When Dr. Ralph Neighbour, Jr. addressed a room filled with pastors and church leaders as part of UBA's Think Differently series in April 2010, his message on discipleship fit the theme perfectly. Just one year shy of 50 years of helping churches be disciple-makers - he continues to challenge and sometimes test his audience.  [ 2 hour, 4 part video presentation available online in UBA Media]

Neighbour knows what he preaches is not a quick fix. He acknowledges that the process to transition a church from program-based to what he calls a "Kingdom church" can take 5 to 7 years. He also readily admits that he is an innovator rather than a pastor, having been told once by his staff, "You don't have what it take to plod." Nevertheless, he continues to practice what he preaches. Immediately following the seminar, he offered to work with a small group of pastors and church leaders who wanted to explore his dictum, "If you want discipleship, you have to make every person a disciple or one who is making disciples."

/files/Photos/PagesStorageBin/Front Page News/Manny-Longoria.jpgManuel "Manny" Longoria, Jr., pastor of the First Baptist Church of South Houston, was among the group of leaders who attended the Think Differently presentation in April and chose to commit to the follow-up sessions in the small group offered by Neighbour.
 
"What he shared that day challenged the way I saw many things pertaining to ministry and church life. I sensed there was something deeper that I was missing out on. I knew he would challenge me to grow as a follower of Christ and as a pastor too," said Longoria, current UBA moderator.
 
"I have come away from this experience with a greater understanding and a deeper appreciation for cell-based ministry. Quite honestly, I did not hold cells in high regard because I had seen instances where they were counterproductive and even divisive. Now I know that those groups had weak foundations or improper motives.

"Cells are not designed to "grow a bigger church" or to "build a pastor's little kingdom." They should be small gatherings where new believers are disciples and learn how to become disciple-makers themselves. They should provide a place to experience accountability, community, grace, and edification. Dr. Neighbour bases his philosophy of ministry on the Biblical model for cells. He teaches the primacy of Christ in a clear, simple, and powerful manner. He emphasizes the need for believers, especially members of the church, to live in Biblical community. I realize now I had held a faulty perception of cell-based ministry," concluded Longoria.
 
/files/Photos/PagesStorageBin/Front Page News/Ruth-Ollison.jpgDr. Ruth Allen Ollison, lead pastor/teacher of Beulah Land Community Church, had read Neighbour's works and wanted to meet one of her "heroes of the faith" when she made the decision to attend.

"I felt like being with Dr. Neighbor was like being with Apostle Paul, or John the Beloved.  He is a learned, humble, and masterful teacher from whom the Spirit of Christ emanates. I believe pastors need a pastor, and he is one that I trust."

Her time with Neighbour underscored a biblical truth - "that Christ is in the midst of the gathering of two or three, just as He promised. I am now a part of a group and my goal is to provide the same kind of intimate experience for each member of Beulah Land Community Church."

/files/Photos/PagesStorageBin/Front Page News/Sally-Hinzie.jpgUBA consultant Sally Hinzie attended the April gathering and participated in the smaller group in order to learn more about what the pastors she serves were learning. An experiential learner, she started a small group of what she called "guinea pigs." The group's Christian pilgrimage spanned 90 years and though the materials they used were targeted for new believers they experienced renewal in their study and prayer times.

"We started with the book - Beginning the Journey and continued with The Arrival Kit," said Hinzie. "We also started praying for our lost friends and one of our members led a woman to Christ she had been praying for 10 years.  We all saw a renewed receptivity in those we were praying for by joining forces and praying together."

/files/Photos/PagesStorageBin/Front Page News/Ed-Wandling.jpg"It would have to come down to the importance of relationship," reflects Ed Wandling, Senior Pastor of Ranch Communities Fellowship, when asked what he took away from the experience, "I've always held that relationships were important while not realizing that most local church ministry in the U.S. is not structured to facilitate ministry in the context of relationships.  More often than not our efforts are to get people to listen to and follow a "talking head" rather than listen to and speak to one another and experience the revelation of Christ that lives in each of us who follow him."

 

 Dr. Ralph Neighbour Shares His Perspective

/files/Photos/PagesStorageBin/Front Page News/Ralph-Neighbour-Profile.jpgOn the State of the Church:  While speaking to the group in April, Neighbour offered several observations on the state of the church in America today:

[on what's not happening with church members] "We do not help them understand that their purpose is to reveal his [Christ's] power and presence in all conditions. If that message got across we'd take a giant step forward."

[on a common problem among pastors] "Examining our significance and looking over our shoulder and seeing how well we are doing compared to others . . . . Your life will be forever blessed if you quit looking around and look above. You don't have to kill yourself by putting in 70 hours a week, in pursuit of being big. Bigness is a curse. Obedience is a blessing."

[on the problem with the American church] "We've created consumer churches. We didn't do it with malice. We did it with stupidity . . . . American Christians look at the church as community furniture [used only] when we think we want to be religious . . . . Discipleship is an option. It runs alongside the "endless hours of programs."

On Staff & Buildings:  A quick glance at Neighbour's remarks regarding the divide between the clergy and laity could lead the reader to question if he's anti-staff. He's adamant that he's not.

"I think paid staff is totally biblical! Paul was supported by gifts from the body of Christ and also was not hesitant to make tents when necessary. Paul said elders are worthy of a double portion. I absolutely reject the idea that those who devote themselves to the service of the King have no right to receive remuneration. I also feel strongly that any pastor who enters the ministry for financial gain is unworthy of his office," Neighbour explained in a recent interview with UBA.

While acknowledging that churches can exist without a paid staff - as many overseas churches prove daily - he's an advocate for the stewardship of God's children to be invested in the support of those who are full or part time in Christian service. And though some have labeled him otherwise, he's also not against having facilities.

"Buildings are not evil unless they are self-serving centers for consumer Christians. God had a tabernacle built according to His specifications, so He certainly agrees with buildings," Neighbour noted.

More Q&A with Dr. Ralph Neighbour, Jr.

Q: How do you map out the receptiveness of pastors through the years? Are they more receptive now?

RN: I am speaking only of those in the USA. No, they are not more receptive now. For pastors to be receptive, they must come to a moment of total frustration with the condition of their ministry and their congregation. Most pastors in the USA are still jumping like popcorn from one new "fad" to the next and not focusing on the theology of traditional church life, which produces consumers rather than soldiers.

Q: In your presentation at UBA, you said, "Bigness is a curse. Obedience is a blessing." Do you think that the pursuit of bigness is one of the main reasons that cell groups are not always easily embraced by pastors? Do cell groups automatically mean a small congregation?

RN: On the contrary, growth is never to be a goal. It is always the byproduct of a moving of the Spirit of God who draws men to the Cross. Cell churches never mean "small congregations." The largest churches in the earth are all cell churches. I just returned from Santarem, Brazil, an Amazon River settlement of 250,000 souls with 53,678 believers in 5,367 cell groups. But 1/3 of all churches on the face of the earth only have 33 people, another 1/3 have about 120, 25% never grow beyond 250. This may be because of their surroundings but much of the time it is because of the unbiblical separation of "clergy" and "laity" that creates dismembered body parts sitting in pews, where no one is expected to live in the community spirit that cell churches experience.

Q: You also said, "Priesthood of the believer is in our theology but not in our application." Do you think we are any closer to that application now than when you first began teaching?

RN: Not in Baptist life. We are afraid to loose the laity, fearful that if all become priests the hired holy men will lose their control.

Q: You challenge pastors in their thinking about size, creating consumer churches, and a need for immediate results (when you say it takes 5-7 years to develop a Kingdom church). How have reactions to your teaching on these truths shifted?

RN: Unless a dear pastor is ready to bury his life into a community, they will not see the fruit of faithfulness. Men like Mannuel Longoria in South Houston are a great blessing to me. He is going to stick to his vision until the breakthrough comes. I praise the Lord for those men who are willing to pay the price!

Q: You shifted from a small group of pastors meeting together to working with them individually. What has been the result of your time with these UBA leaders?

RN: Three out of the group have continued their mentoring. Others have kept in touch and I have visited with several in their own environments. I stand ready to work with all of them as they need mentoring.

Neighbour's books and other discipleship materials are available at www.touchusa.org.  Discipleship is at the core of Touch Outreach Ministries, the consulting and training entity Neighbor launched in 1972 to help churches transition away from programs and buildings to cell groups in homes. Now led by his son Randall, the ministry's offices are located near downtown Houston and reaches more than 23,000 pastors worldwide.

©Union Baptist Association. All Rights Reserved. 2916 West T.C. Jester, Suite 200, Houston TX 77018-7051. [Directions]

To Live in Biblical Community