What if everything a congregational leader needs to know can be found by understanding the cell? This blog will explore the concept of the cell and how the word became part of religion and everyday society.
The first biblical use of the word cell comes from Jeremiah. He is placed in an underground dungeon (Jeremiah 37:16). The Hebrew word “chanuth” does not have a direct connection to the Old English word “celle.” It’s clear, though, that the meaning is the same. Latin, French, and Middle English all have a variation on the word celle or cella. Its original meaning refers to a religious house, a hermit’s room, or simply a small room.
The word cell has ties to the word hell, believe it or not. That word in Latin “celare” or “helan” means to conceal. The Irish used the word to explain where they stored potatoes – “hel.” It also is the root to the word helmet – a dark place to conceal things. That’s the original meaning, at least.
But, back to the word cell. Another variation on the word was “kell” which became the root to “caul” (a type of membrane) and “kiln,” something like a stove or a kitchen where you heat things up.
More recently, the word cell has expanded into words like “cellar,” a place to contain things like wine or people when there is a storm. Whatever its modern-day usage, the original meaning is closely tied up with the idea of containing. In the 17th century, a scientific discovery transformed how science and religion see the world and how we respond to the world.
The Discovery of the Biological Cell
Robert Hooke was the first to discover the cell in 1665. Born in 1635, Hook was the youngest of four children. His father, John Hooke, was an Anglican priest as were John’s two brothers. His life was saturated with religion.
In 1665, using a microscope originally constructed by Christopher White in London, Hooke was the first to identify a cell. He borrowed the word cell from his experience of monastic cells for monks. No doubt, peering into a cell for the first time must have been a religious experience. He was seeing the structure of God’s creation. Here was a living thing, the simplest form of life, contained in this glorious organism he called the cell.
Shortly after Hooke’s discovery, the notion of a religious (Christian) cell was revived in England and Germany. In less than a hundred years after Hooke’s discovery, John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Church, modeled his new methodical movement after the concept of the cell. He called his cells societies and bands. These highly structured cell groups would give life to the movement called Methodism.
For hundreds of years, the biological cell was understood and appreciated for the way it internally functioned. It performs in predictable and stable ways. Each part of the cell has a specific job, but it functions as a unit. In a similar way, Wesley’s cell group had a particular structure and function. As long as individual members of the group functioned according to Wesley’s design, the cell group would survive and thrive as a whole. The cell group concept flourished in England and spread to every continent on the planet. The DNA of Wesley’s cell group can still be seen in a variety of congregations around the world.
Rediscovering the Cell
In more recent years, scientists have gained a better understanding of how a cell interacts with the environment. All living cells, including bacteria, are capable of adjusting to variable changes in the environment. So long as the environment does not overwhelm the cell’s capacity to adapted, cells adjust and continue to replicate. These adjustments, based on changes in the environment, happen both internally (within the cell) and externally as the cell communicates with other cells. This process of communicating back and forth between cells is necessary for the formation of cell groups, organs, and organisms.
The human body consists of 37 trillion cells. All of them carry out protein synthesis and interact with the environment. At the scale of the human body, these trillions of cells are working together to perform complex tasks. The human body is aware of the environment through sensory organs – what we see, hear, taste, touch, and smell. For millions of years, the human was limited in its ability to sense its surroundings. Now, with recent advances in technology, the human experience of their environment has been enhanced.
We have unprecedented access to technology. The environment is no longer restricted to what is directly around us. With cellular devices, our environment has become the earth and beyond. From the weather at the north pole to nuclear testing in North Korea to the threat of asteroids, we have instant access to changing environments. Cellular phones (which were originally coined for the way analog radio networks mimicked cellular life) are essentially neutral. But in the hands of humans, technology can communicate how other humans are feeling about our changing environment. Changes in the environment produce anxious reactivity at all levels of life. Technology amplifies these anxious responses.
With the recent integration of the cell phone into the world wide web, there has been a rapid increase in the rate and dosage of feedback we receive about other people’s reactivity to our changing environment. For millions of years, anxious feedback from others consisted of a small group of the family, congregation, or community. But now, humans have access to the emotional reactivity of the entire planet. Our ability to process and respond to this level of global reactivity is overwhelming the human capacity to differentiation self from the masses.
The Future of the Congregation as a Cell
Congregations are groups of humans, and as humans, congregations are vulnerable to increased levels of anxiety and reactivity. Congregations, like all relationship systems, function as a whole. Individuals vary in the extent to which they are able to think, feel, and act for self that is different than the whole. The institutional struggles all congregations are experiencing are related to our inability to understand adequately and respond appropriately to environmental changes.
There is no guaranteed way forward for congregations as they deal with this increased level of intensity. Asking good questions is still the only viable way forward. How will the church of tomorrow address this new reality? Will it retreat from the world and cloister inside buildings with little or no contact with the outside environment? Will it spend its energy working to absorb all that is happening in the world? Will it continue to morph and adapt to the environment it finds itself in and learn to live in symbiosis with the surroundings? Or will the congregation of tomorrow do something completely different, redefining the word cell for the next generation?
Of course, this connection between the congregation and the cell is just an analogy. It’s a creative way to describe what is. It’s an attempt to explain what is currently unexplainable. John Wesley, like so many other reformers, accurately observed his environment and responded to meet new challenges.
The church of tomorrow will be based squarely on the thinking of the leaders of today.
- Leaders need to become increasingly aware of how the world is changing. Leaders need to read about it, talk about it, and write about it. Thereby increasing their understanding and knowledge of the problem and defining themselves in relationship to it.
- Leaders need to become increasingly aware of the congregation’s strengths (assets) that are available to meet the challenge.
- Leaders need to work harder to articulate what they need to understand better the challenge.
- Leaders need to work cooperatively with other motivated individuals to develop strategies to meet the challenge.
- Leaders need to work cooperatively with other institutions and organizations to create new symbiotic partnerships to meet new challenges.
- Leaders must avoid at all costs quick fixes, knee jerk reactions, and plans that only meet short-term objectives.
- Leaders need to have the courage to implement new plans and stick with them, only adjusting to new and credible feedback.
- Leaders need to assess the plan continually and repeat the process.
Leaders will need to increase their ability to tolerate the discomfort and pain that accompanies an effort like this. The best place to start is through a process of studying the multigenerational transmission process in one’s family of origin. A coach is an essential part of this effort.