Dwell is a movement of about 200 house churches, which are grassroots groups that meet in someone’s home. Most cell-based churches in America today have a two-level structure. The large meetings are the corporate worship meetings, and the small meetings are the cell groups.
Cell groups, or small groups are usually six to 15 adults. Some churches have their small groups limited to believers only. Others welcome new people. But we have talked to a number of leaders who find themselves torn with this arrangement.
Some pastors worry their believer-only small groups will turn inward and lose interest in outreach. The small groups could become Bible clubs for Christians, or “holy huddles.” Others worry that because their small groups are always geared toward new people, there are no meetings in the life of their church devoted to discipleship and deep learning. Churches have trouble raising up good leaders when no meetings offer deep learning and accountability.
At Dwell, we have a three-level structure. We have our big meetings (Central Teachings or ‘CTs’) like other churches, although they are not worship services. We also have home churches, which are groups of 12 up to 60 adults. Home churches are open to non-Christian guests, and are really small communities.
Within each home church there are typically two or more cell groups. Our cell groups are usually four to 10 men or women, but not both. The men’s or women’s cell groups are typically for Christian believers only, and usually have a fairly aggressive study schedule. They usually share and pray for each other as well. These are groups devoted to discipleship (mentoring) and spiritual growth.
Thus, with our three-level structure, we have home group meetings devoted to sharing about God with people investigating Christianity, as well as some devoted to spiritual growth. For many groups, this means a third meeting each week or every other week. Other groups alternate the home church and the cell group meetings.
We find that our three-level structure addresses all the needs in the church in a way no two-level structure is likely to do. We have experimented with two-level approaches on several occasions, but the groups always seem to go back to three-level arrangements after a time.
All staff and elders are required to be in a home group. This is certainly not unique, but in our experience, it is relatively unusual. Particularly important to us is that our top leadership is fully involved and actually leading regular home churches.
When consulting with churches interested in building their home group networks, we often find the senior pastor and others aren’t in a home group for a variety of reasons, and have no intention of joining one. We find it unlikely that such churches will succeed in building high-caliber home-based community. For one thing, if the top leadership isn’t on board with the home fellowship agenda, how likely is it that the church will see this as a central issue?
People also will quickly draw the conclusion that community of this kind must not be essential for spiritual health, because what’s good for the goose is apparently not good for the gander.
We think it is important those on staff for pastoral counseling be leaders of home groups. This is because we have noticed a tendency in people involved in healing ministries to discount the importance of mission and leadership unless they are themselves vitally involved as leaders.
Finally, top leaders who aren’t involved weekly in personal discipleship and motivating a home group will not be drawing their illustrations and lessons from that experience set. We want our leaders to regularly relate what they are learning in their groups when teaching and speaking.
Leaders’ Lives Matter
We also believe the realities of group leadership and personal discipleship often bring to light the truth about Christian leaders’ lives. We have seen repeatedly that when a Christian leader begins to develop a personal spiritual problem, it comes to light first in that person’s home group.
Likewise, leaders who are drifting into negative territory spiritually are usually the first to begin to downplay the importance of home fellowship ministry, discipleship and personal evangelism. Large-group preaching can be ego-enhancing, but personal discipleship is quiet and obscure background work. That’s another reason we consider effective discipleship to be a prerequisite to public ministry.
Finally, we want our paid staff to live the same struggle the rest of our leaders do: balancing career, family and volunteer ministry.