The Powers and Pitfalls of Small Group Models

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An overview of various small group models to help you choose (or create) the best one for your church.

Help, I’m confused! The 21st century church is confronted with a plethora of different small group models. Some of the most popular models at the moment fundamentally contradict each other.

Very few pastors and church leaders have the time to understand and compare the divergent models. They typically have the time to read one or two small group books and possibly attend a small group conference. Most books and conferences, however, present only one model—yet they do it in a very convincing way. When you are listening to or reading Ted Haggard, Andy Stanley, Randy Frazee or Cesar Castellanos, they all sound like they have come up with the model. But their models have few similarities to one another. They ask different questions and give very different answers.

How can you tell which model best fits your own church, leadership style and community? What are the key biblical principles and practical insights that you need to create a growing small group system? How can you learn from others experience and still be responsive to the Holy Spirit’s guidance and your own unique situation?

The purpose of this article is to give you a quick overview of the key models and then articulate the pivotal questions that you need to answer to shape a model that works for you.

An Unusual Beginning

The contemporary small group movement began in a most unlikely way. It was a warm summer evening in 1964 in Seoul, Korea. A young senior pastor named Yonggi Cho was translating for a guest speaker at his growing church. In the middle of the service, Cho collapsed on stage. His associate, American missionary John Hurston, rushed to his side, only to hear him whisper, “John, I’m dying” (Cho, p.11).

Thank God, Cho did not die. But his health was broken. His doctors recommended that he find another line of work that was less stressful and demanding. Cho did not feel God’s release from ministry, however. And he still wanted to pastor his church until it became the largest church in all of Korea. From his sick bed, he cried out to God for healing. As he sought God over a period of months, several profound messages came to him. He was told by God that he would be healed, but that his healing would take 10 years. Perplexed at how he could pastor a large, growing church—at that time the church numbered 2,400 people—he searched the Bible and was struck by how Moses divided the millions that he cared for into groups of 100’s, 50’s and 10’s (Exodus 18:13-26). He also noticed how the young church in the book of Acts was able to enfold thousands of new converts by using home group meetings (Acts 2:46). Cho also sensed God saying, “I am destroying your ministry and giving it to others.”

Feeling he had clear direction from God, Cho preceded to implement a system of home groups for the purpose of study, pastoral care and evangelism. He faced incredible obstacles. His deacons resisted the plan and offered to replace him as pastor. They refused to get involved in leading groups themselves. When the male leaders of the church resisted Cho’s new plan, the women offered to help. It ran against the church’s theology and the Korean culture to use women as leaders, but they were the ones willing to move ahead with what Cho felt God was calling them to. The first groups didn’t go too well, but Cho persisted and continually refined their methodology. In time, the number of groups grew from dozens to hundreds to thousands. Today, Yoido Full Gospel Church has over 20,000 home groups, and it is actively planting churches throughout Korea and around the world.

There are several important things to understand about Cho’s small group model:

• Small groups exist for the dual purposes of edification and evangelism. Cho emphasizes that groups can fulfill and must fulfill these two objectives simultaneously.

• Groups meetings include Bible Study but are more than just Bible Study groups. In fact, Lydia Swain, Cho’s longtime personal secretary, told a friend of mine that the group meetings were initially 2/3 Bible Study and 1/3 prayer, and that they did not work very well. When the reversed the format to be 1/3 Bible Study and 2/3 prayer, the group ministry’s growth took off.

• There is an emphasis on relational evangelism, serving the needs of unbelievers in practical ways. The church tells its members to show Jesus’ love to those around them by saying, “Find a need and fill it.”

• The church established what has come to be known as the 5×5 oversight model. Every five groups or so are overseen by a “section leader.” Over every five or so section leaders are pastors. This pattern of oversight is apportioned according to geographic areas.

Cho also teaches us the importance of persistence. If at first you don’t succeed with small groups, try, try again. Cho says that you should plan to fail twice. Expect initial failure. It’s like riding a bike or learning to ice skate. You are mastering new skills and new ways of doing things.

For many years, Cho’s church and its methods were unknown to the broader church until it was discovered by Donald McGavran—the founder of the modern church growth movement. Encouraged by McGavran, in 1976 Cho launched Church Growth International to share his principles and insights with churches around the world through conferences and publications. In 1981, Cho released his book Successful Home Cell Groups. One leader deeply influenced by Cho was Ralph Neighbour, Jr.

Neighbour further refined and promoted Cho’s principles. Particularly in the 1990s, the flame of the worldwide cell movement was fanned by Neighbour’s books, conferences and his Cell Church magazine. (I worked for Dr. Neighbour myself from 1994–2000.) He accelerated the cause of the small group movement by providing application in many places where Cho had offered mostly inspiration. Helpful emphases of Neighbour have been:

• The centrality of evangelism to cell life and growth.

• The necessity of a clear discipleship path to enable continual leadership and group multiplication.

• The centrality of home groups to New Testament Christianity.

What’s Wrong with the Cell Model?

Tens of thousands of churches were influenced by Cho and Neighbour. At the same time, in the last half of the 1990s, a variety of leaders began to rethink how small groups are done. In effect, they were asking, “What’s wrong with the cell model?” Their questions and answers diverged in interesting ways.

Jim Egli is the Leadership & Missions Pastor at the Vineyard Church in Urbana, IL. He blogs on small groups, discipleship and multisite church ministry at JimEgli.com.

More from Jim Egli or visit Jim at http://www.jimegli.com

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