Malcom Gladwell, author of the fairly well known books “The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference” and “Blink : The Power of Thinking Without Thinking,” wrote an article this past September for New Yorker entitled The Cellular Church. The article is about Rick Warren and his amazing mega-church, Saddleback in Southern California.

I become acquainted with Warren a bit after my wife attended a conference a year ago at Saddleback on children’s ministries, and after reading “The Purpose-Driven Life: What on Earth Am I Here For?” This article provided a lot more insight about Warren and his church, successful methods for both evangelizing and building church communities in the 21st century, and food for thought about what I find most valuable about my own experiences in church on a weekly basis.

On the topic of small groups and their vital role in churches today, I found this comment interesting and important:

As I see it, one of the most unfortunate misunderstandings of our time has been to think of small intentional communities as groups ‘within’ the church,” the philosopher Dick Westley writes in one of the many books celebrating the rise of small-group power. “When are we going to have the courage to publicly proclaim what everyone with any experience with small groups has known all along: they are not organizations ‘within’ the church; they are church.”

My perception is that effective churches have successful and effective small groups. I do get a lot out of large group activities, including Sunday worship and sermons, but most of the valuable “takeaways” I get from church come from the small groups in which I am involved.

This quotation is also convicting on the topic of small groups:

Membership in a small group is a better predictor of whether people volunteer or give money than how often they attend church, whether they pray, whether they’ve had a deep religious experience, or whether they were raised in a Christian home. Social action is not a consequence of belief, in other words.

If churches and church members aspire to make a tangible difference in the world in which we live, as instruments of God’s hand, then there seems to be little doubt that churches should be intentional and vigilant in encouraging the development and growth of small group ministries.

This paragraph gives an excellent summary of what makes Saddleback quite different. Attending a conference there really made a big impression on my wife, and this paragraph echoes many of the perceptions she returned to Lubbock, Texas, with after spending several days on the Saddleback “campus.”

For the first three months, he [Rick Warren when he was about to start Saddleback church] went from door to door in the neighborhood around his house, asking people why they didn’t attend church. Churches were boring and irrelevant to everyday life, he was told. They were unfriendly to visitors. They were too interested in money. They had inadequate children’s programs. So Warren decided that in his new church people would play and sing contemporary music, not hymns. (He could find no one, Warren likes to say, who listened to organ music in the car.) He would wear the casual clothes of his community. The sermons would be practical and funny and plainspoken, and he would use video and drama to illustrate his message. And when an actual church was finally built-Saddleback used seventy-nine different locations in its first thirteen years, from high-school auditoriums to movie theatres and then tents before building a permanent home–the church would not look churchy: no pews, or stained glass, or lofty spires. Saddleback looks like a college campus, and the main sanctuary looks like the school gymnasium. Parking is plentiful. The chairs are comfortable. There are loudspeakers and television screens everywhere broadcasting the worship service, and all the doors are open, so anyone can slip in or out, at any time, in the anonymity of the enormous crowds. Saddle-back is a church with very low barriers to entry.

This article is titled “The Cellular Church,” and Gladwell gives Warren credit for effectively using the principles of cellular organization at Saddleback:

Putnam goes on, “Warren didn’t invent the cellular church. But he’s brought it to an amazing level of effectiveness. The real job of running Saddleback is the recruitment and training and retention of the thousands of volunteer leaders for all the small groups it has. That’s the surprising thing to me–that they are able to manage that. Those small groups are incredibly vulnerable, and complicated to manage. How to keep all those little dinghies moving in the same direction is, organizationally, a major accomplishment.”

Of course to a believer, it is clear that all the credit or blame for “success” in small groups at Saddleback or anywhere else cannot and should not go to the pastor. The pastor’s role is important, but ultimately it is God’s work we are seeing here through the small group ministries, not simply the fruits of one or many people’s labor.

The flat world is having a tremendous impact in the developing as well as the developed world. Consider this anecdote from the article, discussing a visit Rick Warren made to South Africa:

In the first village they went to, the local pastor came out, saw Warren, and said, “I know who you are. You’re Pastor Rick.”

“And I said, ‘How do you know who I am?’ ” Warren recalled. “He said, ‘I get your sermons every week.’ And I said, ‘How? You don’t even have electricity here.’ And he said, ‘We’re putting the Internet in every post office in South Africa. Once a week, I walk an hour and a half down to the post office. I download it. Then I teach it. You are the only training I have ever received.'”

In the next to last paragraph of the article, Gladwell discusses how “personal networks” are the key to both Warren’s earthly success and his proposed plans to tackle problems wrought by poverty and disease. The ability for people to connect in our postmodern era is staggering. The fact that you are even able to read these thoughts on my blog is amazing. I don’t even know where the server for my blog is physically located, and it doesn’t even matter. What matters is that we have an ability to communicate: one to many and one to one, that is unprecedented in human history.

Small group ministries matter greatly, and I can attest to this personally. My Friday morning men’s group had about 20 in attendance this past week. The presenter had us do an informal survey, and we had participants in attendance who are in their 30s (like me), 40s, 50s, 60s, and 70s. What a diverse group of wisdom and experience. It is a joy each week (or at least weeks when I am in town) to learn from these other men and be mentored by them.

The cellular church can be a vibrant church. I am thankful to be a member of one!

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