by Joel Comiskey
Cell Church Magazine, 1998
“How could this man multiply his cell group six times? He lacks the enthusiasm and bubbly excitement so necessary for small group multiplication.” Then in my interview, Carl Everett, the man they call Mr. Multiplication, confirmed my suspicion and told me that he was a very shy person. “Then how did you multiply your group so many times?” I inquired. “Prayer, prayer, and prayer,” he asserted.
Carl and his wife, Gaynel, lead a cell at Bethany World Prayer Center in Louisiana. Their cell preparation includes fasting and prayer the day of the cell meeting. Before the meeting, they anoint the food, the sidewalks, the yard, every room in the house, even each seat to be used that night. They wait until after the meeting (during the refreshment time) to eat. The Everetts’ example is not unusual at Bethany.
Is a day of fasting and prayer the only reason why some cell leaders succeed at evangelizing and giving birth to new groups while others don’t? I visited eight prominent cell churches in search of the answer. More than 700 cell leaders completed my 29-question survey that explored such areas as the cell leader’s training, social status, devotions, education, preparation of material, age, spiritual gifts, and gender. This statistical analysis helped me to discover common patterns across diverse cultures.
I discovered, for example, that healthy cell leaders come in all shapes and sizes, and the anointing for successful cell leadership doesn’t reside with a mysterious few.] Some believe that healthy cell leaders are specially gifted, more educated, and own more vibrant personalities than other leaders. Not so. The educated and uneducated, married and single, shy and outgoing, those gifted as teachers and those gifted as evangelists, equally multiply their small groups.
However, several characteristics do distinguish successful cell leaders. These differentiating factors relate to what a person does as a part of his or her typical weekly lifestyle. It has nothing to do with personality, background or how long one has been a Christian. Instead healthy cell leaders have incorporated certain practices into their lifestyle. You can join them.
I couldn’t believe that the President of the United States wanted to meet with me! You better believe that I prepared for that special meeting. I wanted to honor him. I arrived at the White House hours early just to be ready. How awesome to be in the presence of the President of the U.S.!
This scenario illustrates the excitement and anticipation of an important meeting. I never met with the President, but someone far greater desires to meet and talk with me and you every day—Jesus Christ. He’s the King of kings and the Lord of lords.
The life of a healthy cell leader begins and ends with God. Only God can give success. My survey of cell leaders clearly showed that time spent with God is the single most important principle behind successful cell leadership. A cell leader filled with the power and love of Jesus Christ knows how to minister to a hurting member of the group, how to deal with the constant talker, and how to wait for a reply to a question.
Why, then, don’t cell leaders properly prioritize this time? There are at least three hindrances. First and foremost is drowsiness. We’ve all battled with sleepiness during personal devotions. I’ll never forget David Cho’s advice about early morning devotions: “Get out of bed!” In bed, deep prayer can too easily become deep sleep. Instead, get up, wash your face, drink some coffee, or go for a jog if necessary. Get the blood flowing.
Another impediment is our mind. How often I have approached the throne of God only to battle my thoughts—what that person thought of my comments last night, or when I should wash my car. “Your thoughts, Lord, not mine” is the battle of devotions. Ask Him to take over your thoughts in the listening room.
Lack of time is another problem. Leave the fast-food mentality at McDonald’s. In order to drink deeply from the Divine, you must spend time in deep meditation. As the Psalmist says, deep calls to deep (Psalm 42:7). Don’t leave your devotional time without touching God, feeling the glow of His glory. This demands extended periods before god’s throne. One or two short visits won’t suffice.
Everything smelled of success. The cells were multiplying. The church was growing and experiencing salvation and healing. But as staff members talked, it became evident that many cell leaders were suffering in their personal lives. They were busy every night of the week. One pastor asked, “Isn’t it a contradiction to succeed in cell ministry but fail with our families?” Of course it is. In the life of a healthy cell leader, family is paramount. God desires to maximize our effectiveness as cell leaders, but not at the expense of our family life.
Cell ministry is a family affair and is meant to draw your family closer together. It’s best to include your family in cell ministry. For example, your teenager can direct the children’s cell or lead worship. Your child can lead the ice breaker. My wife and I minister together as a team in our cell. She plans the icebreaker and prepares the refreshments. I prepare the worship and the lesson. When she’s leading the group, I care for our 2-year-old. Likewise, she covers for me when I’m ministering.
After the cell meeting, we analyze together what happened. “Joel, you should have been more gracious with Inez. I know she talked too much, but you could have handled it better,” Celyce lovingly counseled. “That’s not what I wanted to hear,” I thought. But it’s what I needed to hear. Our intimacy grows as we pastor our group together and openly discuss the details of each meeting, sharing our observations and learning together. This honest feedback also helps us mature as cell leaders.
George Whitefield and John Wesley were contemporaries in seventeenth-century England. Both dedicated themselves to God’s work in the same small group (Holy Club) at Oxford University. Both were excellent in open-air preaching. Both witnessed thousands of conversions through their ministries. Yet John Wesley left behind a 100,000-member church, while George Whitefield could point to little tangible fruit toward the end of his ministry. Why? Wesley dedicated himself to training and releasing small-group leaders, while Whitefield was too busy preaching and doing the work of the ministry.
Yes, it’s exciting to lead a cell group. But what will your group look like when you leave it in the hands of your current intern? Will it continue to meet, or will it fold? Will you look back at your leadership with joy, as you recall the cell groups that you left behind, or will you wonder how so much effort could result in so little?
We all know about the tyranny of the urgent. The cell lesson needs fine-tuning, someone must bring the refreshments, John needs a ride, and on and on the list goes. Cell leaders can be overwhelmed with worship choruses, ice-breakers, calls, visits, etc. Everything demands immediate attention. Or does it? In the midst of a fast-paced life, are there priorities? Can a cell leader confidently say, “This one thing I do”?
Yes. Successful cell leaders look beyond the urgency of the present to the importance of future daughter cells. Because of that, they spend priority time training new leaders. This passion to raise up new leadership drives successful cell leaders to spend quality time with potential leadership — important time. As a result, common cell members become new visionary leaders.
Leadership success in the cell church is clear: How many leaders have been spotted, trained, and deployed? Apprenticing future leaders is a Biblical way of life. Moses tutored Joshua, and Elijah trained Elisha. The Apostles were recruited and trained by Jesus. Barnabas discipled Paul, who in turn developed Timothy. The Lord has brought future leaders to your group. Are you developing them?
Inviting New People
Of course, the way to add future leaders to your group is to invite people to your cell—and keep inviting. Most cell leaders have heard the well-intentioned promises of those who failed to follow through. “Steve promised to come.” “I planned desert for four people who didn’t show.” Have you heard these comments before? Have you made them yourself? Welcome to cell leadership.
Experienced group leaders understand that you have to personally invite 25 people for 15 to say they will attend. Of those 15, eight to ten actually will show up. Of those, only five to seven will attend regularly after a month or so. Don’t let this discourage you. Successful cell leaders don’t depend on one or two verbal commitments. They continually invite new people.
One group at Bethany World Prayer Center faithfully met each week but experienced little growth. One member previously attended a group that had multiplied and, after analyzing both groups, said, “In the other cell group, we received a constant flow of visitors.” At the same time, another cell was celebrating the birth of a new group. Its cell leader testified that the group went through a dry, difficult period. With only six people, the group did all of the “right things” to win non-Christians and receive visitors, but few visited and fewer stayed. Yet they kept on trying, praying, and inviting until things finally gelled. Several others began to attend and invited their friends. The mix came together.
Cell leader, you personally must be vigilant about inviting new people. The right mix for your group is right around the corner. New blood in the cell brings new life. Newcomers invigorate a group with their fresh insight. Keep on inviting. Don’t give up.
Luis Salas has a large, well-worn map hanging in the entryway of his Bogota apartment. This “war map” is overflowing with names of potential cell members. “I’m always dreaming and praying about new people to invite to my cell groups,” he said. “All day long I think about them and eventually make personal contact with them.”
In just 18 months, Luis multiplied his original cell to 250 cells because he goes after potential members and then follows up with them after they visit. Some of them become cell members and then cell leaders.
If you want your cell to grow and multiply, one vital key to effective cell evangelism is immediate contact of newcomers. When someone new attends your group, plan an immediate visit, send a card, and/or pick up the telephone and call. The saying is true: “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”
New members sense a freedom to share deeply in the warm atmosphere of an accepting, loving cell group. the “cell atmosphere” is the most effective way to expose non-Christians to the truth of the gospel.
During one cell meeting, leader René Naranjo began a lesson on how Jesus cleared out the temple (John 2). Discussion flowed from the Jewish temple, to our own bodies as God’s temple, to home cells as God’s temple today. René guided the discussion when necessary, but the conversation flowed naturally and orderly. One couple said little, but was asked to share their thoughts. This couple lacked a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, yet no one pounced on them with the Good News. They felt liberty to express themselves. René closed the cell by asking those who wanted to receive Jesus Christ to pray.
In the last six months, René Naranjo has planted three daughter cells. He personally supervises these new cells and disciples the leaders. In his cell group, non-Christians feel comfortable to express their opinions, as he graciously points them to the Savior.
Are you targeting non-Christians in your group and including them in the lesson? Cell evangelism is not a programmatic, canned approach. Rather, it’s a personal process of sharing Good News about forgiveness of sin and new life in Jesus. Because of the intimate, caring atmosphere of small groups, evangelism happens naturally.
A Parable of Three Gardeners
A man had a beautiful garden that yielded rich and abundant food. His neighbor saw it and planted his own garden in the spring, but he did nothing to it: no watering, cultivating or fertilizing. In the fall, his garden was devastated, overgrown with weeds and bearing no fruit. He initially concluded that gardening does not work. After more thought, he decided that the problem was bad soil or maybe that he lacked a “green thumb.” Meanwhile, a third neighbor started a garden. Though his garden did not immediately yield as much as the first man’s, he worked hard and continued learning. As he practiced new ideas year after year, his garden reaped an increasingly abundant harvest.
The truth of this parable is obvious. I traversed the globe to discover the secrets of small-group growth, and the same principles made the difference between cell growth and stagnation in every country, culture and church. Prayer, hard work and the steady application of proven principles set apart the successful cell group leaders. The insights outlined here will work for you, if you are willing to pay the price. They are not magical principles. They require time and effort.
Successful cell leaders spend time seeking God’s face and are dependent on Him for the direction of their group. They prepare themselves first and, only afterwards, the lesson. They pray diligently for their members as well as for non-Christian contacts. But successful cell leaders do not stop with prayer. They come down from the mountaintop and interact with real people, full of problems and pain. They pastor their cell members and visit them regularly. They invite new people, visit newcomers, and evangelize naturally in their small groups. By following these principles, any cell leader can lead a group to grow and multiply. That is God’s heart and His Great Commission. How are you doing?