Christianity isn’t just an idea
One of the problems with the intellectualizing and principalization that Christianity underwent during the last thousands years in Europe is the reduction of the faith into concepts that we need to hold true. The idea is that we’re Christians when we think the right way and believe the right things. Evangelism being reduced to disembodied concepts is probably why Christianity seems so off-putting to the next generation, who largely impugn it as hypocritical and judgmental.
But the other issue with disembodied, unenacted theology is that it disembodies us from how we talk about God. It disembodies us from our faith, which within the above framework is rooted, apparently, in the conceptions of our mind and our comprehension of them. When faith is just an idea then, when all of its content is just intellectual, churches try to come up with different delivery mechanisms of the intellectual content of Christianity.
And the reason I want to talk about this is because I think this separation does some damage to how we experience our faith, but it also doesn’t allow us to do theology with the structures that we use to deliver this content. It separates the method and the medium too much. The materiality of the method makes it a medium unto itself. Everything has theological meaning, reducing theology to the doctrine robs us of understanding and applying theology to our whole lives.
Faith isn’t intellectual, purely. Christianity isn’t an idea. It is a life. It is embodied. It is incarnational. A church’s “small-group program,” isn’t just about delivering the right ideas in an intimate setting. The actual “small group” has theology on its own. That’s how see our circles of ten in Circle of Hope, what we call “cells.”
We have content breathed into us
Cells have theology, which begged the question, “What is the theology of cells?” That’s what our seminarian’s cohort was talking about last week. I think we need to have an embodied faith to understand that cells are more than just a strategy or a delivery mechanism. They are more than just a form, they have meaning on their own.
Cells aren’t a strategy or a program. They are literally how people can experience God. The form of the cell, a circle of ten where people are relating, is how God can also be known. The Spirit of God is within you. The Spirit of God resides in you. And as you get to know one another, especially with consciousness that God dwells in you, you can also get to know God.
We have the content within us. We are the content. Seeing the cell as content on its own helps us to know that we are content on our own. That God breathed life into us (Genesis 2:7). That in God, “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:18)
Jesus introduced himself to the whole world by becoming a human. Through the incarnation, we met God. Through this incarnation, our humanity became holy. What God is by nature (God is holy), we are by grace (we become holy). Jesus ends his life by praying for his disciples to his Father this way, “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:21).
People meet God by meeting you
People are getting to know Jesus by getting to know you. We want to keep creating space for people to meet God, so cells are oriented toward multiplication. Someone suggested that instead of multiplying cells, we ought to plant more cells. That sounds great to me, but I also want to include everyone in on the project of helping people get next to Jesus.
During our meeting of seminarians, someone told a story about how the small groups at a church they used to attend were more like “affinity groups,” sometimes based in demographics or a topic, and sometimes closed. Small groups kind of appear as cells, but we decided they were much different.
Cells push against consumer choice and individualism. They create communities where communities aren’t. They also disrupt rural communities’ tribalism. They can disrupt family systems that are otherwise uninterruptible. Where communities naturally form, prejudice may follow too, or tribal conflict across family lines. So cells can be beneficial to our spiritual depth regardless of whether we live in the “East” or the “West” or rural, suburban, or urban environments.
Cells create intimacy wherever they occur, and there is something transcultural about how we are guarded against intimacy and vulnerability. They disrupt our defensiveness in a safe way. They create human connections where they weren’t before. Human connection wherever it happens is a miracle of Jesus Christ.
Cells allow us to embrace mystery
That is a mysterious idea. Human connection leads to connection with God? That really flies in the face of the idea that the right knowledge or truth is all we need to have intimacy with God. But concepts and intellectual faculties don’t make intimacy with God possible. Wonder does. Love does.
The fourteenth-century author of the Cloud of Unknowing tells us that we don’t know God through our minds, but through love. They say, “God is forever beyond the reach of the first of these, the intellectual faculty; but by means of the second, the loving faculty, God can be fully grasped by each individual being.”
Too much theological certainty, or even the reduction of our connection with God to doctrine, can hurt the intimacy we can form with God. Our minds can sometimes block how we relate to each other. We think we’re just exchanging ideas, but there’s more going on beneath the surface.
Can we sit in the wonder and mystery of that instead of trying to figure it out? Our cells can be a space for that reflection too, where we wonder but where we also love each other. People loving each other is a way for the Gospel to be delivered. People reconciling is a medium for Jesus to be known. Vulnerability unlocks faith. It tills the soil of our hearts and allows new faith to be planted.
We access ourselves in these relationships as well. We discover ourselves in community. We deepen ourselves in sharing. Participating in a cell can be a way to even grow your interior self.
The cell leader points out where God is showing
The cell leader is creating an ecosystem where God can be known and experienced. She’s responsible for helping people listen for God and naming where God is in the ordinary. She illuminates the presence of God in the mundane and the ordinary, showing us that all of us have access to God, and that we don’t need special knowledge or a special setting. A living room in an apartment is good enough.
Cells are different from Bible studies, because in a cell, the Bible is done not just studied. Some cells have elements of biblical study in them, but that’s not a requirement. We do the Bible. The Bible connects us to the story of Jesus, and the stories of people who followed Jesus. It relates us to the historical incarnation of God. We direct people toward their relatedness to God now. Relating to God isn’t an ancient activity, it’s something that can happen now. Each cell leader has a way of imagining how to help people inhabit the grace of God in their cell.
Cells aren’t based in affinity, but boundary-crossing. People, who might not otherwise belong, belong in a cell. They are diverse and span across age, gender, race, marital status and so on, when so many other similar ideas exclude people based on those things.
Of course, none of this is easy. It’s not just based in a curriculum or a program. It’s not just a meeting. But if it really is as dramatic as I’m making it seem, then, to quote one of our pastors, “we need to be less demure and more superlative about cells if they are really an antidote.”