Unit 3.4 Ralph W. Neighbour: Faith Communities


Faith Communities

In the cell church, it is the cell that provides the community in the faith community. Just as at a major league baseball game, community is experienced in the small group with whom we attend the large group event, often our family. In traditional churches, the desire to provide community experience in the worship service equivalent to that found in a small, intimate group is a primary hindrance to growth. This tendency is a primary characteristic of Prairie DNA and often reflects a desire to preserve the rural cultural patterns of the 1800s.

The math is seductive: an evangelistic small group of 12 multiplies into 120 as each of the original members lead a group of ten; if this cycle of each member of each group eventually leading a group of 10 continues, then 120 become 1200 believers, and then 12,000 believers, and so on. If this cycle repeats consistently on a yearly basis, the entire world population of 6.6 billion will be converted in less than ten years. For those whose highest priority is the fulfillment of the Great Commission, the potential of the cell church as an evangelistic innovation is fascinating, whether it is seen at Yoido or in the New Testament church of Acts. This fascination with the mathematics of multiplying growth has dominated the thinking of the western innovators and led to innovations that depart in many ways from the standard set by Yoido=s discipleship system. To me this calls for a reconsideration of the original.

The theme of rapid cell multiplication dominates the cell church movement after Yoido. In Abidjan, Ivory Coast, Africa, where poverty and unemployment allow for much time to be invested in spiritual relationships and activities, cells regularly multiply in three months (SG: 9, WD: 305). The goal in Neighbour=s method is multiplication every six months (WD: 271, SG: 45, 149-150).[1] If each person involved had Neighbour=s innovative idealism,  commitment and focus, this pace could be maintained and would convert the world=s 6.6 billion people less than five years. (I admire Neighbour and wish I were more like him.)

Rapid multiplication is deemed necessary for four basic reasons. First, evangelical theology understands that delay causes more people to experience an eternal suffering without Christ; this creates a significant urgency for effective evangelism, and urgency stimulates systemic resistance to change. Second, traditional Achurchianity@ models that evolved in rural areas cannot evangelistically keep pace basis with exploding, urban world populations; only evangelism by multiplication, where disciples make disciples who make disciples, can fulfill the Great Commission (WD: 29-36). Third, in Neighbour=s experience, small groups that do not multiply can become stagnant after six months; they lose their focus on the lost, Arewind and play their traditional church tapes,@ and usually reorganize to nurture themselves in a self-centered manner (WD: 87; SG: 149-150). This stagnation cuts off all the potential converts downstream that could have been helped if the group maintained its pace and focus on evangelism. Fourth, evangelism at this pace is possible, and examples abound in the cell churches.[2]

Multiplication has become the primary goal of the cell group=s existence, and a reorganization of methodology can take place that subordinates every activity to the goal of cell group multiplication. In order to ensure a full cell, required to multiply, churches fill up cells with strangers drawn in through harvest events (WD: 17, 343-351) or by cell interns following up on worship visitors (SG: 101). Cell groups begin with apprentice leaders in place who will be ready to lead the new cell group in six months or less; every new  group has to have a shepherd in place in order to start (SG: 31). Mandatory cell division once cells reach 15 fuels rapid multiplication (SG: 14, 23). New groups begin with 5-8 persons and are halfway to multiplication (SG: 23). The goal of multiplication shapes the methodology used in the cell in explicit and subtle ways.

Traditional church growth theory understands that the gospel expands through relational networks which McGavran called Athe bridges of God.@ This oikos strategy focuses on making a convert and then evangelizing through that person to their network of influence, particularly among family relatives (WD: 133-140, 281-284; SG: 87-93, 163-167).  People are drawn by the newness of changes God makes in a converted person=s life and by the quality of life within community that the cell offers. Each conversion opens up a new oikos network of lost relatives and friends; the window of opportunity to convert one of these people and gain access to another new oikos for evangelism is brief and frequently closes within six months.[3] New people fuel new enthusiasm and help keep the cell focused on evangelism.

A high level of shared interest and common experiences can create a relational kinship network. Neighbor organizes relational outreach groups he calls share groups to create new relational networks or penetrate existing networks. Cell groups develop out of relationships formed in share groups; the share groups can be short or long term (WD: 105, 220-223, 281-290, 293-300; SG: 101-107). Cell groups also practice Akinning@ to create community within the cell (WD: 259-260;SG: 92) and Aholy eavesdropping@ to identify ways to minister to and love lost people (SG: 99). Neighbour perceives the biggest problem in evangelism to be the difficulty of helping Christians develop relationships with lost people (WD: 386); I agree.

As cells cannot multiply without leaders, competition between cells and programs for the time and energy of leaders can be a source of serious conflict in traditional churches. In a Apure cell church@ there are only cells and a worship service; there are no programs, so all leaders can focus without distraction on their cells (SG: 13). In traditional churches, approximately 10% of attenders are leaders focused on meeting the 90% of church members who are AEddies@ or consumer Christians (WD: 16). Neighbour warns that seeking out and including traditional Christians in cell life can cause a cell to lose its focus on evangelism (SG: 101). Without a continual stream of new, trained, capable leaders, cell group multiplication comes to a halt. The mathematics of multiplication shape the western understanding of the cell church.

[1]Conversion growth at Yoido Church is not uniform. Half of the cell leaders in one survey by Hurston reported no conversions in the previous year, while others reported from one to twenty‑three; many groups, then, primarily provide pastoral care to their members and experience long periods between multiplication. Karen Hurston, Growing the World’s Largest Church, 218, 73. This was a random sample of 340 cell leaders from eight districts. At Yoido, multiplication follows conversions made within the cell by evangelistically gifted leaders.

[2]In the same study reported in footnote 2 above, Hurston noted that many section leaders over three to eight cells reported conversions of over one hundred families in their section. Hurston reports one section in 1983 leading over three hundred families to Christ and church membership. God=s people are inconsistent.

[3]Each person has a limited number of relatives and persons who share their hobbies; eventually the pool of existing oikos relationships dries up. In a mobile society, however, new people are always moving into the old neighborhood and members of cell groups are always moving into new neighborhoods. The geographical approach used at Yoido consolidates influence of leaders in existing neighborhoods and extends influence into new neighborhood micro-mission fields. Each mature Christian thereby becomes the person of peace in his or her own neighborhood, and that influence builds continually and long term among the lost. The neighborhood approach simply and literally fulfills the commandment of Jesus that each Christian love his or her geographical neighbor (Matthew 22:19).

NOTE (my response)



Abbreviations for page numbers in parentheses:

WD: Ralph W. Neighbour, Jr. Where Do We Go From Here? A Guidebook For The Cell Group Church. Tenth Anniversary Edition. Houston, TX: Touch Publications, 2000.

SG: Ralph W. Neighbour, Jr. The Shepherd=s Guidebook: Spiritual and Practical Foundations for Cell Group Leaders. Revised Edition. Houston, TX: Touch Publications, 1995.

The quote is from Major League Disciple Making: An Overview of the Best Research on the Cell Church, an online course developed for the Institute for Discipleship at www.BeADisciple.com in 2009. Course materials, including these lectures, can be downloaded here: http://www.disciplewalk.com/IFD_MLD_Class_Links.html

All Scripture quotations are from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright © 1946, 1952, and 1971 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please review the page How and Why We Use Quotes.

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