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Model Sickness: Problems of Trying to Imitate the Model Cell Church

by Joel Comiskey

Spring 2005

I recently consulted with a church who bought into the pure G12 model 110%. I discovered that before jumping into the G12 camp, they were a pure 5X5 cell church. And before that they copied the Saddleback model 100%. Now waving the G12 flag, they tried hard to do exactly what G12 churches do. They labored for years and years to duplicate what they saw in Bogota, Baton Rouge, and other parts of the world. They even took multiple trips to Colombia. They made similar pilgrimages to other famous G12 churches in order to catch the anointing. In spite of their high expectations, they experienced zero results.

As I analyzed their case study, I noticed that the pastoral team was not really coaching the cell leaders and that the senior pastor had under-utilized his associate pastor. They had neglected a lot of the fundamentals of cell church ministry.

It became clear that they were trying to do what others told them would bring success. They were following the shell of a model without really understanding why they were doing what they were doing. I noticed little flexibility in their cell church approach. One thing came out loud and clear in the consulting time: They were trying to follow a model.

Why models are so attractive

As I reflected on why pastors follow models and not principles, several reasons came to my mind:

  1. The hurting pastor syndrome.

    Let’s face it, most pastors ministering in western society are hurting. They hear about the marvels of Korean cell church growth, El Salvador’s explosion, and other great cell church movements and long for the same results. And yes, God wants us to mightily cry out to Him for the same type of revival and growth. The legitimate desire for growth is both good and right. The danger is not in the desire. The danger is trying to fulfill that desire by following models rather than principles.

  2. Promises of the mega pastors.

    Oftentimes the pastor of a growing mega cell church gives false promises of instant growth by saying, “All you have to do is follow exactly what I’m doing.” And then the pastor goes on to say, “And if you don’t follow exactly what I’m doing, your church won’t grow” (I’ve noticed this danger in the G12 model of the International Charismatic Mission in Bogota, Colombia in recent years). As I consulted these particular pastors, I noticed that they had fallen into the trap of trying to do exactly what the mega G12 cell church pastors had told them to do without understanding why they were doing it.

  3. Lack of understanding.

    Many pastors just don’t understand that principles—not models—bring the growth. Perhaps they’re too busy and don’t have time to explore below the surface. But the fact is that the growth in the super-mega models took place through throwing out the model and listening to the Spirit of God. Jesus brought the growth through crisis or special illumination. Pastor David Cho, for example, found the cell solution for his church while on his death bed. Since Cho had no other cell church models to draw from at the time, he relied solely on Jesus. The same is true with Castellanos, founder of the G12 model at ICM in Bogota, Colombia. His growth came when he stopped following Cho’s model and Jesus showed him a better way (G12).

My point is that so many pastors don’t go deeper than the model--getting stuck on the superficial without ever exploring deeper solutions. If César Castellanos, for example, had the liberty to change and adapt at will, we should take the same liberty. I believe, in fact, that we must keep innovating in order to stay relevant. If we copy someone else’s model in its entirety, there is the danger of always being several steps behind, which will force us to play “catch-up.”

We who are working in the west—like North America, England, and Australia—must focus on prayer, evangelism, and discipleship. “Model talk” is for those cultures that are seeing people saved by the bucket load and where there is actually something to ORGANIZE! The post-modern, post-Christian, materialistic west is seeking everything BUT the church. Those laboring in the west need to load their cell church guns with simple, basic cell church principles like fervent prayer, evangelism, coaching, training, team ministry (modeling), hospitality, etc.

How to grow beyond the model

To move beyond the model to creativity and principles, I recommend three things:

  1. Willingness to experiment with principles in order to find out what works.

    Churches, contexts, and cultures are so different that a pastor and church need to be willing to fail forward and keep on experimenting.

  2. Networking with churches of similar size.

    I believe there’s a danger in relying on mega cell churches to show the way. These mega cell churches often don’t give practical help to newer, smaller cell churches. I recommend that pastors network with cell churches in a similar size range as their own.

  3. Coaching

    Great coaches help churches to understand the principles so well that the answers begin to move beyond models to principles that fit their own context.

Don’t Get Weary in Well-doing

Persistence makes or breaks the cell church pastor. It can be a wearisome experience plugging away at a core to crowd vision in a post-modern, secular culture. But Jesus is the God of the impossible and has great things in store for pastors who press on and are not weary in well-doing. God’s inerrant Word says that if we’re not weary in doing well, in due season we will reap, if we faint not (Galatians 6:9).

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Appendix 1:

The cell church world has been rocked negatively with those promoting their own models. An example is the International Charismatic Mission in Bogota, Columbia, which exploded with growth in the 1990s and became a worldwide sensation. I wrote about their church in my book entitled Groups of Twelve: A New Way to Mobilize Leaders and Multiply Groups in Your Church.

This church became effective by following certain principles, rather than a particular number. Sadly, ICM fell into the trap of asking everyone to follow their entire model, rather than principles that could be adapted and adjusted according to context. They began to promote their particular model as being the only anointed one. They asked people to adopt their model in its entirety instead of adapting. Many pastors tried to adopt the model entirely, but very few succeeded. I know several churches that turned off entirely to the cell church movement after "the model" didn't work.

The cell church movement has learned through experience that we need to work together, sharing principles, and not allowing one model to dominate. We've learned to adapt principles rather than adopting a particular model. We've realized the importance of moving together on biblical values and time-tested principles with a healthy dose of humility and generosity.

Appendix 2:

I've listed below the common patterns or principles that I observed in the eight largest worldwide cell churches. The first four are the most important, in my opinion.

  1. Dependence on Jesus Christ through prayer.
  2. Senior pastor and leadership team giving strong, visionary leadership to the cell ministry.
  3. Cell ministry promoted as the backbone of the church.
  4. Clear definition of a cell group (weekly, outside the church building, evangelistic, pastoral care/discipleship, clear goal of multiplication).
  5. The passion behind cell ministry is evangelism and church growth.
  6. Reproduction (multiplication) is the major goal of each cell group.
  7. Cell and celebration attendance expected of everyone attending the church.
  8. Clearly established leadership requirements for those entering cell ministry.
  9. Required cell leadership training for all potential cell group leaders.
  10. Cell leadership developed from within the church itself, at all levels.
  11. A supervisory care structure for each level of leadership (G-12 or 5x5).
  12. Follow-up system of visitors and new converts administered through cell groups.
  13. Cell lessons based on pastor’s teaching to promote continuity between cell and celebration (although flexibility might be given to meet the needs of specific homogeneous groups)
For further reading on this topic: Comiskey's book Cell Church Solutions: Transforming the Church in North America highlights key cell church principles that can move churches beyond the model. Buy HERE or call 1-888-344-CELL.