The Lead Pastor and Cell Ministry

by Joel Comiskey

This past weekend I led a cell workshop in a large Chinese Church called Vineyard of Harvest in the Chino Hills area (part of the Vineyard movement). This was my second cell seminar in this church in the space of one year, and I was impressed with the strides the church had made in the past year (check out the portal page to their website). After I finished the seminar, the senior pastor and his wife  pulled me aside and began to ask me hard questions. I sensed by their earnestness that they really wanted to make cell ministry work.

I shared with the pastor that he was the key to long-term success.   The congregation looked to him, to decipher whether the cell church philosophy was a passing fad, or a permanent fixture in our church. Without his modeling of cell church values and principles, the cell vision would surely wither.

I frequently lead cell seminars. More than once I have encountered zealous lay people who get so excited that they want to convert the entire church to the cell philosophy—whether or not the senior pastor agrees. While we can applaud this type of excitement and zeal, we must quickly explain the consequences. Long lasting change requires a point man. As Cho says, “. . . a system must have a control point. The controlling factor in home cell groups is the pastor.” Without him on board, cell church ministry will sink. I tell people not even to begin the cell church transition unless the senior pastor is leading the charge.

Dale Galloway, an early pioneer of cell church ministry in the U.S., says: “No matter who introduces small-group ministry into a church, that ministry will only go as far as the Senior Pastor’s vision for it. The people will watch the Senior Pastor to see if small-group ministry is important to him or her, because what’s important to the Senior Pastor is important to the people” (The Small Group Book, p. 21).



21 thoughts on “The Lead Pastor and Cell Ministry

  • Your comments and that quote from Galloway are spot-on.

    The lead pastor must LEAD the church out of programs and building-centered activity and into kingdom extension through biblical community.

  • Spot on Joel! And very timely!!

    I just finished reading an email from a SBC seminary grad who has been attending our Sunday celebrations and who recently attacked me for my continual casting of the cell church vision God has given me for our church.

    In a recent one-on-one meeting, I informed him that if God intended for me to be pastoring a traditional program-based church, He would have never imparted the vision of cell-based ministry to me. I also told him I would continue meeting with people who only attend Sunday celebrations but are not actively involved in a cell to encourage them to either climb on board or to continue in their search for a church that better fits their definition of a church.

    He told me he had a problem with our philosophy that people are not considered members in our church unless they are actively involved in a cell. So, I asked him to please continue in his search for a church that better fits his definition of church. He took my advice. Hallelujah! Praise God! I’m learning to be content with pastoring “a church to the core”.

    Sharing the Journey,
    Rick Diefenderfer

  • I can only endorse both these comments.
    1st – We have the same philosophy. God has called us to be a Cell Church, in Denmark, and if people are not content then we advise them to feel free and find a church that better suits their needs.

    2nd – I agree 100 per cent that unless the lead pastor is heading the vision to drive a cell church no one else can or should be allowed to. They should then do as commented above………………go find a church that is running cell and join them!

  • It seems there is a significant emphasis on ‘converting’ traditional churches to cell churches. What support is available for those who wish to live by Biblical principles of basic Christian community from scratch? Isn’t the Senior Pastor role a legacy of the traditional church? If there is a visionary leader to kick start something, is there ever a need for a Senior Pastor? Why would a movement like yours be so focused on converting existing ‘churches’ which have the baggage of the traditional control structures and the liability that ‘one man’ can derail the movement? Why not recruit those outside the ‘traditional church’ and train and equip them to plant new works among the lost?

    Paul “Shiff” Shiffer

  • I too agree 100% – after falling into the described category of overzealous persons, back in the day. We thought the lead pastor was sold on the (same) idea – the way we all received it. Things can become sticky very quickly and just by God’s Love ans Spirit was contention averted. As Pastor Lawrence Kong once put it, the church is lead by one annointed man, hearing from God. That statement alone can cause contention today amongst the ranks of the spiritually immature. Hence the cry for spiritual parents. Nice blog.

  • As I have been recently reviewing all I can get my hands on regarding Basic Christian Community (formerly small group, cell group, life group, whatever), it appears that both Ralph Neighbor and Bill Beckham define ‘the church’ as the cell supported by ‘faceless’ leadership empowered by the Holy Spirit/Christ/Father. Yet, the term ‘cell church’ seems to have taken on the definition of a group of several hundred thousand disciples led by one key leader. So which is it?

    Here is my attempt at a definition which includes mission, methods, motivation, etc. :

    Mission: Reach the World for Christ

    The mission is not just to create a growing church or to make an existing church more effective. The mission is global in scope, not just local. We must utilize a reproducible model of ministry that does not require huge resources to accomplish the mission. Everyone must be able to start from nothing but the tools they have been given (life, spiritual gifts, Christ) and take action that bears fruit. However, once the basic Christian community is established and multiplies, it is expected to effect change on the culture and to have a corporate effect on society. It is logical that this would be the outcome of the growth of groups of disciples, and the networking of them together for training and collaborative ministry to the community.

    Mechanism: The church – consisting of Disciples (both a follower of Christ as well as one who disciples others) and Equippers (those who train, encourage, and provide a context for discipleship) who are multiplying basic Christian communities and networks of those communities.

    Motivation: Love – love for God, love for one another, love for those who do not know Jesus. (Thanks Jimmy – Antioch Church)

    Medium: Life – “as you go, disciple”. Believers must engage, not disengage, from society. They must demonstrate the reality of Christ incarnate in them and in their intimate relationships. A person in intimate relationship to God and ‘under the influence’ of Christ’s Spirit must be visible to the tenants of the world around them. We do not need to create a parallel universe (Christian softball, Christian music, Christian clothing, Christian healthcare, Christian businesses, Christian health clubs), but rather bring incarnation to the societal structures existing all around us (hospitals, shopping malls, schools, bike clubs, etc.)

    Means: The Power of Christ. Incarnation – Body of Christ – Basic Christian Community. Although the disciples and equippers are engaged in the mission, they do not actually effect the results. All spiritual transformation, spiritual growth, spiritual direction, etc. are the result of direct interaction with Christ and direct empowerment of the believer by Christ. Christ transforms, Christ empowers, Christ ministers.

  • Maybe we should take a look at how we define the “traditional church” and take it back to the time of Jesus. If we were to talk about the church as it evolved subsequent to Jesus, when the Holy Spirit was imparted, instead of the world imposed “religious” definition. I think we would find that this whole cell based (distributed responsibility) idea isn’t so “non-traditional” after all….

  • Just one more thought – if you can say to someone ‘If you don’t agree go find another church’ then you are still defining ‘church’ as an organization. The church is the people! The church is the flock you are supposed to be shepherding! How can you toss a lamb out of your flock because they don’t agree with your methodology? This is why there are so many disconnected believers out there in America today, struggling to build community in home churches or just licking their wounds alone. Anathema!


  • Thank you Joel and i agree with you a 100% and it also confirms what i have truly discovered and realized with regards to leading a church. It is not the system itself but the pastor is the key to the growth of a church whether it is a G12 model or Ptr Cho’s model. As i had observed big churches are lead by pastors who are truly passionate with the vision of the church. People sense what is truly in the pastors heart. Applying the system or being a copy cat of a model won’t do magic. It will start with the pastor; he must truly love God, loves the soul of the sinner then starts to lead a cell group and cares truly for the cell member until they grow in their faith and begin to reach out for others too. Slowly, the church will begin to see what he is doing and they will follow. What boils in the pastors heart is sensed by the members. Now i have to change myself.

  • Hey Joel,
    I totally agree with you.
    I know it from my life and our Church that the role of the lead pastor or the Senior pastor is very crucial and vital for the Cell to be a success.

    Keep encouraging us, Joel.
    God bless you and your family and minsitry

  • The structure of the New Testament church has been defined by the traditions of man and not always by scripture. Many churches are run as a monarchy even if there is a deacon board and other forms of leadership in place. Old habbits and traditions and power structures are hard to change. Educating people as to how and why God established His Church the way that he did takes time and effort and many will still choose to be in a traditional brick and mortar situation. We are coming to a time in our country where churches may be forced to change due to the political environment. Joel and others are bringing an awareness of New Testament structure, it takes time patience and the hand of God to bring it all to pass.
    Thank you for all that you do to bring His Kingdom to Earth.

  • I wholeheartedly agree that the vision and direction comes from the leader. This does not just pertain to cell ministries but everything, especially in the church. If the leader does not endorse it the people will not adopt it. With the endorsement must come support and encouragement but on a continuous basis. The more the people hear and see the more they will do and be.

  • Joel
    Yes! yes! yes! My advice, from experience, underscores your counsel in this matter: Don’t do it UNLESS the senior pastor “owns” it and is “driving” it. The outcome, in the long run, may be costly and counterproductive.

    Bill 🙂

  • I agree that if you intend to plant a cell church WITHIN an existing church, that the Sr Pastor must be on fire or he may burn you 🙂 However, if we look at this from the point of view of what we are actually attempting to accomplish – reach 6-8 billion people with the Gospel – we may find a different strategy is in order. Do we really need seminary trained / ordained / full time staff people to plant and multiply basic Christian community? Aren’t we unnecessarily putting a hurdle in front of those who are fully qualified by a variety of life experiences, fully empowered by spiritual gifts and a relationship with Jesus, to lead? A friend of mine gave an excellent analogy to help me understand leadership. Imagine a high school track, and 4 guys start running. Once they round the turn and pass the grand stand the person out in front is ‘the leader’. You wouldn’t pre-determine who the leader was going to be before the gun goes off would you? In my experience, when a person ‘starts a church’, that person has a lot of life energy and personal self-worth invested in the project. The last thing they are going to do is turn the reigns over to someone who is ‘running ahead’ because their gifts and/or relationship with God is empowering them. At best, the Sr Pastor is going to send that ‘leader’ off to seminary or the mission-field (hopefully to be killed on the battle field – hmmm, nope that was David – wrong story).

    Are we creating a ‘rule’ that says – yes the church MUST be lead by a Sr Pastor – because it is truth, or just because in our experience it has always been that way?

    Believe me – I once tried to lead in a church context – won’t do that again, it’s too painful. Actually, in hind-sight it wasn’t appropriate for me to lead in that context. The Pastor of that church had an unspoken contract with the ‘congregation’ and he with them. He would provide their spiritual food and they would support the ministry of the church. No one was supposed to stir things up and try to get people to see that they were the ministers and the staff was just there to equip them.

    So, to end this diatribe, I have given up trying to transition a church to Biblical Christian values (ie what actually has the power to change lives rather than produce conformity), and have decided to just lead (run as fast as I can in the right direction). Some will follow and some will also lead – I hope they pass me 🙂

  • Hey, Paul, I’m not sure if I’m reading you correctly, but it seems that you are more interested in PLANTING a new church based on Biblical, New Testament principles. Amen! But even if you plant a church, the lead person still had to be 100% convinced of the cell vision. And it’s much easier to PLANT a cell church than transition a traditional one. Yet, I believe that EITHER WAY, whether planting or transitioning, the lead pastor (and team) need to be 100% committed to the cell strategy. Perhaps, I’m missing something in your argument. Just to let you know that either planting or transitioning, the lead pastor needs to be the passionate visionary.

  • Paul Shiffer said,
    May 10, 2010 @ 8:05 am
    Good luck with that! I’d like to see the person who could change themselves!

    -i sense something “colorful” in your statement Paul 🙂 ..anyway, im not english nor american so pardon my statement “Now i have to change my self”. As a Christian i always know that change in a person can truly happen by Gods grace alone and by the power of indwelling Spirit of God. Its just i saw that my failure in ministry stems from being ignorant with the truth that the pastor or the senior pastor or the lead pastor (call them the way you want it) is the key to the growth of cell in “his group” or in the church where he belongs. whoever is the leader or whatever you called that leader, he is the key because everyone who looks at him as leader truly sense what is in his heart and as John Maxwell said it once, “Everything rises and falls on leadership”. We are transitioning from Program Base Design church into cell church and also applying the training track of G12 although im not that fanatic with the number 12. After a year of transitioning and applying every principles we got the church grew very little and and with the “old skins” in the church, few are motivated. Analyzing our situation, the Lord lead me to that simple truth that as a leader in my group, i have to model the cell group, nothing more nothing less. I have to admit that im eager for the church growth and for a long time seeking for models or system to apply. Then i came to know the cell church and as i understand it, this is the perfect example of the church in the book of Acts. But having enthusiasm and the perfect church model to follow will not instantly lead you to church growth. Now i saw what is lacking and Joel confirmed that in this blog. Though i often heard this truth for a long time in many leadership seminar, only this time this truth dawned in my heart. That is why i said now i have to change. what i simply mean is, i will do everything needed to care for my cell group until they grow in faith and after our members see what i am doing then i am sure they will be inspired to follow now i truly understand too that whatever is important to you, it is important to them.

  • Creo que la vision de los grupos pequenos ,sino es dirgida por el pastor,puede ser un arma de doble filo porque pueden causar un caos en la congregacion al empoderar neofitos en cuanto al manejo de la autoridad eclesiastal,ya que para liderar un grupo se requiere un aprobacion divina y tambien una experiencia terrenal,no estoy encontra de los grupos pequenos mas bien estoy trabajando con ellos ,a la misma vez uno de los secretos que acompanan los grupos pequenos ,es la transicion ya que esa es la que determina cuales son los lideres que quedan con un corazon pastoral auque no sean pastores.
    Dios te bendiga en gran manera.

  • Hi Frnd,

    There was once a lonely girl who longed desperately for love. One day while she was walking in the woods she found two starving song birds. She took them home and put them in a small glided cage. She nurtured them with love and the birds grew strong. Every morning they greeted her with a marvelous song. The girl felt great love for the birds. She wanted their singing to last forever.
    One day the girl left the door to the cage open. The larger and stronger of the two birds flew from the cage. The girl watched anxiously as he circled high above her. She was so frightened that he would fly away and she would never see him again that as he flew close, she grasped at him wildly. She caught him in her fist. She clutched him tightly within her hand. Her heart gladdened at her success in capturing him. Suddenly she felt the bird go limp. She opened her hand stared in horror at the dead bird. Her desperate clutching love had killed him.

    She noticed the other bird teetering on the edge of the cage. She could feel his great need for freedom. His need to soar into the clear, blue sky. She lifted him from the cage and tossed him softly into the air. The bird circled once, twice, three times.

    The girl watched delighted at the bird’s enjoyment. Her heart was no longer concerned with her loss. She wanted the bird to be happy. Suddenly the bird flew closer and landed softly on her shoulder. It sang the sweetest melody, she had ever heard.

    My View: The fastest way to lose love is to hold on too tight, the best way to keep love is to give it — WINGS!

    God given wings you too: You sense in your heart that you have wings to fly, but worries, fears, and insecurities drag you down to earth, preventing you from spreading your wings and taking flight.


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