By Joel Comiskey
One pastor transitioning to the cell church wrote: “Would a community center offering things like a drop-in coffee shop, counseling rooms, relationship-training and other courses be considered under “programs” if undertaken by a growing cell church?”[i] Questions like this weigh heavily on the minds of most leaders considering the cell church. “Are all programs evil?” many wonder, thinking that the cell church teaches this.
A pastor from a seeker-targeted church in the U.S. concluded that the cell model didn’t work. Upon further inquiry, the pastor had wrongly interpreted the cell group church model. He thought the cell group church consisted only of cells with no children’s program or children’s pastor. He believed that the cell performed children’s ministry on a rotating basis. Likewise, he felt that cell groups did everything else in the church.
Much of the resistance toward the cell group church comes from wrong interpretations. “Cell group churches are against everything except cells,” some imagine.
Programs in Cell Churches?
What is a program? According to the dictionary it’s simply a system of procedures or activities that has a specific purpose.[ii]Synonyms include plan, agenda, and curriculum. The cell group church movement rightly downplays the over-emphasis on programs, believing the main focus must be the cell. Let’s be careful, however, not to throw out the baby with the bath water. Even the fastest growing cell group churches have more than cell groups. Bethany World Prayer Center features a children’s Sunday School, worship team ministry, Saturday morning prayer meeting, youth ministry, and college and career ministry.[iii] You’ll find at the International Charismatic Mission in Bogotá, Colombia the ministries of worship, spiritual warfare, TV, radio, counseling, ushers, follow-up, social action, pastoral care, accounting, video, sound ministry, bookstore, and more. Yoido Full Gospel Church , the founder of the modern cell group church movement, highlights a number of ministries, like Elim Welfare Town , a village for both the elderly and delinquent young people. This facility is considered the largest welfare facility in the Far East . Delinquent young people are trained with practical skills and the elderly gratuitously find housing. YFGC also spawned off the Soon Shin University , with approximately 1000 graduate students.
Karen Hurston adds, “Each of YFGC’s more than twenty outreach fellowships targets a different segment of society, offering a wide variety of activities. Whether a person has a heart to help struggling churches, is a professional actor looking for a way to spread the gospel through drama, or is concerned for the homeless and disabled, an outreach fellowship invites involvement.”[iv]
Faith Community Baptist Church in Singapore, a world-renowned cell group church, reaches out to the physical needs of the Singaporeans through day care centers, after school clubs, centers for the handicapped and deaf, diabetic support groups, and legal counseling. They call this Touch Community Service Center. It’s a non-profit organization, which receives eighty percent of its support from FCBC and most of its staff members belong to the church. The range and depth of ministry at Touch Community Service Center is staggering.
The 150,000-member Works and Mission Baptist Church in Ivory Coast , West Africa has developed an intricate departmental system. Every member of the church must be involved in some kind of ministry. These ministries include visitation, casting out demons, ushering, tape ministry, etc. Ralph Neighbor, Jr. said that Pastor Dion Roberts’ ministry structure is top notch and wondered why more North American churches weren’t doing something similar.[v]
Neighbour also said, “Realistically, perhaps it is best to say that in the cell church very few additional programs exist.[vi]
The Word “Ministry” Aids Understanding
The word ministry comes from the Greek word, diakone, where we get our English word deacon. Ministry speaks of humble acts of service for others. The word program, in contrast, often carries the idea of self-perpetuation—something that has a life of its own. Ministries serve and sustain both the celebration and cell structure; programs divert the attention away from cell life. Ministries add to the success of the cell system; programs compete for time and activity. Ministries refer to such activities as prayer, ushering, the follow-up of new converts, missions, children’s ministry, nursery, etc. Those planting a cell group church shouldn’t be burdened with adding ministries. Follow the policy of adding new ministries only as the need arises. But don’t imagine that the cell church is only a worship service, a cell meeting, and nothing more.
Keep it Simple
Leonard Sweet, in his book Soul Tsunami, looks at our culture (post-post-modern or pre-Christian) and suggests that traditional Christianity, with the heavily institutionalized church structure, conveys the wrong kind of message in our culture. He concludes that most in our culture, while turned off to “religion,” are very much tuned into “spirituality.” While people might yawn and tune-out if someone wants to talk to them about Christianity, most people will actually tune-in if we identify ourselves as “disciples of Jesus Christ.”
Sweet says the state of society is such that we have tremendous opportunity to advance God’s kingdom, but only if we start doing things differently, or simply get back to the basics. His arguments are threefold: 1) Let Jesus be the message, not “Christianity,” nor religious traditions; 2) “lose control” as church ministry becomes decentralized, and ministry structures become horizontal instead of vertical/hierarchical; and 3) acknowledge the spiritual — recognize there is something mystical about Christianity, that one can actually experience the presence of God in their lives.[vii] Sweet’s analysis of modern culture sits well with the cell group church philosophy, which is a call back to the simplicity of the New Testament.
Don’t add unnecessary ministries. Allow your church to maintain that New Testament feeling. Don’t try to harmonize all ministries by using elaborate graphs or globes. Often these attempts complicate more than they clarify.[viii]
Don’t Confuse Ministries with CELL Groups
Some churches, trying to integrate small groups and programs, label any group that is small a cell. This might include Sunday School classes, prison ministry task groups, church boards, choir groups, usher groups, etc. One recent book on small groups defined the small group as a “a face-to-face meeting that is a sub-unit of the overall fellowship.”[ix] This author goes on to say, “Any gathering of less than a dozen people is a small group.”[x] Small groups are defined by some as cell groups, home Bible studies, Sunday School classes, deacon boards, A.A. groups, Pulpit Committees or Prison Ministry Task Groups.[xi] We are told simply to recognize that your church already has existing small groups.[xii] A faulty definition of a cell could lead a person into thinking that a cell is a board meeting, a choir group, a task force, or something else. Cell group churches place a high priority on the cell group. They believe that participation in a cell is just as important as the celebration meeting. The Christian needs both to live the abundant Christian life. If the cell is distorted, a believer will likely be weak, lacking discipleship. Likewise, a cell must evangelize and multiply, or face certain stagnation. In all the worldwide cell group churches I studied, the cell could be defined as, “A group of 4-15 people that meets weekly outside the church building for the purpose of evangelism and discipleship with the goal of multiplication.” There might be other groups in a church that are not cell groups (Sunday School classes, boards, choirs, parking lot groups). But a person would need to attend a real cell and then in addition he or she could be participating in another ministry group. The danger is that a person might be lulled into thinking that involvement in a choir group or Sunday School class is an adequate replacement for a life-giving cell group. It isn’t.
Cell and Celebration
Cell (small-group wing) and celebration (large-group wing) make up the two wings of the cell group church. Both are important. Ministries, therefore, should be connected to one or both of the two wings. If a particular ministry doesn’t fit with either, be very careful about adding it.
I consulted with one transitioning church whose pastor had received a vision while looking at a monument that had five-pillars. He thought God spoke to him saying, “Your ministry will have five pillars.” He tried to connect the number five to everything he did in ministry and eventually erected five programs to somehow connect with the vision he saw. When the pastor attempted to transition his church to the cell model, he refused to kill the five-headed beast, preferring to feed and nourish it. I returned a year later for further consultation and found the pastor at the end of his rope. He was finally ready to slay his dragon.
I counseled him to emphasize a two-pronged church, one that emphasizes cell and celebration. He suddenly understood how to integrate his ministry pillars with the cell church structure and the problem was solved. This church is now a thriving cell group church model.
Practically, celebration in the cell group church is very similar to vibrant celebration in the conventional church. Such celebration services require: ¨
Great cell group churches feature lively, contemporary worship where participants worship without interruption, rather than having to sit, worship, stand, worship, shake hands, worship, look at the bulletin, worship. Worshippers get involved with God and each other and have fun. Admittedly, there is no one way to worship in the cell group church. Each church’s tradition and background will dictate the style in which they worship. ¨ Preaching-Teaching Ministry The cell group church should have a strong preaching ministry, teaching people from God’s inerrant Word. ¨
Don’t shortchange children in the name of cell church. Every single cell group church I studied offered great children’s teaching during the celebration service. The main difference between children’s ministry in a cell group church and in a conventional church is integration. In a cell group church, the Sunday morning children’s hour is often connected with the children’s cell during the week. ¨
Care for Babies
Don’t expect mothers to care for their children during the worship service—just because you’re a cell group church! Provide them with the best nursery care possible, so they can freely concentrate on the Biblical message. ¨
Ushers help provide order, information, greetings, and they collect the offerings. The key difference is that ushers could be chosen from cell leaders, or those in the process of becoming cell leaders. ¨
As the celebration service begins to grow, administration questions take on new significance. Who will count the offerings? Who will sell the books? What about the parking lot attendants? ¨
Most cell group churches serve the Lord’s Supper (Communion) on Sunday. To make this happen, someone must prepare cups and trays and afterwards clean them. The same is true for baptism. There are always people behind the scenes that help in these areas. This list isn’t complete, so churches need to fill in the gaps. Notice how the above ministries are integrated into the large-group wing of the church called celebration.
New cell leaders don’t just appear. They are developed. Effective cell group churches rely on extensive training to make it happen. Many cell churches have converted their adult Sunday School into their equipping track, along with other training formats. ¨
Pastoral Care Structure
Cell leaders become tired. When they fail to receive care and attention they quickly fade away. Cell group churches must develop a first-class care structure (5×5, G-12, combination) to assure long-term success.¨
Various Who will prepare the cell lesson? How about administrating weekly reports? Who will provide worship choruses for the cells? A cell secretary is ideal, but when starting, someone will need to help. To help people understand that cells are not the only thing in the cell group church, a coworker suggested using the term “cell-based church,” rather than cell church. Perhaps this will help people to see that the cell is the base of the church, but it’s not the only thing in the church. Some churches think they know what it means to be a cell group church, when in reality they think that the cell group church is only the cell. Because of faulty definitions, some churches never make it because they don’t have the permission to experiment and to adjust on the fly.[xiii] They’re locked into one way of doing cell group church, and they don’t realize that they have the freedom to act creatively and integrate ministry within their cell system.[xiv]
Where do you place the extensive radio ministry of Elim or the television ministry of Bethany? Bethany World Prayer Center also has an extensive counseling ministry that is open to the community. Nor is the social outreach of Faith Community Baptist Church directly related to the celebration. In all endeavors in life, there are exceptions to every rule. Because of these exceptions, don’t discard the rule, but for the most part, ministries should be connected to cell and celebration. In these churches, the cell group church philosophy has been thoroughly formulated as part of the warp and woof of the church. These ministries are not seen as competitive when everyone on staff understands where they fit.
[i] Ian Russell, Monday, May 22, 2000 , cellchurchtalk, , http://www.cell-church.org/list/highlights.html.
[ii]Encarta® World English Dictionary © & (P) 1999 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved. Developed for Microsoft by Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.
[iii] Bethany runs their youth and college and career ministries through cell groups; nevertheless, they don’t ignore the needs of these age specific groups.
[iv] Karen Hurston , Growing the World’s Largest Church (Springfield, MO: Chrism, 1995), p. 125.
[v] Neighbour commented about this during Les Brickman ’s doctoral defense on the Works and Mission Baptist Church. Neighbor cited Victory Temple in Tulsa , Oklahoma as an example of a church with multiple ministries.
[vi] Ralph Neighbour , CellChurchTalk, http://www.cell-church.org/list/highlights.html, Tuesday, May 23, 2000 .
[vii] Leonard Sweet, SoulTsunami (Grand Rapids, MI: ZondervanPublishingHouse, 1999). I’m grateful for this summary given by Ralph Neighbour on cellchurchtalk,
[viii] In George’s book The Coming Church Revolution, he spends most of the time describing his mapping strategy called the Meta Globe. According to George its a way of analyzing your church by placing all of the ministries into various categories. This categorization is supposed to help a church examine their real structure. However, I have found the concept more confusing than helpful. Dale Galloway mentioned the same thing to me at his cell conference in Columbus , Ohio (Oct., 1995)..
[ix] Carl F. George , Nine Keys to Effective Small Group Leadership (Mansfield, PA: Kingdom Publishing, 1997), p. 11.
[x] Ibid, p. 24.
[xi] Ibid, pp. 11,12,23.
[xii]David Limiero, “Meta, Model, or Martyr? Three Approaches to Introducing a Small Groups Ministry in Your Church,” July 1996. http://smallgroups.com/models07.htm. Accessed: Friday, May 22, 1998.
[xiii] It’s a misnomer that all programs flow from the cell. One pastor who tried to transition to the cell church said, “It’s impossible for all things to flow through a cell. As the church grows, certain extra items must occur. For example, worship ministry is a vital aspect of any Vineyard. While some Cell Churches claim they have a zone of worship people, it still leaves the uninvolved spouses needing to be covered in another cell strategy. In reality, it generally works better to have a worship team apart from the cell strategy. The same is true with assimilation and enfold. Boomers are not good at simply following up on people where something is not organized. Ministry teams after a service also are something that doesn’t fit well in the context of a cell. Someone must train the workers. Thus, while this principle sounds good, it has a number of issues that must be covered in order for the church to function” (Hap Leman, “Frustrations of a Cell Church Pastor,” Research Paper presented to Regent University on 5-19-98 ).
[xiv] Take the example of David Cho. He did not have a definition that told him he had to be some way. He had to figure out what would work within the basic confines of the general vision. In other words, he understood the basic definition of the small group then did whatever it took to make it work.