REJECTING MEGACHURCHES, THESE LUTHERANS ARE BUCKING THE TREND
It’s possible to worship god in a living room
During any given week, the 35 families that make up River Fellowship, a congregation affiliated with the American Association of Lutheran Churches (AALC), will gather for worship.
But they won’t do it all together in one church building. Rather they’ll meet on weekday evenings in small groups of up to 15 adults and children each, clustering informally in homes scattered across the metro area.
Each of these groups is called a “cell church,” and River Fellowship is a congregation made up of seven such cells.
Believed to be the only congregation of its type in the Twin Cities, the AALC parish is an attempt to use the model of the early Christian church, when members met in homes to hear the Gospel message, care for one another’s needs and move out to make disciples of those living around them.
“A cell is basically Christian discipleship,” said the Rev. Tom Hilpert, the 31-year-old pastor who launched River Fellowship in his own home while he was a seminary student in 1995 and has continued to head it with the AALC’s blessing since he graduated and was ordained.
“In talking with people who have a Christian background, I say, ‘Come if you want to minister.’ We’re looking for people who don’t know Jesus at all and those who want to minister to them.”
The two-thirds of River Fellowship’s members who have some church background but for the most part are no longer active in a congregation obviously feel more comfortable in the extended-family, home atmosphere of the cell gatherings than they would in a large congregation. The other one-third are the unchurched to whom they have reached out and brought in on a neighbor-to-neighbor or friend-to-friend basis in keeping with the discipling emphasis.
Of those families with church backgrounds among the 35 in River Fellowship, only three or four are Lutherans, with the rest running the gamut from former Roman Catholics to one-time Assembly of God members, according to Hilpert.
At a recent meeting of a cell group in St. Paul, the four families represented visited informally over dessert, then settled into living-room chairs for about an hour and a half. During that time they sang contemporary Christian songs to Hilpert’s guitar accompaniment, offered individual prayers of repentance and of concern for others outside the group, received communion and discussed at length the sermon and the Scripture text on which it was based. Hilpert had sent both to participating families earlier, over the Internet.
Besides Hilpert’s written sermons, a feeling of unity among River Fellowship’s seven cells is preserved by holding a monthly celebration service at Luther Seminary and two or three retreats attended by almost all members each year.
Until two years ago River Fellowship was a mission congregation of the AALC, receiving financial support from the parent synod. But as it grew, spinning off new cells to keep the small-group dynamic alive, leaders decided to move out on their own and declined further subsidies.
The congregation now operates on an annual budget of $73,000, raised through tithes and offerings. It covers the pastor’s salary, office supplies, insurance, beginning efforts to form a youth group, and partial support for two of its members who have gone out as missionaries — one in Mongolia and one in Vietnam.
The budget can and will remain relatively small because River Fellowship never envisions having a church building of its own.
Four leaders from the various cells serve as deacons and handle administrative matters. And while Hilpert retains close touch with all the cells, each has its own leader whom he has trained. They use materials put out by Touch Ministries of Houston, Texas, a promoter of the cell movement in the United States. And, Hilpert also funnels his own ideas to the leaders.
The son of a former ELCA missionary in Papua New Guinea, Hilpert early felt called to the ministry and went through a long period of study and prayer, searching for the path of service that he was best suited for.
He attended the Lutheran Bible Institute in Seattle, graduated in 1991 from Oregon State University with a degree in communications and then spent a year in youth ministry. Meanwhile, a group of Lutheran congregations that had declined to go along with the merger that produced the ELCA in 1988 had formed the AALC, and when that body launched its own seminary in St. Paul, he decided to enroll in its first class.
Hilpert says he had seen pieces of the cell model in churches he attended while in college, but a decisive moment in his career planning occured when he read the book Where Do We Go From Here? A Guidebook for the Cell-Group Church by Ralph W. Neighbour, Jr. “It clearly expressed a vision of what God had been putting on my heart for years,” Hilpert said.
The AALC, looking for people to start new churches, gave Hilpert its permission to start a cell church as an internship project midway through his seminary studies. After several months of specialized study on planting new churches and lots of prayer and thinking about how he was going to go about the task, Hilpert held the first meeting of his cell church in October 1995.
Joining him and his wife Kari at the meeting in their home in St. Paul were two other couples. From there began the process of inviting others to join them, the growth to about 18 people and the subsequent splitting off into new cells that has produced the metro-wide River Fellowship of today. Following his graduation from the seminary in 1997, the AALC gave Hilpert an official call to continue the work, and he was ordained.
The cell-church movement is growing in the United States but not nearly so rapidly as on other continents, Hilpert believes. He cites some countries in Asia and South America, and also areas where the church has been under persecution. Americans are simply too busy for the demands [the cell church approach] puts on them.
“There’s a real time factor in living the cell lifestyle because it actively involves you with other people, and that takes time,” the pastor said.
At the same time, he said, the stress on mass-participation events in American culture has left people starving for personal interaction and community. And from the spiritual perspective, Hilpert said, “People are starving for the Lord and this is one way to connect to them. I think it’s a good way that people are hungering for.”
The brand of Christianity to which River Fellowship calls its members falls on the conservative side of the theological spectrum, Hilpert agrees.
“Certainly our congregation embraces a conservative biblical view,” he said. “We believe in the authority of Scripture.”
But Hilpert says he’s no reactionary. “I’m just getting down to business, getting on with life and ministry the way I see it, and I’m not reacting to anything.”
The pastor describes the approach of the AALC, which is forming new cell congregations in California and Arizona, as one of “cautious approval.”
Said the Rev. Charles Eidum, an administrative assistant to the national synod in Bloomington and editor of its official publication: “They’re definitely filling a niche. Otherwise they wouldn’t be able to draw the people that they are.
“They’re able to reach people who wouldn’t darken a church door or even a school or nursing home or community center if the church was there, whereas they would be willing to come to a home.
“It’s also in their favor that it’s neighbor inviting neighbor and friend inviting friend. That method works within any system of evangelism, I believe.”