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The Senior pastor: difference between Cell Church and Church with Cells

By Joel Comiskey

Summer 2009

Many churches have small groups. Some churches even have great small group programs. I was in such a church in Philadelphia two weeks ago. The cell champion of this church had taken Touch’s training, been to a seminar by Larry Stockstill, and had spearheaded small groups in his large mega church. Even though I usually only do seminars and coaching in cell churches, I accepted this invitation, had a great time of ministry, and received a royal reception.

There was a key problem. I never met/talked to the lead pastor, and he didn’t come to the seminar (nor did two out of the three associates or the elders of the church). The small group leaders loved the seminar and learned a lot, but I went away with a gnawing sadness in my heart because I knew the cell leaders would not receive the necessary attention, coaching, and would eventually feel marginalized in their cell ministry. Why? Because of the lack of involvement of the senior leadership. Cells were one of the many programs.

I’m writing now from Queens, New York. Victor Tiburcio, the lead pastor at Aliento de Vida, met me at the airport, and we talked excitedly about cell ministry. He’s passionate about home groups, gives direction to the entire cell vision, and recently even started a new cell group for businessmen. His wife, Hatty, is totally sold on the vision. The cell leaders and network coaches feel like their ministry is at the heart of the church, and they serve enthusiastically. His church plant in Queens has grown to seventy-five cell groups and 800 people [as a side note: every service is translated into English and Spanish, and it feels like preaching to the United Nations. I gave the seminar in Spanish and preached in English, with nearly a simultaneous translation in Spanish].

As you can tell, one of the key differences between a cell church and a church with cells is the lead pastor’s vision. Other leaders can help a lot, and I believe in the key role of cell champions. Yet the vision and overall leadership belong to the lead pastor.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” (The Small Group Book, p. 21).

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. As David Cho once said, “The [senior] pastor must be the key person involved. Without the pastor, the system will not hold together. It is a system, and a system must have a control point. The controlling factor in home cell groups is the pastor” (Successful Home Cell Groups, p. 107).