By Joel Comiskey
2012, the following article is from Comiskey’s book Myths and Truths of the Cell Church.
In the early years of my cell church research, I became enamoured with the cell church concept because of its potential for church growth. I noticed that the largest churches in the world were cell churches, and I visited many of them to discover patterns and principles. The rapid growth of these cell churches and my own church growth philosophy were like a match to gasoline. Church growth ignited my soul with a deep passion for cell ministry.
As a missionary in Ecuador, I formed part of the pastoral team in one of the key mission churches, and my new role became the director of small groups. Eventually we began to implement cell ministry and saw the church explode. The mother church planted a daughter church, and I participated on the church planting team. We saw the same incredible growth in the new church.
Around that time, I criticized certain leaders in the cell church world for focusing too much on values and theology. I thought they were slowing down the cell church process by emphasizing biblical foundations more than church growth. My mission was to place cell church squarely within the church growth camp.
At that time, I prided myself in pragmatism. I had studied the largest cell churches in the world and could now tell everyone how to quickly grow a cell church.
However, I was faced with one huge problem. I realized that certain countries could count on church growth because the Spirit of God was already moving. Cell church ministry enhanced and fed the flames of the growth already happening. The growth, in other words, was coming from the Spirit of God, rather than from the cell church strategy.
For example, I was in Bogota, Colombia, in 1997 with Ralph Neighbour. We were there to check out a large cell church, which was breaking church growth records. While I was impressed with their growth, I also realized that many other non-cell churches were also growing rapidly. A particular pastor from England noticed the same thing. He was visiting Colombia at the same time and happened to visit a nearby non-cell church that was exploding with growth. He testified to us about the amazing growth in Colombia in general.
I discovered the same truth while in Ecuador. Our cell church exploded, but many other non-cell churches were also growing rapidly.
In 1999 while living in Ecuador, I conducted a five-week seminar in five different U.S. cities. Different cell churches hosted each seminar, and I was dumbfounded by the lack of growth in these churches. I was accustomed to the rapid growth taking place throughout Latin America, so I thought these North America cell church pastors were doing something wrong.
During my five-city tour, I showed the attendees photo after photo of growing cell churches, hoping I would stir them to greater vision. Rather, they gave me a “deer in the headlights” gaze. They just didn’t know what to do with these worldwide church growth claims. It just wasn’t happening here in North America.
In 2001 I came back to North America to coach cell church pastors and plant a church. People were not as receptive and were busy with work, material things, and life in general. Most were not eager to join a cell group, get involved in the training track, or volunteer for cell leadership. I discovered rather quickly that I could “grow a church” much faster by asking for less commitment.
The more I travel on my cell church journey, the more I see that the cell church strategy doesn’t produce rapid growth. God reserves growth for himself. He wants to receive the glory for all church growth. By his grace, he doesn’t allow man to glory in himself. God wants to get all the glory.
Then why should a pastor be enticed to implement the cell church strategy?
Truth: Theology Is the True Foundation upon Which to Build a Cell Church
Ralph Neighbour repeatedly says, “Theology must breed methodology.” This phrase was one of Neighbour’s central themes in his 1990 book, Where Do We Go from Here. As I write in 2011, twenty-one years after Neighbour wrote this book, I’ve arrived at the same conclusion. The good news is that the cell church strategy is rooted in a strong biblical theology.
Biblical truth is the only firm foundation for anything we do. Without biblical truth, we don’t have a firm under-pinning upon which we can hang our ministry and philosophy. We can plow through most anything when we know that God is stirring us to behave biblically.
Cell church is not the latest, greatest church growth strategy. If it were, it would simply be a passing fad until the next hotter, more relevant strategy comes along. In many places around the world (like the West) cell church transforms the church through a purification process. Church growth is slow but cell church helps Christ’s church go deeper.
What are some of the key biblical truths that cell church brings out?
Christ’s last command to his disciples was to make disciples of all nations. I believe the essence of cell ministry is making disciples who make disciples. Cells are leader breeders and the best place to prepare disciple-makers. Multiplication is at the heart of cell ministry because new cells provide the environment for making new disciples. The goal of the cell church is to raise up an army of leaders to continue the work of Christ’s church.
God took the form of a human being, so he could reveal his love and character. Jesus said that he had come to seek and save the lost. His ministry on earth was to heal the broken hearted and to set the captives free. Following Christ’s example, cell evangelism is primarily relational. Cells penetrate society, bring good news of the gospel to the hurting and needy, and continue the process through multiplication.
Priesthood of All Believers
Some churches grow large through filling pews. Yet, scripture teaches that all believers are priests. Cells value the participation of every believer.
Part of the priesthood of all believers is the use of spiritual gifts. I’ve written various books on this topic and believe that cells provide the best atmosphere for spiritual gift use. In fact, all of the New Testament gift passages were written to house churches.
Our God is a social God. He’s in constant unity with the other members of the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. He is not an individualist. Jesus demonstrated that unity while on earth, never doing anything that wasn’t perfectly pleasing to the Father and Spirit (John 5:19-30). He then told his disciples to walk in that same unity. He said the best witness to an unbelieving world was the love and unity that existed among the disciples (John 17:6-26).
He wants us to be involved in community, which flows from his very nature. Cell ministry promotes the wealth of one-another ministry found throughout the Bible. Through cell church ministry, the Triune God is challenging an individualistic mindset and asking his church to die to self and practice the one-anothers of scripture.
As I’ve ministered in North America for the last ten years, my thinking has radically shifted from the question, “How can cell church work in North America?” to “How can we obey scripture that tells us to live in community and do life together.” There’s a huge difference between the two convictions. One is based on pragmatism, the other on scripture.
Theological Operating System
Some of you reading this book might remember the old Windows DOS operating system back in 1991. Microsoft started off with DOS, a code-based operating system, and then tried to marry it with Windows, an image-based system. For a short while, a user had to buy a version of Windows that ran on top of the DOS system.
My marriage of cell church with church growth was like placing Windows over DOS. I simply placed cell church on top of church growth.
DOS was my church growth paradigm, the code of my old thinking. When I discovered cell church, I placed cell church thinking on top of my church growth paradigm. Cell church was like Windows 3.1, Microsoft’s first attempt at the windows operating system.
I discovered, however, that church growth theory was sadly lacking. It was a great operating system in countries that were receptive and focused on growth. It was sadly lacking in non-receptive cultures that needed revival.
Theology is the best operating system for all of life, including cell church ministry. Trying to place cell church over another strategy, like church growth, is clumsy and simply doesn’t work well. I have now changed my cell church paradigm structure. I’m no longer placing it over my church growth philosophy, like Windows over DOS. I now believe and teach that biblical theology provides the best framework and motivation for doing cell ministry. I now realize that growth or lack of growth is not the reason to do cell church. Biblical truth is the only firm reason to run with the cell church philosophy.
Cell church challenges assumptions about the church. It stirs believers to think more deeply about the Christian life. Is Christianity simply an event to attend? Or is it a lifestyle to live? In many hardened soils around the world, cell church is a challenge to truly live out the claims of Christianity. It challenges time commitments and what is really important in life.
The only reason why someone in a materialistic culture would make a commitment to attend a cell, enter the equipping track, and even become a multiplication leader or coach (all volunteer ministry) is because Jesus Christ has touched his or her life.
Cell church, therefore, in many countries around the world, is a counter-cultural challenge to become the people of God and the Church of Jesus Christ.