Monday, 8 September 2008

Cell Groups

A few years ago "cell groups" seemed to be all the rage. Ralph Neighbour came to the UK and with quite a bit of fanfare the cell concept was born. I used to hear quite a lot about it within newfrontiers conferences but it feels like it has dropped off the agenda somewhat.

Some of the early claims and hopes have proved false, while some have been a bit quick to send the baby flying out with the bathwater. The UK cell movement has learned, revised and strengthened the concept for the UK culture, but some maintain it "doesn't work".

Yesterday Laurence Singlehurst, head of Cell UK and long term proponent of the cell model came to speak at our Church for the second time.

I like Laurence. He is sound. He loves people and he loves people enough to share Jesus with them. I like his heart, and I like the way he actually does what he preaches, and his talks are littered with personal examples.

I can see why people follow him. Because you can't help feel loved by him. He makes you want to love other people better. He makes you want to express Jesus to people in new ways. His book "Sowing, reaping, keeping" is an absolute classic and has shaped the missional perspective of our Church more than any other.

The first question of mission is "How big is your heart?" The rest puts the answer to that question into practice.

He also spoke about being "secret pastor" to our friends. Loving them unconditionally and seeking their spiritual renewal. Do we actually love people enough?

His visit made me think of our cell groups, and the ways cell groups have shaped the Church, and how what we now see compares with the early textbooks.

Here are a few thoughts:

1) In a larger Church, a cell group is often the primary friendship group. Many people don't know many other people, but they do know the people in their groups.

2) Of the people who disengage with Church, a high percentage are either not in a group, or drift away from a group early in the process.

3) Cell meetings are not good to invite non christians to. No-one I know would actually invite a non christian to a cell "meeting". Socials "yes" - meetings "no".

4) Cells are a primary social group for missional friendships and activities. They are a key driver for mission. Bob knows Sam. Bob and Sam become friends. Bob invites Sam to a curry night. Sam comes to further social events. Sam comes to the Church quiz night. Bob invites Sam on Alpha and Sam comes. Sam comes to faith on the Alpha course away day. Sam gets discipled. Sam joins a cell group. The reason cells are a driver in mission is:

Bob was encouraged to pray for Sam at Cell group.
Bob invited Sam to cell group socials, starting with the curry night, where Sam met other friends from Church.
Cell kept praying for Sam.
Sam went to Church quiz night on the cell group team.
Sam went to Alpha and every week the cell prayed for Him.
When Sam comes to faith and is baptised, the whole cell group gather around and pray for him. They are his friendship group, and he naturally joins that group having joined the Church.

He goes to a normal "cell" meeting for the first time as a Christian, but the cell has been instrumental in his journey of faith, and those are his friends in Church.

So cells have become a missional friendship group who send people into Alpha and bring people into fellowship at the other end.

5) The 4 W's is not perfect, but I am yet to find better. Every criticism of it I hear is often genuine, based on poor experiences. I consider the 4 Ws being a trellis around which a healthy, missional friendship group grows. The vitality, holy spirit led creativity that comes when Christians gather has a framework around which to grow and develop.

6) Cells only need a week for witness and mission to disappear off the agenda. Unless it is planned, it does not happen by accident.

7) Having a cell rota and asking people to lead sections is a key way to develop people's gifts within a Church environment. We only have 52 sunday morning teaching slots per year, but we have over 750 cell word sections for people to lead. We only have 52 sunday morning worship times but over 750 cell worship times, which can involve those without musical gifts. The "priesthood of all believer's" can actually be enacted in creative ways.

8) People who don't like cell groups often say it is because they want a "deeper" bible study, but actually it is often because they don't want to live outward looking lives of mission and don't like to be reminded of it. Cerebral, intellectual, "Bomb shelter" Christianity does not enjoy cell. "What does scripture mean" is a great question, but "and so in the light of scripture what should we do" should not be missed off the agenda.

9) Mechanisms are not the answer. The G12 model for example - "we did it here so it will work for you!" But it doesn't always work. And the pain in some Churches has been massive. Too much prescription, too modernist, too a+b+c = lots of converts doesn't work. The model has to be flexible enough to change and move to continue engaging with the situation and culture. Remember Laurence's suggestion - The first question of mission is "How big is your heart?" That is the question a cell group should pose. Not "How many Ws do you use", but "How big is your heart?"

Cells help people to enlarge their heart for mission. They aren't an off the shelf "strategy for effective church growth", they are a useful tool to help us live a life of fellowship and mission.

10) When I talk to most people about cell groups they assume they know what I am talking about, but often after a brief chat it is clear that they don't. Many of the criticisms of the cell model I have heard are because people have started with the 4 Ws and not with the heart for mission. I don't believe Cells are the answer to the future of the church. But I do believe they can have a massive impact in a society that is relational yet lonely, relativist yet truth seeking, disinterested in the church and yet interested in spirituality, and can help to shape a Church that is wanting to grow but struggling or inactive in mission.

Our cells are not perfect. Every group has its own quirks and challenges. Some are stronger than others. All of them depend on their members and those shaping the vision. But I cannot help being excited when I think week by week there are 19 meetings in the estates of the town and surrounding villages as Christians gather to worship, apply the word and reach out to people who don't yet know Jesus. It isn't a perfect model, but it is trying to reach people for Jesus, and in doing so is answering that question: how big is your heart?


Jon Sidnell said...

Good thoughts, David, thanks for sharing :)

My church is just going through the process of re-defining our community groups, and training up new leaders, so this is good, timely stuff!

Randall Neighbour said...

I have to disagree with one of your points. Cell groups are great places to invite unchurched people if:
1) They are a true friend of a member.
2) They have interacted with the other members of the group in numerous social situations.

Dave Earley, author of "8 Habits of Effective Small Group Leaders" says: Win them to you as a friend, win them to your group members, and then you'll win them for Christ."

When the unbeliever views the people of the group as being genuine and caring and a friendship is present, inviting them to a cell meeting is welcomed and they will show up.

Blue, with a hint of amber said...

Thanks Randall.

That is not my experience.

I think we may be looking at a transatlantic culutral difference.

We find people respond much more to an event like the Alpha Course which is less intense socially than a cell group.

In discussions with others at a Cell UK conference this seemed to be the consensus.

You would go out for a meal and have a chat, and discuss important issues. That is the alpha course. You wouldn't go around to someone's house and sing love songs to someone you didn't know.

There are always exceptions, but I think it is important to have the right expectations, and our experience is that it is easier to invite someone on Alpha and it is easier for people to come on Alpha, and cells are a wonderful way of making that happen through social links.

Blue, with a hint of amber said...

Dave Earley, author of "8 Habits of Effective Small Group Leaders" says: Win them to you as a friend, win them to your group members, and then you'll win them for Christ."

I would agree with that 100%

But first of all I'd invite them on Alpha, not to a normal cell meeting.

Peter Kirk said...

Good post! I am quite a fan of cell groups, although we just call them "house groups" in my church. But they do need a clear vision and some kind of structure to work. We have done a bit too much of letting each group go its own way, which means that some groups have gone into dead ends and then died - whereas others have become too successful and grown too big but then failed to split successfully. So a good idea but by no means a panacea.