by Joel comiskey
Adapted and updated from chapter 42 of Making Cell Groups Work Navigation Guide (2003). Last update in June 2007.
During a seminar in Tucson, Arizona, a teenager approached me to share the great things God was doing through his own small group ministry. “I wonder if God is raising me up to be a pastor?” he wondered out loud. “Your seminar is great,” he said, “but you’d have to adjust if you wanted to reach my generation. We know all about information. We’re accustomed to dealing with information, but what we really need is to experience God.”
The postmodern generation (or whatever other label you want to give it) is over-loaded with information. They long for relationships. Youth cells provide environment for youth to be transformed, to grow in a secure family environment, to develop real relationships.
Resistance to Student-led Cells
There are many places around the world where student led cells are exploding. Yet many in North America resist the notion of student led cell groups.
As I talked to several successful youth pastors about cell ministry, two common reasons for the resistance surfaced: tradition and fear of losing control.
Tradition: Most courses or books on youth ministry don’t even mention cell groups. What is mentioned is how to attract and keep a crowd of youth in a larger congregational youth setting. Since there’s a dearth of literature on this subject, youth leaders tend to retreat to what they know best: speaking events and a variety of youth activities.
Fear of Losing Control: Most youth pastors would never overtly confess to having control issues. Yet, covertly many have imbibed the teaching that success in youth ministry depends on ministry plans and talent. Meeting in the church building simply makes it easier to control what’s happening.
A New Approach
God began to speak to Kyle Coffin about a new approach to youth ministry while at Bear Valley Community Church in 1998. God showed him that his main role was to prepare God’s people to do the work of the ministry, rather than doing the work of the ministry for them. He started preparing key youth leaders in his home, modeling cell ministry, while continuing the Wednesday night congregational youth service. Then as a transitional step he asked those youth he was training to lead young people in the various classrooms after the youth service.
Eventually the youth (9 th through 12 grade) began leading weekly cells in homes throughout Big Bear, California. Fourteen cells were started with over 140 in attendance. Kyle, believing that team ministry was the best style, placed a girl and guy student together to lead mixed cells, although four of the cells were gender specific.
One of those leaders I interviewed spoke of the incredible spiritual growth he experienced in stepping out by faith and trusting God to help him prepare the lesson. Kyle maintained the weekly Wednesday night youth congregational service, which grew to record numbers.
John Church, former junior and senior high pastor of Cypress Creek Church in Wimberley, TX, started with one cell that grew to twenty-five junior and senior high student led cells. When John Church was youth pastor, all of the cells at Wimberley met weekly in homes and were student led. The interesting difference between John Church and Kyle Coffin is that the cells at Cypress Creek are gender specific—boys meet with boys and girls with girls. I was impressed with John’s thorough training of each leader, which I’ll describe later in this chapter.
Dove Fellowship, a worldwide cell church movement that started in Pennsylvania, rediscovered the value of youth cells. Youth leaders at Dove write,
We believe there is a vast, untapped reserve of youth cell leaders in our churches. This group could very well be he key for your youth ministry to prosper and grow. It has been overlooked for hundreds of years by the church. Are you ready for the secret? The vast, untapped group of leaders in our churches are normal, average Christians! Most of our youth cell leaders are not super-gifted, charismatic, guitar-playing, solo-singing, Billy Graham-preaching , “Ken and Barbie” look-a-likes. They are normal people who originally might not even have enough confidence to think they could help with a youth cell group. They need someone to come alongside of them and encourage them (note 1).
One of the best examples of youth cells is at Antioch Community Church in Waco, Texas. Jimmy Seibert, the senior pastor, started the church as a result of the success he was having with youth cells at Baylor University. Youth cells still play a key part in reaching the future generations at ACC. Carl Gulley, the youth pastor at ACC, reports that both junior high and high school cells meet in gender specific groups on a weekly basis in different homes (they call them LifeGroups). Carl writes, ” Our cells meet weekly because we want them to be the backbone of who we are. In the summer, we merge our cells together a lot due to people’s travel, but we keep them going.” The junior high cells meet on Wednesday nights and the high school cells meet on Sundays. Pastor Carl reported that they tried meeting on different nights but because of being in the Bible belt, they came to realize that those were the only days that seemed to work. Those that lead the junior high cell groups are college age or above. The high school groups are student led with an older person present (normally hosting the group). The goal, however, is for high school groups to be student led.
Connection with the Overall Cell System
There are certain principles that youth cells must follow. One of those principles is that youth cells must be intimately linked with the rest of the church. They must never become a disconnected island. The youth pastor (or designated youth lay leader) should meet weekly with the lead pastor to talk about cell ministry.
Never allow the youth to become a wandering star in its own planet. It should have the same characteristics as the other cell networks. When the ministerial team meets with the lead pastor (e.g., staff, G12 group, elders), the youth cells should be reviewed with the same rigor as the adult cells.
John Church uses the same training track as the adults at Cypress Creek Church and develops leaders in a similar way. John said, “Many of our youth leaders are children of the parent cell leaders, and having the same training track helps the parents to encourage their sons and daughters to go through it and eventually become cell leaders.”
Youth Cells and Inter-generational Cells
Some question whether youth cells should even exist. “Why not ask the youth to meet with the family cell?” some ask.
Daphne Kirk, the intergenerational cell expert, gives a balanced answer. She recommends that young people stay with the intergenerational (family) cell as long as they want, making sure that they aren’t forced to leave because of some age restriction (i.e., at 15 all youth must attend a youth cell, etc.). When youth cells are formed, however, Daphne encourages a link between the intergenerational cell and the youth cells—a coaching, mentoring relationship. She writes, “The Intergenerational cell can be pro-actively involved with the youth cell, praying and supporting it through the involvement of the young person who is in their IG cell” (note 2).
One pastor wrote to me saying, ”We have no idea what to do with the children in the adult cell groups.” The gist of what I wrote back was:
I think it’s great for young adolescents to lead children’s cells. This gives them something to do and prepares them to be disciples. My oldest daughter, Sarah (16), has led cells for years. My second born, Nicole (13), is leading a cell right now. My youngest, Chelsea (11), is the associate of Nicole’s cell. The cells that my daughters lead are connected with normal cell groups that have children present. Ideally, the parents can help prepare adolescent cell leaders with the cell lessons, thus, making discipleship a home-grown process.
I recommend that the children/adolescents stay with the adults for the ice-breaker and the worship time, and then they leave to do their own cell lesson. Normally, the kids will come back and share what they learned. Last night, for example, the children’s cell presented a paper chain they created with different names of sins they had confessed to each other during the cell group. The idea was to then to break the chain, signifying Christ breaking our bondage and freeing us from sin (they will get together today to actually break the paper chain).
Brian Kannel, youth minister at York Alliance Church, offers another twist to youth in inter-generational cells. He writes:
We have seen GREAT results by moving teens to inter-generational groups without their parents, and then treating them as a “normal” member of the cell. We typically group them in 3’s or 4’s so they aren’t the only teen in the group. Obviously, transportation can be a challenge, but the group usually comes around them to make them work. There are several good things within this:
- Teens are more willing to open up without their parents, typically, so it keeps them connected to the group.
- Other adults build relationships with them, which gives them additional (and usually very complimentary) perspectives from their parents.
- It makes a natural care structure for them when they transition into college and back home after college, as well as helping the transition to the church as a whole.
- It doesn’t force them into a “children’s ministry” role in the church, but allows them to exercise their natural and spiritual giftings. We have teens as young as 12 or 13 who lead facilitation, lead worship, lead Oikos prayer, and of course, lead Kidslot. They become a natural part of the life of the group.
- Finally, and maybe most importantly, it gives them a foundation for their own faith. We tend to think of it in terms of the Hebrew “Bar-Mitzvah” age (which we’ve also begun to do for many students within the church – that’s another story for another time) – at about 12 or 13, they leave the confines of their parent’s group and begin their own faith journey. As they begin to put words to their faith, done in the midst of the community of course, they begin to work out what they really believe and why. We see huge struggles during this time that likely wouldn’t have emerged until college or well after, mainly because they are able to freely test their faith and the words that support it. There’s a ton more to say about this, but we’ve found it to be an incredible blessing.
Of course, we only do this when the teen and the parents are OK with it. Some stay in their parent’s group longer than others. But we’ve found it to be a GREAT alternative to teen cells.
How to Start Youth Cells
Those planting a cell church will most likely begin with family cells and pray that youth cells spring naturally from those families cells. The first youth cell leader would be cared for and discipled by the family cell group leader, becoming part of his or her leadership network (G12 team). The young person would be held accountable to meet with his or her coach on a regular basis. Philip Woolford, a cell church planter in Australia, writes,Two homogenous cells have now been established from this one Adult cell. They are lead by the young people and they take pastoral responsibility themselves. The boys cell initially met with the adults and then after Welcome/Worship left for their Works and Word. It allows the young people to leave and establish their own cells while remaining connected to their ‘family cells’ for support, mentoring and family ties! (note 4)
The youth at Dove Fellowship ( Larry Kreider, founding pastor) attended the intergenerational cells until God birthed in them the desire to start their own youth cells (note 5). Brian Sauder and Sarah Mohler describe Dove’s experience:
Youth cells became an informal, casual place youth could take their friends. We were careful not to imply that these youth cells were better than the adult/family cells. As they expanded, we did not require the [all] youth to attend youth cells. They were given the freedom to go with their parents to the family cell or get involved in a youth cell, whatever met their needs best. We felt it was important that the youth felt affirmed and not forced into one pattern. Eventually, however, most of the youth got involved in the youth cells, along with some of their friends who got saved. A cell group of peers was just too exciting to pass by! (note 6).
Many conventional churches already have separate youth ministries. To start youth cells in this setting, the best way is for the youth pastor (or key youth leader) to meet with the lead pastor in a prototype or model cell. After the youth leader has experienced how to lead a cell, he could then ask the first batch of potential youth leaders to meet with him for about six months. Each of these young people should have a commitment to leading their own cell group after the youth prototype cell is completed. These leaders become part of the leadership team of the youth leader.
As youth cells continue to multiply, the traditional youth organization (e.g., president, elected officials) can be transformed into a ministerial team of youth cell leaders. The youth pastor or key youth leader should ask the most fruitful (those who have multiplied their cells) to meet regularly with him to plan, pray and give oversight to the rest of the youth (note 7).
What a Youth Cell Looks Like
A youth cell is like a normal adult cell. It meets weekly. It focuses on evangelism, discipleship, and multiplication. It must remain small and intimate, and it’s normally led by a young person that’s a bit older than the majority of the group members (there are always exceptions to this rule). The order of a youth cell varies. The book Reaching College Students through Cells recommends the following order (note 8):
- Refreshments (15 minutes)
- Greetings and Announcements (5 minutes)
- Ice Breaker (10 minutes)
- Brief Testimony (3 minutes-optional)
- Vision Sharing (5-10 minutes)
- Worship (10 minutes)
- Discussion (limit to 25 minutes)
- Prayer Time (15 minutes)
Meeting in Homes
It’s best if the youth cell meets outside the church building. The best place is the home. Some youth groups have taken the first step of transition by breaking up in smaller groups within the church after the larger youth meeting, but this should only be a transitioning step and never the ultimate goal. The class-room atmosphere of the church doesn’t compare to the family atmosphere of the home. Brian Sauder and Sarah Mohler write, “The primary method that is used in youth groups is to have the youth cells meet in homes during the week and have a corporate youth gathering at the church facility on a regular basis” (note 9).
Kyle Cofin testifies about the blessings of kids meeting in homes. Parents were in the house but not in the room when the cell was happening—although the parents did enjoy listening to the kids. John Church says,
I think there needs to be a distinction between a Cell group and a Small group. Cell groups multiply. Any successful youth cell ministry that is looked at as an example (e.g., MCI, Bethany, Elim, Korea Churches), the youth cells meet outside of the church building. The ownership level and commitment of the youth/students increases greatly when they take their ministry to their houses and aren’t dependent on the Youth Pastor to hold their hand as they lead. This puts the student in a position of faith, which is a great place for teenagers to be. The youth pastor’s job is to form leaders and model (note 10).
Carl Gulley, youth pastor at Antioch Community Church, writes,
The sad trend today has been to bring the youth back into the church building, have someone come speak to the kids, and then break into small groups in class rooms for brief discussions. A caterer is hired and all eat together and they have a corporate worship time. While lives are always touched, I see this trend as a tragic thing because the element of outreach that resembles Acts 2 is being lost to the train of thought that the staff needs to control/run the people and the event. People have always been scared to put youth into places of leadership (other than some youth council that rarely meets for any real purpose and really does nothing more than give students something for their college resume); I’ve caught flack for it for a decade. But after doing youth cells for 12 years, I’m convinced that students who are placed in leadership, covered/discipled abundantly well, and released to do Acts 2 ministry will in fact change the world and not be changed by it (note 11).
Meeting on Campus
Faith Community Baptist Church in Singapore has one “university” network dedicated to establishing cells on university campuses as well as military camps in Singapore. This district serves college/university age youth–18-25. The standard FCBC cell lessons are adapted, leadership commitment is often shorter, and more cells are planted. Every six weeks Pastor Lee gathers all of the cell members in this network for a congregational service (about 600 attend).
At the church I co-founded in Ecuador, some of our most life-changing cell groups met at universities. At one time we had over thirty cells meeting on university campuses in Quito, Ecuador.
When talking about her own experience with university cells, Jeannette Buller gives excellent advice, “We’ve changed from year to year depending on the students and the leadership available and willing. Be creative – do what works” (note 12). Cell ministry in general requires constant revision. Each youth ministry needs to find its own footing in what works for them.
Cell, Congregation, and Celebration
Youth cell, congregation, and celebration work hand in hand. When I say congregation, I’m referring to the meeting in which all the young people are present. Some refer to this meeting as the celebration time, but I like to reserve that term for the Saturday/Sunday worship time when the entire church gathers to worship God and hear His Word.
How often should the entire youth group meet?
The youth at Antioch Community Church in Waco, Texas meet in a congregational setting on a weekly basis. The junior high have their own service on Sunday night (called Flipside) and go to cell on Wed night. The high school students have their own service on Wed night (called Edge) and go to cell on Sun evening. All youth are encouraged to go to Sunday morning worship service.
Some youth groups will find that a monthly congregational meeting (all youth together) is best. Our youth ministry in Ecuador found that weekly meetings were too time consuming. We decided that the youth congregational meeting would be once per month, but that the youth cells would meet weekly, and that the youth should be expected to come to the celebration each Sunday.
Some youth congregational groups have converted into a regular celebration event (i.e., the youth have their own “Sunday service”). The International Charismatic Mission is an example. In 1996 the Saturday night youth meeting was a congregational event for the youth. That is, the youth on Saturday at ICM were also required to attend the Sunday worship service. By 1998, the church decided to make the Saturday night youth one of the five celebration services. The Yoido Full Gospel Church in Korea is another example of Sunday youth services. YFGC has two Sunday celebration services dedicated specifically for youth.
Equip the Youth Leaders
A youth leader asked me, “Should there be a separate equipping track for young people? Youth today want things simpler and compact. Will it be wrong to compose a separate equipping track.”
I wrote back, ” I think you should adapt your adult training track to make it relevant for youth. Make it more youth oriented, more concise, more dynamic, but it should have the same basic kernel of the adult equipping. Great adult cell church equipping tracks would be appealing to youth as well.”
John Church has creative adapted the training track of the International Charismatic Mission and adapted it for youth. All youth go through the following steps:
- Pre-encounter (two weeks of training about the Encounter retreat)
- Encounter retreat
- Post encounter (eight weeks of basic teaching about the church, how to confront the world, the balanced Christian life, baptism in water, knowing God’s will)
- Level I of school of leaders (eight weeks of teaching on salvation, repentance, Bible, prayer, evangelism discipleship)
- Level II of school of leaders (eight weeks of how to lead a cell group, including how to find the first three core members for the cell)
- Level III (eight weeks of character development for those leading a cell group. To enter level III it’s assumed that you will be leading a cell group)
Church says, “All successful cell church youth ministries have an intentional equipping tract that push students to spiritual eadership. A major missing piece I’ve seen is the lack of equipping in spiritual leadership. Without the discipleship/equipping the cell church will die. No Leaders, No Groups.”
A New Thing
The church that develops the next generation will win tomorrow’s battles. Youth cells help release the next generation through evangelistic, multiplying cells. Youth cells give the next generation a chance to participate in significant ministry. God is doing a new thing among myriads of congregations today. This new focus is primarily concerned about developing leaders to reap the harvest through cell ministry, rather solely focusing on running a youth program in the church building.
- Youth Cells and Youth Ministry, compiled by Brian Sander and Sarah Mohler (Ephrata, PA: House to House, 1997), p. 45.
- Daphne Kirk wrote these words on cellchurchtalk on 1/1/2003.
- Youth Cells and Youth Ministry, compiled by Brian Sander and Sarah Mohler (Ephrata, PA: House to House, 1997), p. 20.
- Philip Woolford [ firstname.lastname@example.org] wrote to cell churchtalk on Thurday, January 02, 2003.
- Youth Cells and Youth Ministry, compiled by Brian Sander and Sarah Mohler (Ephrata, PA: House to House, 1997), p. 19.
- Youth Cells and Youth Ministry, compiled by Brian Sander and Sarah Mohler (Ephrata, PA: House to House, 1997), p. 20.
- Our youth pastor, Dennis Fiallos, formed a G-12 group of youth cell leaders. Since we used a G12.3 pastoral care structure (staff coach twelve cell leaders and lay leaders coach three), each of these key lay leaders seeks to multiply his or her own cell three times, while caring for the new daughter cell leaders. The youth pastor should feel the liberty to replace members of his G-12 group with more fruitful members as time goes on. In other words, it’s not a permanent G-12 group. This should be clear from the beginning. Fruitfulness, faithfulness, and above all dedication to God must always be the reason why someone participates in the inner circle.
- Written by Highland Baptist College Ministries, Reaching College Students through Cells (Houston, TX: 1997), pp. 127.
- Youth Cells and Youth Ministry, compiled by Brian Sander and Sarah Mohler (Ephrata, PA: House to House, 1997), p. 24.
- Personal email to me from John Church on Wednesday, June 11, 2003.
- Personal email sent to me from Carl Gulley on Friday, June 15, 2007.
- Jeanette Buller wrote these words on cellchurchtalk, an email chat group on 3/24/2001.