by Joel Comiskey
update, January 2007
The data for the following article was obtained directly from the Natural Church Development research center in Germany. To download the worldwide NCD study in PDF format, with graphs included, click here. To download the North American NCD study in PDF format, click here. The orignal study was worldwide, but Joel Comiskey Group commissioned NCD to specifically compare North American Cell Churches with North American non-cell churches, and the conclusions were very similar. To read the North American comparison, read this article or download the statistical study here.
Does cell church really work in the U.S. ? I’ve heard this comment on numerous occasions. When I hear it, I normally ask another question, “What does work in the U.S. ?” With attendance figures plummeting year by year, and some experts saying that only about 1% of all church growth in the U.S. is truly conversion growth, perhaps a better question is: What kind of church is more pleasing to Jesus? Or What does a healthy church look like?(note 1)
If you’re asking these questions, you need to take a hard look at a recent Natural Church Development study that compared cell churches with non-cell churches. The study discovered that the healthiest churches are cell churches. Here’s what the study uncovered:
A study comparing the NCD scores of cell churches and non-cell churches showed that cell churches overall scored significantly higher in all areas than non-cell churches. Combined cell churches’ scores averaged 59 while combined non-cell churches’ scores averaged 45. Not surprisingly, Inspiring Worship showed the smallest difference (8 points higher for cell churches) and Holistic Small Groups showed the most difference (25 points higher for cell churches). Significantly, even churches that say they would focus on small groups over large group worship still had better scores for large group worship. This finding indicates that cells don’t detract from corporate worship– they add to it. Additionally, the rate of church planting– in spite of the fact that the cell church movement has seemed to focus on getting larger rather than on planting more churches– would seem to indicate that multiplication is in fact in the genetic code. Cell churches averaged 2.5 churches planted compared to 1.9 churches planted for non-cell churches. Finally, the study showed that cell churches demonstrated an average growth rate almost double that of non-cell churches (note 2)
Because I wasn’t sure how NCD defined a cell church, I communicated directly with Christoph Schalk, the principal researcher behind NCD and this particular study. Schalk told me that their research team classified a cell church as a church with a score of 65 or higher in holistic small groups and with more than 75% of worship attendance in small groups. For the sake of emphasis, let me say this another way: in churches labeled cell churches by this study, more than 75% of those who attended weekend worship also attended holistic small groups during the week, and these churches excelled in holistic small groups by scoring higher than 65 in the NCD testing (note 3)
This still doesn’t define, however, what a holistic small group is according to NCD. The answer to this question can be found in the book Natural Church Development, where the characteristics of a holistic small group include the following:
- Emphasis on the application of biblical truth that leads to transformation. People in these small groups have the liberty to bring up issues that apply to daily life.
- Exercise of spiritual gifts within the small group.
- Priority of small groups as being just as important as the celebration service. The small group, in other words, is not simply a programmatic extension of the celebration service. Schwarz uses the term “mini-church” to describe a holistic small group.
- Multiplication. Multiplication stood out as the key factor in healthy, growing churches. Schwarz says, “If we were to identify any one principle as the most important . . . then without a doubt it would be the multiplication of small groups.” Schwarz continues, “Continuous multiplication of small groups is a universal church growth principle.” (note 4)
The NCD definition of a holistic small group is very close to the cell definition given in the introduction of this book. I also like their definition of a cell church and believe it’s an excellent starting point. I have appreciated the ministry of NCD, and I’m encouraged to see that their extensive research is confirming that cell church ministry is a healthy strategy for church growth (note 5)
Solid evidence in favor of cell church ministry
This study is exciting because it provides statistical evidence that cell churches—whether in North America, Europe, or Africa—are not only healthier but also are growing faster. This information gives hope to those who have doubted that the cell-church strategy could bring qualitative and quantitative growth to their churches. For those planting a church or whose congregation is in transition from a conventional church to a cell church, this study is a reminder that cell church ministry will actually give a boost to celebration worship, church planting, and overall growth.
Since twenty million pieces of data were used in this comparative study, it certainly should be taken seriously and applied accordingly. Embarking on the cell church journey takes prayer, planning, and persistence. The NCD study should be a huge encouragement—no matter how many obstacles—to press ahead until the breakthrough comes.
Granted, most of us already knew this, with or without the statistical backing. You probably figured that any church declaring that the small group experience is just as important as the large group one is a healthier church.
Most likely you’ve also noted that the cell church message rubs busy westerners the wrong way, and that the common reaction is simply to ignore the cell church or treat it as a passing fad. But we in the cell church movement persist because we have a hard time promoting church growth that caters to North American busyness by offering painless Christianity—in and out quickly and complete anonymity guarded. We in the cell church movement wrestle with whether we should even call this church growth.
We believe that Jesus has more for HIS church. We like the idea, in fact, that a church should be driven or administered through its small group system, and that the members of the small groups simply come together each week to celebrate and hear God’s Word. We’re enthralled with a church that promotes small group involvement just as zealously as large group participation.
The good news is that now we have the statistics to prove our convictions. Cell church is the healthiest type of church. The NCD study should be a warning to those churches that judge their success by how many people attend the Sunday celebration. Such churches should begin to view church growth from the stand point of both cell and celebration.
My prayer is that these statistics will stir churches to stop and listen, to ask whether it’s healthy to organize around task driven programs (normally taking place within the church building) and to begin focusing more on developing holistic small groups that evangelize and multiply, thus needing a fresh infusion of lay leadership. Such a vision might require the reorganization of staff from managing church tasks and programs to pastoring networks of small group leaders.
- The sad reality of the U.S. church scene, according to George Sweet, author of several best-selling books on Postmodernism, is that:
- 75% of churches today are dying or declining
- 24% are growing by playing musical saints
- 1% of churches today are growing by reaching lost people!
George Barna adds, ”The United States has so many unchurched people that the nation has become one of the primary missions targets of Christians who live in other countries around the world.” (George Barna in September 25, 2000 at http://www.barna.org/cgiin/PagePressRelease.asp?PressReleaseID=71&Reference=B Accessed on Saturday, December 01, 2001 ).
- “ Cell Churches and the NCD survey,” CoachNet: The Cell Church Chronicles, October 2002, email newsletter. I received this newsletter in my mail box on 10/21/2002 . For further information, write CoachNet@CoachNet.org. I talked with Jeannette Buller, Bob Logan ’s key person, and she said that this study originated in Germany from the Natural Church Development data base and was conducted by Christoph Schalk, the director of NCD statistics in Germany .
- Email from Christoph Schalk on Monday, April 19, 2004. He said, “Here’s the answer to your question: 100% of these churches with more than 75% in small groups do have holistic small groups, and have an average score in holistic small groups higher than 65.”
- Schwarz, Natural Church Development, p. 32.
- Brickman, Natural Church Development and Cell Church: Friend or Foe? On page 8 he says, “I am suggesting a marriage between the principles of cell church and Natural Church Development. I am suggesting not only compatibility, but I am suggesting that if a cell church paradigm can chase a thousand, the union of a cell church paradigm with the NCD paradigm can chase ten thousand. The whole will be far greater than the sum of the parts.”