by Joel Comiskey
When I visited the Elim Church in San Salvador for the first time in 1996, the church was going through a major crisis (Elim is the second largest church in the world). The founding pastor had divorced his wife, run off with another woman, and was mismanaging the church’s finances. His wild living was splashed across the headlines of the San Salvadorian newspapers. The leadership of Elim dearly loved their pastor and made the mistake of not quickly dealing with his sin. The church leaders did eventually deal with this problem openly and honesty,and I deal with all the details of this situation in my book, Passion and Persistence: How the Elim Church’s Cell Groups Penetrated an Entire City for Jesus.
Yet, I noticed an interesting phenomenon: even when the crisis was at a boiling point, the church didn’t fall apart. Why? Because absolutely everyone at Elim is either a member of a cell, a cell leader, or part of the coaching structure. Surely, the fall of their beloved pastor was enormous. Yet, each person who attended Elim had an indivdual pastor (the cell leader). And each cell leader had a coach. And each coach was pastored by someone else. You get the picture.
I recently read about something similar happening in North America. Mike Messerli, pastor of small group ministries at a church in Texas, wrote an article entitled “Sharing Our Lives in Difficult Times” (March 2007 on www.smallgroups.com). In the article he talks about a time in late 2006 when the senior pastor at his church was discovered in an adulterous relationship. The elders asked the senior pastor to resign and then announced the problem to the congregation. Many left the church. Yet Mike writes, “What I have seen is this–those who are not in a small group are those who have left our church. Not all of them, mind you, but most of those who have left the church were not committed to a small group community. The small groups create Velcro. Those in small groups have a community of people who care for them, who pray with them, who love them and, most of all, who provide a place to share the hurts and sorrows of life. They have a place to grieve. They have a family of believers to care for them.”
The power of the cell is that it becomes a family. It’s one-another ministry at its best. Those in the cell don’t depend on the man in front to make “church” happen. They realize that they are the church. And the community that develops within the cell becomes a refuge in the time of storm . Pastor Mike writes, “In light of our pastoral loss, the elders of our church realize that it is the small groups that bond us together and care for our body.” Mike makes several suggestions for those facing similar crisis situations: First, small groups are the best way for people to find community in your church. Second, needs are not bad things. They offer the body of Christ an opportunity to care for each other. Third, crisis in a church and in people’s lives does one of two things-it draws us together or it scatters us.
Cell churches are like starfishes. They have the ability to regenerate lost arms and can regrow an entire new arm in time (and a few species can grow an entire starfish from a single ray). I do believe in the key role of the senior pastor in the cell church. Yet the beauty of the cell church is that members are personally pastored and can better withstand the Satanic storms than most churches face.