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The Transforming Church (Part Five)
by Tricia Tillin


House Groups

Home groups have been around for centuries. Indeed, the early church met in their own homes for a long while, and this has been the preferred method of fellowship in all countries where there has been state persecution (such as China.)

I shall not spend much time on the subject of home groups, since the main focus of these articles is the new cell-church system of the Apostolic Reformation. In passing, however, it will be useful to list some of the various small groups that you might hear of, or be drawn into, note their differences to the cell-church idea, and look at the way small groups began.

The Early Church

The earliest Christian churches were small simple home groups - synagogues and other public meeting places became unsuitable after the first few years because of opposition and persecution.

The book of Acts describes in several places the believers gathering in homes for the "breaking of bread" - which meant a common meal as well as the remembrance of the Lord's death - and for worship and teaching. They taught each other with "a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation" (1 Corinthians 14:26). They considered themselves to be brothers and sisters in the family of God, and the elders were fatherly figures who cared for and watched over the believers.

This simple pattern of home meetings was disrupted by persecution and dispersion, and then by a gradual infiltration of pagan and legalistic ideas, so that by the time of the Second Century AD there was already a desire to reform the Church and reestablish the simplicity and purity of the home groups.

The pattern had been set : a repeated move towards organisation and then subjugation, followed by a reactionary stand by a few dissenters breaking away to establish smaller informal groups that practised the original "body-ministry" style of leadership and worship.

This pattern, begun in the first centuries AD, has persisted to this day. [See the excellent book "The Pilgrim Church" by E. H. Broadbent, now republished with a foreword by Dave Hunt and available from Amazon.]


It's an interesting fact that the cell system of today has many similarities to the monastic system of the Middle Ages. I shall explore that aspect later on.The Monastic movement arose for many reasons including the quest for restoration from a corrupt Church system, the awareness that the Cathedral was not the ideal place for interpersonal relationships, and the search for community and fellowship. However, it rarely if ever broke free from the teachings of Rome.

There were many differences between the RC monastic cells and the home-based groups of dissenters such as the Waldensians. In particular, the clerical rule was adhered to in Monasteries where a strict hierarchical order was observed, whereas many dissenters and reformers gathered as individuals with a looser structure of leadership or none at all.

Reformation house groups

Following on from the Monastic movement, small groups who wanted to see the Church reformed gathered around individuals or beliefs and in most cases reestablished the home group system. Most were persecuted as "heretics" by the Roman church.

From the 16th century, many more groups arose with reforming zeal, including the Anabaptists, Moravians, Hutterites and Mennonites, and it is noticeable that during their informal meetings the gifts and ministries of the Holy Spirit were once again practised, for one bonus of informal house meetings where each individual member of the Body of Christ takes up his or her role is that God can use even the humblest uneducated peasant for His purposes.


The Pietist movement (or, perhaps "movements," as there were so many) sprang up following the Reformation and persisted as late as the mid-1800s. Pietism was seen as a kind of second phase of the Reformation. An interesting feature of Pietism was the formation of cell groups, which were called "conventicles."


John and Charles Wesley and their co-workers were influenced by Pietism although they remained loyal members of the Anglican Church. Having experienced an awakening in which thousands of new converts needed teaching and care, they turned to small groups to meet the need. In an excerpt from "John Wesley's Class Meetings And Cell Groups" written as a talk for a Cell Church we can see how Wesleys' system is being copied, especially in the modern G12 cell system:

"The answer [to an influx of new converts] began in Bristol where Wesley's Society had grown to 1,100 people. A society member by the name of Foy suggested that one person call on eleven others during the week to inquire of their status. The Bristol Society was quickly transformed, "In a while, some [class leaders] informed me that they found such and such a one did not live as he ought. It struck me immediately, 'This is one thing, the very thing we have wanted so long.'" These weekly visitations soon became weekly class meetings, "This was the origin of our classes at London," he wrote, "for which I can never sufficiently praise God, the unspeakable usefulness of the institution having ever since been more and more manifest." Soon, every Methodist Society was broken into smaller Classes of 12 persons who met weekly with a Class Leader for pastoral care, examination, encouragement and exhortation. According to Wesley, "Many now happily experienced that Christian fellowship of which they had not so much as an idea before. They began to 'bear one another's burdens,' and naturally to 'care for each other.' As they had daily a more intimate acquaintance with, so they had a more endeared affection for, each other."

"The "Class," consisting of 12 people pursuing the discipline of Christian godliness, became the centerpiece of Methodism for the next 100 years, until the mid_1800s. It was in the Class that the "awakened" were discipled, examined and instructed, and where they shared mutual fellowship and learned to bear one another's burdens. It was in the Class that the "Rules" (those standards of behavior expected of every Methodist) were read and where individuals were examined to see if they were sincere in their desire to live according to Methodist discipline. Eventual membership in the greater Methodist Society was contingent upon a probationary period in the Class. People whose lives appeared to genuinely mirror their profession would be recommended for full membership. Those who continued in their old ways and demonstrated no willingness to change their walk would eventually be excluded from the weekly Class and the quarterly Love Feast. This was accomplished by a system of "tickets." A written ticket (eventually printed) would be issued once every three months, by Wesley or by the Class leader, to those Class members who were in good standing. This gained them entry to the Class meeting for the next three months and to the quarterly Love Feast. Then new tickets would be issued. Those members who by their lives had demonstrated growth in grace were given new tickets. Those who failed to attend meetings or whose lives had otherwise called their profession into question were not issued new tickets until they had demonstrated genuine repentance and a desire to renew their pursuit of Christian godliness.

"It was Wesley's Class meeting that most closely resembles the Cell Church today, and the larger Society meeting that most closely parallels the "Cellabration" concept [of today]. This dual structure represented the backbone of classic Methodism until the Classes began to unravel in the mid-1800s."

The parts in bold emphasis demonstrate the potential for abuse of a cell-church system that does not conform to biblical standards and/or is bent on forcing conformity to a new doctrine. Only those members who fully participate in meetings, obey the leadership, conform to the rules and do not oppose the teachings will be bona fide members of the "Church". If the Apostolic/Prophetic leadership have their way, and they become the one united Church worldwide, then no person will be considered a Christian unless he or she conforms to its teachings and commands.

Communist China and Watchman Nee

Watchman Nee was a Bible study teacher in China, and he and his Little Flock established house churches throughout China during the 1920's and 30's that withstood the persecution of the Japanese invasion and later Communism in the 1940's.

A history of Nee states:

"Although some of Nee's time was spent preaching to a large (5000-7000 attendance) church in Shanghai, the main result of his work was the founding of hundreds of house churches throughout China. These were lay-led groups that centered on Bible study, witnessing to the neighbors, and fellowship. Singing, prayer and communion were also practiced.

"Mao took power in 1949. During the next several years he consolidated and extended his control of the country. In January of 1956, Nee was brought up on charges by the local authorities in Shanghai, and they held a public "accusation meeting." In front of over 2500 people he was accused of espionage, licentiousness and stealing church funds. His doctrine was also denounced because his preaching on the "last days" tended to demoralize the workers. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Days after his release in 1972, Watchman Nee died in his home province. He was 69 years old."

This reprint of a tract by Nee about the Body of Christ [found on a revival site] contains an interesting observation that should alert those who try to use his supposed teachings to set up a shepherding or pyramid structure using the analogy of cells in the body: Christians are not just "cells" but "living members" of the Body of Christ, each having equal importance and each having an individual role or ministry:

"Learn to Be a Member: A member of a physical body is different from a body cell. Lacking a cell does not matter much, but the lack of a member in a body is unthinkable. Of course, a cell has its use, but please note that the Bible in its use of the analogy of the human body says that we are members of the body of Christ, not cells. How pitiful that the conditions of many Christians are like those of cells in the human body instead of members. Such a person seems to have no specific use in the body of Christ, neither does he fulfill his part. In any given church meeting his presence does not appear to add anything to the body of Christ, and his absence does not give the appearance to the body that it is lacking in anything. ...No one can be passive in a meeting. Each person is a member of the body, and consequently no one can come to a meeting as a passive spectator."

Although not all of Nee's teaching can be commended, his understanding of the Body and the part each Christian should play was crucial in the continuance of the underground churches of China, when conventional organised religion and the clergy were removed.

Nee says here that leaving organised religion is only part of the move towards understanding the Body of Christ, and taking responsibility for active, Spirit-led, participation. We would do well to heed his words today, when many are leaving their churches because of error. Not only a physical move away from abusive leadership is needed, but an understanding of the true Body that Jesus intended:

"Perhaps a person is proud of himself for being one who has left a sect and thus deems himself to be a person who knows the body of Christ. As a matter of fact, however, leaving a denomination is not necessarily the same as, or an indication of, seeing the body of Christ. It is quite true that whoever discerns the body is delivered from denominationalism. But who can claim he has apprehended the body of Christ simply because he has left a denomination? Outwardly many have left a denomination, yet they simply set up another kind for themselves elsewhere. Their leaving the denomination merely demonstrates their own latent feeling of superiority; they fail to comprehend that all the members of the body are their brothers and sisters and therefore all are loving. For this reason, let us realize that all sectarian spirit, divisive attitude, outward action, or inward thought which separate God's children are the unfailing signs of not knowing the body of Christ....The body of Christ will deliver us from sect and sectarianism; it will also save us from self and individualism."

Description of the Various Groups & Movements


Today there are hundreds of small groups meeting in homes. Many are completely unconnected to, and even opposed to, the cell-church system. Others have some links to apostolic/prophetic networks. Let me try to distinguish between the different structures, although that will not be easy. There is a significant overlap and not all groups are run in the same way nor have the same vision. Each have their good and bad points.


Many traditional churches run weekly house groups alongside Sunday services. These are designed to spread the load of discipleship, to foster closer relationships between church members and to offer more freedom in prayer and worship. At these groups it's common for a trusted church member to undertake a little bible study or teaching. All the house groups come under the immediate control of the church to which they all belong, and the eldership thereof. Sunday School, Youth Groups and Bible-study groups would perhaps come into this category.

The main difference between these local church home study groups and the modern cell system is that each local church organises and is responsible for its own groups, and none of them subscribe to a centralised doctrine or network of eldership/apostleship on a wider scale.

If your local church runs home groups, they may be perfectly sound, although you do need to ask around to see if there is any wider-scale "mentoring" going on, or whether your Pastor is submitting to local apostles and importing their teaching into your church.


These are small home groups inspired by Roberta Hestenes, an ordained Presbyterian USA minister, who founded the Christian Formation and Discipleship Department while an associate professor at Fuller Theological Seminary. There she taught the first seminary course on small groups and small-group Bible studies in the church. This model is a fellowship group principally for those who are already saved, to foster fellowship and a deeper life. Her own definition is: "A Christian group is an intentional face-to-face gathering of 3 to 12 people on a regular time schedule with the common purpose of discovering and growing in the possibilities of the abundant life in Christ". Since 1980 Hestenes has served on the board of directors for both World Vision USA and World Vision International, including seven years as Chair of the Board of World Vision International. Her passions are aid to the Third World, and the role of women in ministry.


Serendipity books and seminars have had a powerful impact on the small group movement in America. The word Serendipity means surprise, the making of unexpected happy chance discoveries. The supporters say that "we believe every time a small group gathers together, there ought to be "serendipitous" experiences". The emphasis is on finding Christ and worshipping him in an "experiential way" through activities and events. Serendipity was founded in 1962.

The founder is Lyman Coleman (now retired). He was especially influenced by Sam Shoemaker, the pastor of Calvary Episcopal Church in New York City who had a vision to reach all the people of his parish. This vision has greatly influenced Lyman Coleman who says, “The heart of the Serendipity model is the broken people at the door...the intention is to create a small group system where people outside the church can find a place of entry and be transformed”. (This approach is similar to the seeker-sensitive meetings of Willow Creek).

Groups meet outside and within the church; members can join whether or not they are members of the church or even attend the worship services. This makes it distinct from the Korean model (Yonngi Cho) where attendance at church meetings is required and strictly enforced.


Xenos originated during the so-called "Jesus Movement" of the late 60's and early 70's. See their history here.

Like many groups originating at that time, Xenos leaders were fascinated by the concept of underground Christianity. "Home churches," are the backbone of Xenos home group ministry. These groups usually range from 15-60 people who meet for fellowship and Bible teaching. Home churches are also open to non Christian neighbors and friends, and are a major entry point for new people into the church. Each home church also has a discipleship program involving men's and women's groups and supervised ministry experience, usually combined with some one-on-one mentoring.

For years, Xenos was a disorganized association of house-based groups scattered around the campus of The Ohio State University and the north side of Columbus. During the 70's the group's theology was influenced most by four strangely contradictory sources: Francis Schaeffer and the L'Abri group, Plymouth Brethren teaching as typified by authors like T. Austin Sparks and Miles Stanford, grace-oriented Bible commentary like that of William R. Newell and Watchman Nee.

Xenos leaders, having been allied to Campus Crusade staff, eventually broke with them and adopted the Eastern Orthodox tradition as the "truest expression of the Body of Christ". Today they have become Eastern Orthodox bishops, while Xenos has continued to develop the ideals they taught earlier, including a return to primitive Christianity as seen in the New Testament.


There are various low-key groups gathering out of a mutual interest, outside the conventional church system. You may encounter some and wonder to whom they are connected and whether they are safe to join. In every case, it is wise to examine the core doctrines of any group you are drawn into, and to ask who have been the main influences upon the group. Ask to see the books that are beloved by the group, and enquire about the leaders they most admire. This will tell you a lot about their foundation and goals.


Holiness groups and early Pentecostals of the 19th and 20th centuries preferred the intimacy of small home meetings. Often they were unable to find favour amongst other denominations, anyway.

The Deeper Life groups still exist today and many meet in small home-based groups. They are generally unconnected to the revival or restoration movements and usually disassociate themselves from other churches. They are often upright, biblically knowledgeable and worshipful people dedicated to ministry and to helping others. However, they teach varying degrees of error, mostly based on the ideas of adoption to sonship.

Some of these groups are hangovers from specific 19th century independent deeper-life teachers.


The Witness Lee groups (Living Stream Ministry) are cultic. Although Witness Lee worked with Watchman Nee in China, his teachings took a different route. His followers tend to be fanatical and isolationist. They believe Witness Lee was the vehicle God chose to reintroduce the concept of the One Body and the local church. Lee is their focus, and his message is central to their beliefs. They even have their own translation of the Bible footnoted by Lee.

OFFSITE LINKS: For information on Witness Lee see this page and this one.





Others groups belong to the sonship-type groups influenced by T. Austin-Sparks (from Honor Oak). These groups are also autonomous and detached from conventional churches; they are keen to separate themselves from denominations and the ecclesiastical systems, but they stress the spiritual/mystical aspects of the Body and push for a separated walk that is designed to lead to higher spiritual experiences and purity that leads to the attainment of sonship.

OFFSITE LINK: The Writings of T Austin Sparks






Some more radical groups have gone further and are cult-like. These I would call the MSOG (Manifested Sons of God) groups such as followers of Sam Fife or The Walk. They are often old-style pentecostal in their worship, and their main emphasis is readiness for the endtimes, when they (the remnant) will be glorified as overcomers and immortalised as the Corporate Christ. Their teachings are dangerous and near-gnostic.



You may find yourself engaged in conversation by members of small groups that seem to offer an alternative to the church system, and they are often vehemently opposed to modern-day corruption of doctrine and the false revival - but beware of cult-like tendencies within such groups.

Some are Exclusive Brethren, some are British Israelite, some are two-by-twos/No-Name fellowships - Cooneyites - and some are gathered around a single prophet (William Branham) or a school of prophets. The Cooneyites (also knows as Irvinites) are very opposed to traditional denominations. They were known as the "Damnation Army," because they constantly damned all churches to hell. Irvine and his followers revolted bitterly against everything associated with the traditional denominations and declared that they were doing things "the Jesus way."


  • Branham groups - see this page for history of Branham
  • See this page for a short list of independent groups and cults
  • Links Page to various Small Groups and Home Group Networks
continue   Part Six: House Churches & The Open Church


Acknowledgements to: "The Significance of Small Groups for English Baptist Churches" by Kathryn A. Morgan. [pdf format] A dissertation submitted as part of the requirements for the MA in Applied Theology of Trinity

© 1995-2013 Tricia Tillin of Banner Ministries. All rights reserved. Cross+Word Website:  This document is the property of its author and is not to be displayed on other websites, redistributed, sold, reprinted, or reproduced in printed in any other format without permission. Websites may link to this article, if they provide proper title and author information. One copy may be downloaded, stored and/or printed for personal research. All spelling and phraseology is UK English.