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.


Ralph W. Neighbour: What We Can Learn from this Pioneer in the Groups Movement

+Ralph Neighbour is one of the pioneers of the groups movement in the U.S. I believe we can learn much from men and women like him who paved the way for us. Dr. Neighbour has a heart not only for healthy, holistic, Christ-centered groups, but for the church and God’s kingdom. And out of this passion he challenges and encourages us to break free from building-centered, program-focused, clergy-led forms and calls us to be the body of Christ, the priesthood of all believers.

Dr. Neighbour continues to travel around the world, passionately teaching and equipping leaders. Later this month, he will be traveling to the Canary Islands and then to Kiev, training cell church planters.

“Those who cannot remember the past, are condemned to repeat it” (George Santayana). On the other hand, we can listen and learn from those who have gone before us. Ralph and others like him fulfill the psalmist’s affirmation: “We will tell the next generation about the glorious deeds of the Lord, about his power and his mighty wonders” (Psalm 78:4).

You may or may not agree with Dr. Neighbour on every point. But I encourage you to hear his heart for God’s church: the body of Christ.

By the way, I highly recommend the book Dr. Neighbour and I mentioned in the video, Christ’s Basic Bodies: Embracing God’s presence, power, and purposes in true biblical community. The book has had a profound impact on me and my ministry. It really is a must-read if you are involved in groups ministry.

The Beginnings of Small

I was sitting in a small groups seminar in 1993, mesmerized by Lyman Coleman as he stood by his overhead projector, training leaders as nobody else could. This is good stuff, I thought, but what will these folks do when they get back to their churches? What will they do two or three years from now when they run into difficult situations or have questions? How will the pastors and administrators continually train their leaders? 

My creative juices started flowing. Because of my background as a magazine writer and editor, I initially thought a monthly journal might be the answer. I talked to Lyman Coleman about the idea and he loved it, and he offered me a job with Serendipity. I flew to Colorado and spent several days with Coleman and his staff.

I was excited about the possibilities, but I had not yet done two vital things: talked to my wife and talked to God. Heidi said yes with her mouth, but her eyes told a different story. Heidi is usually up for an adventure, especially an adventure that God is leading, but she did not seem excited about this one. So I talked with God about the opportunity but heard neither a yes nor a no from him. After talking more with Heidi and seeking the advice from other people, I sensed that God had other plans.
For the next three years, from 1993-96, I dreamed and planned and continued praying, mostly in my spare time. One evening as I talked about my dream in my men’s group, one of the guys, a computer-savvy guy who was starting an Internet company (in the still-early days of the Internet) randomly threw out an idea: why not a web site rather than a print magazine? So I resigned my position in a Christian publishing company, became a stay-at-home dad of three toddlers (later to become four), and then, in November 1996, I launched what I then called “The Small Group Network,” now known as, from my basement. Our vision was reflected in our original name: to build a network of individuals, churches, publishers, and other resources to provide ongoing training and support for small group leaders and administrators of groups. Our goal was to equip small group leadership to make disciples and strengthen disciples into disciplemakers.
Several years later a group of leaders from a large ministry wanted to start a web-based ministry and so they brought me into their offices to get my insights into how to plan and launch it. I wish I could have provided them with all kinds of wisdom and expertise, but truthfully, I was rather dumbfounded. I was just along for the ride.

Today is part of the Christianity Today family of ministries, and it’s been fun to watch it grow and impact people around the world. I don’t understand how, but I’m fascinated by how God works in and through people to carry out his mission for his world. I’m glad to be part of it.


This is the third post in a series about the influence of Lyman Coleman in the small group movement. Previous posts:

Lyman’s Legacy

I wrote yesterday about Lyman Coleman and his thoughts on small groups as an assimilation strategy for the church. Today, I want to share some more personal thoughts about Lyman.
I first met Lyman Coleman in 1992 when I wrote a feature article about him for The Lookout magazine (right). I had called Serendipity House, the ministry he founded, to set up an interview with him. His assistant put him on the phone and he invited me to travel to two cities with him on his training tour. The time I spent with him over several days had a profound effect on my life. He challenged me to throw my life into God’s passion for reaching lost, broken people through authentic community.
I watched as Lyman led those conferences, and when I began to lead small group conferences myself, I tried to lead the way I saw him do it (although, looking back now, there was no way I could lead like him. Coleman is a unique, creative genius). More than anything, however, I caught Lyman’s passion for people the church has not yet been able to reach. I still carry that passion with me today.

Lyman speaks ardently about the men he learned from, men like Dawson Trotman, founder of the Navigators, Sam Shoemaker, an episcopal priest who was influential in the beginnings of Alcoholics Anonymous, and Bruce Larson, pastor at University Presbyterian Church and the Crystal Cathedral. Lyman is known as a preeminent small group pioneer, but he points to others who had a profound influence on him. Besides those mentioned above, he talks about other people he did ministry with: Bill Bright, Elton Trueblood, Stacey Woods, Keith Miller, Roberta Hestenes, and of course his brother Robert (author of Master Plan of Evangelism among other books).

In an interview with Christian Counseling Today, Lyman said, “I was given the privilege of being around some people in my early life who planted within me a passion for reaching the world for Christ and for ‘binding up the wounds’ of the broken people in this world.” Lyman still lives out this passion as well as passing on the legacy that these pioneers gave to him.
My initial meeting with Lyman Coleman was a serendipitous moment. I thought I was interviewing him. As it turns out, God meant it to plant a passion for lost, broken people into me. I hope I can pass on that legacy to others.

Lyman Coleman: Small Groups Are Much More Than an Assimilation Strategy

I spent a day with Lyman Colemen recently and talked about small groups ministry over the last 60-some years. Lyman founded Serendipity House and for more than 30 years, he spoke at church conferences across America. At that time, he was the voice of the American small group movement.

Mike and Lyman Coleman, August 2013
Lyman Coleman leading a Small Groups Conference in Columbus, Ohio, February, 1992

Lyman commented that the term “small groups” means nothing anymore. The term was hijacked by a number of church movements, especially the church growth movement, that had other objectives in mind than how the term was originally used by Lyman and some of the other early pioneers in the small group movement of the 50s-70s.

“In the early days,” Lyman says, “the small group movement was primarily an underground movement. The established church didn’t want anything to do with it.” Later, churches began to recognize small groups as “the best way of reaching out beyond the doors of the church to the broken people in our society.” Coleman has always wanted small groups to be places for caring and deep relationships, where people can belong and feel wanted, and he believes that healthy groups can have the effect of helping to close the back door of a church, but he bristles at small groups being purely an assimilation strategy. His feelings are deep and very personal. “Every time in my life,” he said in 1992, “at times of my deepest needs, my needs were not on the church’s agenda.” His sentiment should continue to convict us as leaders today.
In an article I wrote about him 20 years ago, I shared the line Coleman used to close out his seminars: “The church is full of beautiful people. We must not forget the people beyond the doors of the church.”


Healthy Groups Are a Community for the Community
Healthy small group leaders are friends with non-Christ-followers
Mannequin Small Groups