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Religious Tolerance logo

Cell Churches: a.k.a. home groups,
cell groups, house fellowships...

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Sponsored link.

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"...how I kept back nothing that was profitable [unto you], but have shewed you, and have taught you publicly, and from house to house." Acts 20:20

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Most local churches in the United States and Canada are "program based." They have a church building which is headquarters for one or more clergypersons, perhaps with paid supportive staff. Committees made up largely of volunteers assist in the church operation. Programs are run to match the interests of different age groups and lifestyles. Many local churches also organize small, intimate groups, which meet in each other's homes for Bible study. The main focus remains on the membership as a whole, and on the church's large communal worship services.

Although many local churches are growing in numbers, it is often by migration of Christians from other churches, not by conversion of non-Christians. They tend to have so many activities (choir practice, Sunday school, Sunday and Wednesday evening services, youth programs, Bible study, committees, etc.) that there is little time or energy left for evangelical activities to bring in new members. As a result, the percentage of adults who consider themselves Christians in the United States is slowly dropping; Christianity is losing its market share. The percentage of adults who attend weekly religious services is also in decline.

With cell churches, the emphasis is reversed. Global Resource Ministries, Inc define the cells (the small groups meeting in homes) as "the basic building blocks of church life.1 The cell is the church. Each cell usually meets weekly in the homes or apartments of its members. The larger organization of clergy, staff, committees, and building structure in essence becomes a federation of cell churches. "Evangelism, discipleship, and ministry all take place in and through the cell." Celebration Christian Church explains that "Our 'Cells' are not primarily bible studies, (even though we highly value bible study) but rather discussion and sharing groups in which we discuss" the previous meeting's message and share spiritual understandings. The Sunday service takes a secondary role in the life of the member. The central church usually has relatively few programs available; most of the energy is directed to promoting the health and welfare of the cells. Because of their emphasis on outreach to non-Christians and nominal-Christians, cell churches often have phenomenal growth rates.

Cell churches bear many similarities to "The Church with No Name," (a.k.a. The Truth, The Way, Cooneyites, etc.) who first organized cell groups in the very early 20th century. Rather than being satellite groups affiliated with a central church, they are largely isolated groups who meet together only at area conventions. Cell church organization is also similar to Wiccan covens, except the latter are rarely associated with any larger group, and follow an entirely different religion.

The vast majority of cell churches are affiliated with conservative Christian denominations. One source list 14 mainline and liberal cell churches (Episcopal, Lutheran, Presbyterian and United Methodist) and hundreds of Charismatic, Fundamentalist and other Evangelical churches. Many cell groups lay a heavy emphasis on fasting, prayer and evangelizing non-Christians. In one group, certain leaders "will have undertaken three 40-day fasts and be praying 8 hours a day." 7

In many ways, cell churches represent a return to the organizational structures of the early Christian movement, when Christians generally met in each other's homes.

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Sponsored link:

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A brief comparison of program based and cell churches:

Factor "Program Based" Churches Cell Churches
Main meeting location Church Members' homes
Organizational focus The congregation and its programs The cell groups
Main individual responsibility Attend services Support others within the cell
Main activity Weekend services Weekly cell meetings; frequent contacts between meetings
Group size Dozens to thousands Under a defined limit (12 - 15 adults typical)
Heavy commitment accepted By perhaps 5% of the congregation By perhaps 95% of membership of each cell
Leadership Professional pastors Trained, lay members
Inter-personal intimacy Often low High
Membership accountability Often low High
Commitment to evangelism Often low High

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Terminology and Organization Structure:

There is little standardization of terms among cell churches. Cells are sometimes called small group churches, "home groups, cell groups, house fellowships, Bible study groups, prayer groups, etc." 3

Each cell usually has one or more interns in training to be a leader. When a given cell reaches a certain maximum membership level (typically 12 to 15 adults plus their children), it divides in two. The original cell's leader will handle one of the new cells; one of the interns typically leads the other. The process repeats, gradually increasing the number of cells and members. Churches involving thousands of cells have been successfully organized and maintained.

A typical group meeting might include some of the following elements: a time of sharing their experiences, mutual support, discussion, worshipping, prayer, a communal meal, etc. In many churches, "unsaved" individuals are not invited to cell meetings. The meetings are not intended to be vehicles for conversion of unbelievers. Rather, cell members are expected to visit non-Christian friends and relatives, develop caring relationships with them and "lead them to Jesus personally." They then introduce the new Christians to the cell group. This is the major source for the recruitment new members.

Crosspoint Community Church of Reno NV is a cell church which uses a typical hierarchical organizational model with 4 levels:

bulletLay shepherds each lead a cell group of 5 to 15 individual members.
bulletEach zone shepherd oversees up to 5 lay shepherds.
bulletA district pastor oversees up to lay 10 zone shepherds, and is indirectly is responsible for up to 750 members.
bulletA senior pastor guides the entire church, and oversees 1 or more district pastors.

Again, there is little standardization of terms. A zone shepherd may be called a zone supervisor in another location. A lay shepherd may be called a cell group servant, or small group leader. Groups of cells are sometimes called subzones or congregations.

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Reference Books on Cell Churches:

One source 3 recommends the following books:

bulletPaul Yonggi Cho, "Successful Home Cell Groups," Bridge Publishing, (1981)
bulletRalph Neighbour Jr., "Where Do We Go From Here?," TOUCH Outreach Ministries, (1990)
bulletLarry Kreider, "House to House," House to House Publications, (1995)
bulletWilliam A. Beckham, "The Second Reformation," TOUCH Outreach Ministries, (1995)
bulletDavid Fennell, "Life in His Body," TOUCH Outreach Ministries, (1995)
bulletLorna Jenkins, "Feed My Lambs," TOUCH Outreach Ministries, (1995)

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  1. "What is a Cell church," (Crosspoint Community Church; a Southern Baptist Cell-Church Fellowship) at: http://www.crosspoint.org/
  2. "Our Mission," Crosspoint Community Church at: http://www.crosspoint.org/
  3. Peter Hartgeink, "What is a Cell-Based Church?" (1997) at: http://www.cccc.ca/
  4. Anon, "Superintendent learns power of cell church," (1996) at:  http://www.spectra.net/
  5. "The Cell Church FAQ" at: http://www.dumc.com.my/
  6. Celebration Christian Church at: http://www.pcisys.net/
  7. Alan Creech, "Cell Church," at: http://www.cell-church.org/ He has a mailing list which can be subscribed to at: http://www.cell-church.org/ The list is "a discussion group for Christians who are interested in the cell church model to build up and encourage each other by sharing vision, questions, problems, experiences, testimonies, and practical tips."
  8. "Welcome to Touch Online," TOUCH Outreach Ministries, Inc., at: http://www.touchusa.org/ TOUCH is an acronym for "Transforming Others Under Christ's Hand." They have a search function to find a cell church in your area/denomination.

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