**Warning: this post may be longer than most!!**
In January of 2002, just after arriving back in Ancona following our first furlough (and Haven's birth), our team began meeting as a small group, a cell group which we called Life Group. We had been studying the cell model of churches and seen that God seemed to be blessing some of the churches in Italy that had followed it, including the largest Evangelical church in the country, the Parola della Grazia church in Sicily. For nearly six years we have been committed to the cell model of ministry and church-planting, not believing that it is the perfect model (as if a perfect model exists), but that in it exist qualities or characteristics of community that would be especially beneficial to those having grown up in a nominally Catholic religious background. These would be, to name a few: proactive accountability, small group intimacy and emphasis on lay leadership. We have sent teammates to Singapore to study how best to do children's ministry within the cell model. We have purchased sets of discipleship materials to be used with the cell model. We have visited two different Italian cell churches to find out how they do things and to learn from them. In other words, we've made a pretty significant commitment to figuring out how it can or should work in our current context.
A few years ago, we tried adding a Sunday morning 'Cell-abration' service and moved our Life Group to a mid-week time. This more than doubled our work-load on a team that was already close to burn-out and moved our focus prematurely off of building relationships. After six months we changed the Sunday morning service to monthly and a few months after that cancelled it all together. We went back to our roots and focused on our Life Group and on building relationships with the 'unchurched'.
Last fall, still meeting as one Life Group on Sundays, we had grown back to the point that we needed to multiply into two (a GOOD thing). For nearly a year now, we have been meeting as two Life Groups and slowly growing. At our retreat last month, our team talked about how we were shifting in our view of the 'need' here, about where people are and about the need stated by several of our church core for a regular gathering of everyone together. After talking and praying we decided to refit our Life Groups to focus more on community and prayer and to reintroduce a Sunday morning gathering. We met with the five core Italians and presented our ideas and concerns to them, asking for their help and their commitment. They were happy and helpful! Afterwards, our teammate Marcus commented that this meeting was the best thing we had ever done as a team since he had been on the field.
So, a week from today, September 30th, will be our return to having a Sunday morning celebration service. In the past, our Life Groups have been structured around 4 'W's: Welcome, Worship, Word and Witness. The new Life Groups, will be very flexible and transportable, but focused, instead, around the following five characteristics:
1. Leader - each group will have a servant leader, a facilitator whose main job is prayer, pastoring and communication
2. Weekly - this is one of two wings of our community here and thus will be meeting weekly
3. Meal - sharing a meal together is foundational - it fits with the culture and encourages a laid back comfortability (ask Josh for more on this!)
4. Deeper - the focus of these groups is NOT Bible study, but instead, simply to do life together. Thanks to our friends at Real Life Church for maybe even inadvertently helping me to see this. During the meal and anytime before and after (or anytime!), the group is encouraged to process the message from Sunday and to ask each other how they're doing, what they're struggling with, how they can be ministered to, etc.
5. Prayer - most importantly, the groups will pray together. I LOVE that Rosa, in our meeting with our core, insisted that this not just be 'lip-service' to prayer, but actually be a time where we all pray together.
This makes it easier to invite people into our homes, takes some of the structure out of Life Groups into a time/format that most Italians are comfortable with and continues our focus on the principles behind the cell model. It also makes it easier to train cell leaders and hopefully will help everyone see that they can start a Life Group.
Please pray for our team and church as we transition here: that we would continually evaluate and change, attune to the Spirit's leading. Pray for Brian and I during the coming months as we share the bulk of the preaching/teaching. Pray for real, Italian ownership. Pray for those who will be invited to step further into our community's circle.