During the 1970s I was involved in a youth ministry to the unchurched. One afternoon in 1978, I took a break from youth ministry duties in order to spend some extra time in prayer. I was startled when I heard the Lord speak to me through His still, small voice. “Are you willing to be involved in the underground church?” He asked. The words that I heard in my spirit were distinct, even piercing! Yet, at first I was baffled by what He was trying to tell me.
My mind raced immediately to the Berlin Wall, and the barbed wire fences that then surrounded the borders of many communist nations. I thought of the persecuted church meeting underground in nations that opposed the gospel. It still didn’t make sense, yet I knew I had to respond: I had heard the call of God. “Yes, Lord,” I replied as tears formed in my eyes. “I am willing.” I chose to obey, even though I didn’t understand what it all meant.
Soon after the Lord spoke to me about the underground church, I asked some of my Christian friends if they would be willing to meet with me each week for the purpose of enhancing our own spiritual growth. Two men responded. We began meeting every week for prayer, Bible study, encouragement and mutual accountability. Soon our living room was filled to capacity as this “cell group” grew and expanded. Eventually we multiplied into two groups as more people got saved and needed to be nurtured and taught the Word of God.
New Wineskins for the New Wine
Although we tried to get them involved, the new believers simply didn’t fit very well in the established churches in our community. It seemed clear that there was a need for new church structures enough to relate to converts from a variety of backgrounds. That’s why Jesus said we need to put new wine in new wineskins. “Nor do they put new wine into old wineskins, or else the wineskins break, the wine is spilled and the wineskins are ruined. But they put new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved” (Matthew 9:16-17).
So began our church’s adventure into cell groups. We discovered cell groups to be a place where people have the opportunity to experience and demonstrate a Christianity built on relationships, not simply on meetings. In the cell groups, people could more readily share their lives with each other and reach out with the healing love of Jesus to a broken world.
Cell Groups Are “Underground”
In time, I began to understand what the Lord had in mind when He asked me if I was willing to be involved in the underground church. An underground church can be compared to a tree: Its trunk, branches and leaves are only half of the picture. The unnoticed half, the underground root system, nourishes the whole tree and keeps it healthy.
The underground church, I began to realize, was to consist of believers gathered together through a structure of small cell groups meeting in homes to pray, evangelize and build relationships with one another. In this way, each believer is made an active and vital part of the body of Christ.
When every believer is nourished and healthy, the whole church is strong. As water and nutrients feed the tree by climbing up through the root system, so the church is nourished and strengthened by what happens in the “underground” (unseen) realm of church life—believers involved in home cell groups. These cell group relationships are not to be mere appendages of the church; in actuality, they are the church. Meeting together in homes and experiencing relationships in cell group life was just as important as meeting together each week in a larger gathering to worship and receive teaching from the Word of God.
When Jesus cursed the fig tree, nothing seemed to happen immediately; however, the following day the tree withered and died. Probably the roots underground had dried up and died instantly, but it took until the next day for the leaves to wither and die due to the lack of water that came up through the root system. The enemy seeks to destroy the church in the same way—from underground. But when the part of the church that is underground is strong, then the whole church will be strong and continue to grow.
Jesus ministered to the multitudes, but He spent most of His time with 12 men, His disciples. Cell groups give everyone an opportunity to get involved, a place where each person can begin using his or her spiritual gifts. The cell group is the place where he can receive training, instruction and encouragement as he reaches out to his friends and neighbors with the Good News of Jesus Christ.
The Lord commands us to follow His example. Whatever He has taught us, we are to teach to others. This can be quite effective through small group ministry. In practical Christianity it works the same way. The most effective way for me to teach a young husband how to love and honor his wife is for me to model loving and honoring my wife. The best way for you to teach another Christian how to have a clear financial budget is for you to show him how you set up a budget. If you believe the Lord has called you to teach a new Christian to pray, pray with him! We teach others by modeling biblical truths with our own lives. And it happens most effectively in a small group.
Paul, the apostle, took young Timothy with him as a disciple (Acts 16). Later, Timothy was sent out to do the same: take the truths that he learned from Paul and impart them to others (II Timothy 2:2). Moses had Joshua as his disciple for 40 years, preparing Joshua for leadership. Elijah found Elisha and became his mentor. The list goes on and on. The Lord is restoring the truth of balanced, loving discipleship to His church today. He has called us to make disciples in a small group setting.
Christianity is not just sitting in a pew each Sunday morning, looking at the back of someone’s head. Christianity is knowing Jesus intimately, reaching out to the lost and making disciples. This must be the motivation of our hearts in order to fulfill effectively the Lord’s purposes for us as believers in Jesus Christ. And our homes are ideal tools for fulfilling the purposes of God.