By Joel Comiskey
Presented at the American Society for Church Growth conference, November 2006
How do cell church principles apply to a post-Christian setting? By using the word post-Christian, I’m referring to western cultures that have increasingly becoming secular. Not only North America but also places like Europe and Australia are now post-Christian or postmodern in their thinking. In this climate, spiritual revival is sorely lacking.
In this paper, I’ve identified two lessons from the worldwide cell churches that can help fine-tune the church in the west as well as two adjustments that need to be made for cell church ministry to become more effective in post-Christian cultures.
My Journey into the cell church
My journey into cells and cell churches began at the age of seventeen when I led a small group/house church at my parent’s house. I witnessed the power of community through small group ministry. Throughout my Christian life, God has pinpointed this particular area and cell church ministry became the theme of my dissertation at Fuller School of World Mission. My Ph.D. committee specifically wanted me to study the largest, most prominent cell churches around the world, so that people would more easily recognize them afterwards (note 1). The cell churches I studied had successfully applied cell church principles and were growing both in quality and quantity. My job was to detect patterns common in all of them in order to generalize to a broader audience. My book Reap the Harvest focused on the principles I derived from these churches (note 2).
What is a Cell Church
Cell church in its simplest form is a strategic approach that emphasizes both cell and celebration on an equal basis. In the cell church, cell is the church and celebration is the church. Every worshipper is encouraged to attend both the weekly cell group and the weekly celebration service.
Most people know what the Sunday church celebration looks like. Worshippers gather to hear the Word preached, worship the living God, and participate in the sacraments (e.g., the Lord’s Supper and baptism).
But what about the cell? The most common definition is: a group of three to fifteen people who meet weekly outside the church building for the purpose of evangelism, community, and discipleship with the goal of multiplication.
Implicit in this definition is the overarching goal of glorifying God and achieving spiritual growth in Christ.
All small groups are not cell groups. One of the major differences between cell groups and generic small groups is the cell’s emphasis on evangelism, leadership development, and multiplication in each cell.
Cell churches also have other types of ministries (e.g., ushering, worship, prayer, missions, and training). These ministries, however, are not called cell groups, even though the particular ministry might be small and a group.
The ministries in a cell church, rather, support the cell and celebration. Everyone participating in a church ministry is also actively involved in a cell group, if not leading one (this is especially true of elder and board leadership).
In the cell church, the cell group is the backbone, or center, of church ministry. Cell ministry replaces the need for many traditional programs.
I like to use the phrase “the cell-driven church” because church-growth success is primarily measured through infrastructure growth as the church grows from the core to the crowd (note 3). .
Two Principles that aptly apply in a post-Christian culture
Two specific principles I learned from my research among cell churches can help the church in the west grow both in quality and quantity.
First principle: measuring fruit in terms of infrastructure growth
I noticed that many of these worldwide cell churches had a different way of viewing success. They measured their growth by the multiplication of leaders they had trained who would in turn start new cell groups. They measured precisely what was taking place in the cells, but weren’t as precise when it came to Sunday attendance growth. When I first started studying the Elim Church back in 1996, for example, I fully expected for them to give me a precise Sunday attendance figure for their church. But alas, the church didn’t even keep such statistics. To arrive at such data, I had to measure the space within the sanctuary, count how many chairs were present, and then make an educated guess concerning how many people were attending their seven Sunday services. I estimated that Elim had around 35,000 people attending the Sunday services at that time. Many of my church growth measurement techniques didn’t fit in that environment.
Yet, those at Elim can tell you precisely how many attend the weekly cells. They now have approx. 120,000 people in cells/house churches all over San Salvador. These house churches are intimately connected to one another through a well-planned system of care and training. Cells come together each Sunday to celebrate. The pastoral care structure holds the house church system together. Yes, everyone is encouraged to attend the weekly celebration service, but the cell member is still counted as a member of Elim’s official church, even if they haven’t yet attended the celebration service. I was amazed the last time I visited the church how meticulous they take statistics. The growth of the cells drive the growth of the celebration services.
Elim-and churches like Elim-taught me that a church could grow in number while maintaining the quality of discipleship. I took this principle back to Ecuador in 1997 and applied it in the church plant I co-founded called the Republic Church. At that church, we had previously measured church growth by how many were seated on Sunday morning. As we changed our paradigm for measuring church growth, we were able to focus on making disciples who make disciples and see the resulting celebration growth as well.
I think the cell church worldwide should push us in the west to redefine how we view church growth. Redefining church-growth success in terms of making disciples rather than building attendance figures might be the most important shift in pastors’ thinking to make cell ministry work in North America. It’s not a matter of removing the success mentality from the North American mind. It’s a matter of redefining what success really is.
The focus on cell infrastructure helps align the pastorate with the New Testament truth that the job of the pastor is to prepare God’s people for works of service (Eph. 4:11–12). This focus rescues the pastor from the role of star of the Sunday celebration (how can I make the celebration attractive enough to keep the people coming back?) to chief trainer and disciple maker (how can I prepare and release lay workers into the harvest by developing them to lead dynamic cell groups?). Though both cell and celebration are important in the cell church, I believe the cell infrastructure should guide (or drive) the church (note 4)
I find that pastors are pretty good at handling powerpoint and managing the celebration service. They need a lot of help, on the other hand, in growing the infrastructure of the church. And of course growing the infrastructure is not a new concept. Charles Singletary talked about organic church growth back in the 1980s (note 5).
Second principle: Giving away community through multiplying cells makes the community stronger
The current generation is paying the social price for valuing job success over family wholeness. Fifty percent of the children in North America today come from broken homes. Many in this post-Christian era are earnestly longing for familial relationships. They’ve suffered at the careers of their parents and the fast-paced cultural norm of this society (note 6).
Harvard professor Robert Putman, in his book Bowling Alone, describes the downward decline of social relationship from post-World War II until the present. Statistically, Putnam pinpoints the lack of community among North Americans because of increased television watching, flight to the suburbs, long-distance travel to work, and generational change (note 7).
The neglect of social relationships has caused a tremendous void in North America today and a new hunger for community. Generation Next is a postmodern people who are struggling and searching for a sense of belonging and connectedness. They want
- to experience community and deeper relationships
- to believe that life is meaningful and has a purpose
- to be appreciated and respected
- to be listened to and heard
The cell group offers face-to-face interaction. It gives each member the chance to receive a listening ear, gentle encouragement, and a warm embrace.
Yet, we can learn from the growing overseas churches that we need to give community away in order to remain healthy. Koinonia that is not given away and freely shared can easily degenerate into Koinonitus, a church growth disease. True community is strengthened and grows stronger as it spreads from house to house.
I’ve noticed a lot of talk about community among small group circles in North America. Yet, many see community as an end in itself, when in reality community is never an end in itself. I learned from the growing cell churches that evangelism that leads to multiplication must guide cell ministry. These cell churches were never content with letting the senior pastor do the evangelism for them. Each cell had the built-in DNA of evangelism and multiplication as part of its internal make-up. These groups grew in community as they gave it away.
One common objection is that if the small group is evangelizing, it won’t grow in community. How can new people come into the group and the group still maintain a deep level of community? Research and experience show, however, that better, more biblical community develops when a cell reaches out to non-Christians. The newer person actually adds to the growth of the believers in the group by giving them an opportunity to minister—and thus grow.
When a small group has a common evangelistic objective, it starts working together to accomplish a goal. The common objective creates a unity and camaraderie. Everyone gets involved—from the person who invites the guests to the one who provides refreshments to the one who leads the discussion. The team plans, strategizes, and finds new contacts together.
The friendship and love (community) develops in the process of reaching out as a group to non-Christians. Today’s broken society desperately needs a loving family. How will people find it unless small groups who are living in community are willing to spread it?
The cry of the lost drives cells to share their rich community rather than hoarding it among themselves. When multiplication takes place, new groups are available for lost people to receive wholeness.
One of the main differences adjustments that needs to be made concerning multiplying life-giving communities is the multiplication rate. Just because the goal is multiplication, this doesn’t mean that all groups will multiply at the same rate. In Bogota, for example, the multiplication rate is far more rapid than countries where the soil is hard and receptivity is minimal. I remember talking to my good friend, Werner Kniessel, senior pastor of a growing cell church in Zurich, Switzerland. Werner told me how certain cell church gurus would come to his church and talk about how cell multiplication should happen in six months, or it was better to close the group. He told me that he’s found from his experience that it takes at least two years to multiply a cell group. Again, it all depends on the soil and receptivity level of the people.
The goal is still multiplication, but the time frame of that multiplication varies among cultures due to the receptivity level of the people. Evangelism that leads to multiplication keeps a small group moving forward to fulfill the great commission and actually keeps the health level of the cell strong. Christian Shwarz notes that church health and cell multiplication go hand in hand. He wrote, “If we were to identify any one principle as the most important, then without a doubt it would be the multiplication of small groups” (note 8). Whenever I talk about multiplication, I make sure people know that I’m referring to a health issue.
Two areas that need modification in post-Christian cultures
The need for simplicity
Wolfgang Simson has rightfully critiqued the cell church movement as being far too complicated (note 9). He refers to Yonggi Cho envy among cell church pastors. So often pastors want to have the church size of Yonggi Cho, and they feel like failures unless their church reaches gigantic proportions.
I have to admit that I’ve compounded this problem by writing books on some of these huge cell churches in order to untangle their intricacies. Some of the cell churches I studied had chains of cell leadership that extended so far down that it complicated the reproduction process.
It’s also true that many of these huge cell churches are found in very hierarchical cultures in which such layers of authority are perfectly acceptable. This is not true in western culture. Those of us living in the western world live in a very decentralized society in which leadership tends to take place on a peer level. Information is available to everyone and everyone is invited to climb the ladder to the top.
I recently visited a cell church in Florida. I was talking with the staff and answering questions. One of the leaders started asking me about should happen as his network of cells reached the third generation of multiplication and how he would raise up the new network pastor. I answered his inquiry as best as I could, but then I just stopped for a moment and realized the church had become far too complicated. I exhorted the group to think seriously about planting a new church.
But one key question that we need to consider is the fine line between the simple church and the fuzzy church. I believe in stripping the church to its bare essentials. I believe early church house churches were simple, clear, and easily reproducible. But it was still a local church that had God-ordained leadership. It was a missional church. I’m very concerned that we don’t redefine the church in such away that it becomes meaningless. Some are talking about the wave of the future being personalized church—making your own church experience (note 10). .
The need for church planting
The second area is the need for church planting. I’m speaking directly to the worldwide cell church movement here because I do know that church growth teaching has always placed church planting extremely high on the agenda. Yet, I’ve noticed that some worldwide cell churches have wanted to consolidate power under one roof. Instead of releasing people for ministry, certain cell church pastors have wanted to retain all people under themselves. My personal conviction is that exceedingly few cell churches will ever grow to mega cell church status and that church planting should be a far higher priority than expanding one church.
I really like David Garrison’s emphasis of church planting movements (note 11). It’s interesting to me that in Garrison’s book he often intermingles house church and cell church language, as if he were talking about the same thing. I like how he does this because in reality, if the focus is on rapid church planting, our own distinctions are not nearly as important. Rather, It’s all about fulfilling the great commission.
I’ve arrived at the conclusion that reproduction is at the very essence or heart of the cell church movement. This reproduction comes at the level of cell leader but it must move into the realm of church planting. I see some hopeful signs in certain cell churches throughout the U.S. but I believe it needs to happen more.
People ask me, Joel, why are you so interested in cell groups. I tell them that I’m not interested in cell groups. I’m excited about what they produce. Cells are leader breeders as Eddie Gibbs used to say. They are the perfect environment to produce new leaders. Yet, it must move to the realm of church planting and beyond if cell ministry is going to see it’s full potential.
A person who has led a cell, multiplied it, and coached the daughter-cell leader(s) has completed the core basics of cell church planting. Such a person is a prime candidate for future church planting—anywhere in the world.
Undoubtedly, this same person will seek out biblical education and grow in the knowledge of Jesus Christ. Fruitfulness on the cell level builds confidence for future church planting and allows the candidate to then make it happen.
Cell churches don’t require a huge budget, a large plot of land, modern buildings, or super-talented pastors. The cell strategy uses the houses of people all over the city as the primary meeting locations. Instead of laboring to get people out of their houses once a week for an hour-long service, it seeks to utilize those same houses to penetrate an entire city and nation.
In May 2002 I spoke to denominational executives who were highly influenced by the house church movement. They resisted the idea of the mega church because of the mega problems associated with this phenomenon: mega buildings, mega land space, and bureaucratic nightmare of mega proportions.
I encouraged these leaders not to reject large cell churches altogether. “After all,” I told them, “if God calls a pastor who can lead a cell church to mega church status as a flagship church, such a church could have a powerful influence.” I don’t think such churches should be the norm. The vast majority of cell church pastors will have smaller, more nimble churches that focus on church planting.
Cell church is not a quick-fix solution. If anything, it’s a radical call to discipleship, evangelism, and multiplication. Yet the cell church strategy can also bring new life and hope to Christ’s church. Adjustments must be made, however, to make this happen. Many have tried to copy David Yonggi Cho and have met disastrous results. Others have preached that cell church is the only way and rejected all other forms of Christ’s church. Still others are so focused on their own model and building their own kingdom that it borders on heresy. As we understand that balance and understanding is need to apply cell church principles in the west, I’m convinced that the cell church movement can help purify the church in the west and even help the church go to the next level of church growth (note 12).
The Latin American churches below formed part of my original cell church study.
Name of Church Country Senior Pastor No. of Cells Worship Attend. Bethany World Prayer Center Baker, Louisiana Larry Stockstill 1100 8000 The Christian Center of Guayaquil Guayaquil, Ecuador Jerry Smith 1400 7000 Elim Church San Salvador, El Salvador Mario Vega 12000 35 000 Faith Community Baptist Church Singapore Lawrence Khong 700 10 000 The International Charismatic Mission Bogota, Colombia César Castellanos 10 000 35 000 Love Alive Church Tegucigalpa, Honduras René Peñalba 1000 8000 Living Water Church Lima, Perú Juan Capuro 1000 9000 Yoido Full Gospel Church Seoul , Korea David Cho 25 000 250 000
- My original dissertation only focused on the five Latin American churches below but later I added the three additional churches and applied the same research methods. .
- Reap the Harvest (Houston, TX: Touch Publications, 1999), pp. 236. My entire dissertation is also available for free download at www.cellchurchsolutions.com.
- The above definition of a cell church is taken from my book Cell Church Solutions (Moreno Valley, CA: CCS Publishing, 2005), pp. 19-20.
- For more on this topic, see chapter 9 of Cell Church Solutions Cell Church Solutions (Moreno Valley, CA: CCS Publishing, 2005), pp. 119ff.
- Peter Wagner, ed., Church Growth: The State of the Art (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 1986), part 3, chapter 10.
- Jonathan Stuart Campbell, A Postmodern Challenge: The Gospel and Church in Changing Culture. A tutorial course in mission theology. Fuller Theological Seminary, March, 1996, p. 54.
- Robert D. Putman, Bowling Alone ( New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000), p. 284.
- Christian Schwarz, Natural Church Development (Carol Steam, IL: ChurchSmart Resources, 1996), p. 32.
- Wolfgang Simpson, Houses that Change the World (Emmelsbull, Germany: C & P Publishing, 2002), pp. 303.
- I go into depth on this subject on my web site at http://www.cellchurchsolutions.com/articles/bookReviews/BarnaRevolution.htm. Some of the things I point out about the NT church is that:
- It’s a local church! The bottom line is that when the New Testament refers to “called out ones” in places such as Acts 13: 1-3.
- It’s a visible church. Reference after reference refer to a specific group of believers meeting in a particular, visible place.
- It has God-ordained leadership. Reference after reference point to how Paul and others would appoint elders to shepherd the local groups of believers.
- It has clear leadership in local church (1 Tim. 3, Titus, etc.)
- Members were supposed to submit to the leadership
- David Garrison, Church Planting Movements. Bangalore, India: WIGTake Resources, 2004. pp. 362.
- For future contact: email@example.com, www.comiskey.org www.cellchurchsolutions.com and www.wellspringcellchurch.org . I also have a free email newsletter that I send out each month that I would invite you to sign up for.