There are several fundamental commitments that must be present in the mind of anyone who writes cell lessons. Consider each one of these basic principles as you consider what must be said and how it is to be presented.
Cell lessons are tools, not devotionals
Devotionals and sermons have a particular sort of content and structure to them. Devotionals usually tell a story or examine a feature of life and then draw a spiritual parallel; sermons are usually organized in a point-by-point format to present a full picture of the truth being examined. While these structures are wholly appropriate and effective in the right context, cell lessons are being employed differently. For one thing, cell lessons are intended to support a variety of widely ranging contexts, from quick discussions between basketball games to cross-cultural exchange encounters to intentionally casual conversations while performing a different activity. As a result, cell lessons must be modular, adaptable, and conducive to contextualization of content. Sermons and devotionals often rely too much on their internal structure or specific examples to be directly adaptable. For another thing, cell lessons are often presented informally, whether to avoid the misperception of being insincere, or to encourage personal engagement with the material, or to suit better an informal context. As a result, prototypical “three points and a poem” sermonizing seems forced and artificial; and devotional summaries fail to prepare the cell leader adequately to employ (for example) a discussion method with its unpredictability. A good cell lesson provides more material than a cell leader actually needs (with the understanding that the cell leader will choose the most suitable approach from among all the possibilities) so that he or she will be better equipped to handle hard questions and other ‘surprises.’
Children need rules, but adults need understanding
Too often our spiritual instruction takes the form of “Do better; try harder.” We drop The Great Big Book of God’s Rules on the desk in front of our disciples and expect that just knowing what God expects is enough to make our lives right with him. Jesus’ teaching in the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ makes it clear, however, that God expects more out of us than mere adherence to the rules. The epistle to the Romans tells us that following the rules perfectly is impossible anyway. If that weren’t enough, our own experience gives us ample evidence that being told that we aren’t good enough and merely trying harder are techniques to ensure a life of frustration and despair. Just as a child first learns the rule “Don’t lie about others,” and only later comes to appreciate the importance of justice—more, in fact, than the rules that spring from a desire to maintain justice—so too do we first learn ‘the rules’ about what God expects and later come to understand why. It’s the “why” that’s important, though. So let your spiritual instruction be more than merely adding to the interminable list of rules that ‘good little Christians’ will follow. Instead, show how God’s expectations and desires reveal what God’s like, how he operates here on earth, and what he values. Push your disciples to understand why Christians should live a certain way; and when they struggle to make that lifestyle real, give them Scriptural answers on how they can overcome. “Do better” and “try harder” never brought hope to a sinner or transformed a single life.
Principles endure longer than proof-texts
We use Scripture not merely to give the students a go-to text on a particular topic, but to teach them to look at Scripture meaningfully. To accomplish that purpose, we don’t just give them a passage to read and talk about. Rather, we demonstrate for them how to examine the passage and to dig deeply, to make connections and to pull the passage apart. After doing so, the students have a level of understanding that goes beyond superficial acquaintance with the passage. They come face-to-face with the enduring principles that undergird the text and their lives are changed. References are easily forgotten; but principles stick with you.
Evangelism is a form of discipleship
All Scripture is intended to prepare us for the Gospel and to explain its implications. It accomplishes this purpose by addressing more than just the bones of the Gospel: it teaches us to see ourselves and the world in the way God understands them. In the same way, our cell lessons accomplish the task of evangelism even when they’re not directly addressing the Cross by introducing elements of a biblical worldview and investigating foundational spiritual principles. Every cell lesson should provide opportunity to connect relevantly the spiritual principles it discusses with the lives of non-Christians, so that they can be prepared adequately for a presentation of the Gospel.
Format and Structure
A typical cell lesson will include each of the following sections. If you deviate from this standard structure—and you have complete freedom to do so—you should still clearly and intentionally address each of these content areas.
Provide a variety of different entry points into the cell lesson. Openers might introduce the topic, illustrate a principle, provide an immediate context in which to examine an issue, or demonstrate the importance of the topic. Offer more than just discussion questions. Learning activities, object lessons, games, movie clips, and timely references to contemporary events or situations can also provide an entry point into the discussion. Make sure that there is at least one opener that can be used in a group consisting primarily of non-Christians. Such an opener would interest non-Christians or would demonstrate the importance of the topic in such a way that any human being could relate.
Cell leaders will choose ONE main point around which to organize their cell lesson; but there should be several possibilities addressing the week’s topic. These main points should be principles drawn from the Foundations (see below). If you can’t summarize the principle in a short sentence, it’s likely that you’re trying to do too much for a Main Point. On the other hand, make sure that the principles are not so ‘obvious’ that they’re condescending. In addressing Main Points to non-Christians, sometimes it’s appropriate to come at it from a “this is what Christians believe” point of view; but most often you’ll want a life principle that applies to everyone.
Provide a scriptural foundation for every main point. Sometimes, all the main points will be drawn from a single passage of Scripture; and at other times, you’ll have a different source for each point. Don’t drown the cell leader in detail; but go into enough depth that you’ve modeled for the cell leader how to consider carefully the meaning of a passage. If the passage you’ve chosen says plainly what you’re trying to say, that’s great; but you can still explore the passage by putting it in context, addressing possible misinterpretations or objections, identifying what makes this articulation of that spiritual principle so unique, or working through its implications.
Until we come face-to-face with the enormity of our fallenness, we don’t know how much we need a savior. In the same way, many spiritual principles feel irrelevant to us until we’re confronted with how easily we fall short of putting them into practice. In addition, addressing the difficulties we face in implementing the principles we’ve found in Scripture makes a cell lesson both relevant and practical. So include some indications of how we, as humans, tend to go wrong as well as the practical difficulties (and internal resistance) we’ll face trying to live the principles in the cell lesson.
These might be common life issues and situations to which the principles in the cell lesson could be applied or specific tasks and projects that the cell leader can implement or ask the members of the cell group to implement. Again, consider how non-Christians might appropriately and reasonably respond to a principle discussed in the cell lesson. You will often need at least one application for each main point.