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An Interview: Dennis McCallum of Xenos Christain Fellowship

Questions presented by Fred Peatross
Thursday, May 30, 2002

 Dennis McCal

Dennis McCallum is a husband and father of three kids, and serves as lead pastor of Xenos Fellowship, which is an underground church planting movement.

Apart from his role as an elder and member of the management team, Dennis serves in Xenos' Central Teachings as well as in the College of outreach. He is the author of Christianity: The Faith That Makes Sense (Tyndale House Publishers, 1992). The Summons, (Navpress) which won the Campus Life Book of the Year Contest "Award of Merit" for 1994. Walking in Victory: Experiencing the Power of Your Identity in Christ, (Navpress) a study of spiritual growth based on Romans 5-8. Spiritual Relationships That Last (Xenos Publishing) and The Death of Truth (Bethany) a book about how postmodernism is revolutionizing our society and how we, as Christians, should respond.

1) Dennis, I know that the Xenos Christian fellowship grew out of a home group on
the Ohio State University campus. Can you briefly chronicle this from beginning 'til end?

As people from the counter-culture of the late 1960's my friends and I could not find a church that we could bring our friends to where they would feel comfortable. We also had some negative feelings about the  Fishinstitutional church. We realized we would have to start our own thing, and that's what we did. Our home Bible study was based on what we saw in the book of Acts and elsewhere in the NT. We began attracting good numbers of others who came to Christ, and felt the same way we did. Our old rooming house was named "The Fish House Fellowship." During this turbulent period we attracted students who were searching for answers. By 1980, we had grown to over 400 adults. In 1981 I was placed on part-time salary. Over the years the church grew to nearly 800 members. During the seventies there were no paid leaders in the church and Xenos members developed deep convictions about lay ministry. To this day, the members shoulder the bulk of ministry including extensive training. I'm convinced that without the many years of serving as soldiers at their own expense, they never would have been able to develop the same level of certainty about the equality of all members' responsibility for ministry. When it became evident that "The Fish House Fellowship" was becoming a large church, we decided to incorporate the church under Ohio law. We had been publishing a magazine called Xenos magazine, and decided to call the new corporation Xenos Christian Fellowship. The name Xenos is derived from a Greek word whose primary use in the New Testament denotes sojourners in a foreign land, a biblical description of Christians whose ultimate home is in heaven. A secondary usage of the word "xenos" denotes "one who provides hospitality."

2) It's amazing to me how some good churches flounder in their home group efforts while others flourish. Is the success of home groups a God thing? For example: Being in the right place, at the right time, and God just blesses the work? Or does it require something else? If so, what in your opinion makes the difference?

We believe churches fail at home churches or small groups for some very good reasons.

And these frequent failures are not the result of divine opposition to the idea of small groups, or the fact that, "our kind of people aren't right for this sort of thing." Instead, we think there are a number of good theological and practical reasons why these groups usually fail.

They are often not based on New Testament theory

The first order of business in beginning this kind of ministry is to launch a teaching offensive in the church. The goal would be to establish an understanding and a vision of the New Testament model and the spiritual goals associated with lay mobilization in the minds of the participants.

The wrong criteria are sometimes followed for the selection of leaders.

Too often, however, the church will designate leadership on the basis of secular abilities, job status, levels of financial giving, or seniority in the church. The result is usually a meeting that is not very spiritually edifying or appealing.

Leaders should be selected on the basis of character and knowledge, and then they should be evaluated on the basis of actual function, or role. When Jesus says “my sheep hear my voice,” he is giving us a basic way to recognize a good shepherd. A Christian's leadership cannot be authenticated until someone is willing to follow him/her.

In the more traditional churches, it may be difficult to determine who the authentic leaders are. This is because they have not had ample opportunity to try their hand at leadership. In these cases, we will have to pick leaders on the basis of the best criteria possible. Later, when lay-led groups are in place, it should be possible to evaluate the effectiveness of the work done by the more committed members of the group. Other things being equal, the more effective workers should be the first to be moved forward.

The groups may have an unhealthy inward-focus

Small groups are often set up with the ultimate goal of fellowship or personal support rather than evangelism or mission. While quality fellowship and support is one of the rewards of small group ministry, it is an inadequate basis. If we have only fellowship as our goal, the group is corporately self-centered, or self-focused. Thus, it's no surprise that such groups are prone to division and discontent. This is because outreach and mission are the natural context within which fellowship should occur.

When a group of people occupy themselves with each other to the exclusion of the outside world, discontent is sure to follow. We should be unwilling to consider the option of handling outreach at the large meeting and limiting small groups to a fellowship role. The group may not engage in outreach at its weekly meeting, but they have to work together and pray together on some shared mission.

All groups may be the same, rather than diversified and matched to their members

For some reason, churches generally devise and execute a plan for small groups that features only one kind of group. We did this too. But not any more! Now we see that family aged people need a different type of group than students or singles, etc.
Why should a large church (or even a small one) have only one type of group? Creativity on the part of leaders and planners could result in a number of models for meetings, featuring different sizes, different formats, different purposes, and different commitment levels. Every church should be different.

There may be no adequate equipping offered to would-be leaders

The Bible does not allow the local church the option of telling its people to go away to seminary for their training. According to Ephesians 4:11,12, it is the responsibility of the leadership of the local church to provide quality training in Christian work ("the work of service") to its own people. When the leadership of a church decides not to have a small group ministry because its "laymen" are too ignorant, this is not an excuse - it is an admission of guilt!
For many churches, the first step toward a successful home fellowship ministry would be to establish a full year-long course of in-depth theological and practical ministry training for the proposed leadership group. We find that most churches try to get by with a five or ten week training series which is inadequate for sophisticated leadership responsibilities. People will take longer training courses if they can break up the training into modules, and if they view taking these classes as fun. This is why we need to put our best communicators and leaders in as teachers in this training.

If a church already has an adequate supply of leaders who have some biblical knowledge, it would be preferable to hold this training while small groups are in progress, so they can immediately use the knowledge they learn. This prevents the accumulation of "dead knowledge" and also avoids creating the impression that Christian work is more difficult than it really is.

At the same time, we should be clear that completing the training course will not necessarily result in an assignment as a home group leader. That decision will have to also depend on other considerations such as character development, and a record of self-sacrificing service to others.
Finally, aside from classroom training, each home group should develop it's own program of personal discipleship and ministry training (Matthew 28:18-19, I Timothy 2:2). The classes should be viewed as supplemental to the grass-roots discipleship practiced at the home group level.

The church may set no multiplication goals, and may have no good plan for multiplying home groups

In many cases, a home fellowship's existence is viewed as an end in itself. As mentioned earlier, this lack of mission-mindedness has a negative effect on the group. In order for groups to be spiritually healthy, they need a purpose greater than themselves. On the other hand, good small groups tend not to stay small. Thus, when a house fills up with people, much of the interactive character of the group is lost. In addition, outreach tends to dwindle because there is no room for new people.

In cases like this, it is natural to divide the group in order to preserve the small size of the group, while at the same time, reaching more people.

Unless the church propagates a vision and a plan for planting new groups which encourages outreach, discipleship, and equipping, home fellowships tend to resist multiplication. The status quo is always more comfortable than the change and risk that come with growth.

We should establish ground rules that help to insure success for both newly planted groups, with a minimum of disruption to the relationships that have been developed. Otherwise, the system will tend to stifle initiative and punish success. In other words, the view of the leaders might well be, "the faster our group grows, the sooner we get to part ways with the close friends we have made so far."

Good planning should make it possible for close friends to stay together most of the time, thus minimizing the disruption involved in planting new groups.

Small groups are sometimes viewed as peripheral rather than central to the life of the church

In some churches, the large worship meeting and/or teaching meetings are viewed as essential, but the home group is considered an option--helpful to some, but not necessarily normative for healthy involvement in the local church.

As pointed out earlier, this view ignores the Biblical point of view that the local body depends on the individual function of each and every member (Ephesians 4:15,16). We need to resist the temptation to dilute this teaching (for instance, teaching that giving money on Sunday, or serving as an usher could fulfill the intent of this passage). If we allow this kind of superficial understanding of church life predominate, there will be no strong motivation to exercise real spiritual gifts, or to make small group ministry succeed.

If the church fails to establish a vision in the minds of its members for full involvement, the result will likely be a very poor level of participation in the home fellowship program. Often, only those with little to do will spend the time it takes to become meaningfully involved. To obtain the help of our most gifted members, we will need to teach that involvement in home mission and fellowship is an exciting opportunity to finally realize the full extent of normal Christian experience.
The leadership in the local church must cultivate a mentality, or consensus in the church which places an appropriate emphasis on this kind of ministry. Such a consensus can be created without resorting to legalism. The leadership must truly believe in the concept themselves, and be willing to teach and practice it in their own lives.

3) Can you talk a little about the nurture versus evangelistic groups. Nurture comes natural. Evangelism doesn't come natural (it scares folks). Can you mix the two into one group or should the groups be separate and distinct groups?

We have had problems mixing them, because what will nurture believers may not be appropriate for non-believers. That's why we have a 3 level structure instead of two levels, like most churches.

Most cell-based churches in America today have a two-level structure. The large meetings are the corporate worship meetings, and the small meetings are the cell groups. Cell groups, or small groups are usually six to 15 adults. Some churches have their small groups limited to believers only. Others welcome new people. But we have talked to a number of leaders who find themselves torn with this arrangement. Some pastors worry their believer-only small groups will turn inward and lose interest in outreach. The small groups could become Bible clubs for Christians, or "holy huddles." Others worry that because their small groups are always geared toward new people, there are no meetings in the life of their church devoted to discipleship and deep learning, let alone, personal sharing and accountability. Churches have trouble raising up good leaders when no meetings offer deep learning and accountability.

At Xenos, we have a three-level struture. We have our big meetings like other churches, although they are not worship services. We also have home churches, which are groups of 15 to 60 adults. Home churches are open to non-Christian guests, and are really small communities. Within each home church there are typically two or more cell groups. Our cell groups are usually four to 12 men or women, but not both. The men's or women's cell groups are for believers only, and usually have a fairly aggressive study schedule. They usually share and pray for each other as well. These are groups devoted to discipleship and spiritual growth. Thus, with our three-level structure, we have home group meetings devoted to outreach as well as some devoted to growth. For many groups, this means a third meeting each week. Other groups alternate the home church and the cell group meetings. We find that our three-level structure addresses all the needs in the church in a way no two-level structure is likely to do. We have experimented with two-level approaches on several occasions, but the groups always seem to go back to three-level arrangements after a time.

4) I understand that Xenos Christian Fellowship has an annual Summer Institute with a different theme each year. Can you tell the readers us a little about it?

The institute is one of the best and cheapest national conferences you can go to. For a fraction of what you usually pay for such conferences, you get to hear nationally known authorities on subjects of interest to the church today. This year's topic is Developing Servant Leaders. Speakers include Lance Witt from Saddleback church, Bill Lawrence, author of Effective Pastoring, and Bruce Powers, professor at Campbell University and authority on leadership. The Xenos Summer Institute


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