by Joel Comiskey
Appeared as chapter one in Celebrating Cell Church Magazine (Houston, TX: Touch Publications, 2000), pp. 11-21.
By Joel Comiskey
Where Do We Go from Here? This book, penned by Ralph Neighbour, rocked the church world and helped create the American cell church movement. Neighbour’s book pinpointed the stagnate, programmatic state of the North American Church, while highlighting the close community and evangelistic growth in the cell church. Neighbour ignited a fuse that continues to explode today. Yet, WDWG celebrated its 10th anniversary in the year 2000. We need to once again ask the questions: Where have we gone? & Where do we go from here?
Neighbour initially attracted a crowd of dissatisfied pioneers, much like David who gathered “All those who were in distress or in debt or discontented . . .” (1 Samuel 22:2). In those early days, the only viable cell church models came from overseas. North Americans pieced together models and principles that might work in North America, but for the most part, they were immersed in theory. Few, if any, viable cell churches existed in North America. Anti-cell church foes repeated mercilessly the refrain, “It might work overseas but it just won’t work here.” Cell church teachers didn’t help much since their teaching lacked hard data that was firmly rooted in practice.
Polemics often consumed those early days. The cell church movement in North America was trying to establish itself among the competing small group philosophies that dotted the American landscape. Lots of discussion, for example, simmered around the difference between a pure cell church and the meta model. Again, theory, more than practice, characterized those times.
A different landscape is now evident in North America. North Americans, pragmatic by heritage, can now see several prominent cell churches that embody the earlier theory.
Let’s not underestimate the impact of Bethany World Prayer Center on the North American cell church scene. Bethany World Prayer Center declares by its very existence that the cell church can work in the U.S. Since becoming a cell church, BWPC has grown from a respectable church of twenty-five ingrown “fellowship” groups to a dynamic church of 1500 multiplying cell groups. And in just 13 years! Bethany World Prayer Center, with more than 8,000 Sunday worshippers and 2 million-dollar annual mission’s budget, dispels the myth that “cell churches just don’t work in America.”
Interest in Bethany is obvious. Their annual cell church conference increase in attendance yearly, attracting more than 1000+ pastors and key leaders. The attendance highlights the desire of church leaders to see a living, breathing cell church, rather than discuss what a cell church ought to be.
What people see at Bethany is a synthesis of the worldwide cell church wrapped into a unique package for Baton Rouge. BWPC, in other words, has excelled in stealing the best with pride. Larry Stockstill recognizes in his book, The Cell Church, the major influences that have shaped them:
- 1992 Neighbour’s book Where Do We Go From Here (derived principles)
- 1993 visited Faith Community Baptist in Singapore (copied the cell office structure)
- 1993 visited Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul, Korea (understood care/growth structure)
- 1993 visited Elim Church in El Salvador (understood the importance of evangelism in cells)
- 1996 visited International Charismatic Mission in Colombia and adopted G-12 principles
I’ve highlighted BWPC here, but Bethany is not the only exciting cell church blossoming in the U.S. Other North American cell churches are reaching into the 1000s. Space doesn’t allow me to talk about the exciting things happening at the Cypress Creek Church, Crossroads UMC, Door of Hope, Cornerstone Church, DOVE, Christ’s Fellowship, Antioch Church, Clear Point Church, Long Reach Church of God, and others. In my book Cell Church Solutions, I’ve highlighted forty-four growing cell churches in North America.
The fact that the cell church can work in the U.S. has given new impetus and prominence to the cell church scene in the U.S. Pastors who were afraid of joining an underground non-mainstream movement are now emboldened to follow these prominent cell church models.
I’m not saying that the cell church movement is now mainstream. Far from it. I am saying that the cell church movement in North America is gaining momentum and more church leaders are asking the questions, What is the essence of the cell church? & What are the practical steps to become a cell church?
From Fringe to Mainstream
My desire is for the cell church to move into the main current of God’s activity in the North American Church.
Few denominations, for example, promote cell church as a viable alternative for their churches. Take my own denomination, the Christian and Missionary Alliance. The C&MA has a growing number of cell churches and many more interested in the cell church model, but cell church is not promoted on a district or national level.
After a cell church seminar in Philadelphia, I met with a C&MA pastor in a nearby restaurant. We talked about the cell church philosophy and its integration into our denomination. “Our district doesn’t understand the cell church model,” he told me. “If key leaders have heard about it, the understanding is often muddled or wrong,” he continued.
In Indianapolis I ate lunch with a rising star in the C&MA whose church plant grew to 700 people in just seven years. This young pastor, well known in C&MA circles, plans to build a multi-million dollar complex. His interest in the cell church was evident, but he had no desire to identify with a counter-culture revolution called cell church. He simply wanted something better than his current philosophy. “What is the essence of the cell church?” he asked me in a million different ways. “How can I best integrate what we’re currently doing well with the cell church?” Do I need to get rid of all of my programs? I sensed sincerity and urgency in his voice.
Pastors like this one are recognizing the benefits of the cell church, yet they’re not interested in adopting some of the counter-culture elements that they perceive in the cell church. They simply desire something that will help them do a better job than their present church structure permits.
What can we say to this new generation of leaders? How can we help the movement bring greater blessing to God’s church? One way is clearly communicate the heart of the cell church so that others will see its value and desire to join in.
The Essence of the Cell Church
These conversations, along with my own wrestlings, have stirred me to piece together the essence of the cell church. I’ve attempted to break down the cell church philosophy into its simplest form, so churches will see a clear path to follow as well as recognizing the destination upon arrival. As far as I’m concerned, the following make comprise the Big Three of the cell church core.
- Definition of a cell based on components
- A strong cell system that concentrates on the cell
- Senior pastor’s total involvement in cell ministry
Correct Definition of a Cell
This issue, more than any other, separates the cell church movement from the plethora of small group philosophies. In today’s small group market it’s vogue to 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 of the key distinctions of the cell church movement is the purity of the small group. Cell churches highlight the components of a cell and refuse to call a cell everything that is small and a group. These components include: knowing God, knowing each other, and reaching out so that others know Jesus (with the goal of multiplication). Cell churches want to know that those attending a cell will experience community and have a chance to invite their non-Christian friends. Cell churches believe that labeling everything a small group will actually water down the cell philosophy.
My definition of a cell is: A group of people (4-15), who meet regularly for the purpose of spiritual edification and evangelistic outreach (with the goal of multiplication) and who are committed to participate in the functions of the local church.
My definition makes it clear that I am referring to church-based small groups. Those who attend the cell groups are expected to attend the church celebration. The goal of the cell is multiplication.
Cell System that Concentrates on the Cell
Concentration–a positive term–must be our rallying cry. To succeed in cell ministry you must give it chance to fly. Concentration equals cell nourishment and long-term care and assures that cells will survive and flourish.
In a million different ways church members must hear and see that the cell is the base of the church. They must unconsciously understand that success means leading a cell group. Concentrating on the cell church system stimulates church members to enter the equipping track with the goal of eventually leading a cell group. If your cell system, on the other hand, is one program among many, it will fail to care for current cell leaders nor empower members to open new cell groups.
I’ve discovered that this is a tall order for many churches. I challenge these pastors with a positive message of integration, rather than a negative one of get rid of all your filthy programs. Integration involves intense planning to assimilate current programs into the cell church system (or let them die a natural death). Integration demands hard questions and honest answers. It takes time and energy, but the fruit is well worth the passing pain.
The Senior Pastor’s Total Involvement in Cell Ministry
In a cell seminar in Houston, an associate pastor approached me in despair saying, “Is it possible for our church to become a cell church, even though my senior pastor is juggling a dozen programs?” How I longed to offer him an encouraging word, but I lacked one. I said to him, “In all honesty, unless your senior pastor is leading the charge, you’ll never become a cell church.” This is a fact. Perhaps the clearest distinction between a church with cells and a cell church is the senior pastor’s involvement. The senior pastor in a church with cells delegates the cell ministry to an underling, while in the cell church the senior pastor leads the charge.
Don’t misunderstand me. An associate pastor or even a zealous church member can help the senior pastor catch the cell church vision. But until he does, the church has little chance of becoming a cell church.
In our cell church experiment, it took one year for the senior pastor to truly capture the cell church vision. When starting, he had a cell vision, but the vision didn’t have him. It didn’t possess and control him. It took its place in the long-line of high-powered programs. He didn’t really understand the need to concentrate, nor promote the cell church vision before the congregation.
Those initial months were some of the hardest in my life, because I wasn’t sure if he or the church was going to make it. I understood that unless he caught the vision, we’d stagnate as a church with cells.
The good news is that the cell church vision has captured the heart of my senior pastor, and we’re now growing like wildfire (1997-21 cells; 1998-110 cells; 1999-250 cells; 2000 goal-300 cells). My prayer is that the same will be true in your church.
Beyond the Big Three
Surely, there are other important aspects of the cell church: pastoral care system, leadership training, statistical follow-up, offices, etc. These additional aspects, however, flesh-out the skeleton. The big three lay the foundation.
Any church that defines it’s small groups accurately, concentrates on building a cell system, and is led by a senior pastor committed to the cell church vision has arrived at the ball park. To win the game, additional features must be added in the process, but at least the game can begin.
My concern is that we don’t entangle the cell church movement with endless strings of cell legalism, for which everyone has a different set of standards. Let’s proclaim the good news of the cell church to those starting churches or desiring a change. Let’s keep our message simple, understandable and not make it so hard for people to join this wonderful movement.
Cautions in the Cell Church Movement
As the cell church movements heads into the next millennium, we have a better chance of success if we take heed to certain precautions.
The Language Barrier
It’s time that we change our language in the cell movement. I’m afraid that at times we’ve created a negative image of program haters or people against the traditional church. This image helped create the movement and even sustained a core group of guerilla warriors who wanted something that the program church could not offer. However, we’re in a different time period. Some of the most prominent churches in the U.S. are cell churches, and many others want to follow their lead. Let’s begin with the good news, hold forth the benefits, and lay out the core principles (the big three).
The Bunker Mentality
Several years ago, a C&MA church in Ecuador adopted one of the discipleship models on the market. This church wanted to make committed disciples of Jesus Christ that would eventually stir the church to grow. The mission gave this church a green light to run with their vision and even offered it the best missionaries and plenty of funds. When the mission inquired about the results, the answer was always, “We need more time. Discipleship is a long, drawn-out process. Eventually our church will explode, but we need more time.” Ten years later, the church has yet to make a significant impact.
I’ve noticed this mentality on an ever-increasing scale in many transitioning cell churches. These churches have misinterpreted the purpose of the Prototype stage of cell development. They have seen the Prototype as the place where every detail about the cell group must be developed before they can move on. They work on the cell values so that the cell groups will eventually grow. But they have missed one point. They are not taking practical steps to grow the initial prototype group. They are not putting into practice the lifestyle that makes the cell grow.
I like to ask these churches: What are you doing right now to make your cell groups the central focus of your church? What are your cell multiplication goals for the next year? How are your cell church values manifested in an outward way? Do you promote the cell church vision constantly? Do your cell values stir you to create cell offices? How has your cell church values stirred you to reorganize your staff to be more compatible with the cell church?
Yes, change does take time, but we should never use that fact to excuse the lack of clear, urgent goals in the present. I call this the bunker mentality because these churches keep on adding time like a pain pill. It helps them live with the present, but does nothing to change their tomorrow.
Successful cell church leaders are intentional. They take clear, concrete steps to make their cell church experiment succeed. They’re pro-active, making history rather than becoming history. Cell church pastor, you must take practical steps to become a cell church. Starting with a quality prototype cell is only the beginning. You must also make clear, audaciously bold goals for the multiplication of your cell groups. This requires intense leadership training and clear focus on the cell system.
Let’s move away from the theoretical and take bold steps to become cell churches.
Experiences, not teaching, change values. Most of us have heard this many times. This phrase is commonly used to talk about equipping new leaders. Potential leaders must take incremental steps in leading a cell group before becoming cell leaders.
Yet sometimes we fail to apply this to the cell church transition. Church members will change when they experience cell life, see the positive results, and understand the cell vision because of constant promotion. I’ve noticed a tendency to ask church members to wait until they’ve reached a certain value level before allowing them to join a cell or become part of the cell church. On the contrary, churches and members transitioning to the cell church model will learn in the process.
Where Do We Go from Here? As we celebrate the tenth anniversary of Neighbour’s revolutionary book, we must peer into the next millennium with keen insight and added responsibility. We must build upon the theories of the cell church and work out what it means in real churches. We must take the principles and develop practices that work in specific situations
Recently Dr. Neighbour asked me for a definition of the cell church model in 10-15 words. I responded this way: “A New Testament Movement that Allows Churches to Experience Unlimited Qualitative And Quantitative Growth.”
I believe that the cell church is just that simple and exciting. As we share our excitement with church leaders eager to experience something better, I believe our journey from here will be both exciting and successful.
Appendix: I’ve listed below the common patterns or principles that I observed in the eight largest worldwide cell churches. The first four are the most important, in my opinion.
- Dependence on Jesus Christ through prayer.
- Senior pastor and leadership team giving strong, visionary leadership to the cell ministry.
- Cell ministry promoted as the backbone of the church.
- Clear definition of a cell group (weekly, outside the church building, evangelistic, pastoral care/discipleship, clear goal of multiplication).
- The passion behind cell ministry is evangelism and church growth.
- Reproduction (multiplication) is the major goal of each cell group.
- Cell and celebration attendance expected of everyone attending the church.
- Clearly established leadership requirements for those entering cell ministry.
- Required cell leadership training for all potential cell group leaders.
- Cell leadership developed from within the church itself, at all levels.
- A supervisory care structure for each level of leadership (G-12 or 5×5).
- Follow-up system of visitors and new converts administered through cell groups.
- Cell lessons based on pastor’s teaching to promote continuity between cell and celebration (although flexibility might be given to meet the needs of specific homogeneous groups)