The Case for Large Cell Churches

joelby Joel Comiskey

Last Friday night, I challenged the 1000+ participants at the cell church conference at La Misión Cristiana Moderna in Fuerteventura, Canary Islands to go beyond one big church and plant a multitude of churches. I thought the lead pastor (Ángel Manuel Hernández) would receive the challenge with joy. However, I ate dinner with him afterwards, and he said to me, “God wants me to continue to grow a large church here in Fuerteventura before we actively engage in planting new churches.” I responded, “But it’s much better to plant new churches because cell church is all about raising up new leaders–not just at the cell level but also at the pastoral level.” He shot back, “As an Assembly of God denomination, we’ve already planted many, many smaller churches that have yet to make a powerful impact on the Canary Islands. In a large cell church, we are having a far greater impact.” We went back and forth.

I had to admit that La Misión Cristiana Moderna has uniquely impacted their island as a large church. Patrick Johntone in Operation World (2003) wrote about all eight of the Canary Islands saying, “Among the 1,630,000 inhabitants are but 3,600 believers in 75 small churches and fellowships — most being on the two larger islands and over half being Assemblies of God.” Fast forward six years since Johnstone wrote these words and in just this one church on one island there are 200 cells and 1300 people in those cells and celebration. The island’s mayor often comes to the celebration services, the church has a powerful social outreach, and the church’s size stirs believers to openly express their faith in a very secular, Catholic atmopshere.

Lately, I’ve been so completely immersed in church planting literature that I haven’t thought too much about growing a large cell church. In the last five years, the cell church pendulum has swung away from promoting large cell churches to church planting. I’ve heard lots of criticism, in fact, about the tendency in the cell church movement to promote mega, mega cell churches. And I’m sure some of that criticism was directed toward me because in the earlier days I exclusively promoted and wrote about these very large cell churches.

Have we now swung too far the other way? Is there a case to be made for huge cell churches? Look at Mario Vega and the Elim Church. Elim’s size allows it to wield a special influence in El Salvador. For example, the government of El Salvador recently asked Mario Vega to pray a seven minute prayer in congress (check it out). The size of Elim (100,000) gives them a powerful voice in the country. The same is true with David Cho and Yoido Full Gospel Church.

What do you think? What is the place of mega cell churches? I do believe that even the huge cell churches need to engage in church planting. Pastor Angel told me that he’ll eventually plant churches and in fact, they’ve already planted their first daughter church on another island. And Elim has planted some 150 cell churches all over the world.

I’d like to hear what you think. . .

Joel

18 thoughts on “The Case for Large Cell Churches

  • I don’t feel particularly qualified to asses accurately whether a single large congregation or hundreds of smaller ones are more likely to make an impact on a nation or large city.

    What I do think, however, is that, firstly, we need to be careful about assessing what we mean by “making an impact”.

    It’s interesting that two of the four examples you cite (about large churches having an impact) have to do with the church being “co-opted” into the political process. This move can be fraught with spiritual danger, however, as politicians are often happy to use (and manipulate) churches in order to add a spiritual gloss to their governing. This can lead to the church being seen more as an agent for the state/establishment rather than as a prophetic voice articulating a different kingdom.

    Secondly, the trouble with the question of “what type of church makes the most impact” is that we do not have a grid or template for assessing how this concept could be measured, let alone a rigorous and objective method for obtaining and analysing the data that might enable us to answer the question.

    Without this, we are typically left seeing what we see and formulating subjective judgments based on our own prior assumptions.

    Which is not to say, of course, that I personally do not have an opinion on the matter. But in a sense, therein lies the problem!

  • My old pastor was asked which is better:
    A: Having a church of 1000
    B: Having 10 churches of 100

    He answered 10 churches with1 000 members!

    I can’t see why a large cell church can’t keep growing and be starting new churches as well. But we need to be careful not to confuse ‘megachurches’ as a concept with ‘large cell churches’. They aren’t necessarily the same thing. As long as a chruch doens’t grow by attracting christians from other churches it’s all good….

  • 1. In new NT we can see very big churches (Jerusalem wiht tens of thousand, the term 10,000 is used in the plural, Act. 21.20), Ephesus, Corinthians and other big population centres. I think that in big center of population, there should be very large churches that can impact their big cities. If everyone is taken care of, then we need not to be afraid of big churches.
    2. Since the world population is shifting globally toward big cities, there should be more big cell churches in those cities.
    3. I think the leaders should fast and pray to know God’s will in every situation. As God knows persecution is coming to the churches globally, he could lead to interesting creativity in the future.
    4. Where i have a problem is when the big church becomes a regional church instead of a city church. I really think that for a maximum impact cities should have their own cell churches.Evidently this can be a bit difficult to assess because cities regroup often in these days.

  • I guess I am wondering what the difference is between cell churches and the old fashioned church starting a misison that was under the watch care of a church until it was stable enough to be a stand alone denominational church?

  • The question that has been at the center of my research is the difference between churches that are able to keep the focus of energy on making disciples (evangelism) and not yield to the ever present tendency for the mother church or the cell to slide into a state where other priorities received more investment of time or energy. Everyone SAYS that evangelism is the priority, but reality shows us a different picture.

    We see churches of all sizes and all kinds of cells lose the priority of evangelism all the time and slide into being more institutional forms of the church. There may be a name for this – something like “ecclesiastical drift”?

    I think it is very possible that a large church with an influential senior pastor could keep the focus on evangelism burning bright. I think it very possible that a cell leader with a focus on the evangelism of others could do the same thing. I think that a partnership between the two would be very helpful in keeping church DNA focused on evangelism.

    On another note, when I tried to think of how to explain cell evangelism to mainline church people for my online course, I used the language below:

    “Faith communities in Oz seem very different. They begin with small groups and largely remain as groups, sometimes as small as three people. Rather than growing to the point where they conduct their own worship event in their own church building, they participate in worship services elsewhere which others provide for them seven days a week and all hours of the day, even all night long six days a week in some countries. Frequently they will cooperate to charter buses and travel together to join thousands of others in praising God at a worship event. It is not their purpose or concern to start a worship service or build a church building of their own; they are linked to a worship event that someone else plans and provides.”

    To me this was a very helpful distinction; if someone else, such as the mother church, “plans and provides” all the aspects of the traditional church system, the cell could be less tempted to slide off the purpose of evangelism. This sets the cell free to focus on (1) evangelism that produces disciples and (2) maturing their members to become disciple makers that become leaders of new cells.

  • Joel,

    I am always blessed by your willingness to hear and to learn. It makes you ever so useful to inspire the rest of us!

    Pastor Angel, like many men God calls to lead breakthrough works, seems to have a strong sense of the mandate God has given to him.

    Surely we can agree that there is not a single formula, model, or type that is “correct” for every situation. As passionate as I am about multiplying churches instead of growing them bigger, I must admit that the most culture-impacting churches in the world are often what we call “mega”.

    Guess we just have to know God’s voice and hear His instructions!

    jh

  • Thanks for all your comments. I just flew into Madrid and will stay here for the night and fly back to Chicago and then L.A.X and arrive tomorrow night. It seems that I hear most of you saying that a large, impact cell church (not just a mega church as you mentioned, Ian) is a good thing, as long as church planting is a future option. I’d love to hear Richard Houle tell us more about the difference between a regional and city church. I believe I get the “drift” of what he’s saying, but I’d like to hear more. Cell Church planting is certainly different from the garden variety denominational church because the cell is the church (just like the celebration is the church). In the old mission approach, the mission was not the church until it had enough people to organize–one key difference. My book, Planting Churches that Reproduce, goes into far greater detail. I’ll check back in tomorrow morning to see if there are other comments. To bed I go!

  • I am really not an expert on church development to know exactly what are the situation in the world. Sometimes i get the feeling that some cell churches are going to the model of satellite churches. It seems to me in my reading of NT that God used churches in cities. From Ephesus, Paul planted chruches in the region in each city. In my experience, i remarked that towns around a bigger city will not be impacted by the gospel through that city church. People get fed in the city church and there is no real vision for the towns and cities around. This has been my experience. This is why i think there is an emphasis on city churches in NT. Each city has it’s own DNA and there needs to be a church in that city. I don’t think personnally that satellite is the good option, but i could be wrong. So i think that a big cell church in a city should plan in the future, when the Spirit leads, to have cell churches planted around in other cities of the region, not to have satellites that are coming to a place of worship that is far away from their living.

  • EXCELLENT COMMENT, Richard, and in my opinion you are an expert in church planting, having planted various churches in Quebec, a very hard, hard mission field. You’ve also studied the missionary model of Paul and are practicing it in your cell church planting movement in Quebec. It was a joy to be with you guys . . .

  • I am no expert in church planting. Being, just 35 and this is our 1st church we are really working with on the mission field. However, I wonder if too much of church planting (church growth) is based upon (attributed to) the leader (or leaderships) personality, & giftings.

    I think whether a church is large vertically or horizontally is ok. I think in the back of our minds we base the outcome of a church’s fruitfulness (growth) upon the Pastor’s make up & vision. Make sense?

    However, if we base a church’s growth upon the personality of God then what is wrong with it being big or smaller? I see God in both ways expressing himself through his church. I am open to either. I just want to love and enjoy him enough to where whatever our ministry looks like simply glorifies him. We can plant & water but only God makes things grow. If people are being transformed and more in love with Jesus than who cares if it looks different.

    If our church plant looks vertical or horizontal 10 years from now then as long as we see lives changed I don’t think the Filipinos around us will really care.

    Please comment I love learning!!!

  • I like what you said here, Eric. I’m also coming to that conclusion more and more that truly ONLY GOD can give the growth and thus, we should not condemn ourselves as pastors if the growth isn’t what we expect. Nor should we attribute too much of the growth to human factors or we’re in danger of glorifying man.

  • For those who like that sort of thing, secular sociologist Rodney Clark has applied sociological principles to the history of Christianity and strongly argues that it was an urban movement in the Roman cultural context.

    While these are scientific rather than “Christian” books, I’ve found them interesting in terms of understanding how urban environments function. They stimulate my creativity in seeing new possibilities for improving evangelism in large urban environments.

    Cities of God: The Real Story of How Christianity Became an Urban Movement and Conquered Rome by Rodney Stark (Paperback – Oct 30, 2007)

    The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal, Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force …. by Rodney Stark (Paperback – May 9, 1997)

  • As a pioneering cellchurch pastor, and with my experiences with large cell church like Bro. Eddie Villanueva’s Jesus is Lord church, and Pastor Yonggi’s Yoido full gospel church. I think it’s better for a large cellchurch to continue planting churches. Here in the Phils. w/c is a secular & very catholic nation the DAWN project is best suited for us . And the cellchurch is the strategy that God has given us to evangelize the whole nation leading leading them to a personal relationship with Lord Jesus. Mea churches have the tendency to be building based and people felt that if they dont go to a large building they felt being left out with the majority of the people in a certain town or city. Thanks for the blog! Keep up the good work. . God bless!

  • Hello Ed
    Where are you located? I am a missionary here in Davao for the last 7 years. I would love to connect with you. Blessings! Eric

  • Hi,
    I apologize for not answering in English, but for me it’s more comfortable to
    my answer in Spanish.

    En mi opinión creo que cada pueblo, ciudad, país, tiene una cultura y forma de vida que le caracteriza y creo que como iglesia somos llamados a hacernos a esa cultura y forma de vida para así poder conquistar nuestra ciudad para Dios.

    En nuestro caso, en Fuerteventura, hemos experimentado un gran crecimiento explosivo en la ciudad de Puerto del Rosario, con una población de 35.293 habitantes (INE 2008), esto ha sido posible gracias a una iglesia grande que a lo largo de la semana se mueve por toda la Isla de Fuerteventura a través de las células y que hace una celebración cada domingo, donde se reúnen mas de 1.000 personas, lo cual es realmente impactante para toda la Isla. He de decir que esto es una herramienta poderosa de evangelización, pues en mi caso, son muy pocos los lugares donde llego y no tienen conocimiento de la Misión Cristiana Moderna, teniendo una buena imagen y reputación, lo cual nos facilita la predicación del evangelio.

    Me gustaría compartir con ustedes algunas notas de prensa que se han publicado sobre la Misión Cristiana Moderna:
    http://www.protestantedigital.com/new/nowleernoticia.php?r=272&n=13157
    http://www.religionenlibertad.com/articulo.asp?idarticulo=2396

    Un Saludo,
    Cristian Villa

  • Listen to what Becky Huber, the sister of Abe Huber, lead pastor of the Igreja de Paz movement in northern Brazil says:

    We have really seen the impact that a large cell church can have on a community. Here in Santarem, a city of about 180,000 people, we have united all our little PAZ churches to become one large church. We still use all the buildings–we have 32 celebration services on Sunday–all speaking the same language, giving the same sermon, all having the cell leadership training on Tuesday nights, all one bank account and one administration, and the results have been incredible! We have over 4,000 cells in this city,with over 32,000 people attending the cells. We have a huge social program and a very large mission vision in church planting along the rivers and in the jungles. We have planted about 400 other churches in the surrounding area. The Brazilians like to be associated with something big and exciting.

    I know you were here many years ago . . . you would not believe what God has done since then. As a mission, we have scattered across the basin. Pr. Abe Huber has moved with the cream of the crop pastors from Santarem as a church planting effort to Fortaleza 3 years ago. They now have over 2,000 already in their congregation and have planted 12 churches in neighboring towns and communities.

    All glory be to Jesus!!!! You will have to come back and visit again!

    Love in Jesus,
    Becky–for Jeff also

  • Hi Eric this is Ed Palmes, Im 57 yrs. of Shekinah Faith Cellchurch. A pioneering cell church here in Dumangas,Iloilo, Phils. I’ve been in the cellchurch ministry for 14 years after leaving the Armstrong group in 1995.Im tired of the institutional church. I want a genuine church. Love to hear from you soon. God bless!

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