Christian Swartz coined the term "holistic small groups" in his best-selling book, Natural Church Development. In this book, he describes them in this way:
1. Groups that are small in number (typically eight to 10, after which a small group would divide and multiply)
2. Focused on meeting the real questions and needs of their members in a holistic way
3. Aimed at multiplying and including more and more people in their fellowship, this being established as a goal to be pursued creatively
4. Small groups are "a church in microcosm," meaning you can expect everything that characterize the church as a whole to function, with slight variations, at the small group level, nurturing the heads, hands and hearts of the participants, working to bring these three dimensions into balance
5. In small groups, people share their personal lives; using the question "Have you experienced anything meaningful that you would like to share?"
As a ministry to churches, we use the term "cell group" to describe the kind of basic Christian community that is transformational for the members of the group and the world around them. Just to be clear, our use of the term "cell group" has nothing to do with prison cells, terrorist cells, or if you're a history buff or old enough to remember this far back, communist cells (from the days of McCarthy).
The introduction of The Naked Truth About Small Group Ministry contains an excellent definition for healthy holistic small groups:
A healthy small group is comprised of 3-12 persons who have chosen to live together in biblical community
for the purposes of Christ-centered worship, edification, relational evangelism, and discipleship.
Below the definition, these clarifying paragraphs were added clarification was added:
The ministry between group members is found both inside and outside the meetings as they serve, pray, care for, and edify one another. The small group meetings are often a “discovery time” for ministry in the six days and twenty-two hours between gatherings.
The mission of a healthy small group takes place when two or more of the members befriend unchurched individuals to show them the love of Christ through friendship, servanthood, and community involvement.
The goal of a healthy small group is to help each member find personal transformation in Christ. When transformation takes place in the life of a believer, he or she discovers a new self-perception in being a minister and a missionary.
The results of a healthy small group are found in its fruits: members who walk in spiritual freedom and are mission-driven; the addition of new believers who have trusted Christ as a result of the group’s relational nature; and new leaders who desire to first serve as new group leaders, then go on to lead in every capacity God desires.
In healthy small groups, the leader’s overarching goal for each member is similar to a parent. His or her desire is to see the members mature to the point of moving out of the leader’s “house” to form a spiritual family of their own. Healthy small group leaders work toward and expect a legacy from their efforts and dedication. In turn, the members desire to exercise their spiritual maturity and lead a group when they are ready.
Small groups may meet in any location and at any time. The important factor is for the group to meet regularly for worship, edification, application of the Word, and planning for effective outreach to the lost. Healthy small groups are compelled to change the location, frequency, or time of meetings if they see any of these purposes suffering.
What's in a name?
The terms we use (holistic small group or cell group) differentiate our ministry's mission and resources from what you may find in your denomination or a megachurch's small group ministry. We have no interest in helping churches start a small group program. Our focus is helping churches transition away from programs and buildings! It's all about equipping God's people for the work of their ministry and releasing them to do their ministry with teamwork. The pulpit and weekend corporate gatherings support the groups, not the other way around.
If you envision small groups being the exoskeleton of your church, protecting and expanding the health of the members within, we share a common goal and passion. We look forward to working with you and supporting your efforts!