Bob Hopkins explores the background and principles of cell church. Were cells just the latest fashion, or a vital mission strategy for 21st Century? How do cells fit into the church’s mission strategy?
The term “Cell church” is one being touted around more and more in current church circles with good reason.
This article originally published in 2000 as part of the Grove Evangelism series, explores this “cell church” principle, in the context of the church today in Europe.
Some see cell church as a church growth technique. Others assess it as a model of church from third world cultures, which is of little significance in the (supposedly) post-Christian West. Yet others seem to get so mesmerized by the ‘New Paradigm’ that they adopt it lock, stock and barrel. We hear stories of ever-larger ‘mega’ cell churches. First Korea, then Nigeria and now Columbia and the ‘G12’ model with thousands of people. However, my interest is to identify the underlying mission principles in the model so that we can decide where it fits in our plural Western cultures and what adaptations are needed.
Cell church is more radical than just a new approach to home groups. Ralph Neighbour believes that for those conditioned by Western, congregational models of church, the concept can be so foreign that he refuses to teach on it for anything less than a week! His book, seminars and materials first popularised cell church although I consider David Prior described the same principles a decade earlier.
Perhaps the simplest way to show the contrast is with a diagram given by Ian Freestone:
We can summarize the essence of cell church as:
a) the small group is seen as fully church
b) outreach is principally from a welcoming small group
c) all the ministry of the church happens through the cells rather than in programs at the congregational level.
Building on this, there are other typical marks of cell church: small groups aim to multiply; cell leaders are supported and equipped; small is believed to be good; there is movement from house to house; new leaders are grown by apprenticeship; discipleship concerns lifestyle; small groups seek real community.
It helps to dispel misunderstandings to say what cell church is not. Firstly it does not mean no service on Sunday in the parish church. Because this system emphasises cell and celebration, Sunday is the overflow of cell life and to the visitor will not seem that different from many other services. They may pick up that small groups are particular important and create a special sense of community, with one cell doing the welcome, one leading prayers and another sharing testimony. Otherwise it need not be an un-Anglican Sunday experience.
Another common misunderstanding is that because cell is fully church, you have to do everything that is essential to church at that level – sacraments included. Some may take that view but most do not, considering it no less church because certain things are best done in a large group, whilst others fit much better in a small group context. Baptisms may be done in the large Sunday gathering of all cells, but the convert’s cell leader baptises together with the vicar/minister. Eucharist may be for Sunday celebrations but the different belonging of a shared meal is possible in cell-sized small groups and Alpha has shown the gospel power of that.
Lastly, although in classic cell church everyone is in a small group, the model does not depend on this and it is perfectly possible for the structures that support and pastor cell members to also provide for church members not yet in cells, and non-attending parishioners.
I am concerned that every few years a wave of interest in the latest ‘new thing’ sweeps through the Western church. From church planting, to Willow-Creek seeker services, to purpose-driven churches, to Alpha, to cell church to… Some leaders, influenced perhaps by the prevailing consumerist environment or driven by a desperate need to reverse decline, may jump from one to the other. This will make their congregations seasick, risk disillusionment and certainly not take us further in our task of mission and evangelism. It seems to me that these waves emerge because someone has discovered a really crucial principle by prayer and hard work, and applied it successfully in their context. We must look past their model or package to the underlying principles and then assess the suitability for our own context and adapt appropriately.
Below are three analytical frameworks to help us put cell church in its place as having a particularly critical contribution for evangelism and mission today.
Christianity in the first three centuries started as a Jewish sect and evolved into a radical mission movement in a setting of polytheism and Greek philosophy. The success of the movement was bottom up, from the grass roots. Though persecuted and marginalized, its effectiveness led ultimately to a transformation of the Roman Empire. The result was Christendom, a society with an established church, and worldview and values based on the Judeo-Christian story and principles. This sustained itself for some sixteen centuries, and extended itself over different continents with varying effectiveness. However, in Western Europe it has now been progressively eroded, creating a completely new situation. The institutional church is left as a very thin ‘crust’ floating on a rapidly changing sea of pluralism and secularism in a society loosely basing itself on a worldview centred on the free market economy and with a host of competing value systems.
Of utmost importance is the recognition that this context is not static but rapidly changing. Though broadly ‘post-Christendom’ there are still elements of Christendom around as well as some communities that are effectively pre-Christian and others reactively post-Christian.
This diagram presents this very simplified scheme and complements the analysis of Paul Simmonds.
My contention is that it is very hard to re-evangelise our nation with a top-down approach from the thin crust of institutional Christianity. Rather, we shall require a radical new model of church, akin to the first three centuries, if it is to be earthed in (say) estates where Jesus and the biblical story are wholly unknown. Cell church may be just such a model. It may therefore be much more significant that the cultures from which it has come to us are pre-Christian than that they are Asian or African.
This diagram is another simplified attempt to represent the situation, it shows active church as some 5-15% of the population – tending to come from the older generation. Related to this is a reducing fringe of folk with some regular points of contact. Until a decade or so ago, some parish consultants recommended that the churches’ task of evangelism should focus on drawing this fringe back into active membership – a big enough task for any church. However, church planting and seeker-sensitive church have challenged us to move beyond the fringe to what was termed the ‘unchurched’. Such mission experience is showing that beyond the fringe are those who once were involved with church and dropped out at different points for a host of reasons. These are better described as the de-churched and often have stronger more traditional opinions about how church should be than attendees. The challenge remains to reach the truly non-churched among the youth, urban estates and ethnic minorities. The diagram shows that, although church planting and seeker services change the direction of evangelism from in-drag to out-reach, they still start with church as we know it and either re-locate it or take bits out of it that may put off non-attenders. To reach the non-churched we must ‘stop starting with church’ and come outside the circle and
re-imagine church by a process of engagement, evangelism and mission among them and allowing them to develop different forms of church appropriate to their many contexts.
Cell church is very significant here in that it arises from small discipleship-based faith communities, which can be incarnational. This smaller building block can also be much more socially flexible, able to relate to a wider range of contexts than congregations with all their ‘taboos’. Our emerging cultures are seeking belonging and community and cell meets this need and provides a way of being church that can build on group-based evangelism such as Alpha and Emmaus.
Many find Bill Beckham’s book on cell church the most illuminating. He does a historical analysis from the perspective of the church as ‘two winged’ with cell and celebration sized expressions. This follows the disciples gathering in homes and temple courts (Act 2:42 and elsewhere). He believes that Constantines’ legalization of Christianity in the fourth century, resulted in the formalisation of church into the single ‘wing’ of large institutional celebration gatherings only. With brief exceptions through history he attributes the weakness of the Christendom model to this unbalanced bird, unable to properly fulfil its calling and ‘fly’!
But this analysis not only reads back too many ills of the church to Constantine, it also begs the question of how a ‘grounded’ Christendom survived for sixteen centuries! This reflection led me to the theory that Christendom was not in fact one-winged for much of its history. The small group discipleship ‘wing’ continued to exist but was simply not called church. The task of worship, fellowship, teaching and evangelising the next generation happened in homes in extended Christian families. In parts of society where this structure weakened, Christians pioneered a small group discipling system called ‘schools’ to form the next generation in the biblical story and Christian values.
If we free ourselves from the erroneous assumption that church is primarily defined by form and structure and focus on the greater importance of function instead, we might define church as a ‘Jesus community of discipleship making disciples’. The degradation of Christendom is due to the loss of this function, much more effectively performed over the generations by extended Christian family and Christian schools than by what we called church – a Sunday event in a religious building. Our crisis and the need to rediscover the heart of mission for re-evangelisation of our nation is due to the loss of extended family, the breakdown of nuclear family and the loss of Christian schools. The function of these in discipleship and formation of a Christian worldview and values is our challenge in the 21st Century and this can be restored by cell church (among other models).
It is harder to recover a Christian worldview and values, than maintain them as it requires new models. Hence our overwhelming need for evangelism and mission based on a small group discipleship model which then continues as the model of church (as with Alpha and Alpha follow-up). There are different cultures in Asia and Africa where cell church thrives but the important thing is what we now have in common with these continents, not what is distinct. In much of our country and continent we share a pre-Christian setting and, as Robert Warren has so rightly described, only a missionary-centered church rather than a maintenance-centred model will deliver.