groups can add a vital dimension to church life. It’s been my contention that the Biblical imagery of the church comes to its richest meaning when believers encounter one another in small groups. Previously, we grappled with several key definitions which have been used to describe the true church of Jesus Christ down through the ages. I tried to answer the question, What is the true church of Jesus Christ?
Cell Groups as a Key Way to Experience the True Church
Now I’d like to grapple with how cell-based ministry relates to the definition of the true church. I will attempt to answer this question in a practical, experiential manner rather than a theological or philosophical way. In other words, what must a believer experience in order to be in touch with the true church of Jesus Christ?
I’m referring to the local church in today’s contemporary world. In order to be part of the true church of Jesus Christ, is it enough to ‘check in’ on major holidays to one of the church services? Is weekly attendance at a Sunday a.m. service sufficient? How about two services per week? Maybe two services and one ministry assignment? Obviously there are as many answers as there are questions. The reason for even raising these questions is my concern that a person might connected with the true church of Jesus Christ without ever experiencing the true church of Jesus Christ.
I presently attend a church which is well-known for its excellent youth and children’s ministry. The church has grown numerically as a result, and there are new people almost every Sunday morning. It seems that many of the adults are willing to attend the church because of the excellent programs for their children. Yet, because of the lack of adult ministry opportunities, the majority of the adults only attend the Sunday a.m. service. The youth pastor recently commented to me that the numerical growth of the church on Sunday morning was superficial. He felt that the adults of the church could not experience the true church without having more contact during the week.
Indeed proponents of the cell model would propose that the true church takes place in the cell. The cell is the basic building block of the church, and thus a pastor of a true cell church would not cringe the slightest at referring to the cell as the church (Beckham 1995:28). In my opinion, it’s not a matter of choosing between the celebration time in the church or the cell in the home. In my opinion, it’s a both/and proposition.
Yet, if a person only attends the Sunday morning worship service on a weekly basis, has that person experienced the true church of Jesus Christ? Is it possible to sit passively, shake a few hands, sing a few songs, and participate in the true church of Jesus Christ? Isn’t the true church of Jesus a living organism? Doesn’t it demand interaction and participation? If a person does not experience fellowship and community in the church of Jesus Christ, has he experienced the heartbeat of Christianity?
Yes, it would probably be correct to say that those who attend an evangelical church on Sunday morning are normally treated to a Biblically, relevant message. This is good and right and hopefully the person will have been touched by God before he leaves the building. Yet, if one only possesses theological correctness without the very life of God pulsating within his/her heart, there is a serious imbalance. Hadaway touches this raw nerve by saying,
…churches have grown larger and larger in the wake of rapid Christian advancement in recent times, churches like society itself, have become more and more impersonal. They have come to reflect, understandably, the bureaucratic model which increasingly has influenced all organizational forms in society, religious as well as secular. What has been needed is the recovery of caring in a way which would touch people lives significantly. It is not enough to hear it from the pulpit, read it in the Bible, or see it in individuals. It has to be experienced in community. The house group movement has accomplished this (1987:211)
Most pastors determine those who are ‘in their church’ by Sunday morning worship attendance. There are exceptions, but for the most part, this is the standard measurement for determining whether or not a church is growing numerically. I personally believe that God wants His church to grow, and therefore I, too, desire to see as many new faces as possible on Sunday morning (primarily the unchurched). Most pastors, like myself, will diligently labor to fill their Sunday worship services as a sign that their church is growing and that they are doing God’s will.
Yet, if a church is content with the Sunday morning worship attendance as the key sign of success, I wonder if that church is truly fulfilling the call of Jesus Christ. Could a church that is a model of ‘church growth success’ be rebuked by the Lord, “I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead” (Rev. 3:1). Could it be that many do not know how to provide a true sense of community to their members? Perhaps, there is a lack of knowledge concerning how to lead the congregation to a deeper sense of Christian fellowship. Hadaway insightfully notes the difference between the two structures,
The home cell group provides a place where Christians can come to know and understand one another, not hurriedly during opening assembly prior to church school or semiformally during a postworship coffee fellowship. Instead, the development of close, caring, face to face relationships occurs naturally and intentionally in the comfortable setting of a member’s home (1987:244).
In the past, I have primarily viewed the role of cell groups as a way to grow the church (numerically). In Ecuador, I started and directed a cell group ministry in both a mother and daughter church. The ministry was very successful and the church grew rapidly as a result. However, my vision is expanding and deepening. Cells are not only a church growth technique; they are also a key vehicle for the church of Jesus Christ to experience the true church in a living, dynamic way.
Cell Groups as an Arm of the True Church
Can the cell group by itself be considered ‘the true church of Jesus Christ’? Could a person participate in a cell group without attending the celebration service and be part of the true church? I’m sure there are various ways to answer both of the above questions. I suppose that in some cell groups the Word of God is proclaimed and the sacraments are administered by highly competent leaders. Therefore a person might argue that there is no need for any other gathering. Indeed, the house church movement is based on such premises. They find Biblical evidence for an independent house church structure. I will talk more fully in chapter five about cell groups and house churches in the primitive church. Suffice it to say that there are strong arguments on both sides. Some can find evidence for a cell/celebration pattern throughout church history, while others argue in favor of independent house churches in those early times.
However, even if it can be successfully argued that the N.T. pattern favors independent house churches, I think that it’s important to remember that the early church was a persecuted church. In times of persecution, flexible forms are needed to sustain church life (the present Chinese house church movement is an example). Yet, before the early church was forced to go underground, the pattern of cell/celebration seems to have been normative (Acts 2:46). I would argue that when and where the church can freely operate, it seems that cell groups should function within the local church. In this way, members can experience both the large gathered, celebrating church as well as the intimate, nurturing cell church.
It’s 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’. This role has Old Testament roots. Jethro advised Moses to, “..select capable men from all the people….and appoint them as officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens” (Exodus 18:21). This structure was recommended to help care for the people more effectively. Moses was still appointed by God to lead that wandering congregation. Because most cell leaders are not called to ‘ultimately’ oversee a group of people, it’s important that they are accountable to a structure that is larger than themselves.
It’s also true that God has given gifted leaders to his church (e.g., Eph. 4; Rom. 12; I Cor. 12-14), demands order (I Cor. 14:33), and accountability (I Pet. 5; I Tim. 2,3). The cell group structure that I am covering in this paper is accountable to gifted leaders and is under their accountability. In this system, the cell must be fully submitted to the plan and purpose of the local church leaders. Paul Yonggi Cho, who oversees some 55,000 cell leaders, correctly insists that the cell groups must be under the authority of the church, and that they should never act independently (1981:108-139).
It is my opinion that unless the cell groups are contributing to the life of the local church, both in her spiritual development and her outreach to the world, it is better to immediately close them down. This is not to say that there isn’t a legitimate role for small group ministries in a ‘parachurch’ setting (Kunz 1974:4-15). Yet, I believe that the primarily goal of even these evangelistic communities, should be the indirect strengthening of the local church.
Chapter 3: Cell Groups and the Functions of the Church
I am fully aware that much more could be said about the nature of the true church. For example we have yet to fully answer the question, What makes the church the church? The answer to this question would involve an in-depth discussion concerning the marks of the true church. We might further explore important issues such as Form/Essence, Phenomenon/Creed, Institution/Community, Visible/Invisible, and Imperfect/Perfect as they relate to the church (Van Engen 1981:48-62). Suffice it say, the focus of this paper demands a limited coverage of all that is involved with the theological considerations of the church. However, as we have attempted to define the nature of the church from a Biblical perspective, it also behooves us to determine what the church is called to do.
In Matthew 28:18-20 Jesus sets forth clear marching orders for His young church. An analysis of these verses demonstrate that of the four principle verbs listed in Matthew 28:19,20, only the one ‘to make disciples’ is used in a direct command form (Bosch 1983:228-233) . The direct command given to the church is to make disciples. Naturally, then, we must start with ‘discipleship’ as the principal function of the church. Logan correctly asserts, Disciple making is the foundational scriptural vision for churches. Yet it’s interesting how few churches truly have disciple making at the core of their vision—if they have a vision at all! (1989:30). Nevertheless, 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? Certain ones 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. Although McGavran has been heavily criticized for erring on the side of evangelism, the way he later clarified the verb ’to disciple’ seems to touch the root idea of the verb (McGavran 1980:123).
He clarifies three aspects of the verb ‘to disciple’. D-1 & D-2 point out the evangelistic thrust of the Great Commission, whereas D-3 accents the perfecting of existing believers. The important aspect of McGavran’s analogy is that Christ’s command to disciple is both an evangelistic command and a perfecting command. The church is called to do both simultaneously. One should not be highlighted at the expense of the other.
The Evangelistic Emphasis
Evangelism is a primary function of the church as it relates to her call to disciple
the nations. When the first 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. Yet, today, many churches have ceased to actively engage in reaching the non-Christian. Goals, finances, and resources are directed to those already inside the church. Non-Christians are welcomed, if they show up. Certainly, this is the case in most North American churches today. George Hunter insightfully summarizes the present situation,
“…the vast majority of churches have not, within memory, reached and discipled any really secular persons! Many churches would be astonished if it ever happened, because many churches do not even intend to reach lost people outside their church’s circle of influence. Their main business is caring for their members” (1996:25). However, in many churches today, God seems to be sounding a wake up call.
Churches are waking up to the fact that for too long they have structured themselves for the sake and comfort of the believers instead of the unchurched (Logan 1989:63). One of those movements today that is endeavoring to correct that problem is the ‘seeker sensitive’ movement. It is an effort to give an ‘outward focus’ to an otherwise ‘inward focused’ church. These churches attempt to make their churches relevant to the world. “Unchurched Harry” and “Saddleback Sam” are given primary attention (Hunter 1996:12).
This is a good sign because the church has often tried to divorce the missionary enterprise of the church from the edification aspect. “Missions’ becomes something that the church does instead of being the very heart of the church itself. However, as was mentioned earlier, pastors and theologians are understanding the church of Jesus Christ as being a missionary church. It is becoming increasingly clear that the church will only enter into her fullness as a missionary church (Van Engen 1991:17).
I would like to look at two types of evangelism that Jesus calls His church to do. The first relates to evangelism as a lifestyle. Referring to this aspect, 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.” It is this love in action that is often the most effective means of outreach (Hadaway, Wright, DuBose 1987:91).
The second type refers to the church’s active evangelism among the world. Perhaps, this type of evangelism can best be seen in Christ’s initial call to His disciples, “ ‘Come follow me,’ Jesus said, ‘and I will make you fishers of men’ “ (Mark 1:17). Jesus calls us to be His fisherman. Each person on this earth is only granted a limited time to decide for Christ. The writer of Hebrews tells us, “…man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment” (9:27). This fact should jar us with a certain urgency. With this in mind, cell groups in the church must take on an active role in reaching the unchurched around them.
My goal in this tutorial is to relate both of these two aspects of evangelism to cell groups. There seems to be a new wave of interest in evangelism through home cell groups. Yet, it’s not really a new methodology. It’s as old as the Christian church. In fact, it appears that most of the evangelism in the primitive church took place through the home churches. Hadaway, 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).
I believe that we can learn much from those early saints concerning how to effectively evangelize. Yet, that same form of evangelism continues in the cell church. Cho credits the growth of his 700,000+ church to his system of cell group. Cho highlights his methodology of cell group evangelism by saying,
Our cell group system is a net for our Christians to cast. Instead of a pastor fishing for one fish at a time, organized believers form nets to gather hundreds and thousands of fish. A pastor should never try to fish with a single rod but should organize believers into the ‘nets’ of a cell system (Hurtson 1994:107).
Life Style Evangelism
According to Jesus, the church will win the world by demonstrating our unity and love for one another. As was earlier stated, the cell group ministry in the local church provides opportunities for the church to truly be the Body of Christ and the People of God. As the church meets in a face to face encounter with each other there are many occasions when this love can be demonstrated both on a spiritual level (Heb. 10:25) as well as on a very practical level (I Jn. 3:17).
As the world beholds this type of practical love and unity in action, Christ tells us that they will be won to Himself. They will not only hear the gospel, but they will see the gospel lived out. Several veterans of the 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´s our way of taking Christ to the world (Meir, Meir, Getz, Doran 1992:180).
This ‘life style’ 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’s 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’ve met in the cell group.
In a small group environment, it seems to be easier to treat the non-Christian as a person with real emotions and feelings. The gospel can be presented in a way that meets the needs of the new person (Mallison 1989:9). In fact, Dr. Peace wrote the book Small Group Evangelism because he believes that the small group is the ideal place to evangelize. He believes that it is in the small group a non-Christian can manifest deep, personal needs and find the healing touch of Christ. 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).
God uses a variety of methods to win non-Christians to Himself. Yet, it might be argued that the very heart of evangelism is relational (Hadaway, Wright, DuBose 1987:81). We are inviting men and women to enter into a relationship with the King of Kings. Yet, sadly, so much of the evangelism today is impersonal.
In the cell group, not only are friendship made that lead to effective evangelism, those friendships are also kept after one receives Jesus Christ. It is those friendships that provide natural links to the church where the new person can either grow in the faith or find Jesus for the first time. George calls this type of evangelism, ‘side door evangelism’ verses ‘front door evangelism’ (1991:73-75). Logan explains this concept,
In the ideal church of the coming decades, what Ralph Neighbour calls the cell-group church and Carl George terms the metachurch, assimilation of the un-churched will occur through the side door—that is, through the unchurched person’s involvement in a church’s cell groups (invited by a neighbor, friend, or relative who is a member of both the church and the cell group)… (1989:66).
When one thinks that the effective evangelization and rapid growth of the early church mainly took place in the home, the wave of friendship evangelism through the cell group offers exciting potential.
However, numerical growth in the group must be intentionally planned. The members must be encouraged to aggressively evangelize. The reality of a lost world on the edge of a Christless eternity should never be far from the minds of both the leaders and members of the cell group. Some have labeled this type of concern ‘urgent evangelization.’ There are many places in the Bible where this type of urgency can be found.
For example, 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” (Mat. 22:9). Paul felt compelled to preach the gospel of Christ (I Cor. 9:16) because of the love of Christ which controlled him (II Cor. 5:14). He tells us that the knowledge that all men would stand before the judgment seat of Christ was another motivation for the persuasion of lost men (II Cor. 5:11). It was this same urgency that stirred him to say, “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? (Rom. 10:14).
I acknowledge that not all churches use cell groups for the purpose of evangelism. Some groups are closed groups while others are equipped to support those with a particular type of need. On the other hand, my Ph.D. focuses on cell group ministry which has the dual purpose of both aggressive evangelism and warm, pastoral care. In this type of church, there is a planned strategy to evangelize non-Christians.
There are many ways to do this. Since this is not a ‘how to’ paper, I will just name a few:
- Plan a ‘friendship dinner’ instead of the normal cell meeting with the intent of inviting non-Christian friends
- Use an evangelistic video instead of the regular Bible based lesson
- Place a empty chair in their midst and pray for the next person who will fill it (George 1991:99).
This number has been disputed recently. For example, John Vaughn’s most recent list of the world’s 50 claims that there are 320,000 people attending Cho’s church each week with an additional 280,000 meeting in satellite locations. However, Karen Hurtson’s recent case study analysis once again of Cho’s church, once again points to 720,000.
I first became aware of this terminology from Ian Presley’s, international director of OMF and a Fuller D.Miss. student. He used this phrase in his D.Miss proposal to describe the urgent task of the church to evangelized the unreached people. He said that this terminology is quite common in OMF circles.
For most of the cell churches, this aggressive or ‘urgent’ evangelism is graphically seen in the rapid multiplication of their cell groups. The pastoral leadership encourages the cell leaders to add new people (emphasis on non-Christians) with the goal of multiplying the group when the number reaches fifteen. 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).
I recently heard about a cell church in Medan, Indonesia that was established in the mid 80’s. It now has almost 10,000 members and a 700 member “in house” Bible School to train church planters and missionaries. The cell groups in that church comprise the core of all church activities. The effectiveness of their evangelism can be seen in this statement by one of the former members of the church, “The cells never go over 15 in number. The goal of each group is to divide every year. In fact if a cell does not divide, it is “absorbed” by other cells. The goal is evangelism, then discipleship.”
Tony Rosenthal, a Southern Baptist church planter, has developed an effective way to plant churches using cell groups. In his system, a cell group must give birth within six months or the group disbands. He has discovered that groups tend to become stagnant and inward looking if they are not constantly looking for new converts (Hadaway, Wright, and DuBose 1987:262).
If the group is going to multiply, plans must be intentionally formulated. Karen Hurtson talks about one cell leader named Pablo, who shares with the group his vision for multiplication before every meeting. The people in Pablo’s group have a very positive idea about cell group multiplication. They see the multiplication of their group as a sign of success (Hurtson 1994:12).
Not all cells multiply in a matter of months. Some might take two years. However, it is unwise to allow a group to continue indefinitely. Stagnation is often the result. Carl George, who has studied multitudes of cell-based churches around the world gives this counsel,
“The gestation period for healthy groups to grow and divide ranges from four to twenty-four months. The more frequently a group meets, the sooner it’s able to divide. If a group stays together for more than two years without becoming a parent, it stagnates. Bob Orr, of the Win Arn Church Growth, Inc., reports that groups that meet for a year without birthing a daughter cell only have a 50 percent chance of doing so. But every time a cell bears a child, the clock resets. Thus a small subgroup can remain together indefinitely and remain healthy and fresh by giving birth every few months (1991:101)
Perhaps, the period of time that it takes for a cell to give birth should not be the primary emphasis. Rather, it is the way that the top leadership intentionally motivates the cells leaders to make cell multiplication the chief priority. It is the vision and encouragement that is communicated to the cell leadership that makes the difference. In commenting on the miracle of Paul Cho’s church and how it grew from twenty small groups to fifty thousand small groups, Hadaway says, “…the numbers continued to grow because a growth strategy was built into each cell group” (1987:19).
This ‘growth strategy’ is not easy to maintain. From my experience I have discovered that it is a constant struggle. The members become comfortable with each other. People tend to cling tightly to their newly formed relationships, and do not want to let go, even if it means new people being won into the Kingdom. Hadaway writes,
…the principle of cell division and growth seems critical here to help avert the problem of exclusiveness. Cell division is not always experienced as a pleasant plan of action for members who have developed deep relationships in the home group meetings. However, the purpose of such action is designed to prevent the kind of exclusiveness and inwardness that can eventually undermine one of the most significant goals of cell groups—outreach and growth (1987:101).
Aggressive evangelism, then, must be a vital part of cell group ministry if we are 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
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). From the many passages in the Bible which link the gifts of the Spirit with the church (Eph. 4; Rom. 12; I Cor.12-14), the Scripture seems to teach that the responsibility for the ‘perfection of the saints’ rests squarely with the church. It is to the leaders of the church that God gave His gifts so that, “…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).
Yet, much of the writing about discipleship type ministry comes from parachurch organizations. George Peters speaks to this issue,
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 (Peters 1980:13,14).
If the responsibility of D-3 discipleship (McGavran’s terminology) rests upon the church, then how does it accomplish this task? Ephesians 4:11 tells us that gifted leaders are important instruments in this process. Discipleship is accomplished through such ministries as teaching, preaching, counseling. Along with these traditional and Biblical methods of discipleship, can the ministry of cell groups also play an important part?
The Care of Converts
One exciting contribution of the cell group ministry to the discipleship function of the church is the care of new converts. People are longing for individual care. Without it, there is a strong possibility that new converts will fall away. Yet the cell movement that is bursting upon the church today seems to be a reaffirmation of individual caring. This new wave of cell-based churches do not call their cells ‘Bible Study Groups’ or ‘Discipleship Groups’. Rather, it’s not uncommon to hear names such as, ‘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 this lack of care, that new believers in so many churches ‘fall by the way side’. The phrase ‘the back door is a big as the front door’ is a sad commentary of many of today’s churches. People are often converted, only left to ‘defend for themselves’. The cell groups can help bridge that gap. Some helpful steps ‘to close the back door’ of the church are:
- Direct the new converts to a cell group in accordance with their age, location, and civil status, thus enhancing the natural cultural integration into the group.
- Immediately contact the new convert. This is primarily accomplished through the leadership of the cell group. The leader to make that initial contact and assure that he or she becomes part of the group. Ideally, each new convert is assigned to someone in the group who will help them become established in their Christian walk (Neighbour 1992:26).
- Results are carefully controlled by the weekly form that each cell group must turn in (Galloway 1986:149)
Rick Warren, who ministers to some 10,000 people in his church every week, believes that his small group ministry is the principal way to keep the new converts coming back. He says, “Small groups are the most effective way of closing the back door of your church. We never worry about losing people who are connected to a small group. We know that those people have been effectively assimilated” (1995:327).
The Sanctification Process
Personal care is not the only aspect of D-3 discipleship (the perfecting state). God calls us to be perfected into the image of Jesus. Paul tells us that God has sovereignly called us ‘to be conformed to the likeness of his Son,..”(Rom. 8:29). This process of molding and shaping is a lifetime journey. It’s not a simple a ’ten step procedure’ or even a series of classes about spiritual growth. Rather, it’s a process that takes a lifetime to complete. This maturing process is most accurately depicted in the Biblical doctrine of sanctification. The Bible tells us that our sanctification is both a instantaneous experience and a progressive process (I Cor. 1:30; Heb. 10:14). While the church doesn’t sanctify anyone, she does facilitate the process through the preaching of the Word, the partaking of the sacraments, the educational ministries of the church, etc.
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. The Bible tells us that we should encourage one another daily so that we are not hardened by sin’s deceitfulness (Heb. 3:13). Howard Snyder highlights this need,
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).
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” (1992:213). 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. Bill Hybels, who has well-known for his huge seeker-sensitive church, is less known for his commitment to small group ministry. Huge, seeker-sensitive services might gather a harvest, but transformation and sanctification takes place in community. He writes,
…virtually every significant decision and step of growth I’ve made in the last decade of ministry have come in the context of community,…That’s why we want Willow Creek not to be a church that offers small groups but to become a church of small groups (1995:178).
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” (I John 1:7) John uses the word Koinonia which literally means ’a having of all things in common.’ Jesus is our common ground for Christian fellowship and He is the one who binds us together. Bonhoeffer comments on how Christ works in our midst,
…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). Malphurs notes,
It’s difficult for people who meet in large groups to get to know one another. These kinds of meetings are not designed to facilitate the development of significant personal relationships. Yet, it’s the relational element that Baby Boomers in particular need and want. Again, the answer to this dilemma is small group ministries because they promote vital, interpersonal relationships. When a limited number of people ranging from five to twelve meet together, something has to happen because of the size of the group (1992:216).
I like the Dr. Malphurs use of the phrase ‘something has to happen’. There is nothing quite like the face to face interaction with fellow human beings to draw out the deep, unspoken thoughts of our heart (Hadaway, Wright, & DuBose 1987:34). It is so true that intimate fellowship does not take place in a group of 50, 100, or 1,000 people. It is not natural to express one’s needs in a large group atmosphere. Rather, true Christian fellowship takes place in a small loving group where one feels the liberty and confidence to share exactly what’s going on in his or her life. Concerning this koinonia in the small group Mallison adds,
This distinguishing mark of true Christian fellowship will most likely not be rediscovered in large meetings, where the participants seldom have more intimate gatherings to complement these experiences. For in such situations the numbers gathered and the physical aspects of the building and seating arrangements prevent us from truly knowing each other. We cannot truly love in these gatherings in more than a relatively superficial manner because we are not able to be involved in each other’s lives. In large congregations most must remain strangers. Few have opportunity to share themselves or feel free to be truly honest (1989:9).
Yet, gathering together a small group of fellow believers doesn’t assure that Christian fellowship will take place. It’s possible that the group merely gathers to learn information about the Bible. Although increased Bible knowledge may be a part of the small group ministry, the application of that information to one’s daily life should be the chief goal.
Richard Price and Pat Springle, two experts on small group ministry put it this way, “Effective small groups focus not only upon ideas but on how people feel about those ideas” (1991:95) . In other words, there are no topics that are ‘off limits’ in the small groups. People are expected to share what is happening in their lives—whether they are experiencing a period of victory or of agony.
This small group dynamic of open communication is not new. Wesley established the Methodist movement upon this small group (class meetings) fellowship. Everyone was expected , “…to speak freely and plainly about every subject for [from] their own temptations to plans for establishing a new cottage meeting or visiting the distressed” (Sheppard 1974:127). It is in the warmth and care of small group koinonia that people are allowed and should be encouraged to share their true feelings. Price and Springle say,
When people experience love and acceptance, they will often express how they really feel about the situations in their lives. They may even express pent-up feelings in powerful ways by bursting into sobs, shaking uncontrollably,…This emotional release can be a healthy way for people to face the truth about how they really feel (1991:57,58).
It is this fundamental need for fellowship, warmth, and understanding that make the small group ministry so attractive (Peace 1996:36).
Some wonder if a system of ‘open groups’ can truly experience intimate fellowship if new people are being added to the group. How can a member of the group open up and share personal information if strangers are present? I have personally heard and read this type of criticism on many occasions. I think that there is validity to this criticism, but oftentimes that fear is more imagined than real. Oftentimes, the addition of new members to a group can actually enhance the sense of purpose and community within a group. I would tend to agree with Steve Kunkle’s observation when he said, ‘We saw that…the healthiest groups in fellowship were those that were winning people to Christ’ (Kunkle in Hadaway 1987:138).
The Use of The Laity in Ministry
We have been describing the perfecting state of the discipleship process. We have discussed the role of sanctification, koinonia fellowship, and personal care as three discipleship functions that the cell group is uniquely equipped to meet. 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. Paul asserts that Jesus has raised up gifted men for the church, “To prepare God´s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up…” Revelation 1:6 tells us that Christ has made us to be a kingdom of priests. As children of the reformation, we would agree that every Christian is a minister.
However, from a practical perspective the church has oftentimes only allowed 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 those who have The rest of the saints sit and listen to these gifted men and women Sunday after Sunday. Aubrey Malphurs pinpoints this problem,
The great tragedy is that far too many Christians are either not involved or not properly involved in any service for Christ or His church….According to a survey by George Gallup…only 10 percent of the people in the church are doing 90 percent of the ministry of the church. Thus, 90 percent of the people are typically unemployed ‘sitters and soakers.’ Of the 90 percent, approximately 50 percent say they’ll become involved for whatever reason. The remaining 40 percent say they’d like to become involved, but they’ve not been asked or trained (1992:145,146).
The ‘unemployment’ of the laity is a very serious issue that is facing the church today. The typical teaching and preaching ministry on Sunday morning does not involve enough lay people. Only very ‘gifted’ and ‘highly educated’ people are allowed to use their gifts. The Western church has in many ways contributed to the widening gap between lay people and clergy. 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, Wright, and DuBose 1987:203).
One of the solutions to this wide gap is the cell church model. The word that perhaps best captures the true meaning of this type of ministry is ‘decentralization’. 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 in many of these churches, there is a constant need of new leaders, interns, hostesses, song leaders, witnessing teams, etc. In other words, the responsibility is shared among many people (Hadaway, Wright, DuBose 1987:171).
The prime example of this type of church is the Yoida Full Gospel Church in Seoul, Korea. Never before in the history of Christianity has such a large group of people belonged to the same church. The miracle of that church is that every person feels personally involved and responsible. It is their church. This sense of lay involvement takes place among the cell members. Describing this phenomenon, Logan states,
Every one of the half million members of the church interacts each week in a cell-group body life. Whereas the typical church grows to a point where it stretches to the limit its pastors’ ability to minister to each member, a cell group church has no limit as long as you are effectively mobilizing laity to minister through cell groups (1989:120).
It seems that the cell group is uniquely furnished to provide ample opportunity for lay involvement. The cell leaders pastor, visit, evangelize, counsel, administrate, and generally care for their cell members. For example in pastor Cho’s church, it would be impossible to effectively minister to the 650,000 people who attend that church apart from the cell groups. However, with 55,000 trained cell leaders in 22,000 cell groups, the church is fully able to disciple her members.
One might ask the question, how is Cho able to raise up so many leaders for these cell groups? Where do they come from? First, Cho is committed to using female leadership as well as male leadership. In fact, over 70% of the cell leadership in Cho’s church is female. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the cell group itself provides an excellent training atmosphere. Hadaway writes, “…small home-centered groups provide the intimate atmosphere (all other factors being equal) conducive to maximum leadership development…(1987:201).
Another important factor is a willingness to use lay leadership. I have heard on more than one occasion about the dangers of allowing lay leaders to do the work of the ministry through the cell groups. And yes, there are very real dangers involved. Yet, examining the ministry of Paul, the apostle, one discovers that Paul was willing to take risks. As Paul evangelized the then known world, he trusted in the Holy Spirit to guide and direct the new lay leadership (Allen 1962: 84-94). I believe that God calls upon us to do the same. I have found, as well as many others, that leading a cell group is an excellent way to give the laity ‘hands on experience’ (Malphurs 1992:217).
Lay people who lead cell groups often sense the significance and responsibility of their work. Carl George accurately states, “I´m convinced that lay people take ministry to a limited-sized group so seriously that they prefer a role in cell leadership to most any other office or honorific title in a church” (1991:98). How exciting it is to hear reports of cell churches who allow their cell leaders to fully fulfill the role of pastor to their cell members. In some churches the cell leaders baptize new converts who have been won to Christ through one of the group meetings or the individual outreach of cell members (Logan 1989:128). I’ve hear of other churches where the cell leaders serve communion. Lay ministry through the cell groups can better fulfill the church’s role of discipleship by raising up lay leaders to pastor the flock.
Obviously, not everybody in the church can serve as a leader of the cell group. However, the cell groups are so designed so that everyone can participate and use their spiritual gifts. I Peter 4:10 tells us that “…one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administrating God’s grace in its various forms.” Peter reminds us that each believer has received a gift.
Yet, in the church at large, it is very difficult to use those gifts. Only a few, selected, and well-trained people can fill the traditional offices of the church. Quite often the rest (unless very creative and self motivated) are resigned to inactivity. This is not true in the cell group. Members should be encouraged to participate and use their spiritual gift. When a need arises in the group, various gifts are put to use (e.g., the gift of mercy, exhortation, teaching, service, etc.) (Neighbour 1992:160-171) Since the goal of the group is participation which results in communion, everyone is encouraged to be involved.
The functions of the true church of Jesus Christ are numerous. We have analyzed one of those functions called ‘discipleship’ and tried to relate that function to the cell group ministry. In addition to the edification of believers and the evangelization of the lost, the church must have a very practical social concern for those around us. This is the second function that I’d now like to explore.
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, one who had traveled with the Master for some three years. He says, “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” (I John 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 (Mat. 9:35-38) and fed the hungry (Mat. 15:29-39). At the same time, he boldly condemned hypocrisy and oppression (Mat. 23; 21:12-16). He expected the believers to do the same (Luke 10:25-37). This same emphasis is seen in the epistles. James covers a wide range of social issues. He reminds the believers to look after the orphans and widows (James 1:27), to clothe poor and feed the hungry ( 2:15-17), and yet he also condemns the unjust social structures of his day which at the root cause of the poverty (James 5:1-6).
Since all men are created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26), we are called to show our social concern to all men- both believers and unbelievers. 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” (Gal. 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 (Acts 2:43-47; 4:32-37;5:1-11;6:1-7). For example, we read in Acts 11:29 that 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 (II Cor. 8:2).
Jesus even helps the church carry on His social work by specifically gifting her. 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 Cor. 8:7), and service, sharing, giving aid and acts of mercy” ( Rom. 12:7-8) (1982:134).
This quote by Stephen Mott is crucial to a better understanding of this aspect of the social task of the church. For what separates the social ministry of the church from the work of any other secular institution? 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, etc.), but to meet more personal, 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, like my own, take an offering once a month after the communion service. That offering is called a ‘benevolent offering’. That money is placed into a special emergency fund for the purpose of providing help to hurting members of the congregation. However, in my opinion, such a fund is limited. First, it is not sufficient that a person simply has a need in the church. Rather, those 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, oftentimes it’s not 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’ is one of the primary goals of the cell group. ‘Sharing needs’ is one of the principal events that take place with each meeting. 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).
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, the cell members were the first to visit Maria in the hospital. It was a joyful Maria, with her baby, that attended the cell group in the weeks that followed. I can’t help but think of the emotional scars and trauma that might have befallen Maria had it not been for the loving outreach of my wife’s cell group.
Such examples are not uncommon in cell group ministry. 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 (1985:25).
In Paul Cho’s cell church in Korea, it is not uncommon for the cell group to take an offering up an offering or to find some other practical way to meet a difficulty.
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. The church began to radically change both in numerical expansion and in community living. The cell groups maintained their spiritual dynamic while beginning to practically meet the social needs of their 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. At the same time, there is much potential for social outreach through the cell ministry. As cell leaders and cell members are instructed and encouraged to reach out in a practical way, many needs will be met.
In addition to social concern among members, a particular cell group might decide reach out to the community. Perhaps the group will decide to visit a retirement home, minister to street kids, serve in an orphanage, etc. In the book, Good Things Happen in Small Groups the suggestion is made,
Each small group could care for one shut-in from the church. You can send cards on birthdays and special occasions, provide a visit at least monthly, bring a meal and eat with them, bring families (children included) when appropriate. If there are many shut-ins in our church, each family unit could take one as their care-burden (1985:176)
Paul Cho is quick to point out the reason for his church’s indisputable success in attracting new people to cell groups. Simply put, the leaders and members are encouraged to “find a need and meet it” (1984:59). 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, etc.). Oftentimes, it’s the ‘needy people’ who find the cell group the most helpful. They are the ones that are the most receptive, and it’s 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 Church of the Savior in Washington, D.C. has practiced social outreach for quite a while. It has become a pioneer in this area. The five to twelve people that make up each cell group are instructed to pray, study, and worship together. However, these mission groups are also very conscious of their social responsibility to those who are outside the group. Sider explains,
The goal of many of the mission groups is liberation for the poor. Members of the mission group called Jubilee Housing have renovated deteriorating housing in inner-city Washington. Along with other mission groups…, they are bringing hope of genuine change to hundreds of people in the inner city (1984:187).
Although I’ve given several examples of how social concern can be practiced in the cell group, to be honest, the vast majority of the cell literature talks very little about social outreach. The above examples comprise the preciously few exceptions to the rule.
The cell movement needs to be critiqued at this point. I would agree with Sider’s commentary on the cell movement, “Though the numerous small groups flourishing in the churches today are useful and valuable, they seldom go far enough” (1984:188).
In the next chapter, when we talk about the kingdom of God and its relationship to cell groups we will further explore this critical subject.
Chapter 4: Cell Groups and the Kingdom of God
Thus far in this tutorial I have tried to define the nature of the true church and identify several key functions of Christ’s church. I have tried to show how the cell group ministry can reveal the true nature of Christ’s Church in a fresh, vital way. I have now chose to explore foundational truth of the kingdom of God for two reasons:
- Many scholars believe that the kingdom of God motif is the unifying theme throughout the Bible and thus a very important theological concept
- It enlightens and expands on the role and function of the church in the world, and in once sense, goes beyond it. It also opens up a new way of understanding cell-based ministry today.
The Concept Defined
Many believe that the central, unifying theme of the Bible is the kingdom of God (Hasel 1982:52). In both the Old and New Testament this theme appears again and again (e.g., Dan. 2:21; 4:24-25; Mt. 13). But what exactly is the kingdom of God? George Ladd, who is a well-known expert on this subject, defines the kingdom in terms of the ‘rule of God’. He concisely 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 declares, “Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and your dominion endures through all generations” (Psalm 145:13). The first words of Christ in Mark´s gospel are His proclamation, “The time has come, The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news” (Mark 1:15).
What did Jesus mean when He says that the reign (kingdom) of God is near? Ladd believes 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). It is that concept of ‘already, not yet’ that Ladd is explaining.
For example, In Luke 17:20, Jesus declares, “…the kingdom of God is within you.” An alternative reading to “within” you is “among” you. Ladd prefers the latter definition. In other words, in the person of Jesus Christ, God’s Kingdom is now present! Ladd writes, “The Age to Come has overlapped with This Age” (1959: 42). Matthew 12:28 brings this out very clearly. 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.”
The Gospel of the Kingdom
How does this message of Christ’s present power relate to the church today? Is there a relationship? Perhaps it can be summed up in the concept of the ‘gospel of the kingdom’. Jesus uses this phrase in Matthew 24:14 when he says, “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.”
The Power of the Gospel
I have already mentioned the fact that the demonstration of Christ’s power over sin, sickness, and the demonic were a sign that the kingdom was here.
That hasn’t changed today. 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. Yes, it is a powerful message to proclaim, but sadly, this message has been largely forgotten or ignored in much of the gospel proclamation today. Salvation by faith alone is faithfully preached, but the power of the kingdom message is oftentimes lacking.
Yet, the gospel of the kingdom is more than a simple “decision for Christ” Christ wants to reign in every person’s life, and Satan and his demons will resist every step. Shenk elucidates this truth,
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).
Instead of confronting the powers of darkness and proclaiming a glorious kingdom message, many of the churches today are bogged down with division, power struggles, and inward focused vision. Neil Anderson sums up his assessment of the present American church situation after having talked with many denominational leaders and missionary executives,
…the most optimistic assessment is that 20 percent of the churches are functioning as a living organism and bearing substantial fruit. They [denominational leaders and missionary executives] estimate that between 35 and 50 percent are dysfunctional, bearing no fruit at all. Denominational leaders are overwhelmed with problems. They find themselves,…spending most of their time trying to put out fires instead of offering leadership and vision. The average churches are operating as though their transmission were in reverse, and they have jammed on the brakes (1994:13).
Could it be that church leadership has not come to grips with the real enemy? The one behind the board splits, the petty jealousies, the extra-marital affairs? The need for a kingdom message is greater than ever in our day and age. Those who reject the power of the kingdom and in favor of solely an intellectual approach, might find themselves captive to the god of this world.
The kingdom of God motif teaches that the gospel is powerful and life-changing. The proclamation of the gospel is a sign of the kingdom’ s present work in our midst. Miracles, healing, deliverance, and salvation should be present in a church that is proclaiming the Kingdom and living by the Kingdom.
The Completeness of this Gospel
On a more practical level, how does the gospel of the kingdom include the cultural mandate along with the evangelistic mandate? Is the kingdom only a spiritual reign in the hearts of men and women or does it have practical social implications in a fallen sinful world? Can we only talk about the gospel of the kingdom in terms of spiritual warfare, signs and wonders, and power evangelism, or are there social dimension as well? Johannes Verkuyl expounds on the holistic implications of the kingdom,
Jesus miracles…provide special help in understanding how the kingdom is revealed in this world. John’s Gospel calls the miracles signs which point to the approaching kingdom and majestic character of the Messiah. These miracles address every human need: poverty, sickness, hunger, sin, demonic temptation, and the threat of death. By them Jesus is anticipating Easter. Each of them proclaims that wherever and whenever in God’s name human needs and problems are tackled and overcome, there God’s kingdom is shining through” (Verkuyl’s article in Winter 1978:42)
The comments of Stephen Mott are illuminating in this area,
The Reign is not an idea or a purely ‘spiritual’ force. It is manifested as power in the physical affairs of people as they are hindered by demonic forces….The struggles against the demonic in general becomes concrete in the struggles against the oppression exerted by the power structures of our day. These can be discerned through a spiritual awareness of the existence of social evil and the injustices through which they work….In reaction to the liberal preoccupation with the social aspects of the Reign, it has become fashionable in contemporary writings to state that [the] Reign of God is not a social program and that people do not bring it in. But the very fact that it is God’s reign and is already present in grace means that our response cannot be passive….the church is to be the community in which, through its behavior and its mission, the Reign of God becomes visible,…It cannot, therefore, remain passive in the face of the evils of society (1082:94-96).
Perhaps the gospel of the kingdom is the best way to bring together an accepted conclusion today that the cultural mandate along with the evangelistic mandate is part of God’s agenda toward a lost world. The one without the other is simply incomplete. Earlier on in this paper, we contemplated two prominent functions of the church: discipleship and social concern. These two are accurately brought together under the gospel of the kingdom motif.
Granted, the evangelistic mandate has priority. The kingdom must first invade the hearts of men and women. Without being personally saved, no one will be ready for the future reign of His Kingdom (John 20:18:36). Christ’s commandment to make disciples of all nations must first and foremost be interpreted from a evangelistic/perfecting posture. I agree with Bob Logan when he states, “God desires that churches grow both qualitatively and quantitatively so that the Gospel of the kingdom will spread to the uttermost ends of the earth in fulfillment of the Great Commission” (1989:18). I interpret Logan to mean that the gospel of the kingdom primarily fulfills the evangelistic mandate.
Although I would agree that evangelism must our central focus, the message of the gospel of the kingdom challenges us to think in a more global manner. After all, our Lord Himself was not passive toward human needs and suffering. He fed the hungry (Mt. 15:29-39), healed the sick (Mt. 9:35), spoke against oppression (Mt. 21:12-17; 23:1-38), and ended up dying on the cross for taking a stand against sin (Heb. 12:4). Jesus Himself declared, “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first….If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not be guilty of sin. Now, however, they have no excuse for their sin” (John 15:18-25).
I believe that it is correct to assert that God’s present rule on this earth should stir us to be concerned with all human suffering. In fact, understanding the global dimensions of the gospel of the kingdom, should encourage those believers who protest the abortion holocaust, speak out against the slavery of child pornography, organize voters to vote down unjust laws that destroy the family, establish orphanages, etc. This is all part of the gospel of the kingdom. However, it is my conviction, that we should never forget the central place of evangelism in this gospel.
The Church and the Kingdom
The kingdom and the church are two distinct realities which at the same time overlap. Ladd distinguishes five vital principles which help discern the relationship between the church and the kingdom (1964:111-119):
- The church is not the Kingdom; It is only the people of the Kingdom.
- The Kingdom creates the church; Had the Kingdom not entered in the Person of Jesus Christ, there would be no church.
- The church witnesses of the Kingdom through faithfully proclaiming the gospel.
- The church is the instrument of the Kingdom; The works of the Kingdom are performed through the body of Christ.
- The church is the custodian of the Kingdom; Through her proclamation, God will decide who will enter the Kingdom and who will not.
These helpful principles remind us that the kingdom is greater than the church. God’s sovereign rule must direct all that the church is and does. The church is not an end in herself. She is to testify of the gospel of the kingdom (Mat. 24:14). She must hold in tension that already/not-yet reality of the gospel. Her proclamation must include a glorious future hope, and yet be powerful and life-changing in the here and now.
In a day when certain churches are only concerned with market strategies, poll taking, and modern techniques that attract people, the kingdom of God approach calls the church back to her primary mission responsibility.
Cell Groups and the Kingdom Of God
There are several ways that the kingdom of God motif can helpfully critique the cell group movement. First, with regard to the cell group agenda. The gospel of the kingdom teaches that discipleship as well as social concern is fundamental in the cell church. Ronald Sider’s words touch a raw nerve,
Thousands of churches today have small groups–encounter groups, biweekly groups, serendipity groups, prayer cells and an infinite variety of action groups that aim at fellowship. Do these small groups fulfill the same function as Living Word´s home meetings and Church of the Savior’s mission groups? Hardly ever (1984:187).
However a balance is needed. Why? Because there are other small group ministries who appear to have taken the opposite extreme. Liberation Theology is a good example. In Latin America this movement has organized itself into thousands of small groups called ‘base communities’ (Dyrness 1990:99-102). One can say with certainty that these groups are socially concerned for justice and use the kingdom of God motif (Dyrness 1990:91). However to promote this social justice, a Marxist analysis has been adopted which is not opposed to the use of violence. In fact, at times it is necessary to promote their gospel (Dyrness 1990: 92,93). This interpretation of the gospel of the kingdom is certainly foreign to the life and teaching of Jesus who is an example of one who did not resort to violence before His enemies (I Pet. 2:20; 3:14-18; 4:12-16) (Yoder: 1972: 123-134).
Secondly, God’s kingdom and rule must be central in the cell ministry agenda. The cells of any church must minister under God’s sovereign rule. Each cell group is a community of the living King who is actively reigning here and now. Because of this fact, the cells should expect the intervention of God’s reign in each meeting. The cell leader, as well as the members, should ask the hard questions, Are there miracles in our midst? Did God meet our needs during the meeting? When cells simply turn into fun, social gatherings, they cease to be instruments of the kingdom of God. Speaking of the power of the kingdom of God in many newer apostolic congregations, George Hunter says,
The apostolic congregations all feature small groups prominently. Some of them define themselves as churches of small groups; small groups are even more important in their identity as a church than the large worship service. Why? They have discovered a transformative power in the small group revolution that many other churches still need to discover (1996:82).
Finally, the kingdom of God should give the cell ministry a cause for great hope. As God’s present reign is manifested in the group through glorious moments of fellowship and spiritual refreshment, the group should be reminded of a much grander and majestic future reign. It is this hope of the future reign that motivates the cell ministry to press on.
Chapter 5: The Role of Cell Groups in the Early Church
In the previous sections I have tried to establish a theological foundation for cell-based ministry by reviewing the meaning of the Church of Jesus Christ and the Kingdom of God. I have sought to relate both of those concepts to cell group ministry. In this chapter, I hope to examine the role of ’cells’ in the early church. I believe that such an examination can give us a helpful base for comparing the modern cell movement today.
The Function of the House Church in the Early Church
It has already been mentioned that the early church did not have their own buildings. The record of the book of Acts mentions that from earliest times the believers met both in the homes and in the temple (Acts 2:46). Paul substantiates this point in Acts 20: 20 when he recalls his ministry among the Ephesians, “You know that I have not hesitated to preach anything that would be helpful to you but have taught you publicly and from house to house.” John Mallison, who has been actively involved in small group ministry for over twenty years, testifies to this truth, “It is almost certain that every mention of a local church or meeting, whether for worship or fellowship, is in actual fact a reference to a church meeting in a house” (1989:5). Hadaway, Wright and DuBose add, “From the beginning, homes appeared to be the place for the most enduring dimensions of early church life” (1987:40).
In Acts 12:5 we observe that the church was meeting and praying for Peter in the home of Mary, the mother of John. It appears that primarily because of the persecution that the early church confronted, the role of the house church became normative (Barclay 1955:228). Bruce supports this fact by stating,
Household churches are frequently referred to in the NT epistles. Sometimes the whole church in one city might be small enough to be accommodated in the home of one of its members; but in other places the local church was quite large, and there was no building in which all the members could conveniently congregate. This was certainly true of the early Jerusalem church; there we find one group meeting in the house of Mary, the mother of Mark (Acts 12:12); and although Luke does not specifically call that group the church in her house, it might very well have been described thus. Priscilla and Aquila were accustomed to extend the hospitality of their home to such groups in the successive cities where they lived–e.g. in Ephesus (I Cor. 16:19) and Rome (16:5). At Colossae itself Philemon´s house was used for this purpose (Philem. 2) (1957:309,310).
It was necessary and appropriate in apostolic times,.. to make their homes available for the congregations of the saints….In a city like Rome or Ephesus (I Cor. 16:19) there would be more than one such congregation. Hence there would be other churches and it would be proper to speak of the churches of Rome (1957:228,229).
The Relationship among the House Churches
The evidence suggests that these house churches were not independent of each other. For example, in his letter to the Corinthians, Paul both addresses the individual ecclesia which met in the home of Aquila and Priscilla (I Cor. 16:19), but he also greets the ecclesia as a whole ( I Corinthians 1:2 and II Corinthians 1:1). This seems to indicate that a general relationship existed (Neighbour 1990:44). Banks confirms that point of view (1994:32).
The same can be said about the church in Thessolonica and in Rome (I Thess. 1:1; II Thess. 1:1; Rm. 16:23). It might also be suggested that on occasion the house groups gathered for special celebration events. The Love Feast of I Corinthians 11 and Paul´s visit to Troas in Acts 20:6-12 could be examples of this type of joint celebration. Bruce comments, “Such house churches appear to have been smaller circles of fellowship within the larger fellowship of the city ecclesia” (1957:310). George Hunter agrees,
The early church experienced two structures as necessary and normative for the Messianic movement. They met as cells (or small groups) in ‘house churches’; and the Christians of a city also met together in a common celebration or congregation (except for periods when persecution prohibited public celebrations and drove the movement underground, meeting in homes only) (1996:82).
Banks debates the view that the house churches were connected to a common celebration structure—at least in Paul’s later usage of ecclesia. He insists that the house churches were independent entities with no organizational framework to bind them together. Banks does acknowledge that Paul did seek to link the various house churches together, but this was not through a common celebration model (1994:42,43). Banks believes that Paul intentionally planted these independent house churches, so that true Christian fellowship and community would be experienced (1994: 26).
The Emphasis on Cell and Celebration
The early church is an example of both the celebration and the cell structure. In Acts 2:46 we see the Jerusalem church meeting in the large area in the temple (Solomon’s Colonnade) and in homes. Acts 5:42 indicates that church continued to meet both in the temple courts and from house to house. Finally, in Acts 20:20 Paul tells us that he taught in Ephesus both publicly and from house to house (Malphurs 1992:212). Elmer Towns goes is quite insistent about this type of structure when he says, “To be a whole church, it must have the cell as well as the celebration. I conclude that the norm of the New Testament church included both small cell groups and larger celebration group” (Towns quoted in Geroge 1993.136)
We have seen that the celebration (large gathering of the church) and the cell (gathering of a small group) were normative in the early church. The early church benefited both from the larger church (celebration) and from the small group (cells in homes). This was necessary because conservative estimates tell us that the size of the Jerusalem church alone was probably around 20,000-25,000 people (Malphurs 1992:212). With such a large congregation, it seems impossible that the Jerusalem church was able to care for such a large group of people. However, Acts 2:46 seems to give us the clue. This verse tells us that In addition to the huge gatherings in the temple, the believers were treated to the closely knit intimacy of the cell.
In the early part of the first century A.D. the celebration/cell experience took place on a daily basis. However, due to persecution, as the history of Acts progresses, the celebration ceased to be a daily experience. Although they were forced to emphasize home meeting more than the gathered celebration (persecution would have made this impossible), it does appear that there were periodic celebration events. One can find from church history an abundance of evidence that the church has always met in both homes and large celebrations (Beckham 1995:108).
What about house churches today? There is no doubt that they follow the pattern of meeting in homes, as the New Testament lays out. Yet, what about the larger celebration context? As we have seen, it appears from the Biblical evidence that there was a dual function of both the general assembly of believers and the individual house churches. Therefore, if a house church does not recognize any authority beyond themselves, it is doubtful that they are following the New Testament pattern, Speaking of house churches in general, Neighbour asserts,
Usually, each House Church stands alone….Often they may not grow larger than their original number for years, having no aggressive evangelistic activity. They do not become a true movement of church expansion….In contrast, the cell group church recognizes a larger structure for church life. It is composed of many cells, but no one cell would ever consider existing apart from the rest (Neighbour 1990:203).
In my opinion, one of the great dangers in the house church movement is their independence. If the shepherd exercises control without important outside accountability, it seems that false doctrine and other problems could develop. On the other hand, the cell movement rarely has that problem due to the close connection with the church. Hadaway explains,
Deviations of any major sort are unlikely in home cell groups, however, because, unlike house churches, they are closely tied to a host church. Leaders are trained and supervised by church leaders, and potential problems can be quickly spotted and resolved (1987:248).
This is not to say that all house churches are independent entities. Many do have accountability structures among themselves. At least one group of house churches has even constructed a separate headquarters to meet the needs of the various house churches (Hadaway, Wright, Dubose 1987: 242). Some house churches seek a relationship with other house churches. Del Birkey writes as a representative of the house church movement and as a house church pastor, “…single-cell house churches can grow by forming an interdependent nexus with one another. In this way each comes under an umbrella of fellowship while remaining dynamically single-celled” (1988:79).
Yet, even when house churches exists under an ‘umbrella of fellowship’ between themselves, I have to wonder if this type of informal relationship does justice to the cell/celebration practice of the New Testament. Especially, under normal conditions, the primitive church clearly favored the approach that included both cell and celebration.
New Testament Patterns Utilized Today
Churches today that have returned to this New Testament pattern of cell/celebration have tended to follow one of two patterns. One of these models is used in much of Latin America today. It is a satellite church model. There are various mega- churches in Latin America (and around the world) who have given birth to daughter churches (whether house churches or actual congregations), who maintain an intimate connection with the mother church. In other words, the daughter church is only ‘semi-independent’. The mother church expects the daughter congregations to meet with them for a monthly or bi-monthly celebration service. Concerning one such church, Peter Wagner writes,
Pastor Javier Vasquez of the Jotabeche Methodist Pentecostal Church in Santiago, Chile, allows his 80 thousand members to come to the main sanctuary only one Sunday night per month because it seats only 16 thousand persons. The other Sundays they are ministering in forty satellite churches around the city,… (1976:104).
The other contemporary model, which I have been promoting in this paper, highlights the Sunday morning service as the celebration event while providing small home groups for the people to attend throughout the week. Paul Yonggi Cho’s church in South Korea, the largest church in the history of Christianity, has made this approach popular . Cho has managed to provide the thrill of the large gathering with the intimacy of the small gathering. Each gathering has a distinct purpose (1984:101-106). The strength of this paradigm consists in the fact that the groups are small enough for intimate fellowship and the celebration is large enough for exuberant worship
From a practical, experiential standpoint, it seems that this model is to be preferred. I’m speaking purely from a practical, experiential standpoint. From my research, there is common agreement that a cell group must be small enough so that all the members can freely contribute and share personal needs. Many scientific studies have been conducted concerning small group dynamics. Most experts agree that a group of eight to twelve people is ideal for maximum sharing and communication. Mallison states, “Twelve not only sets the upper limit for meaningful relationships, but provides a non—threatening situation for those who are new to small group experiences…It is significant that Jesus chose twelve men to be in his group” (1989:25).
Some, like George set the number at ten. He is more emphatic by insisting that the perfect size for a cell group is ten since it is “…the time-tested, scientifically validated size that allows for optimal communication” (1993:136). Although perhaps a bit dogmatic, George’s point is well worth hearing. He feels that in order for a leader to give quality pastoral care, the group must be kept small (1990:125-127).
Although I personally (along with others) believe that fifteen is a healthy limit, the point is that a cell group must remain small enough in order to maximize personal sharing. Therefore, I wonder if a house church of 30-50 members can experience a constant face to face intimacy? Except for the warmth of the home atmosphere, it might not be much different from a small local congregation. This question should also be raised about the satellite church model.
In conclusion, it is not possible to emphatically state that the cell/celebration model is the only Biblical way to structure the church. However, I would argue that the New Testament does offer strong support for this model. And from a purely pragmatic basis, I would argue that a structure which supports small cell groups (6-15) and a large celebration service provides both the intimacy needed for sharing as well as the largeness that is very important for worship and celebration.
Chapter 6: Conclusion
This tutorial has attempted to define the nature of the true church and the nature of the kingdom of God. More importantly, I have sought to reflect on the cell-based movement in light of these two theological concepts.
I have not intended to infer that cell groups are necessary for the existence of Christ’s Church. Christ has built His church, and it will stand on Him alone. I have tried to make it clear that I’m dealing with what it means to experience the true Church of Jesus Christ not the ‘positional aspect’ of whether one is truly part of Christ’s church. Positionally, we are members of His church at conversion. However, many are not experiencing the reality of Christ’s body. Therefore, I’ve argued that cell groups are a vital part of experiencing the fullness of Christ’s Church.
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.
I have also tried to emphasize throughout this tutorial that cell group ministry empowers the Church to fulfill the Great Commission. We’ve discussed the various level of discipleship, and I have concluded that we can most effectively accomplish His commission through intentional, evangelizing communities within the local church. Since the Church must glorify God by being a missionary church, we have seen the effectiveness of small groups in reaching the lost. Non-Christians oftentimes feel more comfortable in a home environment before integrating into the local church, and therefore the cell group ministry does serve as a vital evangelistic tool.
I’ve tried to show relate social concern to small group ministry. Although the local church still has a role to play, it oftentimes does not knows the intimate needs and wants of the members. Small groups uniquely meet this need by providing a close, intimate time of sharing and reflection.
Finally, I have wrestled with the kingdom of God, as both an encouragement to small group ministries, as well as a critique of the cell movement. We have analyzed the Kingdom of God as His rule both in this present world as well as the entire universe. Healing, Miracles, power encounters, and outreach to the poor are present day signs that the Kingdom of God is present and reigning. The Kingdom of God paradigm reminds us that God’s ultimate rule will be perfect and just. It is His rule that we seek to follow in the cell group ministry today.
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