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Interestingly, more and more institutional churches are developing small group structures within their institutional models, recognizing their value in discipleship. Some churches go even further, basing their core structure on small groups, considering them to be the most important aspect of their ministry. Larger "celebratory meetings" are secondary in importance to the small groups (at least in theory).
These are steps in the right direction, and God blesses such steps, as His blessing upon us is proportionate to the degree that we line up with His will. Indeed, "cell churches" are better structured than standard institutional churches to facilitate disciple making. They stand halfway between the institutional church model and the house church model, combining elements of both.
How do modern institutional churches with small groups compare with ancient and modern house churches? There are some differences.
For example, small groups within institutional churches unfortunately sometimes serve to promote much that is wrong within institutional churches, especially when the real motive for starting small group ministry is to build the senior pastor's church kingdom. He consequently uses people for his own ends, and small groups fit that plan nicely. When this occurs, small group leaders are selected for their tested loyalty to the mother church, and they can't be too gifted or charismatic, lest the devil fill their heads with ideas that they can make it on their own. This kind of policy hinders the effectiveness of small groups and, just like in any other institutional church, drives off the truly called and aspiring leaders to Bible schools and seminaries, robbing the church of true gifts, and taking such people to a place where they will be lecture-taught rather than on-the-job discipled.
Small groups in institutional churches often evolve into little more than fellowship groups. Disciple-making really doesn't occur. Since people are supposedly being spiritually fed on Sunday mornings, small groups sometimes focus on other things besides God's Word, not wanting a repeat of Sunday mornings.
Small groups in institutional churches are often organized by a staff member of the church, rather than birthed by the Spirit. They become one more program among many other church programs. People are put together based on ages, social status, background, interests, marital status or geographical location. Goats are often mixed with sheep. All of this fleshly organization does not help believers learn to love each other in spite of their differences. Remember that many of the early churches were a mixture of Jews and Gentiles. They regularly shared meals together, something forbidden by Jewish tradition. What a learning experience their meetings must have been! What opportunities to walk in love! What testimonies of the power of the gospel! So why do we think we must divide everyone into homogeneous groups to insure success of small groups?
Institutional churches with small groups still have the Sunday morning performance, where spectators watch the pros perform. Small groups are never permitted to meet when there are "real" church services, indicating to all that it is really the institutional services that are most important. Because of that message, many, if not the majority, of Sunday morning attendees will not get involved with a small group even if encouraged to do so, seeing them as optional. They are satisfied that they are attending the most important weekly service. So the small group concept may be promoted as being somewhat significant, but not nearly as significant as the Sunday institutional service. The best opportunity for real fellowship, discipleship and spiritual growth is effectively downplayed. The wrong message is sent. The institutional service is still king.