In a profoundly insightful article describing the need for a renewed theology of the Trinity in the Western world, Eastern Orthodox theologian John Zizioulas reveals “a pathology built into the very roots of our existence, inherited through our birth, and that is the fear of the other.”1 This fear creates the conditions in which communion with God and one another become extremely difficult as society becomes more fractured by walls built to protect the privacy, happiness, and power of individuals and their homogenous groups. In this fear-driven, fragmented environment, the evangelistic church is given the very demanding task of creating a true community where the peace of Christ calms all fears and heals all wounds. Many churches attempt to respond to this task by creating some form of small group ministry in which its members gather in homes during the week in order to make time for building relationships, discussing matters of faith and discipleship, along with praying, worshiping and serving together. These groups are usually designed to be an additional ministry of the church; something added on to “create community” but certainly not to take the place of other, more primary ministries like the Sunday morning worship service or the mid-week Bible study. When churches design small group ministries as just another piece of the church puzzle, they fail to take full account of the fear of the other which Zizioulas identifies as a powerful, community-destroying force in Western society.
The cell church model offers a much more robust and radical response to the dire need for authentic communities which can model the love of God in a fractured world. A cell church places small groups, i.e. “cells”, at the very center of its life. Meeting with others in a small group is no longer an optional side dish on the buffet of church ministries – not belonging to a cell means not belonging to the church! As the defining feature of the church, the cell is a place where the entirety of the church’s life – its worship, praying, teaching and preaching of Scripture, service to each other and the community, and even its tithing – occur within the context of a 12-15 person small group.
This small group context removes the option of anonymity from the church’s practices and makes interaction and participation with others a necessity; there is nowhere to hide from the fear of the other in a cell church. This feature is the primary strength of cell churches in Western society, but it can also be their greatest weakness. Some people are not ready to confront their fear of others and are unwilling to make the kind of long-term commitment that is necessary for establishing an authentic relationship. The barrier to entry is just too high. These people may need the sense of anonymity offered in non-cell churches in order to come to place where they are ready to commit to deeper relationships where they can know and be known. However, cell churches do typically provide a place for newcomers or outsiders to “test the waters.” On a regular basis, all the various cells gather for a “celebration” service which is more akin to a non-cell church’s Sunday morning worship service. Cell churches must be intentional about the way they structure and present these celebration services so as to remain open and welcoming to all kinds of people who want to explore the cell church community.
Another key strength of the cell church model is the emphasis it places on the practice of spiritual gifts. The cell provides the relational context necessary for discerning the gifts of its members, while also being flexible enough to make a place for its members to practice their gifts. In a cell group, everyone gets to play. In this way, the cell church models a true dependence on the Spirit who empowers the church with gifts for its common good and the mission of God. Again, however, this strength can become a weakness, especially at the cell’s outset. Cell leaders may feel pressured to “delegate” leadership responsibilities to others who are supposedly “gifted” for these roles in order to relieve their own leadership burden or to encourage the growth of new cells. If this sharing of responsibility happens too quickly or if too little time is given to discern the gifting of group members, the life of the cell could be put at risk. This weakness highlights the need for regular pastoral oversight for all cell group leaders. It also suggests the need for establishing a cell leadership team before a cell begins which can help distribute the stress of launching a new cell. When these considerations are made, a cell is given a much greater chance of becoming a place where each member can operate in the power of the Spirit’s gifting as they serve one another and the community.
A final strength of the cell church model is its expectation for multiplication. When a cell reaches a size of 18-24 members, it is encouraged to split into two cells. However, preparation for this multiplication begins with the start of each new cell. One of the first responsibilities of cell leaders is to identify, recruit, and train apprentice leaders from within their cell membership. These multiplicative practices give the cell church model an evangelistic character. In many cases, those who have never been to a church are more willing to join a small group of people where they can sit across a kitchen table, drink a cup of coffee, and have meaningful conversations. Again, this strength reveals a weakness: it easy for cells to close themselves off and get too comfortable. In this case, the cell becomes a clique and therefore unwelcoming towards “outsiders.” This kind of cell will most likely resist being split in order to preserve their comfort. This possibility reveals the necessity of instilling the cell with a missional vision from its outset. Each cell should be partnered with a local community organization where they can “get outside themselves” on a regular basis and practice a life of service. In many cases, this will require the assistance and coordination of an outside pastoral team. However, a cell church whose cells remain outwardly focused will be poised to welcome people of all kinds who can see and hear God’s story brought to life.
1 John Zizioulas, “Communion and Otherness,” St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 38, no. 4 (1994): 350.