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Discipleshp through Equipping
Taken from Chapter 8 of Making Disciples in the Twenty-First Century Church
by Joel Comiskey
As I’ve watched World War II documentaries or read books on World War II, one constant thread is that the soldier’s boot camp experience was invaluable. Over and over the surviving soldiers talked about how much they hated, yet needed, the boot camp training. In actual battle, they would respond subconsciously to what they learned through the repeated boot camp drills. The monotonous workouts they loathed during boot camp saved their lives by helping them to respond efficiently and automatically in the battle.
All believers are on the front lines of spiritual warfare, whether they like it or not. Satan and his demons want to destroy the Church of Jesus Christ. To defeat the enemy and live victoriously, the Church needs to draw on biblical truth that comes from deep discipleship equipping. I’m referring to the essentials of the Christian life: how to pray and read the Bible, submitting to the Lordship of Christ, recognizing spiritual darkness, having a daily quiet time, and how to share the gospel message. Effective cell churches proactively develop all members through discipleship equipping that prepares them for the battle, just like boot camp.
Churches that produce disciple-makers know that tomorrow’s spiritual leaders are today’s spiritual children, spiritual adolescents, and spiritual teenagers. Many churches, on the other hand, have failed to equip members for future ministry. After all, there are so many present pressures. It seems absurd to think beyond the now. It’s even possible for a church to initiate a cell ministry and to immediately produce many new groups. Further probing, however, often reveals that the initial growth was simply a changing of the guard. Established leaders that at one time maintained the cherished programs were relocated to lead cell groups. But without an established system for discipling current cell group members that will become new disciple-makers, cell ministry comes to a screeching halt.
Strong cell group churches, in contrast, develop discipleship equipping systems that carry the new Christian from conversion to forming part of a cell team. Because the top leadership realizes that equipping new disciple-makers is their chief task, they prioritize establishing a strong discipleship equipping system.
Key Distinctions between the Lesson and Equipping
People are often confused about the difference between the discipleship equipping and the cell lesson. That is, they assume the discipleship equipping is the same thing as the cell lesson and that the cell facilitator teaches the discipleship equipping during the cell group. However, the lesson and the equipping are two distinct entities:
- The cell lesson: This is what the cell facilitator uses during the cell meeting. The lesson is normally based on the pastor’s weekly sermon and is comprised of questions that focus on application that leads to transformation.
- The discipleship equipping: This is a series of manuals that teach basic doctrine, evangelism, spiritual disciplines, and small group dynamics. It is taught separately from the cell meeting and normally takes six months to one year to complete.
The purpose of the cell lesson is to apply God’s word to daily living and to evangelize non-Christians. It doesn’t specifically explain how to pray, read the Bible, have a devotional time, receive freedom from besetting sin, and other aspects of the Christian life, which are essential for discipleship.
Knowing the need for specific teaching, cell churches have developed discipleship equipping called by a variety of names, such as training track, school of leaders, or equipping track. I like the phrase discipleship equipping because it connects the main goal of discipleship with the need for essential equipping.
Discipleship equipping should not be complicated but simple and doable. The average time frame to complete it is about nine months. Many cell churches have advanced discipleship equipping for those who complete the first level.
The discipleship equipping can take place in a variety of places. Many churches use their Sunday school hour for the equipping. Others like to do the equipping before the cell starts or after it’s done. Others ask cell members to complete the discipleship equipping on their own and then ask those who have already gone through the equipping to mentor the new ones.
Many larger cell churches expect the staff to teach the discipleship equipping. Other cell churches request those who have completed the discipleship equipping to mentor those who are just starting it. Normally when a church begins the cell journey, the lead pastor teaches the discipleship equipping to those who comprise the first pilot group. Those who have completed the equipping can then help out in the equipping process
Clear Equipping Focus
The best discipleship equipping path features a clear-cut beginning and ending. In other words, there is a place to start and a place to finish. It is not like many traditional educational programs that simply teach people information with the hope that they will do something with the knowledge later. Paul Benjamin, criticizing the North American Sunday School, writes, “. . . this is a school from which no one ever graduates.”
“Helter-skelter” equipping takes place when the church establishes one general educational program. While the intentions are excellent, far too many people fall through the cracks. There is no easy way to track the progress of those passing through this type of system. As a result of the fuzziness, a large number of candidates drop out. Getting lost in the educational machinery is a recurring flaw in the “general education” approach.
Education is a lifetime process. Equipping, on the other hand, touches specific skills and lasts a limited time. Education never ends. It’s helpful to first examine the difference between equipping and education. Neil F. McBride, Ed.D., Ph.D., makes a helpful clarification:
Education is an expanding activity; starting with where a person is at, it provides concepts and information for developing broader perspectives and the foundations for making future analysis and decisions. On the other hand, training is a narrowing activity; given whatever a person’s present abilities are, it attempts to provide specific skills and the necessary understanding to apply those skills. The focus is on accomplishing a specific task or job.
McBride’s insight about equipping being a narrowing activity versus the lifetime process of education touches the nerve of cell church equipping. Understanding the specific purpose of discipleship equipping helps to focus on equipping potential disciple-makers who can form new cell teams, while not ignoring the general on-the-job education that all believers need over the long haul.
When a church concludes that every member is a potential disciple-maker who can form part of a new cell team, the logical step is to equip each person for that task. Ralph Neighbour writes, “Cell churches must take seriously the need to equip every incoming cell member. Cell members will stagnate who are simply invited to attend cells, without clear equipping for service.”
The discipleship equipping is part of the overall cell ministry. It is not a “separate department” with a different administration. The discipleship equipping and the cell ministry “fit like a glove.” They are one. In many cell churches the discipleship equipping begins in the cell (mentor-mentoree) because everyone in the church participates in a cell group. In other cell churches, although all new converts are immediately connected with a cell, most of the cell equipping takes place in larger groups within the church under the cell networks (i.e., clusters of cells gathered in geographical or homogeneous groupings).
Make It Doable
One of the most important factors is whether or not the discipleship equipping is doable. Feasibility must guide the equipping. Will the person graduate from the equipping? Are the requirements too rigid? Are the options too few? Is there only one night available for the equipping? If so, only few will finish it.
I remember the early condition of the educational program in the El Batán Church, where I first ministered in Ecuador. On one occasion the pastoral team spent the whole day charting the educational process for all members in the church. It was a long, mind-numbing experience. Everything appeared immaculate on paper. We had solved our problems, theoretically. Our proud system failed because it wasn’t doable or “trackable.” We let it die, all by itself.
Through experiences like the one I just described, I’ve learned that feasibility is at the center of discipleship equipping. The successful cell churches include:
- Clear place to start
- Clear knowledge about where to go
- Clear idea of accomplishment
The bottom line is clarity. Successful cell churches aim for clarity, and maintain practicality. There is also clarity in tracking the progress of those in the equipping.
Most churches pass through multiple revisions of their equipping before finding the right fit. Initial failure often happens because a church tries to copy another church’s equipping model in its entirety. Most often the church realizes eventually that the equipping model doesn’t fit its context and unique identity.
To help you avoid this landmine, I’ve extracted six principles from some of the best cell church equipping models. These principles should undergird your equipping system, although the form of your equipping will be distinct. Here is a summary of the key principles:
Principle #1: Keep the Equipping Track Simple
The best discipleship equipping is clear and simple. Most cell churches cover the following areas in their equipping:
- Basic doctrine
- Freedom from bondage
- Spiritual Disciplines
- Personal evangelism
Principle #2: Provide Action Steps with the Equipping
People learn best when they apply what they learn. Make sure that your equipping is practical, and that you have an action step for each part of your equipping.
- First step: Basic Doctrine; action step of baptism in water
- Second step: Freedom from Bondage; action step of confession of sin
- Third Step: Spiritual Disciplines; action step of having a regular devotional time
- Fourth Step: Evangelism; action step of relational evangelism and inviting a non-Christian to the group
- Fifth Step: Cell Dynamics and Multiplication; action step of forming part of a cell team
Principle #3: Prepare a Second Level of Equipping for Small Group Leaders
Most cell churches continue to train those who have graduated from the first level and are part of a new discipleship team. To do this, they divide their equipping into at least two levels. The first level is the more basic level, which includes the five basic areas or steps mentioned above (each area is normally embodied in a manual).
The second level should include additional doctrinal courses, a spiritual warfare course, teaching on spiritual gifts, and so forth. There is a lot of room for creativity, and many excellent courses and materials are available. One cell church decided to use their denomination’s theological education by extension equipping for this second level.
Those who have formed part of a cell team deserve special treatment because of their important, foundational role in the church. Offer them all the help and equipping that they need in order to be effective.
Some cell churches even offer a third and fourth level of equipping, all the way to pastoral ministry. Faith Community Baptist Church in Singapore features an extensive equipping program to prepare higher-level leaders. Bethany World Prayer Center hosts a three-year Bible school on its property. Neither church requires higher education for all cell leadership—it’s simply provided for those who feel called to full-time ministry.
Principle #4: Use Only One Equipping Path
I counsel churches to have only one discipleship equipping path—although that one path can be adapted to age specific groups. After deciding on a church-wide discipleship equipping path (ideally both first and second levels), a church should ask everyone to pass through the same equipping. 
Principle #5: There Is No One Methodology for Implementing Your Equipping
Some people believe that the only way to equip new believers is one-on-one. Others disagree and prepare new believers in a group setting. Don’t confuse the equipping methodology (where or how you equip people) with the material.
I’ve noticed a great variety of methodologies for implementing the equipping, such as one-on-one, one-on-two or -three, equipping after the cell group meeting, during Sunday school hour, seminars, retreats, or a combination of all of them. I suggest teaching the equipping path during the Sunday school hour, which is often connected to the worship service. Then I propose that those who can’t attend during that time slot be given the freedom to take the same equipping before the cell starts, after the cell finishes, during a day-long equipping in a home, and any additional options to complete the equipping.
Principle #6: Continually Adjust and Improve the Equipping
You should be fine-tuning your equipping system continually. One cell church I studied had been working on their equipping for seven years; another had been in a process of development for ten, as they had been creating and recreating the tools. You will also need to adapt, adjust, and improve your equipping as you receive feedback from your members.
Cell church equipping is unique and creative. Often a church will use someone else’s equipping material at first and then will develop their own.
The first area or step is basic Bible doctrine. All evangelical Christians would agree that the teaching of God’s word is the foundation of the new believer’s life. Does this mean that the new believer must take systematic theology 1, 2, 3, and 4 that takes four years to complete? Definitely not. I studied systematic theology in Bible college and seminary, but as a new believer I needed the milk of God’s word—the basic principles.
One seminar attendee asked me, “What kind of Bible doctrine should I cover in my equipping series?” I told him that it was important to include basic teaching about God, sin, the person of Jesus Christ, salvation, the Holy Spirit, and the Church. I also told him that he must decide if this initial course would include six, nine, or fourteen lessons. The number of lessons in the first manual will depend on how much biblical doctrine your church deems necessary for the new believer.
The second area is freedom from bondage. So many believers are enslaved to bondages such as: unforgiveness, addictions, the occult, and other types of wicked behavior. Before the person comes to Christ, he or she probably picked up evil habits that continue to hinder after conversion. An encounter retreat, using carefully designed material, can help speed up the sanctification process by dealing with sinful weights that impede growth and fruitfulness.
The third area, inner-life development, focuses on spiritual disciplines but especially on having a quiet time. The goal is to help new believers feed themselves. This step is summed up in the saying, “Give a person a fish and you feed him for a day; teach him how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”
The fourth area, evangelism, teaches the person how to share his or her faith, not only individually but in a group setting. Each believer needs to learn how to lead someone else to Jesus Christ. This stage explains the plan of salvation in a systematic, step-by-step process. Beyond learning the content of the gospel presentation, the believer must also learn how to develop friendships with non-Christians. The effectiveness of small group evangelism is also highlighted, and equipping is given on how the cell functions like a team to evangelize non-Christians as well as providing the ideal atmosphere for non-believers.
The final area covers how to facilitate a cell group and be part of a new cell team. The manual for this stage should cover the basics of cell ministry, small group dynamics (e.g., how to listen well, transparent sharing, and so forth.), how to facilitate a cell group, and characteristics of godly disciple-makers. I like to teach this manual in a home setting to provide a small group feeling and give the group opportunity to practice small group dynamics. This manual should include teaching about the ideal order of a cell meeting (e.g., the 4 Ws: Welcome, Worship, Word, and Works).
The process of maturing and becoming like Jesus lasts a lifetime. The goal of the Christian life is to continue to grow and become like Jesus until we are in heaven. Jesus, in Matthew 28:18-20, gives us a broad definition of what that might look like. He spent three years with his disciples, but they had many more lessons to learn after their three year stint. The Holy Spirit provided the disciples with many more growth experiences.
Several years ago I was coaching a pastor named Jim Corley in Tucson, Arizona whose church was in transition to become a cell church. Jim’s church had already made it their mission to make disciples who make disciples—even before making the transition to become a cell church. My challenge as a coach was to connect cells with making disciples.
We prayed about how to do this and came up with a continuum of what the discipleship process might look like. You’ll notice the interaction between discipleship within the cell and the completion of each stage of the equipping track. We envisioned the discipleship process in at least five stages, and we labeled those stages D1-5.
- D-1 disciple: personal growth in Jesus through devotions and relational building with those at the closest level. Learning how to walk in community with other members of a cell group, dealing with conflict, growing in love for others in spite of differences, and speaking directly with people rather than gossiping. Starting the equipping track and finishing the first manual on doctrine.
- D-2 disciple: learning how to use the gifts of the Spirit in the context of the group and helping others recognize their gifts and talents. Growing in the priesthood of all believers through taking active part in the life of the cell and being willing to help out in cell activities. Continuing church-wide equipping at the first level and finishing the manual on the inner life and how to have a quiet time.
- D-3 disciple: evangelizing with the group to those who don’t know Jesus. Being willing to plan evangelistic activity with other group members and becoming fishers of men, like Jesus commanded. Continuing in the church-wide equipping and finishing the manual on evangelism.
- D-4 disciple: preparing to form part of a team to start a new cell group. Participating on a higher level by leading the lesson and preparing to launch out into new territory. Finishing the manual on leading a small group.
- D-5 disciple: preparing to disciple new leadership through becoming a cell leader coach. Taking the second level equipping and supervising a new leadership team.
The D numbering doesn’t have to stop with a D1-5 because we know that the process of discipleship transformation doesn’t stop this side of heaven. Jim Corley, in fact, went beyond the D1-5 numbering and developed an equipping path that took people all the way to becoming a pastor. In the box below, you can see how pastor Corley modified this continuum to fit his own equipping material that changed over time.
Equipping Level I
- Join a cell group.
- Complete the course Crossfire (offered during Sunday school, in a Saturday seminar, or before/after cell).
- Action step: Get baptized and become a member.
- Attend an encounter retreat.
- Action step: Break sinful habits.
- Complete the course How to Have a Quiet Time (offered during Sunday school, in a Saturday seminar, or before/after cell).
- Action steps: Practice regular personal devotions, be assigned an accountability partner by the cell leader, agree to serve as an apprentice cell leader, complete the spiritual life assessment.
- Complete the course How to Evangelize (offered during Sunday school, in a Saturday seminar, or before/after cell).
- Action step: Evangelize and set a launch date for your own cell group.
- Complete the course How to Lead a Cell Group (offered during Sunday school, in a Saturday seminar, or before/after cell).
- Action step: Launch cell group.
Equipping Level II
- Be leading an active cell group.
- Complete the course How to Study the Bible for Yourself (offered during Sunday school, in a Saturday seminar, or online).
- Complete the course How to Study the Bible for Sharing with Others (offered during Sunday school, in a Saturday seminar, or online).
- Complete two of the following courses:
- The Pentateuch
- The Life of Christ
- The Book of Acts
- The Epistles
Action steps for Level II:
- Multiply a cell group at least once.
- Take a short-term missions trip.
Equipping Level III
- Ministers Study Program (this is a self-study program that is guided by a mentor. It is offered through the Christian and Missionary Alliance, and the goal is for someone to become a licensed Christian worker).
Equipping Level IV
- Year-long self-funded internship (requirement: completion of stages I–III)
Finding the Right Materials
Many leaders assume that the magical formula lies in finding just the right material, but the reality is that most cell churches pass through multiple revisions of their equipping material before finding the right fit. Initial failure often occurs because a church tries to copy another church’s material in its entirety. As time passes, the church realizes that the equipping material doesn’t fit its unique context and identity.
There are two major points to remember when selecting equipping material for your cell church. First, is it biblical? Does it reflect the pure doctrine “once delivered by the saints”? Second, is it connected with your cell church philosophy? In other words, is the equipping conducive to convert every member into a disciple-maker?
Ralph Neighbour’s equipping track offers a number of booklets. Neighbour has spent the major part of his life perfecting equipping material for every aspect of cell life—new Christian development, Bible curriculum, evangelism equipping, gifts of the Spirit, spiritual warfare, and more. The believer is told from day one that eventually he or she will participate in forming part of a new group.
A famous cell church in South Africa called Little Falls Christian Centre developed its own material based on Ralph Neighbour’s equipping series. They asked for permission to synthesize Ralph Neighbour’s material, and it only takes four months to complete, rather than the length of one year. LFCC’s equipping starts with basic doctrinal equipping in Welcome to Your New Family; then the new believer receives more in-depth discipleship in the Arrival Kit Companion; the Reaching the Lost booklet prepares the potential leader to evangelize, whereas the Cell Leader Equipping Manual launches him into cell leadership. A more in-depth manual, taught in a retreat, accompanies each booklet.
I’ve developed my own nine-month equipping track that takes a person from conversion all the way to facilitating a small group, or being part of a team. Each book in my discipleship equipping contains eight lessons. Each lesson has interactive activities that help the trainee reflect on the lesson in a personal, practical way. The person being trained should also participate in a small group in order to experience community while learning about it. In a nutshell, the equipping includes:
- An interactive book on basic biblical truths called Live. This book covers key Christian doctrines, including baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
- The next book is Encounter, which guides the believer to receive freedom from sinful bondages. The Encounter book can be used one-on-one or in a group.
- Then the trainee uses Grow, to learn the spiritual practice of daily devotional time. Grow gives step-by-step instruction for having a daily quiet time, so that the believer will be able to feed him or herself through spending daily time with God.
- Then the person studies Share, which helps him or her learn how to evangelize. This book instructs the believer how to communicate the gospel message in an appealing, personal way. This book also has two chapters on small group evangelism.
- The fifth book is called Lead. This book prepares the person to launch a cell, or be part of a leadership team.
I also have developed a second-level equipping for those who have completed the first level.
The material used in most traditional churches is endless. It is often great material, but it doesn’t lead to a specific destination. Because the focus is on general education, there’s no limit to what must be learned and no direction for the person being educated.
Materials from Cell Churches World Wide
Most cell churches around the world have developed their own materials. You can take advantage of their experiences. Someone has said that plagiarism is copying one person’s material while research is gathering the materials of many. On a more serious note, plagiarism is a sin and the law forbids us to make whole photocopies of someone else’s copyrighted material. We can, however, use their ideas and synthesize them with our own.
The Christian Center in Guayaquil, Ecuador borrowed concepts from Neighbour, the Elim Church, and the International Charismatic Mission. Little Falls Christian Centre took the best from Neighbour and then synthesized it into four booklets and manuals. I recommend the following process:
- Obtain copies of other equipping material: Research what is out there. Obtain copies of the material from cell churches you respect.
- Test the material: After receiving materials from a variety of sources, review and test them to determine those that best fit your church. Some material works better in more educated churches, while others are designed to equip those with less schooling. You will also want to evaluate the stance taken on specific theological issues to make sure they line up with the beliefs of your church.
- Listen to God and adapt: Most importantly, listen to God. Discover what’s best for your own particular church and context. You’ll want to include in your materials your specific doctrinal slant. God has been uniquely working in your own situation. Adapt the materials according to your own needs.
Create Your Own Materials
Over time, most cell churches establish their own materials. It’s just more comfortable and it fits better. God has made your church unique, with particular convictions and methodology. You’ll want to reflect this uniqueness in your material.
Envisioning Future Disciples
I was with one church in Brazil where the pastor asked me how to set goals for cell multiplication. I told him that the place to start in goal setting is the equipping path. In other words, cell churches don’t allow a person to form part of a new cell team unless he or she has completed the entire discipleship-equipping path and is actively involved in a cell group. This means that the goal of the church is to first get people through the equipping. The discipleship-equipping path allows a church to know how to chart the future. If no one is in the equipping, very few multiplication possibilities exist. A church needs to have a workable discipleship equipping in place to make this practical.
Other churches are not ready to set goals for new disciples because new people are not coming to the church and thus, no one is going through the equipping. Another scenario is when the pastor is still learning about cell church. I’ve coached some pastors who don’t really understand the cell vision. My job as coach is to help them understand the values behind cell ministry, how to do cell ministry, and their own role in the process. In these situations, it doesn’t help to set goals until the pastor has embraced the values that will propel him to keep pressing on in the in the process of making disciples who make disciples.
A pastor can plaster goals on the wall and include them in the bulletin, but if the true vision and values are not maintained, people become weary and drop out. When this happens, the church will become critical and disillusioned and often will go back to previous programs or say, “Cell church simply doesn’t work.”
While there are pitfalls to goal setting, I do think it’s important for pastors to move ahead in a specific direction. And when I’m coaching pastors, I try to help them discern a healthy goal for making disciples who make disciples—something that will help them move forward without discouraging them. When we determine a healthy goal for the year, I then coach the pastor and the church each week according to those goals and dreams. Normally unexpected obstacles crop up and often a pastor has to change the goal midstream to adjust to reality. Yet, the fact that a pastor is envisioning a brighter future is important.
Juan and Paola Paniagua are lead pastors of a Nazarene Church in Stamford, Connecticut. They started with four cell groups in 2011 and by 2012 had achieved the goal of twenty-two cell groups. Each month we looked at those who would graduate from the discipleship equipping, the health of each group, unforeseen obstacles, and what kind of coaching each group received. Summer was especially difficult for the church because the members scattered in the summer and leadership commitment went way down. It was hard for them to reignite the troops and get them ready for the fall.
Yet, their goal for making new disciples gave them a new freedom and brought a lot of past cell knowledge into sharp focus. They met their goal, yet it took every ounce of effort and a lot of congregational work to reach it. I told them that 2013 would be a year of mending the nets, focusing on the health of the cells, the community within the groups, celebrating the leaders accomplishments, and preparing each group spiritually for 2014.
Just like there are seasons of life, I’ve discovered there are seasons for small group development. It doesn’t always work on a one year regimented multiplication pattern. A lot of factors must be taken into account.
The journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step. Take that step today, whether that means fine-tuning your existing discipleship equipping path or ordering the materials for the one you’re creating. Remember that many more steps will be required as you perfect your equipping path. If you keep at it, you’ll discover that the secret to a great discipleship equipping path is continual testing and perfecting until the equipping actually does what it’s supposed to do: produce more and better disciples who are also making disciples.
 Paul Benjamin quoted in Michael Mack, The Synergy Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1996), p. 64.
 Neal F. McBride, How to Build a Small Groups Ministry (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 1995), p. 128.
 Ralph Neighbour, Jr. “7 Barriers to Growth,” Cell Church magazine, Summer, 1997: 16.
 Mature leaders who have taken lots of equipping in the past could be given credit for subjects they’ve already mastered (e.g., Bible doctrine, evangelism, how to have a quiet time). However, I think it’s a good idea to require that all members go through the second step (inner life development which usually includes an encounter-with-God retreat) and take the multiplication step (last step).
 Touch materials can be purchased from TOUCH Outreach Ministries, 624 West 21st Street, Houston TX 77008, USA; Phone 713-861-6629; Fax: 713-861-6629; Email:email@example.com; http://www.touchusa.org. Their phone number to order books is 1-800-735-5865.
 I have two other books (Coach and Discover) that are part of my advanced level equipping. The book Discover focuses on how a cell leader can discover his or her own spiritual gifts(s) and help others in the group find theirs. My book Coach helps a small group leader coach someone else who is leading a group.
 Contact Little Falls Christian Centre at firstname.lastname@example.org. Their web site is: http://www.cellchurchint.co.za/ or http://www.lfcc.co.za/
 For my own materials, see http://store.joelcomiskeygroup.com/allbobyjoco.html or by calling 951-567-3394. Touch materials (Ralph Neighbour) can be purchased from TOUCH Outreach Ministries, 624 West 21st Street, Houston TX 77008, USA; Phone 713-861-6629; Fax: 713-861-6629; email: email@example.com; http://www.touchusa.org. Their phone number to order books is 1-800-735-5865.