In Praise of Cell Groups

One day I will learn to not be so easily provoked. Until then…

Mac Swift seriously claims “the practice of cell groups as used in churches is actually a satanic invention used to fracture the unity of the church and destroy its prayer foundation. Infiltrators who do the bidding of evil come into these churches and establish a honourable reputation for themselves, working their way up into a position of leadership where they can promote (with almost unanimous success) certain doctrines of devils that can ruin a church spiritually. One of these tactics is the introduction of the cell group.”

Acts 2:46 Day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart (NASB)

Acts clearly sets out a Biblical example for a church gathering together both in a large setting and in small settings. In today’s church, these small gatherings sometimes take the form of small groups or cell groups.

I did not grow up in churches that had cell groups, but now I am at one. And I have come to love and value them. I wouldn’t trade my cell group for much of anything, and all the members are mad at our leader (the pastor) – including his own wife – because he insists we will soon have to disband to help start new groups to accomodate the new members in our church. (We’re not really mad at him, we just don’t want to disband.)

There are six couples, including us, in our group. We’ve had a little bit of “turnover” in our group with a few folks moving away, or swtiching to a group where they felt they “fit” better. But we’re going on 1 1/2 years now with basically the same group we started with.

Here are some of the benefits I’ve seen from this group.

When we first came to this church about 2 1/2 years ago, I knew exactly one person in the church, and he was only an acquaintance. Now I have 10 people minimum that I would call friends. Not best friends; we don’t “hang out” together or stuff like that. These guys are mostly older than me and have their own extensive circles of friends. But these people are my friends. This group helped me through that really awkward time of “breaking in” to a new church, which we all know is hard.

Lest you think I’m just particularly freakish in this area, it’s also the case with pretty much everyone in our group. They are all very socially well-connected and very friendly. But they found it hard to break in to the existing friendships at the church. This indicates a problem with the church body, sure. But cell groups are, at a minimum, a “workaround”.

I used to think people in churches were just snobbish and cliquish, but I don’t think it’s the case. I think they are just _normal_. And normal people gravitate towards people they already know. It’s _difficult_ to introduce yourself to a stranger and maintain a conversation – even if they are a visitor to your church. It’s just a hard thing to do. One great thing about cell groups is they put you with some people who you are _supposed_ to be friends with.

Cell groups also provde accountability. They help me be consistent in prayer, Bible study, scripture memory, and so on. Now, our group is actually not too good at that, but other groups are. Small discipleship groups are good too.

But even more than that, this group is going to keep me from going seriously astray. If I were to abandon my wife, I know that I’d have a group of pretty big guys showing up on my doorstep the next day. And they’d be there to do more than share a couple of verses with me and pray for me.

That’s a bit of hyperbole there. I know that if I were to start sliding into – or even just towards – gross sin and rebellion, this group would exercise some appropriate, Biblical discipline to try to bring me back into line.

Our group also meets each other’s practical needs. We take meals to each other when needed (childbirth, illness, and so on). Our group was phenomenal when my wife had to go on bedrest during her pregnancy. I’ve had several offers of help from the guys in my group for some minor remodelling work I’m doing at home. We take care of each other. We provide spiritual, emotional, and practical support for one another.

I haven’t even got to things like studying the Bible together. These are just the benefits from the increased community that a small group provides. Since our church is an equipping church, we actually get a lot of meat on Sundays. So in my mind, the community aspect is the more important.

Our groups do provide the ability to get into a bit deeper study of some things, since we can have more closely guided and in-depth discussions than in a larger gathering. But really, I think that’s secondary.

The church leadership has no way of knowing what is being taught or being done in each cell group, and it effectively places Christians under the fractured leadership of the cell group rather than the church as a whole.

If that’s true, it’s simply a sign of poor church leadership. Let me share the way these groups work at our church: The elders put together a 2 year plan for small groups that consists of some required material and some “elective” material. Each group is supposed to move through this material within two years. Once you pass the 2 year mark, your group becomes an “impact” group and you corporately select some type of ministry to do – within the body, or outside of it. You also continue to meet for fellowship and study. You’re pretty much self-directed at that point, but the elders insist that you submit new material to them for approval prior to studying it.

If the church leadership is actively leading the small group leaders, and if they give sufficient direction for cell groups, and if they are careful in who leads a group, it’s just silly to suggest that the body is going to be fractured and the elders will lose any semblance of control over what’s being taught.

Mac also claims that large churches “make it virtually impossible to establish what Scripture states is paramount, a personable bond between the church shepherds and their flock”.

There are two contentions here – first that “a personable bond between the church shepherds and their flock” is scripturally paramount, and second that this is “virtually impossible” in large churches.

Let’s look to scripture to see what it says.

Acts 2:41 So then, those who had received his word were baptized; and that day there were added about three thousand souls.

Wow. 3,000 members. This is certainly not a small church. And it was a growing church. Who led this church? You had 12 apostles, and maybe a few elders although that’s just speculation. What does that work out to be, a minimal ratio of 1:200 or so?

I’m not sure it’s possible to establish a personable relationship with a ratio of 1:200. Our church runs about 300, and I know that not all the elders know all the people on a first-name basis. I guess those apostles just missed the paramount importance of actually knowing each and every member.

So how did the apostles handle this mega-church? Acts 2:46: “breaking bread from house to house”.

Mac says “I am now convinced that those churches who effectively operate as ‘cell churches’ have been compromised by Satan, the angel of light.” It’s amazing to me that Satan so quickly infiltrated and corrupted the first Christian church.

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6 Responses to In Praise of Cell Groups

  1. Swift says:

    Breaking bread house to house and eating their meals together is not quite the same thing as the function of a cell group.

    The salvation of 3000 souls does not tell you how their growth was cared for by the disciples. You’re simply misapplying Scripture here.

    In addition, it seems these cell groups operate along the same premises of traditional AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) groups. You don’t find this the least bit disconcerting?

    Cell groups are an extrabiblical invention as shown through a careful study of Scripture. The concept of the cell group also breaks down the family structure by spiriting away each segment of the family into different groups.

    It’s apparent from your entry here that your accountability is to the cell group itself rather than the church. The accountability to the church is only indirect, if it exists at all. The bond you establish with other Christians is also rather exclusive to the cell group. It’s like little cliques that only purports to be part of the greater whole.

    It’s interesting to note that the idea of a cell group is a relatively new phenomenon. 50 years ago such a thing didn’t exist.

  2. Swift says:

    I’ve added two links that discuss the topic more in-depth, here and here.

  3. Bird says:

    I’ve been involved with a cell church since 1995, and I can say, without doubt, that comments like this are completely erroneous:

    “In addition, it seems these cell groups operate along the same premises of traditional AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) groups.”

    That’s all I have to say. I know there’s no point in wasting any mental energy engaging in a debate on the merits of the cell church model because some ears are deaf to reason and truth.

  4. Breaking bread house to house and eating their meals together is not quite the same thing as the function of a cell group.

    It’s not identical, but it does establish the Biblical precedent for meeting both corporately and in small fellowships – without “splintering” or “fragmenting” the body.

    The salvation of 3000 souls does not tell you how their growth was cared for by the disciples. You?re simply misapplying Scripture here.

    It is very clear from Acts 2 that “meeting house to house” was a very integral part of how the early church worked.

    And the mathematical ratio of 1:200 or so remains, which handily refutes your unfounded assertion that the Bible says it’s paramount for a pastor to know each member of the congregation. It’s simply not possible. It wasn’t possible for the mega-church at Jerusalem, so you cannot make it a requirement today.

    In addition, it seems these cell groups operate along the same premises of traditional AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) groups. You don?t find this the least bit disconcerting?

    I don’t know anything about AA groups. I’m unqualified to compare and contrast that with cell groups. But even if they behave similarly, the burden is on you to show that their practices and premises are wrong, which you’ve utterly failed to do.

    Cell groups are an extrabiblical invention as shown through a careful study of Scripture.

    I’ll have to take your word for it, as I’ve yet to actually see a careful study of Scripture demonstrating this.

    The concept of the cell group also breaks down the family structure by spiriting away each segment of the family into different groups.

    What are you talking about? Where did you get that from? My wife and I are in the same group. Our children are too young to participate, but older (say, 10+ or so) kids are welcome, encouraged, even expected, to be members of the same group as their parents.

    It?s apparent from your entry here that your accountability is to the cell group itself rather than the church. The accountability to the church is only indirect, if it exists at all.

    Uhhh, NO.

    Obviously the people who know me the best will be the first to recognize if I start to backslide and rebel, and it only makes sense for them to be the “two or three” to confront me about it. If that’s ineffective, it goes to the elders.

    Our church has sadly had to exercise discipline in a handful of cases over the past couple of years. Usually the offenders either straighten up or leave of their own accord, but there have been a handful of cases when it’s gone beyond that.

    The bond you establish with other Christians is also rather exclusive to the cell group. It?s like little cliques that only purports to be part of the greater whole.

    I have a closer relationship with the members of my small group than I do with most other people in the church. Is that so odd? How many close friends do you think I can have anyway?

    But it’s not universally true. Many (most?) people are also good friends with others, in different groups. It’s a little more difficult to form those relationships, just because there is limited opportunity to interact sometimes, but the relationships absolutely do exist. We do other things besides just have cell groups. You’re just making stuff up.

  5. rick says:

    some cells might be in the exact predicament mac has described, as are quite a few chruches, i’m sure. depending on the model being followed, the hierarchy of leadership is actually flattened, not removing people from the church leadership but bringing them closer to the top. and one thing i found that was just wrong – in other parts of the world, where persecution is much more violent and real, the house church has been the only way to fly.

  6. james says:

    Break your bread from house to house. In its context, this was a way early Christians provided for each other–they did not do this out of surplus but out of necessity.

    The trick is to ask yourself (yourselves), “where is the center”? If the ministry is PULPIT CENTERED, then elders can keep approving material until they receive honorary doctorates–they are trying to protect the church. If the ministry is PERSON CENTERED, then the Incarnational (person to person) ministry reproduces the Great Commission and will be effective as demanded by the nature of cell groups.

    So: what does your cell group want to reproduce? If it is “the church”, then the pulpit will be the center. If it is “the body of Christ” the center will be the people Jesus loves.

    Seeing what God is doing today,
    james

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