ARE HOME CELL GROUPS A NEW FAD?
By: C.W. Howard III
Almost every major renewal in the Christian church has brought with it a return to small groups and a rapid increase of such groups in individual homes for prayer, Bible study and a sharing of faith. And it’s happening again. Small groups were a common ingredient in the important movements of the Holy Spirit throughout church history. They characterized early Pietism, the Wesleyan Revival and the Holiness Revival of the late 1800s.
Wesleyan Small Cell Groups
John Wesley’s small cell groups played an important role in England’s great Wesleyan Revival two centuries ago. Wesley formed his “class meetings” to help converts become established in the faith. He soon saw dramatic results. According to Howard Snyder in me The Problem of Wineskins, to those who criticized the method, Wesley replied, “Many…happily experienced that Christian fellowship which they had not so much as an idea before. They began to ‘bear one another’s burdens,’ and naturally to ‘care for each other.'”
Wesley did not feel bound within the walls of the institutional church. He preached a clear message of personal salvation through Jesus Christ and consistently emphasized a life filled with the Spirit. He also urged an active social consciousness.
As thousands began to attend his revival meetings, Wesley said he was impressed by God to divide the people into small groups of twelve, each with a leader. In these small groups people came to know each other better and to experience true Christian fellowship.
Wesley’s secret lay in his desire to be thoroughly biblical. He was a man of God’s Word. He sought biblical answers to life’s problems, but he also appealed to experience and reason. His cell groups provided a biblical answer to the needs of the many converts.
Today most small groups are still beneficial to Christian growth and experience. But biblically based small groups differ from the many encounter groups, sensitivity groups and other such groups in the church which focus primarily on what man can do for himself, rather than providing him with standards for judging his conduct. Such groups generally have humanistic goals.
Small groups can be a vital part of the church only if they are biblically based, with scriptural goals and methods, where members can grow in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.
This kind of small group is more than a superficial, social fellowship. When a church group gathers only for socializing, as a civic club or neighborhood get-together, no matter how enjoyable and helpful the friendly socializing may be, it is no substitute for the fellowship of the Spirit.
Although true fellowship is a gift of the Holy Spirit, churches should ideally afford an environment in which this fellowship can take place. The Bible, however, says very little about how churches should be structured to afford such an environment.
From the concept of the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, we may define a church structure as: a gathering together under the Holy Spirit; in a way that encourages communication; where there is an informality and intimacy that permits freedom of the Spirit and where there is provision for Bible study in the context of community.
One structure satisfies this definition: the small group. Christians who gather in small groups will most likely experience the fellowship of the Holy Spirit Never a Substitute
But small groups must never become a substitute for the larger assembly. Meeting only in small groups can lead to cliques or to a group becoming too subjective or self-serving.
Nor must the small group be looked upon as a panacea. Man’s efforts cannot cause the church to be more faithful in meeting needs or problems unless the Holy Spirit guides by His indwelling power. In order for the Spirit to guide, group members must be open to God and others. And that openness thrives best in an environment of supportive love and fellowship with other believers.
Although the structure of large corporate groups and small fellowship groups may vary according to different cultures and circumstances, both groups are essential to the biblical idea of the church.
Small groups have certain distinctive features:
1. Flexibility in time, place, purpose, order, length and frequency of meetings.
2. Mobility of meeting place. As pastor of a church in Argentina with many small groups, Juan Carlos Ortiz decided to find out just how well his large Pentecostal church in Buenos Aires could manage under persecution conditions. He closed the church building for a month. The result? Because of its structure as a body and its ministry through informal contacts and small cell groups, the church kept on functioning normally.
3. Openness to various kinds of people. A small circle which devotes itself to prayer and an intimate sharing of spiritual support will draw a person in and welcome him. The small group usually does not operate a budget, elect officers to oversee its administration, or promote an idea or product. It is, therefore, free to welcome a person into the circle for his own sake.
4. Personal rather than impersonal in communication. Small groups of about eight to twelve people gathering informally in homes provide one of the most effective structures for communicating God’s Word in modern society.
5. Growth by division. As a group grows, it can break into more small groups. A network of small cell groups has a great effect on society through its continual cell division and multiplication.
6. Effectiveness in evangelism. In a small group an unbeliever can hear the Holy Spirit’s voice convicting him of sin and wooing him to commit his life to Jesus.
Robert Raines reports he has “watched proportionately more lives genuinely converted in and through small group meetings for prayer, Bible study and the sharing of life than in the usual organizations and activities of the institutional church.”
7. Adaptability in the institutional church. The small group is part of, not a substitute for, the church.
Small groups must have an objective rather than subjective purpose. Personal spiritual growth is a worthy outcome, but if that is the main focus, the groups may turn inward. The objective purpose of small groups involves working to achieve goals. These groups exist for service and facilitate Christian obedience in the world. With the purpose of obedience and service in mind, small group members focus on Bible study. Something special happens in a small group Bible study. The Holy Spirit gives the unique gift of koinonia which brings greater involvement to Bible study.
Snyder says the fellowship of the Holy Spirit is that special quality which makes small groups effective. It is “the deep spiritual community in Christ which believers experience when they gather together as the church of Christ.”
Snyder feels the local church should “expect, identify and awaken the varied gifts that sleep within the community of believers.” The Holy Spirit has the divine option of giving all or only some of the gifts noted in the Bible to a church group. And He will grant all the gifts needed for the church’s edification.
Small groups function in part to encourage the development of spiritual gifts. Gifts are given primarily for and within the community. Small Spirit-led groups, where members discover, share and reinforce common values, provide the context for stirring up spiritual gifts.
Church members depend upon each other for using the gifts, because no one member possesses all the gifts. Also, according to Scripture, the ordinary gifts are needed more than the showy ones. Miracles may only occur now and then, but members must express acts of mercy on an on-going basis. A proper use of gifts should lead to a life of self-giving, not self-centeredness.
The first Christians knew an unusual unity, oneness of purpose, common love and mutual concern. This was more than either the immediate job of conversion or the knowledge of shared beliefs. It was an atmosphere, a spiritual environment, that grew among the first believers as they prayed, learned and worshipped together in their own homes (Acts 2:42-46; 5:42).
The early Christians maintained a pattern of small groups and large groups, meeting together in homes and in the temple. Small groups provided the intimate community life which gave richness to the large group meetings.
Common worship in large groups and understanding and living out one’s commitment to Christ in smaller groups are still part of the church’s function today. It is important to maintain that small-group, large-group pattern.
C.W. Howard III is assistant director of Career Planning and Placement, Old Dominion University, Norfolk, Virginia, and was recently elected president of the Mental Health Association of Tidewater. He has pastored two churches, assisted in organizing another church, served interim pastorships in 13 churches and spent 25 years as a professor of psychology. Howard also has conducted leadership groups.
(The above material originally appeared in Ministries Magazine.)
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