Evangelism and Multiplication

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Reaching Ethnic Groups through Cell Ministry

by Joel Comiskey

Cell Life Forum, 1998

At a recent ACTS training conference (Touch Outreach), a participant overheard one Chinese pastor saying to another Chinese pastor, "Will Chinese people really open up to each other in a cell?" How many times have you heard the statement: "It may work with other people, but it won't work here." The word “here” in Canada and the United States now represents just about every ethnic group on the planet. The winds of change have produced, in both Canada and the United States, a patchwork quilt of ethnic diversity. What can you do about the numerous ethnic groups that surround your church? How can you integrate them into small group system? First, be confident that small group ministry will work just fine among most ethnic cultures. Small group ministry, in fact, is probably more immediately adaptable to “majority world” cultures than to the North American culture. I minister, for example, in a cell church in Quito, Ecuador. Traditionally, Ecuadorians have been deluged with church methodology from North America. For 100+ years missionaries have promoted the methods and traditions that they’ve seen and learned at home. But now, Ecuadorians want to discover their own methods—apart from North American help. But here lies the strength of the modern cell movement. I can proudly tell my Ecuadorian brothers that this movement didn’t originate in North America; rather, it started in Korea and has impacted the whole world. I tell them, in fact, that the modern cell movement has produced the most explosive results in “other cultures” and only more recently has become a North America phenomenon. I believe that Korea mirrors the rest of the world cultures far better than North America culture—emphasizing family and face-to-face relationships.

In Latin America, for example, there is a definite “we” consciousness. This is true in most “majority world” cultures. Group consensus is favored over a more individualistic style of decision-making. Studies, show that Latin culture is one of the least individualistic cultures in the world while the United States and Canada are rated among the highest on individualism[1]

TABLE 1: INDIVIDUALISM WITHIN CULTURES
(Adapted from Hofstede 1980:230-231)

HIGH INDIVIDUALISM

(e.g., US, Great Britain, Canada, Australia)

LOW INDIVIDUALISM

(e.g., Venezuela, Perú, Colombia, Mexico)

  • Need to make specific friendships
  • Social relationships predetermined in terms of “in groups”
  • Individual initiative is socially encouraged
  • Individual initiative is socially frowned u pon; fatalism
  • Managers endorse “modern” points of view on stimulating employee initiative and group activity
  • Managers endorse “traditional” points of View, not supporting employee initiative and group activity
  • Emotional independence from company
  • Emotional dependence from company
  • Managers aspire to leadership and variety
  • Managers aspire to conformity and Orderliness
  • Students consider it socially acceptable to claim pursuing their own ends without m inding others
  • Students consider it less socially acceptable to claim pursuing their own ends without minding others

Again, some cultures (like the one I worked in for eleven years) are naturally accustomed to group settings. I rejoice that the cells in my church have grown from twenty-one (Oct. 1997) to 117 (Dec. 1998). I rejoice—but I’m not surprised. Ecuadorians love gathering in small groups and it comes naturally to them. Since they are already “group-oriented” and “people-centered” small group ministry flows naturally.

North American individualism has created a growing need for community, which small group ministry satisfies. At the same time, our individualism makes it harder to naturally relate in a group setting. Do small groups work in North America? Yes. Do we need small group ministry more than ever? You better believe it. My point is that so often our ethnic counterparts enter into small group life more easily than we do. Boldly invite them to form groups.

Second, remember that the cell-celebration paradigm is an ideal strategy for gathering ethnic groups in distinct cells and then asking all the various groups to celebrate together on Sunday morning. In this way you can “have-your-cake-and-eat-it-to.” So don’t hesitate to encourage a rich variety of homogenous groups to meet during the week in your church—just make sure you invite them also to gather in a common Sunday celebration service.

The beauty of the cell church is that it welcomes all of God’s rich creation. Those same homogeneous cells that meet during the week come together for a weekly Sunday celebration. In these festive moments, those from every tribe, language, and people celebrate together. Celebration in a cell church echoes the words of John, the apostle: “And they sang a new song: You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth” (Rev.5:9,10).

So just what is a homogenous group? A broad, standard definition is that it’s a sufficiently large sociological grouping of individuals who perceive themselves to have a common affinity for one another. One only has to look out on the cultural landscape to see the vast grouping of like cultures in our world today. It is a fact of life that similar cultures group together.

Donald McGavran (father of the church growth movement) made the famous statement, “Men like to become Christians without crossing racial, linguistic, or class barriers.” [2] McGavran taught that evangelism is more effective among people of the same race, language, and class. This is called the “homogeneous unit” principle of church growth thought. Many people criticized McGavran’s emphasis. Thomas Rainer writes, “When Donald McGavran began to advocate that principle as a tenet of church growth, an avalanche of criticism and debate ensued. Cries of ‘racism,’ ‘narrow-mindedness,’ ‘exclusiveness,’ and ‘psychological manipulation’ were voiced as a reaction to the much-debated principle.” [3]

Why has there been so much conflict in this area? Partly because many believe that advocates of the homogeneous principle are promoting a subtle type of racism or that they’re “watering down” the gospel. However, the very heart of this principle is summed by Rainer,

"First, rapid evangelization takes place best when people of a culture share their faith in Jesus Christ with others within their own culture. Second, Christians must not insist that a person abandon his or her culture in order to become a Christian. Such is the essence of the homogeneous unit principle." [4]

Therefore, the homogeneous unit principle can be a helpful evangelistic tool, but never the goal of the Christian life.

Cell groups evangelize best when they are allowed to function as homogenous units. Homogenous groups can be ethnic in nature (e.g., Chinese, Vietnamese, etc.), but not necessarily. Homogeneity can also include gender, class, or occupation. Homogenous groups might also include the various age groupings in your church, such as young people, older folks, or young married couples.

My wife Celyce, for example, has a special burden for young mothers. As a mother of three small girls, she understands the joys and struggles of motherhood. God stirred her to start a home cell group for this homogenous group. Getting the women to share is not a problem in my wife’s group. If anything, the difficulty is making sure everyone has a chance to share. These young mothers feel comfortable sharing with those who have faced similar concerns and struggles.

Within eight months, her one cell group multiplied to five groups. Celyce knew from the beginning that she needed to start new groups, if she was going to maintain the small, intimate atmosphere while at the same time reaching more mothers for Christ. One of the main reasons for the success of the group is the intense interest among the young mothers to invite their friends and family members who are in the same stage of life. Like attracts like.

Bethany World Prayer Center (Baker, Louisiana) reaches entire communities for Jesus Christ through its homogeneous cell groups. They’ve discovered that people are more willing to invite their non-Christian friends to a homogeneous group, and those same friends are more resolved to attend such a group. Bethany added 300 homogeneous cell groups in just 1 ½ years. Cell groups of this type naturally grow faster, and are soon ready to give birth to daughter groups.

Celebrate the diversity in your church—don’t reject it. Gather the ethnic variety into home cell groups. Don’t force these ethnic groups to enter into your ONE KIND of small group. Diversify. Give them options. By granting them this liberty, your groups will evangelize more effectively and multiply more rapidly.

You can reach Chinese people—or any other type of people—through your cell ministry. Don’t allow the phrase "It may work with other people, but it won't work here" to hinder your cell ministry. Take advantage of the diversity around you. I believe that the cell church model is uniquely positioned reap the harvest in today’s diverse ethnic society.

Further reading on this topic: Cell Church Solutions: Transforming the Church in North America about the cell church in North America. Reap the Harvest another book that talks about how Jesus is using the cell church worldwide. Both books can be purchased HERE by calling 1-888-344-CELL.

ENDNOTES

[1] Geert Hofstede, Culture’s Consequence (Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications, 1980), pp. 230-231. Here are some of the scores most relevant to who I am as a North American and a missionary to Latin America: US-91; Great Britain-89; Canada-80; Italy-76 versus Venezuela-12 (the lowest); Colombia-13; Perú-16; Mexico-30.

[2] Donald McGavran, Understanding Church Growth, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: William Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1990), p. 254.

[3] Thomas Rainer, The Book of Church Growth (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1993), p. 254.

[4] Thomas Rainer, The Book of Church Growth (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1993), p. 260-61.