Why Not Now?

Cells and Renewal:

Small Groups, the Fulness Vision and Renewal

GEM 99:12:16  CC Renewal Series # 5

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The West Indies Cricket Team has long been a chief topic of conversation across the Caribbean.  It is also an excellent case study of a cell — that is, small group — at work.  We watch new faces (rising stars?) come in as old ones go out.  We see the impact of its members and how well they relate and work together on the performance of the whole team.  Sometimes, we are concerned over conflicts within the team, or with the media, or even with the West Indies Cricket Board. 

Thus, across time, the team passes through the typical phases of a group's life.  It was formed decades ago, to play Cricket at Test level.  As new situations have come up, change typically provoked conflict.  The resulting storms have led to new patterns, or norms, for how the team should work.  When the team settles down, we usually see it working as the best there is in the world.  Then, after a match or series, usually its members separate — adjourn — but contact is kept up across a network of relationships.

The resulting list of phases: "forming, storming, norming, working, adjourning and networking" sums up the phases of a typical group's life cycle.  We can easily see these same patterns in families, circles of friends, classes at school, committees, work groups, etc.  Indeed, work groups are now a major management strategy as organisations try to be more flexible and innovative in the face of a rapidly changing world. 

Cells: a Key to Renewal?

Small Groups are now also a hot topic in church circles, because some propose a church renewal strategy based on a growing network of cells. Such groups are viewed as ideal for sorting out the issues and commitments involved in beginning to follow Christ, for ministry training, and for carrying out church ministry in teams. It is also argued that, by making use of existing community infrastructure, cells provide a cost-effective way to train, organise and support the people of God as they serve him in the community.

Others, however, view such a cell strategy as simply another novelty borrowed from worldly management thinking: an unworkable half-baked fad that will soon pass. 

But, small groups are not new to the church: Jesus and the twelve clearly were a ministry team.  Paul worked in missionary teams with Barnabas, Mark, Silas, Timothy, Luke and many others.  Most importantly, as we look at typical snapshots of the New Testament church, we see networks of believers who mainly met for nurture and worship as groups in homes (and assembled in large groups as facilities and circumstances permitted).  These groups were small enough that "everyone" was expected to actively participate — impossible in a large group.  [1 Cor 14:26; cf. Acts 2:46; 3:11, 5:12, 20, 42 vs. 8:3; 19:9; Rom 16:5; Philemon 2.] 

 Similar structures have continued to be used down through the years.  For instance, over the past two hundred years, the Methodists' Classes and similar small groups have been a vehicle for wave after wave of revivals that have swept the whole world.  Church-planting missionaries usually work in teams.  And, in our own day, the megachurches we see as massive televised celebrations are actually based on networks of cells.

In short, to go back to a stress on small groups is to go back to biblical patterns that have a proven track record of success, right down to today.

Cells in Renewal

Renewal starts with vision.  Specifically, Paul views each believer as being called to significant ministry in the church.  Too often instead, we split the church into "the Ministers" and "the ministered to," participants and audience.  Then, we wonder why Christians are so often passive about their faith!

So, let us first break out of the mentality of sitting in pews and passively receiving from the few "Ministers" within the four walls of "the House of God."  Let us penetrate and disciple our communities as the Spirit-empowered body of Christ, coached and coordinated by teams of leaders given by Christ to the church for its maturation, as we work to fill "all things" with Christ.  [Cf. Eph. 4:9 - 16.]

Cells are ideal for this, as the following church-planting scenario shows:

q       Church-planting teams are sent out to a target community and are supported by base churches and Missions Agencies.  Perhaps, host families and/or businesses will provide a natural base for outreach, or one or more enterprises may be initiated as both a means of support and as a context for community contacts, including the business and government elites.

q       People in the community then can be reached through natural links: family and friends; schools, workplaces, the street, mall, market or other places where people come together; institutions, homes and neighbourhoods; interests, and welfare needs.

q       Early contacts, even if alienated (similar to the woman at the well in Sychar), are members of the community with their own networks of contacts, and can become partners in outreach.

q       Home or Office Bible Studies, discussion groups and prayer circles — outreach/enquiry cells — are ideal for such evangelistic ministry.

q       Those who commit themselves to Christ can then be further trained in nurture cells, with the first baptisms preferably being of a mutually supportive group.

q       As the number of cells grows, it would then be "natural" to also assemble for worship, teaching and ministry in larger group meetings.  At this point, we have a functioning congregation.

q       Leaders should now be emerging, and training/ministry teams can be formed, leading to the development of a presbytery, and opening the way for a new Missionary team to move on to the next planting.

q       Business initiatives; drama groups and other arts & culture initiatives; professional support circles for educators, nurses, journalists, etc., and similar efforts can also now begin to take the fulness of Christ to the wider community.

In short, a small group-based church-planting strategy starts with personal evangelism and outreach/inquiry cells.  As people respond to the gospel, nurture cells form, leading to networks of cells and larger meetings.  Ministry teams then emerge as coordinating structures, but are also keys to further outreach and service in and beyond the local community.  [See Greg Livingstone's Planting Churches in Muslim Cities: a Team Approach (Baker, 1993), for more details.] 

Clearly, cells fit in well with the win-nurture-send cycle of discipleship.  Further, because cells are manageable and grow easily, they open the way to unlimited church growth. 

In existing congregations and similar structures, short-term ministry projects — such as evangelistic Bible Studies, a dramatic production, a concert, etc.  — may be used to introduce small groups.  This will naturally reduce resistance to change, due to the value of the project in view and the obvious usefulness of the small groups.  Then, once there is a framework of positive experience, teaching and training, it will build a consensus for wider structural renewal.  It would then be feasible to integrate small group concepts and structures into the wider organisation.

Working in Cells

Some specifics on working in cells are helpful. Acts 2:42 - 47 sets a framework:

[The disciples] devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, . . . to prayer . . . they gave to anyone as he had need . . . they continued to meet together [in large and small group settings] . . . praising God . . . the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved." 

Thus, cell life should stress four key elements:

(1) biblical teaching and study,
(2) fellowship and mutual support,
(3) worship and prayer, and
(4) outreach in and beyond their local community.

The balance of the four elements depends on the main purpose of the cell.  For instance, an evangelistic Bible Study group would focus on exploring the life, claims and relevance of Jesus through discussion and study of the Gospels as historical documents.  In nurture cells, Bible Study, fellowship, worship and prayer would be dominant, but members would be encouraged in personal witness.  A ministry team, for instance a drama group, clearly should focus on its area of service and/or outreach, but also needs to nurture its members, and will probably have a strong training aspect as well.  (It is worth noting that the leadership cores of outreach and nurture cells should function as ministry teams).

The leaders of such cells should use their knowledge of group phases to guide their work.  I have, for instance, found that it is wise to spend time in the first meeting(s) to focus on the group's goals, members, roles and tasks, in light of Acts 2:42 - 47.  It helps to point out the "forming, storming, norming, working adjourning" phases, as this helps to harness conflict power for progress.

"Harness conflict power for progress"?  At first this may seem strange, but it is actually conflict that moves groups forward.  Ideally, the focus of conflict should be a problem we come together to tackle, but disagreements are also likely.  As parliaments and courts of law have long known, where there is disagreement, people will be motivated to bring out both sides of an issue; the trick is to disagree without being disagreeable. Then, the group can take the best aspects of both sides and build a better solution than one side alone would provide.  [See Acts 15:1 - 35 and 36 - 40 for two good case studies.]

 Once disagreements have been decided, the group will have a framework of norms for action, and can work together towards the goal.  Of course, as the work progresses, there will usually be further episodes of conflict and decision-making.

Then, at some point, most groups come to an end.  It is wise to have a celebration, with some evaluation, and to help members keep in touch as they move on.  At this point, it is wise to refresh the vision: Christ came in love, descending, serving, dying and rising "in order to fill all things."  [Eph 4:10.]

We should also note that the effective coordination of small groups depends on their integration into larger scale church structures: congregations, parachurch ministries, agencies and fellowships, etc.  Such wider networks provide a sense of community and vision, support infrastructure, accountability, doctrinal stability, leadership training, consultation for difficult cases [cf. Exodus 18:13 - 26] and other similar necessary facilities.

Thus, we can see how cell strategies can help us build growing networks of disciples across and beyond our region, forming powerful (but not perfect!) working models — shining cities "set upon a hill" — illuminating what shall be in perfect fulness when our Lord returns for His Bride.

Suggested Assignments


(a) Questions for Group Discussion

§         Are cells a biblically sound tool for evangelism, nurture, service and missions?  Why or why not?

§         Is it correct to view such cells as practically scaled structures for body life, fellowship, gifts and service in the church and wider community?

§         Cells are viewed as a context for spiritual growth through living the truth in love, and for training in service.  In light of Jesus’ experiences with the twelve, is this a workable idea?  Why/why not?

§         Similarly, Paul’s missionary team is used as a model for team based ministries today.  Is this workable?  Why/why not?

§         Could cell principles be applied to typical church structures:

·         sunday school

·         youth fellowships

·         men’s fellowships

·         women’s fellowship

·         prayer circles

·         Dorcas circles

·         special ministries such as the choir,

·         the board of elders and deacons

§         More broadly, how could cell concepts and strategies be used to project the witness and service of the church into the school, workplace, campus, and wider community across the Caribbean?

§         Could such initiatives fit in with existing structures in your church, or would they require that the existing structures undergo renewal?



(b) Practical Exercises


§         Revise the discipleship plan in light of the cell concept.