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What's the BIG Deal About Small Groups?

Interview with Joel Comiskey, Author of Home Cell Group Explosion Interview with www.theooze.com, November 1999(dedicated to reach the Post-Modern church)

As I walked into the boxy church that had seemingly been carved out of a warehouse, I grabbed my conference materials and joined some friends on the left hand side. As we recapped the treacherous drive, my eyes were drawn to a gentleman in the middle of the aisle. Could it really be him? Would he really wear a plaid shirt and khakis? I would have sworn that Sgt. Slaughter (former WWF pro wrestler and face of GI Joe) had just walked into the room!

No, it wasn't Sgt. Slaughter; it was Joel Comiskey! Wow, what a resemblance! Although he doesn't pack the physical punch of the Sarge, Comiskey could more aptly be called Sergeant Cell.

Having traveled around the globe studying Cell Churches, Joel Comiskey has become one of the foremost authorities on how cell groups are transforming churches everywhere. One of the most unique situations that he has studied can be found in Bogotá, Columbia at the International Charismatic Mission where over 45,000 people attend on a weekly basis. They have over 20,000 cell groups that have been created largely through what they call the Principle of 12.At a recent Touch Ministries cell seminar, The Ooze had the chance to catch up with Joel and hear about how cell groups and the Principle of 12 are changing the way many churches do ministry.

Ooze: You've talked about the difference between you having the cell vision and the cell vision having you. How do you describe that? How does the cell vision have you?

In my own life, I think it came from visiting these cell churches around the world. I was turned off by certain books that seemed to cut everything else down. You had to be a cell church or nothing else. I have always had more of a heart for church growth. In essence, how do we reach the lost at any cost? I'm just excited about whatever churches do to make that happen.

But for my Ph.D., I had to study these large cell churches and find out why they are so effective. So, I think that kind of crystallized my previous small group experience. I had always been involved in small groups, but it made me want to make small groups the base of the church. A cell church is just a church that gives priority to cell groups. That is what I discovered at these large churches; they were giving priority to cell groups. Their system did that.So, I've always loved small groups. But, the cell church simply adds a dimension of strength to those small groups. It makes them the priority. That's why I love the cell church; that's why the vision has me. I don't just have the vision.

Ooze: As you've traveled really around the world, what are some of the differences that you've seen in how groups are playing out overseas or in Latin America versus the US?

I would say that overseas the culture is already ready for small groups. That is, they are already group-oriented. They think as a group. They are not as individualistic as the United States. So, oftentimes, small groups flow according to the culture. That is why you see these huge cell churches that are already based in their culture.In the US, there is a great need for cell churches, because we need community. We are so isolated, individualistic, and dysfunctional in our individualism. That mentality of going into your home, shutting your door, and having all the video equipment. You don't even need to see anyone else til the morning.

Ooze: Faith Popcorn calls that cocooning.

Yes. Basically, the United States needs this type of ministry. The exciting thing is that there are now some powerful models in the US like Bethany World Prayer Center and like Larry Kreider's church (Dove Christian Fellowship). Baptist, Methodist, you name it! So, we are seeing the growth potential in the US. I think it just reflects the need for community and the need for a way that is natural to reach our friends for Christ.

Ooze: Are you seeing any differences across generation lines? There are a lot of Boomer churches that are definitely interested the cell model. Do you see that in younger generations as well?

I'm not an expert on postmodernity or Gen-x. Although I have read and listened to a lot of information, I would like to learn more. What I'm reading is that Gen-x will get more excited about small groups than the Boomer generation church - because of their experience-oriented mentality. They want to experience. They are more of an experiential type crowd from what I read - I'm not an expert. Being in a small group where everyone can share, where the Bible is made applicable, and where people are sharing their needs and experiences is ideal for reaching the postmodern culture.

So, I'm excited about the possibilities for small groups and cell churches in that generation. As far as the Boomers, I think that we are seeing some cell churches clicking in the US. But, I actually think that the next generation will be even more attracted to the cell church model. So, just to leave that thought with you.I just had a seminar in Houston, and there were three Gen-xers listening intently. They got excited about what I had to say. They want to start a church for Gen-xers, and they came prepared to learn about the cell church.

Ooze: What encouragement would you give to potential church planter? What thoughts or encouragement would you give to them as they are trying to figure out what 'church' will look like for them?

Church planting is a wonderful way to start a cell church. You don't start with all the tradition. I would just want to encourage anyone planting a church to start with the cell model. I would encourage that while the tradition is not there to go with a new model where everyone is in a small group. Then, those small groups just come together to meet on Sunday morning. So, it is much easier to do it as a church planter.I would just want to say to that person, "Don't go into your Celebration service too quickly." Make sure your cells are your base. When you launch into a Sunday service, that will begin to take into your time and energy.

When I planted a church in downtown Long Beach, California in 1984, I had a vision for cells. I started cells, but not knowing what the cell church was all about. After I started a Sunday service, I just became preoccupied. I just became burdened with getting a special singer, my message, Sunday School, and so on. So, I would just encourage that person to make sure the base of cells is there before starting on Sundays.

Ooze: In Larry Stockstill's book, The Cell Church, he says that two things are coming to America - harvest and hostility. What are you thoughts on that? Do you see those things coming? If so, how?

That is a good question. I don't have that prophetic gift like Larry Stockstill. I think that America is definitely sensing the need to return to God. I would not predict harvest before there is repentance. Rather that giving this rosy view of this wonderful revival that is going to take place, I believe that God is calling America to stop looking at the techniques - magical formulas that are suddenly going to make their church work. We need to just get back to the basics - repentance, prayer, weeping, wailing, fasting, and seeking the Living God. So that God will restore His land and will give us that revival and His Presence. But, before that happens, I think that harvest and all these prophetic type things will probably not take place.

Ooze: And, what about hostility?

Hostility? We are already in that. We are already in a secular mentality; it will get worse. The evolutionary teaching that we are just our own gods which is now being amplified with New Age and so on. I think this will more and more alienate the secular from the Christian. I think we need to be prepared for that - to be prepared to preach boldly. To stand for Jesus is not easy. We need to ask God for that power and that grace. It is not expectable anymore to be a Christian. I think that we are already in the hostility stage of our culture, but I think that it will get worse.

Ooze: When you say the name Jesus with such emphasis, what does that name mean? Why does that captivate you?

It is such a blessed name. It is so wonderful, so powerful. When we look to Jesus, he gives us strength and understanding. I mocked my brother Jay who was a Christian when he first shared with me. He was saved in the Jesus Movement through Chuck Smith and Calvary Chapel. He told me about Jesus, and I thought he was weird. I was out there partying, drinking, and messing around with drugs. In my bedroom when I cried out to Jesus, Jesus came into my heart. I wasn't looking for Jesus; I was just in a state of confusion and depression. The Bible says that whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. In my state of anxiety, Jesus saved me. That was 26 years ago. People have said to me, "Haven't you doubted since then?" I said, "How could I doubt?"Jesus saved me when I called on his name. I wasn't looking to be saved, but there is power in that name. I was transformed, and Jesus has done a powerful work in my life. There is power in that name of Jesus.

Ooze: You've indicated that the whole focus of the cell should be Jesus. Who is Jesus in the context of community? How does that play out for you?

Jesus gives us the focus in the cell. A cell leader that is focused on Jesus will be seeking first the Kingdom of God. That is true in a cell. As Jesus is the center, these other disciplines seem to just fall into place. There are so many expectations in a cell group. Some want Bible, some what worship, some want counseling. But, a cell leader needs to listen to Jesus, and in time, these other disciplines will manifest them. Jesus will manifest them when necessary. So, that is what I mean. Look to Jesus and make sure that he is the center. Then, Jesus will give the proper balance to the cell group.

Interview took place in November 1999 and appeared in www.theooze.comin January 2000.

For further reading on this topic: Comiskey's book Cell Church Solutions: Transforming the Church in North Americagoes into detail about the cell church in North America. Reap the Harvestis another book that talks about how Jesus is using the cell church worldwide to transform His church. Both books can be purchasedHERE or call 1-888-344-CELL.