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Gender Specific Cells versus Family Cells
by Joel Comiskey
A disillusioned lay leader said to me in 1998, "I don’t like your emphasis on homogeneous cell groups. I believe the only true type of cell group is the intergenerational kind. The entire family needs to be together in every cell group." Even though at that time we were emphasizing a wide variety of homogeneous groups—including family cells—this lay leader’s former church only promoted family cells and thus he felt that the only true type of cell group was the intergenerational kind (in which children, teenagers, and adults are present).
An opposite trend is now sweeping through the cell church world that deemphasizes intergenerational or family cells while promoting only gender specific cells.
The source of this trend is the International Charismatic Mission in Bogota, Colombia. ICM asks all of its associated churches to adopt (not adapt) its entire model. Thus, churches must adopt the formation of men’s cells and women’s cells--as opposed to intergenerational cells. Bethany World Prayer Center in Baker, Louisiana is the new cheerleader for gender specific cell groups (men, women, youth, and children). Bethany previously promoted family cells, but now they’ve transitioned to only four homogeneous categories; men, women, youth, or children.
Those who attend Bethany’s conferences hear that one of the keys to Bethany’s new success is gender specific small groups.
A pastor who regularly attends Bethany’s conferences said to me, "We used to have family cells, but now we’re doing so much better with men and women’s cell. Men can now share deeply. I also believe," he continued, "that when men and women share in a spiritual setting, there’s the danger of becoming emotionally involved with one another, which can lead to bondage." After hearing Bethany promote the marvels of gender specific cells, this pastor’s church felt like they should de-emphasize their intergenerational family cells in favor of gender specific cells.
Allow the homogeneity to flow naturally
Gender specific cells have their place in the cell church. David Cho’s church (Yoido Full Gospel Church) has approximately 25,000 cells, of which 70% are women’s cells.
Ralph Neighbour recounted how he would often start family cells (i.e., intergenerational cells) that would eventually spawn off male and female gender specific cells. Once a month those gender specific cells would come together for fellowship.
Men’s cells are great. Women’s cells are marvelous. The danger is rigidly promoting only one type and then saying it’s the secret to success. Some pastors possess a never ending urge to find the secret key that will unlock the quick door to cell success. They hear marvelous stories and then try to copy the new model. The failure is following models, rather than principles.
The Elim church in San Salvador, El Salvador has 117,000 people in their 8600 weekly cell groups. The make-up of the Elim cell group is almost entirely a family experience (although they do have a lot of children’s cells). Elim understands that the key to their amazing success is hard work, planning, evangelism, and prayer, rather than homogeneity. They major on the main things and grow stronger each year.
The word homogeneous means similar in nature. Homogeneous cell groups are comprised of people with common characteristics. The most common types of homogeneous groups are:
- cell groups
- Young married couples cell groups
- Men’s cell groups
- Women’s cell groups
- Single’s cell groups
- Adolescent cell groups
- University cell groups
- High school cell groups
- Children’s cell groups
Homogenous categories should flow naturally from the gifts, personalities, and burdens of each pastor. For example, if a pastor has a burden for young married couples, he should have the liberty to start cells among the young married couples.
In the church I co-founded in Quito, Ecuador, we decided to allow both women’s cells and men’s cells to start naturally within each network. We always had a number of women and men’s cells, but we didn’t categorize them under a particular network called the "women’s cell network" or the "men’s cell network." Our main homogeneous network categories were: family cells, young married cells, young professional cells, university cells, junior high cells, and children’s cells.
We were flexible in formulating our homogeneous networks. As our networks grew, we continued to adapt and change the homogeneity of each network. One pastor wrote to me,
Do you see any danger in adopting mixed-gender 12's? I know that Bethany [World Prayer Center] and [ICM in] Bogotá and others seem to feel strongly that the [cell] groups should be gender-specific, and that the G 12 would naturally be too. However, our groups are not divided by gender, and if that is the case, the 12's won't easily be, either... Other reasons—in our polity we are going to have female staff (our children's director is female), and my wife does not see herself as the leader of all the ladies (she is committed to the Lord and the work, but not comfortable as a "co-pastor") and from what I can tell, the best arrangement for gender specific 12's is the have the pastor be the leader of men, including staff, and the wife be the core leader of the females. But at this point I think we are not in a position to go that way, so I plan to go with a mixed 12...
I replied, "It’s best to allow the homogeneous networks to flow naturally. Only begin new homogeneous categories as the need arises. Don’t force your groups into unnatural categories, like men’s groups or women’s groups." I assured him that he was doing the right thing by focusing on mixed gender family cells, especially since one of the greatest problems around the world is the breakdown of the nuclear family.
The cell church worldwide is learning that strict geographical barriers often hinder instead of strengthen cell ministry. But this argument is equally true with regard to strict homogeneous boundaries, such as men and women. Remember, the thrust of homogenous groups is to encourage growth because of natural groupings. Don’t allow your natural groupings to form an iron curtain around your ministry.
Dividing strictly into men’s groups or women’s groups, while deleting the intergenerational component completely, seems too artificial.
Arguments to continue family cells (intergenerational cells)
Healthy cell ministry will equally emphasize both intergenerational cell groups and gender specific cells. Here are some arguments for emphasizing intergenerational cell groups.
The family in North America culture (and many other parts of the world) is rapidly deteriorating. The great need today is for couples to learn how to work together as a team. Husbands and wives are already separated enough. Should we add to this? Family cells help the couple to learn together
Intergenerational cells help reduce the time the couple will be apart. They demand that the couple is out only one night of the week—instead of two times per week if each leads an individual cell group.
Couples, especially young couples, love to meet together. They love to come together to communicate and learn together. Having only gender specific categories deprives them of an important option.
It seems that intimate sharing should be done together as couples in an atmosphere of confidence, with break-out times within the same cell to share more intimate details (or one-on-one during the week). Is it right for a guy to be sharing all the problem he is having at home with a bunch of other guys?
There are many occasions to have gender specific meeting within the cell itself: break out times, one-on-one during the week, etc.
It seems right for a couple to grow together. The wife, for example, might be in an excellent women’s cell but the husband’s experience in his men’s cell might not be so exciting.
G-12 Groups: should men disciple women?
G12 groups, unlike cell groups, are for cell leaders. "But should a male cell leader disciple a female daughter cell leader?"
I recommend couples to form their G12 group together. The couple can then minister to the group of leaders together and there is always opportunity for the wife to meet with the women while the husband meets with the males.
If the G12 leader is a single male and has females in his G12 group, I recommend that he meets individually only with the other males and in groups of at least two when the females are present.
Some cell churches have divided their youth into gender specific cell groups because young people can focus better when they’re with their own gender. In this situation, the G12 groups would naturally become male and female. I personally think it’s a great idea for young people to have gender specific G12 groups as well as cell groups.
Follow the principles
Cypress Creek Church in Wimberley, Texas started in 1993 and has since grown to 100+ cell groups with more than 1000 in attendance. Pastor Rob Campbell has visited ICM and has supercharged his church with G-12 principles, including Encounter Retreats, a school of leaders, and team gatherings. Pastor Rob realized that following ICM’s categories was not the key to success. He knew he had to adapt the principles to his particular situation.
CCC has growing multiplying home cell groups among adolescents, high school students, and university students at CCC. CCC has noticed that their adolescent and young adult cell groups work best among the same gender. They discovered that it was far more effective for boys to meet with boys and girls with girls in their junior high, high school and university cell groups. They discovered that when adolescent boys, for example, met with adolescent girls, there were too many other emotions swirling in the air to effective minister to one another.
The major category among adults, however, is family cell groups. Pastor Rob is focusing on the family unit and has not felt the need to separate further into homogeneous men’s cell groups or women’s cell groups. I was impressed with CCC because it is following the Holy Spirit and adapting G-12 principles to its particular situation
Churches that make it over the long haul thoroughly understand cell church principles and values and make decisions according to those convictions.
I believe cells should multiply along natural homogeneous lines—and certainly should not de-emphasize the important homogenous family category.