The Cell-Driven Church: Growing the Church from the Inside-out

Church Leadership

By Joel Comiskey

The following is taken from chapter 9 of the book The Church that Multiplies.

One pastor bought into the cell church philosophy but didn’t change his inward value of church success. The value that success equaled Sunday attendance was deeply ingrained in his psyche.

As I coached him over the months, I found that he naturally spent more time trying to attract people to the Sunday celebration service. He focused on sermon preparation, visiting, and dreaming of a crowd on Sunday. Cell ministry received leftover attention. When I challenged him on this, he acknowledged that he got a high from the Sunday crowd and didn’t get that same excitement from cell ministry.

This pastor was struggling with how to measure success. I began to coach him on viewing his success in terms of disciples made and sent out rather than in terms of attracting a large group on Sunday morning.

Redefining church-growth success in terms of making disciples rather than building attendance figures might be the most important shift in pastors’ thinking to make cell ministry work. It’s not a matter of removing the success mentality. It’s a matter of redefining what success really is.

The reformation of church growth

I consulted the staff in one church that met weekly with the aim of planning for the Sunday service. All effort and activity were directed to making the Sunday event happen. They talked about the preparedness of the greeters, the excellence of the worship, the preciseness of the announcements, and the cleanliness of the restrooms. Their staff planning meeting shouted loudly that they had one goal in mind: attract and keep people in the Sunday worship.

Many leaders, like the ones I just described, take their cue from church-growth theory and believe that success equals more church members, which normally translates into how many are attending the celebration event on Sunday morning.

Successful cell church pastors, on the other hand, view success differently. They focus on how many pew sitters can be converted into disciples who will pastor home groups that will in turn evangelize and disciple others. The celebration is important, but celebration attendance is the result of the real work that takes place during the week.

The focus on cell infrastructure helps align the pastorate with the New Testament truth that the job of the pastor is to prepare God’s people for works of service (Eph. 4:11–12).

This focus rescues the pastor from the role of star of the Sunday celebration (how can I make the celebration attractive enough to keep the people coming back?) to chief trainer and disciple maker (how can I prepare and release lay workers into the harvest by developing them to lead dynamic cell groups?).

Though both cell and celebration are important in the cell church, I believe the cell infrastructure should guide (or drive) the church.

Todd Hahn, minister to postmoderns, says, “The seeker/believer strategy was a God-send for the modern church, yet it may be meaningless for postmoderns. . . . Postmoderns are not interested in being attracted to a large service. They want to be prepared to serve. It’s in the service that they themselves are set free. The next church needs to be ready to give and serve” (note 1).

The cell church strategy focuses on preparing laypeople to serve. It’s guiding people from sitting in church to helping them go through a process of training, cell involvement, and cell leadership.

The cell-driven church

The cell-driven church, in contrast to the Sunday-oriented model, focuses on the cell infrastructure. The pastor concentrates on growing the church from the inside out. Success equals turning members into ministers that lead cell groups.

Damian Williams grasped the cell-driven strategy. When Williams started pastoring Red Cedar Community Church in 2000, the church had 200 people attending on Sunday morning. He set the clear goal of making disciples that make disciples. He challenged everyone to get in the training track with the goal of eventually leading a cell group. He knew that not everyone would become a leader, but he believed that everyone could become one.

Williams focused on leadership training to produce disciples. He concentrated on the cell infrastructure. He developed a core leadership team from among the successful cell leaders to coach the other leaders. For Williams, the hard work took place in the cell system and the result was Sunday morning attendance growth.

In spite of many obstacles and resistance, Williams pressed on with his vision to grow the church from the core to the crowd. In three and one-half years the cells grew to thirty and the cell attendance to 350. The infrastructure growth brought more than 500 to the Sunday celebration.

The cell-driven strategy is straightforward and simple: concentrate on developing new leaders through multiplying cell groups, and they will in turn reap the harvest and pastor the church. It’s the strategy that Christ gave to His disciples in Matthew 9:37–38: “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.” The goal of new cells is the goal of new leaders being equipped and sent out as harvest workers (note 2).

With this approach, a church can concentrate on multiplying the infrastructure—developing new leaders—and be assured of qualitative and quantitative growth. Outreach and evangelism are core values in this approach. A church that is constantly multiplying cells is penetrating the city with red-hot evangelistic fervor and diligent leadership development. Galloway wrote, “The concept is that first you build leaders. The leaders build groups. Out of these groups come more leaders and a multiplication into more groups” (note 3).

On a practical level, this means that the pastor of a cell-driven church will first dream, plan, and pastor the cell infrastructure. The first item of business, for example, in the team leadership meeting is cell ministry. Each team member will share about how his or her own cell is doing and then report on the health of the cells. After working through the cell ministry issues, the pastor will deal with celebration concerns—worship, announcements, and the cleanliness of the restrooms.

When the pastor is asked at a conference how many people are in his church, the cell-driven pastor will first talk about the number of cell groups, cell leaders in training, and attendance in the cells. Why? Because the pastor has a new definition of success.

Incorrect application of the two-winged church

Bill Beckham coined the term “two-winged church” to refer to a cell church that focuses on both cell and celebration. Beckham taught that a two-winged church, one that emphasizes both cell and celebration, can fly much better than a church that only emphasizes one wing.

I agree with Beckham’s terminology, but I’ve also noticed that some have misapplied this concept. I now recommend using the phrase “cell-driven church” because it gives a better sense of direction and purpose.

This became clear in one church, in which the pastor had delegated the celebration ministry to one pastor and the cell ministry to another. He was trying to balance both wings by delegating cell and celebration. The senior pastor tried to convince me that he was simply focusing on both wings. I noticed a total lack of integration among cells, celebration, and ministries.

In this particular church, the cell pastor was supposed to do the cell work and the celebration pastor was supposed to do the celebration work. The senior pastor simply tried to oversee both of them, hoping that the two-winged bird wouldn’t nosedive into the ground.

With only one staff pastor overseeing cells, the rest of the team were free to pursue their own ministries, not directly related to cell ministry. When the staff came together, there was no cohesiveness or direction. Each staff person would report on his or her ministry.

The church pushed hard for church members to join the existing cells, yet the congregation resisted because the staff structure spoke loudly that cell ministry involved only one part of the church’s program.

I counseled this church to start from the top. I told them to first move the staff through the transition, and the rest would be easy. Over and over I mentioned the cell-driven model rather than the two-winged approach so they could get a better picture of what they were trying to do.

This meant that the senior pastor had to lead the charge. He needed to wear the cell-director hat. I even encouraged the senior pastor to lead his own cell in order to gain experience and knowledge of cell ministry. I told him that he needed to be reading cell literature and staying in tune with cell ministry so he’d have something to give his staff members. “You can have a great cell structure like a model car,” I told him, “but just like the car doesn’t work without the engine, without the senior pastor’s cell passion and guidance, the cell structure doesn’t work.”

I counseled each staff member to lead a cell and oversee a few of the existing cell groups. Coaching cells would be their primary pastoral identity. Each would also have his or her ministry (e.g., worship, training, C.E., etc.) but the primary identity would be that of cell pastor.

I counseled them to talk about the cells first in their staff meetings. To do this effectively, each staff member would need up-to-date statistics on the state of the cell ministry. During this time, the staff could plan, pray, and envision new disciples. I told them to afterward discuss ministry items such as ushers, worship, preaching, and training.

I kept coming back to the idea of the cell-driven church. I had to help the pastor overcome his faulty vision of the two-winged church. I told him that the church needed to judge success by how well it was able to grow the infrastructure.

This example is a practical illustration of how the cell-driven church works. Each team member—whether staff or volunteer—is primarily responsible to care for the cell groups. The senior leader and staff are intimately involved in cell ministry—in most cases even leading a cell group. The first item of business in the staff meeting is a detailed account of the cells that met during the week.

Success is measured in a practical way. It works its way into the staff meeting, the announcements (see Chapter 13), and even the pastor’s preaching schedule. The cell-driven senior pastor is not hesitant to allow others to share the pulpit, because he knows that his chief role is to be head coach of the cells. Several of the senior pastors I’m working with, in fact, preach only sixty percent of the time, allowing others to preach and develop their gifts and talents.

Disciple defined

If the cell-driven strategy redefines success for a church, it’s important to understand the end product of that success. Jesus made that clear in Matthew 28:18–20 when He told His disciples to make new disciples.

But what is a disciple? CrossPoint Community Church (CCC) wrestled with this question. CCC’s mission statement says their goal is to make disciples who make disciples, but the church had to go one step farther and define what a disciple is.

Because I’m involved in coaching this church, we wrestled together with questions about the definition of discipleship. Pastor Jim Corley and I both agreed that a disciple is a follower of Christ, but we needed to know how that would look in practical terms. Corley and his key leaders were uncomfortable with the idea that a disciple equals a cell leader.

God gave wisdom to break down how a disciple could be defined in the cell church paradigm at CCC. I recommended that the church define a disciple in the following way:

D-1 disciple (member of a cell and training track)

The first step is that a person attending CCC is in a cell and the training track (see Chapter 10). It’s in this process that the person is baptized and taught to obey all the things that Christ has commanded (Matt. 28:18–20). Key steps in the training process include doctrinal teaching, holiness, baptism, evangelism, and preparation to minister to others.

D-2 disciple (associate leader)

The next step is that the disciple lives out in practice what he or she is learning. The term D-2 disciple defines a person who is in a cell, taking the next step in the training track, and actually helping in cell leadership. Such a person is playing a significant role in the cell group and is consciously preparing to facilitate his or her own cell group.

D-3 disciple (cell leader)

The next step is gathering people together and leading a cell group. The disciple has gathered friends and family and is facilitating the cell group. He or she has graduated from the training track.

D-4 disciple (multiplication leader)

This is when the cell leader has developed another disciple who has multiplied out and is leading his or her own cell group (has gone through the D-1 to D-3 process). I would call a multiplication leader a D-4 disciple.

Because the cell-driven strategy grows from the core to the crowd, it’s essential to have a clear picture of the desired goal. While acknowledging that the primary goal of the Christian life is to become like Jesus, it’s essential to define this in practical terms within the church framework. The D-1 to D-4 understanding of discipleship helps guide a believer through a clearly defined equipping process.

From a practical standpoint, the goal is to make disciples, and the cell-driven strategy makes that happen by asking all members to go through a training track that prepares them to become disciples who minister to others.

Cells as disciple makers

People often ask me why I believe in cells so much. “Well,” I tell them, “I don’t believe in cells. I believe in raising up new leaders. I believe in disciple making.” My commitment to cell ministry is really a commitment to leadership development.

Cells are simply the best vehicle for developing leaders—they’re leader breeders. Programs and tasks in the church, in contrast, don’t develop and release leaders. Leaders are certainly not developed and released by sitting in church on Sunday morning or worshipping in a large group. I believe they are developed in a cell environment, where everyone is able to exercise spiritual gifts and influence others.

In a group of three to fifteen people who meet weekly outside the church building for the purpose of evangelism, community, and discipleship with the goal of multiplication, a person has the perfect atmosphere to become like Jesus Christ and to learn how to minister to others.

There’s no end to the possibilities when discipleship becomes a way of life. The cell church majors in this. Such development simply doesn’t happen very often in a choir group, usher group, Sunday school class, or board meeting. Potential cell leaders are best developed in holistic groups that emphasize evangelism, community, discipleship, and multiplication.

Some think that only certain people are talented enough to facilitate a cell group or that a person needs a particular gift to lead a cell group. My book Home Cell Group Explosion exposes this fallacy, showing through research from a statistical study of 700 cell leaders in eight countries that anyone can facilitate and successfully multiply a cell group. I believe, in fact, that facilitating a cell group is part of the process of maturing and becoming more like Jesus. When a person ministers to others, that same person receives much more and discovers God in new and exciting ways.*

Biblical and doable success

Measuring success by developing disciples who make disciples is biblical and doable. One Australian engineer who became a cell church pastor wrote to me saying, “Joel, judging our performance by Sunday numbers is dangerous both ways. A good Sunday makes us think we’re doing okay (when we may not be) and a bad Sunday . . . well you know what that can do to us pastors. But why judge ourselves by something we have no control over?”

I believe the result of making disciples who make disciples will be Sunday attendance growth, but it’s the result rather than the major focus (note 4). The Lord will give the Sunday morning increase in the process of making disciples who make disciples. A new excitement and liberation will take place as people are sent out as workers in the harvest. †

Relief in celebration

Much of the debate today between postmodern worship (more experiential and worship oriented) and modern worship (less worship oriented and more seeker sensitive) misses the key point about making disciples through cell ministry. The goal in both postmodern and modern worship seems to be on attracting a crowd to the worship service.

While the cell-driven model normally emphasizes worshipping and experiencing God in the celebration service, the cell-driven model puts its primary effort into building the infrastructure that in turn grows the worship service (note 5).

Cell members do need the celebration time to hear God’s inerrant Word from a prepared pastor/teacher, understand the overall vision and direction from the pastor, and worship the living God, but they also need to apply that teaching in the small-group atmosphere (note 6).

When churches begin practicing the cell-driven model, the result is a true celebratory feeling on Sunday morning. The anxious feeling of trying to impress the seeker or to perform is lifted in the cell church. People can freely worship the living God and find Him.

The end in view

One pastor shared an illustration of planting tomatoes versus planting a coconut tree. The tomato plant grows quickly and provides immediate results, but it dies at the end of one year and needs to be replaced. The coconut tree, on the other hand, grows more slowly and bears fruit later, but it lasts for a lifetime. “I want to plant a coconut tree,” the pastor said. “I want to prepare myself and my church for long-term success in small-group ministry.” I encourage leaders to opt for the coconut tree style of small-group ministry.

Making disciples who make disciples is the key to long-term success. When a pastor believes that the cell-driven strategy is the key to long-term success, he will start building the cell infrastructure and make it his chief priority. This new mindset will affect everything he does and eventually everything the church does. The ultimate goal is obeying Jesus Christ, who gave clear orders to His church.

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  1. Todd Hahn, “ Leading Church for Postmoderns,” Strategies for Today’s Leaders (Summer, 2000), p. 16
  2. You can see from the following list that these churches are constantly breaking records:
    • Yoido Full Gospel Church (25 000 cells)
    • Bethany World Prayer Center (1350 cells )
    • International Charismatic Mission (14 000 cells)
    • Elim Church (11 000 cells when counting children’s cells)
    • Christian Center of Guayaquil (1400 cells)
    • Love Alive Church (1000 cells)
    • Living Water Church (900 cells)
    • Faith Community Baptist Church (700 cells)
  3. Dale Galloway, 20-20 Vision (Portland, OR: Scott Publishing House, 1986), p. 155.
  4. I encourage pastors, however, not even to make this a goal. Many cell churches, in fact, don’t even count Sunday statistics. Elim focuses on the infrastructure, though not neglecting the Sunday and weekday celebration. In 2002, an average of 116 034 attended 8500 cell groups each week. Elim doesn’t keep statistics on how many people attend the celebration services, but after observing each of the six Sunday worship services at Elim, my estimate is upwards of 35 000 people each Sunday. It is amazing to know that three times as many people attend the cell ministry during the week as attend the celebration on Sunday! North Americans can learn important lessons from Elim. Many pastors like the idea of cells but view the “real church” as taking place on Sunday morning—and often Sunday celebration statistics are the only ones taken. Elim measures growth through the multiplication of cell groups and cell attendance. They clearly believe that the church takes place both in cells and in celebration, but the cells are the driving force of the church.
  5. Some very effective cell churches are exceptions to this “norm.” Crossroads UMC effectively reaches non-Christians through a seeker friendly worship service, as does Western Branch Community Church.
  6. In the cell-driven strategy, people have already received their primary ministry in the cell. They are now ready to worship. It’s more of a celebration of cells and the people that the cells have reached. It is not only believers who need a worship that clearly draws them to Jesus; non-Christians in a postmodern age also desire to see the living God worshipped and the true Word preached. Although people may receive Christ in the celebration gathering, the primary evangelism thrust has taken place in the cells. The people are already cared for. Sunday brings a relaxed feeling.