Cell Church

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:

  1. 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).
  2. 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.

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3 thoughts on “Cell Church

  1. Interesting comments, Will. Thanks. I suspect I know the church as a friend of mine used to attend it before she moved to another city. I think that what she got out of it was the close fellowship; I never heard ‘multiplication’ mentioned.

    I experienced the ‘busting and reforming’ of small groups when I did my Foundation Training here in the UK. I attended a course that was not academic, but about discernment, prayer, theological reflection and group dynamics – an ‘added extra’ to the academic side drawing from people on different academic courses. By necessity, the small groups broke up and reformed every year.

    I do think that we did get close, but that may be because we always went for weekends! The change in the groups from year to year required an openness and generosity and sometimes it wasn’t easy at all! Group dynamics can be weird like that. But in terms of helping a church be ‘missional’, I think this is a good thing. I know I’ve seen churches that are so into their own membership that it becomes difficult for a new person to enter; it’s like having dinner with a couple who are staring into each other’s eyes all the time and it requires generosity on the part of the new person rather than hospitality on the part of the church.

  2. Excellent point, Pam. One of the struggles in getting clear my own thoughts is that I have to remember all the groups I have been a part of and then had to split up. I think namely about my seminary experience. My best friend from from those days once commented that seminary sometimes seems like a cruel joke, where they tell you about the community centred on Christ, allow you to experience it, and then rip you from it when you graduate. My Disciple Bible Study classes have been similar. Much of what I have experienced in church is transient.

    You also make an excellent point about new folk feeling like perennial outsiders. I hadn’t forgot that, but it is something that needs to be addressed, in particular churches where people have known each other all their lives (at my last church, even though the two historically large families that had dominated the life of the church for nearly 100 years were now in the minority, those who had come in ‘from the outside’ still felt that way – on the outside).

    I still wonder about creating long-lasting friendships in this system, but as one person from my church who went said, maybe we have to see it in action. I guess there may be a bias in me that remembers ‘mission’ only being about saving souls from hell (much like the video you reference in your post!), whereas now I have learned that salvation has as much to do with restoring our relationships with one another. The constant tearing apart appears detrimental to me, but then again maybe it doesn’t have to be. The folk at the conference yesterday did stress the community formation aspect and didn’t mention ‘saving souls’. Perhaps I need to give them the benefit of the doubt that they know what they are talking about.

  3. I have no comments on, or experience of, cell groups -yet – but, since I felt that this post ought to be included, I suggested that Alan R. Bevere might add your blog to his list of blogs in the Methoblogosphere from which he compiles his Weekly rRound-up. From his reply, it looks as though you need to apply for yourself – though I certainly didn’t!

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