The Rabbit and the Turtle

joelby Joel Comiskey

Some of you have read the old English story of the hare (rabbit) and the tortoise (turtle) called Aesop’s Fable. In the story, the rabbit ridiculed the turtle for having short feet and a slow pace. The turtle replied, “Though you be swift as the wind, I will beat you in a race.” The rabbit agreed to a race, believing that the turtle could never win. The two started the race together, and the turtle never stopped, following a slow but steady pace to the end of the course.  The rabbit, lying down by the wayside, fell fast asleep.  At last waking up, and moving as fast as he could, he realized the turtle had already finished and won the race.

I see this story played out in the cell church world today. Some cell models, like the rabbit, offer quick growth and the promise of rapid numbers. Here in Brazil, various pastors started following a cell model in Latin America that promised instant growth for those adopting their entire model. These pastors abandoned the slow, steady training that Robert Lay and Ministerio Igrega em Células offered.

The purpose of Ministerio Igrega em Células is to teach values, principles, and to network pastors and leaders together on the cell church journey (four modules, annual confernces, and lots of material). Some began to criticize Robert Lay’s ministry as being too “turtle like.” They felt that he and his ministry over-emphasized cell chruch theology, values, starting with a prototype, and making transitional change in a slow, steady manner.

The good news is that many churches who took the time to study cell church principles and network with other pastors are now shining models for others to follow. I heard testimony after testimony from these pastors at the two annual Ministerio Igrega em Células conferences this past week (1400 attended the southern Brazil conference and 900 attended the northern Brazil conference). Some of these model churches now have 100s of cell groups and are giving birth to new cell churches in other places.

On the other hand, many of the “quick growth” churches are realizing that the glitter quickly fades in the reality of day to day cell church minsitry. Some are now rejoining Robert Lay’s network.

I’ve seen the same phenomenon played out in the U.S. One famous church helped other churches start dozens and dozens of groups very quickly. Churches gave glowing reports of the rapid growth of their small groups. The problem was that these groups only lasted a couple months. According to this strategy, they weren’t supposed to last any longer. Some pastors then tried the “bait-and-switch” technique of convincing the temporary groups to continue. Most dissolved.

Turtle-like ministry requires long-term persistence, passion, and perseverance. It’s easy to give up along the way, or jump on the bandwagon of the latest, greatest sucess story. Yet, I’ve been encourged afresh to take the long-term approach. Why? Because the results are lasting and eventually such a strategy will win the race, just like the turtle.



14 thoughts on “The Rabbit and the Turtle

  • I’m consulting pastors saying, “If you do prototyping and transition at the right speed, there won’t be a shred of fur on your shell.”

    This is a very good word. Thanks for sharing it!

  • Joel,

    I know of the “famous church in the USA” you are referring to. Back in the 90’s, I religiously made the annual pilgrimage to attend their cell church conferences.

    And then, one year, that church’s pastor stood before those of us in attendence and said that he (and another cell church catalyst) had just got off the plane from their trip to Bogota and, although he admittedly could not explain it, was going to transition his congregation to the G12 and by doing so would INSTANTLY add hundreds of cell groups! That’s the last time I had any interest in attending cell conferences at that church.

    Who among us wouldn’t enjoy leading a successful cell group ministry? But how do we define ‘successful’? Is a cell church successful with 80% of it’s 5,000 members actively participating in cell OR is a cell church successful with 100% of it’s 24 members actively involed in cells?

    I spent last week alone in prayer on the beach in Port Aransas, Texas. I also read Randall Neighbour’s book — ‘The Naked Truth About Small Groups’. Although I hope Randall replaces the word ‘small’ with the word ‘cell’ in future copies of his book, I do recommend reading his book because it helped me to see that maybe, just maybe, it’s not up to me to complete this cell-church vision God has given to me within my lifetime… maybe, just maybe, I am just a small cog of many God is using for something He sees coming together hundreds of years from now. Yes, it is a rather depressing thought but as my earthly father would always say, “All good things take time”.

    Sharing the Journey,
    Rick Diefenderfer

  • I believe that like most things, we find efficiency where we find balance. We can tend to get mired in training and leadreship tracks while stifling a vibrant cell, and on the other hand, we can proceed too rapidly and fail to ensure that we have the right hearts leading. God tells us what His absolute truths are. We need to be careful not to make up some of our own.

  • Really agree with you — well said! Keep on doing what God has shown us and keeping the foundation strong — the root strong — the fruit will come!

    I was with Robert Lay for many years and can affirm what you said is complete true!

  • Unfortunately too many despise small beginnings or frankly anything that has to do with the concept of small or slow. I’m affraid that ego gets in the way of ones calling and true purpose and mabybe even their level of ability.
    Thanks for your perspective and very good advice at a time when so many are trying to be “Rock Stars” of the Christian World. Jesus made himself of no reputation, something to consider the next time we make a move.

  • What hope you give as we progress in building Wellspring. God used you to send me an answer to my specific prayer of this week… Thank you for all you do. You and your ministries will continue to be in my prayers.

  • Hola Joel,

    Yo estuve contigo en la Conferencia de Celulas en Aguas de Lindóia, Brasil. Fue mucho importante para el liderazgo presente oye sobre el mover celular en el mundo y en el país.
    Soy grata a Dios por todas as bendiciones sobre la iglesia brasileña y tambiém por su vida y del Dr. Bill Beckman.

    Pra. Elcione Galantini

  • Thank the Lord I don’t suffer from a “hare” approach to building His people/His church/His Kingdom. A commitment to make disciples (not just believers) demands we get on board the slow train to Christlikeness, – not the Tokyo Express bullet train. I suggest to leaders of traditional, ministry based, churches that it will take between 5 to 7 years to carefully transition their church to a cells based church. Emphasis and care must always be on producing “quality”, not “quantity”. Maturing Christlikeness DNA must never be compromised for the sake of increasing numbers. We must resist the temptation of adopting a mushroom approach to cultivating His church. Mushroom spring up overnight but only have a short life-span. The Lord likens His Kingdom expansion work to grape vines and fruit trees. Although it takes these fruit bearing trees much longer to grow, mature and bear fruit … they can reproduce their kind over and over and over until Jesus comes back.

    Thanks Joel, for offering the analogy of the hare and tortoise. Like you, my money is on the tortoise.

    Bill 🙂

  • Hi Joel
    I agree with your note.

    I came from a cell church which later went into G12 after I left the church.

    When the cell church “model” was first implemented – the church experienced much growth and there was great excitement. Then the growth stalled / plateaued. Then it switched to the G12 model.

    It was thought that the cell church “model” and the structure were not getting them to the next level.

    But from my point of view, although the “model” and “structure” do play a part in growing a church, it is not the model per se that is the cause of the growth.

    It is the values and principles that are behind the “model” that are generating the growth with the power of the Holy Spirit and Love of Christ.

    There were many subtle changes in the values and principles behind the running of the church which can stall church growth without us realizing it.

    e.g. When the church was still in the initial phase of growth, members just participate in ministering to one another. And on Sunday service, the leaders just step up to do ministry.
    As the church grew larger and more structured, Cell leaders were made to feel obligated in the rostering to do ministry rather want to do ministry.

    Something changes here over time without the leadership realizing it.
    There are other “invisible” changes too.
    The church with an inverted hierarchy actually becomes a hierarchical church.

    So it is the values and the principles behind the cell church model that works for it.

    I had read the Natural Church Development concept taught by Christian Schwarz. I found his ideas can actually synthesize with the cell church principles making the cell church concept more robust and properly thought through.

    Hope this helps …

  • I think you are right. We had a problem in California with many Spanish-speaking churches, which got so exited with a model that a South American church was promoting as “the model”. Many churches got divided because of that. The majority of the churches that I personally know who adopted “the model” never grew; they only lost the old members.

    It is very important to stick to the principles and persevere. Some of the churches in my denomination are starting many cell groups with people who have recently committed to Christ and with unbelievers who are willing to open their houses. They count them as groups and it reflects a rapid growth. However, those groups dissolve quickly and the pastors continue to open cell groups in the same manner and never have a true growth. Here in Bakersfield we are sticking to the principles and we are growing slowly but surely. In April of 2008 we started to work with cells, 49 people total. Our goal was to be a Cell Church (not a church with cells) by January 2010. By now about 90% of members belong to a small group. The cell groups are no longer one of the many ministries in church but the backbone of our church. The last weekly report we had (after two years) was 411 people. Yes it is slow but we intend to follow your advice: “persistence, passion, and perseverance”.

  • Love the article and it is very true. It reminds me of the article from Jim Collins “the undisciplined pursuit of more”
    We are taking the time to identify, train, and prepare leaders that will do the same and we to will do it persistence, passion, and perseverance.

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