In this section I want to give some idea of the variety of Relational Gatherings that it should be possible to find in a local church area. This is not meant to be an exclusive list in any way, as God's creative will is sure to bring together groupings that I could never imagine. Neither is it to be seen as a goal, "If we have all of these types of Relational Gathering then we are a successful Local Church". What I want to outline here are simply some possibilities to whet your appetite.
I think that this is a good place to reiterate that a Relational Gathering is a complete expression of the local church, and should seek to serve their members as such. But in the same way that traditional churches often have a specific thrust, so cells within a wider local cell church group, will each have a specific flavour and approach, this is what I want to explore here. Some cells will start with one nature (normally evangelical) but as they grow will take of a new thrust (Perhaps healing), later as the folk receive from the Lord they may change again to show that maturity.
Evangelistic Relational Jesus Gatherings
The most basic sort of Relational Gathering is the evangelistic Relational Gathering In normal circumstances it should be seen as the basic model for all Relational Gatherings (With the exception of the leaders meeting and possibly some of those clearly indicated as being only for believers). In the great commission we are all called to preach the Gospel (Matt. 28:19,20), equally the apostle Paul indicates that all should do the work of an evangelist (2Tim 4:5)
The first call in a House Church will almost certainly be an evangelistic Relational Gatherings. I would probably be unusual for there to be anything other than evangelistic Relational Gatherings until the church had grown to 4 or 5 Relational Gatherings in a local area. The Church is an organism, and organisms must grow, it is their nature. It is interesting to note that in all higher organisms, the cells in the original cell cluster are all the same; it is only later that the cells begin to specialize into different types. Almost any Relational Gathering can be evangelistic in nature, (Children's, youth, social action etc.); there are no hard and fast rules. We don't rely on human structures, but the grace of God. He guides, He gives life and we submit to Him, allowing Him to form His will in us.
In the majority of situations the second type of group to form will be the leaders group. I have spoken about these groups in other places so will not go into depth here. But it is clear that as soon as you have more than one Relational Gatherings, the leaders will want to meet together. Leaders groups are not just for leaders, but also for wives, potential leaders and perhaps even sometimes for folk that need encouragement. It is important to note two things. Firstly, being invited to participate in a leaders group does not necessarily make you a leader, (Something that must clearly be understood by all, and reiterated from time to time). And, secondly, that the purpose of a leaders group is to give a "safe" environment, in which to be accountable to one another. Therefore it is important that no one should be introduced to the group who would work against that goal. Entrance to this group must be at the invitation of all the members.
Hospital or Healing Communities
So many folk come to us hurting that, I would expect to see this third sort of Relational Gathering, emerge quite early in the life of the new network. It's purpose is to provide a safe healing environment for those who are hurting, who have been damaged by their walk in the world and sometimes, it has to be said, as a result of their interactions with other Christians.
The leaders of this type of group would normally be skilled, experienced counsellors. Well able to offer care, prayer and understanding (along with necessary prods in to action) for those in their care. If there are no suitable counsellors in the church a senior elder could lead this group, or perhaps an older couple, who would be willing to learn, with the support of a senior elder.
These Relational Gatherings must be seen as places where one spends a time of healing, and not as a permanent spiritual home. They should have a limited lifespan, allowing everyone to move on, and time for the leaders to recoup their strength before moving on to help others. If the leaders are not allowed this recouping time they very soon become tired and stale.
Sometimes in Relational Gatherings like this you will find one dependant person who just won't let go. They of suffer from the POM's (poor old me). They need to be gentle led to accept and confess that POM is a sin and they should begin to take responsibility for their own lives, with the Lord's help and not rely on their counsellors /helpers. They definitely should not be allowed to continue in a healing cell for a long time, but encouraged to join a Relational Gathering with a leader that will encourage them into independence.
If network size or situation allows, it may be a good idea to have specialist healing cells: Marriage, Children, and Abuse etc. One specializm that I would recommend for larger churches is a widows /widowers Relational Gathering. Older folk, who have lost life long partners, need a positive environment in which to grieve. This has been vividly bought home to me recently, as I have seen my mother-in-law seeking to come to terms with the loss of her beloved husband of over 50 years. Jesus said that we should mourn with those who mourn, but I'm not at all sure that it's something we do well. This kind of Relational Gathering is often well led by an older woman who has had time to come to terms with her loss and is now able to help others, although I know a very successful group like this near London that is run by a widowed, retired pastor.
The leaders of healing communities need to have time for their own healing and development as well. They should be encouraged to have some time off each year.
Children's Relational Gatherings
Jesus said, "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these." Matthew 19:14 (NIV)
In traditional churches the supposed needs of children are met in Sunday schools or in the more progressive churches some type of mid-week club, but is this the most biblical or socially correct way to meet their needs? Is there perhaps a better way? The Bible clearly teaches that it is the duty of Christian parents to teach and train their children and bring them up in the faith (Deut.6: 7). But what about other children? What about our children's friends? Living in Spain, we see some of the issues concerning children's ministry somewhat more sharply than in other places. Here in Spain evangelicals are often portrayed as a dangerous sect, therefore it is easy to imagine our difficulties. How would you feel if a dangerous sect invited your 10-year-old child to a meeting? Although in other countries there isn't the same problem, even in the States or England people are rightly suspicious of who is talking to their children. We therefore need to be very sensitive as to how we develop our ministry to children. Within the looser framework of a House church I feel that this can best be achieved through children's Relational Gatherings.
Children of between 7 and 11 naturally form small groups, although we normally refer to them as gangs. This is how children naturally interact, how they first begin to build social structures. If therefore, we participate in this activity, children's Relational Gatherings would be strong groupings within the larger cell network, as the children would be functioning within structures that are self imposed and not externally imposed. Children's Relational Gatherings would therefore be wholly owned by their members.
Gangs (children's Relational Gatherings) are led by "Heroes", not by teachers, therefore the Sunday school class is not a helpful model for this type of group. It is imperative that we do not let ourselves become conformed to unhelpful patterns of the past. The main part of a child's spiritual training should be found (if possible) within the informality of his or her own family, so the school function is not the most important. Some churches, feeling that the main need is fellowship, form Christian children's clubs. Within traditional churches these clubs fulfil an important social role, but not always in the best way. Not all children function well in a larger group, the vast majority prefer a smaller more intimate group. The only place we find the necessary intimacy and informality is in the gang, or children's Relational Gathering. As I develop this theme I hope that you will see that the gang is the also the best place for a child to begin to develop intimacy with God, In the gang a child will not feel embarrassed to use spiritual gifts.
I have already said that gangs are led by "heroes". As this is a most important concept we must look at this before going any further. Children need people to look up to. You may call them role models, mentors, or, as I do, heroes, but what is without any doubt, they are a necessary part of a child's growing up. Thinking of my own childhood I look back to various influential role models that were important to me. My Uncle Ernie, who was so strong and capable. Or Ron, a Baptist children's leader, who with his wife seemed to know God better than God knew himself. Then there was my friend Marlis, who was always ready to lead us into new adventures (like hunting rats under the local school hut). And especially my mum, who was the best cook in the world, and made me want to cook: and dad, who seemed to me to be a giant, who knew everything and could do anything. Who I am now is largely due to my contact with people like this.
So who are the heroes? Heroes can be of any age or sex. They tend to be older than the group and normally of the same sex, although this is far from a rule set in stone. They are like big brothers or sisters, favourite uncles or aunts or even adopted grandparents. I have seen groups like this work with teenage leaders, and older people. One of the most successful that I have seen was run by an older disabled woman. She always seemed to be surrounded by a cloud of 9 – 12 year old girls (with the occasional boy), like satellites orbiting her wheelchair. I well remember a Saturday I spent with her and a group of six to eight girls that we took sailing, We only had one small dingy, so my friend took the girls out two at a time whilst I stayed with the others on shore. As they were sailing around she kept looking at the clouds and told the girls of how Jesus calmed the storm. For the girls this was an enormous adventure, tinged with a little bit of fear that a storm might come, but at the same time learning to trust in God.
As we can see from the story above, heroes teach by example, modeling good behaviour and beliefs. Because my friend trusted God, the girls did too. It is fundamental to all leadership within cell churches, that we teach by example. Like Paul, we should be able to say, "Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ". 1 Corinthians 11:1 (NIV). This doesn't mean that we have to be perfect. They will learn from our mistakes too if we are brave enough to admit them. But it does mean that we must be headed in the right direction.
The final point I want to make about heroes is that they lead into adventure. I am using the term adventure here in a very broad sense. It can either be active adventure, that is adventurous activities (swimming, camping, sailing etc.) or passive adventure (reading, cooking, theatre and dance). The important thing is that the one who opens the door to this adventure is the hero. Let me give you two examples. One children's group that I know has about 10 members, both girls and boys. The hero is a fisherman, who, when he was younger was a lifeboat man. He leads them in camping and sailing adventures (once or twice a year), but this leads to all sorts of other activities, such as, swimming, map-reading, missionary concern through missions to seamen and the like, first aid, prayer for sailors, climbing, Bible studies on responsibility and laying down your life for others, and a myriad of other activities. But mostly the children are learning to be as Christ-like as their hero. Another group, led by a young housewife, has mostly girls. They love contemporary dance. The leader, through her enthusiasm, has opened doors for them to dance in major events in various parts of the country. But they have also learned discipline, keep-fit, costume making, music, Biblical worship, simple evangelism techniques, etc. Most of this they learn by copying the life of this young housewife and her husband.
From what I have said it must be clear by now that to start a children's Relational Gathering you must become a hero. To do that you should first try to put yourself in the shoes of your target group. What do they like? What do they want to do? Do you do things in your life that for them would be an adventure? Invite children to join in your adventure. One friend of mine invites his son's friends round to "help him" do mechanical jobs on the car. Do not take children swimming (as an authority figure), but go swimming and play with them as their hero. Hero status is also confirmed by such normal adult activities as driving, earning and being able to take children where they couldn't go alone. Open doors for your group!
High adventure does not need to be daily, but should be evenly spaced say every six months. (I remember an independent children's work in Wembley, North London, whilst I was planting the church there. They met twice a week, for games, chats, arts and crafts and an epilogue. And twice a year they all went to Chichester harbour for sailing weekends).
As the group grows, sensitively divide it, introducing sub-heroes. This is a little like the idea of "sixers" and "Patrol Leaders" in the Scout movement, although I would not be altogether comfortable with the incorporation of some of the aspects of this movement today. These sub-heroes are experienced older children, 13+, who can inspire the youngsters. The resulting group of groups will naturally become the Children's Congregation (Kids' Church) of the evolving House Church Network.
As the Children's cells mature, they naturally turn into youth Relational Gatherings (see the next section for more information about this).
Regardless of age, the leaders relate together in the normal leaders' cells, at the level of celebrations. This does of course mean that they must be mature enough to do this. If the network has a lot of children's Relational Gatherings, you could consider having a children's leaders group.
Thinking about money matters, no child should be excluded for lack of money. I have seen some groups come tumbling down when there is one child from a poorer family who could not participate in the activities. Each child should be encouraged to tithe, giving at least 10% of their pocket money into the group. Activities should be paid for by the children themselves (swimming, trips, concerts etc.) Their parents will normally be happy to contribute.
Major activities should include hanging out, Non-organised games, Food Things, Adventures (Camping, swimming, boats etc) and Church (Congregation). Church is part of what our Gang does. Every activity day should include natural opportunities for prayer and bible studies.
Some leaders feel threatened if their groups meet without them. We must try to overcome this. It is positive if the groups meet without their hero's, although the heroes house should be the natural place for them to "hang out". They must understand the hero's need for privacy and family time. Group members should be encouraged to spend time with their family, as well as with the group. The group is not normally meant to be a surrogate family.
Observations on youth Relational Gatherings
I do not regard myself, in any way an expert on youth work, and therefore hesitate to make bold statements. The following observations come from watching tried and tested youth ministries, and applying their work to the house church model.
It is perhaps easier to say what youth Relational Gatherings aren't, than what they are. They are not a youth club or group, in the traditional sense, both of which are provided by "adults" to "entertain" youth. Neither are youth Relational Gatherings a means of giving the youth something to occupy them. What, then is a youth Relational Gathering? Youth Relational Gatherings are radical, life-changing relational groups, where young people can safely learn to walk in the power of the Holy Spirit.
As I work in Spain, it is quite natural for me to see youth Relational Gatherings in terms of "Pandillas". These are small mixed groups of between 5 and 20 young people. Although within an individual "pandilla" most would be of about the same age, young people who associate in "pandillas" range from 8 or 9, to 25 or even 30. In Spain these groups are ubiquitous; every young person has his or her "pandilla" of close friends and relations (cousins). They are not so common in other parts of Europe, but there is no reason why not.
These groups should be flexible and open. Although the members of the Relational Gathering should be well defined, visitors from outside or from other cells should be made to feel "at home". Receiving visitors and visiting other groups allow the members to get to know others and begin relationships in a safe environment, without diminishing their commitment to their group. Group leaders must be careful to refer those with problems to their Relational Gathering leaders.
At first youth Relational Gatherings will feed into the main congregational meetings, but later, when there are 3 or 4 youth cells, it may be appropriate to have a separate youth congregation.
The content of the meetings should be more or less the same as other Relational Gatherings, with perhaps a slant more appropriate to youth. Generally young people prefer a more participatory style of worship. Full use should be made of new technologies. Great emphasis should be placed on "hanging out", that is, just being together.
Young people in general have a much more radical outlook on life than older folk. A wise youth cell leader would harness this enthusiasm to do the work of the church in evangelism and social action. As a young Christian I was a member of a youth Relational Gathering which put special emphasis on evangelism. It is heartening to see that many from that original group are still actively involved in evangelism some 25-30 years later.
It is at this age that people begin to form relationships with members of the opposite sex, with the longer-term view of marriage. Youth cells are not places to "pair off" as is often the case in traditional youth groups, but places to grow together, without the stresses brought about by immature relationships. When folk find partners, they should be encouraged to continue within the group, and not to separate themselves. This leads to their having a more balanced view of their relationship, and avoids the temptations that often lead to sin. Almost every young couple that I have had to counsel about immorality have previously separated themselves from other relationships.
The best youth cell leaders that I have seen have all been young married couples, who understand, and still live within, youth culture.
Many Christians are once again feeling the call to live together in community, sharing all things in common. It is possible to have communities within a relational church network, with each community house making up one Relational Gathering. This is more or less how some of the larger Christian communities like Jesus Army function.
I don't want to go deeply into communities, as that is not the purpose of this work. What it is important to say is that a community should have no special position within the church, it's just another sort of Relational Gathering.
Prophetic / Intercessory Relational Gatherings
Given that the local church network was sufficiently large, one or more prophetic/intercessory Relational Gatherings could be formed.
Bringing together the intercessors and those who prophecy is a good move for any church. It provides a resource of guidance and blessing for the leaders, it provides blessing too for the intercessors and "prophets" and provides a forum for testing prophetic words, received by the church (1 Cor. 14:29-33).
In order to stop "self-proclaimed prophets" from causing problems in the church, membership should be by invitation only. However, it should be understood by everyone that just because someone is a member of this cell, that this does not make them a prophet, nor does it give them authority over anyone.
There seems to be a great confusion in the church over the difference between a prophet, one who serves in the gift ministry of Prophet (Eph. 2:20; 4:7-13), and one who prophecies (a position to which we should all aspire (1Cor. 12:28-31; 14:31 & 14:39). Some people also try to make a distinction between Old Testament and New Testament prophets, declaring that the rule of grace mean that New Testament prophets do not need to have 100% accuracy (Deut. 18:21-22), this is clearly wrong.
Social Action Relational Gatherings
Some feel led to Churches that have a clear social action thrust. I know of groups within churches that have started soup kitchens, after school clubs, refuges for battered wives and much much more. If a cell feels led to enter into social action, first they should be encouraged to collaborate with other groups (taking the church into the community), then they should draw up a plan, seek finance, and perhaps set up a trust to guide the work. If it is something smaller, the cell should be encouraged to "get on with it".
One small Relational Gathering (within a much larger network), that I know of, took a welcome pack to every new family moving into their town. It comprised of a homemade cake (made by a member of the group), a new testament and a "Welcome to _______" booklet, giving information about the town, services, bus timetables etc. as well as information about the church. It also included a personalized invitation to a Supper from a member of the Relational Gathering. All of this was funded by small advertisements in the booklet, paid for by local businesses. This is positive social action, of real help to newcomers in the community.
Missionary Relational Gatherings
In recent years the nature of missions has changed a lot; there are fewer full time career missionaries, short-term missions are on the increase (Often very short-term, two-weeks to a month). Also on the increase are non-traditional "tent making" missionaries. Therefore many would feel attracted to a cell with a missionary emphasis.
This group should contain not only people interested in missions support, but also those interested in short term missions from the church and actual church missionaries, when they are visiting. The emphasis should primarily be on the mission field and the support (not just financial) of the folk there. Members of the group should communicate as much as possible with those in the field, so that prayers can always be fresh. Communication should be imaginative, using many different methods; Letters, Parcels with specialties from home (we'd die for a pork pie, and as for kippers……), telephone, E.Mail, teleconferences, videos etc. One church I know in the United States, send their missionaries a banner every year. You might think, well what's the use of that? But I can't begin to tell you how loved it makes those missionaries feel, as they know that folk in the US are spending hours, pouring their love into this work of art, for their missionaries. The natives to whom these missionaries minister are also blessed, as each year the couple present the previous years banner to a local church. This is truly creative communication. Sometimes I wish that someone would just take time to video a whole Sunday Service, with greetings and coffee included, just so that I could join in a service with folk that I know and love. (It’s interesting to note that thousands have read the first edition of this book and I have yet to receive a video like this). Creative communication is all that it needs. A missionary cell could also help with one of the missionary's most difficult tasks, the missionary news and prayer letter. Many missionaries spend up to 20% of their time working on these necessary means of communications, but in doing so are being diverted from their principal ministry. Given good communication between the Relational Gathering and the missionary, the Relational Gathering could take this task from the missionaries shoulders thus freeing them for ministry, the personal touch would not be lost, as the missionary would continue to write personally to those who wrote to him. This is how the church builds itself up in love.
Many feel that a home church that is so focused, cannot fulfill the goal of fully expressing the local church, but that is just not so. I know a church in South East London, whose main thrust for many years, was missions. So much so that they became well known all over Africa and later in Eastern Europe. Even in Spain people have spoken to me about the missionary zeal of that church. Yet all the while that mission was centre stage in that church, the Lord blessed it. The church still has mission high on its agenda, although is now more balanced in its approach. You can be a one-theme church and still grow in the Lord.
A study Relational Gathering is perhaps the most difficult to run. Here we are not talking about just Bible study, all cells should do that. No, here we are talking about a cell for those who for whatever reason want more, perhaps to prepare for ministry or to grow in knowledge of the Word. At 45 and having recently completed my doctoral thesis, I am still "studying to show myself approved." I am so in love with the Word that I continually want to know more.
The group should be a mixture of folk, with no defined students or teachers, but all learning from one another. It shouldn't just study the Bible, but also current events and controversies in the light of the Bible. On the day that I am writing this, an ex head of state has been put on trial for crimes against humanity, and I feel impelled to deepen my knowledge of what the bible has to say about the accountability of both national and local leaders.
The group should seek to share their discoveries with the whole church, thus helping all to grow in the love and knowledge of the Lord.
I would particularly recommend the Alpha-Omega Bible College, promoted by Outreach Fellowship International. See www.robertfitts.com.
Arts, Media and Worship Relational Gathering
In a larger local network one or more of these Relational Gatherings would be a blessing. Often springing from prophetic Relational Gatherings these groups provide a great home for those with artistic giftings, who are often misunderstood by those who do not share their gifts. Their work may be seen by some as being a bit "fringe". We have a friend who is studying "Drama Therapy", and the response of many is to see that as weird, rather than as a good means to help folk in need. I remember another congregation where we ministered, where we really came into blessing when we stopped thinking and talking about "Mary" being "an exhibitionist prancing around at the back" and welcomed her to share her gift at the front. In no time at all we had a small group who were able to express in dance, the worship that we all felt but couldn't show in that way.
God seems to use the arts to speak to the church in a prophetic way, to speak to the church. A good example of this is that the Lord will often stimulate me to produce a computer graphic to use during worship in church, this in turn may give insight to the worship leaders about where God is leading the meeting. It's only in the intimacy of a cell that enough trust can grow to enable this to happen.
To sum up, an arts and media Relational Gathering will form a solid base for those who will go on to bless the wider church.
Common Interest Relational Gatherings
Many Evangelistic Relational Gatherings start because people who share a common interest, come together an in sharing their interest, bring others to know Christ. The common theme may be many and varied; I have already mentioned a Christian hiking club that became a home church, but they could also be PTA's, Handicraft groups, Camping Clubs, or almost anything else that you can think of. Near the town where I was born, there was an active Christian Model Engineering Club. They made working model steam engines that ran on a small track that they had behind the hut where they met. Every evening and Sunday afternoons, when they met together, they included a time of prayer and Bible study. The spiritual aspect of their club was important to them, although they did not neglect their passion for steam engines. Soon others who were interested only in the trains wanted to join and were allowed a "visiting membership", many of these too became committed Christians, although some fell away through lack of interest in the spiritual side of the club. Although I'm sure that the club would not have regarded itself as a home church, which is effectively what it was. The members soon found that it was in the club that they found fellowship, love, and a shared growing together in Christ, and not in the local churches that they attended. It is significant to me, that when a home church was planted in their area, the majority of club members joined with their wives and children.