Cell groups play a very important role in the development of the Evangelical Reformed Church of Singapore (ERCS). According to Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, a cell is “the basic and usually smallest unit of an organization or movement.” In her earliest days as an organization, the ERCS was an unofficial Bible Club in a public school. She ran two Bible Classes—one for the morning session of the school and the other for the afternoon I session. Through the years this Club began to have I Bible Classes in other schools as well. In essence these Bible Classes are the early cell groups of the Bible Club.
The idea of cell groups is deeply engraved in the consciousness of the members of the ERCS. Let me quote a part of a letter which I received from a newly-wedded couple in the ERCS to prove my point: Jack and Jenny wrote, “We hope that in time to come we can have a small cell group with Chan Chee Seng and Yoke Mui. It is our desire that we can serve God even better as a family. . . .We hope and plan to invite church members to our place for dinner and at the same time fellowship together and to get to know them even better.” Cell groups have been a source of spiritual encouragement to many in the ERCS.
Within the context of a church I would define a cell group as a gathering of a few church members living, and meeting once a week, within a certain locality for the purpose of the exercise of their Christian faith and always under the supervision of the consistory. But how can such cell groups serve the church? To answer that question we must first of all consider the work of the Militant Church. For convenience and mnemonic reasons, we shall view the work of the church in connection with her name as “a mother,” “a family,” and “a light.”
As a mother, the church has her children, namely her church members to take care of. This she does, first of all, through the threefold office of Christ in the Church, namely, the minister, elders, and deacons. The ministers and elders are to make sure that members of the congregation are fed with the Word of God. And the deacons are to bring to them the mercies of Christ together with the same Word of God. The office-bearers are also to maintain discipline in the church and see to it that the sacraments of our Lord are properly administered.
As a family, the Church is a place where her every member has his own individual role to play. All the children should learn to be submissive to their elders, the older members of the church. The older ones should help the younger ones with their responsibilities in the family. Everyone should try to maintain the peace of the family by maintaining the rules of the family. This is done by reminding each other of these rules and also by keeping them. In the family, communication should be free and easy so that sorrows and joys of each member are shared by all.
As a light, a beacon light, the Church draws all those who are lost in darkness and sin to the foot of the cross. This is not only for church members so that they are constantly cleansed in the blood of the lamb, but also for the many elect who are still wandering outside in the wilderness of sin and ignorance. The light must reach out to them, too.
Now we shall see how the cell groups help this threefold work of the church in Singapore.
In order for the undershepherds to be faithful in their work in the church they must get to know the sheep. While seeing the flock once a week at the worship services may inform them to a certain extent of the need of the flock, nevertheless such information is minimal. It is just simply impossible for the consistory to meet every member of the church after the two divine services every Lord’s Day. Even if they do, such meetings are very often very superficial so that an accurate knowledge of an individual family or person is almost impossible. The practice of family visitation is undoubtedly a very good one. But again in this practice there are families that do not co-operate to share their true physical and spiritual needs. The number of times the families get visited in a year also shows the inadequacy of this method to gain a true knowledge of the flock. In the work in Singapore, family visitation is unheard of. Members do visit one another in their homes but never in an official capacity like the Family Visitation of the PRC. This is under standable when we consider how many of these families are pagan, and such an official visit may well arouse persecution against our church members. With the practice of this type of Family Visitation ruled out, we find that cell groups serve best to inform the undershepherds of the flock.
There is in each cell group a group leader who serves as a liaison between the group and the consistory. At present, I believe members of the consistory are themselves involved in these cell groups. Being small in number and consisting of members from around the same vicinity they talk and share fairly easily with one another. Through the leaders, the consistory can get a fairly accurate picture of the spiritual and physical needs of the flock.
With this knowledge, the office-bearers can proceed to tend the flock accordingly. The messages from the pulpit should take the specific spiritual needs of the congregation into consideration. Elders should watch over the flock diligently so that problems can be tackled at their inception rather than at their termination. The mercies of Christ when shown early and speedily also prevent many a sorrow and show the alertness and tenderness of the Good Shepherd. Sometimes problems are better solved at the cell group level itself, especially when such problems involve only a particular group. Personally, I remember speaking to a particular cell group about the question of women voting in the church, just before I came to the States. Also, we must not forget that every believer is in some real sense a partaker of the threefold office of Christ. In the cell groups they have good opportunities to exercise that office. Every member can learn to rule and submit to one another in the love of Christ. It is more personal when they show the mercy of Christ. When church members exercise this threefold office under the faithful supervision of the consistory there is no fear of forming churches within a church out of these cell groups. In this way, too, future leaders are also being prepared.
In close connection with the exercise of the office of believers we want to turn our attention now specifically to the family setting of the church. We said earlier that the church is like a family where the older ones help the younger ones in their individual responsibilities towards the church. Every member of the church has a calling to grow in the knowledge of the truth. This knowledge is not a mere intellectual knowledge, but it is one which affects the total of one’s life so that in this knowledge he actually loves and fellowships with his God. Such a growth is not an automatic process in which no effort on our part is involved and no difficulty encountered. This is not true with our physical growth and neither can it be true with our spiritual growth. For a healthy physical growth, proper food, and that in right amount, is to be eaten and a good amount of physical exercise must be performed. Spiritually, too, the proper Word in right amounts must be taken and the faith must be exercised. The cell groups in the ERCS help in both these areas of spiritual growth.
In the cell groups they normally would study systematically through a book of the Bible, verse by verse, as the societies over here would do. There is much discussion among members of the group as they try to understand the Scriptures. Whenever there are difficult questions which none in the group could answer, assignments to seek for the answer from commentaries or older Christians in the church are given either to certain individuals or to the whole group. In this way they learn to search the Scriptures.
Normally, also, there would be a short session in which members of the group would share whatever is on their mind. It is during this time that we hear of the spiritual conflicts which they face in their homes, schools, or working places. Their desire is to obey the Word of God, but in a non-Christian environment they often find that the people around them could not understand them. Their purpose of sharing their experiences is not to exalt themselves but rather to seek encouragement from their fellow saints. These sharings are also taken as prayer requests. Through this sharing they learn from one another how they should walk their pilgrimage with fear. To the best of their knowledge, the Word of God is always brought into bearing upon their Christian life. When we consider how they do not have Christian homes to return to, to share their spiritual conflicts, we can understand how these cell groups are so precious to them. Here in the cell groups the Word of God preached from Lord’s Day to Lord’s Day is reflected at their level of understanding through the studying of God’s Word. Here also they learn how faith concretely manifests itself in the life of a believing child of God. In this way they grow spiritually to the good of the church.
And the church is also a beacon light in this world of darkness so that others from outside of the church might be gathered in. The Church is sent by Christ togo and make disciples of all nations. This is the business of the whole Church and not just of the ministers only. The ministers are called to proclaim the living and abiding Word of God. This Word abides in the hearts and lives of God’s people. Many are brought to hear our Lord Jesus Christ speak when they observe what great things His Word has wrought within the hearts and lives of His people. The cell groups of the ERCS can be used as stepping stones to the church worship ser vice.
In our work among young people and especially among students we find that very often it is easier for them to come to the cell group meetings than to the worship service. The reason lies in the localities of these two meetings. Cell groups are normally held near to their homes so that they can take a walk there, but the worship service is held in a place quite distant from their homes. Most people in Singapore travel by bus. This means the inconvenience of waiting for a bus under the hot sun and spending extra for transportation, should they go to the worship service. Moreover, it is easier and more comfortable to be in an informal situation than to be in a formal one. Very often the messages at worship services are just too far beyond them. In a small group it is easier for the newcomers to get to know the people better and faster. All these enhance questioning and discussions. Being informal, the meeting can be geared to the existing situation. Should there be any questions about the Christian faith they can be answered straight away from the Bible without delay. Having visited a cell group, an outsider may feel more confident to enter the church. All these are said not to deny the fact that ultimately it is the Spirit of God Who is going to convert the sinners and draw them to Christ and His Church.
It is also the cell groups which are actively involved in the task of following up new converts. This is not to minimize the importance of catechetical instruction by the elders of the church, although at present there is no such instruction in the ERCS except for Rev. den Hartog’s pre-baptism classes. The ERCS should have catechism classes and the cell groups can serve as “Christian homes” for the young converts.
In conclusion, it must be emphasized that the cell groups in Singapore are a great help in the growth of the church. Through the cell groups new members are added to the church, saints are encouraged in their Christian walk and office-bearers are encouraged in their labor of love.
The above is an address given last spring at Mission Emphasis Day in Kalamazoo Protestant Reformed Church. (Prof R.D. Decker)