Discipling the Future Generation Now
Chapter 3: Simple Structure for the Vision
Walter Isaacson’s book, Einstein: His Life and Universe, talks about Einstein’s search for simple, clear formulas to understand the universe. His famous mass-energy formula “E=mc2” is amazingly simple. Granted, this formula is still very complex to me, but for those within the scientific community, Einstein’s equation was shockingly straightforward and simple. Einstein had a knack for taking existing truths and proven experiments of other scientists and then bringing those concepts together into a simple unified whole.
When Jesus started his ministry, he made it very simple and plain—make disciples. While the Romans and Jewish leaders didn’t understand what Jesus was trying to do, he had a clear formula and plan to change the world through making disciples. His command to his own group of disciples was to continue the process of making disciples throughout the world. They did this in small house churches, which would come together and celebrate whenever possible. They traveled throughout the entire known world implementing this simple discipling process. Even fierce persecution couldn’t stamp them out. And the strategy that Jesus promoted is the same one that propels the Church forward today.
Cell church ministry is simple, following the pattern of Jesus Christ. Many people over-complicate cell church ministry, but it only involves four elements which are directed at making disciples:
All cell churches highlight these four basic elements. And these four elements apply equally to children as they do adults.
As my good friend Daphne Kirk is fond of saying and writing, “Like adults, like children.” She says, “Children have the same needs as adults in many areas of their lives. Most of the problems that are encountered are because their needs are expected to be totally different, and adults then feel that they could never cope with any significant interaction with them.” (note 1)
The focus of this chapter is the large and small group gathering—the celebration and the cell. Both of these elements (or wings) are essential in the discipleship process. A church with these two components is better equipped to make disciples who make disciples than a church that emphasizes one or the other exclusively. Acts 2:46-47 says, “Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”
In Jerusalem, the early Church met in houses to participate in the Lord’s supper and fellowship, but then those same house churches gathered together in the temple to hear the teaching of the apostles. We see here both the house church meetings as well as those house churches coming together to hear the apostolic teaching. Children were present in both the small group and large one. Whether meeting together regularly in a larger gathering or only occasionally, the house churches in the New Testament were connected, and this connection has important implications for discipleship.
But what about equipping and coaching? I’ve dedicated chapter seven to discuss discipleship equipping for children since this element requires a whole chapter.
Coaching is also very important because it ensures that those who are leading the children receive care, encouragement, and development. All cell churches prioritize the coaching of the leaders and those leading children’s cells are no exception.
I do not, however, have a chapter dedicated to coaching cell group leaders in this book. The reason is because I have not found the principles of coaching to be sufficiently different for children’s cell group leaders than for adult leaders. That is, cell churches coach the leaders of children’s cell groups in much the same way that they coach leaders of adult cell groups. When there are coaching distinctions for children’s cell groups—like in the Vine Church and First Baptist Church of Campo Grande—I will mention those unique coaching aspects while writing about the particular church. Otherwise, I recommend the books and articles I have already written on the topic of coaching (note 2).
Making Disciples in the Larger Gathering
Many non-cell churches do an excellent job of ministering to children in the larger gathering, and cell churches can learn a lot from them. It’s common, for example, for Christian churches to channel money, training, and staff development into children’s ministry on Sunday. In fact, part of the Protestant heritage is to gather children during the celebration service to teach and minister to them. The best cell churches also emphasize making disciples in the larger gathering.
Children learn best when the teaching is dynamic and relevant. Lorna Jenkins writes about ministry to children on Sunday,
The Children’s service reflects the adult service, except that it is more children-related. There is fast and upbeat worship, quiet and reflective worship, games, drama, object lessons and memory verses. All these are based around the one central truth, which is presented in the Bible teaching (note 3).
One of the key ways to disciple children is to teach them God’s Word. Children, like adults, need teaching from God’s inerrant Word. Paul’s exhortation to Timothy applies to children,
Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear (2 Tim. 4:2-3).
During the normal adult sermon time, children can have their own Word time as well. Often the children will worship with the adults and then are dismissed from the adult service to gather in classes or altogether, depending on the size of the church.
Some larger cell churches have an entirely separate gathering for children that includes worship, drama, and a general teaching. Then the children are divided into age specific, class-size groups to study God’s Word. Trained teachers instruct the children. Those teaching the children should use all possible resources to educate them and keep them interested, such as skits, flannel graphs, dynamic stories, big-letter song books, and anything visually attractive.
Often cell churches will connect the teaching on Sunday with the cell group that takes place during the week. Some more advanced cell churches—like the Vine—synchronize all teaching (sermon, children’s ministry on Sunday, and cells). Pastor Marcia, pastor over children’s ministry at the Vine, will write the children’s material based on the message that her husband, Aluizio, preaches. That same biblical theme is then crafted into a cell lesson for the children, as well as the adults, to be used in their cell groups during the week (note 4).
Lorna Jenkins writing about her experience at FCBC says,
Senior Pastor tells the leaders his preaching themes and Bible passages for the coming three months. One of the children’s staff divides these themes into weekly topics and assigns a memory verse to each one. At other times, the Children’s Pastor sets the central truth, which is to be taught at the Sunday celebration. She then passes these message outlines to teams of volunteer helpers who prepare drama, memory verses and object lesson for each Sunday (note 5).
Great teachers get the children involved in the stories through interactive questions. As with any great lesson, preparation makes the difference between a dry, boring lesson and one that has a lasting impact. The goal is to have the children return with a new commitment to serve Jesus. If you’re a church plant, you might not have the resources that larger churches are accustomed to. Yet, the goal is the same: envision the children becoming ministers of the gospel—disciples who make disciples—rather than simply recipients of knowledge.
I first understood that Jesus was alive when I was ten years old in a fifth grade Sunday school class. The church I was attending seemed more concerned about rituals, reciting prayers, kneeling, standing, and other postures. It all seemed confusing to my young mind. Yet this particular Sunday School teacher clearly taught that Jesus Christ was alive and wanted to have a personal relationship with each of us. He challenged us with the idea that we could talk to Jesus in the here and now and that Jesus wanted to become a personal friend to those who called on him. I didn’t receive Jesus at that moment, but it was certainly an important seed in my own life and one that stands out to this day.
Teaching God’s Word and worshipping with other believers go hand-in-hand. Some call the entire experience “worship.” I’m referring here to helping children learn to enter into God’s presence, move in the Spirit of God, learn to pray, and hear God’s voice. Of course, an important part of this is gathering with other adults and children in a larger gathering.
My own church, for example, includes the children with the adults in the main worship service for the singing. I often see some children in the larger gathering dancing at the side of their parents, swaying to an inner beat and perhaps dreaming of the day that they would be up front as part of the worship team. I rejoice at their spontaneity and freedom in Jesus as the worship songs are played. Then the children go to their children’s church where they have additional worship as well as a lesson on their level.
There is something powerful about a larger group gathering that inspires people to seek after God. The larger gathering gives those present the opportunity to be inspired by the awesome majesty of God. Worship in the larger group can help the children become stronger disciples as they get to know God and experience him with others.
I appreciated hearing one worship leader tell the congregation to soak in the presence of God and not to worry about singing the words, posturing in a certain way, or impressing someone nearby. “Your goal,” he said, “is to enter God’s presence and to love him in a more intimate way.” The same applies for children.
“We are going to conquer this nation for Jesus, and we’re going to start with the children. They are the future. Don’t be weary in well-doing; your reward is in heaven.” This is the typical rallying cry of pastor Aluizio and Marcia Silva at the Vine Church. They realize that those leading children’s cells can become discouraged. They need to be encouraged to press on, and this is where the lead pastor and team play a critical role in the larger gathering. Gabriela, one of the key team leaders at the Vine Church, told me that children’s ministry can be discouraging. One reason why they have a yearly rally is to encourage the leaders with God’s larger vision for the church and nation. Wise cell church pastors use the preaching, the announcements, testimonies and other means to remind leaders of their eternal rewards, the great things God is doing, and the need for persistence.
The reality is that children’s cells require adult help, whether hosting the group, leading the group, or organizing it. So when it comes to casting the cell vision, the lead pastor has an excellent opportunity during the larger gathering to proclaim to all those congregants that formation of disciples is not just for adults. Everyone needs to be involved.
Mario Vega often casts the children’s ministry vision on Sunday morning, speaking highly of those who are leading the children as well as plans to open more children’s cells throughout El Salvador. Mario’s influence adds a new excitement to the church and encourages those who are ministering to the children.
Eighty-five percent of conversion experiences occur to people between the ages of four and fourteen. This means that if we are going to make disciples of all nations, we need to start with the conversion of children.
Luis Bush, a well-known missionary strategist, spent the first half of his career promoting the 10/40 Window, the area of the globe between ten degrees and forty degrees north latitude. Bush’s thesis is that Christian missionaries need to target their efforts on this area of the world because most of the world’s non-Christian population lives in that region. While Bush continues to believe that the 10/40 Window is essential, in September 2009, he announced a new initiative called the “4/14 Window,” reaching children between the ages of four and fourteen—the largest and most strategic group of people in the world. His 2009 book is called The 4–14 Window: Raising Up a New Generation to Transform the World, and it explains why the evangelism of children should garner both our attention and resources.
The larger gathering is a great place to evangelize and reach the 4/14 Window. I remember during a larger gathering at my childhood church, I heard a speaker talk about asking Jesus into your heart. He showed how this worked via a short film. I was probably ten years old at the time. I don’t believe the presenter gave an actual invitation to receive Jesus, but I do remember that I realized that Jesus wanted to have a personal relationship with each person, and that he wanted to live in my heart.
Evangelizing children is not only about conversion but also teaching them to evangelize. Sunday school and discipleship equipping (chapter 7) are great places to do this. Children make friends easily and can naturally invite their friends to Christian activities–and often their parents will come as well. Children, like adults, can exercise their spiritual muscles by evangelizing others, inviting them to both cell and celebration.
Discipleship in the Cell
At the age of six, Luis was forced to live on the streets in Salvador, Brazil. His father kicked him out of the house and forced him to make it on his own. At times his abusive father would force his brother, sister, and mother to live on the streets as well.
Luis sold peanuts at a nearby gas station and asked for money from people parking their cars at an adjacent restaurant—with the promise to watch their cars while they were eating. Out of desperation he began to attend a neighborhood children’s cell, mainly for the food that was served at the end of the meeting. He felt welcomed. It was like being in a family. He came back week after week and eventually received Jesus.
Jesus transformed his life, giving him hope and purpose. He faithfully attended the children’s cell, receiving discipleship, counsel, and support. The spiritual formation he received in that group guided his life and helped him avoid the ravages of the teenage years.
When I encountered Luis, he was a faith missionary at YWAM in Brazil. He and his Indonesian wife now have their own children who they are carefully discipling in the Christian faith. Luis has mastered several languages, is very entrepreneurial (his wife said he could do anything), and has plans to write books.
Cell groups both reach and disciple children. Evangelism and spiritual growth are two key components of cell ministry. But there’s more.
What Is a Cell?
A cell (called by a variety of names, such as a life group, heart group, or growth group) is a group of three to fifteen people who meet weekly outside the church building for the purpose of evangelism, community, and spiritual growth with the goal of making disciples who make disciples that results in multiplication.
Notice the goal is to make disciples who make disciples who are bringing glory to Jesus Christ. In Matthew 28:18-20, Jesus is talking to a group of disciples, the same disciples (apart from Judas) he molded and shaped for a three-year period. He had taught them important life lessons as they lived together. Much of the crucial character development came as they worked through conflicts and overcame difficulties with one another. Jesus had called these disciples to join a new community and become part of a new spiritual family (note 6). Daphne Kirk writes,
The children in your cell need discipleship for the same reasons as the adults! Each child is a unique, profoundly precious individual in the eyes of God and their parents. For that individuality to be recognized early in life, they need someone who knows where they are in their relationship with Jesus and the problems they face (note 7).
Jesus felt that the group process was essential in making disciples who make disciples and the same is true with children. The early Church continued the disciple-making process from house to house and children were a vital part of those early house churches. Lawrence Richards writes, “We can visualize the children joining in the times of singing and prayer during the house church meetings. The younger children probably slept, but the older children participated as part of God’s extended family” (note 8) The home is still the best place for children’s cells because it is the extension of the family and the natural habitat and environment for growth and development, although some cells might meet in schools, a community center, or even a park (note 9).
More Than Information
The focus of a children’s cell group is not just about receiving information, like when a teacher lectures in a classroom. Rather, it’s a small group of children—not necessarily the same age—who are growing together, applying the Bible interactively, and reaching out to other children. Lorna Jenkins writes,
The cell group focuses on friendship, activity, and basic Bible information for kids who don’t know the Bible at all. Prayer is also at the heart of them. Kids outside the church are very interested in prayer and how it works (note 10).
A children’s cell group prioritizes the transformation of those present and the focus is on applying God’s Word. When the children open the Bible together, the message is directed at how the children can live out their Christian faith each day.
Children in the cell are encouraged to hear God’s voice, pray, and speak out what God is showing them. The Spirit touches lives as each child responds to the Spirit in him or her. Jesus is the Lord of the cell, which is his Church, and he loves to operate and bring about transformation (note 11).
The leader is not so much a teacher, as a pastor, role model, and mentor. Everyone joins in the discussion and the youngest children can share an experience, a question, or a prayer which blesses the others. The leader may be an adult, but as the children grow spiritually they can be given more and more responsibility.
Prayer is a vital vehicle for the children to share their needs and encourage one another in their daily lives. They also learn how to pray for the needs of others. Children can be powerful prayer warriors and need to be developed into this vital role.
There are two types of cell groups for children. One is the intergeneration group (IG) and the other is a children only group (CO). The IG group highlights all generations including children, whereas the CO group is led by a team of adults in someone’s home during the week. Both are common in cell ministry and the next three chapters will explore these two types of groups in detail.
- Daphne Kirk, Heirs Together: Establishing Intergenerational Cell Church (Suffolk, U.K.: Kevin Mayhew LTD, 1998), p. 31.
- I’ve written three books dedicated to coaching and two books which talk about coaching. I recommend these books in the following order: How to Be a Great Cell Group Coach: Practical Insight for Supporting and Mentoring Cell Group Leaders (Touch Publications, 2003), Coach: Empower Others to Effectively Lead a Small Group (CCS Publishing, 2008), You Can Coach: How to Help Leaders Build Healthy Churches through Coaching (CCS Publishing, 2011), Passion and Persistence: How the Elim Church’s Cell Groups Penetrated an Entire City for Jesus (Touch Publications, 2004), From Twelve to Three: How to Apply G-12 Principles in Your Church (CCS Publishing, 2002, 2015). You can also read twenty-seven free articles about coaching at http://www.joelcomiskeygroup.com/articles/coaching/coaching.htm.
- Lorna Jenkins, Shouting in the Temple: A Radical Look at Children’s Ministry, p. 120.
- It’s common for IG groups or children only cell groups to use the teaching on Sunday in the cell lesson. Since the goal is to discipleship—becoming like Jesus—the children are reminded of what they learned in their children’s church or Sunday school time. In this way, the children are able to ask questions and apply the spiritual truths that were taught in the sermon. I have become increasingly convinced of the effectiveness of basing the cell lesson on the general Sunday teaching, whether that teaching is the pastor’s sermon or monthly curriculum. The key is reinforcing what is taught on Sunday to the cell lesson.
- Lorna Jenkins, Shouting in the Temple: A Radical Look at Children’s Ministry, p. 120.
- Kevin Giles, What on Earth Is the Church? An Exploration in New Testament Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1995), p. 20.
- Daphne Kirk, “Are your children being Discipled,” (Cell Group Journal, Winter 2000), p. 12.
- Lawrence O. Richards, A Theology of Children’s Ministry (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1983), p. 45.
- Child Evangelism Fellowship is a worldwide organization that has established around 3500 after-school groups in public elementary schools whose aim is to convert children as young as four to evangelical Christianity. For many years, CEF met in homes, but has more recently targeted schools.
- Personal email from Lorna Jenkins on Sunday, June 28, 2015.
- Lorna Jenkins, “What’s Different About a Children’s Cell Group,” blog post on October 23, 2013 on Joel Comiskey Group.