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The Bare Essentials of Helping Groups Become Churches: Four Helps in CPM – Part 1

The Bare Essentials of Helping Groups Become Churches: Four Helps in CPM – Part 1

– By Steve Smith –

Going from Group to Church

In Church Planting Movements, we devote much time to finding persons of peace, winning them and their household, grouping them and discipling them. 


But where do churches fit into this mix? When do these groups become churches, if ever?

New believers must be gathered into churches. This is God’s design from the beginning of history. Living in community as church is the King’s way to equip His people – to be what they were designed to be and do what they were called to do.


Any CPM approach should purposefully form groups into churches at a key stage in the early discipleship process. Getting to church is a vital milestone in the Church Planting Movement process.


Not all groups become churches. Sometimes they become home-based cells of a larger church but still carry out the functions of the Body of Christ. The essential point is to help new believers become a part of the Body of Christ in a reproducible form that fits their community.


Two guidelines govern CPM churches:


BIBLICAL: Is this model and/or each aspect of church consistent with the Scripture?


There is no standard biblical model of what a church must be. We see numerous examples of culturally-adapted models in the Scripture. In CPMs we do not propose only one model of church as THE biblical model. Many models of church can be biblical. So the question is: “Is this model (and its elements) consistent with scriptural teaching?”


CULTURALLY REPRODUCIBLE: Is this model of church something an average new believer can start and organize? 


Since many models of church can faithfully serve the scriptural teaching, the secondary question becomes: “Which one best fits the culture and can best reproduce in our community?” The general guideline is: “Could an average young believer start and organize such a church?” Otherwise, church planting will be left to a few highly trained individuals.


With these two guidelines in mind, CPM approaches help believers start simple churches that enable disciples to faithfully follow Jesus as the body of Christ. When initiating CPMs, for the sake of reaching all the lost, we advocate CPM churches that are relevant and reproducible. That type of church will need to emphasize smaller church meetings in easy to find locations. These might include homes, offices, coffee shops and parks rather than locations that are costly to purchase or build.

Four Helps in Getting to Church

I was training a group of workers in Southeast Asia when we came to the subject of helping small groups (e.g. Bible study groups) actually become churches. The workers in this context were struggling to get churches started, not to mention the larger goal of a Church-Planting Movement (CPM). I took them through a set of four helps in the church-planting process—really a rather simple, but purposeful exercise in birthing authentic communities of faith.

It is not difficult to start reproducible churches if you have a clear process in your evangelism and discipleship. Clear purpose is vital. You must have a clear lesson(s) in your early discipleship which helps a group of believers consciously become a church. To establish churches that will start new churches, we have found these four practices especially helpful. 

  1. Know what you are trying to achieve: a CLEAR DEFINITION of when a group becomes a church.

It is difficult to start a church if you do not have a clear idea in mind of when a group moves from being a cell group or Bible study to a church.

Scenario: A group has been meeting independent of any church for three months. They have great worship times and deeply moving Bible studies. They listen to the Word and try to obey whatever it says. They are making plans to visit a nursing home to minister to the needs of people there. Are they a church?

There’s probably not enough information there for you to decide. Is it a church or a great Bible study group? If your definition of when a group becomes church is not clear, you might be tempted to call this group a church. The first step in starting churches is having a clear definition of what a church is—the basic essential elements of a church. We start small training groups that intend from the beginning to become churches.

Acts provides a concrete example that can be helpful here:

Activity:  Read Acts 2:36-47. Try not to make things too complicated. Boiled down, what made this group a church?

Write down your answer.

Here is an example of a definition of church created from the Acts 2 passage. It emphasizes the ten elements of the 3 Cs of church: Covenant, Characteristics, and Caring leaders.

  • Covenant (1): a group of baptized (2) believers [Mt.18:20; Acts 2:41] who recognize themselves as Christ’s body and are committed to meeting together regularly [Acts 2:46] 
  • Characteristics: they regularly abide in Christ through the characteristics of church:
  • Word (3): Studying and obeying the Scripture as authoritative
  • The Lord’s Supper or Communion (4)
  • Fellowship (5): loving care for one another
  • Including giving offerings (6) to meet needs and minister to others
  • Prayer (7)
  • Praise (8): whether spoken or sung
  • They live out a commitment to share the gospel (evangelism) (9)
  • Caring Leaders (10): As the church develops, leaders are appointed according to biblical standards (Titus 1:5-9) and exercise mutual accountability, including church discipline.

For the sake of church planting, the 3Cs are in order of priority. The most important C is “Covenant.” The group sees itself as church (identity) and has made a commitment (covenant) to follow Jesus together. This does not mean they must have a written covenant. They have simply made a conscious step to become church. Many times a church will give itself a name to signify this step.

The second part of the definition is “Characteristics.” A group may call itself a church, but if it lacks the basic characteristics of a church, it is not really a church. If an animal barks, wags its tail and walks on four legs, you may call it a duck, but it is really a dog. 

Finally, a healthy church will quickly develop indigenous (local culture) “Caring Leaders.” A church may exist before these leaders develop. We see a good example of this at the end of Paul’s first journey. In Acts 14:21-23, Paul and Barnabas visited the churches they had planted in the previous weeks and months and appointed elders for them at this point. For the long-term health of the churches, caring leaders should be raised up from within.

The first step in starting churches is: Know what you are trying to achieve and have a clear definition of when a group becomes a church.

  1. When you start a training group, MODEL from the beginning the parts of church life mentioned above.

A church planter was having a hard time helping the groups he was training to become churches. As he described to me his training groups, the process sounded like a sterile classroom experience. As the group worked through the lessons, they received knowledge but not warmth. In this classroom setting he was teaching them to start something different in their homes. He was modeling something different than what he hoped they would do. I suggested he change his training meetings into a format similar to what he would want the churches to look like. This would make it much easier for these groups to actually become churches.

The easiest way to transition a new small group into a church is to start living as church and modeling church from the very first meeting. That way, when you get to the discipleship lesson on church, you have already been experiencing it together. For example, in each meeting starting the first week, T4T employs a three-thirds discipleship process. This involves looking back to evaluate the previous week, looking up to receive more from God, and looking ahead in order to obey and serve Him faithfully. These three-thirds incorporate the basic elements of church such as worship, prayer, Word, fellowship, evangelism, ministry, etc.

Do your best from the first small group meeting to model what you want this new church to eventually look like. The lesson on church should come as no surprise. You don’t want to spend 4-5 weeks together as a “class” and then announce: “Today we will have the lesson on church and become a church,” and completely change your manner of meeting. Becoming a church should be a natural next step in the process of meeting together.

In part 2 we will share the other two essentials for helping groups become churches.

Steve Smith, Th.D. (1962-2019) was co-facilitator of the 24:14 Coalition and author of multiple books (including T4T: A Discipleship Re-Revolution). He catalyzed or coached CPMs all over the world for almost two decades.

Adapted from an article originally published in the September-October 2012 issue of Mission Frontiers,, pp. 22-25.

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