“And Jesus came and said to them, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age." (Matt. 28:18-20)
When Peru Mission team member Allen Smith talks about cell groups, he has something a bit different in mind from the traditional small group Bible studies with which many of us are familiar. For Allen, who has been organizing missional cell groups (or, as he sometimes calls them, missional communities) in Trujillo for a year and a half, a cell group can mean so much more than a weekly Bible study.
Currently there are five missional cell groups operating in Trujillo. Each group is composed of members of Cristo Rey (Christ the King) Presbyterian Church. With so many members of our downtown church plant involved in this ministry, we decided it merited a closer look, and met with Allen Smith to talk about these groups and the role they fulfill in church planting efforts in Trujillo.
Bulletin: Could you define for us the purpose of a missional cell group or missional community?
Allen: I have found Jeff Vanderstelt’s definition to be very helpful: "A Missional Community consists of a committed core of believers (family) who live out the mission of God together (missionaries) in a specific area or to a particular people group by demonstrating the gospel in tangible forms (servants) and declaring the gospel to others— both those who believe it and those who are being exposed to it (disciples)."
Bulletin: When did you first come across the concept of missional cell groups?
Allen: It was really a bit of a pilgrimage that started with a book called Total Church by Tim Chester and Steve Timmis. According to Chester and Timmis, for the kingdom of God to be manifest in your midst, you need to have three simultaneous emphases in any kind of work: gospel, community, and mission. In other words, you need to have a strong Gospel emphasis, in the context of community, directed towards a group of people. All of the materials and models I’d seen up to that point had discussed cell groups as evangelistic meetings, and evangelistic meetings didn’t really seem to meet all the needs of the church, or to give the proper apologetic to the community that we are disciples of Christ.
Although our context is very different in Peru, Total Church offers many transferable principles for any cultural context. For example, here in Peru we are not yet a post-Christian society, so most have a great respect for the Bible, the church as an institution, and her ordained leadership. We also do not battle against radical individualism or consumerism or busyness. Peruvian society, like that of most Latin countries, is based on the structure of the extended family who always values people as more important than projects. Therefore, in many ways, it is easier to start missional cell groups in Peru than it is in the States or in Europe.
Bulletin: What was appealing to you about the concept of a missional cell group?
Allen: It seemed to be a missing component of what we were doing in leadership development. Missional cell groups put leadership development in the context of real missional work rather than a classroom. Not neglecting the classroom, of course. In fact, the classroom actually becomes a lot more important when you have a man in the fray fighting to build community, share the gospel, and reach a target group.
Bulletin: What does it mean to live in missional community?
Allen: I think a really important aspect of this model is that it puts forward the genius of God’s intended apologetic for the world, which is for Him to be seen in the world through the community of disciples and their love for one another. Missional cell groups are also always trying to involve non-believers in a natural way. In the traditional cell group we were trying to invite all the non-Christians to our meetings, but it just seemed a little bit fabricated and unnatural. It also put evangelism in a hyped-up category rather than being an organic, natural activity taking place through relationships. In the missional cell group model, however, hospitality becomes a really important aspect of the group’s evangelistic efforts. The idea of a missional cell group is that they do have a meeting once a week, but they’re really trying to live as an extended family on mission to a target people. They want to be missionaries and servants to these people, and so they are trying to figure out creative ways to be involved in each others’ lives: eating together throughout the week, meeting at work, playing soccer together, that sort of thing.
In the Santa Maria neighborhood, our missional cell group spent about a month just as a core group going over what a missional community was and how it was different from a traditional cell group. We went through Matthew 28 and saw in the Great Commission that the central mission of the church is to make disciples who make disciples. We also saw in Matthew 28 that as we’re baptized into the triune name we receive new identities. To begin with, as we’re baptized into the name of the Father, we become a new extended family. That’s great in Peru because they already have that concept here. Then we’re baptized into the name of the Son. He primarily came as a servant who at His resurrection became the risen Lord, and we are His servants. We’re also baptized into the name of the Spirit, who fills and empowers us, making us missionaries. We see that connection in John 20:21, where this version of the Great Commission says “as the Father sends me, even so I am sending you.” Finally, we read “teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you,” and so we are learners or disciples. Those four identities dictate how we live life together as a missional community.
Bulletin: Can you speak more about the leadership of these missional cell groups?
Allen: Each missional community has a leadership team consisting of a “Paul,” a “Timothy,” and sometimes a “Titus.” The Paul is the group leader, and if he’s not an elder or deacon in the church, he’s an elder or deacon in training. The Paul will identify one or two apprentices (who are called Timothy or Titus) in whom he invests heavily. He sees these guys as the future Pauls, and he is really trying to train them on the job. Not only does he give them opportunities to lead the various components of the weekly meeting, but he’s meeting with them regularly and discipling them. Basically, we are raising up our next batch of church officers through these men leading and helping to lead these missional communities.
Bulletin: How do these missional cell groups and the downtown Cristo Rey congregation fit into Peru Mission’s original parish model of church planting?
Allen: Right now we actually have two models: the parish model and the city model.
The city model seeks to build a better city with the gospel, so its focus is more on professionals, university students, and the arts community. The parish model seeks to build a better neighborhood with the gospel, so its focus is more in the poorer districts that surround the city. The “cathedral” is the lead church in the city that supports the parish church, that equips and helps build the communities in the parish. So, in parishes like Arévalo and Wichanzao, the idea there is the same as to build Christian communities. Our original vision to build Christian communities based on the parish model is primarily at the macro level, where we’re thinking really long-term, sustainable communities in the fully orbed aspects of health, education, and economics.
I think the missional cell groups come in at the micro level, and they give a very practical, hands-on approach to how we build these communities from month to month, and year to year. In fact, I would put it this way: missional cell groups should lead all our works in Peru, whether parish or city work. Think of them as proto-parishes. We should invest in future efforts based upon the indicators of the Holy Spirit's work in these cell groups. If we see the men multiplying cell groups over and over, and the Holy Spirit is clearly evident in their community, then that would be a greater indicator of investing in all of these other larger projects or larger transformational institutions.
Bulletin: When you say multiply, do you mean for groups to split and form other groups?
Allen: The groups must multiply because the harvest is plentiful, the workers are few, and because we love not just our target group but other parts of the city—we really want to see the kingdom of God come and flourish in the other neighborhoods as well. So because of that, each missional cell group is always going to be sending out another missionary or missionary team from their cell group to start a new work. This is how we plan on growing and multiplying leaders.
Bulletin: So the hope would be that some of these cell groups would eventually become parish churches?
Allen: That’s definitely true.
Bulletin: What advice would you give to people in the U.S. who would like to see these groups form in their own congregations?
Allen: It’s got to start with the leadership. So, if they are yearning to see this in their own context, they have to talk to their church leadership to see if they’re open to the idea. If they are, there are two resources to prime the pump, so to speak. One I mentioned already is Total Church. Rather than a practical book, it’s more of a Biblical, theological book that they shouldn’t read with the thought that it will give them a set model to follow. The book basically sets forth who the people of God are in the world. If they want another resource that will help them start a pilot cell group or missional community, I recommend The Tangible Kingdom Primer by Hugh Halter and Matt Smay. It’s a very helpful and very simple eight-week study.
I would also encourage them to have patience. It took Jesus’ disciples three years to understand His gospel, and they didn’t get it until after His resurrection. Most will need to deconstruct old paradigms in order to reconstruct new ones, and then they will need lots of practice and exposure to the model. One friend told me after three years of transitioning his church to the missional cell group model, “Allen, it will happen little by little, topic by topic, over time, and on the job.” And that is exactly what I’ve experienced at Cristo Rey.