Small groups are not new in the church. Churches have used home Bible studies, fellowship groups, discipleship groups, task groups, recovery groups, missions groups, worship groups, care groups, leadership development groups, sports groups, and the like for decades. Any person who has faithfully attended church in the past will have been a part of at least one of these types of groups.
At one point in my journey with God, I was participating in seven different Christian small groups! My participation in these groups was good, but it was a mile wide and an inch deep. No one knew me. I was so busy going from Christian meeting to Christian meeting that I had no time to build relationships with the people in my groups. I was tremendously committed, but deep down I was hurting, lonely, and longing for someone to care for me.
Many churches provide good small group experiences for their members. Yet the small group members fail to experience biblical community. They only attend weekly meetings, waiting for the next week, at the next time, to relate to fellow group members.
One root problem of the small group experience I had as a member of seven groups was a division of my Christian life. I went to one group for Bible study, another group for discipleship, another group to minister to the lost, another for leadership development, and still another for fellowship. The different kinds of small groups divided up my walk with Christ into compartments. The focus lay on what I did or what I learned, not on who I was.
Cell groups look very similar to the small groups I used to attend: they are small, they meet informally, they have leaders, members discuss the Word, and they meet weekly. The one difference is that cell groups are holistic in nature. Christian Schwarz surveyed over 1,000 churches around the world to determine the factors that contribute to church health. He found eight church health factors, one of which is holistic small groups. He concludes, “If we were to identify any one principle as the ‘most important’-even though our research shows the interplay of all basic elements is important – then without a doubt it would be the multiplication of small groups…”* Holistic small groups (cell groups) provide a place where people connect to one another as fellow Christians and develop a sense of community and family. Schwarz writes:
Holistic small groups are the natural place for Christians to learn to serve others-both in and outside the group-with their spiritual gifts. The planned multiplication of small groups is made possible through the continual development of leaders as a by-product of the normal group life. The meaning of the term ‘discipleship’ becomes practical in the context of holistic small groups: the transfer of life, not rote learning of abstract concepts.**
Jim Egli has performed extensive research on what makes cell groups work. He has discovered four values that must flow through the group in order for it to fully work. These values are summarized in the words Upward, Inward, Outward, Forward (UIOF).***
These values flow out of the presence of Jesus as He empowers people to live out the values of His Kingdom. These are not values that people can force upon themselves. Remember that values flow out of principles, and if the principle is the presence of Christ, then without the presence of Christ there is no Upward, Inward, Outward, or Forward.
Jesus Himself summarized these four values:
Upward: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” (Matthew 22:38)
Inward: “Love your neighbor as your self.” (Matthew 22:39)
Outward: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations…” (Matthew 28:19)
Forward: “Teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you…” (Matthew 28:20)
The Upward value is the regular experience of God. Cell groups work when people encounter Him; they fail when group members simply go through religious motions, praying religious prayers. This kind of encounter with God is based on an authentic passion for Him, a desire to be with Him, and a yearning to share what He is doing with other people.
The Inward value is expressed by love for one another in the group, as group members make covenants with one another. They become committed to living in community together. I love the movie Forrest Gump. In one of the most memorable scenes, Private Gump runs out of a Vietnam jungle while bombs crash around him. When he gets to safety, he realizes that his friend Bubba is still in the jungle. Forrest runs back to find Bubba, and in doing so, he finds other wounded soldiers. He carries each one out to safety. On his last trip in, Forrest finds Bubba and carries him out, risking bombs, bullets, and berating from his lieutenant. The Inward value in cell groups is realized when cell members discover that they have a Forrest Gump or when they have an opportunity to be a Forrest Gump for someone else. This value begins in the cell meeting, but it extends outside the meeting because life happens outside official meetings, too. Without this commitment to community outside the meeting, relationships will be very weak, and the meetings will be artificial and stale.
The Outward value is found in groups that understand that they are on mission in this world. As you are going, make disciples. The command is to make disciples. It is the only imperative found in the entire commission (vv. 18-20). Our mission in the world is to perform as disciple-making disciples. As followers of Christ, we are to lead others to Christ.
The Forward value is seen when Christ’s followers are taught to obey all things Christ taught us. Unfortunately, the church has too long left the word obey out of this Scripture. Being taught information has been equated with obeying. Jesus just gave a command – make disciples – which, if ignored, becomes an immediate act of disobedience. A disciple who fails to produce disciples is not fully discipled. The entire Forward value centers on growing followers of Christ to be disciple-making disciples. Rather than focusing on training leaders to fill certain positions in the church, the focus should be on growing biblical disciples. This will naturally result in a multiplication of leaders.
Life together in holistic cell groups propels group members into the Great Commandment and the Great Commission. It produces spontaneous unity and a miraculous flow of the Spirit.
To help groups move into holistic cell groups, Jim Egli has developed a tool called Upward, Inward, Outward, Forward. Through a short seminary, this tool guides group leaders and group members to assess the current group experience of each of the four values. Then the trainer provides a brief overview of each of the four values. After the brief training on Upward, group leaders and group members work together to develop an Upward plan. After the training on Inward, they develop an Inward plan. The same for Outward and Forward. By the end of the training, the groups will have a written plan for moving into all four values.
* Christian Schwarz, Natural Church Development (Carol Stream, IL: ChurchSmart Resources, 1996), 33.
** Ibid., 32.
*** Jim Egli, Upward, Inward, Outward, Forward (Houston, TX: TOUCH Publications, 2000).