Today I attended a Methodist conference (well, for lack of a better word) on Cell Churches. I left with an uneasy feeling about it. Not about churches forming small groups as the primary mode of discipleship. Carrying over from my days in American Methodism, I am a strong believer in small groups. Also, I believe it can be a great form of evangelism, especially when it comes to those who are wary of traditional, Sunday morning church (which is one reason Alpha may have had so much success). Still, there seems to be something lacking in the philosophy of Cell Churches.
With that said, I must say that the conference I attended seemed to assume that I knew what it was and that I was already interested running it. The conference began by answering the question ‘why’. The answer came back in what I said above. No problem there, as I have said. Then we moved straight to ‘Creating Healthy Cell Groups’, which includes the values of a cell group, where it appears the chief value of a healthy cell group is ‘multiplication’. So, I asked what is the definition of cell and they said they would come to that – primarily in allowing us to experience it. That was the next session. We experienced a shortened, but still very good, example of a cell meeting. We never got around to the undergirding philosophy of the cell movement. The leaders kept comparing cell groups to house groups and saying how different they are, but never really spelling out the differences. The only primary difference the group from my church came up with is house groups don’t multiply. This, they repeated again and again, is the key to Cell Groups: multiplication.
The leaders, all from the same church, described their experience of cell church. They stressed that cell group is church. For some, they don’t make Sunday mornings. Others do. Despite their insistence on multiplication, that part has been the hardest, and they don’t know why. All of them are enthusiastic about cell group, which I would hope for those leading such a conference, but then I think, as anyone who is enthusiastic, they took a lot for granted in talking about cell church. That’s where my own struggle to understand what exactly a cell church is – I just didn’t get a clear picture.
Here are some issues that make me feel uncomfortable with the whole cell group philosophy from the little I know about it:
- Multiplication: I understand that small groups can become too big and that in this model multiplication is vital, in particular for evangelism. Still, what I kept hearing them say is that if you don’t multiply, then you are not forming disciples because the group becomes static. Only when I challenged them did they admit that other churches form disciples through static groups, but they quickly qualified it with they don’t know how. I think there is a big difference forming a group that may need to grow through a division and a group formed with the intention that it will grow close, only to get too big, and then rip it apart. The vulnerability that has led to the growth, the relationships that have formed, the common purpose – all gone. This bothered the others I came with as well. Starting with the premise that it will be pulled apart does not seem to foster community. I also don’t think it’s fair to denigrate those groups that choose to stay together (but, admittedly, change over time).
- Sacraments: I asked about how communion was handled, especially since many didn’t come on Sunday. The minister first gave me a lesson in Methodist sacramental policy (i.e., who is allowed to preside) and then went on to say the groups ask for it when they want it. Otherwise, I didn’t hear a plan to bring communion to them. While on one side this is fine, I get the feeling that communion is a side issue or an optional extra. This seems to be a far cry from the groups they claim to model themselves after. The early church did meet in homes, but I’m not sure I see an automatic Cell format that they do, especially as they gathered around one another for, among other things, ‘breaking of bread’. They also like to invoke John Wesley, who may be closer to the cell format, but Wesley expected that all members of the class be at church on Sunday – in particular for communion.
These are just two of the issues on my mind tonight as I reflect on the day. I want to be open to the cell group model, primarily because I think there is a lot of agreement. I am open to anyone else’s experience of cell churches and how I might be on the wrong track in my thinking. For more information on cell churches, click on CellUK.org.