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The Radical Middle: a New Way to Describe Cell Church Ministry
by Joel Comiskey
As I’ve seen what churches in North America and other cultures are doing to develop strong cell groups, I have found that they all embrace common cell principles. Yet very few of them follow a specific model or pattern. They do things in distinctive, culturally relevant ways. They discover what works in their own settings and then apply the principles to fit the context. Some have erroneously thought they must follow a model developed by David Cho, Carl George, Ralph Neighbour, or others to develop cells well. But the evidence does not support this.
Instead of following one model, I encourage churches to embrace the Radical Middle. Before I explain what I mean by the Radical Middle, allow me to give a brief history of the current small-group strategies (note 1).
The Korean cell church movement
When I first heard David Cho speak on the wonders of cell church ministry in 1984, my life was transformed. At that time, Cho had 500 000 members in Yoido Full Gospel Church, and he gave testimony after testimony about how he was able to effectively pastor each member of his church through the cell system.
I listened to Cho’s tapes over and over and even taught my congregation according to Cho’s model. On numerous occasions, Cho and his cell ministry inspired me to think outside the box.
Cho’s model paved the way for the cell–celebration philosophy to take root in North America. Many pastors made a pilgrimage to Seoul, South Korea to visit Cho’s church and bring back the exciting developments they witnessed.
Cho’s model, however, failed to fully transfer to the North American context. The Korean culture is so different that the majority who tried to repeat Cho’s small-group system failed.
Although Cho inspired pastors in North America, he didn’t give them the nuts and bolts to actually make it work. I speak from personal experience. Although I was greatly encouraged by Cho’s book Successful Home Cell Groups, the book didn’t give me enough information to grow a cell system. Although Cho continued to write extensively, he didn’t write another book about the practical details of the cell model (note 2).
The Meta Model
Carl George, author and expert in church growth, adapted Cho’s model and made it more relevant to North America. George’s book Prepare Your Church for the Future demonstrated that the church of the future would be a collection of small groups. He called his new approach the Meta Model. This book had a powerful impact on the North American church scene because George gave fresh, North American terminology to the cell-based concepts that have worked so well overseas.
In his second book about the Meta Model, The Coming Church Revolution, George showed how far he was ready to adapt cell ministry to North America by saying that small groups included, “Sunday-school classes, ministry teams, outreach teams, worship-production teams, sports teams, recovery groups, and more. . . . Any time sixteen or fewer people meet together, you have a small-group meeting” (note 3).
Commenting on the Meta Model, David Limiero writes, “The key to understanding George’s model is recognizing that your church already has existing small groups. These groups might be Sunday school classes, the choir, elders, committees, women’s circles, etc” (note 4).
The weakness, in my opinion, of George’s model was defining the cell so loosely that it lost much of its quality. While I commend George’s cultural sensitivity to small groups, I believe the quality control of the cell itself suffered under the Meta Model (note 5).
Many churches use George’s Meta Model because it’s a way to quickly adapt a church to small-group ministry, since everything is called a “small group” or “cell.” Training and coaching, however, are hard to maintain because the needs of a monthly sports leader, for example, are vastly different from the needs of a weekly multiplying cell group leader.
I’ve also noticed an adverse effect in churches when all small groups are embraced in the cell system and given equal priority. A cell group, unlike many small groups, includes evangelism, leadership development, and multiplication.
I’m grateful for the Meta Model’s cultural sensitivity, though I’m concerned that key cell components were lost.
The pure, pure, cell church
When Ralph Neighbour’s book Where Do We Go From Here? appeared in 1990, it forged a powerful cell movement. God used the book in a wonderful way to awaken people to the growth of the worldwide cell church and a cell movement was started.
The cell church owes a lot to Ralph Neighbour for his passion for cell-based evangelism, his emphasis on equipping every cell member, and his ability to fill in a lot of the details that pastors previously didn’t understand.
The negative tone of the book, however, pitted cell churches against the church at large. The preface to the 2001 edition of the book admits this and Neighbour even apologizes for his tone.
The faithful in the cell church movement of the early ’90s often lacked sensitivity to the rest of Christ’s church. One pastor, echoing the sentiment of others said, “I didn’t even try to transition my church after reading Where Do We Go From Here? because Neighbour said in the book that the North American program-based church was hopeless and couldn’t be transitioned.”
Though a movement was created, the cell church in North America has now gone far beyond those pioneer days. Now there are cell churches that are practically leading the way in how to grow healthy, multiplying churches.
The image that the cell church is against the conventional church still persists and causes resistance among many when it comes to implementing cell church ministry. Many leaders want the benefits of following cell church principles, but they don’t want the label and image of being a “cell church.” Often the reason for this resistance is a negative feeling or connotation that the cell church is against all other expressions of Christ’s church.
God is raising up a new generation of leaders who are seeking practical solutions for superficiality in the church, acute isolationism among members, and a general lack of growth. These pastors are looking to cell church ministry to grow healthy small groups that emphasize evangelism, community, and leadership development.
The G12 phenomenon
The International Charismatic Mission (ICM) in Bogota, Colombia, gave a breath of fresh air to the cell church movement in the early ’90s when it initiated Groups of Twelve (G12), a new way to multiply cells and care for cell leaders. The G12 vision has now spread to many North American Churches. Some of the most prominent cell churches in the U.S., such as Bethany World Prayer Center, have fully adopted the G12 model (note 6).
ICM started in 1986 by following Cho’s model one hundred percent. It then tweaked Cho’s model to fit its own cultural context to make cell church work better there. Some of the excellent adjustments were
- viewing everyone as a potential cell leader
- asking the leader of the mother cell to care for/coach the leader of the daughter cell
- developing a clear, dynamic equipping training track that prepared everyone for ministry
- emphasizing encounter-with-God retreats to ensure freedom from sinful strongholds, believing that holiness brings fruit
- prioritizing prayer and spirituality as keys to future growth
ICM, however, began to promote the G12 model as the new revelation of God, asking people to follow it precisely—to adopt it and not adapt it. The G12 became imbalanced, in my opinion, by asking people to
- commit to following the G12 model exactly (note 7)
- believe that the number twelve has special significance and even an anointing attached to it
- commit one hundred percent to use only ICM materials (note 8)
- develop strict homogeneity in cell networks (note 9)
- have zeal for only one cell model, rather than seeing themselves as part of a wider cell church family
God has wonderfully used the G12 cell church movement to fine-tune the worldwide cell church. The cell church movement welcomes the principles—but resists the mentality that says, “This model is the new revelation from God and must be followed precisely.”
I’ve noticed that G12ers often use the incredible growth of ICM as proof of God’s blessing. Yet the Elim cell church in El Salvador is probably larger than ICM and growing just as fast. Elim, however, uses a geographical 5x5 model that is totally different from the G12 model.
The point is that principles, rather than models, help cell churches grow. Principles apply across a wide variety of cultures and churches. Models are harder to implement and far more restrictive.*
The Radical Middle and Cell Church Solutions
Many leaders today find themselves in a place that I’m labeling the Radical Middle. They are trying to find a balance between cell quality and cultural relevance. These leaders greatly desire to maintain the key components of cell ministry, but they’re just as passionate to make sure it actually works (not just ideally or theoretically working).
The term Radical Middle highlights the radical nature of cell ministry yet also proclaims the need for practicality—it must work. The word radical means that cell ministry will often go against the grain of conventional thinking that says Sunday morning is church.
The middle is important because the sensitive cell church leader must make sure that the congregation is following and not left behind in a trail of idealism. Some pastors are very radical about cell ministry but just can’t seem to lead their congregations to follow along. The Radical Middle declares that great cell ministry will eventually work to make disciples, grow congregations, and plant new churches. Solutions, rather than idealism, will ultimately win the day.
I didn’t invent the Radical Middle, nor am I the only one promoting it (note 10). I see the Radical Middle as a place on the small-group continuum where many leaders find themselves. More and more leaders want to concentrate on making disciples who make disciples. Their passion is to make cell church work in their own context.
Leaders in the Radical Middle resist the tendency to water down the definition of a true cell, fiercely desiring to maintain the quality control. Yet, these same leaders don’t want all the baggage associated with the “pure, pure” cell church.
They simply want to know how to make disciples, develop leaders, evangelize more effectively, and eventually plant new cell churches. They want purity and practicality. This is the same thing Cell Church Solutions promotes—purity and practicality.
Three concepts define the heart of the Radical Middle. Beyond these three, flexibility reigns.
1. Guidance by the senior leader
The senior pastor, or senior leader, must guide the cell-group vision. Other leaders can help a lot, and various cell champions are mentioned in the pages of this book (note 11). Yet the vision and overall leadership belong to the lead pastor (note 12). Dale Galloway, one of the pioneer cell church pastors in North America and author of many cell books, writes, “No matter who introduces small-group ministry into a church, that ministry will only go as far as the Senior Pastor’s vision for it. The people will watch the Senior Pastor to see if small-group ministry is important” (note 13).
Key members can influence the senior pastor to catch the vision, yet ultimately cell church ministry succeeds or fails by whether senior leadership is promoting and living it. The bottom line is that sheep follow the shepherd. Actions speak much louder than words, and this is especially true in cell-based ministry.
I encourage senior leaders to grow in their knowledge of cell-based ministry by reading the literature, visiting cell churches, and being involved in the battle. I’m always impressed when a senior pastor actually leads a cell group, or at least has recently led a cell group. This shouts to those around him that the senior pastor is wrestling with the same issues. He is learning and growing in cell ministry. †
2. Clear definition of a cell
The strength of the cell church resides in the quality of the cell. Since the cell is the crown jewel of the cell church, watering down the cell to the lowest denominator must be avoided at all costs. Though there is a great flexibility with regard to homogeneity, lesson material, order of a cell meeting, location of the meeting, and degree of participation, it’s exceedingly important to maintain quality control of the following aspects:
- regularity (weekly cell meetings are the norm in all the worldwide cell churches and this should be maintained)
- penetration (cells meet outside the church building to penetrate the world where people live, move, and breathe)
- evangelism (evangelism should be prioritized)
- community (people are dying for relationships and cell groups offer close community)
- discipleship/spiritual growth (cell groups offer pastoral care and spiritual growth for those attending)
- multiplication (the goal of the cell should be to develop the next leader to continue the process through multiplication)
Labeling cell groups as everything that is small and a group lowers the quality of the cell and ultimately the quality of the entire cell church.
Defining a cell group according to quality components has nothing to do with legalism but everything to do with desiring that those in the cell have a qualitative experience. To call everything a cell in the name of creativity is like a pastor encouraging members to do whatever and go wherever they want for Sunday celebration, rather than come to the weekly celebration church service (note 14) ‡
3. Cells as the base of the church
Making cells the base of the church means not allowing other programs to dominate the church schedule. Although many cell churches have other ministries, they do ask the people involved in those additional ministries to actively participate in the cells. In this way, cells remain the base of the church.
Growing the cell infrastructure is the number one priority in the cell church. Sunday attendance growth comes as the result of growing the cell infrastructure—making disciples who make disciples. ‡‡
Apart from these three key components, flexibility reigns in the Radical Middle. There’s liberty to experiment, create, and adapt cell church principles to the church’s context, people, and reality.
The Radical Middle sees the cell as the crown jewel and tries to base church life around it. The only way to make cells central is through promotion of it by the senior pastor. Yet, every church will have a different way of doing it. I love to visit cell churches that demonstrate creativity. It shows me that the senior pastor and ministry team have done their homework to discern what works for them.
John Wesley is a great example of adapting small-group concepts to establish his own cell church system (the method of the Methodists) more than 250 years ago. Wesley had an “an unusual capacity to accept suggestions and to adopt and adapt methods from various quarters” (note 15). George Hunter says, “He learned from exposure to the home groups that the Lutheran Pietist leader Philip Jacob Spener developed to fuel renewal and outreach, and Wesley learned particularly from the Moravians. Wesley also learned from Anabaptist groups and from the occasional ‘societies’ within the church of England, so his group movement was eclectic Protestant”(note 16).
In the Radical Middle, no one model is forced on all cell churches. No one training track is touted as the only way to train leaders. No one coaching structure is promoted to the exclusion of all others. If it works, use it. If it doesn’t work, don’t. In the Radical Middle, homogeneous and heterogeneous cells both work great, and one type is not promoted to the absolute exclusion of the other. No one cell meeting order or lesson plan is made to seem like the only one. Many suggestions are made, but they don’t make up the core identity of cell ministry—what is and what isn’t a cell church.
The movement of the Radical Middle seeks to discover how cell ministry actually works, rather than how it should work. A key priority is to discover principles from churches that are making it happen.
The Radical Middle sees the need for North American cell-based ministry to team up with churches around the world to promote a core-to-crowd strategy and to support the churches that are doing so. The ministry of Cell Church Solutions promotes the Radical Middle through resources, coaching, and teaching.
- Roberta Hestenes, a small-group pioneer, opened her presentation at a small-group conference in southern California by thanking all the speakers for their contribution to the small-group movement and then humbly acknowledging that everyone copies from each other. When I heard her say this, I was reminded of the quote by Philip Johnson, a famous author who said, “You always copy. Everybody copies, whether they admit it or not. There is no such thing as not copying. There are so few original ideas in the world that you don’t have to worry about them. Creativity is selective copying” (as quoted in Kenneth Atchity, A Writer’s Time, New York: W.W. Norton Company, 1995, p. 226). I owe much in my own small-group journey to people like David Cho, Carl George, Ralph Neighbour, and Larry Stockstill. In large part, my own thinking comes from wrestling with their thoughts and ideas.
- Cho emphasized a geographically based care structure, and it’s interesting that today some are reviving the geographical model. I’m referring to Randy Frazee’s geographically based model found in his book The Connecting Church.
- Carl George, The Coming Church Revolution (Grand Rapids, MI: Fleming H. Revell, 1994), pp. 69–70.
- 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.
- The Free Market model developed by Ted Haggard has largely followed Meta thinking by offering an enormous platter of small groups that start and stop on a semester basis.
- Bethany’s senior pastor, Larry Stockstill, is now a member of César Castellanos’s international group of twelve. Jubilee Christian Center (senior pastor Dick Bernal) in San Jose, California has fully adopted the G12 model.
- I believe this is far too limiting. God wants each leader to experience the same creativity as Castellanos and even go beyond what he is doing. Following a particular model, rather than principles, can cause a church to fall several steps behind. Once a church or leader gets under “the model,” an entrapment can occur because creativity becomes dulled and the pastor begins to look to others—rather than the Holy Spirit—for the next step.
- The ICM training materials have many positive characteristics. Yet every church should take the liberty to adapt its material, just like ICM adapted Cho’s material to make it better. I’m saddened that ICM won’t freely sell their material unless a church commits itself to follow it one hundred percent.
- Though the cell church has always had gender-specific small groups, it seems that ICM and those following their exact model are now under-emphasizing family cells (which are a crying need in today’s society).
- The term “Radical Middle” was used to describe the history of the Vineyard movement in Bill Jackson’s book The Quest for the Radical Middle (Cape Town, South Africa: Vineyard International Publishing, 1999). One day on the phone I was talking with Scott Boren, my editor for many years at Touch Publications, about balance in cell ministry. Scott used the phrase “Radical Middle,” and it stuck in my mind as the best descriptive phrase to describe a new way of thinking in the cell church today.
- Three cell champions who stand out are Floyd Schwanz, Jim Egli, and Jerry Popenhagen. Boren, in Making Cell Groups Work, pp. 113–115, talks about the role of the cell champion. Boren defines this person as, “A person with a special passion for cell group ministry, who has a submissive heart and can work in unity with the senior pastor.” The senior pastor must always maintain the cell church vision and personally be involved with cell ministry in order to practice what he preaches. Yet a cell champion will stay on the cutting edge of cell ministry, providing resources and personal passion to keep the cell flame burning brightly.
- Some churches (e.g., Church of Christ or Christian Church) don’t have one senior pastor; they have a team of pastors/leaders and one preaching pastor. I’ve seen cell church work in this environment as long as the top elders or leaders are fully behind the vision.
- Dale Galloway, The Small Group Book (Grand Rapids, MI: Fleming H. Revell, 1995), p. 21.
- I like to make comparisons between the cell and Sunday worship. The reason a pastor wants his people to regularly come to Sunday worship—and not just haphazardly meet with someone at Pizza Hut to pray together—is because the pastor knows the people will hear a biblically based message and worship in a quality controlled environment.
- Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of Christianity, Vol. 2, (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1975), p. 1026.
- George Hunter III, To Spread the Power: Church Growth in the Wesleyan Spirit, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press 1987), p. 84.