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The Two-winged Church: how to Balance Cell and Celebration
by Joel Comiskey
Spring 2005 (taken from Making Cell Groups Work Navigation Guide)
While speaking in Cambodia to a cell group that was only lightly connected with an Assembly of God church, the hostess made an interesting comment about her local church. “We’re not worried that our church is not a cell group church because after all, our cell is the church.”
I responded by stating that if they believed that the cell, all by itself, is the church then there was no need to attend Sunday morning services. Their home group meeting would serve as both their celebration and their cell group. Their cell, then, would be a house church.
The house church movement may be preferable to the cell group church movement in some countries. The lines are becoming increasingly blurred between the two movements. However, the preferred strategy of the primitive church was cell and celebration (Acts 2:42-46) and in free countries, it’s best to emphasize both cell and celebration. The celebration fulfills certain needs and the cell fulfills others.
It helps to use terminology that clarifies this reality, such as:”The cell is the church and the celebration is the church. Both are needful in the life of the believer.” J. I. Packer says something very similar, I go around telling people that if they're not with the whole congregation on Sunday, and in the small group somewhere during the week, their Christian lives are unbalanced (note 1).
Don Davidson, a cell church pastor, put it this way, “The cells are the church, and the congregational gatherings are the church, and the worldwide Christians are the church.... it isn't an either/or proposition, but a both/and proposition (note 2).”
Often the phrase “the cell is the church” is more of a practical statement than a theological treatise. One cell church pastor explained it this way,
When we say, "the cell is the church" what we mean is that the cell is where most of His work in and through us is done and that when the cells meet for weekly celebration they do not cease to be cells and the celebration becomes "the real church". The rhetorical emphasis is for a reason. We do not want the cell members to be confused into forgetting that the cell is the place the Lord "actualizes being church in and through us". The Saturday/Sunday celebration is where we celebrate what He is doing through the cells and when we also hear His vision cast for us through the sermon (note 3).”
Although the early church was birthed in the atmosphere of the home, the modern cell group church movement is relatively new. The ingrained understanding of the church today is that Sunday morning worship is where the church meets. When we talk about church today, the common understanding is that we’re talking about the Sunday worship service.
Don’t Overemphasize Celebration
A large part of the church’s anemic state today is due to our over-preoccupation with celebration. Pastors often measure their success by Sunday attendance figures. According to one study that examined why people attend the fastest growing churches in America, the number one reason given was: “so they could remain anonymous (note 4) ” Many celebration services in today’s church exist for these anonymous people.
This must change. It’s time to stop measuring our success based on Sunday morning figures. Many of the great cell churches around the world don’t even count Sunday worshipattendance. A church must be cell driven. That is, the main concern of church leaders is to grow the church from the inside out. Celebration attendance is the result of a healthy cell infrastructure. While both wings of the cell group church are equally important, the cell wing should drive the celebration wing and not vice-versa.
Don’t Underemphasize Celebration
Some would have us underemphasize the celebration service. Some in the cell church movement emphasize the phrase, the cell is the church, but are hesitant to emphatically say, the celebration is the church. Affirming only the former make it sounds like cell is more important than celebration. In truth, celebration is a vital part of the Christian life and must be emphasized accordingly.
Purposes of the Celebration
One of the key reasons for the celebration service is balance. Trying to mesh everything together in one house meeting (both cell and celebration) doesn’t quite fulfill either necessity. Most house churches are 30+ people. This group is too large for cell intimacy and too small for dynamic celebration.
Large-group celebration is the time to focus on worshipping the living God. John writes about worship in heaven, And I saw . . . those who had been victorious over the beast and his image and over the number of his name. They held harps given them by God 3 and sang the song of Moses the servant of God and the song of the Lamb:
“Great and marvelous are your deeds,
Lord God Almighty.
Just and true are your ways,
King of the ages.
Who will not fear you, O Lord,
and bring glory to your name?
For you alone are holy.
All nations will come
and worship before you (Revelation 15:2-4).
You can feel the electricity in this heavenly multitude worshipping the living God. The worship celebration can grow as large as possible--the bigger the better! It’s like watching a professional basketball game. The largeness of the crowd contributes to the excitement.
Granted, it’s harder to grasp the feeling of a great multitude when there are only 50 people in church. (The average-sized church in North America is between 50 and 75 people.) Yet, whether in a crowd of thousands or dozens, the primary purpose of a celebration service is to extol God’s greatness.
One person wrote, “If the body of Christ doesn't attend celebration services, how will they practice for when they get to heaven? They'll feel a little out of place when those you have practiced know what to do and they don't” (note 5).
This is also the time to receive biblical instruction. The early church gathered daily to grow in the faith. We read, “ Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Christ” ( 5:42). In those early days, God appointed gifted teachers to feed the entire flock. We read that the early believers devoted themselves to the “apostles’ teaching.” Early Jewish believers needed clear teaching concerning how Christ’s teaching related to the Old Testament. With enemies from within and without ready to pounce on the tender church, those believers needed a firm foundation.
Going through a book of the Bible on Sunday mornings is recommended. Expository preaching assures that the church hears the full gospel and feeds the saints a steady diet.
In the early church celebration, where instruction and worship were a priority, God granted a gigantic harvest. Three thousand were added on one occasion, five thousand on another, and we read in Acts 2:47, “. . . the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”
Peter Wagner in his excellent book Churchquake notes that the fastest growing churches in the world—including the U.S.--promote dynamic worship and powerful preaching. Wagner notes the power for evangelism in dynamic worship (note 6).
Effective cell group churches have an inviting worship service that reaches the unsaved. Bethany World Prayer Center invites people to receive Jesus in nearly every service. Pastor César Castellanos gives an invitation to receive Christ every Sunday and hundreds come forward. They are immediately integrated into the cell system. Likewise, the Elim Church gives salvation messages in their worship services with comparable results (note 7). In most cell group churches the majority of conversions happen at the cell level, but these churches are not limited to cell group conversions.
Atmosphere of the Celebration in the Cell Church
“What a relief it is to celebrate in the cell church!” I remember the earlier days of our church. When we started in July 1994, our entire strategy depended on the Sunday morning service. What a hassle! As pastors, we ran around trying to perfect every detail of the churchbecause we wanted the people to come back. For us, success depended on how many people would return the next Sunday.
We’ve now switched strategies and we’re a cell group church. The real hard labor comes on a personal level through the cells. The church’s true organization takes place on that level. The Sunday service is primarily a place to celebrate victories that we’ve experienced in cell ministry. The celebration service is the gathering of all cells to worship, hear His Word, participate in the Lord’s Supper, and reap the harvest.
This is not to say that the celebration is any less qualitative. The Holy Spirit makes a service exciting, but He expects diligent planning from us. An excellent worship service requires hours of sacrificial preparation. In the fastest growing cell group churches around the world, everything is well-planned--ushers, greeters, announcements, special music, and the general atmosphere.
Avoid the Big-Cell Mentality
A visiting speaker highlighted the need for fellowship in the church by asking someone in the front row to stand-up. Then he called on another person from the back row to standup. He asked, “Do you two know each other?” When they acknowledged that they didn’t, he said, “This is my point. We as the church should know each other. We should know each other’s names if we are truly the body of Christ.”
Wrong! It’s not necessary to know each other in a large, growing congregation. In fact, it’s impossible. Don’t gear the celebration service as a warm time of getting to know each other.
In another example, the senior pastor of a 300+ church asked those visiting to stand up and share. I felt so sorry for the visiting family who had to get up and bear their souls. In front of this huge multitude the poor husband had to share his life. This goes against everything that group dynamics teaches. In a large group, only the most sanguine personality would feel comfortable. The vast majority shake in their boots. Just because the preacher has overcome many of the initial fears of speaking before a large group, he shouldn’t expect others to do so, especially if he wants them to come back!
A celebration service is the opposite of the cell. It’s a time when the anointed man or woman of God shares a highly-prepared biblical message in order to feed the people of God. It’s not meant to be a warmfamily time.
When I visited the Yoido Full Gospel Church in Korea, I noticed that the celebration time was brief and orderly, yet very powerful. It could even be said to be impersonal, yet it fully met the needs of the 25,000 that attended each service.
Encourage Cell Relationships in the Celebration
The beauty of fellowship during the celebration service is that often cell members will look for fellow members. Often they’ll sit by each other during the service.
After every celebration service at the Love Alive Church in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, the leadership team meets together! The supervisors and cell teams (leader, assistant, treasurer, and members-at-large) gather in designated locations to pray, plan, and dream together. Supervisors take attendance of the leadership teams present; zone leaders take attendance of the supervisors present; and district pastors take attendance of zone leaders who are at each service.
The cell factor makes the celebration experience more enjoyable in cell group churches around the world. Although it’s difficult to prove scientifically, it makes sense that when dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of cells meet during the week in homes, the sum total of them will strengthen the general fellowship of the church.
Diversity in Celebration, Homogeneity in Cell
“In our church,” the transitioning pastor began, “we are having problems with two classes of people. There is a middle-upper class and a lower class. What should I do?” I counseled him to do absolutely nothing. The homogeneous problem is a mute one in the cell group church.
The cell-celebration paradigm is an ideal strategy for gathering ethnic groups in distinct cells and then asking all the various groups to celebrate together on Sunday morning. Encourage a rich variety of homogenous cell groups to meet during the week in your church. Make sure you invite them also to gather in a common Sunday celebration service.
The beauty of the cell group church is that it welcomes all of God’s rich creation. Those same homogeneous cells that meet during the week come together for a weekly Sunday celebration. Festive moments in the celebration of a cell group church echo the words of John, the apostle. “ And they sang a new song: You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth.” (Revelation 5:9-10) serve our God, and they will reign on the earth” (Rev.5:9,10).
Further reading on this topic: This article was taken from Making Cell Groups Work Navigation Guide. Comiskey's book Cell Church Solutions dedicates one chapter to how cells gather in the celebration atmosphere. Reap the Harvest also talks about the celebration service in the cell church. Buy HERE or call 1-888-344-CELL.
- Quoted on the Small Group Network, http://www.smallgroups.com/quotes.htm. Accessed Saturday, May 23, 1998.
- Don Davidson, cellchurchtalk, July 13, 2000, , http://www.cell-church.org/list/highlights.html.
- David C., cellchurchtalk, July 12, 2000, , http://www.cell-church.org/list/highlights.html.
- As quoted in Rick Diefenderfer , “"The CellChurch and the Six Spiritual Needs of Disillusioned Americans". PowerPoint Presentation. www.committed.to/cellchurch
- Stephen Csaplar, cellchurchtalk, 11/5/2000.
- Peter Wagner, Churchquake (Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 1999), p. 180.
- A team from our church in Quito, Ecuador recently visited the Elim Church. They said that some 50 people receive Jesus Christ in each of the six worship services.