Cell Groups and House Churches: A Great Fit for Europe!

2023/06/09 - By Peter Bunton

Unveiling the Hidden History: Small Groups in European Churches

Many of us are not aware that there is a long history of European churches flourishing due to the use of small groups. These groups are not merely a modern phenomenon, but we see examples both in the Scriptures and in many different kinds of churches throughout European history. In fact, when there have been moves of God in our history and Christians have desired to know God better and serve Him more fully, there usually has been a turn to Christians meeting in smaller groups for prayer, discipleship and evangelism. Here are a few examples from the history of our continent.

Martin Luther

The great reformer, Martin Luther (1483–1546), is known for articulating central doctrines such as salvation by faith as well as for translating the Scriptures into the everyday language of the people. He is less known for his advocacy of small groups or house groups. In his Preface to the German Mass of 1526, Luther writes that in addition to congregational worship, “the true type of Evangelical Order” should embrace smaller private gatherings of Christians: “Those, however, who are desirous of being Christians in earnest, and are ready to profess the gospel with hand and mouth, should register their names and assemble by themselves in some house to pray, to read, to baptize and to receive the sacrament and practise other Christian works.” He also speaks of these groups disciplining one another and raising finances to serve the poor. Luther specifically speaks that such home groups should study God’s Word and pray, as well as care for one another. From this, we see that Luther was advocating for meetings in homes to further the spiritual life of his congregations. He felt, however, that at that time he could not implement such a plan, as the Germans were “a wild, rude, tempestuous people.” Thankfully, history has proved him wrong on this point, as there have been many wonderful Christian meetings among Germans and other peoples in Europe! 1

Martin Bucer

Bucer (1491–1551) ministered most of his life in Strasbourg, in modern-day France. He advocated and initiated what he called “true Christian communities.” He saw these small-group gatherings as a return to the practice of the early church. It was in such communities that spiritual life could be developed. They were for growth into holiness for the individuals in the group, which Bucer believed would then affect the whole church. He stressed the need for confession of sin and accountability in such groups.


The Pietist movement was a loose renewal movement within a number of Protestant churches, whether Lutheran or Reformed. Many of the Pietists agreed with the reformation of doctrine which had taken place, but felt there had been an inadequate reformation of people’s lives. In a number of countries such as Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden, groups were started called collegia pietatis. These were groups for the development of piety and holiness in which Scriptures were studied and good works were performed. In English, many of these movements began to use the word “conventical” for such groups. We find them being organized, for example, in the Reformed Church in the Netherlands under the leadership of Jadocus van Lodensteyn (1620–1677). Again, we see that one motivation was to foster fellowship as the early church had experienced it. There were many such groups in German Reformed Churches. For example, in Mühlheim, under the leadership of Untereyck (1635–1693), groups met on several days of the week, including groups for servant girls, children and women, the latter being led by Untereyck’s wife. There is evidence that some of these groups continued to meet for 200 years! It is interesting that the town council of Wesel in 1687 decreed that “Almighty God is to be served not only publicly in the congregations of the church, but also privatum”—that is, privately in small house groups!

There were also many such groups to be found in German Lutheran churches, particularly due to the influence of Philip Jakob Spener (1635–1705). Spener also desired a return to the practices and structures of the early church, stressing that the word “church” does not mean the building but gatherings of Christians in general and in smaller groups. 2 He wrote that Christians should gather to help one another grow spiritually. Spener seemed to have considerable influence on many others such as Jan Amos Comenius (1592–1670). Based on Luke 10:42, Comenius stressed the “one thing necessary,” which was to worship Jesus and devote oneself to Him. This became a central impetus for the forming of groups. Spener was very clear that such group meetings did not replace larger congregational and public worship.

Anglican religious societies

In England in the 17th century, some Christians also desired to meet together to pursue holiness. Within the Anglican church, these were called “societies.” A leading figure was Dr. Anthony Horneck (1641–1697), who wrote that such gatherings should assist members in their spiritual life through counseling, exhortation and piety. We know that in London alone, there were forty such societies in the year 1700. A number of these societies began to stress the need for societal reformation and initiated good works, seeking to decrease criminal behavior and to distribute edifying literature. One contemporaneous account describes such societies as being for those wishing to “recover the power as well as the form of religion.” 3


The Moravian church (officially called the Unitas Fratum, or Unity of the Brethren) was in its early years led by Zinzendorf (1700–1760). They became known as a movement for holiness, committing themselves to prayer. Unusual for that time, they became a missionary movement, sending people to multiple countries. The Moravians developed various kinds of small groups, including “bands.” These began in 1727. They were originally just two or three people, but later consisted of between five and nine believers. Members were of the same gender and marital status. These bands were not to meet in church buildings, but in homes or outdoors. In such small groups, pastoral care was given and confession of sin and mutual prayer took place. Zinzendorf based these groups on an understanding that Jesus often worked in smaller groups such as calling twelve disciples.


Perhaps most famous for his use of small groups was John Wesley (1703–1791). As many working people in England and also in America came to faith in Christ, Wesley formed them into various groups for teaching, discipleship and accountability. He formed what were called “class meetings,” which were for instruction and also “band meetings,” where those of the same gender and similar age gathered to grow into ethical and moral purity. These bands stressed mutual confession of sin and encouragement to overcome such behaviors. Wesley, in assessing such bands, wrote, “I have found by experience that one of these [people] has learned more from one hour’s close discourse than ten years’ public preaching!” 4 The various Wesleyan groups formed a movement as Wesley spent time in bringing the groups’ leaders together for leadership training.

Cell groups and house churches today, learning from the past

A look at European history shows church small groups have flourished throughout the centuries in different church traditions as well as in different lands, including Scandinavia, Switzerland, the Baltic states and France. We see them flourishing among more educated people as well as working people. The church has always formed them when it has stressed that the Christian faith is a communal or social faith and where the church is seen as believers coming together rather than as an institution. They have also flourished under the theology of “the priesthood of all believers”—that is, that all believers can be ministers who pray, serve, and teach one another. Furthermore, they flourish when churches believe that holiness is an ongoing process throughout our lives. It is important to realize that such groups are not to be formed for structural reasons but as an expression of the values highlighted above. They do, however, seem to flourish more when the groups are linked together in some broader network or movement, of which Wesley was exemplary. It is also interesting to note that in addition to growth into holiness, many of these expressed the Christian faith through care for others and actions to improve their communities around them. From history, we also learn that it is important to train people for the leadership of such groups.

Given this rich history, it should not surprise us that in moves of God’s spirit today, churches often bring the believers together in small groups so that people can grow in holiness as well as their sense of mission to those outside the church. For those of us in Europe, there is a long tradition from which we can draw as we seek to engage in God’s mission today.

For greater detail on cell groups throughout church history and what we can learn from them today, please see Cell Groups and House Churches: What History Teaches Us, House to House Publications. This book was written by Dr. Peter Bunton, who serves as the director of DOVE Mission International and holds a PhD from the University of Manchester, England.


1 Extracts from the Preface to German Mass and Order of Divine Service. Jan. 1526, available in Kidd, Beresford J. (ed.). Documents Illustrative of the Continental Reformation. Oxford: Clarendon, 1911, 193-202.

2 Spener, “Of the Christian Church” in Snyder, Howard A. Signs of the Spirit: How God Reshapes the Church. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1989, 90.

3 See Gillies, John. Historical Collections of Accounts of Revival. Fairfield, PA: Banner of Truth, 1981, 255-256.

4 See Henderson, D. Michael. John Wesley’s Class Meeting: A Model for Making Disciples. Nappanee, IN: Evangel, 1997, 121.

About Peter Bunton

Peter Bunton has lived in the United Kingdom, Germany, Greece, and the USA. He serves as the director of DOVE Mission International. He is the author of several works, including Cell Groups and House Churches: What History Teaches Us (House to House Publications) and Succeeding at Succession: Founder and Leadership Succession in Christian Organizations and Movements (Wipf and Stock).