Resistance in the West Toward Cell Church?

joelby Joel Comiskey

Most of you know that I wrote the book The Church that Multiplies to focus on the cell church in North America. In that book I highlight key principles that are essential for cell church to work in North America and the western world. We all know that cell church is exploding in the majority world, but what about the West? I attempt to answer that question in CTM.

Just yesterday, someone who read the book wrote me saying, ”

I’ve been reading your book “The Church That Multiplies” and have found it very inspiring and informative as I research the cell and house church movements. My goal is to plant a network of house based churches in the near future, starting with one in my own neighborhood. I did find one thing somewhat interesting in your book, and wanted to get your perspective on it. In the final chapter you list about 40 churches who have successfully embraced and implemented the cell church strategy. I decided to check out the websites of some of the churches, and was startled to find no mention of “Cell” church on the very first two sites I visited! Seems like some of these former “Cell” focused churches are now going the way of focusing on growing the big church through programs and ministries, and have lost their vision for making the cells the primary focus. Seems like some of these former “Cell” focused churches are now going the way of focusing on growing the big church through programs and ministries, and have lost their vision for making the cells the primary focus. My question is – is this indicative of a trend in the USA? If so, any idea why? Is it becoming too “hard” to do real cell church ministry? Or, perhaps some leaders are now being drawn to a more conventional “grow the big church with lots of programs” model?

I wrote him back saying,

Great insight and thanks for this probing. I’m always open to remove and add churches that no longer fit and will check out the ones you mentioned. However, I don’t have the impression that pastors are streaming to one programmatic model or another, like I did several years ago. Yet, I also know that ministry is very, very hard in the  Western world. Church attendance is going way down. Pastors are attracted to gimmicks to boost the numbers. Cell ministry requires down-to-earth discipleship and some churches start with this vision in mind, but then grow weary when people move and church members resist it. So much boils down to the passion and vision of the pastor. One of the churches you mentioned truly had a great cell vision, but then became consumed with the building program and soon afterwards the lead pastor retired. Thanks again. You’ve jogged my thinking. . . .

Now it’s your turn. What would you say if this person sent you the same question? Do you see a certain trend in the North America and the West in general? Do you get the impression that leaders are being drawn into the program-based model in recent times?

[p.s.: Randall Neighbour’s excellent book, The Naked Truth about Small Group Ministry, exposes a lot of the recent faulty thinking toward holistic small group ministry in North America. Please buy and read this great book].

Joel

12 thoughts on “Resistance in the West Toward Cell Church?

  • Joel asks, “Do you get the impression that leaders are being drawn into the program-based model in recent times?”

    YES ! Joel, I once left a cell-church that my wife and I planted when we with the vision became outnumbered by transplants that brought their program-based-design baggage with them and insisted on having their pet programs in our cell-based church.

    While attending the Bethany World Prayer Center Cell Church conferences, back in 1995 and 1996, along with thousands of other pastors, I noticed the ONE THING Brother Larry Stockstill and his staff took great pains in avoiding was a discussion about the cell-church pastor’s salary.

    I’m-a-thinking we’ve all heard stories like the one about the pastor in New Mexico who was told by the elders to either abandon the transition into becoming a cell-church or to look for another job. I’m also thinking that unless the pastor is able and willing to make a living without a church salary, planting/transitioning and pastoring a cell-church in the US of A is very very difficult. And it is for this very reason I believe every person considering pursuing the cell-church concept must ask themselves, “Do I own the vision or does the vision own me?”

    Sharing the Journey,
    Rick Diefenderfer

  • Some observations:

    1. Mat 16:6 Jesus said to them, “Take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” The practices of the way-we’ve-always-done-it-before are that leaven.

    2. Ernst Troeltsch historical shift: describes a two-hundred-year cycle
    of innovative evangelistic highly committed movements (antithesis) becoming change resistant, decaying, traditional churches (thesis/synthesis) Best source for review: Elmer Towns, Is The Day of the Denomination Dead? (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1973), online at http://www.elmertowns.com.

    Brilliant pastoral leadership, of course, can speed up this 200 year trend to create a PBD church in a matter of just a few months.

    3. I observe four systemic problems related to this shift, all solidly entrenched within the traditional church:
    #1 – refocus on any priority other than the Great Commission.
    #2 – shifting to an institutional rather than networking approach to church
    #3 – shifting to a focus on worship as a priority over small group evangelism (i.e. from “the life is in the cell” to “the life is in the celebration”)
    #4 – shifting the target of evangelism to strangers and away from a disciple’s personal acquaintances (Robert Putnam, Rodney Stark) which is a natural outcome from #1, #2, and #3.

    4. Systems resist change, and traditional churches are highly effective systems. The only way to successfully implement change in a system is to be very lucky or intuitive, or to carefully study and understand systemic change. The best sources for that – and I believe they provide a clear methodology for both evangelism and church transformation – are Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline, Everett Rogers The Diffusion of Innovations and Geoffrey Moore’s Crossing the Chasm.

    5. One way that systems resist change is to tinker with the model of cell we are implementing in the USA so as to make it appear that we are planting a cell church … but without one or more of the “active ingredients” that make the cell church work in another context. There is no resistance to change if we plant using methodologies that result in nothing changing. Of course, each person has to consider what those active ingredients are.

    Hope this is helpful.

  • Joel’s inquirer wrote, “Seems like some of these former ‘Cell’ focused churches are now going the way of focusing on growing the big church through programs and ministries, and have lost their vision for making the cells the primary focus.”

    I’m-a-thinking, “growing the big church” rather than “making the cells the primary focus” has unfortunately been the “primary focus” for most pastors in the US of A.

    Furthermore, it appears to me that even after being forwarned about such things as, cell-based ministry isn’t the latest church-growth-fad and that ‘cells aren’t merely small-groups to be added to every other existing program in your church’ and to ‘count the cost’ (which could include the pastor’s job); still thousands of pastors flocked to places like the 4th Annual International Cell Church Conference in Nashville, TN, (1995) and the Cell Church Conferences at Bethany World Prayer Center in Baker, Louisiana, (1995-96), and inspite of being forwarned, went back to their churches and merely identified anything resembling a ‘small-group’, labeled it a “cell” which merely added yet one more thing for the faithful few (the 20% who were already doing the 80% in the church) to get involved in doing.

    Joel’s inquirer then asks:

    (1) Is this indicative of a trend in the USA?

    (2) If so, any idea why?

    (3) Is it becoming too “hard” to do real cell church ministry?

    (4) Perhaps some leaders are now being drawn to a more conventional “grow the big church with lots of programs” model?”

    My thoughts follow…

    (1) Yes, this indicative of a trend in the USA.

    (2) I believe this indicative of a trend in the USA for several reasons. I’ll start with two::
    a. We Americans are very pragmatic insisting on immediate results.
    b. The meaning of words have become unimportant. ie; substitute the word “ministry” for “program” and you’ll discover ‘programs’ in your ‘cell-based-church’.

    (3) No, it’s not “becoming too hard” to do cell church ministry in the US of A; it’s ALWAYS been ‘too hard” to do cell church ministry in the US of A. In our society where ‘individualism’ is applauded, submission to authority no longer exists. And to compound the problem, we have bought into the lie that the church is supposed to be a democracy. Democracies do not allow “Primary-Vision-Carriers” (PVC) and when someone becomes bold enough to proclaim to be a PVC, he is immediately labeled as a ‘cult leader’.

    (4) Yes, it does appear ‘some leaders are now being drawn to a more conventional ‘grow the big church with lots of programs’ model. Following God’s direction for our lives, my wife and I planted and pastor a cell-based church in a rural region southwest of Fort Worth, Texas in an area composed of +/- 300 mobile homes.

    Having had the privilege of graduating from Southwestern BAPTIST Theological Seminary, five-years-ago, I approached the Southern Baptist Association’s Director of Missions for this region, informed him of our plans for planting a cell-based church and asked for some support. He responded by telling me the following: (a) The association did a demographic study of these people living in mobile homes and concluded that this segment of our society wouldn’t be able to financially support a church AND (b) The Southern Baptist don’t permit the pastor to tell the church how they are going to do church; the members tell the pastor how to do church AND (c) he, the Director of Missions, was appalled that I, a graduate from SWBTS, would be pursuing planting and pastoring a cell-based church.

    Wishing to be obedient to God’s calling on our lives, rather than man’s expectations, my wife and I proceeded in planting a cell-based church. Statistically, only 3% of the 40% of our society who live in mobile homes claim affiliation to a church. After 4+ years, our congregation of ‘around’ 35 people has shattered those statistics!

    Now, I am fully aware that many pastors dismiss our ministry based on the size of our congregation. AND, I’m also convinced that by simply relocating to a facility located at some major Interstate intersection somewhere near the new Cowboys football stadium, we could also have the next mega-cell-church. BUT, who would that leave to minister to this segment of our society who live in mobile homes and wouldn’t be able to financially support a church ?

    Hey Ralph, maybe it is time for me to write another book! 😉

    Sharing the Journey,
    Rick & Becky Diefenderfer

  • David Kueker listed four essential ingredients of authentic movements:
    #1 – Focus on the Great Commission. [Obey Jesus above all else!]
    #2 – Shift to a networking approach to church. [The networks already exist!]
    #3 – Put priority on small group evangelism. [Most folk round the globe who come to faith in Jesus do so while visiting a cell or little flock.]
    #4 – Target for evangelism a disciple’s personal acquaintances. [While s/he still has some who are neither believers or inoculated.]
    May I venture to footnote those points with the following?
    #5 – Keep all means, methods and materials affordable and imitable. [Clerics seek to imitate… admired clerics.]
    #6 – ‘Masculate’ your flocks, i.e., work mainly with and through men, eschewing effeminate forms, messages and priorities.
    #7 – Tell the original, apostolic Good News often and everywhere, praying continually for God to honor Jesus.
    #8 – Experiment with a frequency and form of big group celebration that does not provide an easy substitute for cell life.

  • Well some people try and transition their church to a cell based design and fail. There are a lot of reasons for that sort of thing occurring. A lot of times the leader/leaders don’t know what they are doing as far as transitioning goes. In essence the church never really BECOMES a cell church. That’s not regression, that’s an example of transition failure.

    Could be a lot of pride and hubris wrapped up in transition failure, it can be embarrassing for leaders. Ad then some church people just don’t want to change. I just think it’s not easy leading a church. Bigger it is then harder it is to turn around. It’s easy to kill off a transition attempt by killing off the Pastor. That happens too.

    I don’t think that many churches that actually transition to cell driven church that actually GET THERE regress back to a more program based design. I think there are a lot of church plants where the leader/s want to PLANT a cell driven church but fail. Again in many cases that’s not regressing. It’s a failure to transition the themselves (the leader), the church planting team, and those people attracted to the church plant. Church planters, don’t plant a church , plant a cell! That will help avoid problems down the track and will scare away the consumer christians in the midst of the brethren!

    PS I would never mention on my web site that my church was a cell church. What does that mean anyway? I’d do cell driven church, just wouldn’t use the cell jargon that will confuse people. And in the early days, when establishing a church plant’s vision and values, I wouldn’t even have a web site (don’t want to attract consumer christians or the discontented, want to attract heathens instead!) Anyone want to start a cell driven church plant in the southside of Brisbane? Making it sound hard aren’t I?? 🙂

  • Iain said, “Church planters, don’t plant a church, plant a cell! That will help avoid problems down the track and will scare away the consumer christians in the midst of the brethren!”

    Good word Iain… Amen.

  • I like Iain’s comment about mentioning cell church on your website or how much you want to mention this. If the website is for newcomers, it’s important NOT TO USE insider language.

    And that was one reason why some cell church websites didn’t bubble over with cell church lingo, but I still included them in THE CHURCH THAT MULTIPLES. in fact, one of the two cell churches critiqued in the original email for not mentioning cells would fall into this category. Thanks for this reminder, Iain. However, I realize that I have to delete some of the church for no longer following the cell strategy. . .

  • Iain said, “I would never mention on my web site that my church was a cell church.”

    I disagree. Again, while attending a cell church conference at Bethany World Prayer Center (1995), in a session titled, “Picture of a Pure Cell Church, Brother Billy Hornsby taught, “It is imperative that we have a clear picture of what we want to be in our mature and final state. We can’t just hope that we end up that way; we must start out that way!”
    ===

    Why would we want to hide the fact that we are a cell-based church? I believe it is not only “imperative that we have a clear picture…” but even more important that those who check us out have a clear picture. I mean, do we really want to trick people and load our Sunday morning celebration services with people who are ignorant about who we, the church, want to be in our mature and final state and just hope that we end up that way? We must start out that way!

    When was the last time you felt good about being suckered with a ‘bait and switch’ tactic? Personally, I’ll walk into any Subway sandwich shop anywhere in the world because I know beforehand what my investment will cost and what I will get for my investment. Why shouldn’t people who may be looking for a church expect the same concerning what their investment in our cell-based church will cost them?

    I’m-a-thinking, in this age of computer websites, every one of us do our research of a business before showing up at physical addresses. Wouldn’t identifying ourselves as a cell-based church on our website and saving uniterested folks a wasted Sunday morning be an ethically decent thing for a church to do?

    Sharing the Journey,
    Rick & Becky Diefenderfer

  • Rick said “Wouldn’t identifying ourselves as a cell-based church on our website and saving uniterested folks a wasted Sunday morning be an ethically decent thing for a church to do?”

    I was talking about jargon like ‘cell based church’. Rick has misunderstood my comment. Don’t try and scare christian people away by calling your church a ‘cell based church’ on your web site. Scare them away by describing what goes on in your church on your web site! Tell them that everyone participates in your church. Tell them that everyone evangelises in your church. Tell them that everyone works hard in your church. Tell them about transparency and accountability. Tell them that you disciple people instead of holding their hand. Tell them that if they have a problem don’t come and visit the Senior Pastor until they have fasted for three days!

  • Iain wrote, “Don’t try and scare christian people away by calling your church a ‘cell based church’ on your web site. Scare them away by describing what goes on in your church on your web site! Tell them… everyone participates in your church… everyone evangelises in your church… everyone works hard in your church… about transparency and accountability… that you disciple people instead of holding their hand… that if they have a problem don’t come and visit the Senior Pastor until they have fasted for three days

    Yes Iain, I agree. These are indeed attributes of a pure cell-based church. Now, just imagine the impact the cell-based church movement could have/would have once people automatically know this by simply stating that we are a cell-based church.

    Sharing the Journey,
    Rick & Becky Diefenderfer

  • Well they don’t Rick. That’s the problem. A church web site (who we are, where we meet, what we do etc isn’t a good forum for that sort of conversation). A personal blog, or places like theis bolg, the sort of places where ideas are traded and discussed, that’s a better place to discuss what cell based church means etc….

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