Discipleshp through the Larger Gathering

Church Leadership

Taken from Chapter 7 of Making Disciples in the Twenty-First Century Church

by Joel Comiskey

Spring 2014

Many don’t like the word cell. They equate it with a prison cell or small secret communistic gathering, which are also called cells. And because of these negative connotations, I welcome churches to change the word to something more palatable, like life groups (although I tell churches to avoid changing the cell definition).[1] With so many negative connotations, why do many still use the word cell?

One of the main reasons is because of the comparison with the human body. A special symbiotic relationship exists between individual cells and the human body as a whole. One can’t exist without the other. Biological cells are not independent entities that function on their own. They depend on the ecosystem of the rest of the body, and the health of the entire body draws from each individual cell.

A human body is composed of around one hundred trillion individual cells that work together to produce a fully functioning human body. Sometimes when just a single cell becomes altered, it can dramatically change the whole body. This occurs in the development of cancer. From the perspective of the altered cell(s), it may seem like it is doing no wrong. It is living better, longer, and may be more fruitful. But this is a disaster from the level of the human body. The cells’ characteristics have now changed and will inevitably affect their interrelationship with the rest of the body. The good news is that cancer cells are normally destroyed before they take over. How? The human body sends out white blood cells that actively scan the body for abnormal cells, destroying them before they can develop into actual cancer.

Cell churches function a lot like human bodies. Individual cells are not allowed to act like independent entities that have no connection beyond themselves. Rather, each cell is part of a greater whole and receives nourishment from other parts of the body. Each cell works together with the other cells to fulfill a common purpose. Gathering those cells together in larger gatherings enhances that common purpose by ensuring cell health, reminding cells of the common vision, and providing teaching that each of the cells would not otherwise receive. The ultimate goal of the larger gathering of the cells is for each member to become more like Jesus.

The Connection between Cell and the Larger Gathering

The connection between cell and celebration (larger gathering) is biblical. Scripture teaches a clear relationship between the New Testament house churches. The house churches that Paul planted, in other words, were part of a larger unit. Gehring writes, “Many NT scholars believe that both forms—small house churches and the whole church as a unit at that location—existed side by side in early Christianity.”[1]

Paul’s own leadership was crucial in linking house churches together. We see Paul and Silas in Acts 16:4 traveling from town to town, delivering the decisions reached by the apostles and elders in Jerusalem. Most of the time, those house churches networked together with other house churches but only met occasionally for larger group gatherings.

However, in at least two cases, the Jerusalem church and the Corinthian church, the cells connected in a larger gathering on a consistent, ongoing basis. In Jerusalem, the early church met in houses to participate in the Lord’s supper and fellowship, but then those same house churches gathered together in the temple to hear the apostles teaching. Acts 2:46-47 says, “Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” We see here both the house church meetings as well as those house churches coming together to hear the apostles teaching.

The second example is in Corinth. Paul says, “So if the whole church comes together and everyone speaks in tongues, and some who do not understand or some unbelievers come in, will they not say that you are out of your mind?” (1 Corinthians 14:23). Paul speaking about the whole church coming together implies that at other times the Christians in Corinth met separately in smaller house churches.

Whether meeting together in a larger gathering regularly or occasionally, the house churches in the New Testament were connected, and this connection has important implications for discipleship. Disciples were developed in both the house church and the gathered assembly of believers. But how does this discipleship take place in the larger gathering?

Higher Level Teaching

Discipleship in the cell is practical. The purpose is to apply God’s word to each member. The goal is for each person to go away transformed rather than simply informed. This requires the cell leader to facilitate the discussion and allow individual members the chance to share, work out their problems, and exercise their gifts to minister to others. I encourage cell leaders not to play Bible answer man. Rather more in-depth teaching happens in the larger celebration.

One of the key ways discipleship takes place in the larger gathering is via the teaching of God’s inerrant word. Paul’s exhortation to Timothy applies today, “Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear” (2 Timothy 4:2-3).

In the early church, we read that the early believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching (Acts 2:42). The apostles had a better handle on Christ’s teaching because they had been with him for three years. They were able to help the house church members grow in their faith. In the same way, those who have received additional training in God’s word are able to teach the rest of the church and assist in the discipleship process. The pastor or staff can tackle the difficult, hard to understand passages of scripture and fill in the doctrinal gaps. Pastors can also apply God’s word to the particular needs within the congregation. For example, it’s one thing to listen to a general sermon on the radio, but when a pastor preaches God’s word to a specific congregation, the application is much richer since the pastor knows the flock and can direct God’s word to the needs of the congregation.

Perhaps, cell leaders and members have brought questions to the supervisors and staff. The pastor might prioritize those topics within the preaching. I’ve noticed in cell churches around the world that often those with the gift of teaching are first identified in the cell. As these people become cell leaders and supervisors, they are sometimes asked to become part of the pastoral team. They understand the cell system because they were born again into it. When they preach God’s word, they are able to use illustrations and real-life experiences to fine-tune cell members and leaders.

Most cell groups use the passage or theme of the pastor’s message to guide the cell lesson. In this way, the cell members can ask questions, gain clarification, and especially apply the spiritual truths that were taught in the sermon. I have become increasingly convinced of the effectiveness of basing the cell lesson on the sermon theme that is taught in the larger gathering.

Celebrating Together

Worship in the cell group can be an intimate experience. Every believer can ask for prayer, offer areas of thanksgiving, read scripture, share needs, and apply God’s word to their daily lives. I’ve noticed, however, that cell groups often have more difficulties entering into worship in the small group context. The reasons might include the lack of musical talent, lack of someone who can play an instrument, embarrassment to sing out, and feelings of vocal inadequacy.

Worship in the larger group can help those in the small group. Transformation takes place in the larger worship service as the cell members are directed by an anointed worship leader to enter God’s presence and receive empowering as a result.

There is something powerful about a larger group gathering that inspires people to seek after the living God. In the Old Testament we read how the Lord instituted annual festivals and large gatherings for his people. This gave them a sense of the bigger picture of what God was doing in the world, and a chance to be inspired by the awesome majesty of God. Something similar takes place in the larger worship gathering. There’s a wonderful symbiotic relationship between cells and the rest of the body as the larger group gathers to reflect on God’s majestic greatness.

Worship in the larger gathering is a time to practice Christ’s words, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-29). Those ministering in cells will function better as they are refreshed. Life beats people down and there’s nothing like worship to lift up God’s people and remind them that God is in control.

I appreciated hearing one worship leader tell the congregation to soak in the presence of God and allow God to minister directly to their hearts. He encouraged them to close their eyes and just listen to God’s voice. He told them not to worry about posture or singing ability but just to receive God’s love and grace. Rather than insisting that the congregation sing louder or yelling out, “I can’t hear you,” this anointed worship leader told the church to rest in God’s presence and receive his refreshment. The best worship experiences promote this type of transformational attitude.

In many cell churches the worship leader first used his or her gifts and talents in the cell group and then was asked to lead on a larger scale. This is helpful because the worship leader knows the needs of those in the congregation and understands that cell members, leaders, supervisors, and staff need God’s refreshing in order to keep on giving out.

Cell and celebration work together in the discipleship process. Cell discipleship is more intensive and hands-on. Celebration discipleship helps members to see the larger picture as everyone worships in a festive environment. Both are essential in the process of becoming more like Jesus.

Extended Family Gatherings

Discipleship takes place in cell groups as each person is able to share deep needs and experience the family of God in an intimate way. Separating from those close relationships when multiplication happens can be a painful process that is often resisted by the group members for fear of losing relationships with others in the group. In fact, the word division is often associated with cell multiplication. Many feel that multiplication disrupts relationships, and they want to avoid it at all costs.

Although painful, multiplication does not mean separation, especially when the cell groups are regularly meeting together in the larger gathering. The larger gathering provides a way for the family of God to once again connect on a larger level.

Close friends that were at one time in the same cell group can see each other, relive old times, and receive renewed refreshment before or after the service. They might even sit by each other during the worship service.

I view the family in the larger gathering as a time for the extended family of God to gather, refresh one another and grow closer to Jesus in the process.

Many traditional churches are what I call single cell churches because they want to do everything together. If there is a birthday, they all have to celebrate it together. If there is an activity, all have to be present. Such churches will never grow beyond the closed circle of friendships, and the single cell mentality leads to stagnation and exclusivity.

In the cell church, however, the intimate friendships are developed in the cell. The larger gathering promotes the renewal of a diversity of extended family relationships. Kirk is a good friend of mine. We were in the same cell group years ago. He now leads a family cell and I’m part of a men’s group. Yet, Kirk and I enjoy each other’s company and encourage each other during the Sunday gatherings. We ask about each other’s family, share prayer requests, and generally encourage each other in the Christian life.

Vision Casting

Cells members receive vision and direction from their leader to use their gifts, evangelize as a group, practice the one anothers of scripture, and even receive discipleship equipping (next chapter). Cell groups provide a wonderful context for members to fulfill God’s vision for their lives and to move ahead in ministry. Yet cell groups are part of a greater whole, just like biological cells. Biological cells are not supposed to chart their own course. Rather, they have a specific part to play within the larger body.

During the larger gatherings, the lead pastor of a cell church has the opportunity to disciple those in the cell and those leading cells by casting vision, direction, and offering encouragement. Cell leaders can easily be discouraged because of problems in the group, lack of fruit, or personal time commitments. Wise cell church pastors use the preaching, the announcements, testimonies and other means to remind leaders of their eternal rewards, the great things God is doing, and the need for persistence.

The new cell members soon realize that they are part of a larger group of people who are speaking the same language and have the same objective to win the world for Jesus. Soon the congregation begins to realize that cell life is the normal Christian life and that attending the celebration service is only one part of that reality. Church goers who are not yet attending a cell group are encouraged to be involved in a cell to capture the full benefits of what the church really is.

Most churches make time for announcements and testimonies. Some churches attach them to the end of the service or before the preaching. Does it make a difference which announcements receive priority? I believe so. In the cell church, cell ministry is central to all that takes place. Why not make it a priority in the announcements? These are some ideas:

  • asking a cell member who has been transformed through relational ministry—new friendships, special ministry times—to share what God has done.
  • hearing the testimony of someone who has received healing within the cell group.
  • presenting a new multiplication leader to the entire church.

Both the person giving the testimony and those hearing will grow in their relationship with Jesus as a result. Those attending the Sunday celebration need to realize that the primary pastoral services of the church are offered through the cell system. If they need ministry and help, they can find it in a loving cell group.

Vision casting for cell ministry can find a great friend in the bulletin or other advertisements in the church. Some churches don’t have a bulletin, but if there’s even an occasional handout, it’s a great time to give cell ministry its proper place. I suggest that the bulletin in the cell church highlight a cell testimony of how people’s lives have been transformed through cell ministry.

I’m coaching one church that has twelve cells and one hundred twenty-five people gathered on Sunday. The bulletin, a two-sided sheet of paper, lists all the cell groups each week on the front page. The statement is made each Sunday: “We’re making disciples through cell ministry.”

A visitor to the church should be able to detect the philosophy and priority of the church from the Sunday morning service. I encourage cell-based churches to have a cell information table where they lay out relevant books on cell ministry, the weekly cell lesson, a box to place cell reports, and other pertinent information about cell ministry.

It’s a great idea to post in the foyer a map of the city with each cell group pinned on it. This map explains where the cells are located, their focus (e.g., family cells, women’s cells, youth cells, and so forth), and when they meet. A volunteer worker or secretary should be available to answer questions each week and connect new people to cell ministry.

It’s not easy to adapt to the cell model. People are accustomed to their old ways and habits. They must be reminded of the cell church focus by what they see in church during the worship service.

Reaching the Harvest

Individual cell groups are great to strengthen the muscles of each member through net fishing, but throwing out a much larger net is also very effective. Many cell churches promote evangelistic events in the larger gathering during the year. The cell groups are intimately involved in these large group events.

I’ve seen many videos of the evangelistic events at the Elim Church in San Salvador that have attracted more than one hundred fifty thousand people. The reason for the success was that each cell member actively participated in inviting, administrating, and praying for the event. Each cell member, cell group, sector, zone, and district worked together in harmony to reach people for Jesus. Rather than primarily being a massive rally of seekers, the event was carefully administrated by color coded sectors, zones, and districts so everyone knew where to sit, what bus to use, and how to follow-up.

Granted, the massive rallies, like the ones Elim initiates are rare. But cell churches mobilize the cell troops on a smaller scale as well. I’ve seen various cell churches use “Friend’s Day” with great effectiveness. The church mobilizes the cell groups to invite their close associates to a special seeker service on a particular day. The transformation takes place not only in the lives of those who receive Jesus but in each member, cell, and leader as all work together as a disciplined army to achieve a greater objective. A different set of muscles is required for the larger event. It requires availability, willingness to work as a team and follow orders, submission, faithfulness, and commitment. Future disciples are nurtured in the atmosphere of missions.

Two-Winged Church

Bill Beckham coined the term two-winged church to describe the emphasis of both the small and large group in the cell church. Both wings help the bird fly. Beckham often uses the following parable to describe the cell church:

A church with two wings was once created; it could fly high into the presence of God. One day the serpent, who had no wings, challenged the church to fly with one wing only, that is the large gathering wing. With much effort the church managed to fly, and the serpent strongly applauded it. With this experience, the church became convinced that it could fly very well with only one wing. God, the creator of the church, was very sad. The church with only one wing could barely rise above the ground, and it just flew in circles without being able to move from its point of origin. The church settled down and started to gain weight and became lazy, beaming with a purely earthly life. Finally, the creator formed a new church with its two wings. Once again God had a church that could fly into His presence and sing His joyful praises.[2]

A church with two wings is better equipped to make disciples who make disciples than a church that emphasizes one or the other exclusively. Both are important in the process of discipleship.

[1] I go into more detail about groups name in this article: http://www.joelcomiskeygroup.com/articles/basics/NAMEcell.html. While it’s okay to change the name, I highly recommend maintaining a quality definition like: groups of three to fifteen that meet weekly outside the church building for the purpose of evangelism, community, and spiritual growth with the goal of making disciples who make disciples which results in multiplication.

[1] Gehring, p. 25.

[2] Bill Beckham, “Chapter 3: The Church with Two Wings,” in Michael Green, editor, Church Without Walls (London: Paternoster Press, 2002), pp. 27-28.