Lessons learned

Cell: work in progress?

Trevor Withers and Laurence Singlehurst distill some thoughts from their experience of cell groups.

With more than 15 years’ experience of Cell groups, we believe that the cell model has contextualised in the UK – taken shape in a way that is dynamic to our culture.

We have learned that the Biblical principles expressed in the cell model sometimes work in different ways in different cultures. Here are a few of the lessons that we have learned.

1. Values-driven, don’t change a structure until you have changed a value

It’s important that vision and values lead an idea, and it’s easy to articulate your structures too strongly, which means that the vision and values are catching up, rather than leading. How do we articulate vision? John Wesley described his vision as scriptural holiness lived out everywhere. Every individual taking responsibility to live out the life of Christ for themselves, their workplace and family.

In the UK many cell leaders have articulated the vision of cell church as a movement that is seeking to enable people to love God and follow him; to love one another and build genuine community; and to love the lost. It’s the vision that every church member will be active in this, living transformationally as the Holy Spirit leads.

2. Cells need support – supervisor/coach

Cells need someone who has a clear picture of how a cell should look. Once a month, a supervisor visits the cell, they sense what stage it has reached, and help the cell leaders to take the group forward. If it is a Bible study, they help the members to build community and reach out. If it is a fellowship group, they help to give it that added dynamic of loving our world. These supervisors give the church leaders a true picture of the cells.

3. The cell model is leadership-thirsty, there is a need for intentional discipleship and cell leader training

You can’t start new groups new or multiply existing ones unless you can grow leaders to run these groups.  It sounds obvious I know but it’s amazing how often we get caught out by not realizing this and putting some sort of leadership development in place.  Many churches find that they have to start further back than leadership development as they need to put some basic discipleship in place around material like 4Life which starts to get people thinking about being active rather than passive in their faith.

We have also recognized that cell leader development has a number of components, there are things that need to be learnt in a cerebral way and other things that need to be learnt through experience.  We tend to focus on the class room type setting for our teaching which can have the danger of giving so much information that the potential leaders are overwhelmed and put off before they have even begun.  To avoid this we have found that it is good to mix the informational learning with the experiential.  This is done by running a training group which gives everyone the opportunity to lead each part of the group as well as leading the group itself.  There is then a time for feedback and reflection afterwards.  The group runs for a number of weeks during which time those attending realize that they can lead the group successfully. All the material, including cell outlines, to run a training group is available in Cell UK booklet 4 Equipping Future Cell Leaders.

4. The two dynamics of healthy churches

Cell groups meet weekly in homes and come together with other cells as a local body at celebration services. Both gatherings are vital! The cell meets to experience Christ’s love through others in a small intimate setting. The celebration service is to experience God in corporate worship and to receive teaching from His Word. Both are necessary for God’s people to be empowered and encouraged into a sense of destiny and purpose as whole life disciples.

In practice this means that groups often base the word section of their meeting on the Sunday service.  This is not just an opportunity to re teach the sermon but rather a place where there is an encouragement to grapple with how the group members can apply what was taught.  This often includes prayer ministry or other forms of support between the members so that lives can be changed both within and beyond the group as a result.

As well as a flow from the large gathering to the small the reverse can also happen as issues that are shared in the small groups can be used to shape the content of the Sunday teaching making it relevant to the felt needs of the congregation. Cell groups act as the task groups in many churches and as such serve the larger gathering in many practical ways.

5. The spiritual hunger gap

We have learnt that regular encouragement through cell groups to make friends outside the church through the witness section of the meeting has meant that churches are much better connected to those beyond them.  However we have also seen that the spiritual hunger of those friends is not always very high.  This means that not many friends will be at a point where they will want to attend say an Alpha course. We look at this in more depth in the spiritual hunger article in this magazine suffice to say here that we need often to be in relationship with people for a long time and consider going on a journey with them with regard to seeing them come to faith.

6. Keeping an outward focus – workplace, local & national

Loving the lost and reaching out is hard work. Thank God that cell and Alpha began at similar times. Alpha has been a fantastic blessing to the cell movement, as it has helped us to understand that cell evangelism is not necessarily about dragging non-Christians into the cell, but empowering cell members to love their colleagues, friends and neighbours.

These colleagues, friends and neighbours begin a spiritual journey and for many, Alpha has been a part of that. Many of the cell churches that have grown, have seen that growth through the people who have been in Alpha. We have also learned that at times, we in the body of Christ, and in the cell movement, have approached reaching out on a mechanical basis, pushing people through our cells and outreaches, rather than asking ‘Do we share God’s heartbeat? He loves his world, do we? Some cell churches which have grown, have been those where love has been high on the agenda.

7. Having a trellis that provides a framework for growth

One of the helpful things that cell groups provide is a meeting structure and the one that is commonly used is Welcome, Worship, Word and Witness.   I think of this as being a bit like a garden trellis that enables plants to be supported and grow successfully.  A structure provides a sense of safety and so encourages participation.  It also provides movement through the meeting and enables different people in the group to lead each section.  This also means that a variety of people can lead groups as the role is that of a facilitator leader who encourages the group to participate and share learning together rather than feel that they have to be the fount of all knowledge as an individual.  It all has echoes of 1 Corinthians 14v 26 ‘What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up.’

8. Cells are not the end goal

We need to remind ourselves that Cell groups are a means to an end.  If we are not careful the establishing and ongoing health of missional small groups can become the main thing.  These groups however are the vehicle by which we are seeking to see God’s Kingdom break out.

9. Luke 10 prayer

In Luke 10 Jesus says ‘the harvest is plentiful but the workers are few, pray therefore for workers’.  From this we can ascertain that we should be praying not for the harvest as we so often do but for workers.  So rather than our praying being for our non Christian friends we should be praying for ourselves as workers.  This puts the responsibility back with us and enables us to pray for each other in our groups in very practical and specific ways.  It creates opportunities for us to pray into our work situations, families and local communities with the emphasis on us carrying the presence of Jesus into these places.

10. Theological underpinning is essential

In my view our belief in small groups needs to be based on something more than the fact that we think they are just a good idea however much we might think that this is true. When the going gets tough and it normally does with small groups at some point, we need to have deeper reasons for believing in them.  So here are a few that I have found helpful.

  • God is love and as an expression of that love he is Father, Son and Holy Spirit – the Trinity.  This Trinity can be described as a community a small group, so when we gather together in small groups in loving relationships then we are emulating the very heart and nature of the God we believe in.
  • Furthermore this love is sacrificial and is demonstrated through Jesus’ death on the cross.  Our love is tested and refined in our small group communities as we are challenged by each other and make sacrifices for each other in a way that is not so necessary in larger gatherings.
  • Luther’s revelation about the priesthood of all believers can finally find an expression in small groups as it is now possible for everyone to contribute and see the reality that the early church experienced be ours as well; participation by everyone.
  • Bill Beckham highlights the transcendence and imminence of God as a good way of looking at how what he calls the two wings of the church functioning together.  We described this earlier in point  4 ‘the two dynamics of healthy churches’ but it is interesting to think of it as an expression of these theological terms rather than just a good idea. So in essence the large gathering can be seen primarily as an expression of the transcendent God and the small group as an expression of imminence.

It is interesting to see cell groups being picked up by an increasing number of churches who are seeing the need for small groups that encourage people to be authentic in their faith and support them as they connect with friends and work colleagues.

Laurence Singlehurst & Trevor Withers lead Cell UK

This is the full version of the article Cell: work in progress? in Cell UK Magazine  Issue 47 2011