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Latin America: Leading the Way in Cell Ministry

Cell Church Magazine, 1997

by Joel Comiskey

When you think of the well-known cell churches throughout the world, what countries come to your mind? Korea? Singapore? Africa? Did you think of any countries in Latin America? Probably not. Yet, today some of the most exciting, fruitful cell models are located right in our own neighborhood--Latin America.

PROMINENT CELL CHURCHES IN LATIN AMERICA

In March, 1997, Ralph Neighbour and I visited the International Charismatic Mission in Bogota, Colombia. The atmosphere is electrifying! There is an awesome movement of God's Spirit present in this church, and the 10,000 cell groups are the channel God is using to penetrate into every corner of Bogota. At the front of the sanctuary, huge banners declare the focus, "The goal of our church: 30,000 cell groups by December 31, 1997!" Thus far they have fulfilled their goals. With such a rapid growth rate, this church will soon surpass the number of cell groups at Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul, Korea! Another exciting Latin American model is La Misión Cristiana Elim in San Salvador, El Salvador. Their incredible commitment to reaching the masses is seen each Sunday as over 600 buses transport the cell members to the celebration services (these are city buses that are rented by the cell groups). When I was present in October, 1996, there were 116,000 people attending the 5,300 cell groups. It was amazing to see every person meticulously counted and on the computer by Monday morning!

These two dynamic churches are not the only cell models in Latin America. As part of my Ph.D. research at Fuller School of World Mission, I visited five prominent cell churches in five different Latin American countries. In addition to the two mentioned above, I also studied:1. The Love Alive Church (El Amor Viviente) in Tegucigalpa, Honduras: 850 cell groups and 7,500 worshipers2. The Christian Center (El Centro Cristiano) in Guayaquil, Ecuador: 1,600+ cell groups 5,000 Sunday worshipers3. The Living Water Church (La Comunidad Cristiana Agua Viva) in Lima, Peru: 550 cell groups and 6,500 Sunday worshipers

One of the constant variables that I noticed among the case study churches was the positive influence of David Yonggi Cho and the Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul, Korea. In fact, the International Charismatic Mission and The Elim Mission initiated their cell ministry after visiting Cho’s church in the mid-1980s. Yet far from simply imitating or copying other cell-based models, these churches have effectively contextualized the cell model for Latin America. I discovered new, creative patterns emerging from these cell-based churches.

PATTERNS AMONG THE CELL CHURCHES

Although I observed more then seventeen similarities between these churches, there were four that clearly stood out.

First, I noticed that cell ministry in these churches is primarily an evangelistic tool. These churches were convinced that the best way to reach the lost for Christ was through cell outreach. The cells were expected to multiply over and over utilizing the ever-expanding web of relationships. From my questionnaire survey of 400+ cell leaders (in the five different countries), I discovered that 68% had multiplied their group at least once and that 40% had multiplied the group more than once! Far more effective than "one-on-one" evangelism, the cells in these churches function like nets that spread out over the entire city. Buses haul the catch to the celebration service for worship and preparation. I noticed that these churches did not hesitate to set quantifiable goals for their cell ministry. In fact, some of them even promoted “healthy competition” among leadership. Again, passion for the lost was the motivation that kept everything in perspective.

Second, in these churches cell ministry was the backbone. They were not just adding cell ministry as another program. Rather, cells were the very life of the church. These churches organized pastoral staff, specific programs, membership, baptisms, offerings, and celebration services around cell ministry. Cell attendance was expected from everyone in the church. For example, the Love Alive Church in Tegucigalpa, Honduras had statistics showing that 90% of the 7,500 weekend worshipers also participated in a weekly cell group.

Third, these cell churches carefully linked cell ministry to the celebration service. In other words, precaution was taken to guarantee that individual cells shared the same vision and philosophy as the mother church. To assure this continuity, in all of the churches the cell lessons were based on the senior pastor's weekly message. For example, at the Living Water Church in Lima, Peru a talented leader took diligent notes of the pastor's message in order to weave his thought into the weekly cell lesson. At the Christian Center in Guayaquil, Ecuador, the senior pastor himself prepares the weekly cell lesson. Although each church used a different method, the senior pastor's message was always the launching point for the cell group topic.

Fourth, in all of these churches cell leadership training was given top priority. Although the length and type of training varied from church to church, all of these churches were compelled to find, train, and release new leadership as quickly and efficiently as possible. For example, the declared goal of the International Charismatic Mission is to transform every new convert into a dynamic cell leader. In this church, leadership training involves a two day spiritual retreat and a core three month cell leader training course. When I was present in October, 1996, 3,000 potential cell leaders were attending the three month courses. No wonder the cells in this church are able to multiply so rapidly!

LESSONS FOR THE WORLDWIDE CELL MOVEMENT

I expect that Latin America will continue to play a prominent role in the worldwide cell movement. Many Latin churches have mastered the use of the cell model to reach their cities for Christ. They have much to offer the church of Jesus Christ worldwide. We can learn from their clear evangelistic emphasis, the priority of the cell ministry within the church structure, the link between celebration and cell, and the high priority placed on leadership training. They can also teach us about the place of creativity in cell ministry while maintaining foundational cell-based principles. Recently the prominent US. cell church, Bethany World Prayer Center, has adjusted much of its cell philosophy, borrowing ideas from one of these Latin American models. The rest of us would also be wise to study these models and incorporate some new ideas into our own churches.

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.

Groups of Twelve reveals how the International Charismatic Mission in Bogota, Colombia has evangelized Bogota for Jesus.

Cell Church Solutions describes cell churches in North America.

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