Human beings are created for relationships: relationship with their Maker, relationship with their fellow human beings, and relationship with other creation. It is at the core of our fabric to want to know others and to want to be known.
How do we know this? Because everyone dreads loneliness. People get depressed when they are lonely. You can be among a multitude of people but feel lonely when you feel that nobody knows you deeply. On the other hand, you can sit by yourself but not feel lonely when you know that you are deeply known.
In the midst of his difficult time, David found comfort. Why? Because he knew that he was deeply known by God. “O Lord, you have searched me and known me” (Psalm 139:1). The whole Psalm 139, in fact, is a beautiful meditation of the preciousness of being known by God. When Jesus claimed that He was (and still is) the good shepherd, He said this, “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father” (John 10:14-15). Knowing His own is among Jesus’ top priorities when it comes to our relationship with Him.
Therefore, it is only natural to state that in terms of leading God’s flock in small communities, such as cell groups, cultivating deep relationships must be a priority. Deep inside, cell members want to know and want to be known so that their relationships are enriched and their lives become more meaningful.
However, how to cultivate deep relationships is always a challenge in a cell group. Meeting regularly, sharing prayer points, studying the bible together, having meals, and regular conversations help us know each other to some extent. However, if you are honest, they sometime leave us wanting. There is more to a deep relationship than just knowing his personal situation, her cultural and spiritual background, our likes and dislikes, or our takes on certain world events.
In this article, I would like to propose two principles that cell leaders can adopt in order to help facilitate deeper relationships among cell members, which will then help in the richness of the group life. This is not meant to be comprehensive. There are, of course, other ways to achieve this. I would argue, however, if these two are not constantly observed, then others will fail. So, here we go.
1. Stop being superficial and polite. Start being vulnerable.
Examine how your cell members interact: their conversations, their prayer points, their opinions/contributions during the bible studies. More often that not, our interaction with each other is at worst superficial or at best polite. We pick and choose which aspects of our lives to reveal to others without risking our reputation. Even when we confess our weakness, we choose a flaw that would not damage our image in front of others, especially when we are already comfortable with people knowing that particular weakness. As a result, someone can have many conversations with us but still left not knowing how we really are. Why? Because we choose to show only the ‘safe’ aspects of our lives for people to see. At the same time, we hold on to other aspects that lurk beneath because we are afraid of what people might say about them. However, may I submit to you that the key to a deeper relationship is the courage to bring those ugly sides to the surface for people to see, and hence, give opportunities for others to know you and to love you for who you really are.
If you are a cell group leader, you must lead by example. When it is your time to share your prayer points, do you choose to be safe or to bring your ugly side for people to minister to you? Asking others to pray for your job search, for your illness, for your exam, for your time management, for your weight-loss is good. But they are too safe. You are not being vulnerable. You are keeping a distance.
Nobody can know anybody if everybody is keeping a distance.
Confessing to others about how you lashed out on your children during the week and asking them to pray for your anger issue, on the other hand, is you being vulnerable. Confessing to others about how you have not been generous in your giving and asking them to pray for your greed issue is you inviting others to close in on you. You are allowing others to look at who you really are and you are giving permission to others to do the same. When a cell group is a place where people are not afraid to be vulnerable, that’s when people begin to be deeply known.
There are additional advantages of doing this. You allow God to search your heart and to destroy the idols. You allow others to minister to you and to speak truth into your life. As you lead others to do the same, your cell group will be a place where people freely confess their sins to God and to one another, and a place where God’s truth is spoken liberally against the heart idols. The results are not only deep relationships, but also deep transformations. Who does not want that from a cell group?
So, the first principle is regarding your conversations. The second one is regarding your activities.
2. Don’t just stay within your comfort zone. Serve outside your comfort zone.
If I asked you, “What does your cell group do for bonding?” what would you say? Many cell groups will organise outings, day trips, BBQs, meals, etc in order for the cell members to get to know one another. I agree that the more time you spend with one another, the more you will know each other. However, my observations tell me that there are many cell groups that do a lot of activities together but they still don’t necessarily see deep relationships happening. The problem is not the amount of time. I believe the problem is the type of activities they do together.
Alan Hirsch in his book ‘The Forgotten Way’ describes a concept that he named Communitas. It is basically the notion that members of a community are bound together in the context of shared ordeals. The result is a much deeper form of community than the one we have generally become accustomed to.
Doing pot-luck, going for a cell retreat, going for a cell group trip are great for bonding. However, they are still within the comfort zone. Within the safety of the comfort zone, everyone can be nice and polite to each other without showing their fear, their insecurity, and their self-centeredness. While they grow to know more about each other, they do not have to come out of their shell, and their idols are safely lurking beneath.
On the other hand, when cell groups start to move outside of the comfort zone, such as serving together, at church or outside, going for a short-term mission trip together, serving the poor together, visiting orphanages together, serving the city together, welcoming newcomers together, hosting an evangelistic event together, and donating money together for a good cause, whether they like it or not, their comfort zones are shaken, their heart idols are suddenly screaming for attention, and you will start seeing some very selfish behaviours, some controlling fear, some anger issues, and conflicts. Yes, those are difficult to handle at times; but they are precious in terms of knowing your cell members, knowing who they really are spiritually.
When a group of people throw themselves to a deep end, they have no choice but to depend on one another. This genuine interdependence will force everyone to allow others to invade each other’s space, and by doing so, creates deep relationships.
Nobody will know you if you don’t let anybody invade your personal space.
Just like the first principle, this principle comes with an added advantage as well. It pushes your cell group to be on mission together. Not only you get to build deep relationships with one another, by doing Communitas, you find your cell group being on mission together. How can that not glorify God?
Like I mention above, there are of course other ways that your cell group has done in the past that have helped build deep relationships. However, chances are they involve any of the two principles above, though I am always happy to be corrected.
There is, however, one big key that you have to have in order to make the above happen. You have to be secure in Christ, first. If you are not secure in Christ, you will not want to be vulnerable. If you are not fully gripped by the fact that Jesus loves and accepts you regardless of your sins, you will always want to stay within your comfort zone. Only when you are secure in Christ, then you can lead others to be vulnerable before each other and you can let God minister to you, and in so doing, you are building deep relationships not only with each other, but with God Himself.