The Pioneers of the Small-Group Movement

The Pioneers of the Small-Group Movement

Learning from the past as we head into the future
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"This is important for a church to understand," writes O'Connor, "for when it starts to become the church it will constantly be adventuring out into places where there are no tried and tested ways." O'Connor characterized the church of the early- to mid-1960s as an institution in which the pioneering spirit had become foreign. The church that is true to its mission, she said, "will be experimenting, pioneering, blazing new paths, seeking how to speak the reconciling Word of God to its own age. It cannot do this if it is held captive by the structures of another day or is slave to its own structures."

Ralph Neighbour, founder of TOUCH Outreach Ministries, and a strong proponent of the cell-church model, was planting churches in New York at the time and decided to go down to Washington, D.C., to check out Church of the Saviour.

"I saw the people of God operating a coffeehouse where everyone was a minister," he said in an interview I conducted with him. "I began to understand that my theology didn't fit the traditional church. I believed in the priesthood of all believers not just as a token phrase but as the lifestyle of a true believer. I got so frustrated that I said, 'I will not give the rest of my life to this nonsense!'"

Neighbour says this experience launched him on a personal journey that finally broke him out of the entire lifestyle of organized religion. He found a few other men who were similarly convicted, met with them for awhile, and eventually moved to Houston to plant an experimental church consisting of small groups. Though he didn't know what to call it at the time, it's come to be known as the cell church model.

What Drives the Mavericks of the Movement

Coleman portrays himself as a maverick in the Christian-education world of the 1960s, yet during this time, his influence in the church was growing. Ralph Neighbour said he and the other pioneers of the time were "a little rat pack of guys who had a vision and found each other, shared thoughts, and did not worry about copyrights."

Like Coleman, Neighbour bristles at the use of the term, "small groups," which he calls "a tepid term that theologically has absolutely no teeth." The issue these pioneers have with the term "small groups" is not really the terminology itself, but what they believe small groups have come to represent.

To better understand their perspective, we must understand where these men started. Coleman, for instance, worked with the Billy Graham Crusade in the late 1950s. Along the way, he met Sam Shoemaker, founder of A. A. Coleman says Shoemaker claimed everyone in his community for God. He reached out to prostitutes, drunks, high-society folks, and the down-and-outers.

To understand Neighbour's frustrations with the typical program-based American church, church leaders, and today's small-group movement, you must appreciate his heart and passion that still drives him today at 85 years old. He believes that groups are "Christ's basic bodies," made up of people who see themselves as ministers empowered by the Holy Spirit, and they exist to reap the harvest.

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