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Developing a Healthy Anglican Cell Movement

By Steven Croft.

What is 'Cell-Church'

A steadily increasing number of churches in the United Kingdom have been exploring cell-church ideas through the last five years or so. The cell church movement is a worldwide phenomenon emphasising again the role of small groups within church life and focusing on the development of mission, and especially evangelism, within those groups. The main guru of the movement in its predominant form is Ralph Neighbour, an American who has worked with churches in both the United States and South East Asia. Networking of churches interested in cell based structures is being done in Britain by World Youth With a Mission in Harpendon and Anglican Church Planting Initiatives. The Church Army Institute for Evangelism and Church Planting in Sheffield are compiling a resource library of materials.

The following article is based on an address given at a recent day conference of Anglicans engaging with cell-church issues and models and attempts to outline both good things in the cell-church movement and things we may need to be more careful about. I have kept the particular Anglican focus of the original address in the hope that others who are not Anglican will nevertheless find things that are relevant to their own situation.

1. An Affirmation of Cell Church Thinking and Practice

The cell church contains much that is vital and good news for the Church of England. After my 5 years engagement with it as a practitioner and thinker I am still finding new things. These have emerged as the most important elements, but it's not meant to be an exhaustive list.

A Way Of Building Community

Both inside and outside the church I find the whole cell church movement gives me the insight in that and the tools to build community, a task which is vital both for the church and for society. The break down of community particularly from inner city areas to villages is acute. People don't know how to make relationships anymore or how to form communities. Cell church thinking is giving us some of the tools to do that.

A New Way Of Seeing Church

The cell church movement has helped me to have a fundamental paradigm shift to see the church through a new pair of spectacles; to see my place within the church as a member and a minister in a completely different way. That new perspective has been personally very liberating and has restored some of my humanity. I no longer as a minister felt solely responsible for personal care of the whole of the congregation of which I was part. I now think that responsibility is much better shared by the body of Christ. The cell church movement is enabling the members of the church to be the church: helping us to devolve many of the things that have become concentrated and focused on the ordained ministry onto the body of Christ.

Tools For Sustaining Leaders

The cell church movement has taught me how to equip and sustain leaders in a way. I have always known that was important but nobody had given me the tools to do it and I had not been able to discover them by myself.

Potential In Many Different Contexts

Finally, the cell church movement has helped me see potential for development and growth in many different situations. I believe its flexibility and wide application is one of its most significant features. Both in very large churches and in very tiny churches; from a rural context to the inner cities there is so much we can learn.

2. Cell Church and the Church of England

The Context Of Our History: A New Emphasis

But how does the cell church movement fit in with a way of being church which is truly Anglican? First, there is for me a tremendous excitement and challenge as I look historically at the Church of England and at this new emphasis on small groups. In Anglican terms, certainly until the last generation, here is something that is genuinely new to our tradition. Small groups have never played a significant part within the Anglican church until the house group movement of the last twenty five years and now the cell church movement. We do not have this element in our inheritance at all as Anglicans. We have not had that wing1 of the church's life since the Reformation.2

To set that in context, other denominations working in the UK have had an inheritance of small groups as part of their life: the Methodist church with the class system at the centre of early Methodism; Baptist churches; and some of the Puritan tradition. All of these have had small groups and some sense of accountability to one another. To that degree the cell church movement is more radical for the Church of England than most of the other things we have engaged in this century.

Finally, it is because cell church is so new, so radical and so important for the Church of England that we need to take the time and the trouble to look at it calmly and objectively; to be aware of some of the cautions and lessons learned elsewhere; to listen to the potential dangers as well as heed the good things. Unless we do this, cell church ideas won't penetrate all of the Church of England. It will become the preserve of a small number of enthusiasts but it will be dismissed by the main body of our church unless we engage honestly with the difficulties as well as with the blessings.

The Context Of Our Searching: A Genuine Development

So cell church presents an excitement and a challenge and is something new. On the other hand, however, it represents a genuine development as well, and to some extent an answer to questions which the Church of England has been asking throughout the last twenty five years.

  • In this last generation the Anglican church has recovered its sense of lay ministry and every member ministry and here is something, in the cell church movement, which enables that to be developed much more fully within the life of a congregation.
  • We have recovered our sense of what the Holy Spirit is doing in the life of the church through charismatic renewal and other streams of renewal. Here is something which allows all those insights of the life of the Spirit to be translated into the life of the small community and the exercise of every member ministry and of spiritual gifts.
  • We have recovered a new concern in the Church of England just in the last 15 years for the church in the inner city and in the countryside and here are insights which actually provide a way forward, in both contexts.
  • We have been searching for ways to nurture adults in faith over the last generation, particularly this decade. Here are structures which enable that to take place.
  • We are searching for ways of growing congregations. Here are structures which meet that need.
  • We are thinking about the role of the ordained clergy. There is thinking about clergy deployment and their changing role going on in every diocese. Here is something that also addresses those issues.

So in one sense it is new. In another sense what is happening here is arising out of very genuine questions posed by our changing context in society to which we have not had clear direction or answers. We have some of these in the cell church movement. But that in turn means that we should see this movement as a very important catalyst to enable us to see the way forward and to change from within but not as a model that we should adopt uncritically. The cell church movement can be more than a model. It can become a stimulus to change.

3. Dangerpoints and Questionmarks

We now move on to five areas where I want to question the cell church movement or point out dangers of importing or adopting uncritically a model within Anglican structures, and five corresponding elements which are therefore important in developing a healthy Anglican cell church movement. Two of these are general dangers which I think I would make of many new movements. Three of them are specific to the cell church movement as it is now emerging.


The first danger which is a general one is that of overemphasis. It is very easy to go from no engagement with small groups and small communities to over engagement. To tip the balance is a classical response, and a very typical human response when we are looking for a simple solution to a very complex set of problems. We face a complex set of challenges as a church, there is no one simple solution to them all. I don't believe we should claim that "This is It!".

There is a big difference between saying on the one hand: "Here in the cell church movement we have things that are helpful and necessary for our thinking about church and small groups within the Church. We need to move in this direction and engage gradually with what is happening"; and, on the other: "This is the answer in this way to all the Church's problems and needs either locally or nationally and institutionally". Different again, and even more dangerous, is the move to saying: "This is God's answer to all the Church's problems and needs". I have very much valued one of John Wimber's sayings that for leaders in the church "the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing". The main thing is not the structures or ways of being church, however good they are. The main person is Christ and the church is the bride of Christ. Let's be enthusiastic and passionate about Christ and about the Church. Structures of church life are necessary but not, in the last analysis, important.

Uncritical Transfer

If the first danger is over emphasis the second danger I would want to point you to I would call uncritical transfer into our Anglican context of things we might not agree with and values we might not want to hold. These values may not be compatible with our deeper Anglican identity which we want to preserve.3 If we follow the Neighbour model we may be transferring a very, very conservative approach to Scripture into our nurture and into our teaching of new believers. There will be many people who say: "No problem. I actually hold a conservative view of Scripture". Others will, rightly, say "I don't want to import such a conservative view of Scripture into the teaching and nurture that I am engaged in. As a Christian of a different tradition and as an Anglican, with integrity, my view of Scripture is a different one. I want to teach a view of Scripture that I believe fits best with this generation and with the other identity of the church to which I belong". There is a danger of transferring one with the other.

I would caution any church to pay very careful attention to the nurture material that you use and check them out theologically and rigorously. The nurture materials that you use to build the foundation of a church with themselves will provide the theological values that shape that church, over time. Don't buy them off the peg uncritically or just because everyone else is using them. Ask any evangelism and nurture materials hard questions. Are you happy with what those materials are saying about the Scriptures, about the Sacraments, about the Church, about the place of belonging, about all those fundamental issues? If you have a generation of people coming to faith and using a particular set of nurture materials then that will be what they believe. Those are the foundations that you are laying.

I am hesitant therefore about buying in packages from outside. Am I importing something about the sacraments and about the communion service which is not arising out of my tradition which is coming with something else? Am I importing something about authority and about church government which is coming in with a cultural attachment to this set of material?

A tendency to be too programmatic

I come on now to three specific areas of concern about the cell church movement. I owe a debt here to criticisms first made by Robert Warren after a day in Halifax led by Ray Muller, who is a New Zealand church growth consultant. Robert wrote a response to the day in which he highlighted and flagged up for me a number of issues. Robert's pointers have stayed with me through the years and this point and the next arose originally from that correspondence.

The first anxiety is the tendency within the cell church movement, as I see it, to be programmatic. This may be a caricature, but cell church portrays itself as a path to rapid exponential growth by conversion; it lays down a single track for the growth and discipleship of a new believer; a single track for the growth and development of a group; and a standard expectation for the life and progress of all the groups within a particular church.

In my experience it is not like that and in my understanding of God and people there is endless diversity and difference and creativity. Part of our Anglican heritage is that of diversity. We have to learn to deal with individuals, churches and circumstances with discernment. Part of our challenge in dealing with small groups is not to match them to a predetermined track but to develop the skill to discern where each group is and to find out what would be most helpful as a way forward: much more like the spiritual direction of individuals. There are many good ways of nurturing and discipling new believers. Some actually help some people more than others. The cell church process for what happens in the life of a group is very helpful: it is excellent educationally; it is based on good group dynamics. But there are lots of other good ways to run groups as well and most groups will value having a range of different subjects and processes on their agenda and menu. Within the life of one church different groups will need freedom to develop in diverse ways along different time-scales. A programmatic approach to individual, group and church development will, over time, restrict what the Holy Spirit is able to do.

A reduced concept of mission

The second area of specific concern is the concept of mission within cell church. The strength of the movement is its devolution of responsibility for mission onto the life of the small group. I think that is vital for a healthy group and I think it is vital for the whole Kingdom of God and for the church that that happens. But one of the weaknesses in the classic cell model is that mission is reduced to evangelism. Evangelism is really important. But if mission is reduced to evangelism we miss out a whole lot of God's agenda for his world in terms of love and care which need to be given to every part of creation..

The relationship between Church and Parish

I welcome the shift in cell church and metachurch4 thinking away from geographical area towards networks of relationships. I think that is an essential shift. It mirrors the way our society has changed. People no longer relate geographically in most communities unless they are the elderly or parents at home with young children or, sometimes, the unemployed. Most of our meaningful networks are not geographical anymore. They are network based over a much wider area than a parish.

However, I do think that as an Anglican church in the way we are constituted and our basic identity, we need to retain an openness to the parish and the geographical location in which we are set and all the people in that area. I think that is a fundamental of our situation. It remains a legal responsibility for funerals, weddings and baptisms. We cannot escape it and nor should we want to. It is a God-given responsibility.

And Finally....

A lot of the old models of being church are no longer working. I attended a fascinating late night symposium earlier year at Spring Harvest on new ways of being church. The leader, someone of wide experience from the house church movement, reported that in his particular network people were trying all kinds of things, the only common factor was that there wasn't a common factor. What each person was having to do was to work it out in their own situation, the right way of being church and to seek God, which was hard work. We need new ways of being church - cell church is certainly one of those. We need to go on building but be true to our Anglican inheritance.

1. The reference here is to Bill Beckham's image of the 'two-winged church' (the wings being cell and celebration) in his book, The Second Reformation.   Return 2. If readers of this paper who know Church History better than I do can think of any examples I would be very glad to be told of them.   Return 3. One of my reflections following the day conference was that we really do need a more positive articulation of and teaching about the blessings and good things about Anglican identity. The reason we have been so open to every wind of change and fashion is because we are insecure in our own roots and traditions.   Return 4. 'Metachurch' is a term coined by Carl George for a church which is in the process of change towards being a small group based community (Carl George, Prepare Your Church For the Future, Revell, 1991).   Return

Steven Croft is Warden of Cranmer Hall, the Anglican theological college which forms part of St. John's College, Durham. From 1987-1996 he was Vicar of Ovenden in Halifax. He is a co-author of Emmaus: the Way of Faith and of Ministry in Three Dimensions: Leadership and Ordination in the Local Church, to be published by Darton, Longman and Todd in 1999.

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You are reading Developing a Healthy Anglican Cell Movement by Steven Croft, part of Issue 15 of Ministry Today, published in February 1999.

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