by Joel Comiskey
This chapter is taken from Comiskey’s book “2000 Years of Small Groups.”(endnotes included in ebook or print book).
On a Sunday evening in the summer of 1964, Yonggi Cho, a young Korean pastor, collapsed on the platform of his church. The then twenty-seven years old Cho had reached a point of utter physical exhaustion.
Earlier in the day he had preached at the morning services and then baptized three hundred new converts. After picking up an American evangelist from the airport, he was interpreting for him in the evening service when his breakdown occurred. His church had grown from four to two thousand four hundred members. Although assisted by his mother-in-law, Jashil Choi, and missionary John Hurston, Cho had shouldered an almost impossible ministry burden at the growing church. He had preached at the two Sunday morning services, mid-week services, and attended daily early morning prayer meetings. He also took it upon himself to counsel and perform all weddings and funerals. Crumpled on the stage that summer evening, he whispered to Hurston, “John, I’m dying.”
Cho felt God had called him to grow the largest church in the world, yet he attempted to do this in his own strength. After being rushed to the hospital and examined, the doctor told Cho’s associates,
This man is physically exhausted. His health has been broken, and his heart is weak. To recover, he will require total bed rest. After that it would be my suggestion that he find another line of work. It would be better if he never preached or pastored again. The strain could kill him.
In spite of his depleted strength, Cho attempted to continue as usual. Against the wishes of others, he tried to preach in the first service of his church the following Sunday but fainted after just eight minutes. In the second service he again tried to preach but lasted only five minutes before again collapsing. In the weeks and months that followed, Cho cried out to God from his sick bed for healing, but God didn’t seem to answer.
In his book Successful Home Cell Groups, Cho recounts that he was blindly claiming the promises of healing in the Bible without ever seeking God’s will. On one occasion, however, he prayed, “Father, you gave all of these promises to us. But I claim them and you don’t heal me. Aren’t you going to heal me?” Immediately Cho was startled by an inaudible but clear voice. “Son, I am going to heal you, but the healing is going to take ten years.”
Little did Cho realize at that time that the desperate situation he found himself in would not only change his church but set in motion a revolution in ecclesiology that would transform churches around the world. God wanted the rest of the church world to know that a single pastor can’t really care for a church, let alone a church of over two thousand people. Through Cho, God was about to birth the modern day cell movement.
Cho felt a strong call to pastor, and he had a vision to grow a colossal church that would be the biggest in all of Korea. Yet his devastated health dictated that he could not carry out his pastoral responsibilities in the only way he knew how. As Cho lay in his bed, he searched the Scriptures to see how the early church ministered to thousands of new believers. Cho was struck by how these early Christians met from house-to-house in small groups to worship and fellowship. Likewise, he noticed how Moses in Exodus 18:13-26 divided the millions into divisions and small groups of ten people.
Cho didn’t originally catch the cell vision for church growth’s sake. It wasn’t a clever way to grow a church larger and larger. Rather, he realized that he was growing his church in an unbiblical, human-centered way that eventually caused him to wind up in the hospital. Following these biblical insights, Cho devised a plan to divide his congregation into home groups under the leadership of his deacons, who were the male lay ministers. They rejected the idea, however, and Cho ended up taking his plan to the women lay leaders who agreed to do it. In Korea at that time, males dominated leadership positions both in the church and culture. So for Cho to launch his cell vision through women was equally radical and gave God increased glory.
Under Cho’s close supervision and instruction, twenty home cell groups were initially launched by these women. The groups encountered various difficulties at first, and it would have been easy for Cho to drop his new plan. However, he felt God had told him that he wouldn’t be healed for ten years, and he had no other plan except the one God had given him.
In the months and years that followed, Cho refined his growing cell system. Initially, his church and its new methodology was easily overlooked, but in 1974 the church moved to a larger facility on Yoido Island and assumed the name Yoido Full Gospel Church. At that time there were 16,000 members in 542 cell groups. In its first year in the new location they added 3,000 members. In 1976 the mushrooming church reported 1600 cell groups.
While a version of this story opens the introduction of this book, Cho’s testimony is worth repeating because of its impact on the worldwide cell church movement. In fact, one common pattern in the largest worldwide cell churches is the influence of David Cho. All have mentioned their indebtedness to Cho, and all but one of them was initially inspired to do cell ministry because of Cho’s teaching and example. The pastors of the two largest cell churches, as well as the most influential pastors in Latin America, visited Cho’s church before starting their own cell ministry. The inspiration of Cho is also seen in the writings of the top cell experts today. Hadaway observes,
The word spread that Paul Cho’s church and several other huge churches in Seoul reached their massive size through home cell groups and that the technique will work anywhere. A movement began, and pastors have flocked to Korea to learn. . . . Churches all over the world are beginning to adopt the home cell group as an organizational tool. . . .
Although many churches encouraged by Cho adopted the cell methodology and succeeded, many more attempted cell groups and failed, or had few visible results. Many churches started cells for the wrong motivation. They simply wanted to grow their church like Cho and didn’t understand how to apply cell principles to their own context. They also failed to take into account the revival atmosphere of Korea and many other characteristics that helped Cho’s church become so large.
Cho himself has pondered why cell ministry does or doesn’t work in other places. The reasons he has given in his books and articles include:
- Failure of the senior pastor to provide leadership of the cell system.
- Failure to learn the cell method thoroughly.
- Inadequate training and support of group leaders. Cho believes that supervision of cell leaders is critical.
- Lack of evangelistic focus in the cell groups.
- Failure of the pastor to relinquish authority and ministry.
Not only has Cho’s church successfully implemented cell ministry, there are approximately nine additional churches in Korea that have reached a membership of thirty thousand or more. All of them, without exception, have structured their churches around cell group ministry. There is no doubt that Cho’s church has had a significant influence around the world and continues to do so today.
Church Growth International
One significant visitor to Yoido Full Gospel Church was Dr. Donald McGavran, the founder of the church growth movement. Cho’s cell church explosion came in the midst of the church growth era at Fuller Theological Seminary. It was an age when pastors excitedly looked and studied the growing cell churches around the world and were not hesitant to test the model in their own churches. McGavran encouraged Cho to hold seminars to instruct the many pastors that were visiting the church.
In 1976, Church Growth International (CGI) was born under the leadership of John Hurston. Tens of thousands of pastors from every part of the world have attended the annual conferences of CGI. Cho’s book Successful Home Cell Groups, published in 1982, has also been pivotal in the diffusion of the movement. Peter Wagner, successor to Donald McGavran at Fuller Seminary, became part of the board at CGI and has faithfully attended the conferences since they started.
It’s interesting that God would choose the oppressed nation of South Korea to give birth to the modern cell church movement. The history of Korea is one of the world’s most turbulent sagas of a small nation’s struggle for survival against seemingly impossible odds. From the seventh century onwards, Korea has come under the control of both China and Japan. In 1945, the Japanese surrendered control of Korea to the Americans in the south and to Russia in the north. An uneasy pact was signed which could not prevent subsequent war between North Korea (backed by Russia and China) and South Korea (backed by America). God once again has shown himself strong among those who are weak. This is certainly the case with his choice of Korea to start the cell church phenomenon.
Fed Up with Churchianity
Although Cho inspired many of the largest cell churches in the world, the individual who has pioneered cell-based ministry in the U.S. is Ralph Neighbour. In 2014, he turned eighty-five while continuing his cell church leadership in the U.S. and around the world. His zeal and cell passion are captured in the following quote,
. . . the cell is the church, and the church is the cell. It is the basic building block of the larger community called “local church.” There must be no competition with it—none at all. Everything in the city-wide structure must exist for the cells, be operated by the cells, and must strengthen the life of the cells. As in the human body, the life of the church is in the cells. Are people to be reached for Christ? It is done through cells. Are people to be built up in Him? It is to be done through cells.
As Cho was just beginning to refine and grow his cell methodology in 1965, Ralph Neighbour was looking for a biblical church structure, rather than the programmed based churches that dotted the landscape. He wrote, “When I turned thirty-six I was absolutely, completely disgusted with traditional church structures that catered to self-needs and ignored the unchurched.” Neighbour had already worked with churches in a wide diversity of settings. He grew up as a pastor’s child, had worked for the Billy Graham organization in its infancy, planted twenty-three churches in southern Pennsylvania, and had acted as an evangelism consultant for five years for the Texas Baptist Convention.
During these years, Neighbour had become increasingly disillusioned with churches structured for maintenance rather than mission. At forty years old, Neighbour left the comfort of his denominational job to spear-head “an experimental church” in rapidly growing west Houston. He writes,
In 1969, a non-traditional church in Houston was formed with 38 courageous pioneers. We called ourselves “The People Who Care,” and became a “Parable Church.” Without knowing what we were doing, we stumbled into patterns which were being used by other cell group churches we didn’t know existed.
Neighbour stumbled onto this model as a pioneer and eventually became its chief spokesman. One significant person impacted by Neighbour was a young Baptist seminary student named Lawrence Khong from Singapore who became involved in the Houston church. He returned to Singapore in the mid-’80s to pastor a growing church and was unexpectedly baptized in the Holy Spirit and spoke in tongues. Baffled by this encounter which he experienced in the privacy of his own time with the Lord, he shared it with his deacons. Little did he realize that this revelation to his leadership would spell the end of his ministry in a church with traditional Baptist doctrine. He then launched a new church called Faith Community Baptist Church (FCBC) in 1988.
Khong asked Neighbour to guide him and his church into an integrated cell methodology. At first Neighbour did this by dividing his time between Texas and Singapore, but in 1990 he moved to Singapore to become the associate pastor at FCBC. The combination of an outstanding senior pastor—tremendously gifted in speaking and leadership—and the cell strategy spear-headed by Neighbour enabled the church to grow from six hundred to five thousand in attendance with five hundred cell groups between 1988 and Neighbour’s return to Houston in 1997. FCBC was an ideal platform for Neighbour because it allowed him to refine his cell strategy and material. FCBC became an exemplary cell church with a model cell church strategy.
Neighbour and Khong aggressively shared the cell strategy through the annual international conferences on the cell church which first drew hundreds and then thousands of pastors, missionaries, and leaders from all over the world. Neighbour’s cell church manifesto, Where Do We Go from Here? A Guidebook for the Cell Group Church, published in 1990, fanned the flames of the cell movement in many countries, including the United States, Canada, Australia, and South Africa. This book greatly accelerated the cell movement in these countries and beyond.
Where Do We Go from Here had a powerful impact because it combined the biblical base for cell ministry, a principle-based analysis of cell churches, and examples of many growing worldwide cell churches. Granted, it was a very idealistic book, and was thought to provide little hope for churches to make the transition to cell ministry in North America. Yet, it stirred the imaginations of those who longed for change and started a movement in North America.
In 1991, Neighbour launched CellChurch magazine from his publishing ministry in Houston. This magazine became a unifying voice of the movement. TOUCH Outreach Ministries, the publishing and seminar ministry founded by Neighbour and based in Houston, Texas, and Lawrence Khong’s Touch Ministries International in Singapore were international heralds for the cell movement. The prolific, visionary Neighbour through his practical books and magazine gave wind to the movement at a time when an increasing number of pastors and church leaders were becoming disillusioned with the traditional church structure.
In 1994, the political foundations of the country of South Africa were crumbling as apartheid was being dismantled and a new multi-racial government was being formed. In the midst of this upheaval there was a new spiritual openness in the country. As political structures were being radically altered, pastors and churches were also looking for new ecclesiastical patterns. At the invitation of Pastor Martin Hopkins of Newcastle, Natal, Dr. Neighbour led three introductory cell church conferences in May 1994 in Pretoria, Newcastle, and Mossel Bay.
These conferences created strong interest in the cell model and in mid-1994 about one hundred and twenty South African pastors came to Singapore to learn from Neighbour at Faith Community Baptist Church. In response to this specially planned training seminar, Neighbour was invited to come to South Africa to give in-depth teaching in cell church methodology. He developed a four-week course with one week being taught each quarter. This training entitled “The Year of Transition” was launched in October 1994 in South Africa and over the next two years would be taught to thousands of pastors. Churches implementing cell groups in South Africa shared their learning and helped further disseminate cell methodology to churches in the nearby countries of Lesotho, Botswana, Malawi, Zimbabwe, as well as countries far away, including Ukraine and the United States.
The Year of Transition (TYOT) training and its successor entitled Advanced Cell Training (ACT) were taught by TOUCH and its affiliated international ministries in many countries, including the United States, Russia, Brazil, the Philippines, El Salvador, Canada, and Australia. TYOT was launched in 1999 and 2000 in England and Germany. Regent University of Virginia Beach, Virginia, in 1996 became the first seminary offering Master’s and Doctor of Ministry level degrees with a major in cell ministry. The core of their cell ministry courses were the TYOT and ACT cell curriculum developed by TOUCH.
Influential Cell Voices
In 1974, Amor Viviente, a charismatic church in Honduras, started by Mennonite missionaries, Ed and Gloria King, began using a home cell system when their meeting place was taken away. When they realized the superiority of the cell structure for evangelism and discipleship, they retained it. This church, which grew to some seven thousands in the year 2000 planted churches throughout its native Honduras and in several U.S. cities. Rene Peñalba, one of the founding pastors, left Amor Viviente to start his own church, which has also grown into a cell-based movement. Many other churches in Honduras have also grown and blossomed. In fact, cell-based ministry has become the new norm through the carefully modeling of cell-based ministry.
Another early pioneer of cell ministry, Wener Kniesel, pastor of Christian Center Buchegg in Zurich, Switzerland began doing cell ministry about the same time Cho started his ministry in the early 1970s. He simultaneously felt that doing cell ministry was the biblical way to do church, so he continued to transition his church in the face of many obstacles. Kniesel said that every step of the transition process was painful for his Zurich, Switzerland congregation, but they eventually became a thriving cell church in the busy secular society of Zurich, Switzerland. The church grew to some three hundred cell groups and has trained pastors and leaders around the world.
In the United States in south central Pennsylvania, Dove Christian Fellowship was birthed in October of 1980 under the leadership of Larry Kreider using a cell methodology. Dove has planted churches in the U.S., New Zealand, France, Scotland, Uganda, Kenya, and Barbados. In 2013, Dove had about one hundred twenty congregations. Dove was an early pioneer that has consistently demonstrated a balanced, biblical basis for their cell ministry. They have since added house church networks to their repertoire of ministry.
Bethany World Prayer Center also adopted the cell strategy in 1996 and became one of the flagship cell churches in North America. Bethany hosted cell conferences each year and many pastors were trained. At one point, Bethany attracted thousands of pastors to its yearly cell conferences promoting “Winning souls and making disciples.” Stockstill’s book The Cell Church came out in 1996 and had an important impact on the cell movement.
Cell-Based Ministry Spreads in Africa and Asia
While Cho was developing his cell system, other churches around the world were catching similar visions and learning from each other.
EPBOM, West Africa
In 1975, Pastor Dion Robert began using a cell group strategy to start EPBOM (Eglise Protestante Baptiste Oeuvres et Mission Internationale). Ivory Coast is home to eighteen million residents, many of whom are French-speaking and work in agriculture. It’s estimated that some thirty-five to forty percent are Muslim; twenty to thirty percent are Christians; and another forty percent practice indigenous beliefs.
After hearing Brother Andrew, who ministered to persecuted Christians in communist countries, Dion desired a church structure that would not be dependent on large meetings, nor centered on the pastor. His initial inspiration for the cell methodology came from the organizational structure that Moses used in Exodus chapter eighteen. Beginning with just three people, his movement grew to 3,180 cells in 1993 in the city of Abidjan and some 1,896 cells in daughter churches in the Ivory Coast, Guinea, Burkina Faso, Benin, and several other African countries and the United States. In 2010 this family of churches claimed a total membership oftwo hundred thousand.
Pastor Dion Robert asks each member to faithfully attend a cell group and go through the discipleship equipping process, which focuses on transformed lives. African culture has been so thoroughly dominated by animism (the belief in the appeasement of spirits who control all life events) that people for centuries have lived in fear, guilt, and uncertainty. EPBOM has discovered that unless salvation includes breaking the Satanic lies and strongholds caused by animism, believers quickly revert back to past bondage.
Those at EPBOM know they’ll never produce an effective harvest worker who is bound by satanic strongholds. Pastor Dion says, “In the lives of the sheep there will often be strongholds that need to be torn down. These at times may be demonic hereditary ties or some form of demonization by evil spirits. Soul therapy is the process of tearing down ungodly strongholds that include immoral activity, curses, animistic fears and ancestor worship.” This church is well-known for turning enslaved people into flaming evangelists for Jesus Christ that start new home churches.
Abbalove Church, Jakarta, Indonesia
Abbalove Church started in 1979 when a group of Jakarta college students yearned for a move of God’s Spirit. God stirred them to start a church and Eddy Leo, an early team leader, eventually became one of the elders and the lead apostolic ministry member of the movement. The church originally started as a community based church and then later developed into a cell-based church after the leadership team visited Cho’s church in Korea and Faith Community Baptist Church in Singapore.
From the beginning they envisioned the need to develop young people to serve as leaders and change the nation and the world. In 2014, the church had grown to 20,000 people in the Sunday celebrations and 25,000 in their 2,000 weekly cell groups. Abbalove has become eleven local churches, each with their own elders. Abbalove Church is growing rapidly as they concentrate on unreached peoples and cities. The context of their church is the Indonesian Muslim majority and their desire has been to bless the unreached people with God’s love.
Abbalove realizes that the cell is critical to making disciples who make disciples. Everyone is expected to participate in a cell group. The three pillars of the church are: cell, celebration, and personal discipleship. The three pillars can only be established if everyone is equipped continually. Abbalove Church sees itself as helping people on their journey—not as having reached their final destination. By God’s grace, the church has never had a division because they have always focused on experiencing Jesus and making sure Jesus is the focus, not ministry.
Family of God Church, Solo, Indonesia
Obaja Setiawan went to junior high school in Indonesia in the 1980s. At the time, he had no hair. No one—including the doctors—knew why he lost his hair, and his family couldn’t find any legitimate help. He was so embarrassed, he left school. Friends and family urged him to visit witch doctors and try magic potions, but nothing worked. Someone suggested Jesus. “Why not?” He thought. He prayed to Jesus and his hair began growing back. When asked about the new growth, he answered, “It must be the medicine.” The hair disappeared, and Obaja quickly realized he had denied Jesus and begged again for mercy. God answered and today Obaja has a full head of black hair.
This miracle impacted Obaja so completely that he promised God that he would serve him all the days of his life. And he did serve God as a successful businessman, actively ministering in his church as a layman and supporting it financially. But in September 1989, God called Obaja to start his own church. He felt so inadequate because his business training didn’t include seminary education. Yet, he obeyed and started a cell group that multiplied to include some 20,000 people in 2010.
Pastor Obaja has carried his simple faith message of God’s power in weakness. Throughout his ministry he has believed God to work the impossible in weak, human vessels, even in an area where eighty-eight percent of the two hundred fifty million people are Muslim.
In 1999, he traveled to Bogota, Colombia with Eddy Leo to learn about the G-12 strategy at a cell-based church called the International Charismatic Mission. Obaja couldn’t speak English or Spanish, and since the conference wasn’t translated into his mother tongue, he didn’t understand most of what was said in the week-long Bogota conference. He did catch one phrase, however: “Anyone can be a fruitful cell leader.” He saw clearly how God wanted him to develop his entire congregation to be ministers rather than hearers.
His dream came true. He often testifies of illiterate people leading others to Christ through cell ministry, discipling them, and then preparing them to lead their own cell groups. Obaja has seen countless poor, uneducated, and desperate rickshaw drivers becoming zealous evangelists for Christ who lead new cell groups. The church likes to ask the weakest and the poorest cell leaders to give testimonies of what God has done in their cells through conversion and multiplication. In this way, GBI encourages everyone to step up to the plate, get involved in a cell group, and eventually lead their own. And GBI has a great training process to help potential cell leaders succeed. Their discipleship equipping includes a spiritual retreat, a seminar, and three Bible courses that each person must take in preparation to leading their own cell group. And what’s amazing is the location of this church—a Muslim dominated area of Java, Indonesia.
GBI has stimulated many churches to look beyond those who appeared to be the “leader-type” and to see God’s power in the weak and lowly. GBI has demonstrated how God does the extraordinary through ordinary, weak people.
Grace Fellowship and CCMN, Hong Kong
Ben Wong started Grace Church in 1987. Wong always had a heart for discipleship, but in 1989, he read Cho’s Successful Home Cell Groups and realized that the New Testament way to make disciples took place in cell groups. That same year, thirty people from the church visited Ralph Neighbour in Singapore, and they all read Neighbour’s book, The Shepherd’s Guidebook. Neighbour helped tweak Wong’s vision and the church began to grow through cell ministry, reaching and growing to some 2000 people by 2006.
Wong wasn’t satisfied in just growing his own church larger and larger. He caught the vision to share the cell vision with other pastors in the city, and they began to hold joint conferences, sharing speakers and information. Wong, along with a New Zealand missionary, Neville Chamberlin, felt compelled to connect cell groups with worldwide missions, much like the Moravians had done 275 years earlier. Cell Church Missions Network was born as a way to share resources with other like-minded cell churches and promote worldwide missions.
The Cell Church Missions Network is primarily concerned with mobilizing cell church people to finish the Great Commission. They believe that those who have led and multiplied a cell group are the best missionaries to penetrate the unreached cultures because they’ve already experienced fruitful ministry in their own culture. The theme of CCMN is “No glory and no control.” CCMN has sent out some 175 missionaries between 1997 and 2014 and held over 100 conferences. CCMN missionaries are on thirteen fields, including, Macau, China, Japan, Thailand, Bangladesh, India, Cambodia, Indonesia, Philippines, Pakistan, Turkey, North Africa, and Middle East.
Winds of Change from South America
Two Latin American cell churches derived principles from Yoido Full Gospel Church and then adapted these principles to the cell church strategy that was more effective in their own context. They established a path for many to follow.
Elim Church, El Salvador
The Elim Church sits in the city of San Salvador. Of the country’s nearly seven million Salvadorans, eighty-three percent are Catholic; however, an estimated one million are Protestant evangelicals, and this number is growing with the help of a simple, but efficient church called the Elim Church.
Elim is not a fairy tale success story. They’ve experienced their share of hard knocks and problems. The church weathered a civil war that killed 75,000 and a massive earthquake that devastated the country, killing 100 Elim members. Perhaps the greatest tragedy was the removal of the founding pastor due to a moral failure. Yet, in spite of these odds, the Elim Church has multiplied cell groups throughout El Salvador and around the world.
Elim’s growth can be attributed to their passion for Jesus, their persistence in cell group church basics, and their evangelistic penetration that multiplies cells all over the city. Elim’s main goal is to penetrate the city through multiplying cell groups. In 2013, some 118,000 people attended the church’s 11,000 cell groups. Those same cell groups rented city buses to travel together to the weekly celebration services to hear God’s Word.
Elim defines a cell as a group of three to fifteen adults who meet weekly outside the church building for the purpose of evangelism, community, and spiritual growth with the goal of multiplication. The majority of Elim’s cells are family oriented (a mixture of men, women, singles,and so forth), but they also have women’s cells, youth cells, and children’s cells. The cells are organized geographically, so that each group multiplies within its own geographical area.
Elim’s cells first started in 1986, but it was a long process of failure, regrouping, and perfecting their cell system. They kept on pressing on to improve their cell ministry until it worked. God has used Elim to develop a church without walls that penetrates into every corner of the community and raises up harvest workers to continue the process.
Trip to Korea
Sergio Solórzano, born in Guatemala, came to El Salvador to start an Elim Christian Mission Church, a grass roots Evangelical denomination which started in Guatemala. Solórzano started the church in 1977 in a rented house with nine persons. The church grew rapidly and by 1981 there were three thousand people attending the mother church. By 1985, the church had planted some seventy daughter churches around the country, but the attendance at the mother church had stagnated.
Due to this stagnation, in 1985, Pastor Solórzano visited David Yonggi Cho’s church in Korea. He came back convinced that cell group ministry would revolutionize Elim. He called together the pastors of the twenty-five daughter churches around San Salvador and asked them to close down their churches and join with him to form one huge cell church in San Salvador. By 1991, six years later, the cell group attendance had grown to fifty-seven thousand with a large proportion attending the Sunday celebration services. In 1996, Sergio Solórzano was asked to step down from the mother church due to his moral failure, and the leadership team asked Mario Vega to lead Elim San Salvador.
Mario Vega was with Elim in 1977 when the church first started. He left the mother church in San Salvador on April 14, 1980 to help a small struggling Elim Church in Santa Ana, a province of El Salvador. Under his leadership, Elim Santa Ana grew to some 10,000 people (average cell attendance).
Since Mario took over leadership of Elim San Salvador in 1997, the church continued to grow to 118,000 people in 11,000 cell groups. Pastor Mario is excited about what God is doing through Elim and boldly promotes what has worked for them. He realizes, however, that copying a model verbatim rarely works. The Elim Church, in fact, never copied Cho’s original cell model exactly. Rather, they have adapted the Korean cell group church model to fit El Salvador’s unique circumstances.
Unique Features of Elim
Throughout Latin America EC is known for multiplying strong cell groups. Some of the reasons for their cell group strength are:
Each cell has a team that consists of the leader, assistant, host, treasurer, secretary, and members at large. The cell leader’s primary goal is to form this core team. The Elim Church is convinced that the success of the cell group depends on the nucleus.
Each cell team meets weekly to plan, pray, dream, and act. After a time of edification, team members plan for the normal Saturday night cell meeting. They decide who will visit straying members, reach new people, and pray for those in need.
Having two separate meetings (one for planning and one for the regular cell) is the major distinction between the cell system at Elim and those at other cell churches.
The Elim Church is extremely organized, seeing God’s wonderful order in Scripture. They believe God wants them to accurately measure what’s happening in their midst. All eighty staff pastors at Elim, for example, can tell you on Tuesday morning what the previous week’s numbers are: attendance, conversions, baptisms, people visited, and those trained. And all of these numbers are exact.
Exact statistics are important at Elim because they measure progress toward the goal of penetrating their city for Jesus. It helps each leader to know where they stand, and what they need to improve to more effectively reach the entire city for Jesus. The statistical follow-up of every meeting gives pastors and supervisors a progress report of each cell, and it motivates the leaders to reach out. In addition, the smooth functioning Jethro system provides help and training for cell leaders.
The most effective form of cell outreach at Elim is friendship evangelism. Leaders instruct their groups to make friends, win their confidence, and then invite them to the meeting. The goal is for those who are befriended to receive Christ and become a disciple through cell ministry.
Josefina López is a good example of this friendship evangelism. She was a Jehovah’s Witness for seven years before converting to Christianity through the love and friendship of cell members who just happened to be meeting next door to Josefina’s house (approximately 80,000 JWs in El Salvador). Her neighbors befriended her and lovingly invited her to their group, but Josefina refused, remaining true to her cult’s calling. The cell multiplied and formed another one down the street. Then it multiplied again—this time meting behind her house. The neighbors of all three cells tried to love and serve Josefina, inviting her to their groups, but she managed to resist them. She noticed, however, the joy, the vibrant singing, and especially their changed lives. Finally, Josefina decided to attend the cell behind her house, using the excuse of wanting to taste the dessert. God used the leader to clearly present the gospel message, and the Holy Spirit did the rest. God transformed Josefina and her struggle with anger vanished. Christ helped her to speak gently to her kids and respect their father. She was soon baptized. Just fifteen days after her conversion, Josefina opened her home to host a new cell, which has now multiplied four times.
Elim has been penetrating the entire city of San Salvador with the gospel, primary through friendship evangelism and mother-daughter cell multiplication.
International Charismatic Mission, Bogota, Colombia
Today, most people associate Colombia with guerilla warfare, drug addicts, and spiritual darkness. They don’t know that in the midst of the darkness, God is building his church. One missionary to Colombia said, “Without the security issues, there would not be the urgency of the task.” The International Charismatic Mission is not the only church growing in Colombia, but it is a leading cell church that in 1996 had grown to approximately 10,000 cells. César Castellanos commented, “We’ve grown so much that we don’t even count people anymore—just cell groups.”
Late in 1982, César Castellanos, a disillusioned young pastor in Colombia, quit his pastoral ministry. Reflecting on that experience in an interview in January of 1998, Castellanos said, “I had come to a crucial moment in my life where even though I was pastoring I did not feel satisfied in what I was doing. For that reason I decided that it was better to resign from being a pastor, and to be still, waiting for God to speak to me. Four months after I resigned from that church God gave me a message that transformed my life.”
Following this four month period of seeking God, Castellanos was given a vision that changed the direction of his life. Recounting that experience Castellanos said that God told him, “Dream of a very large church, because dreams are the language of my Spirit. Because the people in the church that you will pastor will be as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sands of the sea, the multitude will not be able to be counted.”
In response to that vision in February of 1983, International Charismatic Mission (ICM) was birthed in Bogota, Colombia. Although Castellanos had never before pastored a church of over 120 people, he knew from the vision that God gave him that now he was to lead a church with an innumerable multitude of people.
Trip to Korea
Pastor César’s trip to Korea in 1986 provided foundational principles for establishing a cell church system. He and his wife Claudia returned transformed by the potential for multiplying cell groups. Castellanos always believed in the role of small groups, but in 1986, he grasped the need for a cell church system as the way to support the growth of small groups.
Having only one model to follow, ICM copied Cho’s system in its entirety. Pastor César organized his small groups geographically throughout Bogota. As he reflected back, he acknowledged that the early system needed fine-tuning. While copying the entire model, he failed to adapt it to his own cultural context. ICM limped along from 1986 to 1991, sensing that something was missing. The church grew to about seventy cells, but they felt God wanted more for them.
Everyone Prepared to Minister
Castellanos became frustrated with the Cho cell methodology because it took too long to produce cell leaders—a full two years. Castellanos noticed that few of the people who began the equipping process actually completed the training and those that did had lost their non-Christian friends due to the long time it took to complete the course. Castellanos felt that God gave him a breakthrough. He said to God, “Lord, I need something that would help me accelerate the purpose.” He felt God saying to him, “I’m going to give you the ability to train people quickly.”
Castellanos credits Jesus’s example of discipling twelve people as the biblical inspiration for this method. Some of the insights that Castellanos implemented were:
- A “consolidation” process to disciple new believers that almost immediately sends them on a weekend “Encounter” retreat to help them be set free from spiritual bondage and be filled with the Holy Spirit. This discipleship system then equips every cell member to start their own cell group within the first year of coming to Christ while remaining in their parent cell.
- An emphasis on the multiplication of homogeneous cell groups targeting specific populations such as men, women, youth, professionals, and children.
- A system of oversight that has cell leaders in “groups of twelve” where they meet and are discipled on a weekly basis. Leaders of the groups of twelve are also members in another group of twelve led by someone else.
The G-12 methodology is now being implemented with many variations in cell churches in various parts of the world. The diffusion of the G-12 method has been promoted by the large annual conferences that the ICM Church holds and by international conferences that Castellanos has been leading in the United States and Europe.
Key G-12 Principles
Although there are many principles that ICM emphasizes, it seems that three stand out above the others. They are:
Principle #1: Everyone who enters the church is a potential cell leader
The declared goal of ICM is to transform every new convert into a dynamic cell leader. Pastor Castellanos counsels his cell leaders to envision each member of the cell as a future cell leader. No matter how set aside or broken down because of sin, Castellanos believes that God is all powerful and able to make something beautiful of each person.
Some pastors and leaders believe that only those with the gift of evangelism or the gift of leadership are capable of leading a cell group. The goal is to discover “the gifted” in the congregation and then to train them to lead cell groups. One pastor, emboldened by what God was doing at ICM said, “We do not speak of ‘cell members’ any longer, but of trainees to become cell leaders.”
Core Principle #2: All believers are expected to enter the cell leader equipping process
ICM asks everyone to enter the equipping process to eventually become a cell leader (the training track includes a three-day retreat and classroom training). As soon as a new convert starts attending ICM, he or she is placed on the training path that ends in cell leadership. Involvement at ICM means entering the equipping track.
Core Principle #3: Every leader is a potential supervisor
The G-12 model asks each parent cell leader to supervise those new leaders who come from the parent cell. Supervisors are not appointed in the G-12 model. No one is waiting for a “calling” from above to become a supervisor.
The G-12 system taps into the personal motivation of each individual leader. All energetic, entrepreneurial leaders can rise as high as their drive takes them. They can supervise (disciple) as many new leaders as their time and talents permit.
G-12 Excesses and Concerns
While ICM added innovation to the cell church movement worldwide, it began to promote the superiority of its own model, asking churches to adopt the ICM model in its entirety, rather than adapting the cell strategy to each context—like they themselves adapted Cho’s model to fit their own context. I’ve included some of those excesses and concerns on my website.
Cell-Based Movement in Brazil
The Vine Church started in 1999 with a gathering of sixty believers in the Brazilian city of Goiania. Since then the church has grown to a network of 800 churches and 50,000 adult believers. Aluizio da Silvia is the lead pastor of the mother church, which he co-founded with Marcelo Almeida, who now oversees the Vine churches in Europe, Africa, and North/South America. The mother church has some 5,000 cells, which are a mix of adult cells, youth cells, and children’s cells.
In 1999, Aluizio’s wife Marcia prayed and fasted for God’s purpose and design for her own ministry in the church. She felt like God was calling her to minister to the children and that God wanted her to do it through the cell groups.
She received a prophesy that same year, telling her to follow God’s direction and that he would give her new direction, a new path to follow. She opened her first children’s cell group and watched God prosper the ministry God gave her an ever-growing conviction that children were members of the body of Christ and were often neglected, and God confirmed his direction by helping the worldwide Vine movement to multiply to 10,000 children’s cell groups with 100,000 children attending these cell groups worldwide. In the mother church alone, there are some 2000 children’s cell groups with 20,000 people attending them.
The Vine Church has a conference each year to promote their children’s cell groups and to teach others how to implement children’s cell in their churches. Some 10,000 leaders come together from all over Brazil to learn about their children’s ministry. During this conference, they celebrate the “Feast of Multiplication” of children in cell in Brazil and in countries where they have the Vine Churches.
Igreja da Paz
Luke Huber, a North American missionary kid born and raised in Brazil, started the Paz Church in 1976 when he came to Santarem, a city in Northern Brazil. Luke died in a plane accident in 1994 while ministering to the tribal people in northern Brazil. His younger brother, Abe Huber, took charge of the Paz Church and transitioned the Paz churches to become cell churches and started spreading the cell-church-planting vision.
The goal is for each person in the church to plant an evangelistic cell group (Igreja da Paz defines their cell groups in the same way that Elim defines a cell group), multiply it, and to even plant an Igreja da Paz Church. This “effort” has resulted in planting hundreds of churches throughout Brazil.
One innovation of Igreja da Paz is its emphasis on both large and small churches. Huber realizes that it takes all kinds to get the job done. In 2014, the mother church in Santarem had 60,000 people in over 7,000 cell groups and 400 Paz churches in the region. The churches are linked together in a similar cell church vision. Some of the Igreja da Paz churches are very small and only a few minutes from the large mother church.In 2006, Igreja da Paz started another church-planting movement in the Northwestern part of Brazil. This new endeavor has grown to approximately eighty churches with the mother church in Fortaleza numbering some 7500 people and 1000 cells.
Igreja da Paz emphasizes one-on-one discipleship. Abe was personally impacted as a youth through the one-on-one discipleship method, and he hasn’t forgotten those early lessons. He’s integrated one-on-one discipleship into the church’s training process. The entire process is called MDA—Micro Discipleship Strategy.
Robert Lay and Slow, Steady Growth
Many have read the old English story of the hare (rabbit) and the tortoise (turtle), which is one of Aesop’s Fables. In the story, the rabbit ridiculed the turtle for having short feet and a slow pace. The turtle replied, “Though you be swift as the wind, I will beat you in a race.” The rabbit agreed to a race, believing that the turtle could never win. The two started the race together, and the turtle never stopped, following a slow but steady pace to the end of the course. The rabbit, lying down by the wayside, fell fast asleep. At last waking up, and moving as fast as he could, he realized the turtle had already finished and won the race.
This story has played out in the cell church in Brazil. Some cell models, like the rabbit, entered Brazil and offered quick growth and the promise of rapid numbers. Many churches followed these models in search of painless, miraculous, and rapid growth. For example, the G-12 model entered Brazil like a storm in early 2000. Many jumped on board the G-12 movement, only to later leave discouraged and disillusioned. Seeking rapid growth, these pastors abandoned the slow, steady growth based on cell principles, like those principles embraced by Robert Lay and Ministerio Igreja em Células (Ministry of Cell-Based Churches).
No ministry has had a greater impact of resourcing the Brazilian church than Robert Lay’s ministry. Pastor Robert Lay came into contact with the cell church vision back in the early 1980s, while obtaining a Master’s degree in the United States. God lit a passion in his life to make disciples through New Testament house-to-house ministry. He returned to Brazil and successfully introduced these cell concepts in his home church, Mennonite Brethren Church of Curitiba (State of Paraná, Brazil).
He hen became the official TOUCH representative in Brazil. His organization began teaching four different cell church modules in the Portuguese language. These modules (adapted from Neighbour’s Year of the Transition) taught churches how to make the cell church transition. Lay’s ministry also translated and published cell church literature in Portuguese. Since the initial training in 1998, Ministerio Igreja em Células has trained over sixteen thousand pastors and leaders in cell church principles and values. After many years of consistently teaching the values and principles, there are now large, healthy cell churches from many, many denominations in Brazil. In addition to teaching the modules, Lay’s ministry has added two national conferences, five regional conferences per year, and translated over seventy cell church books into Portuguese.
What are the results? Today, many of the largest, healthiest cell churches in Brazil have gone through the transitioning process and now have hundreds of cell groups. The resource ministry of Ministerio Igreja em Células has helped churches to avoid the pitfalls during the transition.
The good news is that many churches who took the time to study cell church principles and network with other pastors are now shining models for others to follow. On the other hand, many of the “quick growth” churches are realizing that the glitter quickly fades in the reality of day-to-day cell church ministry. Some are now rejoining Robert Lay’s network. Turtle-like ministry requires long-term persistence, passion, and perseverance. It’s easy to give up along the way, or jump on the bandwagon of the latest, greatest success story in an attempt to achieve rapid growth.
There are still many obstacles and struggles, since Brazilians tend to want things to happen instantaneously. Many churches cut corners and don’t take the time to build a strong foundation of values. Yet, many more, having persevered, are shining example of God’s work in cell-based churches.
Worldwide Emphasis on Smaller, Reproducible Cell Churches
In the cell church movement worldwide, there is a renewed interest in planting smaller, more reproducible cell churches. The fact is that the vast majority of pastors around the world are not called to manage a large celebration gathering. God has simply not gifted them to do so. Administrating such a large church involves managing details that most people are simply not equipped to handle.
Paul the apostle was the most effective missionary church planter of the first century. He planted simple, reproducible churches and moved on to spread the gospel. He could say “So from Jerusalem all the way around to Illyricum, I have fully proclaimed the gospel of Christ” (Romans 15:19). Before AD 47 there were no churches in these provinces. In AD 57 Paul spoke of his work being accomplished.
Ben Wong, founder of Grace Church, has dedicated his life to plant reproducible cell churches around the world. Ben wasn’t content with simply growing his own church. He realized that Great Commission ministry can only be accomplished through simple, reproducible cell church planting. Ben writes,
Small churches comprise the great majority of churches in the world. Most pastors became pastors because they love God and desire to love his people. The reality is that in a small church, this can happen most effectively. In fact to become larger than 80 people, the pastor will need to become more administrative, and he may need a skill he does not have. Large churches need entrepreneurs, and very few pastors are like this.
Jimmy Seibert, the founding pastor of Antioch Community Church in Waco, Texas, was radically transformed at the age of seventeen. He started small groups on the Baylor University campus that eventually grew to six hundred students on four campuses. He and some of the students wrote a book called Reaching College Students through Cells. In 1999 Jimmy started ACC.
ACC has never been content to grow one church larger and larger. Yet as the mother church gives itself away, it has continued to grow over the years. Like the New Testament church, God has called them to become a church planting movement. As of 2010, ACC has sent forty church planting teams all over the world (to twenty-four nations). They also have a missionary support staff numbering 450 from their own church.
Seibert believes that churches need to offer their people a practical missionary vision to reach the world. As a college pastor, he noticed that parachurch organizations were often more mission focused than the church. “God’s plan is for the church to offer a world vision. Young people long to give themselves to a world-changing vision,” Jimmy said.
ACC breathes the principle of multiplication—in their groups, leaders, churches, and missionaries. Each year ACC offers either a missions conference or a church planting conference on a rotating basis. Antioch believes and teaches the need for brokenness and the filling of the Holy Spirit which result in radical obedience.
Bob Roberts, Jr., senior pastor of Northwood Church in Texas, has planted over one hundred churches. In his book, The Multiplying Church, he writes:
On more than one occasion, I’ve found myself in a group of mega-church pastors who make a statement like this: “We need to partner to start some signiﬁcant churches—we don’t need to waste our time on these little churches of a hundred or two hundred.” They don’t get it! I try to educate them, but, more often than not, to no avail. When they make a statement like that, they miss two things. First, they don’t know their history. Where faith has exploded, it has never been because of the multiplication of mega-churches, but of smaller churches from 50 to 200 . . . Second, they don’t understand the nature of movements. Movements are personal and viral. Where movements have emerged, it hasn’t been because of the large, but because of the small.
When Jesus saw the incredible needs around him and especially those who were helpless and harassed and in need of a shepherd, he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field” (Matthew 9:37-38).
As I travel around the world, I passionately plead with larger cell churches to hear God’s call for missions. I would love to see leaders who have multiplied cells and now supervise cells to consider becoming missionary church planters all over the world. Senior pastors are the key to releasing such people. Some of these multiplication pastors will plant nearby in the same city, state, or country. Others will become cross-cultural missionaries to plant cell churches on distant shores. The best church planters are those who have multiplied cell groups and supervised the new leaders. They possess the vital, needed experience to plant a church.
- The worldwide cell church movement stands on the shoulders of prior small group foundations. Each small group movement in history has offered key principles and glimpses of a better way to minister.
- Cell churches draw their strength from New Testament Christianity and discover their motivation and inward drive from New Testament principles.
- Beyond the bedrock biblical base for cell ministry, cell churches draw on common principles: holistic definition of a cell, cells as the base of the church, leadership vision coming from lead pastor and leadership team, and the power of prayer.
- There is a danger of following one model and then concluding that it’s the only true model.
- The modern day cell church movement is leaning more and more toward simple, reproducible cell church planting, rather than emphasizing growing one church to an enormous size. Both large cell churches and smaller, more reproducible cell churches will always exist side-by-side.