The Difference Between a Cell Group and a Small Group | A Response

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Tripped across Randall Neighbour’s response to this question over at and needed to respond.  Two preliminary observations need to be made:

First, I think it’s critical that we all learn to recognize and acknowledge our own biasAlan Kay rightly pointed out that perspective (point of view) is worth 80 IQ points.  In any evaluation of a system (cell vs. everything else) it is very important to look at the issue from more than one point of view.

Second, it is also very important to acknowledge that there are no problem-free solutions to anything.  Every solution (small group system or method) comes with a set of problems.  Wise leaders simply learn to choose the set of problems they’d rather have.

Disclaimer: I am an enthusiastic advocate of group life strategies that make it possible for the largest number of unconnected people to connect in community where they can experience life-change.

Observations about Randall’s article:

  1. Cell church and cell group advocates often pit their methodology against all comers as authentic vs. inauthentic (or biblical vs. man-made concoction).  I prefer to describe it as idealistic vs. pragmatic.
  2. Whether 8 of the 10 largest churches are cell churches or not, I have no idea.  There are clearly worldview elements at play in the developed countries of the west that explain the absence of cell church success here.
  3. In my experience, most growing churches, even the “big box come and see churches,” are growing on the basis on friends bringing friends.
  4. It is true that “theology breeds methodology.”  As a result, the fastest growing churches tend to be those that are preoccupied with reaching people for Christ (as opposed to being preoccupied with keeping the ones they already have).  It is the difference between a crowd-to-core strategy and a core-to-crowd strategy.  In the contest between making it easy for those on the edge to take a next step in vs. building up the core with the expectation that they’ll reach out…it is no contest.
  5. Many of the fastest growing churches in the western world are making small group participation a priority.  The best example of this is Saddleback where the current group participation is about 130% of their weekend adult attendance.  The reason?  Group life is prioritized as essential in the life of a believer.

Remember, I’m acknowledging my bias for what I refer to as a wild-west approach to group life and the fact that it’s not problem free.  I’d just much rather have these problems than any other set.

There have been some great comments on this post (both for and against).  Be sure and read them and then take a look at my follow-up post: Lowering the Leader Bar.

Want do you think?  Want to argue? Have a question? You can click here to jump into the conversation.

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  1. Sam O'Neal on January 12, 2010 at 9:32 am

    Thanks for the engagement on this topic, Mark, and for the thoughtful reply. I trust Randall will get on here soon. 🙂

  2. Mike Mack on January 12, 2010 at 10:18 am

    Thanks, Mark, for the thoughtful reply. Because people have many differnt needs, we do need many different strategies within God’s Kingdom to reach them.

    I guess I have a foot in both worlds here, and I’m a friend of both Randall and Mark. I often find myslef agreeing and disagreeing with both of these guys at the same time!

    At our seeker sensitive church, I am using a “Both-And” strategy. We try to get the “weekend church attenders” connected into small groups using a variety of strategies, including sermon-based “campaigns” (for lack of a better term). But we always seek to do this in as realtional method as possible. I’d rather introduce a couple looking for a group to a leader or two than have them fill out a sign up sheet, for instance.

    For me, at least, the key value is “relationship.” Our strategies must come out of that.

    OK, getting long-winded, so maybe I just need to blog!

  3. Mark Howell on January 12, 2010 at 10:20 am

    Thanks Mike! Appreciate your input and approach!


  4. Jeff Gibson on January 12, 2010 at 12:34 pm

    I know I would be in the “genius of the and” column. That would be having group leaders fill their own groups and creating new groups through connection events aimed at those who are attracted to the “big box.”

    We train our small group leaders to invite their friends and neighbors to their groups. That’s not at all easy for most people to do, and many would rather lean on us to fill their groups than to walk across the room.

    Let’s put out the nets to catch people, regardless of what attracts them in the first place.

  5. Mark Howell on January 12, 2010 at 12:58 pm

    Thanks Jeff! I like it! That’s a great way to put it.


  6. Brian Owen on January 12, 2010 at 1:52 pm

    Mark, thanks for your thoughts.

    As a new discipleship pastor, it’s been a fascinating experience to immerse myself in the world of small group ministry theory and practice. I find myself torn in several directions as I read books and blogs, think and pray. Mark, I’d love to know why you’d rather accept the problems associated with your “wild west” approach to group life as opposed to the cell group model that Randall promotes. I read Randall’s book and found myself inspired by the level of depth, quality, and small group driven evangelism that the cell group model seems to create. As I read your blog and others who promote more of a crowd to core approach, I get excited by the possiblities of reaching out to more people but find myself really concerned with the potential lack of “quality control” for lack of a better word.

    And what do we mean here by “growth” and “fastest growing churches”? Are we talking about bigger churches or bigger Christians? I think I’d rather build “bigger Christians” and trust that it will lead to bigger churches.

  7. Mark Howell on January 12, 2010 at 2:15 pm

    Thanks for jumping in Brian! Love the way you’re thinking and the questions you’re asking. Let me take a shot at answering your questions here, but it probably will result in a more comprehensive answer in another post.

    First, I prefer the “wild west approach” because of the upside and the fact that I can mitigate the risks by doing certain things. For example, if I lower the bar in terms of who can lead (as Saddleback did this last fall when they allowed anyone to pick up the curriculum for Life’s Healing Choices and invite their friends to join a group), I can control the risk by only listing groups led by members on the web. Additionally, I can require all hosts to attend an orientation in order to pick up the material. Or I can require new hosts to have a connection with a coach that I assign. I like the fact that by lowering the bar I can make it possible for a much larger number of people to connect.

    What are the problems associated with the cell group/church strategy? Generally there is a need for a deeper front-end commitment and more extensive leader training. This produces a much higher degree of difficulty for recruiting a sufficient quantity of qualified leaders. The reluctance to commit to leading combined with the inefficiency of successful apprentice recruitment and launching leads to an inability to produce enough leaders to enfold the unconnected in a growing church.

    See where I’m going? I like the problems that come with the wild west approach.


  8. Randall Neighbour on January 12, 2010 at 2:32 pm

    Mark, Sam asked for that article specifically so I wrote it to answer the question as succinctly as I could and hopefully spark some dialog, which worked!

    For me, small group life and ministry is not about cell groups or small groups or big groups or small groups or crowd to core or core to crowd strategies. In fact, the only strategy I care about is how to support the saints better as they do the work of their ministry.

    And therein lies the problem. So few American churches have an abundance of saints who are doing the work of ministry and need strategic support from pastors.

    What I see is pastors and few highly skilled or gifted lay people doing the work of ministry themselves via large events, and doing it out of sheer frustration with the lack of initiative found within their membership. Over the course of the last two decades, the American church has abandoned the priesthood of all believers for consumer Christianity.

    When I view world-class cell-based churches, I see a highly relational organism of interdependent Biblical communities filled with missional believers … who gather for celebration and leverage those large gatherings for all it can provide.

    See the difference? It’s huge.

    What very few people understand about healthy cell-based churches is that the members provide the missional thrust of the church … not the lead pastor, not the staff, and it’s not focused on the big facility in which they gather for celebration.

    If you were to study LifeChurch in Katy Texas or Antioch Church in Waco, Texas (just two examples of healthy American cell-based churches) from a pastoral perspective, it looks like well-managed chaos. Staff members are reactive and responsive for the most part. The members of the groups are doing all sorts of things to reach friends for Christ through relational evangelism and need a course correction and encouragement from time to time, but not motivation to bring friends to church on Sunday so they can hear the gospel.

    Like Mike Mack stated above, I could go on and on about all this but I will end it here. I really have no desire to get everyone to agree with me. I just want to help those who want to see organic, relational growth overrun anything a few high profile personalities can do with a microphone in a consumer church structure. Far more is written in my book, but I don’t talk about cells as much as I talk about the American church as it pertains to doing church through small groups.

  9. Mark Howell on January 12, 2010 at 2:43 pm

    Thanks Randall! I really appreciate your response to my response!

    Much as I appreciate your willingness to share your point of view, I would say that the typical American church attender has never really practiced the priesthood of the believer and that the church growth movement of the past three decades has been an attempt to reach unchurched people in the most effective way. Not in an attempt to skirt the practice…simply in a way that had the best chance of having the biggest impact.

    I’m unfamiliar with either church you mention…but will check them out. I’m curious to learn how what they’re really doing will compare with the churches I am more familiar with.

    Thanks for jumping in!


  10. Matt Harmer on January 12, 2010 at 7:03 pm

    Hi Guys,

    I just wanted to say that I think I could use some intense mentoring from both of you. Reading posts like these makes me realize that I’ve got a lot to learn about small group life and building Biblical community.

    I really just wanted to say that, for me, the difference between “cell” and “small” has everything to do with the connotation the word “cell” calls to mind for the bulk of our church constituency. You see, Manna Church is located in Fayetteville, NC. We’re next door neighbors to the largest concentration of US special operations soldiers in the nation, and therefore have (I’d wager) the largest concentration of Christ-following special forces soldiers of any church. To them, a “Cell” is what they’re hunting in the middle east. For that simple reason, we use the term “small groups.”

    I realize that the discussion taking place has much more to do with the philosophy driving the type of group ministry and far less to do with the semantics of the different terms, but I couldn’t help throwing that out there. 🙂

    As it relates to the philosophy, can it not work from crowd-to-core-to-crowd AND from core-to-crowd-to-core?

    Am I missing it?


  11. Mark Howell on January 13, 2010 at 7:15 am

    Thanks for jumping in Matt! Makes a lot of sense to use a term that is friendly to the folks who attend your church. Life Groups, Community Groups, Home Teams, etc., are all that…a friendly term that connects with people.

    On the question, the decision to use a crowd-to-core vs core-to-crowd strategy has a lot to do with the programs you will emphasize. Churches that execute really well on their strategy will clarify what a win is for them, build steps that lead to that win, and narrow the focus so their congregation doesn’t suffer from “decision paralysis.” They may offer some programs that do the other…but they won’t emphasize them. Doing that will diffuse their impact.


  12. Mike Mack on January 13, 2010 at 12:48 pm

    Matt, Love your questions and thinking! You also raise a very good point about small group point people needing some good solid mentoring. It’s great to read books, articles, and blogs, but there’s nothing like one-on-one coaching, especially for those just getting started leading a groups ministry. Several of us are doing this already. I’m coaching the new point person at a church in Philly and finding it very valuable for both of us. I know Randall is offering some 1:1 coaching as well. I really encourage you to follow up on this!

  13. Steve Dunn on January 14, 2010 at 2:29 am

    Great discussion. We at Beacon Church (in Kent, UK) have Cell groups and my wife and I are responsible for supporting and coaching our groups’ leaders. We have regular meetings with our leaders for discussion of critical issues and training in various areas of small group leadership – discipleship, meeting dynamics, people-types, community-building, awareness of community- and momentum-killers, developing giftings, etc. We are doing our utmost to ensure that every group is Christ-centred and INCLUSIVE – not holding hands in a circle looking IN, but holding hands in a circle looking OUT, if you can forgive the cheesy picture. One of our groups held a Fireworks party at our house recently and the group of 15 had 45 non-church guests join us! Building bridges with the people we already know and love for the Gospel…

    We at Beacon Church are always keen to see the potential in all our folk – particularly with future small group leadership in mind – but we do feel strongly that integrity and mentoring are vital. I see what you’re saying regarding “freeing” up the process for folks to start/lead a group, but accountability still needs to be in place to protect the flock. Yes, there’s always a need for new leaders, but it’s far harder to remove someone from leadership when things go awry than to put safeguards in in the first place. This is His flock we’re shepherding and we need to do it right. A fair, prayerful balance of accountability/training and Spirit-led risk are what’s required…

    Oh, and we have no problem with the name “Cell” – in fact, here in the UK we’ve found it opens up for great conversations with non-Church friends about the church as His BODY when they ask why we call them “Cell” groups. I can, however, see why some may find it difficult.

    Great blog!

  14. Mark Howell on January 14, 2010 at 6:29 am

    Thanks Steve! Love hearing what’s happening at Beacon Church! It does sound like your groups are very inclusive. That’s fantastic!

    I love your summary that “A fair, prayerful balance of accountability/training and Spirit-led risk are what’s required.” That is right at the heart of the discussion here over the last 48 hours.

    Hope you join us again!


  15. Matt Harmer on January 20, 2010 at 7:52 pm


    Thanks for the reply. It makes a whole lot of sense… and it’s causing me to analyze our emphasis even more. That and some creative thinking never killed anyone, right?! 🙂


    I appreciate the encouragement. Indeed, I am gaining so much from all of you who have beat the path ahead of me. I’ll look into 1:1 coaching. Thanks!


  16. Mark Howell on January 20, 2010 at 9:16 pm

    Glad you were able to pick up some good ideas Matt! Keep coming back!