Often I get a question about the difference between a small group and a non-small group (what I call a “Class” and so on). I tend to differentiate between these groups based primarily on their discipleship development processes.
House Church: A house church (sometimes called micro-churches, simple churches, organic churches, etc.) is a church that meets in a home or some other informal setting for the purpose of “being” church. They accomplish everything a traditional church takes on, though it often looks and operates quite differently. They do their own baptisms, communion, marriages, funerals, worship, missions, and discipleship. In general they do not have a “sermon” and many don’t have a designated leader/pastor. House churches are intergenerational and tend to meet over a meal. Their gatherings often last three or more hours. They may or may not network together for accountability purposes and they are seldom related in any way to a traditional church. The house church movement worldwide is the fastest growing and most evangelistic model of church planting, and about 90,000 new Christians come to faith daily through this model of being and doing church. Resources: Wolfgang Simson, Houses that Change the World; Robert & Julia Banks, The Church Comes Home; William Tenny-Brittian, House Church Manual.
Cell Groups: Cell groups are clusters of small groups that are related to a geographically central congregation/church building. The Yoshido Full Gospel Church in Korea (Yongi Cho, pastor) is the world’s most stellar example (over 850,000 members). The cell church model is also called the meta-church model. Cell groups do everything a traditional church does, except that they gather for worship at a central location, such as “the church building.” The difference between a cell church and a church that has lots of small groups is that a cell church is a church of small groups, whereas a traditional church is a church with small groups. The focus of the cell church is the cell (aka, small group). The central gathering exists for worship and to support the small group. Pastoral care, discipleship, missions, etc. are accomplished through the cell, though in many cases (but not all), baptisms, communion, marriages, and funerals take place at the central building. There is a clear hierarchy in a cell church with a senior pastor who leads a team of coaches/mentors who oversee the cell leaders. Some cell churches designate/dictate or approve any curriculum that may be used in the cell. Cells are occasionally intergenerational, though more typically, cells are age-graded. Cell meetings may last as long as two or three hours and may or may not include a meal. Resources: Joel Cominsky, Groups of Twelve.
Discipleship Small Groups: A discipleship small group is a small group that exists for discipleship. These groups are a bit of a hybrid between the house church and the cell group in format, though the rites of passage (marriages, etc.) are generally the purview of the organized body (the church building/staff). Discipleship groups are focused on mentoring one another into the fullness of discipleship. Their gatherings tend to be unstructured so that Bible study, prayer, etc. bubble up naturally during the gathering. Participants become responsible for personal Bible study, prayer, and other spiritual disciplines during the week. The gathering of the discipleship is a time for delving into questions and issues that have been encountered during the week. Bible study tends to be generated by discussion of what participants have read during the week. Accountability, responsibility, and Christian behavior are the tripartite foundation stones of this group format. Discipleship Small Groups tend to be age-graded, often meet over a meal, and generally last two or three hours. Resources: Bill Tenny-Brittian, Train Don’t Teach: Retooling Disciples and Small Groups (Summit, Nov. 2007).
Small Groups: A small group is a group of eight to fifteen or so who gather to accomplish some given task, but also intentionally practice fellowship and care. These groups tend to be Bible study groups, although they can be affinity groups that meet for other purposes such as mission, prayer, quilting, golfing, etc. Affinity groups generally include a devotional study, check-in for personal issues, and intentional prayer for one another. The goal of many small group programs is to help build relationships beyond the small group, though this goal is variously achieved depending on the emphasis of the congregation’s leadership. Small groups are age-graded and last one to two hours. Many churches try to treat their small groups as if they are cell groups, but only rarely do they achieve that level of intimacy, care, and discipleship and rarely do small groups produce life-change. Resources: Lyman Coleman, Serendipity Bible (and their small group materials).
Classes: These are often called “small groups” but that’s a misnomer. A class, such as a Sunday School class, is typically age-graded and exists primarily to accomplish a task. This task might be Bible study, it might be prayer, it might be choir practice, and so on. The point is, although there are other “benefits” of classes, the focus is on getting something done. There may or may not be fellowship, relationship building, etc., but there is unlikely any real discipleship work going on. In other words, except for being more informed about something (the Bible, personal needs/concerns, the anthem, etc.), there is very little life change taking place. Most people leave in about the same spiritual state as they came and behavior is seldom changed. In general, though not always, classes tend to be one hour or less in length.
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