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Cell-based Church with Integrated Ministries

By Joel Comiskey

Fall, 2003

Those who constantly use computers know the dangers of mixing and matching software programs that aren’t compatible. I’ve experienced countless crashes because Windows or Norton didn’t integrate with my newly installed software.

Integration in the cell group church functions a lot like a computer operating system handling application programs. In the cell-based church there is only one operating system: the cell system. The other ministries are like the application programs on the computer. The goal is to make sure the church doesn’t freeze or crash when new ministries are added.

A lot has been written about the different types of small groups ministries (e.g., Meta versus Cell church, etc.), but very little has been written about how to integrate small groups with ministries within the church. [1]

Churches integrate small groups in a variety of ways. The first two (non-integration and faulty integration) are common in churches with cells while the last two (member integration and leader integration) should be the goal if your church plans to transition to the cell group church strategy.

Four Types of Integration

Non-Integration: Programs and Small Groups

Non-integration compartmentalizes small groups from the rest of the programs in the church. Members choose between various ministry options—one of them is cell ministry. Some will be in the choir, teach Sunday school, while others be in the cell group ministry.

In non-integrated churches if someone wants to start a new ministry, the pastor says, “Go for it.” Free choice reigns. Integration is not an issue. The senior pastor simply blesses all the programs and hopes it will all work out. Someone said, “If you chase two rabbits, one will escape.” The non-integrative approach chases both ministries and cells. The two run off in different directions, creating a competing programmatic structure.

Some churches use programs and ministries to connect people into the church—even non-Christians. Sometimes a ministry (e.g., usher, greeter, etc.) works like an outreach tool to convert the person. “People will stay in the church once they’re involved in a task,” some declare. After hooking the person into a ministry, some churches might try to get that person into a small group--if and when the person feels the need for further discipleship. I call this the funnel or trickle down approach.

The sad reality with this approach is that so many never trickle down. Small groups remain one rusty option. By default, this approach tends to prioritize the one-wing church (celebration).

I consulted one of these churches in which the pastor truly wanted to become a small group church, but failed to realize that his entire focus was the celebration wing. Les s than one-third of those who attended the Sunday celebration funneled down to the small groups. This pastor ideally wanted more people in small groups but cell and celebration weren’t on the same level.

The cell church, in contrast, asks everyone to either be in a cell, in the process of leading a cell, or leading a cell before they take part in a ministry in the church. Ministries are present (and perhaps even abundant) but they should not operate as independent planets following their own orbit. In the cell group church, church growth means that the church is growing both in cells and celebration.

Don’t pander to the weakest link—worship attendees. Concentrate on small groups and especially small group leadership. As the infrastructure grows, so will the worship service.

Faulty Integration: All Groups are “Cells”

With this view of integration, a person simply recognizes that the church already has existing small groups. These groups might be Sunday School classes, the choir, elders, committees, ministry teams, outreach teams, worship-production teams, sports teams, recovery groups, or women's circles, etc.”[2] One expert promoting this view said, “The phrase cell groups refers to an encompassing care system that includes Sunday School. Sunday School is simply a centralized, on-premises cell system. Churches should have as many Sunday Schools as they can afford.”[3]

This might seem like one way to integrate everything, but it creates confusion by saying that a ministry is a cell when in fact it is not. I have noticed an adverse effect on the cell-based system when all small groups are embraced in the cell system and given equal priority. This mentality cheapens the cell vision by saying that a small group usher’s meeting in the church has the same priority as a home-based small group. In fact, the two are worlds apart, due to the setting and the purpose. The lack of quality control in this smorgasbord approach eventually weakens the entire system.

Is there only one type of group in a cell church? No. Actually, there might be a variety of groups (e.g., governing board, worship team, point of entry groups, leadership groups, classes, missions group, ministry groups, etc.). It is not that the cell church does not have usher groups or groups that visit the homeless mission. Rather the key difference lies in the fact that those involved in those ministries are ALSO participating in the base life of the church—the cell group (a group of 4-15 people that meets weekly outside the church building for the purpose of evangelism and discipleship with the goal of multiplication).

At one time my church bought into the faulty view of integration. We had a particular women’s ministry that studied the Bible in the church. These were semester-oriented Bible studies that had six levels. Each level used a different Navigator’s book. After completing one book, the class would graduate to the next level. The groups were closed to non-Christians at the higher levels.

At the time, we were trying hard to make cells the base of our church, and we heard that some churches were simply calling all small groups “cells.” So we decided to label these church-based Bible studies cell groups. We told people that if they were involved in a women’s Bible study that presto they were in a cell group.

This decision cost us dearly later on. It caused confusion of vision. People found it hard to swallow that a closed Bible study was a cell group. These groups weren’t evangelizing, weren’t multiplying, weren’t meeting in the home, and were bound to their own curriculum.

When we proclaimed our small group vision from the pulpit, we suddenly had to proclaim that the women’s Bible studies were also cell groups. It was like we had injected a virus into our system.

We finally admitted our mistake. Our error, however, did have consequences. The women running the Bible study ministry liked wearing the cell group label and didn’t want to change. It took two long years, but we finally converted these church based Bible studies into our equipping track.

The women continued to meet together as groups, but we asked them to start using the church’s equipping track material rather than the Navigator’s studies. After the last class, we expected the ladies to lead a home cell group.

I counsel pastors to refuse to call a cell everything that is small and a group. Cell group churches want to know that those attending a cell will experience community and have a chance to invite their non-Christian friends. Cell group churches believe that labeling everything a small group will actually water down the cell philosophy.

Cell Member Integration: Cell-based Church

With cell member integration, every person in the church attends a cell group before involvement in the official ministries of the church. Of course all believers should use their gifts at work, school, and the cell group. Cell member integration is simply saying that official ministries in the church are privileges that belong to those who are involved in the life of the church—cell ministry. Cell member integration prevents ministries in the church from developing a life of their own and becoming programs in competition with cell ministry.

The underlying philosophy of cell member integration is that small group attendance is just as important as Sunday morning worship. The reasoning goes like this: Since a person wouldn’t be allowed to perform a ministry that didn’t attend Sunday celebration, the same is true with cell attendance. Attendance in a cell group is a minimum requirement to be involved in a ministry.

In a cell group church there will also be other type of groups (e.g., Sunday School, board, choruses, parking lot groups), but these other groups are considered ministries. Cell member integration encourages everyone to be in a true cell group before being involved in additional ministries.

The suggestion that a person attends a cell group before being involved in an official church ministry sounds time intensive. I’m not suggesting, however, that a person must be involved in an official church ministry. The person who choose to be involved in a church ministry, however, must also attend a regular cell, since the cell is the heart and soul of the cell group church—the place where people can experience the true church. Our tendency in the western world is to get involved in task-type ministry before relationship. The cell group church cuts across that grain.

The 150,000-member Works and Mission Baptist Church in Ivory Coast , West Africa promotes cell member integration. Everyone must be in a cell to participate in one of the departmental ministries. Cell attendance is necessary for ministry involvement. Everyone is placed in a ministry according to gifting. While 40-60% of the members at WMBC actually lead a cell, not everyone is expected to lead one.[4] Cell leaders report to the house church department while those in other ministries have their own departments. The key is that everyone must faithfully attend a cell to participate in a ministry.

Another growing cell church called Love Alive Church in Tegucigalpa , Honduras has chosen this option. They consider themselves a cell group church with specific ministries. In this church everyone must participate in a cell group before choosing a ministry.

René Peñalba, the senior pastor of this church, reflected back to 1980 when cell groups were just one more program among many. However, in 1982, the Love Alive Church made cell ministry the very base of the church. Since then, they have not been afraid to add specific ministries to meet the needs of the church.

Cell Leader Integration: Cell-Based Church

The record-breaking cell group churches ask everyone to enter training. They believe that everyone can make disciples who make disciples. These churches believe that facilitating a cell group is the best way to make disciples. The goal of these churches is for everyone in the church to eventually congregate their friends and relatives and lead a group of people.

The Elim Church in San Salvador, El Salvador, finds all their worker for the various ministries through the cell districts on a rotating basis. All workers for every type of ministry must be cell leaders. In this way there is no competition between church ministries and the cell, which is the heart of the church. It’s also logical that those who are in the battle would also have the privilege of serving on Sunday. Lon Vining said:

I think that those who have advocated an equipping track that ends in "everyone becoming a cell group leader" have done so with the idea of raising the bar. I think they are trying to say, in essence, that instead of cell group leadership being "for highly-trained ministry specialists," or "super-spiritual Christians," (an elite few), that instead, cell leadership (and the type of disciple that fits that profile) is something much more closer to the NORM of Christian life as one matures. The track ending there also indicates to the general congregation that it's a spiritual goal that is reachable by many, not just a few.

Many cell group churches start with cell member integration and move into cell leader integration. Asking everyone to eventually lead a cell group will maximize leadership development and more rapidly multiply cell groups. Churches emphasizing cell leader integration don’t permit church ministries to become an end in themselves. Everyone involved in a ministry (e.g., worship, etc.) must be preparing to facilitate a cell (in the training track) or actually leading a cell.

What if a Person Doesn’t Lead a Cell Group?

There are no second-class citizens in God’s kingdom. All those in Christ have received Christ’s righteousness and God’s favor. There’s a danger in making a person feel second-class if not leading a cell group.

The role of leadership is to cast the vision and watch God work. Casting the net that everyone can lead a cell group and enter the equipping track will launch many (not all) into ministry.

In cell leader integration, those who decide not to enter the training track to eventually lead a cell group continue to exercise their spiritual gifts at work, at school, and especially in the cell group. The key point in churches that emphasize cell leader integration is that official church ministries are reserved for those who have fully entered the vision of the church—making disciples who make disciples.

What about the Gifts of the Spirit?

Some object to this type of cell leader integration because of the gifts of the Spirit. “It’s not Scriptural,” one man said to me. “Doesn’t the Bible teach that every believer possesses particular gifts of the Spirit? Shouldn’t we allow individuals to develop their own gifts and talents, and thus start the ministry of their own choosing?

It’s important to remember that when Paul wrote the three major gift passages (1 Corinthians 12, Romans 12, and Ephesians 4), he was writing to house churches, not congregations meeting in a church building. Paul knew that those in the small group (house church) were able to exercise their particular gifts. Thus he could say, “When you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction...” (I Cor. 14:26).

There is no better atmosphere for the exercise of one’s giftedness than in a cell group. Only in the intimacy of a small, closely knit group will many Christians ever be able to exercise their spiritual gift. Neighbour says,

All are to exercise spiritual gifts to edify others. The early church did exactly that! Recognizing there cannot be total participation by every member when the gatherings are only made up of large, impersonal groups, the people of God moved from house to house in small groups. By moving among their residences, they became intimately acquainted with each person’s surroundings.[5]

As more people lead cells, it also gives more people the chance to exercise their gifts (both in the direction of the cell and in the participation within the cell). Integrated cell churches help church members exercise their gifts in the cell group. Those attending a cell will eventually discover what his or her gift is and have opportunities to exercise it more fully. Some cell leaders will exercise their gift of teaching by teaching the training track (basic and advanced level). Others will exercise their gift of mercy in the social action ministry. Others might be led into missions, counseling, or worship.

Go for it!

In summary, cell group churches are in one of two categories: cell member or cell leader integration. Churches with small groups fall into the non-integrative or faulty integrated category.

Cell leader integration provides greatest multiplication of cell groups. Yet, it might not be the best option for everyone, especially right away. If a church is just beginning to transition in a very traditional church, it’s best to apply the cell member integration option, andeven that option will require a transition period.

Integrating ministries within the cell church will not come overnight.[6] It takes time.[7]

Further reading on this topic: Comiskey's books Making Cell Groups Work Navigation Guide and From Twelve to Three talk about how to integrate cells and ministries. Order HERE or call 1-888-344-CELL.

[1] Karen Hurston , for example, provides a helpful chart that describes the levels of integration among of small groups in churches in Growing the World’s Largest Church (( Springfield , MO : Chrism, 1995), p. 203.

[2] David Limiero, “Meta, Model, or Martyr? Three Approaches to Introducing a Small Groups Ministry in Your Church,” July 1996. http://smallgroups.com/models07.htm. Accessed: Friday, May 22, 1998

[3] Carl George , The Coming Church Revolution (Grand Rapids, MI: Fleming H. Revell, 1994), p. 284.

[4] This statistic came from the research of Les Brickman for his doctoral dissertation at Regent University . Comments made during the doctoral defense on Friday, December 15, 2000 .

[5] Ralph Neighbour , Where Do We Go from Here? (Houston, TX: Touch Publications, 1990), p. 41.

[6] We at the Republic Church consider ourselves a strong cell church. We rejoice in maximum integration. Yet, not everyone is in agreement, even among our church board. Our pastoral team had to have a meeting with his board member and clearly explain our philosophy. We told him that if he wasn’t in agreement, he was free to look for another church. He agreed not to manifest his resistance (he does lead his own cell group).

[7] In my book Reap the Harvest (Houston, TX: Touch Publications, 1999) I talk about steps to a successful transition (chapters 14 & 15).