Cell Theology-Pt.3


Cell Theology-Pt.4

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:

1.     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.

2.     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).

3.     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.  

Social Concern

        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. [1]

 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.

[1] Cincinnati Vineyard has popularized a similar way of serving people which they call  ‘Servant Evangelism’. In that church, members are also instructed to shower acts of kindness on the non-Christians around them. 













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