An experiment in cell church
I walked out of the darkened seminar room and blinked in the sunlight. It was sometime in the autumn of 2001 and I was at the Christian Resources Exhibition at the NEC. I’d just been to a seminar by someone called Phil Potter about something called 'cell church'. Now I’d heard of cell church before, but it hadn’t really registered and I’d half dismissed it as just another fad. But after listening to Phil Potter for 50 minutes I was interested, but also confused. I’m the sort of person who needs to really understand things, so I bought Phil’s book The Challenge of the Cell Church (Oxford: BRF, 2001). As I read it over the next couple of weeks I began to grasp the whole idea of cell church. The more I read, the more excited I became. Maybe this was a path God was calling us to follow.
I’m a Methodist minister in Loughborough. I’ve been here since 1997 and I was concerned about my larger church, Trinity. This is a town-centre church that draws people of all ages from across the town and beyond. Theologically its membership contains a broad spectrum of views; it has a history of good youth work and a huge amount of community involvement through the lives of individual members. I was concerned about the spiritual temperature. It had a membership of about 220, but only one small evening housegroup, and one monthly afternoon group which catered for a more senior clientele. I’d been told that people at Trinity were reluctant to commit themselves to housegroups on a long-term basis, and that what worked well was short courses or Bible study series. But over the years it became clear that people were no longer particularly interested in the short courses we did seek to put on. A Lay Witness weekend in the Spring of 2001 had not proved to be particularly effective and I was asking the question 'What next?' - which is when I ended up in Phil Potter’s seminar.
Looking back several significant things had been happening at Trinity. We had run a few Alpha courses. As is often the case they were attended almost exclusively by church people, but thoroughly enjoyed. People had been given a taster of regular fellowship that tackled relevant subjects. More significantly, we began to run the Disciple course in 1998. Over three years more than 24 people from Trinity did Disciple, and many had since offered for ministries within the church. Again, these people had experience of regular fellowship, discussion, prayer and wanted to know ‘what next?’ Maybe there was a body of people in the church who would now welcome the opportunity to commit to some sort of regular group.
I enthused about cell church to Trinity’s Nurture Coordinating Group. Over a number of months we discussed the concept and prayed about it. We held a seminar one Saturday morning to gauge feeling from the wider congregation. In response to that we agreed to set up cell groups which would meet twice monthly. Over the Summer of 2002 we approached about twelve people to see if they would commit to leading a group, initially for a year. Then during the autumn this group of leaders met for four months in two pilot cell groups so that they could get a feel for how it works, and we could iron out any problems or concerns. Finally, in December we invited the church to sign up with a view to starting ‘homechurch groups’ (as we call them) in January.
The response was encouraging. With leaders, something like 55 people have joined groups. We have six groups, four evening and two meeting during the day. As I mentioned, they meet twice monthly, and I do my best to make sure I preach on the Sunday morning of the week they are due to meet, usually on the lectionary. This has solved one of my longstanding concerns: preachers can deliver excellent sermons, but where are the opportunities for church members to explore how the issue preached on impacts on their life day by day? Now we have groups where the questions can be explored. What’s more, our Junior Church groups use Living Stones which is also lectionary based, so what do you know, twice a month the whole church family has the chance to consider the same story or theme in depth!
And the experience so far? It’s been good. I’m encouraged that over 50 people aged between 17 and 75+ are meeting regularly to worship, to study God’s word and ask what God is saying through it and to pray together. The structure of the meetings (Welcome, Worship, Word, Witness) prevents groups veering off onto their own hobbyhorses or particular interests. Subjects tackled so far include our picture of Jesus, what is the Good News, forgiveness, temptation, anger, the cross and the resurrection. The feedback from the groups is positive. There’s a tremendous sense of fellowship emerging and a willingness to share about the things that matter, along with expectation. Here are just some of the comments I’ve received:
'The spiritual equivalent of a work-out at the gym – and even more good for you'
'It’s fellowship in its true sense'
'Was that really two hours?'
'There’s the feeling of intimacy and spirituality within the group'
The plan is to allow the groups to stabilise for a few more months before encouraging more people to join with the inevitable result that groups will have to split.
Looking back over the last 18 months I’m tremendously grateful to God for leading us in this way. I believe that we will see the spiritual temperature of the church rise and people being increasingly challenged and encouraged about their life in Christ. Alongside this we will see a greater depth of pastoral caring and a church that ministers to each other and the world. In my book, that’s renewal!
The Revd David Shirtliff is a minister in the Loughborough Circuit
Headline Summer 2003 pp 5-6