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The Passion Behind the Elim Church: What drives the largest cell church in the world?
by Joel Comiskey
"I have the responsibility of pastoring 1500 people," the zone pastor told me as we rode from the airport to the Elim Church.
I had just arrived in El Salvador in 1996 to study the Elim church and this was my first contact with an Elim pastor. "We have 70 fulltime pastors on staff and each one of us cares for a similar amount of people," he continued. I tried to grasp how Elim had accomplished such amazing church growth—growing from a handful of believers in May 1977 to 117,000 people in 8600 cell groups in 2003.
I noticed their total commitment to the cell group structure, but I also knew that many other churches were committed to the cell church structure. I started asking myself, "What lies at the heart of this church?"
As I plumbed more deeply into the heart of the Elim Church during the next seven years, I noticed one over-riding theme: PASSION.
The Elim Church is a passionate army, rather than a stiff, cold militia. The people at Elim are passionate for Jesus Christ. Their love for Jesus encourages them to expect great things from God and to attempt great things for God.
Many other words and phrases describe Elim: servanthood, evangelism, and leadership, but none of them describe Elim’s heartbeat like passion. All other ministry traits flow from their passion for Jesus. Persistence and penetration, for example, are two key sub-themes that flow from Elim’s passion.
Elim is a passionate army that goes forth to win souls with the purpose of conquering a city for Jesus.
Passion to serve Jesus
The word passion means: "intense or overpowering emotion. An intense enthusiasm for something: a keen interest in a particular subject or activity, such as a passion for music."
The keen interest and enthusiasm at the Elim Church is Jesus Christ and His glory. The cell system gives wings to express God’s passion, making everyone a minister and decentralizing the church so that everyone can be involved.
"Passion is the key to our success," Mario Vega, the senior pastor, told me. "Without passion it doesn’t work. If the cell leader doesn’t have passion, he won’t multiply his life into others. The most important thing about leadership is passion. You must have passion."Mario continued, "The pastor must have passion first. This passion must burst into a larger vision and dream to conquer an entire city and world for Jesus. Yet, only God can give people the passion for Himself and for His work. The conviction to passionately serve Jesus Christ must originate with God Himself."
Eulalio Rivera exemplifies this passion. On February 16, 1997 Eulalio received Jesus through an Elim cell group. Previously, he was entangled with drugs, alcohol, and rebellion. He was frequently thrown into jail for destructive behavior. His wife and family fled, and his kids wanted nothing to do with him. Even his father and mother abandoned him, noting that he was out of control. In his spiritual blindness he tried committing suicide to end his bankrupt life.
At the same time period, a member of one of Elim’s neighborhood cell groups approached Eulalio with the good news of Jesus Christ, blunting asking, "why are you trying to destroy yourself when Jesus offers an abundant life?"
Through the love of this cell member, Eulalio eventually received Jesus Christ. Right away, Eulalio began attending the Saturday night cell group and Wednesday night planning meeting, along with the celebration services. Jesus began to heal Eulalio, taking away the desire for drugs, alcohol, and his own self-destructive behavior.
Eulalio, like the demoniac man that Jesus healed, began to tell others what great things God had done for him, inviting them to the cell group. Many of his old friends received Jesus through the cell group. "My friends knew what I was like before," Eulalio told me. "My entire life was a testimony to them of God’s power to change lives."
One year after receiving Jesus Christ, Eulalio began leading his first cell group. Like other leaders, he had to pass several hurdles:
Baptism in water and the Spirit
Officially marrying his wife
The Elim training course
Since then, Eulalio’s passionate fire has stirred him to multiply his cell thirty times. He not only has multiplied his own cell group many times but also his cell sector (comprised of five cell groups) seven times. As an electrical engineer he serves the church in his extra time. He views Christian service as a great privilege. "I’m still in the process of healing. I have to live with my past mistakes, but Jesus helps me live for Him," he said.
Elim fans passion among its members by adding a steady stream of new converts who are trained and sent forth into the harvest field to penetrate a dark world for Jesus.
The name Elim, in fact, is found in Exodus 15, when the children of Israel were looking for water. Verse 25 says, Then Moses cried out to the LORD. . . Then they came to Elim, where there were twelve springs and seventy palm trees, and they camped there near the water" (15:25-27). Elim provides streams in the desert for the desperately thirsty.
The Elim Church has a great cell system, but they have more than just the cell system, they have a contagious passion that makes the discipleship process work.
I noticed this passion manifested in the commitment of the people to serve Christ and others. A cell leader at Elim must be sold out to Jesus Christ first and foremost. Second, the leader must be sold out to the vision of penetrating a city for Jesus through multiplying cells. "Multiplication is a triumph because it means reaching more people for Jesus Christ," Mario said.
Some people thing that only extroverts possess passion. They feel that unless they’re emotionally expressive, they’ll never attain this passion. Yet Mario Vega is an introvert, a very introspective person. A passion for Christ supercedes human personalities. Anyone, in fact, can possess Christ’s passion, if they’re willing to spend time in His Word and in His presence.
Elim keeps the passion burning through a steady diet of God’s word, exercise of the gifts of the Spirit, and prayer.
In reality, the normal Salvadorian doesn’t have a lot of passions in life. Life is bleak and the majority know that they won’t go far in such an impoverished country. Thus, many just want to get by in life.
The Elim Church, however, gives people a chance to be someone special. The cell system provides a place for every person to serve and the opportunity to continue to move up the ladder. The church gives each person the chance to be something they haven’t been able to do in life. It stirs their passion to make it, to succeed
Many churches have great cell systems but lack the persistence to make it work. Not Elim. They persist until it works. The passion at Elim drives the people to tenaciously persist in the work of penetrating the city through multiplying cell groups. Others words to describe persistence are: perseverance, determination, doggedness, and diligence. I’ve noticed a certain dogged determination to make it work.
I asked Carlos Arturo Luna , one of Elim’s elders, why Elim continues to grow through the cell vision. He said, "Many churches hear about our cell vision, but they don’t continue. They stop midstream." Plowing ahead over the long haul often separates success from failure.
Jim Collins in his book From Good to Great describes great leadership as "ferociously driven to produce results" and having a "sheer workmanlike diligence." (33). Circuit City’s CEO, Alan Wurtzel, when asked why his company did so much better than its chief competitor, responded, "The show horse and the plow house—he was more of a show horse, whereas I was more of a plow horse." Elim definitely falls into the category of the plodding plow horse.
Elim is not a Hollywood church. Those who visit aren’t impressed by a lavish building, sound system, or high tech gadgetry. What is impressive is the clock-like persistence of their cell multiplication, preaching, and Jethro organization. Elim’s cell groups have increased just about every year.
Elim passionately persists to penetrate the world through multiplying cell groups. Their strategy is crystal clear. They exist to populate all of San Salvador and beyond with evangelistic cell groups. Each cell has the same DNA of evangelism and discipleship that leads to multiplication. Their cells are born to multiply. Elim’s fivefold statement is:
I have a purpose
My purpose is wining souls
I fulfill my purpose best in a group
I will never be satisfied until I fulfill my purpose
I have no promise of tomorrow
Elim plans for evangelism by asking each cell to hold a weekly planning meeting in order to plan invitations and visits (discussed in depth later on). During those planning meeting, the nucleus of the cell discusses how to effectively evangelize during the Saturday night cell group.Cell members know cell multiplication will ultimately mean more lost people found and Christ’s great commission fulfilled. They see their lives as fulfilling God’s purpose.The passion to multiply cell groups is the passion that drives the Elim Church. Other churches in the city are now using Elim’s cell system, but they’re not growing as rapidly. "Why? " I asked. "Passion," was the reply I kept on hearing. "they don’t grow as rapidly because they lack the passion."
Don’t make the mistake of copying a model and expecting the same success. Get a red-hot passion from God and He will make the cell system work.
Further reading on this topic: Comiskey's book
Passion and Persistence explains the history of the Elim Church and the principles that have compelled this church to penetrate San Salvador for Jesus.
Reap the Harvest details the worldwide cell churches.
Cell Church Solutions describes cell churches in North America.
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