The lessons learned from these mistakes resonate in the hearts of pastors and leaders.
By Larry Kreider
One Saturday morning my daughter asked me to make her pancakes for breakfast. Knowing I am not a cook, I pleaded with her, “Please, Leticia, couldn’t you just eat cereal today?” She persisted, so I gave pancakes a try. Half asleep, I read the instructions incorrectly, and the end product was horrifying! I asked her again to eat cereal instead, but she could not be dissuaded. So I tried again. This time the oil in the pan caught on fire! “Please try again, Daddy,” my then eight-year-old begged. I tried once more, this time without following the recipe on the side of the box. Amazingly enough, the concoction looked edible. Leticia took one bite of my freshly made pancake, looked up at me with her big blue eyes and said, “Daddy, may I have cereal, please?”
Similar to the pancake fiasco, we had our share of mistakes as a fledgling small group church. Our experiences were not unique. The lessons learned from these mistakes resonate in the hearts of pastors and leaders around the world. Yet there are those who give up just short of the lesson and leave with a bitter taste from errors. We must learn from our mistakes! The only people who never make mistakes are those who do nothing.
The Control Factor
I once asked Dr. David Yonggi Cho, “Why is it, Dr. Cho, that it is so hard for cell ministry to work in America?” He responded immediately, “Many pastors are threatened. They are afraid to release their people.” If this is why cell ministry hasn’t worked in America or in any other location, what can we do about it?
Rick Warren, the Senior Pastor of Saddleback Valley Community Church in Orange County, California, commented: “For your church to grow, both the pastor and the people must give up control. The people must give up the control of the leadership, and the pastor must give up control of the ministry. Otherwise, either party can become a bottleneck for growth.” A typical pastor might control his church members, or members might control the pastor. Pastors of small group-based churches are no exception to the control trap, and neither are small group leaders.
In the beginnings of our church, we told people they must only be involved in a small group within their own community. This was a mistake. One family felt misplaced in their community group and came to me for assistance. I rigidly told them they needed to stay in that particular small group and work it out. As a result, they left our church. I recognized my mistake a few years later and asked for their forgiveness. I learned an important lesson that the church is not built according to geography, but through relationships. However, we’ve noticed that as believers mature and prepare to be sent out to start a new small group, many go back to their own neighborhoods. The difference is that they go because the Lord called them there, not because it is required by their leaders.
Recently, I spoke at a church in upstate New York where the pastor had gone through a painful church split and decided to quit. However, the Lord spoke to him and said, “I have called you to release the ministry of the church to My people.” That pastor returned to the congregation and began to transition the group into a small group-based church. When he released the people as ministers, the people in turn released him and his leadership team to follow the direction of the Holy Spirit. A fresh sense of faith and expectancy came into this church.
Dr. Cho warned, “Anything that destroys personal independence and the individual’s personality and responsibility is from the devil. God never created us to be puppets. He gave us personalities to be developed into loving sons and daughters living in relationship with him. Our home cell groups are designed to promote that relationship.” Small groups can be used to either control God’s people or to release God’s people.
Values or Methods
Why are values important? They are the core of our beliefs! They direct our actions and attitudes. Unfortunately, as believers we often teach “methods” rather than scriptural values. We tend to get stuck on a formula for how to do something; it can be easier to follow a “recipe” than to trust God for guidance step by step. When this happens, people could become a part of a local church based on the outward systems but might not understand or adopt the underlying values of the church. When Christian leaders focus on methods rather than values, the belief system of members is likely to be built around the methods used in the church rather than on the principles of God’s Word.
For a season, our church spouted the cell church buzz-words, and in so doing the prominence of Jesus and His Word were compromised. We exalted the vision for cell groups above Jesus Christ. We prided ourselves in being the first cell church in our region. We soon learned that Jesus shares His glory with no other—no matter how great our vision may be. For this error, we repented to the Lord and His people.
Soon after our church started, we traveled throughout the world to learn from others. When we returned from our first conference in Korea, we exhorted our small group leaders: “The Korean cell leaders multiply their cells every six months. We serve the same God. We expect you to do the same!” A few years later we repented to our group leaders for burning them out with a burden that was too heavy to carry. We had been teaching a method for multiplication rather than the Word of God.
Now, is it wrong for Korean Christians to have that goal? Not at all. Is it the Lord’s will to multiply small groups on a regular basis? Of course! Is it important to set goals? Yes. But we must understand from the Word of God why we should set goals and multiply small groups. When we adopt other people’s methods and goals before understanding their values, we become frustrated and drained. People tire quickly of the latest Christian fad. They don’t need it. We must fervently pray that our visions and goals are birthed by the Holy Spirit for our own unique situation, not copied from the latest church that appears to be successful.
It is easy for us to focus more on structure than on caring relationships and reaching the lost, perhaps because structures are easier to define and control than the many-faceted aspects of Spirit-led ministry. Structures are needed, but their purpose is merely to provide infrastructure that supports the goal of releasing life. Having the “right” structures should not be a goal of its own. If we are not careful, we will end up with program-based churches that have lost the dynamic flow of the Holy Spirit. We must focus on life, on Jesus and on His Word. Teach values first; this will be foundational. An appropriate and workable small group structure will follow.
Consumers and Disciples
I was a guitar instructor many years ago and met with students week after week, teaching them how to hold the pick, how to strum and how to play a certain chord. They would practice at home and come back the next week to learn another chord. Within a few months, they were playing dozens of songs. A small group leader disciples believers in a similar way. He or she trains members by giving them responsibilities, a little at a time, so they will grow spiritually.
Kevin was a young father in a small group I led. One day he confided in me, “Larry, I have never prayed publicly. The thought of it really scares me, but I want to learn. I need your help. Sometime in a meeting, when I am not expecting it, ask me to pray.” I assured him I would enjoy this opportunity! A few weeks later, at an early morning small group meeting, I looked in Kevin’s direction and said, “Kevin, I would like you to pray this morning.” He took a deep breath and prayed for the first time in public. It was his first step in discipleship. Kevin and his wife Emily became wonderful leaders.
American Christians have been conditioned to believe in what I call the “holy man” and “holy building” myths. Every Sunday morning, they expect to find the holy man in a holy building who will minister to their needs. The holy man is expected to be a counselor and teacher and should be available twenty-four hours a day. Rather than becoming disciples and ministers, these well-meaning Christians are merely consumers of ministry.
There is a danger of pastors and their church members developing co-dependent relationships. The pastor is paid to do the work of ministry. In turn the people get their money’s worth—good sermons and great programs. Inevitably, the pastor burns out, and the people never have the opportunity to fulfill their calling in Christ to do the work of ministry. If pastors are giving a product instead of leading people in a discipleship process, maturity in ministry will never be realized.
The small group provides a forum for knowing one another, praying together and preparing every believer to reach others for Christ. Believers practice hospitality in their homes and learn to know one another as real people. Authentic Christianity, the type that leads to multiplication of small groups, occurs when one believer assumes responsibility to help a younger Christian grow in faith. They might meet together each week for prayer, Bible study and discussion about life questions. True growth is experienced when believers are either being discipled or discipling others. This forces consumers to become disciples.
A Watered-down Vision
Too many times, after a church grows and multiplies their small groups, another migratory flock appears on the scene. These are church people who see new life in the small group-based church and want to connect with it. Attracted to the good things that are happening, they leave their former churches and join a small group that seems to meet their needs. However, many times, these transitioning Christians bring their former values and convictions along with them. When the “honeymoon” with their new church wears off, they long for the old programs in their former churches. These consumer Christians voice their personal visions and perceptions of how the church must be run to the pastor and elders. When people start voicing different visions, it is possible for church leaders get distracted and starting trying to please these new members. They could compromise the vision the Lord gave them. Ministering in small groups is minimized and replaced by new programs. The original vision for this church slowly ebbs.
At one point, our church was in this position. As a pastor, I reached the crossroads where I decided to continue with the Lord’s vision, risking everything. I faced the possibility of having to start over with only me and my family. However, we needed to be brought by God to the place of willful obedience.
We know that God places members in His body as He wills (I Corinthians 12:18), and misplaced believers experience much disappointment for themselves and their church leaders. At times, I have encouraged some misplaced people in our church to look for another church with a vision closer to theirs.
Over the years, we learned to ask God to bring us two types of co-laborers—new believers and co-laborers who were called to the house to house vision. Several times, we closed down our Sunday morning celebration meetings and met in homes for a month at a time. This helped people who were unsure of our vision to understand the importance of ministry from house to house. On one occasion when we came back from a month of meeting solely in small groups, we had one hundred additional people coming to the Sunday meetings.
Years ago, as our church decentralized and became eight small group-based churches, I turned over the leadership and ministry to eight pastors, twenty-one elders and a host of small group leaders. I now have the privilege of being a pastor to pastors and training leaders in existing, newly birthed small group-based churches throughout the world. However, without believers trained in small group ministry, we could not have made the transition.
Forgetting Our Mandate To Reach the Lost
C.T. Studd, the famous missionary, once stated “I do not wish to live ‘neath sound of church of chapel bell, I want to run a rescue shop within a yard of hell.” The main purpose for every cell group must be to run “rescue shops,” lest the cell become a powerless social club. We are witnesses (Acts 1:8), not partakers of complacent, comfortable “bless-me” meetings.
Don and Jeanni served with a cell group in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. They believed the Lord birthed their small group to reach the lost. They hosted a Japanese student, Yosiko, enrolled in a local university. Week after week, they showed her God’s love and prayed for her. A few days before Christmas, Yosiko, who grew up in a Buddhist family, declared to Don and Jeanni, “I have just received a Christmas gift. I have asked Jesus Christ to come into my life.” The group rejoice with her, baptized her and discipled her. When the time came, they empowered her to go back to Japan to serve as a youth pastor. The entire small group was changed when they focused outward.
It is easy for us to forget why we are involved in small groups. The primary purpose for the small group is not merely for fellowship but to reach the lost. Constant exhortation, encouragement and training from church leaders for our commission to reach the lost is vital. Otherwise, the law of entropy occurs. The cell group soon loses its vision and mandate from the Lord to reach the lost. The tendency of all new wineskins is to get old, but bringing new people into the small group and multiplying new groups keeps us fresh and alive.
The greatest catalyst for spiritual growth is getting our eyes off ourselves and on to Jesus Christ and His heart for those around us. Looking inward prevents growth, like an ingrown toenail, and usually causes pain, competition and stagnation. When groups are content to stay the same, they subconsciously build walls around themselves that cause others to feel unwelcome.
Lack of Desperation for God
A few years ago I was asked to train small group leaders at the Vienna Christian Center in Vienna, Austria. Though only a few years old, it is the largest Protestant Church in the nation since the Reformation. It is a small group-based church, with small groups scattered throughout the city. After speaking on “New Wine and New Wineskins,” I opened the opportunity for prayer for these new leaders to receive more of the Lord’s presence in their lives. One of the men, a diplomat, ran to the front of the room for prayer, desperate and hungry for more of God, and many more with the same desire followed suit.
In many nations around the world, there is a genuine hunger for God. We sometimes miss this in North America as complacency sets in due to the illusion that we can manage things by ourselves. That is not true. The truth is that if God doesn’t show up, it is all over. New wineskins (new small groups) must be regularly filled with new wine (a fresh experience with Jesus). We must experience more of the life and presence of Jesus in our lives today than we did last week.
The Lord honors people who are desperate for more of Him in their lives. We cannot continue living on past experiences! We must be desperate for a daily and fresh touch from the Lord. We must expect the Lord to fill us with His presence when we come together in His name in our cell meetings.
When Daniel and Rebecca from Machakos, Kenya, started a new small group-based church several years ago, Daniel was working for the bank during the day and doing pastoral work on evenings and weekends. Rebecca gave up her job to have more time to focus on ministry. They went into the villages and homes to pray for the sick, and the Lord healed many. Through these miracles, people gave their lives to Christ and willingly opened their homes for new small groups.
In Acts 2, we see the early Christians empowered by the Holy Spirit to be ministers. Then in Acts 4, we see the disciples filled with the Holy Spirit again! In every culture and every nation, we need the same hunger for more of the Holy Spirit’s presence and power. It is time for the release of a new desperation for God. We must believe in the supernatural, confess our mistakes and expect the Lord to lead us into a new reformation.
Thousands of churches around the world are experiencing new life through the New Testament model of basic Christian community. Saints are released to minister from house to house. Let’s persevere through every challenge and keep our eyes on Jesus. I am sure that God wants to use you to fulfill His purposes. Jesus Christ will build His church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it!
About Larry Kreider
Larry has spent the past four decades training leaders to make disciples with the small group concept. Larry serves as the international director of DOVE International, a worldwide network of over 1,000 churches in 26 nations. Larry has written more than 40 books and travels extensively teaching and imparting practical discipleship to leaders globally. Read about Larry or catch up on Larry’s blog.