by Joel Comiskey
My understanding of ICM comes from visiting ICM almost every year starting in 1996 in order to write my two books: Groups of Twelve (Touch Publications, 1999) and From Twelve to Three (Touch Publications, 2002).
I’m deeply troubled by what we are observing in the G12 movement today. The concerns I share with you fall into three categories:
Spiritualization of the Number Twelve in the Bible
I listened to the entire audio cassette series of ICM’s 2002 cell church conference in preparation for my book From Twelve to Three. I was aghast by the spiritualization of the text (eisegesis) to justify the primacy of the number twelve.We’re told that Elijah would not have chosen Elisha if he had been plowing with eleven instead of twelve oxen and that the number twelve was the key to the Holy Spirit coming at Pentecost. We’re told that the twelve stones that Elijah used to build Jehovah’s sacrifice resulted in God answering his prayer  and that “the model of the twelve restores the altar of God that is in ruins.” I freely admit that the number twelve is an important number in the Bible, but it’s not the only number that carries great weight in the Bible. There were three disciples who had special intimacy with Jesus, Jesus was raised up on the third day, and there were three crosses at Calvary . God created the heavens and earth in seven days, the sabbatical year occurred every seven years. The day of Atonement occurred in the seventh month. Seven signified fulfillment and perfection. The number ten signifies completeness, as illustrated in the Ten Commandments. Forty is associated with God’s mighty acts in the history of Israel and the church. On top of this, the New Testament provides no evidence that the apostles or other church leaders attached any significance to a specific number of disciples chosen in a church. In Acts, the New Testament history book, you won’t find the apostles diligently looking for twelve disciples in order to follow Jesus’ pattern of twelve disciples. In order to apply theological significance to a particular number of disciples in the church today, it is necessary for the entire bible to give witness to this practice. I find no substantiation for the idealization of the number twelve or any other number in Acts or the Epistles. In addition, it is absent in the rest of church history and 2000 years of theological development.
Franchising of the G12 model
Franchising is the new talk circling around the G12 world. You have to follow the entire G12 model, just as a McDonalds franchise has to follow exact standards. Granted, some church programs on the market also require that you follow the exact methodology (e.g., marriage encounter, E.E., etc.). But following a distinct, specific program is quite different from following an entire church structure. One person used the ALPHA course as an example of a ministry that asks you to follow the exact pattern. I responded to him, “I don’t think the Alpha illustration is a true comparison between what César Castellanos and the International Charismatic Mission is asking people to do. Alpha is a course. It’s specific. It’s one piece. G12 is a model for the entire church. Your comparison would work,” I responded, “if the founding Anglican church of Alpha also asked people to follow their precise structure IN ORDER TO MAKE Alpha work.”
The franchising mentality wasn’t always true at ICM. When I first studied the ICM G12 strategy back in 1996-1997, I observed a carefree excitement and open sharing of information. Yet in 1998 and beyond, I’ve noticed a certain exclusivity that has progressively become more iron-clad and closed minded. This exclusive thinking is reflected in the quote by José Rivas, senior pastor of IPETRI, an independent Pentecostal Church that represents ICM in Chile, “One of the first things we learned in the vision was: you must adopt; not adapt. We must not forget this premise. To adapt the vision reveals pride, vanity, and self-sufficiency. Pastor Castellanos says this: ‘why should we try to re-invent the wheel, when it’s already been invented.’ He is right.”
The division this model is causing
Many in the G12 movement have separated themselves from the cell church movement, claiming to be God’s new wineskin for the last days. Listen to Ralph Neighbour ’s appeal in a paper he submitted to the Cell Church Missions Network in November 2002, “The concept of building a multilevel marketing structure that peaks in the authority of a special Global Apostle with his hand-picked assistants has now come into existence. At the same time, they are severing relationships with fellow cell church workers who are not among the devotees. In many parts of the world, painful reports are coming about pastors who one or two years ago were very intimately involved in helping each other and working together in the cell movements in their cities but who now shun fellowship with others who did not bow before the Apostle’s strategy.” I hesitate, for example, to freely send pastors to iron-clad G12 churches because instead of receiving an open-ended cell church message based on principles, they’ll receive a one-way model that is either accepted or rejected. I’m greatly saddened by the cleavage this is causing.
Two Rebuttal Arguments
The “I want to be just like César Castellanos” argument
Castellanos took Cho’s cell system and totally adapted it to fit his circumstances. If Castellanos had the liberty to change and adapt at will, we should take the same liberty. Let’s follow Castellano’s example and never lock ourselves into one closed system!!Furthermore, what makes us think that ICM has now arrived at THE model, when the church has been continually revising its model ever since it adapted Cho’s model in 1986. I believe, in fact, that we must keep innovating in order to stay relevant. If we copy someone else’s model in its entirety, there is the danger of always being several steps behind, which will force us to play “catch-up.” For example, if you try to copy ICM’s model, what will you do when they change? Will you have to go back to ICM and re-learn their new adjustments? (and in this situation it’s even more difficult since they speak a different language and come from a different culture).
The “one-meal menu” argument
When I go to a restaurant I want to choose from a variety of food on the menu. Granted, some restaurants only let you pick the one lunch special or one dinner special. Yet having only one item on the menu is not a positive sign.
When I go to a cell church conference, I like to see a creative model because it shows me the senior pastor and staff have done their homework and paid the price to discern what works for them. Yet, I want to take from the conference principles that I can then apply to my distinct cultural context and situation.
John Wesley is a great example of adapting small group concepts to establish his own cell church system (the method of the Methodists) over 250 years ago. We’re told that Wesley had an “…an unusual capacity to accept suggestions and to adopt and adapt methods from various quarters” (Latourette 1975:1026). George Hunter says, “He learned from exposure to the home groups that the Lutheran Pietist leader Philip Jacob Spener developed to fuel renewal and outreach, and Wesley learned particularly from the Moravians. Wesley also learned from Anabaptist groups and from the occasional ‘societies’ with the church of England, so his group movement was eclectic Protestant” (1996:84).
Let us hold to the principles of the cell church movement, rather than following one model. One of those principles that we hold dearly to in the cell church movement is that the cell is just as important as the celebration and that both of them must be equally emphasized. We find this principle in the New Testament church. The early church celebrated together in large temple gatherings and then met from house to house (Acts 2:42 -46; 5:42 ; 20:20 ).
But let us humbly admit that none of the current cell church models are perfect. I wouldn’t promote Yongii Cho ( Seoul , Korea ), Ralph Neighbour ( Houston , TX ), Mario Vega ( San Salvador , El Salvador ), Larry Stockstill (Baker, LA), Dion Robert ( Abijan , Ivory Coast ), or César Castellanos ( Bogota , Colombia ) as having the only true biblical cell church model. The pattern, or principle, is cell-celebration. The application of the cell church for today is varied and changes from culture to culture and church to church. God is using the cell church throughout the world. The cell church strategy will constantly need refinement and adaptation to improve its overall quality and effectiveness. G-12 principles help us refine the cell church strategy—not replace it.
Personally, I love the concept and key principles of G12: everyone a potential leader, mother cell leader cares for daughter cell leaders, dynamic equipping training track that prepares everyone for the battle, encounter retreat to assure freedom from bondage, etc. I’m also a fanatic for prayer and believe that only through spirituality can the church experience revival. This is the heart and soul of G12 and I’m 100% behind it. Yet, I personally think it’s UN-NECESSARY (and can even be harmful) to:
- Make a pact with ICM in Bogota to follow their model completely
I believe this is far too limiting. God wants each leader to experience the same creativity of Castellanos and even go beyond what they are doing. Following a particular model, rather than principles, can cause a church to fall several steps behind. Once a church or leader gets under “the model” an entrapment can occur because creativity becomes dulled and the pastor begins to look to others-rather than the Holy Spirit—for the next step.
- Become preoccupied with the number twelve
I’ve explained this concern above.
- Commit 100% to use only ICM materials
The ICM training materials have many positive characteristics. Yet, every church should take the liberty to adapt its material, just like ICM adapted Cho’s material in order to make it better. I’m saddened that ICM won’t freely sell their material unless a church commits itself to follow it 100%.
- Strict homogeneity in cell networks
While the cell church has always had gender specific small groups, it seems that ICM and those following their exact model are now under-emphasizing family cells (which are a crying need in today’s society). For more about gender specific cells versus intergenerational cells, click here.
- Zeal for one model
The G12 model has many favorable points. It’s not, however, the new wineskin, like some think. The Elim Church in El Salvador is larger than the International Charismatic Mission and growing faster. Elim continues to emphasize the geographical 5×5 model. The point is that principles, rather than models, help cell churches grow.
Follow the Principles
I refer to myself as a CEll church person fine-tuned by G12 principles. All my seminars and teaching are loaded with G12 principles. Yet, I think it’s best to stay in the cell church camp, while being refined by those principles. Why? Because the cell church movement is broader, allows for more options, and connects a pastor to an exciting worldwide family.
 Claudia and Cesar Castellanos, The Vision Of Multiplication, Audio Cassette. Bethany World Prayer Center : International Cell Conference, 2001.
 Claudia & César Castellanos, Audio cassette. How to Influence Others ( Como influir en Otros) January 2002 conference in Bogota .
 César Castellanos, The Ladder of Success ( London : Dovewell Pblications, 2001), p. 25.
 José Rivas, Carta Pastoral, in the bochure for the Convención Celular (March 2002), p. 23.