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North American culture and cell ministry

by Joel Comiskey

This is an excerpt from chapter two of Cell Church Solutions.

One church leader wrote, “I was with a group of pastors the other day. One of the pastors, who is a church planter, said that cell ministry is not working in the American culture and it’s been generally set aside here in America. It works in other cultures, just not here.” He then asked for my opinion. Many pastors echo this same concern: Cell church might work over there but not here. It’s easy to look at the growing cell churches in other cultures and conclude that the primary reason they grow is culturally related.

The cultures of North America

Culture is defined as the beliefs, customs, practices, and social behavior of a particular nation or people. When talking about a particular people we usually think in terms of ethnicity. Yet culture goes beyond ethnicity to include such areas as the cultural differences between the generations.

What works among the baby boomers, for example, probably won’t work well among the Generation X crowd. Postmoderns in general are far more open to community and relationships than their predecessors.

The high-tech programs that attracted baby boomers are not as relevant for Generation Next. The emerging church is hungry for Christ-like relationships and reality-based ministry. They want to see Jesus in people before they’re ready to “decide” for Jesus (note 1).

Generation Next longs for a simpler form of church—one that views ministry in terms of relationally-based New Testament ministry rather than high-tech programs, big-screen TVs, and marketing strategies to grow a church.

North American culture also includes small-town culture, urban culture, and southern culture. Then there’s popular culture, corporate/business culture, and church culture.

In addition, North American culture is constantly changing. It’s far different now than it was thirty years ago.

A changing North American society (note 2)

Percent of American people raised on small farms:

  • In 1900: 40%
  • In 1970: 5%

Percent of American adults classified as overweight:

  • In 1980: 46%
  • In 2003: 65%

Percent who said it’s OK to be overweight:

  • In 1985: 45%
  • In 2003: 75%

Percent of Americans who said they smoke:

  • In 1964: 65%
  • In 2000: 23%

Percent of American children born to unwed mothers:

  • In 1960: 5%
  • In 2000: 33%

Percent of American women with only one child:

  • In 1983: 10%
  • In 2002: 23%

Percent of American women in the job market:

  • In 1973: 51%
  • In 2000: 71%

Percent of college degrees earned by women:

  • In 1960: 34%
  • In 1997: 56%

From the late 1600s until well into the 1900s, the United States and Canada received a flood of immigrants from Europe that laid the foundation for North American ethnic culture. Today, however, a larger and larger proportion of the North American population is coming from Latin America, to the point that in thirty-five years approximately one of every four people in the United States will be of Spanish descent. Due largely to the ethnic influx, the United States is forecast to grow from the current 293 million to 420 million by 2050 (note 3).

More and more minorities, particularly African Americans and Asians, are entering the ministry. Minority students now make up approximately 25% of the enrollment at seminaries accredited by the Association of Theological Schools, compared with 6% in 1977 (note 4).

North America must increasingly be seen from the perspective of a great variety of colors and cultural diversity. The white population of California, for example, is now officially a minority race. Los Angeles, like many urban centers, is now brown and black. Even the suburbs have been transformed. Entire suburban neighborhoods are dominated by Vietnamese, Armenians, Chinese, and Koreans. Mayan Indians have recreated urban versions of their villages in the Guatemalan highlands in California (note 5).

Beyond ethnicity is the fact that western culture in general, and North America in particular, is increasingly becoming secular. Not only North America but also places like Europe and Australia are now post-Christian or postmodern in their thinking.

In today’s secular climate, spiritual revival is lacking in general. I remember one humble pastor standing up at a Christian and Missionary Alliance (CMA) council and saying to his fellow pastors, “Let’s just humbly admit that we need help. The church is not growing in North America, and we must simply humble ourselves and cry out to the living God for revival.”

The question of North American culture is complex. When people simplistically say, “Cells don’t work in North American culture,” the question must be asked, What aspect of North American culture is being referred to? It’s more accurate to say that cell church doesn’t work as well among certain segments of a culture in a particular geographical area.

The cell church solution

Some people look at the success of Bethany World Prayer Center in Louisiana and say, the cell church at Bethany works because it’s located in the south.

The fact is, however, that cell churches are flourishing throughout the United States in such diverse places as California, Washington, Arizona, Texas, Louisiana, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and New York (see North American churches). Rob Reimer, North American cell church pastor, says “The cell church clearly works in the U.S. I’m in New England, a place steeped in tradition, slow to change, and the second least ‘churched’ region in the U.S., and we’ve grown from 0 to 425 in less than seven years (50% of the growth has been conversion growth).”

People have very similar cultural questions about cell ministry throughout the world. Lawrence Khong, senior pastor of the 10 000-member cell church in Singapore, said, “When cell church was introduced from the USA to Singapore, people in Singapore said, ‘It won’t work here: culturally it’s American.’ When cell church was introduced from Singapore into Malaysia, people responded, ‘It won’t work here: culturally it’s Singaporean.’ And when cell church ideas were taken back from Singapore to the USA, some folk said, ‘It won’t work here: culturally it’s too Singaporean’” (note 6).

Cell ministry—with its flexibility and its personal, customized-to-the-community nature— provides the perfect opportunity for small groups to reach out and minister to these diverse people groups.

In the midst of major obstacles, opportunities often present themselves. Paul could say to the church in Corinth, “I will stay on at Ephesus until Pentecost, because a great door for effective work has opened to me, and there are many who oppose me” (1 Cor. 16:8–9). Those who opposed Paul didn’t hinder him from walking through the open door. Cell ministry in North America has unique challenges. But there are also many open doors to spread the net of community life and relational evangelism in an increasingly impersonal culture.

NOTES

  1. Mahatma Gandhi once said, “I like your Christ, but I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” Generation Next first wants to see the real Jesus lived out in authentic Christians; they will then go and do likewise.
  2. Hugh Clay Paulk, “Serendipitous Stats,” sent to my personal email by Cliff Bowman on Tuesday, July 22, 2003.
  3. “Earth in 2050: Expect 9 billion humans,” Associated Press. Accessed at http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/5732657/ on Tuesday, August 17, 2004. This is a growth rate of 43%.
  4. Phuong Ly, “Faith Minority Pastors Preach Diversity, Clergy of Color Help Expand Horizons of White Churches.” Accessed from the Washington Post web site at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A47380-2004Apr3_2.html on Sunday, April 04, 2004.
  5. George Barna, “Ethnic Groups Differ Substantially On Matters of Faith,” Accessed on Tuesday, August 10, 2004. Posted on Barna’s web site: http://www.barna.org/FlexPage.aspx?Page=BarnaUpdate&BarnaUpdateID=169. The white population of the U.S. is the largest racial group (68%) but also the slowest growing. The fastest growing are the Hispanic (currently 14% of the U.S. population) and Asian populations (4%), with the black population experiencing moderate growth (13%). The overwhelming size of the white population often obscures the significant gaps in belief and practice among the different racial groups.
  6. Lawrence Khong, The Apostolic Cell Church: Practical Strategies for Growth and Outreach from the Story of Faith Community Baptist Church ( Singapore: Touch Ministries International, 2000), p. 109.