by Mario Vega
from chapter 5 of Passion and Persistence (2004)
The Pastor and the Cell System
Many pastors visit El Salvador in order to participate in our International Conference. They receive teaching and materials and return to their countries to put what they’ve learned into practice. After some time, however, they contact us saying that their cell system is not working well. We then send our pastors to help them, but after checking every element of the system, we often conclude that what is failing is not the application of the cell principles but the role the pastor must play.
This is the reason why our International Conference for Church Growth always includes teachings about the cell system and about the pastor’s life. Both aspects are equally important.
Cell group churches do not rise above the vision of their senior pastors. The world’s largest cell churches are led by senior pastors totally committed to the cell group church philosophy. They navigated their churches through the initial confusion to a clear cell-based philosophy. These pastors believed in delegation, but they refused to delegate the cell church vision. William Beckham says:
Delegation is an important principle in the cell church. But vision and example can’t be delegated! Senior church leaders must cast the vision and set the example of living in basic Christian community during the prototype phase [initiating cell ministry in the church]. The senior leader must model the community he is expecting everyone else to live in. If leaders don’t have the time to live together in cell life, how can they expect members to do it?
Senior pastors must be practically involved in cell ministry. At Elim Church, all staff pastors engage in weekly visits to cell groups. Their ministry is centered around cell ministry since cells are the base and life of the church. As Larry Stockstill said: “People will always be interested in what the senior pastor is interested in.”
The Pastor’s Personal Growth
No church will grow more than its pastor. A large church can only be supported by a pastor with a huge vision who believes in a God of greatness.
A South American pastor expressed to me that his goal was to have the largest church in Latin America. I congratulated him for his great vision and encouraged him to reach it. At the same time the only way he could have the largest church in Latin America was if he became God’s greatest man in Latin America.
The Pastor Must Grow in His CALLING
Being a pastor is not merely a profession to earn a pay check, but fulfilling God’s calling to work in the labor of eternal salvation. The pastor is the warrior who fights God’s battles.
If the pastor doesn’t see the pulpit as the altar where he has to pour out his life in benefit of lost ones, it is better for him to forget about cells and growth. I have been asked many times how a person knows if he has God’s calling. The very fact that the person asks is evidence that his calling has not matured or that he doesn’t have it.
Even though every healthy Christian should have the desire to serve God, the calling of God to ministry will grow, develop, and mature. The calling process will not be complete until God shows three important aspects: what to do, where to do it, and when to do it. As long as a person isn’t clear about these three aspects, he must not be in a hurry. His calling is not mature, and he must continue to wait, pray, and prepare himself until the time when his calling is totally matured.
The Pastor Must Grow in PRAYER
Prayer is a key feature of cell group churches and churches will not dedicate themselves to pray if the pastor doesn’t lead by example. Cell work is encouraged through prayer.
It is necessary, however, to focus on praying appropriately because prayer is not a coin with which we can pay God for His blessings. Praying prepares us and changes us so we can be able to receive His blessings.
In the first months of my ministry, I lived alone in a small rented house. I got used to the idea that through praying I could reach any blessing from God. Really, what I thought was that through my lengthy prayers, I could convince God to grant me the answers I considered pertinent. Under that idea I began to cultivate the habit of making lengthy prayers everyday. At one time, I found myself praying from eight to nine hours a day. From time to time I fasted for three or four days in a row. I invested the rest of my time reading the Bible and other theology books.
I kept strict control of the way I spent my time and a careful record of the time I dedicated to prayer every day. Under those conditions, there came a time when I thought I was praying so much that God would surely bless my ministry in a great way. At that time my church only had seventy members and had stagnated, since I didn’t know anything about the cell system.
Carried by a faith based more on my pride than on the Holy Spirit, I decided to carry out special services for a whole week, with the goal of making a spiritual breakthrough in the church’s development. To make sure that everything would go right, I fasted the four days previous to the activity. Boldly, I assured the brethren that on the first day of the special services we would pray to receive the baptism of the Holy Spirit, so anyone who had not spoken in other tongues would receive such a blessing on that day. For the second day, I announced that God would heal the sick ones. I invited the brethren to bring all the sick people they could find, assuring them that God would heal them. For the third day, I assured them, it would be a special day in which God would save many people. I encouraged the brethren to bring their unbelieving relatives and friends, assuring them that God would save all of them and that on that day they would return home as Christians. With such an announcement, the brethren were all happy and enthusiastic, expecting the first day of the special services to see the wonders their pastor had announced.
When the first day came, I preached about the baptism of the Holy Spirit. At the end of the preaching I invited all who wanted to receive the baptism to come to the altar, assuring that all who would come would receive it. Many persons came, and I began to pray for every one of them, but the atmosphere was hard and the tremendous visitation of the Spirit I had announced was not being experienced. Even though the brethren were doing their best and I was praying at the top of my lungs, and even though I extended the time of the service, I didn’t hear anyone speaking with tongues. I felt ashamed before the brethren, and I only wanted to finish the service to go home. I was completely astonished and didn’t understand why God had not supported my purpose of blessing His children. When I went home, I prayed and rebuked Satan because I thought he had prevented the revival from starting that night.
The next day I preached about divine healing. At the end of the sermon I began to pray for the sick ones, anointing them with oil. I expected to see great healings, such as the blind recovering sight, paralyzed persons rising from their wheel chairs, and the deaf beginning to hear. But none of this happened. At the end of the service, after praying and anointing dozens of people with oil, nothing extraordinary happened. Again I felt ashamed before the brethren and hastily looked for the door.
For the next day I had announced a great number of conversions. Even though I didn’t understand what was going on, I decided to fast the whole day, trusting that since we always had conversions in the church, we’d surely see many saved that night.
At the time of the preaching, I noticed that there were very few people in the sanctuary and most of them were already believers. There were only a couple of young women who were new visitors. I began to preach with all my heart, expecting that at least these young women would be gained for Christ. But after a few minutes of preaching, I began to feel very weak because I had fasted the whole day in addition to the four days at the beginning of the week. Since I‘ve never been strong physically, my body began to weaken and dizziness swept over me because of the absence of food. With a cold sweat running down my face, I made every effort to stay on my feet.
I thought the devil was trying to attack me because the salvation of souls was at stake. As I preached, I rebuked Satan, which also added an extra burden to my speaking. Soon words began to clog in my throat and my sight began to darken. I don’t know what my appearance was like, but I suppose I was as white as a sheet. Then, those two women began to talk and laugh. I couldn’t take anymore. I rushed through my preaching so I could finish as fast as possible and made a quick invitation to receive Christ. Since I was about to faint, I could not lengthen the altar call and logically, no one was converted.
In the end, I was completely frustrated, along with the church. The special week began to fade. The brethren lost interest, and little by little we came back to the usual weekly routine, not mentioning “special services” anymore.
Some months later I came to understand that God’s purpose in all that happened was to teach me that neither lengthy prayers, nor prolonged fasts could hasten blessings from God. I am by no means saying that fervent prayer is worthless. On the contrary, I am saying that prayer is of great importance and it is an essential component in church growth, but only if it is used appropriately.
The purpose of praying is not to get answers from God, but to maintain a perfect union between Him and His children. If a person prays only because he wants answers, he will end up unsatisfied and angry at God. Actually, we receive an answer every time we pray, but the answer is not necessarily what we are expecting. Nothing extraordinary happened at the “special services” that I had announced. But something extraordinary did happen to me: the fact of learning to be with God and identifying myself with Him through prayer.
My fasts and prayers were useful to show how God answers prayer. He does not need to prove anything. But through His grace, I became what God wanted me to become. When prayers don’t receive answers, we must take care not to attribute this to Satan or anyone else. There is always a reason why our prayers aren’t answered exactly as we expect. God will give us personal and profound instruction, directed exclusively to each one of us.
The Pastor Must Grow in PASSION
The fervor of the church for cell work can be unleashed only by a fervent pastor. A pastor full of doubts, shy and disinterested cannot spark the flame among the congregation.
The pastor must live his vision and share it fervently with his sheep. More than words, sheep understand the language of example. When a pastor is fervent to see the lost souls saved, the congregation will respond with the same intense interest. The passion of the senior pastor will come through loud and clear to the sheep. They’ll see his zeal and his commitment.
Passion must start in the heart of the senior leader. If it’s not in the senior leader’s heart, it won’t move down to those in the church. René Molina, pastor of Elim Los Angeles, (perhaps the largest Spanish-speaking church in the U.S. with 4500 in weekly cell attendance) said, “We give cell seminars throughout Los Angeles, yet many pastors try cells and fail. Why? It is because they lack passion. They lack dependency on Jesus and the passion to see the cells work, even in the face of obstacles.” The senior pastor must demonstrate a passion for Jesus; Christ must be His life, His first love, His reason for being.
The Pastor Must Grow in His DEPENDENCE ON THE HOLY SPIRIT
The Holy Spirit is not only a doctrine stamped in some theology books. He is a real person who must direct the destinies of His church. The pastor must learn to hear the voice of the Spirit. His messages must be received in the secret room of praying in a humble dependence on the Holy Spirit.
The ways of God don’t always agree with human logic, and for this reason, it is important that the Spirit be the guide, so He may show us the steps we must take to be able to see church growth. God will make use of that humble and open dependence to lead us to the appropriate way of growth.
When the church I led in Santa Ana adopted the cell model, it began to grow in quality and quantity. The place we rented was full. The owner of the building allowed us to make an extension on the building to hold about 400 people. The new extension was full as soon as we finished it. Then, it was necessary to place chairs on the sidewalk outside the building. On Sundays we placed a large canvas cover to protect the audience outside the building from the intense Salvadorian sun. After that, people began to stand out on the street because there wasn’t any room on the sidewalk.
Then I felt that the time had come for a larger building. After looking all over the city, we concluded that there wasn’t a building large enough to rent in the city. So we only had one option: to build the largest auditorium in the city to receive all the people who would come.
We found an appropriate piece of land for our project, but we had an economic limitation. The church barely collected enough money to pay the rent. Then, how could we, besides paying the rent, face the land payment and building construction costs?
Without a doubt, the church needed a great amount of money to face such expenses. Since we didn’t have the money, I thought the best thing we could do was to pray and ask God for more money. I didn’t know how God would give us the money; that was His problem. I only believed that He was the source of our resources.
With such a faith, I began to pray fervently every day in order that God would give us the money. Morning, noon, and night I continued asking God for the money necessary to make reality the project of the largest auditorium in the city in which we could announce the Gospel of His Son.
Everyday for some weeks I constantly and fervently asked God for the money. But one evening as I prayed, I think God felt pity for me and in His grace He decided to correct my prayer. While I was on my knees I cried out: “Give us more money! You know we need a lot of money to carry out this project. Open to us the windows of heaven and pour out a lot of money over us!” Suddenly, I either heard or felt a loud voice saying, “IT IS NOT MONEY THAT YOU NEED!!!” The voice was so loud that I remained quiet and very frightened. Then, in that silence, God began talking softly to me saying, “What you need is My presence.” When I heard those words I understood that I was not asking correctly. God was right. He is always right. We didn’t need the money; we needed only His presence. God’s presence was enough, for everything else would come as extra. In that moment, I asked God for forgiveness. I changed my prayer and began asking for His presence to become a palpable reality in our church. God was very merciful, because many things I asked for, related to His presence, happened in subsequent years.
I can’t explain how God did it, but He gave us what we needed to cover all the expenses of our project. Some time later we inaugurated our building with no debts at all. Since then, the largest auditorium in the city is dedicated to Jesus Christ and to His faithfulness. I understood that the Holy Spirit is the key in order to be God’s instrument. We are not the ones who determine what the church needs. We simply have to hear His voice and obey Him.
The Pastor Must Grow in GOD’S WORD
Passion which is not founded in God’s Word is just emotion. Emotions are temporary and any vision based on emotions will not persevere. Without a solid and growing knowledge of God’s Word, a large church is not guaranteed. Without a solid word from God, the church can grow high like grass, but also as weak as grass. A church, rather, should grow like an oak, high and solid.
The pastor must be a lover of God’s knowledge, works, and deeds. He is not a religious fashion chaser. He must be a person dedicated to study the Scriptures.
The Pastor Must Grow in KNOWLEDGE
The challenges of a large church are numerous. The pastor must face and resolve different situations. This requires a wide knowledge of the elements that are important to the care and direction of the church. For this same reason, the pastor must be tireless in his search for knowledge and truth.
A short time after God had allowed me to become senior pastor of the largest church in El Salvador. I began to encourage pastors to study and grow in the knowledge of God and His Word. Sergio Solórzano is one who doesn’t believe that formal theological preparation is necessary to become a Gospel minister. In fact, Solórzano now criticizes Elim saying that the church has lost the vision by encouraging its leaders to study God’s Word in a more in-depth mannerp .
In the first years of leading Elim Church in El Salvador, it was a great struggle to get pastors interested in studying. Some of them had the conviction that formal education was unnecessary if someone was truly “anointed.” I don’t doubt that God could use a person with a strong anointing, even though the person had no additional theological training. However, is it not a big presumption to evade theological study based on the excuse of having a powerful anointing? This presumption becomes monumental when the evidence reveals a lack of anointing, or when the anointing is mistaken for emotional manipulation.
The Pastor Must Grow in HOLINESS
The real character of the pastor is shown in solitude. If he wants his church to grow, he must also personally grow in integrity, purity, justice, and honesty.
God’s children expect the best from their pastors. Adults and children expect a good example from their pastor. His behavior is decisive when one talks about church growth. As a church grows, it begins to influence the entire city. For example, 7% of all people living in the Salvadorian capital are Elim members. They can be found at banks, stores, offices, hotels, restaurants, streets, and vehicles on the roads all around the city. In other words, it doesn’t take long to discover if one of our pastors is behaving sinfully.
Nothing causes greater damage to a growing church than discovering sin in any of the pastors or cell leaders. In fact, a cell where a leader commits sin normally stagnates or dies. Then it’s necessary to spiritually heal the people and families affected. Growth is not compatible with sin.
The Pastor Must Grow in HUMILITY
An arrogant man will be smashed because of his ungodly reputation. Satan and his demons will try their hardest to destroy him and his ministry. One of Satan’s chief weapons is gossip, and Satan will use it to the maximum. But the humble man cannot be smashed by man or demons because he has already been smashed by the hand of God.
Try to think of a man who has been used by God and at the same time filled with pride. You won’t find anyone. It’s because among great leaders there exists a desire for God. Great leaders realize that God doesn’t share His glory with anyone.
To reflect the light, a body must not have a light of its own. To reflect the light of Christ, we must first cast out our own pride.
When a pastor exhibits these characteristics, he will be able to receive God’s vision for his city, country, or the world. Such a pastor will not find it difficult to communicate to his sheep with the enthusiasm and discipline that encourages cell work.
Run with the vision
The cell pastor must really believe in cells. He meditates on them, works with them, preaches about them, and dreams of them. The cell pastor reads about the theme, he informs himself, he relates with key men in the cell movement, asks, and searches. He breathes cells and transmits the cell passion to his sheep.
Yet, more important than the cell vision is the senior pastor’s vision to follow Jesus Christ and live a life worthy of His calling. God builds great churches through great pastors. As you dedicate yourself to the all-powerful One, Jesus Christ, depending on Him alone for success, He will use you greatly and your church will grow as a result.
Actually, originally he spoke this chapter first to the 1000 pastors that gathered in November 2002 in San Salvador for the cell church seminar, right before the 150,000 Elim rally took place.
William A. Beckham, The Second Reformation, (Houston: TOUCH Publications, 1995), 168