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Cell church works, says rural priest

The Rev. Sally Gaze is the team rector of the Tas Valley in Norfolk, England. She was in the Diocese of Toronto recently to talk about growing churches in rural areas.

By Stuart Mann

When you hear the words “cell church” or “fresh expressions of church,” you often think of them as taking place in urban or suburban settings. But they can also happen in rural churches and small towns and villages, with surprising results.

In the Rev. Sally Gaze’s benefice (a multi-point parish) in rural England, for example, there are 10 “cells.” These are small groups, mostly made up of new Christians, who meet in people’s homes or other locations to grow in their faith.

“We wanted people to know Jesus and to be able to grow in discipleship, and we felt that to do that, we had to meet people where they were,” said Mrs. Gaze in an interview in early June. She was in the Diocese of Toronto to lead workshops on growing churches in rural areas.

Mrs. Gaze is no stranger to rural ministry. For the past 10 years, she has been the team rector of the Tas Valley in Norfolk, East Anglia. Her benefice is made up of six parish churches and the cell church. Before this, she worked in rural parishes in Wales and Worcestershire. She’s also the author of the book Mission-shaped and rural: growing churches in the countryside.

In 2003, she brought together a team of people to run an Alpha course, which is an introduction to Christian basics. About 26 people showed up, half of whom were new to Christianity. At the end of the course, several wanted to be confirmed. They also wanted to keep meeting and talking to each other. Rather than be directed to their nearest parish church, they were given the opportunity to form church in small groups, similar to those in the Alpha course—and the first cells were born.

Mrs. Gaze said keeping the people together in small groups was important to keep them growing in their faith. “They hadn’t come from a church background. They had shared their needs and concerns at Alpha, and if they went to a Sunday congregation, they wouldn’t see each other and they wouldn’t have the opportunity to have the same sort of in-depth conversations and to pray for each other.”

While it might seem odd at first to keep the newcomers separate from the regular Sunday congregation, it can actually lead to a stronger parish overall, she says. “Cells are vital parts of the body, and cells in church life are there to multiply and grow and keep the body healthy. Cells are small groups of people who meet as church-in-miniature. They are like cells which contain the DNA of what it means to be church—worshipping together, learning from the Bible, caring for each other and the wider church, and sharing God’s love in the local community and wider world.”

Although congregation members can join the cell churches if they want to, the cells are primarily aimed at being church for the unchurched—for those for whom Sunday worship is unfamiliar and uncomfortable, or simply impossible among work and family obligations. They also actively reach out to those who don’t attend church, and they create opportunities for others to find out about Christian faith for the first time.

“Often a cell is defined by the kind of mission they feel called to,” says Mrs. Gaze. In her parish, there are cells for youth, new mothers, men, people of different generations, and people who reach out to those with learning disabilities.

“It’s often difficult in a small village church to find people who share your interests and stage in life—one church has to cater for everyone— and cells give a chance for those with particular needs and interests to get together to explore issues of faith specific to them, such as being a teenager or being a parent of young children or managing a demanding workload. This is also attractive to others in similar situations on the edges of faith who value the opportunity to explore what they believe and how this works in their lives with people who understand their situation.”

The cells, which meet weekly, have from four to 12 members. They meet in people’s houses or wherever is convenient. Each cell is led by a trained leader, usually a lay person. Their time together includes “the 4 Ws” – welcome, worship, word and witness.” Three or four times a year, they receive the Eucharist from Mrs. Gaze or another priest in the Tas Valley Team.

While there is inevitably some tension between the cells and the congregations in the parish churches, they get along well together, she says. Not only do the cells bring new faith and energy, they also provide practical support. They contribute a significant amount of money to the benefice’s operating budget and, because they have no buildings to maintain, they can buy things like photocopiers and other items for the parish churches. “The cell church has never been a drain on the parish churches,” she says. “There is a real relationship encouraging love and support between them.”

Mrs. Gaze admitted that, at first glance, getting cells up and running may over-stretch an already busy cleric in rural ministry. But her experience has been the opposite of that. “In my experience, in some ways the cell church is the easiest church to grow because of the people who’ve joined it and because it’s mainly lay-led. When I invest in those cell leaders, they do a lot of pastoral care and ministry that otherwise nobody would be doing, or I would be asked to do and become stretched in doing it.”

She said it’s a rewarding part of her ministry. “Part of our ministry as ministers is to enable others to be ministers. Investing in something, whatever it might be, enables other people to reach out and to care and to love and to guide people into discipleship. While it might seem like a great additional investment, the returns that we get back are very great.”

To learn more about cell church and mission-shaped activities in the Diocese of Toronto, visit the Mission: Learn page on this website. Interested in learning more about rural ministry? Be sure to attend the Ninth Annual Alex Sim Rural Ministry Symposium, Oct. 22-24, in Jackson’s Point, Ontario.