Our Experience of Transitioning to Cell Church

houleby Richard Houle

I have been a pastor/teacher for thirty-five years now. After serving two churches over a period of nineteen years, I came to the conclusion that something was missing in the way we were doing things: we had almost no discipleship training and most of the growth came through transfers.

Then in the early 90’s I heard about the Cell Church concept. To my great surprise, things that I had learned with difficulty in my first twenty years of ministry were all summed up in the concept of the Cell-Church: small groups that reproduce, discipleship, leadership multiplication, encounter weekends, etc. I was really astonished. At that time I was also transitioning in my ministry to a Church in Granby, Canada (Quebec province). So we discussed with the new board about transitioning from a program based Church to the Cell-Church concept. They all fully agreed.

I took some training on transitioning via Touch Ministries. It helped us a great deal; first by preparing us to pay the price for becoming a Cell-Church and then by helping us in the way to do it without rocking the boat! So we began transitioning the Church with 250 people. As Baptists we always had our prayer meeting, so we let that continue for a few years, and during that time we started a prototype cell group with our leaders. We found we had much to learn: how to place relational evangelism in our schedule, how to develop coaching in every level of ministry, how to lead a cell by the Spirit, etc. Then we began establishing new cells as the leaders were ready. Our old prayer meeting died of itself without a problem.

We also had to establish a discipleship track. Because we are a French speaking congregation, the challenge was great. Not much is published in French for the Cell-Church! So until we were ready to write one, we translated the one written by Ralph Neighbour and used it for the first five years. Then we wrote one that was more in line with our French context. During this period all our members were “greatly encouraged” to get on the training track. This is where the struggle began. Many old timers did not want to embark on that road. So for a period of time people were leaving the Church. But the leaders were well prepared for this reaction, so we stayed united in our willingness to transition. We did it and it took us about 7 years altogether. Here are the results:


– 95% of our 200 people are in cell groups right now

– We saw a great multiplication in leadership.

– 4 other cell-churches (from 20 to 45 people) have been started from the mother church in the last five years and another in English is in the move..

– A missionary team has been launched from the mother church to fortify these churches.

– We use our Seminary graduate School to train our pastor/teachers and evangelists.

– We have become a strong influence for small groups in our Association of Churches

– We have developed a good prayer support by prayer partners (G.I.: Groups of Intercession) during the week.

– We have developed a “Tearing down strongholds weekends” twice a year that is functioning very well.

Difficulties :

– We found that we had to balance relational evangelism with intentional evangelism.

– We failed to sufficiently promote the importance of pastors putting relational and intentional evangelism in their hearts and schedules.

– We did not have the growth of new converts that we anticipated. This has been the hardest, but we are learning “to pray them” into the Kingdom.

– We did not engage the wives of the leaders enough in the change of values. We had to adjust.

But overall we are very pleased with the outcome.
May God help you in your transition. How was your transition? Was it difficult?

Richard Houle


Focusing on the Task at Hand

By Michael Sove

Nehemiah gives us an example of focused ministry, sticking to the task at hand.

Neh 6:3-4  “So I sent messengers to them with this answer: “I am doing a great work, and I can’t come down. I don’t want the work to stop while I leave to meet you.” Sanballat and Geshem sent the same message to me four times, and each time I sent back the same answer.”

When you embark on the cell ministry journey you must stick to the task.  There will be many calls to come down from the wall, so to speak.  Many times the good can become a distraction from the best.

Think about it.  If you are leading a holistic cell and trying to raise a team of future leaders you will have your hands full sticking to that task and doing that well.

There are people to disciple, outreach events to be planned, relationships to be built and nurtured, lessons to be internalized so real application can be made.  Then there is daily prayer for the members, invitations to be given weekly to the not yet members and on and on I could go.  This is the prime ministry to focus on as you spend quality time with the the real leader of your cell, the Lord Jesus Christ.

I’m not saying that other ministries can’t happen but the prime ministry is focused on building the foundation of “holistic cells.”

Once you have this foundation built then you can begin to add other ministries with one main expectation.  If you want to start a ministry, you will be part of a cell for your nurture and development and accountability.

You receive ministry and then you go do ministry!  Stay on the wall and focus on the task and you will be blessed in the long run.  Those who begin ministries will be connected to the cell system and all things can work together for the advancement of the kingdom.



Avoiding the Temptation to Stray from the Cell Model

by Mario Vega

When a church has completed its transition to the cell model, not only must it stand firm in its adjustment to the New Testament cell model but also to the temptation to adopt dramatic changes.

Usually, those changes are presented with the offer of extraordinary results in a short time period. Those results from the “new changes” emphasize numerical growth above the other principles of the cell model. The problem is that when you do not get the desired results, people are discouraged. And they are not only discouraged by the new novelty, they also become discouraged with cell ministry.

Therefore, it is best to continue with patience the work of living the cell model’s values and principles, which are the ones that in the long run, will produce the fruit that pleases God. There are no shortcuts, no magic formulas, or infallible recipes. There is only one way to the fruit: perseverance. Do not allow anything to deflect you from your goal. In the end, God will bless you.



Spanish translation:

El camino hacia los resultados

Cuando una iglesia ha completado su transición al modelo celular, no solamente debe mantenerse firme en su ajuste a lo que el Nuevo Testamento presenta como iglesia sino también ante la tentación de adoptar modificaciones dramáticas.

Normalmente, esas modificaciones se presentan con el ofrecimiento de resultados extraordinarios al corto plazo. Esos resultados enfatizan el elemento del crecimiento numérico por arriba de los demás principios del modelo celular. El problema es que cuando no se obtienen lo resultados anunciados las personas se desalientan. Y no solamente con respecto a la novedad adoptada sino con respecto a todo el trabajo celular.

Por ello, es mejor continuar de manera paciente el trabajo de vivir los valores y principios del modelo celular que son los que, a la larga, producirán los frutos que a Dios le agradan. No existen atajos, fórmulas mágicas ni recetas infalibles. Sólo hay un camino para el fruto: el trabajo perseverante. No permita que nada le desvíe de su objetivo. Al final, Dios le bendecirá.

Nothing New Here

by Jeff Tunnell

When I say “Nothing New Here” it is a double-edged sword, or statement.  First, I am saying that we should not allow any NEW thing to compete with cell systems and their continuance.  Second, most of what follows was in last week’s post also.

Pastors are prone to adding one more ministry to their already full agenda.  They are generally entrepreneurial in nature and LOVE to start new things. Unfortunately these new starts can appear as the next greatest idea to improve our level of current ministry, or outreach, or children’s programs, or youth programs, or whatever.   Movement does not necessarily equal progress; we cannot substitute activity for accomplishment.  But we are prone to try anyway, ouch.

Commit to NOT ADD any new programs for at least one year (more or less) and hold that discipline in place.  Give all of your time to strengthening your cells as the ONLY thing you are doing AND begin to let other programs conclude and disappear in a natural way WITHOUT replacing them.  You will get your life back, time back, relationships will deepen and you’ll begin to experience life in His Kingdom like never before!

I was presented with another opportunity to begin a mentoring ministry today that would target a special group within the church for a special outcome, just for them.  My answer?  The cell system is the place for the special outcome they seek and will produce maturity much quicker than the desired NEW ministry being suggested.

Stay with it, don’t give up, or give in: hold out for the exponential, critical-mass growth that WILL COME if you do not surrender any momentum achieved thus far.  Allow no competition for time, finances or personnel by staying true to becoming good at ONE THING.  As Larry Stockstill stated, win souls, make disciples.  That will do just fine.

NO is a Blessed Word in Cell Ministry

joelby Joel Comiskey

I came in contact with one “cell church” several years ago that was adding programs in the name of “strenthening the cell ministry.” The pastor was simply unaware of the danger of mixing cells and programs. In one sense, everything “potentially” could help cell ministry. Yet the cost of adding programs is great because the programs will drain the scarce “people” resources. If a church expects people to multiply cell groups, oversee those new groups, get to know non-Christians, and participate in celebration activities,  it cannot also expect those same people to get involved in a variety of additional programs. Billy Hornsby once said, “There are many good ideas that we want to attach to the cells to help them be successful. These attachments are simply not needed. In fact, they will eventually burden the cell groups so much that there will be an “overload” factor that will kill one cell group after another, along with its leadership.”

Most pastors can testify that a million well-intentioned programs will knock, even pound, on the door. Yet, they will also drown cell ministry.

Learning to say “NO” is an important fundamental in the cell church. NO, in fact, is a blessed word in the cell church. If a pastor doesn’t learn to say “NO,” the cell church system will flounder.

What has your experience been in this area?


Three steps for transitioning and integration

marioby Mario Vega

Pastor Roberto Lay, who runs an excellent instruction program on the cell model in Brazil, sums up the issue of transition and integration in a way that, up to now, I think is the most clear and practical.

For Roberto Lay three steps should lead to integration of ministries during the transition from a traditional church to a cell church:

1 – Add. Just add the cell work to the ministries that are already operating without touching anything that is already ongoing.

2 – Adapt. Once the cell model is set, start adapting your ministries around the cell model.

3 – Suppress. Once you’ve adapted all the programs that you can to the cell model, you’ll find that some will simply not adapt. When that happens, the life of the cells will have taken on such a significant part of the life of the church, that the programs will no longer be so attractive. When this happens, suppress the remaining programs. No one will notice.

If those three steps are implemented wisely, they will be an excellent guide to achieve a smooth transition, so it can end with an integration adjusted to the conditions of the local congregation.


Mario Vega

Translation in Spanish:

Tres pasos para la transición y la integración.

El Pastor Roberto Lay, quien dirige un excelente programa de instrucción sobre el modelo celular en Brasil, resume el tema de la transición y la integración de una manera que, por hoy, me parece la más clara y práctica.

Para Roberto Lay son tres pasos los que deben conducir a la integración de ministerios durante la transición de una iglesia tradicional a una celular:

1- Añada. A los ministerios que tiene ya operando simplemente añada el trabajo celular, sin tocar nada de lo anterior.

2- Adapte. Una vez el modelo celular se ha establecido comience a adaptar sus ministerios alrededor del modelo celular.

3- Suprima. Cuando se han adaptado todos los programas que se pueda al modelo celular quedarán otros que no podrán hacerlo. Pero para cuando eso suceda, la vida de las células habrá tomado tal fuerza que los programas ya no resultarán tan llamativos. Entonces, suprímalos. Nadie lo notará.

Esos tres pasos, si se aplican con sabiduría, serán una excelente guía para lograr una transición sin sobresaltos y que termine con una integración ajustada a las condiciones de la congregación local.


Transitioning at Crestline First Baptist

billby Bill Mellinger, lead pastor of Crestline First Baptist Church

Joel has asked me to do a guest blog. Since he is our coach, I try to listen do what he says.  Seriously, I am honored to share our journey of “integration” with you.

I have been on an interesting journey the last three years.  After serving for several years as a church planter, God led us to serve a sixty-year old church.  This church has had twenty-three pastors and one of them was pastor for sixteen years.  It has been a small program-based ministry.  Since coming, we have been working to transition the church from its program format to being a “relational church that is sold out for Jesus Christ.”

With the help of some great counsel and encouragement from Joel Comiskey and after a lot of reading, we have carefully been transitioning to a cell church model.  Since I am more of a burster and innovator, I knew that I needed to heed the counsel of others who said to “take it slow” and be sure to have the new ministry approach in place before discontinuing the “old way of doing things.”  While this goes against my nature, we have worked to build a good foundation.

I have taught, talked, modeled and led the people in becoming more relational.  Slowly, we began one prototype and now we have transitioned into three prototypes while we develop our coaching and training tracks.  The exciting thing is that this process has allowed people who were negative on the idea to actually become great supporters.  Members of the Leadership Team which were not involved are now committed to the cell concept and one of the three functioning cells. It has taken a lot of discipline, but God is blessing the patience we have applied.  This has truly been a God thing for the church and me.


Bill Mellinger

Seeing through a Different Lens

by Michael Sove

To me the biggest problem in transition is helping the people see through a different lens.  People have been taught that the answer to every problem is a program.  Programs aren’t bad things in and of themselves.  The program was initiated to meet a need.  But as you know, programs all need a point person, they compete for time in the calendar and dollars in the budget.

So in the midst of transition it is very important to educate people about the change in the operating system.  Most of the misunderstandings come from people who see cells as just another program and if cells are just another program why rock the boat.

I liked what Jeff Tunnell said a few days ago about starting with a prototype cell and as a leadership team, really learning the values of a cell based church and beginning to build the infrastructure of equipping and the other components that will prepare future leaders.  There is no way around this as there is no instant cell church.

While you are in the prototyping stage, and you are building a base of cells that can reproduce I would use every opportunity to teach and illustrate the values behind what you are doing.  I wouldn’t preach a message without bridging it to a value.  I’m not talking about filling your sermons with “cell talk” or “cell terminology” but filling them with real stories of life transformation, serving in the community, reaching out as a team, the power of mentoring and on and on I could go.

Cells are not a program shift but a lifestyle change so do all you can to help people see through a new lens.  You cannot teach or illustrate enough.  Long after you have transitioned, the stories and illustrations will capture people’s hearts and breath life into the cell church strategy.



Preferences & Principles

by Jeff Tunnell

My preference in transitioning an established church from “programs” to “cells” as the base of ministry is for the Pastor to begin a prototype cell group with key leaders (along with their spouses if possible).  As this group grows in relationship, experiencing and accepting the biblical values of living in community, they should also develop an equipping track for preparing additional cell leaders.  They can experiment among themselves with the traning components to become confident in them.

Principles that will serve you well in transition:

Prayer: the foundation for EVERYTHING you do.  All successful Cell churches have a base of consistent prayer and dependence upon God.  If our cell church has a weakness this is where we will find it.

Faith: in God (not cells).  Trust Him to keep the rest of the church intact as you work with the prototype until it experiences a shift in values and becomes life-giving and ready for its first multiplication.

Coaching: Secure a known and trusted coach to come alongside you during the first year; they will help you build correctly from the beginning, rather than having to remodel later (if you have ever been involved in remodeling you are aware that it takes MORE time and MORE resources than building does).  You will also need to trust your coach; this will require faith also.  Remember, as pastors we are required to “know-it-all” constantly.  To avoid this trap you will need to trust the coach to know more than you do as you learn a new set of values.

Homes: Take your prototype home!  Experience this life-giving cell group the same way as the early church did and set the precedent for all of your multiplication cells to come.

Pastors are used to adding one more spinning plate to their already full agenda so forming the first cell group will satisfy this habit at the onset.  Commit to NOT ADDING other programs for at least one year (more or less) once the cell is formed.  Give all of your time to this as the ONLY new thing you are doing AND begin to let other programs conclude and disappear in a natural way WITHOUT replacing them.  You will get your life back, time back, relationships will deepen and you’ll begin to experience life in His Kingdom like never before!

Moving Toward Full Integration

joelby Joel Comiskey

I coached one denominational church that had grown to mega church status through their wide array of programs. Every night of the week they featured a different program to attract people. The senior pastor eventually realized he was a one-man show, and that his people were not growing as disciples. He asked me to help move the church to the cell-based strategy.

I counseled them not to move too quickly in deleting the programs. “After all,” I said, “Those programs are meeting felt needs. Cells will eventually do a much better job of fulfilling those needs, but until the cells are functioning, programs are all the people have.”

The pastoral team thanked me for helping them to understand how cell ministry replaces the need for programs, but also for helping them to avoid abruptly closing all of  their ministries.

Becoming a fully integrated cell based church takes time. Most churches are somewhere on the path to becoming fully integrated (e.g., Michael Sove’s and Allen Memorial), but few churches have reached the point of Mario Vega’s church (see last week’s blog).

In the process toward integration, it’s important to have functioning cells to offer the people before stripping away cherished ministries and programs. Effective transitions, in fact, happen underground. As more and more cells become available, the need for programs diminish and the leadership team can get rid of those ministries that are no longer needed. Effective pastors patiently and persistently guide the church toward the cell driven strategy.