MentorNet # 21 & 21 (combined)

Helping Church Leaders to Develop a Cellular Church Body

Copyright © 2000 by Galen Currah and George Patterson

When you consult, mentor or coach leaders who help their congregations to transform into a church of small groups, give to them some clear guidelines and cautions. Prepare the way for them by explaining these action points:

1. Let members discover the joy of meeting with a group small enough to practice the kind of edifying interaction that Jesus and His apostles want for us.

· Let members join in the joyful trend of spiritual chiropractic. A healthy trend is slowly gaining speed among Western churches, correcting some deeply-entrenched traditions that define what we must do when we gather. This trend embraces several New Testament practices, placing obedience to God’s Word above conformity to human traditions.

· Let members practice the New Testament “one another” commands. These include: “bear one another’s burdens,” “confess your faults to one another,” and “admonish one another.” There are over forty such ‘one-anothers’ and many are repeated several times. As urban populations become more talented, literate and aware of non-Christian religions and political trends, they grow impatient, even bored, with the typical one-way, Sunday diet dispensed almost exclusively by a paid, professional staff, without regard to the New Testament’s requirement of dynamic interaction between all members.

· Free your people 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.

2. Begin groups with an organizational structure and a curriculum that are entirely new and radically New Testament.

· Start cells that are entirely new. 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 usually experience disappointment and later become resistant to cellular ministry. This disappointment often leads to casting blame on the cell concept. We hear the complaint that small groups are effective only for poor, rural or Third World churches, that “House groups simply pool the ignorance and bitter attitudes of frustrated people,” 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.

· Build new cells around new believers. Bring them into an existing cell only as a last resort. Try first to start a new cell in new believers’ homes. Keep “mining the new vein of gold.” As new believers, they 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 mentored by an older believer. Aim always to keep the entire family together.

· Keep groups small enough, that every participant has a chance to 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.

Aware of this trend, some traditional pastors experiment with forms of small group ministry that offer more than the home Bible study and prayer group of the 1960s. Most large-churches of which we are aware have incorporated small groups as an important part of their church life, and often talk about launching a church-planting movement like those they have read about in developing countries. Keep experimenting until you get it right!

· Focus on current concerns in the cells. Believers and seekers are increasingly seeking to enter into a mystical experience of Christ, along with genuine community, and to find timely help with the temptations and exigencies that they face daily. The only way leaders can know what their current concerns are, is to listen to them.

3. Allow small groups to take to themselves many of the functions and privileges of traditional pastors.

· Admit, when you see it, that small groups often do a better job of shepherding. Even professional counsellors have been writing on the power of small groups to provide the kind of personal and social growth that used to be provided by professional counsellors, although there is still a need for both types of counselling.

· Risk the inevitable failures. Dare to trust God to let you to reap the benefits of face-to-face groups, in spite of their problems. Some small groups have become self-centred, unsupportive of the congregational budget, and have ignored other programs. These pitfalls, however, should prove minimal, if you follow these guidelines.

· Let new leaders make mistakes. Older pastors, especially more educated ones, almost always expect too much of new leaders. They often 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 should be mentored behind the scenes, however, by a more experienced believer.

· Let new believers lead temporary gathering groups. Normally, new believers make the best leaders of temporary ‘gathering groups’ such as the group that Cornelius gathered in his house to listen to Peter’s message (Acts 10). These ‘gathering groups’ are short-lived, because the non-believers who come at first either receive Christ and become (or join) a regular group, or reject Christ. These temporary gathering groups can meet on a playing field, in a coffee shop, on a commuter train, in a home, or anywhere convenient.


4. Start small groups as a means of discipling seekers and new believers, rather than simply as a way of causing numerical growth.

· Let cells grow out of prayerful, aggressive evangelism. If a church is not evangelistic, then simply to change the structure of its organization to incorporate small groups, will not cause evangelism to happen. Structure is not the important thing. Evangelism and a passion to disciple the new believers biblically are. These pastoral dynamics must be supported with fervent prayer. We have observed in several countries a strong relationship between small groups and numerical growth has been observed, leading to an erroneous conclusion that small groups automatically attract non-believers. Usually the opposite is true: where a church brings people to Christ, they are best incorporated into little churches (cells or small groups) that are integral parts of the bigger churches.

· To conserve new believers more effectively, form small, face-to-face groups. Build new cells around them. Let these small groups freely discuss their social and spiritual needs, and find answers from the Bible and from Christian testimonies.

· Pray for grace simply to serve others. Where pastors have a vision not merely of growing a bigger church, but also of serving their city and nation, where the continually seek ways to meet social and spiritual needs of their communities, people normally repent and come into their churches.

5. Let small group participation be voluntary.

· Let small group participation be spontaneous. Let older believers who are indifferent to small groups “lie in green pastures beside still waters.” Forcing them into face-to-face “growth” breeds stagnant groups that die without reproducing. If older believers feel no desire for a small group experience, or have so many activities that they resist “one more thing to do”, then they will try out small groups with a reluctance that can quickly turn into revulsion. This is particularly so where members are assigned to a group by a clergyman who drew zone lines on a map.

· Keep the entire congregation aware of what God is doing in the small 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. Even where group members find some affinity one for another, and make the group part of their busy lives, groups can stagnate if left to their own devices without continual, fresh input and encouragement from their pastors through their small shepherds or hosts.

6. Small group shepherds can help older believers to grow in their practice of church body life, as they receive on-going guidance from church leaders.

· Equip the members of the body. This is the primary task of teachers and pastors. Ephesians 4:11-16 requires pastors and others to train and model mature Christian life. They can do this more effectively in a congregation that has multiple “elders” or group shepherds who receive regular coaching from more experienced pastors.

· 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 add to group activities more of the kinds of “one-another” ministries that the New Testament requires.

7. Start small and reproduce the first group or groups.

· Develop your own forms and methods. Many cultural variables prohibit one church from merely adopting the forms and methods of another church, especially a culturally-distant one. Every shepherd will have to try different things, develop what works, and grow in his own coaching skills and mentoring wisdom.

· Start three groups at about the same time if possible. This has some advantages. Even if one or two disband, there is still a group. A pastor can meet with more than one group shepherd for mentoring, 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 the starting of new groups. Furthermore, the group leaders can encourage and counsel one another.

· Aim to reproduce. From the very start, let each group shepherd share the vision to lead his group to help start another group. Seldom do groups start another one by splitting, for it is too hard to break up the 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 similar to what Paul and Barnabas did; they started many churches but kept returning to their home church in Antioch.

8. Start with new believers, where there are any.

· Let new believers start immediately to form new groups. Even traditional congregations sometimes see folks come to salvation. Where new believers have no other opportunity but to sit on pews once a week and listen to sermons, they are not likely to bring seekers with them.

· Let each new believer be a doorway to many other neglected people. Where every new believer is seen as a member of a family and a circle of existing friends, they should be viewed as the door into a potential new cell. So you should coach shepherds in how to encourage new believers to identify those of their acquaintances who might be interested to hear about their new life with Jesus. Shepherds should also coach those new ones to witness and pray for their relatives and friends.

9. Allow rustic believers to take leadership from the start.

· Recognize the gift of leadership when it emerges. Often people will emerge, as Cornelius did, whom God affirmed as a spiritual man even before he knew Jesus. While the New Testament sets standards for ordination as an elder, the Holy Spirit often distributes pastoral gifts even to immature believers. Where these “diamonds in the rough” are able to bring others together, share with them and care for them, pastors should treat them as apprentice shepherds and coach them in pastoral duties.

· Hold up to new shepherds the possibility of becoming elders. Let them view church leadership as something to be developed, while serving with all the love and skill that God gives to them for their small groups. Some may eventually leave shepherding to others, while others will become competent pastors or elders.

10. Provide regular, patient coaching, in addition to training seminars.

· Include mentoring of group shepherds in your list of primary pastoral duties. Where a pastor is too insecure or unskilled to mentor others, he should assign that training task to another, perhaps a staff member or associate missionary, and show frequent, public support of that helper’s work.

· Maintain a balance between mentoring and classroom training. Rapid cell multiplication requires training new leaders the way Jesus and the apostles did it. Pastors who rely mainly 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 only be taught, but it can be modelled.

· Avoid over-training with too much information. Experienced trainers have found that providing information before workers see a need of it, will require you to train again later when the need becomes apparent. Furthermore, learning without implementation often leads to a haughty attitude and unwillingness to listen later.

11. Keep group leaders focussed on the commands of Jesus and the New Testament.

· Focus primarily on obeying New Testament directives. Western pastors who are educated in theology, management practices, and popular psychology, tend to demonstrate doctrinal precision, elegant social customs, and domesticated personality traits. They often like to preach about these things and seek them in others. However, Jesus and the New Testament put far more emphasis on spiritual power, on obedience to the commandments of Christ, and on showing of grace and love one’s fellow believers, neighbours and enemies.

· Keep coming back to those directives. There are enough explicit New Testament guidelines to keep every group and its shepherd quite busy growing in faith and obedience for over a year, without demanding that they adopt or demonstrate non-biblical cultural ideals.

12. Form groups mainly from existing relationships.

· Keep new believers in a loving relationship with their relatives and friends. In the Book of Acts, historically, and as a usual pattern across cultures, new groups of believers are formed mainly by new believers drawing relatives, associates and friends into their group and to faith in Jesus. Pastors who will let such natural bridges serve as paths for supernatural faith will see more growth, over time, than will those who depend on public evangelistic meetings.

· Avoid forcing new believers to meet together with people with whom they normally would not associate. Groups of new believers that are least likely to grow and reproduce are those that have been forced together by a pastor or missionary for his own convenience, or as a social statement about inter-cultural unity. There are better ways to express Christian unity than by disallowing growth through normal relationships, thereby requiring cultural suicide in order to become a follower of Jesus.

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