Three Facts American Small Groups Can Learn From The Best Practices of Other Countries – Part 3: Guest Post by Ralph W. Neighbour

Ralph NeighbourToday is part three of a three-part series by guest blogger, Dr. +Ralph Neighbour. Please see Part 1 here. See Part 2 here. 




When we began to develop the Faith Community Baptist Church in Singapore, we threw away the traditional church calendar with all its programs. Our motto was, “This one thing we do!” With no apologies, we focused on equipping every home cell to become harvest-focused.
We began by calendaring three harvest events a year: Christmas, Easter, and August.
At Christmas, the harvest event was held for several nights in the 12,000 seat Indoor Stadium. On Good Friday, we had each home group share a lunch with a special focus on the death and resurrection of Christ. In August, we had a theatrical performance and created tickets for reserved seats. We learned over 5 years that the size of the harvest was about the same for each event.
Growth Cycles
Overseas cell churches in many nations have used versions of the calendar shown in the above diagram. It begins with the conversions in a Harvest Event, whom are gathered for a retreat lasting 1½ days for orientation. They are then placed in a home group I like to refer to as a “Christ Body” and are assigned to a “Young Man” (1 John 2:12-14) for mentoring in a Triad. Each Triad in the group is led by a spiritual “Father” and is helped to grasp basic core values. The next step is to help the converts overcome the strongholds through a second weekend retreat where the focus is on deliverance. Then a special period begins for the group: a third retreat launches preparation to cultivate in the households of new believers.  This can last for many weeks (at least seven). During this time the group meets to pray and plan for focusing on home visits, following Jesus’ mandate in Luke 10. After relationships have deepened between the group and the unreached, the group meetings follow even more intensely the pattern of 1 Cor. 14:24, ff.
Investigational Bible studies take place in personal discussions with seekers. This culminates in the next Harvest Event.
I have written an equipping track that is used for each part of this sequence. It is available in English at, but is also in Russian, Portuguese, Korean, Spanish, Chinese, etc. in other parts of the world.
In Singapore, we found that it took three cycles for the entire congregation to become acclimated to the schedule of the calendar. After 25 cycles (5 years), we had grown from 360 members to more than 7,000 in 700 home cells.
Dion Robert in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, has just celebrated his 40th year since planting his cell church. He now has 229,000 in the hundreds of churches that have been planted in more than two dozen nations. All use their own version of this cycle of Consolidation, Foundation, Penetration, and Cultivation.
Obviously the missing pieces in the American small group movement involve either weak or no focus on these areas. What can be done?


Three Facts American Small Groups Can Learn From The Best Practices of Other Countries – Part 2: Guest Post by Ralph W. Neighbour

Yesterday, we began a three-part series by guest blogger, Dr. +Ralph NeighbourPlease see that post before reading this one. 



“As you look around right now, wouldn’t you say that in about four months it will be time to harvest? Well, I’m telling you to open your eyes and take a good look at what’s right in front of you” (John 4:35).
The core values of overseas groups are:


  1. Every believer is a priest. A priest is a connecting link between Christ and a person who needs His presence.
  2. Every small group is a priesthood.
    They are to practice “prophesying” as defined in 1 Cor. 14:3 and 14:24, ff.
  3. Every small group has a special mission field that must be exposed to Christ.


I have observed that a universal contrast between American churches and overseas churches who have cell/small groups is their core values.
In America, small groups seem to exist as “holding tanks” for congregations who are not equipping, nor expecting, each member to be a priest empowered by Christ and to reveal Him in their communities. There is a fuzziness about the purpose of groups. Some are for “discipleship” or “Bible study” or to keep members “involved,” but few have an awareness that their primary task is to be used by Christ to harvest unbelievers.
Overseas, groups are formed on a conviction that all believers function as priests, that all groups contain Christ’s presence and power and that Christ dwells in His new body to draw all men to the Cross. He does this by energizing the body members to edify, exhort, and console one another. The observation of this by searching unbelievers reveals His presence, leading to repentance and salvation. Thus growth takes place as new believers are added to the groups.
There is a great sensitivity overseas to the responsibility of each believer to see his relatives and friends as a personal mission field, and the total of these persons connected to the group, as their “mission field.” Each group will list the total number of unbelievers and focus on how to jointly connect to them. Half nights of prayer for them are common. Group meetings will be planned to invite them as guests, where they are allowed to observe the members ministering spiritual gifts to one another. As the guests begin to share their own burdens, they are embraced in love as they surrender to Christ’s Lordship.
Thus, the stark contrast between American groups and overseas groups is the intentional ministry of the second group. They see themselves as vessels containing the Godhead, accepting the responsibility of exposing Him to guests by manifesting ministry gifts to one another.
Spending at least equal time being in the households of the unbelievers as spent in group meetings will take place in certain seasons of the group’s calendar, leading to a harvest point for the entire congregation. 
This is the third fact we shall discuss in Part 3, tomorrow.


Three Facts American Small Groups Can Learn From The Best Practices of Other Countries – Part 1: Guest Post by Ralph W. Neighbour

Over the years, I’ve had the privilege to partner with this week’s guest blogger in many different ways. I edited his book, Christ’s Basic Bodies, written and led training seminars for the ministry he founded (TOUCH Outreach Ministries), and interviewed him for my blog and other writing projects. Neighbour is one of the pioneers of the groups movement in America and around the world. See my video interview with him here

Here’s what I love about this man: He will challenge you, if you let him, in your suppositions about small group ministry, community, discipleship, the church, and in many other areas. You may not agree with everything he says, but I encourage you to pay attention, because if you do, I believe you can become a better ambassador for God. 

May I challenge you over the next three days? Set aside any preconceived notions you may have about small group ministry. Just soak in what Dr. Neighbour has to say and learn from his experiences, especially those he has learned from the church in other countries around the world. 

GUEST POST by +Ralph Neighbour. Follow him on Twitter at @RalphNeighbour or on his blog at




For 45 years I have lived and traveled the nations of the world consulting for Cell Group churches. I have spent 8 years in Singapore and have spent considerable times in South Africa, Brazil, and the Ukraine. I have worked in Switzerland, England, Indonesia, Hong Kong, Korea, Russia, Ivory Coast, Zambia, Canada, Mexico, Argentina, Korea, China, New Zealand, Australia, Thailand, Viet Nam, Germany, France, Holland, Belgium, Spain, and the Canary Islands.
I have been asked by Mike to share the three most important things American small groups can learn from what God is doing on our generation outside this nation. This is my parting shot to my fellow Americans. I confess to a total cynicism that it will have much impact. We are, as one lady from Pennsylvania said to me, “God’s Spoiled Brats.”
We have merchandised our faith so Mammon is equally worshiped along with our faith in God. Please understand my bias before reading further.
In place of the American focus on fellowship, the overseas movement focuses on followship. There is an awareness that Christ has been incarnated in His new body, one necessary for the present assignment of the Son. In the final prayer of Jesus before He was crucified, He discussed His new Body with His Father. He knew the body of Jesus limited his physical presence. It was sufficient for the first tasks assigned when He came to live among men. In Jesus’ body he could demonstrate the supernatural evidences of the Kingdom of God. It was expressed through miracles, not words. In that body He would become the Lamb slain for the sin of mankind. At the end, He could cry, “It is finished!”
But He knew there was a new task the Father had planned for him before time began. He defined it when He said “When I am lifted up, I will draw all the world to me.”
His new body would transport Him to small groups of people. Each new believer would attach him to a small group of relatives, friends, neighbors. As this group observed the believer’s new life, He would be their light, the light of the world
His new body would be formed by as few as two people (Matt. 18:20), He would be in their midst revealing Himself when they entered a household to spend time with the family (Luke 10). They would not reveal Him by doing good works but by manifesting His presence and power. They would heal, cleanse, deliver, comfort as He empowered them to prophesy (1 Cor. 14:3).  His new assignment was not for the group to study Him, or explain Him, but to reveal Him by being priests revealing His indwelling presence.
The body could be as small as a gathering of body members gathering as hands, feet, inward parts. We see them assembled in 1 Cor. 14:24ff.
To be continued tomorrow. Read Part 2: Overseas Bodies of Christ Have Harvest Fields.


Our Move to House Church—What We’ve Learned So Far

GUEST POST by Randall Neighbour,

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In my last blog entry (click here to read) I shared that my wife and I felt led by God to start a house church with hopes it would grow into a network of house churches who have mid-week cell groups.

What have we learned in the last four years about starting a house church? Enough to fill a book. However, no one seems to read books any longer so here I am on a friend’s blog bearing my soul in 550 words or less…

  • House Church is purposely held on Sunday mornings to compete with other church attendance. If you’re a part of us it’s because God has called you to be a part of us and not another church.
  • Our House Church has a motto: No buildings or salaries. Our tithes and offerings are given to those in need in our community and abroad.
  • I do not prepare a sermon because I work a regular job. I do get up early Sunday morning and study the next 2-3 chapters of a book of the Bible we’re working through. I use online resources from trusted theological sources. Someone reads a few verses, I make comments that make me look brilliant or admittedly ignorant, invite others to do the same, and we move on. You’d be surprised how refreshing this is and just how similar it is to early church in the book of Acts!
  • No agenda is set in stone in House Church. Sure, we typically gather for about 90 minutes of prayer, Bible study, and personal application. Three weeks ago I asked everyone if we should ax the Bible study and go eat tacos for breakfast and talk about our challenging week. I wasn’t in the mood for Bible study anyway and I told them as much (which they appreciated).
  • At our House Church, everyone knows that they’ll one day “grow up and move out of this house and start a house church of their own” because I brainwash them with this statement regularly.
  • At House Church we meet with members individually and challenge them to grab a spoon and become a spiritual child (1 Jn. 2:12-14) and not remain an infant who refuses feed themselves. Then we challenge them to get set free from satanic strongholds and all the while, share Christ in a way that helps them become a spiritual father or mother.
  • Etna and I pray for our House Church members daily and in great detail. This kind of air support from a pastor is hard to find in a larger church.
  • We held our first half night of prayer (on a Saturday night) and everyone was surprised how fast the evening went by and asked for more to be scheduled.
  • We often eat lunch together at the house or at a nearby inexpensive restaurant after House Church.
  • The House Church’s success or failure is God’s responsibility. We’re being obedient to Him and doing our best.
  • The House Church model doesn’t tolerate consumerism and there’s no place to safely hide and not serve and humbly ask to be served.
  • One of our members has spontaneously started a cell group in his home mid-week and is inviting people who probably won’t come to our House Church. We are delighted by this and hope he starts a House Church sooner than later. Yes, we’ll train him on leadership skills but we love the fact that he dove into the deep end of the pool without swimming lessons… he’s no consumer Christian!
  • No one is bored in House Church. Frankly, going to a building on Sunday and sitting with hundreds of people to listen to a sermon is boring to me and everyone in our House Church. If we’re not interacting with others through the Word, we’re not learning enough of it for it to be transformational.

Do you have more questions for me? Ask them below and I’ll answer in detail. Go!

Is Your Group System Like a Baby or a Loaf of Bread?

What Giving up Control Taught Me about Effective Group Ministry

GUEST POST by Allen White:

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I hear a lot of pastors debate the need for a quality experience at the expense of connecting and growing the vast majority of their congregations and their communities into their group system. I also hear the reverse of this, which is, in order to embrace a large quantity of groups, then quality must somehow be sacrificed.

We approach ministry as if we have all the time in the world. Somehow we think our people will live forever, and so will the people our people need to reach for Christ. But let’s be honest, we don’t have the luxury of time.

The apostle Paul didn’t have the luxury of time either. Reviewing his journeys in the book of Acts, Paul never spent more than 6-18 months in any one location, yet in his quest to spread the gospel throughout the known world and to reach Spain, he put leaders in place everywhere he planted a church and then gave them the crash course on ministry. We would call this “quick and dirty” before we would call it “quality.” Paul gave them their marching orders and then basically instructed them, “Do the best you can. The Holy Spirit will guide you. If you run into trouble, then send me a letter.” Then, Paul was off to the next place.

In living with the tension between the quality and quantity of ministry, I want you to consider these words from Peter Drucker on the Profession of Management:

There are two different kinds of compromise. One is expressed in an old proverb, “Half a loaf of bread is better than no bread.” The other, in the story of the judgment of Solomon, is clearly based on the realization that “half a baby is worse than no baby at all.” In the first instance, the boundary conditions are still being satisfied. The purpose of bread is to provide food, and half a loaf is still food. Half a baby, however, does not satisfy the boundary conditions. For half a baby is not half of a living and growing child.

It is a waste of time to worry about what will be acceptable and what a decision maker should or should not say so as not to evoke resistance…. In other words, the decision maker gains nothing by starting out with the question, “What is acceptable?” For in the process of answering it, he or she usually gives away the important things and loses any chance to come up with an effective—let alone the right—answer.

In retelling this story, my friend and mentor, Carl George once asked this question, which changed the course of my thinking about small group ministry: “Are your groups more like a baby or a loaf of bread? Because if it’s like a baby, then half a baby won’t do. You want a perfect baby. But, if it’s more like a loaf of bread and you’re starving, any amount of bread will help to alleviate the hunger.”

In managing the tension between quality and quantity, we must figure out a way to embrace the “Genius of the And,” as coined by Jim Collins in Built to Last. This isn’t an either-or circumstance, in that, if there is no quantity, then quality doesn’t actually matter. The question is whether the limitation on the quantity is a matter of necessity or a personal need for control.

As I wrestled with this tension when I was first introduced to the idea of rapidly expanding group system, I pleaded with God, “But, I need quality control.”

God called me on it. He spoke to me and said, “Allen, when you say ‘quality control,’ quality is your excuse.”

God doesn’t go easy on me. But, I got the point, and moved forward.

What do you think?


This post is excerpted from the first chapter of Allen’s upcoming book, Exponential Groups: Moving Beyond Your Limits. To download the entire first chapter, click here: Download Allen’s Free ebook: Exponential Groups.

What Are the Best Methods and Models for Small Group Ministry?

As a coach and consultant, I’m often asked to talk about the right methods to achieve the goals and mission that the church wants to accomplish. Sometimes the questions sound more sanctified, as I’m asked about the most biblical methods. Other times the discussion forms around models, usually relating to the ones certain successful churches use.

Methods and models often become sacred cows we trust to get results, as if Jesus said, “Those ministries that utilize the best models will bear much fruit. Apart from the correct methods, you can do nothing.”

I suppose it’s easier that way. Just give me a method or at least a good model, and I can implement it. Three simple steps and voila, paydirt. Methods and models don’t take a lot of work and can be implemented quickly. Beginning with mission and culture takes time.

However, the Bible rarely if ever provides one specific method for worship, evangelism, discipleship, community, or anything else of importance.

I was reading Psalm 150 and was struck by all the various ways listed for how and what instruments we can use to worship God. Some commentators imagine a symphony orchestra in this psalm; all these instruments are playing together and people are dancing. I see it more as a list of choices God gives us.

Praise the Lord!
Praise God in his sanctuary;
praise him in his mighty heaven!
Praise him for his mighty works;
praise his unequaled greatness!
Praise him with a blast of the ram’s horn;
praise him with the lyre and harp!
Praise him with the tambourine and dancing;
praise him with strings and flutes!
Praise him with a clash of cymbals;
praise him with loud clanging cymbals (vv. 1-5, NLT).

Note that the passage doesn’t even tell us where to worship. It might be in the “sanctuary” or a church building; or it could be outside under the open sky or under the heavens (cf. John 4:21-24).

The main point: “Let everything that breathes sing praises to the Lord! Praise the Lord!” (v. 6). Praise the Lord is the value. How we praise him is up to us.

When we try to twist (proof text) the Bible to fit into our preconceived notions of where or how we are to do (or not do) “church,” we not only miss the point, but make our faith confusing for people. We also add to God’s Word in direct violation of the Scriptures.

God gives us freedom in methodology. The values and the principles are what are most important.

Last Saturday I had breakfast with two church leaders who are planning their small group ministry strategies for the fall and the next several years. I began by asking them a lot of context questions about their church so I’d have a good idea of the culture there. At first they talked about campaigns, different “types” of groups, and adding people into groups. That’s all good stuff, but those tactics come way down the line in the strategic planning process.

We would then go back to discussing vision, mission, and purpose. The big question: What’s the purpose of groups at the church? After that: What would your senior minister and elders say is the purpose of small groups? How about your group leaders? Group members? Do those match up?

Then we discussed the culture of the church. Like anything else, small groups must work within the culture of your church. That’s why I believe using some other church’s methods and models is foolish. Those things work in their culture. Sometimes they worked in their culture several years ago when they wrote that book or made that video, but as with all things in life, people and cultures change. So figure out your culture and then design your “model” to work with it now. Keep it flexible so that as things change, so can your methodologies. That takes real leadership!

Let’s say your church culture is not as conducive as you’d like for a life-changing small group ministry there. It’s OK. Start slow and develop one, then two, then four, and then more healthy groups. Over time and with much prayer, you may be able to change the culture to become, for instance, more community-focused or more missional in nature. That takes prayer, patience, God’s presence and power, and a commitment to his purposes.

Once the vision, mission, purposes, and culture are known, the strategies, plans, and tactics (the methods) become clearer.

Keep praying. Keep trusting God. And then you can praise the Lord for his mighty works!


Top 10 Small Group Ministry Launch Failures

More Rethinking Our Small Group Model … Going Deeper

In Alan Danielson’s blog post today, he discusses “the most overrated church comment.” What is that comment? “I want to go deeper.” I totally agree, and I’d add a second, related comment: “I need to be fed.” I’ve heard both comments quite a bit. (People have even left our church and other churches, making these comments as they left.) Both comments illustrate a couple concerns in our churches: (1) consumerism and (2) a misunderstanding of spiritual maturity / discipleship.

Consumerism is a blight in our churches that emanates from our culture but really comes straight from the pits of hell. When the Enemy is able to get the church to think like consumers rather than as functioning members of the body of Christ who look not only to their own interests but also the interests of others, then he has destroyed authentic Bible community and the subsequent spiritual growth that happens in that community.

A misunderstanding of discipleship also leads the church to a very unhealthy condition which can hamstring its effectiveness. As Alan says in his blog, “I want to go deeper” usually means “Bible study” and, he says, “it reflects a person’s desire to be thought of as pious or spiritual.” Alan then gives three more accurate ways of viewing what it means to go deeper:

  1. Going deeper into my commitment to God’s Church
  2. Going deeper into my commitment to the world
  3. Going deeper into my commitment to being mastered by Christ

(Read Alan’s blog for more details on these.)

As I commented on Alan’s blog, I think this is another important element in (re)defining what discipleship in small groups means. The early church was committed to these three values, which caused them to make a huge impact on their world.

The greatest discipler ever was Jesus. He discipled his small group as he ministered to the world in the context of a community committed to one another. He taught them Biblical principles as they were ministering or in a debriefing shortly after ministry opportunities. My question: how can we do that today?

I have more to say on this topic, but I’ll save it for a separate post. Stay tuned!

Continuing to Rethink Our Small Group Model … Where Do Groups Meet?

In my last post I discussed “Rethinking Our Small Group Model.” A couple small group architects, Alan Danielson and Ben Reed posted some intriguing comments, which inspired another blog post.

Basically, Alan said that if Jesus’ group met in America today, they’d meet in a variety of places outside church buildings and homes. Ben responded that homes would be a primary place although not the only place Jesus’ group would meet. Ben thought that meeting in more public places might feel awkward and look “showy.”

Seems to me place was simply irrelevant for Jesus and his group. They met everywhere: synagogues, streets, homes, beside a well, fields, gardens, cemeteries, mountainsides, lakesides, seashores, boats … everywhere they went. The gospels give the impression that they were constantly on the move. They made disciples and carried out their ministry “as they went.”

The early church did much the same. Their mission (and ours) was to “make disciples as you go …” And the gospel message spread as they did so. Yes, the home was a focal meeting place for the early church. Max Lucado wrote about this in his book, Outlive Your Life: You Were Made to Make a Difference. In his “UpWords” devotional titled “Open Your Door, Open Your Heart,” Lucado says the home was used as a valuable tool for sharing the gospel and making disciples, but it was not the only tool or only place they met.

For many small groups today, “location is everything.” For Jesus, relationships were everything, wherever they happened to be. The location of their ministry was determined by the leading of the Father and the needs of the people. The focus for them and the Christ-followers in the early church was not on meetings, but on ministry. The environment Jesus used for discipleship was not a living room or a classroom, but life itself. And life itself was focused on serving and sharing the Good News.

My big question is: How do we do that today–in the culture in which we find ourselves? Is the current small group paradigm of meeting weekly for 90 minutes in a circle somewhere the best model for sharing the Good News, making disciples? I’m not sure it is, and if it isn’t, then what is?

Rethinking Our Small Group Model

What is “authentic biblical community”?

It’s within the environment of authentic biblical community that disciples are made and we live out our faith. But what does that look like for us today? Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about what a model for discipleship should look like today, and truthfully, I have more questions than answers. I began writing about this last week in my blog I titled “What If Everything We’ve Always Believed About Small Groups Was Wrong?”

It seems others are thinking about this as well. Alan Danielson blogged about the “First Small Group Gathering Ever.” I love the way he poses this:

What is your small group doing to have an exploding reputation in the community? Are you meeting safely inside a home or church building, insulated from the rest of the world? Or are you doing life together in public, so that evangelistic ministry opportunities can be seized? Does your small group look look like Jesus’ small group, or does it look like something different? I’m just asking.

Hmm. I wonder, Is it even possible in today’s culture for our small groups to look like Jesus’ small group? If you say no, why not, and then what should they look like? If you say yes, then how?

I’ve read other blogs dealing with the same questions Alan and I are asking, and I’ll share some of those in a future post. But I want to keep asking and thinking about this and I’d love to hear some of your thoughts, so please respond!

What if Everything We’ve Always Believed About Small Groups Was Wrong?

What if everything we’ve always believed about small groups was wrong?

What if we have it all backwards?

What if the model for discipleship is actually something other than sitting in a circle, answering an icebreaker, studying the Bible (hook, book, look, and took) or watching a DVD, and taking prayer requests?

What if we were to go and make disciples (or, more accurately, make disciples as we go) in community rather than meeting in someone’s living room?

What if we were to teach people to obey everything Jesus commanded us, rather than just teaching them curriculum material?

What if our model looked more like Jesus’ (ministering first and then debriefing, taking advantage of teachable moments to learn)?

Just wondering. What do you think?