Many churches make a healthy, joyful transition by becoming a cell-producing church, by multiplying tiny groups that are small yet real churches within the larger church body. However, most Western churches that attempt this transition fail to carry it through to their satisfaction. In many cases that the authors examined, churches failed to prepare their people to start the kind of groups that continued to multiply. Many churches have made the transition thoroughly; they are more common in Asia and Latin America. Pass on to your coworkers the action points that those churches emphasize:
Birth the First Cells
1) Help leaders and believers see that small cells or home churches are normal.
The first-century churches of Jerusalem and other cities in Acts were clusters of tiny house churches. Their elders were shepherds, not preachers in the modern sense. Home groups in many parts of the world are the backbone of “people movements” that are reaching millions.
2) Build groups around people like Zacheus, Lydia and the Philippian jailer.
Groups built around seekers, new believers and recently converted families can easily grow and multiply, provided you conscientiously coach them. Small groups built around mature Christians seldom multiply. Most groups that win the lost and multiply are gathered by recent converts, and meet in the homes of new believers or seekers.
3) Gather seekers in a party atmosphere, following Jesus’ example.
Meetings with a classroom atmosphere attract few seekers, rarely move new believers to take action and almost never multiply. You cannot multiply home groups by using teaching and worship styles that fit a large assembly. Conventional study groups lack the spontaneous, intimate, honest, family, “one another” interaction that the New Testament requires of a small group. Conventional study groups also fail to help a new believer form seekers’ groups among unsaved friends and relatives.
4) Deal differently with three types of folk: seekers, new believers and mature believers.
a) Seekers. Let temporary seekers’ cells be parties or something similar, such like Zacheus and Levi had so their friends could meet Jesus.
b) New believers. Let new believers meet in their homes with friends and relatives to learn the basic commands of Christ and focus on witnessing to friends.
c) Maturing believers. Let mature believers have Bible study groups or ministry groups.
Sustained multiplication occurs with the second type of gathering: new believers. They have recently found Jesus and have unsaved friends to whom they can witness easily. Mobilize these new believers to keep multiplying. Do not put a new believer into a Bible study group for mature believers until the new believer has sown the gospel among friends, gathered seekers, and done what he can to bring them to Christ.
5) Bring a new family of believers into an existing cell only as a last resort.
Start a cell in new believers’ homes to keep mining the “vein of gold.” Help new believers and new leaders look constantly for their vein of gold by seeking friends and relatives who have not yet been hardened to the gospel, although they might have been repulsed by an institutional church that did not give them or their families the attention they needed.
New believers still have many non-believing friends and can often bring them easily into their homes. Let new believers host these meetings, as did Zacheus, Levi, Cornelius and Lydia. Sometimes cells begin simply because a new believer starts shepherding his family, while being coached by an older believer. Aim always to keep a family together.
6) Free up groups to obey Christ.
“Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.” (2 Cor. 3:17)
Many believers, especially among the younger generation, enjoy freedom from the routine of assembling once a week to sit facing a focal point, usually a pulpit or worship team, and watch singers and musicians perform, hear a lecture and sometimes an appeal for money. This form was adopted in the 18th-century, codified in the 19th century, elaborated in the 20th, and is dying in the 21st.
Free your group leaders to do the things the New Testament churces did, and in the same way. Let them baptize and serve Communion, as Jesus commanded; He is our King of Kings with “all authority in heaven and earth” and no earthly authority can rightly override His commands for believers.
Grow and Multiply
7) Start small, building organization on relationships and members’ strengths.
Groups that grow fastest are those that start smallest. Large growth comes through multiplying many tiny groups. Organization that grows spontaneously out of existing relationships and a desire to serve, works better than simply adapting a popular organiational model from another church. Cultural factors create significant differences between any two churches. Some universal principles apply everywhere, but take on different forms and structures in each locale. Popular models with external forms imported from other churches, if used at all, will require radical revision.
8) Start several groups at about the same time if possible.
This has several advantages. Even if one or two groupos disband, there is still a group. A pastor can meet with more than one group shepherd for coaching, and have time to hear from all of them, give them advice, and make plans with them for their groups. It will become clear faster, what kinds of group activities meet needs and lead to starting new groups. Furthermore, group leaders can encourage and advise one another.
9) Aim to reproduce.
From the very start, let each group shepherd share the vision to lead his group to start other groups. Seldom do groups multiply by splitting; it is hard to break up friendships. Usually, group members start new, smaller groups with others, while maintaining ties with their first group. Groups and their shepherds should envision and pray to make that happen continually. Often those who start a new group never leave the original one. They simply visit friends to win them to Christ, and train new leaders in the new group, while remaining with the original group. This is what Paul and Barnabas did; they started many churches but kept returning to their home church in Antioch.
10) Multiply, not by splitting groups, but by forming seeker groups with unsaved friends.
Training seminars for teachers and potential leaders in a church rarely enable them to multiply small groups that continue to multiply. Find and mobilize people, especially new believers, who are eager to with friends on their friends’ turf. New believers usually have good relationships with many unsaved friends who will listen to the new believers.
11) Keep practicing prayerful, aggressive evangelism.
If a church is not evangelistic, simply incorporating small groups will not correct its failure. Structure is not the important thing. Evangelism and a passion to disciple the new believers biblically are. These pastoral dynamics require the support of fervent prayer.
Coach New Leaders on the Job
12) Let poor, less-educated folk serve as group leaders ? as shepherds not preachers.
Home churches or cell groups multiply far more rapidly among the poor. Wealth weakens spirituality. Personal pride, cultural or religious arrogance, and satisfaction with material possessions, kill faith and make it hard to repent. Poorer people are more willing to change and therefore more willing to listen to the promises that Jesus offers to them.
Look on the fields that are ripe for harvest, as Christ commanded. Observe the poor and immigrant groups around you. Often the middle class wants only sophisticated groups. They do not consider people to be “leader material,” because of dress styles, personality quirks, educational level or economic standing. Laymen are not “ready.” Some pastors seek suave, articulate, theologically minded, “respectable” types who they hope will attract others of the same kind into their churches.
Follow New Testament guidelines for selecting and training leaders. Most cell groups are started and led by very ordinary persons whose pastors or other group leaders have authorized, encouraged and equipped to do so. Make sure all leaders know the difference between being shepherds who lead and mere preachers or teachers who lecture.
13) Coach new leaders behind the scenes, apprenticing them as they help lead cells.
Aquila and Priscilla coached Apollos behind the scenes, Acts 18:24-28. Coach new leaders as Jesus and the apostles did it. They did not come to training sessions with a prepared outline. They observed needs and listened. From trainees, a coach learns their friends’ needs and deals with them instead of dispensing lofty ideas or a linear curriculum that seldom relates to the current situation. The coach deals with urgent needs of persons in the group or their friends, and helps new leaders make plans for what to do with their groups.
Give potential leaders more and more responsibility until they can lead their own groups. Let as many from a parent group who want, go with them. Maintain relationships with those who leave by providing occasional united celebrations and ongoing coaching.
14) Risk the inevitable failures and let new leaders make mistakes.
Dare to trust God to let you to reap the benefits of face-to-face groups, in spite of inevitable problems. Some small groups become self-centered, unsupportive of the congregational needs and other endeavors. These pitfalls, however, will prove rare if you follow these guidelines. Older pastors, especially more educated ones, usually expect too much of new leaders, and refuse to let new believers lead a group of their own family and friends. Yet new believers are the ones that God uses most often to win others to Christ and give them their first instruction. They must be coached behind the scenes, however, by a more experienced believer.
15) Avoid over-training with too much information before it is needed.
Experienced trainers have found that providing information before workers need it, learning without implementation, will require training again later when the need becomes apparent. Information overload often puts trainees in such a scholarly mode that it takes their focus off the task at hand that God wants them to complete as part of their training.
16) Listen to those whom you coach before telling them what to do.
Pastors who coach small group shepherds must listen to them often and help them to serve their groups. Respond to urgent issues, and keep introducing into the groups those ministries that the New Testament requires of any group of believers, which include, spiritual warfare, evangelism, serving the needy, sending workers to neglected people nearby and afar, member care, strengthening families and marriages.
17) Hold up to new believers the possibility of becoming shepherding elders.
Let new believers view church leadership as something to be developed, while serving with all the love and skill that God gives to them as they serve their small groups. Some may leave shepherding to others, while others will become competent pastors or elders.
18) Provide regular, patient coaching, in addition to training seminars.
Include coaching group shepherds in your list of pastoral duties. Where a pastor is too insecure or unskilled to coach others, he should assign that task to another, perhaps a staff member or associate missionary, and show frequent, public support of that helper’s work.
Rapid cell multiplication requires training many new leaders the way Jesus and the apostles did it. Pastors who rely only on big-group training classes for small group leaders will be disappointed, for shepherding is not so much an academic subject as it is a relational skill with a God-given desire to see others grow in faith and obedience. This skill cannot be imparted via lecture; it must be modeled, as Jesus did.
Coordinate the Expanding Movement
19) Start cells that are entirely new, rather than restructuring existing groups.
It almost never works to force change upon old structures or small groups that have not reproduced nor done evangelism. Pastors who simply add on small group ministry to their programs and preach the benefits of “body life” will experience disappointment. We hear the complaint that small groups are effective only for poor, rural or Third World churches, and that “Cells that try to act like little churches will split your congregation and shrink your budget.” However, those are seldom the real roots of their failure.
20) Build strong, edifying ties between groups.
Arrange for members of one group to coach members of another. A group small enough for spontaneous interaction is too small to have a good balance of spiritual gifts and gift-based ministries. Therefore, it is just as important to practice the interactive ‘church body life’ between groups as within them.
21) Let groups be different from others, dealing with different needs as they arise.
Do not push groups into a mold or force one curriculum on all of them. Give options that meet current needs and ministry opportunities. Do not dictate when or where groups must meet. Let leaders with more experience experiment with new things. You may find that God is willing to save many more people that you imagined possible, but they may be culturally or economically different from your present congregation or groups. You may have to let your new leaders shepherd them in quite separate groups or a separate congregation.
22) Pray for grace simply to serve others.
Where shepherds desire not merely to grow a bigger church, but to serve their city and nation, where they joyfully meet social and spiritual needs of their communities, people repent and come into their churches.
Cultivate Dynamic, Interactive Church Body Life
23) Let small group participation be voluntary.
Let believers who are indifferent to small groups “lie in green pastures beside still waters.” Forcing them into face-to-face situations breeds stagnant, sterile groups. Older believers that have so many activities that they resist “one more thing to do” bring a reluctant attitude into new groups, especially if pastors assign members to a group by drawing zones on a map.
24) Keep groups small enough, so that every participant can talk if they want.
Believers, especially of the younger generation, enjoy small groups, cell churches and even independent house fellowships where they can develop close, edifying relationships. They also seek to encounter Christ in a mystical way as the Holy Spirit uses the different spiritual gifts of the body to serve one another.
Enemies of such edifying interaction are ‘ticks’ that creep into small groups and suck their life-blood Some seek material benefits and others, attention. Avoid wasting time with chronic problems and people who enjoy being the victim of bad circumstances. Such parasites on the body of Christ absorb time and attention if you let them. Have someone deal with them in private, or quiet them by saying, after they have spoken in a meeting, “Let’s hear from someone who has not yet spoken.” You might also say something like, “Let’s deal with the needs of others who may be too shy to speak up.” If parasites do not heed your admonition, then ask them to leave the group so it can survive.
25) Keep the entire congregation aware of what God is doing in the cell groups.
One way to encourage small group workers is to interview briefly, during the congregational worship time, individuals who have had spiritual victories in their small groups. Cells stagnate if left to their own devices without fresh input and encouragement from pastors.