We were the graduating cohort of Primary 6 students — a group of bright-eyed 12-year-olds.
We had spent much of our childhood seeing each other every week for Sunday School. Most, if not all of us, had parents who brought us to church.
When we first started out as a cell group, our time spent together was characterised by a pervasive sense of awkwardness.
While it was a mixed group, there was almost always a distinct separation between the guys and the girls.
We avoided having to sit with one another, whether borne out of a sense of reverence for the other gender or mere discomfort.
Although we had known one another as children, our interactions never lasted longer than they had to.
There was not much we did to get to know one another beyond the games we played in Sunday School or the conversations we shared about whatever was popular on TV at the time.
As a result, sharing sessions as young teenagers felt impersonal and aloof.
Before scrolling any further, be warned that this is not a guide to solving the many issues that might be plaguing your struggling cell group or how to build the “perfect” cell group.
This is but a reflection of my journey as a cell group member, and some of the things that I’ve come to learn. This is the story of my cell group.
One of the things that I’ve learnt is that an inherited faith can be as much of a curse as it is a blessing.
As second-generation Christians will attest to, it is a privilege to have parents willing to heed the call of Proverbs 22:6 to raise children in the knowledge of God.
I’ve met first-generation Christians who have met with challenging conflicts in their families as a result of their faith.
But these were not realities we were forced to face. Growing up under the shelter of Christian parents, we were largely shielded from such issues.
However, growing up in their shadows can sometimes also have its drawbacks. One cannot live out his faith vicariously.
Without a visceral understanding of God, the superficial knowledge of the God of one’s parents easily runs dry when faced with trials, or when allured by the “deceit of riches” (Matthew 13:22) and other worldly gains.
As Jesus illustrated in the Parable of the Sower in Matthew 13, mere knowledge of the Bible is insufficient if these words fail to take root in our heart.
These seasons serve as acid tests of our faith.
Rebellion and running away
Such realities became quite apparent in my cell group as more of us began gaining greater autonomy over our lives.
Confronted with romantic entanglements, academic demands, co-curricular activities or other commitments, and armed with the capacity to make decisions of our own, a number of us began moving away — not just from the group, but church too.
Not because we stopped believing in God, but perhaps because an invisible God took less precedence in our adolescent minds.
I, too, was guilty of prioritising other seemingly worthwhile pursuits over the weekly meetings of my cell group on more than one occasion.
After all, the last thing a 15-year-old, self-proclaimed “cool guy” wanted to spend his time doing was to talk about his feelings in a setting that felt awkward and impersonal.
Yet on the odd chance that I did turn up for cell group in my seasons of rebellion, what struck me most was how much the others had changed since the last time I had seen them.
I began noticing that they had become more forthcoming with their struggles, developed deeper personal relationships with one another, and their perspectives on faith had grown increasingly nuanced.
While I found these changes intriguing, the cynic inside of me pigeonholed these phenomena as mere byproducts of time spent together as opposed to genuine spiritual growth.
I continued playing truant because I failed to see the value in spiritual community. I already had friends in school, why would I need more friends in church?
Being young and immature, I continued to struggle to see God as anything more than a supersized genie. If He couldn’t further my interests, I wanted nothing to do with Him.
But I am grateful that through it all, God continued pursuing me, and in time my consumerist pseudo-Christianity gave way to an earnest search for God.
Reconciliation and no record of wrongs
What felt hardest at the time though was choosing to make it a point to attend cell group sessions after I had spent so long running away.
Not because of anything that was said, but because I could not shrug off the feeling that I no longer belonged.
I had missed out on so much of their time spent together growing up that I struggled to relate when I chose to go back after so long. Inside jokes flew past me, and other references had to be explained to me.
It felt like I could no longer really say that “we” had grown up together.
Yet my cell group continued to remind me that love keeps no record of wrongs (1 Corinthians 13:5), which is what I am now convinced is at the heart of spiritual community – to love one another as He has loved us (John 13:34).
Even though I spent many years trying to find my feet in a big, scary world as a teenager — often at the expense of time spent with my cell group — and though my shortcomings and imperfections were often fully on display, my cell group never made me feel unwelcome.
They continued to ask about me and to invite me for meals, they continued to sit next to me during service and to pray for me during sessions.
I was always made to feel like I belonged, even when I felt like I didn’t.
I imagine these years of shrinking and pruning must have also been felt greatest by my leaders at the time.
Without being able to witness the subtle yet unmistakable signs of growth from my perspective, and noting only dwindling attendance rates, I can only imagine how discouraging it must have been.
Yet they exemplified long-suffering love (1 Corinthians 13:4) by consistently turning up, even if just to minister to a few.
Renewal and relationships
Over the years, we’ve weathered many seasons as a group – seasons when we struggled with empathy, seasons when our commitments drew us away from the group and seasons when we were sorely disenchanted with one another, to name a few.
We’ve lost old friends, but also gained many new ones.
We’ve seen one another through milestones and misery, birthdays and bereavements, answered prayers and unmet expectations.
Through it all, I’ve begun to feel that my cell group has grown to look a little bit like family.
My cell group might not be perfect, but we’re trying. Isn’t that what family does?
If your cell group is struggling in any way, allow me to conclude by encouraging you to press on.
Resist the temptation to find the exit, barring the most extreme of circumstances. Resist also the urge to look elsewhere in the name of “exploration” at the first sign of trouble.
Years of experimentation have proven that it often takes more than gimmicky initiatives, insightful Bible studies or endless fellowship to make a cell group work.
If there’s one thing I’ve learnt, it’s that sometimes making a cell group work looks more like being patient and kind, and choosing not to let envy or boastful pride take root.
Sometimes it looks like opting to honour others above oneself, or making the decision not to get angry and to let bygones be bygones.
Sometimes you need to call out sin, and other times, celebrate the truth.
Sometimes you need to trust and hope, and other times, persevere.
Often enough, all it really takes to make a cell group work is love.
P.S. How’s your cell group doing? We’d love to hear from you too. Read our article above and participate in the poll in our Telegram channel!
- What are some of the challenges facing your cell group?
- Instead of leaving, what alternatives can you explore?
- How do you think God would want us to handle being a member of a difficult cell group?