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Passion, Penetration, and Persistence: Key Lessons for Church Leadership from the Elim Church

by Joel Comiskey

October 2004: Presented to church leaders at the Touch Field Forum in Houston, Texas

Introduction

We in North America are living on the mission field. Last year at the Touch Field Forum I talked about putting an accent on the word Ameríca to help us understand that we are on the mission field. North America is no longer the center of church ministry. We’re no longer the exporter of Christianity to the rest of the world, like we once were.

In fact, many of those churches that were founded by missionaries going out from North America are now helping North America to find its way again.

One of those churches is the Elim church. The Elim church, in contrast, is totally untouched by outside missionary influence. Yet, the Elim church is one of those miraculous works that God is raising up today to once again bless North America.

The Elim Church is the second largest church in the world, in my opinion. It started in 1977 and the mother church has grown to 117,000 people in San Salvador, El Salvador but the church also has an additional 200,000 people worldwide in approximately 150 church plants. The Elim church is sending missionaries all over the globe and continues to have a powerful influence all over the world.

My book Passion and Persistence (Touch Publications 2004) talks about the Elim church. I like the way the workers at Touch entitled this book because it speaks of the heart of Elim. What I’m going to say today is embodied on the cover of this book: Passion and Persistence: How the Elim’s cell groups penetrated an entire city for Jesus. My three points are passion, penetration, and persistence.

Passion

The first thing that we can learn from Elim is that they are a passionate church. They are a church that is passionate for Jesus. And that passion starts with the senior pastor.

Passion of the Senior Pastor

Mario Vega, the senior pastor of Elim, wrote one of the chapters in my book, and perhaps I should call it our book. Mario writes, “No church will grow more than its pastor. Senior pastors must be practically involved in cell ministry. At Elim Church, all staff pastors engage in weekly visits to cell groups. Their ministry is centered around cell ministry since cells are the base and life of the church. Many pastors visit El Salvador in order to participate in our International Conference. They receive teaching and materials and return to their countries to put what they’ve learned into practice. After some time, however, they contact us saying that their cell system is not working well. We then send our pastors to help them, but after checking every element of the system, we often conclude that what is failing is not the application of the cell principles but the role the pastor must play.”

The senior pastor is the quarterback. People are watching his life. What will he do? People will follow what a pastor does more than what a pastor will say. Just as Paul the apostle said, “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Cor 11:1). The passion must start in the heart of the senior pastor. People will get excited about what the senior pastor is excited about.

If the senior pastor is not excited about cell ministry, most likely the people will not be excited. That’s why I tell pastors not to start on their cell journey until they’re sure that they’re passionate about cell ministry.

It’s fairly easy to construct a cell system. There’s a lot more material today about cell churches. You can even buy an “off-the-shelf” cell church package on today’s market. A church staff can put together a cell structure that looks pretty good—on paper. The one variable that’s more elusive and harder to detect is the passion level.

I spoke in a church in North America several months ago. I noticed some problems in their cell structure and God gave me grace to share with the senior pastor about those problems. He then allowed me to speak to the staff. As I consulted with the staff I shared with them how to rearrange their structure to be more effective. But then I said, “Changing a structure is like changing a car. You can buy a brand new car and it might look great on the outside, but what counts is the motor. The motor drives the vehicle. The senior pastor is the motor—under the Holy Spirit’s direction of course. He’s the one that must energize the cell system. He’s the one that must instill passion in others.”

So when I spoke to this staff, I spoke directly to the pastor saying, “You, pastor, need to fan into flame your own vision and then give that vision out to others. You are key to making the cell church ministry work long term.” I told this pastor to read books on cell ministry. I told him to visit cell churches to go to seminars and especially to keep personally active in cell ministry in order to stir that passion. He agreed and accepted the challenge and the church is doing well to this day.

You’ve come to this conference. You’ve paid hard earned money, but more than that, you’ve also taken your precious time to come here and learn. You’re fanning into flame your own passion so that you can be more effective in your home church. I think that’s awesome. This is the key.

I would encourage you to continue to do so. You are the key, pastor. It’s like that excellent quote in Bill Beckham’s book The Second Reformation, “It’s one thing to have a vision, it’s another thing that the vision has you.” Does the vision have you, pastor? Or do you just have a nice vision. My prayer is that the cell vision has you!

Passion from the Word of God

Another aspect of that passion is the Word of God. More than the cell structure is the glory of God. In fact, hopefully you’re involved in the cell church vision because you believe that it’s the best way to fulfill the Scriptural mandate about the priesthood of all believers, living in community, and penetrating a lost world for Jesus.

Elim fans into flame their passion by the Word of God. You could say that Elim is a Bible church. They take the Bible literally and apply it to all aspects of life. If the Word says it, they’ll do it. The Scripture says in Hebrews 4:12, “For the Word of God is living, powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword. It pierces to the dividing asunder of soul and Spirit.

Luke 24:30-32 says, “When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight. They asked each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?’ They got up and returned at once to Jerusalem. There they found the Eleven and those with them, assembled together.”

Every Monday night about 7,000 people attend the Monday night Word time at Elim. On Monday night the Word is preached expository style—verse by verse. The Word of God fans into flame the passion the Elim members have for God and His glory. Then on Tuesday night another 7,000 people go to hear the Word. They just pack it out because they want to hear the Word. Different preachers—not just Mario—teach the Word; the key is that the Word is preached. On Wednesday night and Thursday night a different crowd gathers, but just as many. There’s a hunger for the Word of God.

Elim literally believes what the Bible says that Jesus Christ is coming again. They literally believe that men and women are lost apart from Jesus Christ. They are enflamed with that passion for lost men and women and they are compelled to preach the gospel. Do you have that same passion today? Only God’s Word through His Spirit can fan it into flame in your own life. Only He can revive Your Spirit and give you a desire for more of Him.

Is it even possible to do cell church without a deep belief and conviction for the Word of God? I don’t believe so. Actually the Word should inspire our passion to do cell ministry. The Word tells us that everyone is a priest of God and thus cell ministry gives wings to this truth. The Word tells us that believers are to practice the one-anothers of Scripture and again, cell ministry gives the church the ability to do that. The Word tells us to disciple all nations and cell ministry is simply the best vehicle to make that happen.

Back in the late 1970s when Mario joined the Elim church, he and a few others began to formulate their basic core doctrines. Totally apart from any one system of doctrine, Mario and others felt the Word was teaching the doctrine of predestination, eternal security and God’s sovereignty. Their doctrine is very Calvinistic but they arrived at it quite apart from Calvin.

Passion from the Spirit of God

Yet, the Elim Church also noticed that Scripture talked clearly about the supernatural gifts of the Spirit, so they also wanted the Pentecostal aspect of the Word. You could call this church Calvinostal or something like that. The bottom line is that you can’t pigeon hole this church because they just don’t fit the same patterns as the rest. They just take the Word literally and run with it.

Jesus said in Matthew 12:24, “Are you not in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God?” Jesus wants us to be involved with both the Scripture and the power of God. If we’re going to renew this passion, we need to have both working mightily within us—we need the Scripture and God’s supernatural power. Either He’s alive or He’s not alive!

Jesus told the disciples to wait in Jerusalem until they received power from on high. When the Spirit came in power the church was ready to do battle. And yet, it wasn’t just a one-time experience. In Acts chapter 4:31 it clearly says that the apostles were filled once again: “After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.” In Acts 4: 7-9 we see how the Spirit of God made Peter a courageous, bold witness. Scripture says, “They had Peter and John brought before them and began to question them: By what power or what name did you do this? Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them: “Rulers and elders of the people! If we are being called to account today for an act of kindness. . . When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus.”

At Elim, before the preaching of the Word each celebration service, Elim allows the Spirit of God to move in their midst. They allow prophesy and speaking in tongues, with interpretation, of course. Often the pastors and key leaders will be standing their to make sure everything is done decently and in order. Thus, it’s the belief in a supernatural God and the willingness to see that supernatural God work mightily that fans into flame the passion of Elim.

In my book I have many stories of God healing people in a cell or receiving a prophetic Word in the celebration service. I took my friend Dave to visit the Elim church in Los Angles. The Elim church in Los Angeles has 5,000 people attending their cell groups—perhaps it’s the largest Spanish speaking church in California. We went to a Sunday morning worship service. Dave was touched by the prophetic word before the service. Dave said to me, “I’ve never seen such passion. This is exactly what I need.”

Passion through Prayer

The Elim church also prays fervently. Every Friday night there is an all-night prayer meeting in the main sanctuary. Yes, they believe in predestination and God’s election, yet they also know that God has elected them to get on their knees and cry mightily out to the living God. He’s in control yet He fulfills His Word through human vessels.

We can learn a lot from Elim about the passion that they possess. It’s this passion that stirs them to reach a lost world for Jesus Christ. We in North America need to come back to the fact that cell ministry works when we place God and His Word first and fan His passion into them to do the work of the ministry. While we must praise God for cell ministry, we must be reminded afresh that it’s the God of the Bible that must stir our hearts to hunger after Him. We must run with fire after God and desire wholeheartedly to serve Him.

In Acts 4:24-31, we can clearly see the connection between the prayer and passion. The apostles cried out after being persecuted, “Sovereign Lord,” they said, “you made the heaven and the earth and the sea, and everything in them. . . Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness. Stretch out your hand to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.’ After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.”

Penetration

The passion for lost souls drives Elim to penetrate a lost world for Jesus Christ. I consider the Elim church as an invading church. Jesus says, “Having gone, make disciples of all nations, baptizing them. . .” Jesus left behind an invading army—an army that confidently takes the ground that the enemy has possessed. The church needs to re-possess the land! Elim believes in a God that is more powerful than the giants. Yes, the giants are in the land, but we can defeat them.

Friendship Evangelism

Elim invades the lost world for Jesus Christ. It’s not a come and see type church. It’s an invading army. They spread their net over an entire city in order to win lost people for Jesus Christ.

I think of Josephina Lopez, a Jehovah’s Witness. Next to Josephina was an Elim cell group. Many of her friends attended that Elim cell group. They invited Josephina to the cell but she resisted saying that she was part of a different religion. Then the cell next door multiplied down the street. At the Elim church, cells multiplied geographically (much like Randy Frazee’s church). The new cell down the street also invited Josephina to attend. She was impressed by their singing and life, and she also knew how empty she felt but she still wasn’t ready to commit. Then the cell multiplied again and this time behind her house. So here she was caught in this net of cells—or shall we say noose of cells. Like a fish trapped in a net it was very hard to get out. She had friends in each cell and they continue to invite her. Finally she gave in. Her excuse was, ‘I want to try the desert.” She came to the cell and was converted. God healed her life and soon she was hosting a cell in her own home.

The Elim church penetrates the city by friendship evangelism. The goal is to find a need and meet it. Elim members are instructed to get to know non-Christians and show them acts of mercy and kindness. Often an Elim member might help in some practical way for the family—constructing something or babysitting children—with the goal of winning a friendship. The evangelism eventually follows.

Careful Planning

Another aspect of penetration is the careful planning the Elim church does to evangelize. Let me read you a quote: Jaime Cea, who had multiplied his cell on numerous occasions, said, “The weekly planning meeting is essential for cell evangelism. We plan on how to reach out in the neighborhood and develop friendships. We then talk about who we’re going to invite. Then we assign each cell member the responsibility of inviting certain people. Each person has an evangelism job during the week in preparation for the cell group.”

What they do at the Elim Church is Scripturally based. Proverbs 21:5 says, “The plans of the diligent lead to profit as surely as haste leads to poverty.” It says again in Proverbs 20:18, “Make plans by seeking advice; if you wage war, obtain guidance.”

Anyone can come to this planning meeting on Tuesday or Wednesday night. Normally the core members come, and the goal is to plan for the Saturday night cell. All cell groups at Elim meet on Saturday night. Yet, the goal of the planning meeting is to plan to reach out. I’ve been to many of these planning meetings. The lead might ask each person who they’re going to invite to the cell or what happened the last week. They then encourage each other and exhort each other to press on—like Scripture tells us to exhort each other daily. We’ve heard the old adage, “he who fails to plan, plans to fail.” Elim makes sure this doesn’t happen.

What can we learn from this for North America? Well, I believe that in North America it’s even more important to plan to evangelize. In North America evangelism is harder. People come home and flee into their houses to watch TV. We in North America need to be even more intentional about how to evangelize and reach out. This is so essential.

Multiplication=Victory

John 15: 8, "This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples. Jesus is pleased when we make disciples."

Elim believes that fruitfulness and multiplication are intimately linked together. Another phrase I want to use when describing Elim is that multiplication=victory at Elim. The Elim church views multiplication as being a victory for Jesus and the church. They see it as a triumph. And they instill this vision for evangelism and multiplication into all the cell groups. It’s part of the DNA or the essence of each cell. Now, I know that multiplication is much harder in North America and that many North American members and leaders struggle with multiplication. So I went up to one of the Elim pastors and I said, “don’t you have struggles in getting your people to multiply cells?” I was looking for some technique. He just stared at me with that quizzical look. Finally, he said, our members are born into the cell speaking the language of multiplication. It’s like a baby learning a new language. The baby speaks the language of his or her mother quite naturally. So also in our cells, those who are new begin to learn that the language of cell life is evangelism and multiplication. There’s just no question about it. It’s part of what we do.

Most of you have heard that confusing phrase that Ralph Neighbour often uses, “You don’t have to teach a goldfish what water is like.” That phrase really applies here. It’s basically saying that just like a fish lives and breathes the environment of water, so also those members in an Elim cell group just live and breathe evangelism that leads to multiplication.

Now how can we apply this to North America? I think the first thing is to determine that you’re going to persist in cell ministry until it becomes second nature for your people. Persist until people born into your cells just know that it’s a victory to reach non-Christians for Jesus and to multiply. I know that it’s so easy to be discouraged when members or even pastors make you think that multiplication is so hard or even unscriptural. They might label you as someone after numbers or destroying true community or whatever. Yet, my encouragement is to run with those who are running with you. Run with those who you can dream with and plan multiplications with and that won’t faint by the way side. Run with fire until evangelism and multiplication becomes second nature.

Precise Measurement

The next word I want to use is the word measurement. Elim measures precisely exactly what’s happening in their cell groups. They want to know. Souls are at stake. People are going to hell and they want to know how they’re doing. If you were to go to the Elim church and walk in one of their cell offices on Tuesday morning, you could ask for a print out of their cell statistics and see all 117,000 people listed on a print out.

Again, they base this measurement on Scripture. Elim has noticed that in the book of Acts the salvation of souls was carefully recorded. The book of Numbers records every detail of the nation Israel. Hebrews 12 talks about nothing being hidden in his sight; all things are naked and opened to the eyes of Him to whom we have to do.

Elim measures five things: conversions, baptisms, cell attendance, cell visitation and multiplications—with is another word for leadership development. Elim wants to know how they’re doing. And I was so impressed with the accuracy of their statistics. I go to other large cell churches around the world and they can only guess at how many they have and often those guesses change month after month. The reason why Elim wants to measure exactly what’s going on is because they want to know if they’re hitting their target. What do they have to adjust? What do they have to change? Where are they not hitting the target?

It’s much like the military firing one of those million-billion dollar cruise missiles. You’ve seen pictures of the photos that they take after firing the missiles. Specialists analyze the photos and statistics to determine if the missiles hit the target. They want to know what’s happening. It would be ridiculous to fire away and not be concerned what happened. It would cost us taxpayers way too much as well!! Elim wants their penetrating cells to count for God to bear eternal fruit. This is so important.

Powerful Coaching

Another reason why Elim is able to penetrate so effectively is because of their coaching structure. Using another military illustration, the coaching structure at Elim is the supply line to those on the front lines. We’ve read and heard a lot about the supply lines in the Iraq and how the supply lines are key. Often the enemy will try to cut off the supply lines so the fresh supplies never make it to the troops on the front line. The Elim churches supply line is their excellent coaching that they give to the leaders who are in the battle. Every leader is intimately coached. The cell leader receives careful supervision.

I’ll be taking twelve pastors to Elim in May 2005. Most likely we’ll visit cell groups while we’re there. It’s quite common to see supervisors visiting cell groups, just to make sure the cell leaders are doing well, that the supplies are replenished and that everything is okay. It’s really quite amazing. Each leader is coached. The cell leader is coached by the supervisor, the supervisor is coached by the zone pastor, the zone pastor is coached by the district pastor and the district pastor is coached by the senior pastor. Mario is coached by elders in the church. The coaching structure really works. It might not be a coaching structures with all kinds of bells and whistles but it actually works.

Cell Driven

The penetration strategy at Elim is truly cell driven. The cells penetrate the lost society and bring back the fruit of their labor to the celebration. It’s a true core to crowd strategy. The evangelism, the penetration, the multiplication all takes place outside the sanctuary. In fact, when I first visited Elim they couldn’t even tell me how many were there on Sunday. They didn’t keep a count. The celebration is a gathering of all the cells. It’s a true time of celebration where the cells and the members are refreshed and ready to do business for God.

Persistence

Scripture says in Galatians 6:9: “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” The Elim church has had to weather many storms in its existence. There was a major moral failure of the founding pastor, which is also documented in this book. The church weathered a civil war and major earthquakes.

But what the Elim church can teach us above all is the need to press ahead, to not get weary in doing well—to press on without flinching.

Some of you have come to this conference and you’re weary. The cell structure has not proven to be as effective as you had hoped. You need encouragement today. My exhortation to you as to persist. Don’t be weary in well-doing for in due season you will reap if you faint not. The Elim church, like most churches had to fail several times before they go it right. I talk about some of those failures in my book. They had to adjust to their own culture, like you will have to do.

But the exciting thing about the Elim church is that it shows us how to persist in the cell system in spite of the obstacles—how to press on when everything seems hopeless. I pray that you would leave this conference with a new vision to expect great things from God and attempt great things for God.

Further reading on this topic: Comiskey's book Passion and Persistence: How Elim's Cell Groups Penetrated an Entire City for Jesus. Buy HEREor by calling 1-888-344-CELL.