Why We Do What We Do?

Church Leadership

Taken from Chapter 1 of Making Disciples in the Twenty-First Century Church

by Joel Comiskey

Spring 2014

Simon Sinek, popular speaker and author, was considered a “successful” businessman. Even though he was making a lot of money, he lost his passion and motivation for doing business. Sinek, like so many, began to focus on what he was selling and then trying to figure out how to sell it. Yet, he realized he was missing why he was selling the product. Sinek began to study great innovators, leaders, and companies who started with the why question. These great companies and people inspired those who worked for them with ideals and vision because they knew their purpose.

Through the struggles to rediscover excitement about life and work, Sinek made some profound personal discoveries and began helping his friends and their friends to find their why. He eventually wrote the bestselling book, Start with Why, to teach how to go beyond superficial motivations for life, business, or ministry.

He noticed that companies that started with what or how often resorted to manipulative techniques to sell their products, promoting the short-term benefits. Sinek says, “Addicted to the short-term results, business today has largely become a series of quick fixes added one after another after another. The short-term tactics have become so sophisticated that an entire economy has developed to service the manipulations, equipped with statistics and quasi-science” (note 1).

He realized that just because something works doesn’t make it right. In fact, the danger of manipulation is that it might work so well that a company or a person begins to depend on wrong tactics. Many scams, Ponzi schemes, and dictators depend on wrong motivations and tactics to achieve amazing results—but are eventually exposed over time.

Sinek’s principle is very simple: start with the why question and know the true motivation that should guide the company or organization. After spending lots of time meditating and working out the why question, the what and how question will naturally follow (note 2). He says, “By why I mean what is your purpose, cause or belief? Why does your company exist? Why do you get out of bed every morning? And why should anyone care?” (note 3)

Most churches know what they do and how to do it. Yet few truly understand why they do what they do. If the pastor can’t clearly articulate why the church exists, members have a hard time following. To truly inspire a church, the pastor or leader needs to embrace and articulate a compelling, God-honoring vision.

The Priority of a Proper Motivation

In the early days of my cell journey, I focused more on the how and the what questions. I wrote about how cells could grow churches. While it’s important to know how to do cell ministry, I’ve learned that the most important consideration is the why behind doing it. If the motivation is faulty, leaders become discouraged over time, lose the joy and excitement of leading or supervising cell groups, and often quit all together. If the motivation is only how or what, the vision will soon dry up and fizzle.

When a pastor or leader doesn’t fully understand why he is implementing cell ministry, he can fall into the trap of following someone else’s model or thinking a new technique will produce growth. Faulty motivations, however, produce superficial results. Correct motivations sustain over the long haul and give meaning and purpose to what we do.

Answering the why question also gives the leader added flexibility. He or she is not bound to a particular methodology or result. Rather, the leader is free to adjust, adapt, and create the necessary structures and strategies to succeed over the long haul.

I’ve lived and practiced cell church ministry both in North and South America. I’ve also studied many worldwide cell churches and conducted seminars in these churches. I’ve become increasingly aware that how-to formulas usually only work effectively in particular cultures and receptive environments. The formulas rarely transfer across borders and cultures. Those who succeed in cell ministry learn to dig beneath the how-to question and unearth the why motivation. The why question provides the vision or driving force behind cell ministry and allows the leader to keep pressing on in spite of the obstacles.

In fact, the how question often locks a church into certain patterns that probably don’t fit the exact circumstance where the church is located. Only answering the how question leaves the pastor and church looking for formulas from someone else’s model and feeling frustrated when those techniques don’t work.

In contrast, fully answering the why question gives longevity to cell ministry because the pastor realizes that cell ministry flows from a solid biblical base. When a leader grasps the why question, the how question flows naturally. In fact, the leader discovers that there are many ways to do cell ministry and one size does not fit all. The pastor can steadfastly plod through the valleys because of a firm conviction that the church is on the right path.

We as believers know that the Bible is our guide book and that scriptural teaching must guide all we do and say. But is there a guiding theme in scripture, one that stands out above the others? Before examining eternal guiding principles for your ministry, let’s look at some pitfalls that need to be avoided.

The Inadequacy of Sunday Attendance Growth

Many pastors and leaders are motivated by increased attendance growth in the larger worship services. They’ve been influenced by the discipline of church growth, a collection of teachings first formulated and promoted by Donald McGavran in the ’70s and ’80s and popularized by Peter Wagner in the ’80s and ’90s. Is there anything wrong with wanting more people in the Sunday worship services? No. But is church attendance growth an adequate motivation for a pastor or leader?

I think of my friend, Pastor John. His church was firmly based on a biblical philosophy for doing ministry, yet he suddenly switched gears after coming back from a miracle conference held in a church that had seen incredible growth through their miracle strategy. Pastor John wanted more people attending his church, so he abandoned his previous philosophy of ministry and started following this new church growth model. Pastor John was motivated by attendance growth.

The emphasis on more people in the larger worship service creates problems such as:

  • Distraction from focusing on developing disciples. Church leaders can become satisfied by the multitude which attends the larger gathering. The problem is that while it might appear that a lot is happening in the large crowd, often few disciples are formed. Why? Because discipleship does not primarily take place in the crowd or by people hearing God’s word.
  • Inactivity among attendees. Focusing on attendance produces inactivity among church attendees who feel like they’ve fulfilled their purpose by attending the large worship gathering. Those attending the worship gathering might or might not be disciples of Jesus Christ and because anonymity is promoted, no one really knows.

Christ never focused on the crowd while on earth. Yes, he did miracles and attracted a crowd, but he never concentrated on them as part of his long-term strategy. In fact, we see Jesus winnowing away the crowd by calling out disciples. Michael Wilkins dedicated his life to understand the meaning of discipleship. His main textbook on discipleship, Following the Master, is the most exhaustive on the subject. He writes, “The objective of Jesus’ ministry among the crowd was to make them disciples. As he taught and preached, the sign of faith was when one came out of the crowd and called Jesus ‘Lord’ (Mt 8:18-21)”(note 4). Jesus knew the crowd was fickle. He wanted long-term personal commitment, not temporary relief because of the miracles. John Eldredge, a famous author who also leads a house church, writes,

Going to church with hundreds of other people to sit and hear a sermon doesn’t ask much of you. It certainly will never expose you. That’s why most folks prefer it. Because community will. It will reveal where you have yet to become holy. It will bring you close and you will be seen and you will be known, and therein lies the power and therein lies the danger (note 5). Some church strategists teach that leaders must first attract a crowd in order to make disciples, but Jesus didn’t do this. He often discouraged the crowd from following him for impure motivations and exhorted them to count the cost of following him (note 5).

Robert Coleman in The Master Plan of Evangelism writes,

Most of the evangelistic efforts of the church begin with the multitude under the assumption that the church is qualified to conserve what good is done. The result is our spectacular emphasis upon numbers of converts, candidates for baptism, and more members for the church, with little or no genuine concern manifested toward the establishment of these souls in the love and power of God, let alone the preservation and continuation of the work (note 6).

The Inadequacy of Cell Group Attendance Growth

Cell group attendance growth is distinct from “Sunday attendance growth” because it emphasizes attendance in both a small group and a large group—not just the larger worship service. Growth in both cell and celebration is a step in the right direction, but it is still inadequate.

Many pastors embrace cell ministry because they want to be like the largest churches in the world. In fact, most of the model cell churches today were inspired by Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul, Korea, which is the pioneer of the modern cell church movement. YFGC grew to become the largest church in the history of Christianity.

Founder David Cho, and lead pastor of YFGC until very recently, implemented cell ministry as the base of the church back in the early 1970s, and the church grew to about twenty-five thousand cells, two hundred fifty thousand in attendance, and some eight hundred fifty-thousand members (and many, many church plants worldwide) (note 7). YFGC inspired the possibility of unlimited growth, and many pastors have made their pilgrimage to YFGC to discover how this church works. Some of those who implemented Cho’s model have become mega-cell churches, like the Elim Church in El Salvador. Elim started their cell journey in 1986 after visiting YFGC and has not stopped growing. Many others have had similar results.

Then why is cell church growth a poor motivation for doing cell ministry? Here are some reasons:

Turning ministry into techniques

When a church enters into the cell church vision because of the possibility of growth, it’s easy to look to techniques, rather than God, to bring the growth. Many jump into cell ministry to achieve growth like YFGC, and the vast majority of churches are disappointed when the growth simply doesn’t happen. The reality is that only Jesus can bring qualitative, lasting growth. Leaders can often superficially think that following a 1-2-3 step approach will bring desired results. Perhaps information obtained at a seminar at a growing model church led them to believe in guaranteed success. The reality is that only God can produce lasting, eternal growth.

Losing focus on the quality of the disciples

Quality is harder to measure than quantity. If a leader spotlights the number of people attending the cells or larger gatherings, he or she will often miss the more qualitative reasons for cell ministry. For example, many overlook whether the cells are actually practicing community or attempting outreach. When a leader doesn’t understand the biblical purpose behind cell ministry, it’s easy to fall into the trap of emphasis on outward results, which normally produces disappointment and disillusionment.

Disappointment when expectations aren’t met

Most leaders are not satisfied by their church’s growth rate. They want their churches to grow much faster than what is currently happening. When they jump into cell ministry with the expectation that their church will grow like Yoido Full Gospel Church or one of the other exciting cell churches, they can easily become condemned and discouraged. Often the church will then set aside cell ministry for another program or model.

While we should rejoice in what God has done through David Cho and growing churches like YFGC, the motivation that comes from exciting church growth is inadequate. The reality is that very few churches will grow to megachurch status, and those which dohave a unique, rare combination of giftedness, talent, and positive external factors (e.g., receptivity in country, and so forth). What happens to the cell churches that experience slow growth? Should they move on to another model? If cell church growth is the reason and motivating factor, they should move on.

Faulty Leadership Style

One very subtle result of being motivated by cell church growth is embracing a wrong leadership style. Sometimes to “get results” leaders become controlling, domineering, and start demanding that members produce great numbers. Often the leaders behave this way because they thought this was the key to someone’s successful model. Because the model church seemed to behave that way, they also implemented that leadership style.

I know one pastor who has the reputation of motivating his people through terror, rather than humble godly service. Terror was the word used by his denominational supervisor, and I had to agree with this supervisor after having spent time in this pastor’s church. Did this pastor produce growth? Yes. But it wasn’t growth based on a biblical motivation, and such growth was not qualitative and won’t stand the test of time.

The Inadequacy of Easy Implementation

Pastors and leaders are busy. While they understand that principles are important, in the milieu of a busy lifestyle, they often prefer a package right off the shelf that can be unwrapped and easily followed.

In one sense there’s nothing wrong with this, especially when starting out. A church needs a pattern, at least to begin with. But what I call “easy implementation” can have disastrous consequences in the long haul. Why?

Transferability Problems

Often a packaged model doesn’t work in any other context than where it was created. It might seem easier initially to just “plug and play,” but the model ends up malfunctioning because of cultural barriers. For example, how would a cell church model formed in the inner city of Manila work in the rural environment of South Dakota? Or how does a model forged in a group-oriented atmosphere in Africa work in the individualistic culture of Australia?

There’s also the denominational context. One model might work great among the Assembly of God in Brazil but not work at all among the Baptists in Spain. What worked great in a Latin American Pentecostal environment where leaders are more authoritative will need to be adapted among Baptists who follow a more congregational, participatory form of governance.

When enough of these obstacles occur due to transferability problems, the packaged cell model is often shelved and forgotten, and the underlying thinking is that cell ministry doesn’t work. The problem was not the cell strategy but the wholesale adoption of someone else’s model.

Lack of creativity

God is a creative God. He delights when his children seek him and draw from his bountiful creativity. Following someone else’s model thwarts the pastor from depending on God’s innovative guidance. Following someone else’s model is superficial and doesn’t stir the church leaders to look to God for the power to innovate. Rather, the leader is glued to the manual produced by someone else’s ingenuity and is always asking, what would the creator of this model do?

When the leader wants to change direction or tweak the packaged model, he or she won’t know what to do because the original creative idea came from someone else who understood how to adapt as circumstances changed.

Lack of motivation

One of the main problems with following someone else’s model is the lack of incentive. Over time, the leaders wonder why they put so much effort into doing cell ministry—especially when the results are not immediately visible. The church leadership begins to doubt all the extra time it takes to fine-tune the cell groups, practice discipleship equipping, and coach existing leaders.

Over time, it becomes exceedingly hard to motivate and mobilize the congregation to press ahead with cell ministry. Why? Because the motivation based on someone else’s growth doesn’t excite the imagination. When leaders get tired and obstacles occur, the leader quits midstream, thinking that cell church simply didn’t work, when in reality following a model didn’t work.

Becoming a slave of someone else

Some model cell churches require total obedience in exchange for new information about their model. They say that the key to successful implementation of their model is to also come under their covering, which is often a code word for control.

A modern day example of this is the International Charismatic Mission in Bogota, Columbia. This church exploded with growth in the 1990s and became a worldwide sensation. ICM asked everyone to follow their entire model, rather than principles that could be adapted and adjusted for changing circumstances. They required churches to come under their apostolic covering to then receive inside information. Many churches left their denominations, causing painful divisions. One of their secrets was the importance of the number twelve as being critical to cell success, which also supposedly came with a special anointing (note 8).

Today, most churches have seen the inadequacy of wholeheartedly following models like G12 and have gained new freedom and effectiveness by adapting the principles to their own church context.

The Inadequacy of Underdeveloped Theology

Ralph Neighbour is famous for coining the phrase, “Theology breeds methodology.” Yet, many pastors don’t have a strong theological foundation for cell ministry. Perhaps they started cell ministry because they saw the lack of pastoral care in their church, and they tried to plug the pastoral hole with a few small groups. Cell ministry was simply another program rather than the heart of the church. Many churches establish their small groups on the oft quoted passage in Acts 2:42-46,

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. 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.

This wonderful text has helped the church understand the connection between cells and celebration in the Jerusalem church (note 9). Yet, these verses give little information about cell and celebration, and they don’t provide a strong enough foundation to carry a church through the storms of ministry. In other words, it’s not deep enough. So what is the problem with not having a deeper biblical reason for doing cell ministry? Sustainability.

If the foundation is superficial, there’s a good chance that cell ministry will not withstand the storms of doubt, resistance, and weariness. Cell leaders, supervisors, and staff might give up when the going gets tough or an apparently easier program comes along. If the motivation isn’t firmly linked to biblical truth, it’s natural to view cell ministry as just another program.

For many years I was more excited about the pragmatic reasons for cell ministry and promoted key methodologies to help churches grow through cell ministry. Yet I didn’t prioritize the biblical base for cell ministry enough. As the years have passed, I’ve realized the necessity of starting with a strong theological base. I made it a priority to answer for myself the theological questions for cell ministry and in 2012 I wrote a book called, Biblical Foundations for the Cell-Based Church. In this book I lay out key biblical foundations for doing cell ministry, which include:

  • The triune nature of God. God created humankind in his image, which is inherently relational. Isolationism goes against God’s nature, and God calls his church to reflect community. God is working within believers to make them more relational.
  • The Church as the family of God. God created families to reflect his triune nature. The image of family is the primary metaphor for life in the New Testament church. God forged the Church, his new family, in houses to reflect a close-knit, one another relationship, where hospitality and the extended family was the priority.
  • Christ’s emphasis on the home. Jesus Christ came to proclaim God’s rule, his kingdom. Christ gathered a community of disciples to demonstrate how this new kingdom operated. He chose ministry in homes to reflect the image of the new family of God. He then sent his disciples in teams to minister in houses, giving them clear instructions on how to reach people through the house strategy.
  • The house church environment of the early Church. God established the early church in the house environment, which spread over the entire Roman Empire. Most house churches were between ten to twenty people, although some house churches were larger. The content of the house meetings was flexible and dynamic. They celebrated the Lord’s supper as a meal, enjoyed fellowship, ministered to one another from the word of God, practiced hospitality, prayed, worshipped, baptized new believers, and evangelized.
  • Relational evangelism through close contacts that extended from the house churches. The gospel flowed via the extended family in New Testament times, which included immediate relatives, servants, freemen, hired workers, and sometimes tenants and partners in a trade. As Jesus transformed people, they behaved differently within their family relationships. Husbands cared for their wives, slaves were treated with dignity, married partners submitted to one another, and love ruled. People could see the changes up close as city life was lived out in the open, and many became followers of Jesus and his new family.
  • Organic leadership development from house to house ministry. Christ’s apostles led the Church after Pentecost, but the early Church began relying on leaders developed through house church ministry. Leadership in the early Church was organic, charismatic, non-hierarchical, home based, team-oriented, and promoted both males and females. The Spirit of God through his gifts allowed each member to minister. Females played an essential role in early leadership, and the focus was on the team, rather than one leader.
  • The connection between house churches. The early church primarily met in house churches, but those house churches were not independent entities. At times the house churches gathered regularly together for larger meetings, as we can see in both Jerusalem and Corinth. At other times those gatherings were less frequent. The New Testament writers used the word ecclesia to refer to the house church gatherings, the large gatherings, and the universal Church.

While these principles come directly from scripture, I also know that it’s possible to get lost in the maze of biblical reasons for cell church ministry. Is it possible to narrow these principles down into one main purpose? Is there one motivation that stands above the rest? I believe there is and explaining that purpose is the main reason for writing this book.

The Inadequacy of More Leaders

For many years, I thought leadership development was the essence of cell ministry. I took the passage in Matthew 9:37-38 as my starting point where Jesus said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.”

Yet, I began to see holes in my use of the word leader in 2001. I held the view that everyone in the church should become a leader, but a few pastors challenged me on this. Pastor Dave, a gifted teacher and a very analytical person, realized that many lay people in his own church didn’t want to become leaders. He especially wanted to know whether the leadership conviction, expressed in my book Leadership Explosionwas biblical (note 10). Dave, along with the other pastors in the coaching group, wrestled with this issue, wanting to know how biblical the word leader was. They didn’t feel there was sufficient biblical evidence for prioritizing leadership through cell ministry. I also came to realize that the Bible didn’t directly say that everyone should become a leader. It was a great concept, but it was simply hard to defend.

Then there was the problem with the definition of a leader. Many cultures viewed leaders as controlling and dominating. For many, the word leader conjured images of a special type of person who is gifted to direct others, create followers, and boldly envision the future. Others imagine that a Christian leader must hold an official position in the church. In other words, a leader seemed to be beyond the reach of most lay people.

Dave discouraged me from using the word leader in the discipleship equipping process. He felt the worddisciple squared with scripture far better than leader. I had been using the word leader for so long that I resisted his argument but something rang true in Dave’s argument as I examined scripture.

I realized that Dave’s point coincided with Jesus and his disciples. Jesus himself used the word disciple to describe his followers. Jesus transformed the world by telling his disciples that the greatest would be one who served the most (Luke 22:26). He took off his garments and washed the feet of his disciples to model servanthood. God began to change me and help me to grasp a more biblical basis for the essence of cell ministry.

A Motivation That Stands the Test of Time

Christ’s clear command to the church was to make disciples who make disciples. He gave the Church “marching orders” in Matthew 28:18-20 when he said,

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.

In Matthew 28, Jesus is telling his own group of disciples to develop another group of disciples. Jesus expected his disciples to follow his pattern of exemplifying his power and love through practical teaching and examples. Jesus developed his own group of twelve and hung out with them for three years. In the atmosphere of the group, these disciples were molded, shaped, trained, and then sent forth. The same disciples became the key leaders of the early Church. Christ’s purpose in molding them in the small group had a greater purpose.

Not only did Jesus minister with these disciples over the course of three years, but he then sent them into the homes to establish house churches that would multiply and infiltrate the surrounding communities (Luke 9 and 10).

The word disciple occurs two hundred thirty-two times in the Gospels and twenty-seven times in the book of Acts—a total of two hundred fifty-nine times. The word disciple simply means pupil or learner (note 11). In ancient times, a teacher’s students or followers were called disciples and behaved in much the same manner as those who followed Jesus (Matthew 5:1; Luke 6:17; 19:37). There were many learners of Jesus in the New Testament but only some became his disciples—those who chose to obey Christ’s teaching.

After Christ’s resurrection, the word disciple was replaced by words such as believer, saint, Christian, brotheror sister in Christ. Why? Because after Pentecost, God established the Church, the gathering of believers, to be the main place where discipleship occurred. Rather than becoming a disciple of one person, the early Christians were molded and shaped by the Spirit of God working through Christ’s Church. The early Church followed Christ’s pattern and changed the world house by house. Those house churches celebrated together. Michael Wilkens says, “Discipling today is always undertaken as an outgrowth of the life of the church, whereas prior to Pentecost it occurred with Jesus personally. . . We may go so far as to say that in many ways discipleship is the overall goal of the church, including evangelism, nurturing, fellowship, leadership, worship, etc” (note 12). God chose the Church to make disciples—both today and in New Testament times.

Cell ministry isn’t primarily about the cell but making disciples who are molded, shaped, and transformed through the cell system. As leaders understand this process, a new, purer motivation develops that compels the pastor forward because of a new understanding of the why of cell ministry. Understanding that the cell strategy is primarily about making disciples places cell ministry within the biblical framework and encourages pastors to stop focusing on outward models and to prioritize a secure biblical anchor for ministry.


  1. In Leadership Explosion, I made the case for developing leaders through cell groups. In that book I interact with leadership theory and what the Bible says about leadership.
  2. Sinek, Simon (2009-09-23). Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action (p. 29). Penguin Group US. Kindle edition.
  3. Sinek, Simon (2009-09-23). Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action (pp. 65-66). Penguin Group US. Kindle edition.
  4. Sinek, Simon (2009-09-23). Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action (p. 39). Penguin Group US. Kindle edition.
  5. Michael J. Wilkins, Following the Master (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1992), p. 109.
  6. John Eldredge, Waking the Dead (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2003), p. 197.
  7. Robert Coleman, The Master Plan of Evangelism (Old Tappan, NJ: Revell, 1971), p. 33.
  8. Yoido Full Gospel Church, like other churches in Korea, counts a person as a “member” if that person gives financially to the church, and thus there are more “members” than attendees.
  9. César Castellanos preached that the twelve stones that Elijah used to build Jehovah’s sacrifice were the key to God answering his prayer (Claudia and César Castellanos, audio cassette, Como influir en otros [How to Influence Others] January 2002, conference in Bogota). Castellanos says, “The model of the twelve restores the altar of God that is in ruins” (César Castellanos, The Ladder of Success [London: Dovewell Publications, 2001], p. 25). We’re told that Elijah would not have chosen Elisha if Elisha would have been plowing with eleven instead of twelve oxen, and that the Holy Spirit at Pentecost came when Matthias had replaced Judas, thus completing the number twelve (Claudia and César Castellanos, The Vision of Multiplication, audio cassette [Bethany World Prayer Center: International Cell Conference, 2001]. César Castellanos and the pastors at ICM will tell you that the vision of the number twelve came directly from God, and therefore we must follow this revelation. They often justify this particular number by referring to a direct revelation from God.
  10. When I use the word celebration in this book, I’m referring to the large group gathering to worship and hear God’s word. Most celebration services take place on Sunday, but some churches have their large group gatherings on different days of the week.
  11. In the Greek world, philosophers were surrounded by their pupils. The Jews claimed to be disciples of Moses (John 9:28) and the followers of John the Baptist were known as his disciples (Mark 2:18; John 1:35).
  12. Michael J. Wilkins, Following the Master (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1992), p. 279