Discipleshp through Community

Cell Basics

Taken from Chapter 3 of Making Disciples in the Twenty-First Century Church

by Joel Comiskey

Spring 2014

Jim had little interest in following Jesus, but after many friendly conversations, he was finally ready to hear about Jesus. One night while talking at his house, he even prayed the “sinner’s prayer.” However, I did not see any change in his life, and I wondered if he was truly born-again. He maintained his individual version of Christianity, telling me that he was a very private person and didn’t like to open up to other people. After many months of just listening and praying for Jim, I felt the need to challenge his false, individualistic thinking. I said to him, “Those who know Jesus are willing for others to hold them accountable. They don’t hold on to a privatized religion and their own personal faith.” My words hit a wall. Jim didn’t mind hearing about Jesus and was willing to even “accept Christ.” But to become a responsible member of the body of Christ was far, far from his mind or desire. Jim, like so many others, had bought into a privatized view of Christianity—me and God.

On the contrary, God’s work is not complete in a person until the private, personal space has been invaded, and he or she is willing to be forged in the anvil of community. The apostle John said, “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin” (1 John 1:7). Community or koinonia (the Greek word for fellowship)refers to our relationship with God and to our relationship with one another.

Koinonia is the fellowship that we have with the Trinity that needs to be practiced with other believers. An exclusive personal relationship with God is foreign to New Testament Christianity. While it might be foreign to the New Testament, it’s quite common in many churches. Author and pastor, Tod Bolsinger, heard this individualistic message while growing up. He writes,

What most of us heard in those kinds of messages is that we can have a personal and private relationship with Christ. I remember the youth leader giving an invitation and saying, “There is nothing to join, you don’t have to be a church member. It’s just about having a relationship with Jesus.” And I wanted that. Not church, but Jesus. Shortly after I committed my life to following Christ, I bought a T-shirt that said “JC and me.” It was a not-so-subtle way of sharing my faith, and it described my new-found belief perfectly. This wasn’t my parents’ religion, this wasn’t about tradition or ritual, it was about “JC and me”—a sentiment that always sounds good until you start reading the Bible.[i]

Notice the last part of Bolsinger’s words, “a sentiment that always sounds good until you start reading the Bible.” What might sound cool in an individualistic culture is very foreign to a biblical view of community. Too often we’ve acted like we don’t need the church.

There’s even a movement today that says, “Love Jesus; hate the church.” I think I understand the movement’s motivation to win back people who have been turned off by a carnal church. Yet, their motto repulses me every time I hear it because we need to love the Church, in spite of her shortcomings. God chose the Church to make disciples. Christ’s precious bride is God’s instrument to help believers grow in their sanctification. We are saved by Jesus but then molded through community in his Church to become Christ’s disciples.

The larger gathering that most of us have come to experience on Sunday morning doesn’t facilitate community as does a small group of three to fifteen people. While both are needed, the power of the small group is to bolster and strengthen community and help each person develop relationships. The cell provides a smaller accountability structure that allows deeper relationships to develop.

Becoming Like God

Each person in the Trinity lives in perfect harmony with the other two. God is not a lone ranger but relates in a group. And since God’s plan is to make us like himself (Romans 8:29), his goal is to mold and transform us through others. Rodney Clapp writes, “We are made in the image of a Trinitarian, communal God. We depend on others to be born, to survive, to be buried and remembered. We live and have our being in community, however, attenuated it may become.”[ii] It might be alien to individualistic cultures but God, the Trinity, desires to mold and shape us to conform to his Trinitarian nature.

When Jesus was on earth he was constantly telling his disciples about the unity he had with the Father and the Spirit. He also asked them to demonstrate that same love and unity so that the world might believe. He said to his Father, “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:21-22).

God’s plan for the Church is clear in Christ’s prayer. He desires the Church to live in unity and walk in love, so that others might trust in him and believe the message. Richard Meyers, researcher on Christian community, writes, “God not only enjoys community, models community, and builds community, but also God commands community.”[iii] God models the community he wants us to follow. As we understand who he is and the love that comes from the Trinity, we will allow him to make us relational disciples.

Small groups help in the discipleship process of becoming like the Trinity by helping members to take off their masks and enter into each other’s lives, while allowing love to rule. If a church is only meeting in the larger gathering, it’s easier for people to remain superficial and leave in anonymity.

It is difficult to remain isolated in a cell group setting. Last night at my own men’s life group, we didn’t have a perfect experience. In fact, it was messy. Certain ones talked too much. Others talked too little. But the beauty of the group was the interaction we experienced as members of the body of Christ. We shared life together. I had a burden on my heart and needed counsel, so I brought it up to the rest of the group. I went away with new wisdom about the situation. They continue to hold me accountable. I grew as a disciple and will continue to mature as I walk with these brothers. I’m amazed how much I grow in the cell environment through honest and open sharing.

Have you noticed how many times the Bible tells us to be involved in each other’s lives? In fact, the phrase one another appears one hundred times in the New Testament and fifty-eight of those occurrences have to do with relationships between believers and how to cultivate those relationships. Some of the more popular ones are:

  • “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34-35).
  • “Forgive as the Lord forgave you” (Colossians 3:13).
  • “Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing” (1 Thessalonians 5:11).
  • “Be kind and compassionate to one another” (Ephesians 4:32).
  • “Be devoted to one another in brotherly love” (Romans 12:10) [The word devoted might be translated “kindly affectionate.” Paul had the devotion of a family in mind].
  • “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21).
  • “Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective” (James 5:16).

There are many, many more. Small groups are the atmosphere in which the early believers were shaped and molded to practice these one-anothers, and it’s still the best way to practice them today. Stephen Macchia, founding president of Leadership Transformation, writes, “The healthy disciple understands that the ‘one anothers’ are not optional for the Christian life. They are community-building mandates from God to his people. His longing is for us to live in such vibrant Christian community that we can’t help but shine brightly in juxtaposition to how others live in this world.”[iv]

Starting small groups does not guarantee community; it does, however, provide a conducive environment for spiritual relationships to be developed and for disciples to practice the one-anothers of scripture and to grow to be like the Trinity in the process. Larry Crabb, prolific author and psychologist, writes,

We were designed by our Trinitarian God (who is Himself a group of three persons in profound relationship with each other) to live in relationship. Without it, we die. It’s that simple. Without a community where we know, explore, discover, and touch one another, we experience isolation and despair that drive us in wrong directions that corrupt our efforts to live meaningfully and to love well.[v]

Most of us in the western world have difficulty with community. The good news is that the Trinity is the one who is molding us to become more like him as we relate to others. He is working through each member of his church to help us fulfill the one-anothers of scripture. I can just hear him cheering in the background, “Great job, Jim, you’re working through that conflict with Jake. Don’t run.” Or “Don’t stop attending the group, Tina, Linda needs to hear your story.”

It’s clear from scripture that Jesus asks us to be part of a group and that this is his vehicle for us to grow and develop as his disciples. We need the interaction with others to grow as believers. We need the interpersonal conflict that refines us and makes us more like Jesus. How will we respond to the interpersonal conflict? Will we become angry? Leave the group? Or work through the problem and become more like Jesus?

Molded in the Fire

The disciples were formed and shaped in community as they learned together, laughed together, and experienced conflict together. Jesus knew that his followers had to go deep enough to take off their masks and be known. One of them even showed his true colors of deceit and deception and eventually betrayed him. David Watson writes, “In open and frequent fellowship with other Christians we can be sure that we are being real in following Jesus, and not just playing religious games, however correct our theology may be. Christianity is all about relationships: with God and with others.”[vi]

Christ gathered twelve disciples and journeyed with them for three years to demonstrate and teach them about love and community. Their lives were molded and shaped together, and this fiery fashioning of character became the main component of their training. In reality, Jesus had a huge challenge to unite such a diverse group. He brought together disciples who were temperamental and easily offended. They often saw each other as competitors. It wasn’t easy for them to wash each other’s feet (John 13:14).

Someone once said, “It’s easy to find out if you love someone. Just get in a conflict and see what happens.” To truly love, you’ll have to overcome your hard feelings and ask God to help you practice the characteristics of love mentioned in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7:

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Those characteristics are best seen when the going gets tough. During my seminars I often get questions like, “What if I have someone in my group whom I don’t get along with? What should I do?” Or “What if there are problem people in the group?” My normal response is something like, “Of course, you’re going to have problem people in your group. Conflict in the group is normal. In fact, the conflict will make us more like Jesus. As we ask him for love and practice his forgiveness, we truly become his disciples.”

On another occasion I answered a question about the best way to organize cell groups to avoid conflict. I understood the question and realized the intent was whether it was okay to find the “favorite” or “preferred” group. While I don’t believe we should be forced to attend a particular group, I encouraged the asker to remember that “It’s not all about my favorite group,” or “hanging out with people I like.” I reminded him that we become more like Jesus as we ask God for the strength to love one another and walk through the fire with others.

Many cell churches organize their groups geographically, while others arrange them based on homogeneity. There’s no one way to do it. However, we do know that when members hop from group to group to avoid conflict, they’re not allowing the Trinity to conform them into his image.

We need to allow normal conflict to mold and shape us. We must embrace it. God is molding us to be like him and part of that crucible is loving people who are different from us. The goal is to become like Jesus, and we do that as we work through conflict, rather than running from it. Discipleship demands that we pass through the fire while asking the Trinity to mold us and shape us to be like him.

Conflict reveals the group’s hidden values, and assumptions that need to be examined. When people in the group know they can express both positive and negative feelings, their group experience will be genuine. New levels of understanding will flow as the group irons out differences. Someone said, “The group that fights together stays together.”

What’s the best way to deal with people in conflict? First, recognize the problem. Hiding it under a bush will only increase doubt among the members. Everyone knows it’s there, so why hide it. You might say to an angry member, “I sense you’re upset. We need to deal with this difference of opinion.” Conflict can’t be dealt with until it’s recognized and brought into the open.

Second, pray. You won’t solve the conflict without concerted prayer. You need to pray for wisdom and discernment.

Third, talk privately to the person with whom you are in conflict. I suggest you ask permission to start your conversation about a particular conflict. You might say, “Can I share something with you?” Then proceed to share with the person what’s on your heart. Or, “When you used sarcasm to put me down in front of the group, I felt hurt and offended.” As you work out your problems with those in your group, you’ll grow to become more like Jesus, because Jesus himself told us to talk directly to our brother when a conflict develops.

If the issue is between you and someone else in the group, it’s best to confront the person individually, using the Lord’s own pattern: “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over” (Matthew 18:15). If the problem is with the group itself, talk to the group. Remember that unresolved conflicts are liabilities. Few things undermine a group faster than when several members grow frustrated with one another.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer is a great example of someone who didn’t run from conflict. Rather, he ran into it. He chose to return to Germany in the midst of World War II, knowing full well the danger he faced. He could have stayed in America but choose, rather, to suffer with his fellow Germans. Bonhoeffer realized that the true, spiritual answer to the suffocating Nazi dictatorship was Christian community, where individuality and voluntary servanthood reigned. Even in the midst of godless obedience to Hitler, a believing Christian remnant came together to experience Trinitarian community. Bonhoeffer writes of this experience in Life Together: A Discussion of Christian Fellowship,

. . . the Christian needs another Christian. . . . He needs him again and again when he becomes discouraged, for by himself he cannot help himself without belying the truth. He needs his brother man as a bearer and proclaimer of the divine word of salvation. He needs his brother solely because of Jesus Christ. The Christ in his own heart is weaker than the Christ in the word of his brother; his own heart is uncertain, his brother´s is sure.[vii]

We need each other to become more like Jesus as we grow through the fire of conflict, rather than fleeing from it. Most people flee conflict, thinking it will be easier somewhere else. The truth, however, is that the grass is rarely greener on the other side. Problems have the way of cropping up in other forms and in other situations.

No Place Like Home

When a person feels the warmth of family love and security, healing flows more freely. I think of Tim, a new believer who entered our church doors directly from prison. His wife had already been attending with their children, and we waited with anticipation for the day that Tim would show up. That day came after about one year later. Tim was abused as a child and never felt loved or wanted by his parents. He was tossed around from home to home and from father to father.

Tim plugged into a cell group and his transformation took a long, long time. I remember the days right after his release from prison when his words and demeanor were very rough indeed. Yet, we’ve seen Tim transformed before our eyes. Although he had been in churches previously, he never had experienced the love of a family—brothers and sisters who were willing to talk directly and openly with him. Tim has testified on various occasions in the larger gathering that he never knew a true family until his experience in a cell group. Community has the power to change lives.

“The family of God” and “household of God” are both used in the New Testament to describe Christ’s church. These two terms are the principal church images of the New Testament. In writing to Timothy, Paul referred to the Church as the “household of God” (1 Timothy 3:15). He used the same language in writing to the Ephesian Christians (Ephesians 2:19). In Galatians 6:10, Paul changed the language slightly and referred to the church as the “household of faith.” Families care for one another. They work together. They watch out for each other. You might say, “They watch each other’s back.” They walk the long journey together because they are part of a community that will last forever. Gilbert Bilezikian says it well,

The biblical metaphor of “family” more appropriately describes what the church should resemble—a group of people, few enough in numbers to sit around in a circle, facing each other and sharing the joy and the benefits of togetherness. Every church that aspires to function as community must make a small group structure available to its constituency.[viii]

God chose the house churches to bolster the family image in scripture. The gospel first began to transform those in the home and then continued to flow through the extended family lines.

The concept of family meshes consistently with Christ’s command to make disciples. The family atmosphere is never an end in itself. Rather, a healthy family nurtures, protects, counsels, loves, tells the truth, and then sends out the sons and daughters to form new families. Parents who don’t prepare their children for the future don’t have their children’s best interest in mind. They are not making “healthy family members.”

Gerhard Lohfink, renowned New Testament scholar, writes, “Jesus did indeed demand of his disciples that they leave everything, but he did not call them into solitude and isolation. That is not the point of discipleship. He called them into a new family of brothers and sisters, itself a sign of the arriving kingdom.”[ix] I like the way Lohfink combines discipleship with God’s family. In reality, the image of the Church as God’s family and Christ’s call to disciple-making have the same intention in mind.

My wife and I desire that all three of our girls become responsible adults and eventually establish their own families. Of course, we will always love them and welcome them into our home. As family, they have the same rights as we do. When they were little children, we took care of them completely. Yet, we never wanted to make them dependent on us. We’ve always wanted them to go forth and become responsible, interdependent adults who are guiding their own lives and destinies.

David Jaramillo, pastor and psychologist, connects discipleship with family in a winsome way,

When I think of discipleship, the parent-child relationship comes to mind. In fact, the word “discipline” comes from the word “disciple,” which means “learner.” That is, it takes discipline to make disciples of our children. This is an ongoing process that begins at an early age and then changes as children grow and mature. In this regard, we (parents) are teachers and disciple-makers, primarily through our example, rather than our words.

When referring to Christian discipleship, we need to think in terms of relationship, rather than merely an equipping process. The discipleship relationship is best transmitted through the process of life-sharing that includes emotions, values, and experiences. For this to happen, we need to create a family atmosphere.

How do we do this? Family psychology tells us that every parent should be a nurturer and a disciplinarian. A great parent must spiritually and emotionally nourish children. And this nourishment should be given with words of affection, admiration, security, and the declaration of life, hope and blessing. Children must know that the parents are accessible and conscious of their spiritual and emotional needs. Great parenting also includes lots of “play” time. I’m referring to sharing informal settings where it’s possible to know and be known. Going to the park, having a picnic, or watching a movie are great examples of this informal “fun” atmosphere. These are ways to strengthen relationships and grow in everyday life.

Finally, great parenting should correct, and challenge attitudes so that the character of Christ shines through. This is only possible if parents have first won the hearts of their children. The only correction that makes a lasting impact is also accompanied by love (1 Corinthians 8:1).

I once heard that you have to raise children like disciples because they will grow and surpass their teacher. The reality is that children grow, leave home, but will always be impacted by the relationships with their parents. What kind of relationships do you have with your disciples?[x]

The Church as family fulfills God’s plan to make disciples and send them out to a lost and hurting world. Individual disciples must function as a community, the family of God.[xi]

Truth Telling in Community

Paul had Christian community in mind when he wrote to the house church in Ephesus, “Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work” (Ephesians 4:15-16). Supernatural healing takes place when wounded healers (those who have received God’s comfort) speak God’s truth to other group members in a humble, sensitive way. People need to first warm up to the small group before transformation happens. Wise leaders encourage group members to share honestly and to pray for one another to experience restoration and healing.

When Ted came to the cell group, everything appeared normal. After the lesson on forgiveness from 1 Peter 4:8, however, his need for transformation surfaced. He shared his deep resentment toward a pastor whom he felt had raped his daughter. Ted had been clinging to his bitterness toward this pastor, which left him joyless and enslaved. That night the word of God reached deep into his soul, and Ted realized he needed to be set free from his bitterness, both for his own sake and in order to please Jesus Christ. During the prayer time, Ted confessed his bitterness, and the group members prayed for him to experience inner transformation. Group members spoke into Ted’s life, sharing their own battles with unforgiveness and God’s supernatural healing. God began the process of freeing Ted that night from his bitterness and resentment, and he left the meeting filled with joy and peace.

The church is a hospital. Everyone has been hurt. No one escapes the pain of this world, and no one will experience complete healing until the next life. The best we can do is fulfill our roles as wounded healers, offering to others the same comfort that we also have received.

This is why I exhort leaders not to jump too quickly into Bible study. I encourage them to spend plenty of time on prayer requests, particular needs during the week, ice-breaker questions, or any other open-ended opportunity for people to share deeply, receive prayer, and allow other wounded healers to speak words of encouragement. We become disciples as we share in life’s journey and allow others to speak the truth in love. Larry Crabb affirms this truth saying,

Ordinary people have the power to change other people’s lives. . . the power is found in connection, that profound meeting when the truest part of one’s soul meets the emptiest recesses in another and finds something there, when life passes from one to the other. When that happens, the giver is left more full than before and the receiver less terrified, eventually eager, to experience even deeper, more mutual connection.[xii]

Ministering to ordinary hurting people through small group ministry was the driving force behind the eighteenth century Methodist movement that transformed England. John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, understood the need for group members to hold each other accountable through transparent sharing. Each small group member was expected to “speak freely and plainly about every subject for [from] their own temptations to plans for establishing a new cottage meeting or visiting the distressed.”[xiii]

Many believe that the Methodist small groups were instrumental in saving eighteenth century England from anarchy and disaster (drunkenness and lawlessness was at an all-time high in England immediately before the Methodist revival). The Methodist groups were not merely Bible studies, although Wesley encouraged all those around him to study the Bible and doctrine. Rather, the emphasis was on practicing the one-anothers of the scriptures and promoting holiness and spirituality through Christian community. Wesley wrote, “You wish to serve God and to go heaven? Remember that you cannot serve him alone. You must therefore find companions, or make them; the Bible knows nothing of solitary religion.”[xiv]

We in the twenty-first century church need to apply the lessons of community and discipleship that were the cornerstone to the Methodist revival in the eighteenth century. Wesley realized that people transformation happened in life-giving small groups. After all, Wesley didn’t originate the small group discipleship strategy. Jesus did.

[i] Tod E. Bolsinger, It Takes a Church to Raise a Christian (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2004), p. 71.

[ii] Rodney Clapp, A Peculiar People (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996), p. 194.

[iii] Richard C. Meyers, One Anothering, Volume 2 (Philadelphia, PA: Innisfree Press, 1999), p. 24.

[iv] Stephen A. Macchia, Becoming a Healthy Disciple (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2004), p. 96.

[v] As quoted in Randy Frazee, The Connecting Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), p. 13.

[vi][vi] David Watson, Called and Committed (Wheaton, IL: Harold Shaw Publishers, 1982), p. 30.

[vii] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together: A Discussion of Christian Fellowship (New York, NY: Harper & Row 1954), p. 23.

[viii] Bilezikian, Gilbert (2009-08-23). Community 101 (p. 54). Zondervan. Kindle edition.

[ix] Gerhard Lohfink, Jesus and Community (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1982), p. 42.

[x] David Jaramillo wrote these words on the Joel Comiskey Group blog on February 27, 2013 (www.joelcomiskeygroup.com/blog_2/)

[xi] Michael J. Wilkins, Following the Master (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1992), p. 247.

[xii] Larry Crabb, Connecting (Nashville: Word Publishing, 1997), p. 31.

[xiii] David Sheppard, Built As a City: God and the Urban World Today (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1974), p. 127.

[xiv] As quoted in Bruce L. Shelley, The Church: God’s People (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1978), p. 34.