by Joel Comiskey
This chapter is taken from Comiskey’s book Youth in Cell Ministry
Chapter 4: Youth in Intergenerational Cells
When Jacob Shuey was in fourth grade, he was part of an intergenerational group (IG) at York Alliance Church (YAC). He continued with that IG group throughout his teenage years and now, nineteen years later, at age twenty-nine, he leads an IG group. "It’s amazing to hear the wisdom of a sixty-year-old when you’re only a teenager," he told me. "That’s what intergenerational groups are all about," he said. When his family moved to York, Pennsylvania, his entire family became involved in an IG group. His dad and three younger brothers continue to be part of life groups and have stayed faithful to Jesus Christ.
IG groups are as old as the New Testament house churches because those early groups were intergenerational. They connected the parents, teenagers, children, and extended family. The Book of Acts speaks of entire households participating in the Christian faith and describes church life happening in the believers’ homes. The Bible refers to the Church as the household of God or the family of God (1 Timothy 3:15; Ephesians 2:19; Galatians 6:10).
Back to Intergenerational Ministry
While reading the literature on youth ministry in preparation to write this book, I felt overwhelmed at times with the reams of suggestions about how to keep youth interested, attract new visitors, and run a smoothly functioning youth group. But I also noticed another thread in modern-day youth ministry that is moving away from youth as a separate entity and trying to connect youth with adults and parents.
Wayne Rice is a widely respected youth ministry trainer. For years, he conducted youth seminars and wrote dynamic youth manuals directed toward youth groups in local churches. He provided resources to invigorate youth services within the church.
Providing a youth service may seem harmless, even beneficial, but when we train teenagers to believe that the regular worship service of their church is inadequate both in style and content, we undermine not only the unity of the church and its traditions, but the possibility that they will ever return to the church when they grow too old for the youth group (note 2).
Many of the youth experts of a bygone era are now repudiating the very youth programs they once advocated. As these youth specialists have aged, parented their own children, and then reflected back on youth ministry, they have acknowledged the inadequacy of youth events and programs to make disciples. The new trend is for youth ministers to connect youth with the adults in the church and to involve the parents more intimately in ministering to children. David Kinnaman and Aly Hawkins write
The concept of dividing people into various segments based on their birth years is a very modern contrivance, emerging in part from the needs of the marketplace over the last hundred years. In a misguided abdication of our prophetic calling, many churches have allowed themselves to become internally segregated by age (note 3).
Intergenerational cell groups provide an important answer to connect youth with older, more mature saints and also to establish long-lasting bonds of connections. Youth and adults interact each week, and when the youth go off to college, connections are maintained. Youth have a need for elder mentors, and the adults need the vitality of the youth.
IG groups are like normal cells. They follow a similar order, meet in homes on a weekly basis, and last about one and one half hours. Refreshments and fellowship follow. IG cells might rotate from house to house or have one permanent one. They normally follow the 4Ws, which include Welcome, Worship, Word, and Witness. If children are present (ages 4-12), the children would stay with the entire group for Welcome and Worship and then separate into another room for the Word and Witness time.
Youth in IG groups participate with the other adults from beginning until the end. This requires that the adult leaders are sensitive to the needs of the youth, allow them to participate, and even give them special responsibilities, like leading the worship, the lesson, the prayer, and so forth. I personally think the best groups rotate responsibilities among the willing members, and youth need to fully participate in taking their turn.
Like all cell groups, the goal is to edify those present, which literally means to "to build-up or construct." Paul wrote to the Corinthian church, "What then shall we say, brothers? When you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. All of these must be done for the strengthening [edifying] of the church" (1 Corinthians 14:26).
The cell is the ideal atmosphere for people’s lives to be reconstructed and for them to grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ. In the small group, the Holy Spirit, the Master Craftsman, challenges and changes people. The intimate atmosphere of the small group makes it possible for this edification to take place.
I recommend following the four Ws, and as time passes, more experienced leadership will learn to vary the order according to the needs of the group.
The Welcome time (15 minutes) highlights an icebreaker, which encourages people to get to know those in the group. An icebreaker question might be: What do you like to do on vacation? Or What is your favorite hobby? The idea is to connect each person in the group to everyone else.
The Worship time (20 minutes) centers on God, since the church exists to give glory to him. Whether there is an instrument or not, the goal is to acknowledge God through worship. A group can worship through singing songs, praying, reading a Psalm, or meditating on God in silence. If songs are used, it’s a great idea to provide a song sheet with the songs listed for that evening (normally 3-4 songs on the sheet). Many groups use a You Tube video, worship CD, or just sing without instruments. In between the songs, the worship leader should allow group members to offer a sentence praise, prayer, or silent confession.
The Word time (40 minutes) in an IG group focuses on allowing God’s Word to speak to all present, whether young or old. Cell lessons normally have about three to seven questions based on a passage of Scripture. It’s a great idea for the leader to allow willing youth to take their turn in facilitating the questions, which will help the youth mature through participation.
Great leaders are facilitators who draw out others to share their thoughts and apply God’s Word. They are not Bible teachers or preachers. Cell leaders should not talk too much because the goal is not information, but transformation. Great leaders help steer the group away from talking about world politics, criticism of the church, or the opinions of different authors. Again, the goal is to apply God’s Word to daily living. People should go away changed by God’s eternal message.
Members can read the Bible verses out loud. However, the leader should only ask people to read who are comfortable reading in public to avoid embarrassing anyone. It’s important that the facilitator gives a brief explanation of the Bible passage—without preaching. Otherwise, members won’t know how to answer the questions, not knowing the biblical context. The facilitator doesn’t have to be a Bible expert to do this.
Many churches base their cell lessons on the Sunday morning preaching, and the facilitator can take notes while the pastor is preaching the message, knowing that he or she will be covering that topic during the cell meeting the following week. If the cell lesson is not connected with the sermon, the facilitator will prepare by reviewing the Bible verses before the cell meeting.
The Witness time (15 minutes) is the last part of the cell group. It focuses on reaching out to others and might include planning an evangelistic activity, preparing for some kind of social action outreach, or praying for friends and family who need Jesus.
Youth should be full participants of all aspects of the cell. Although an adult normally leads the IG group, it’s possible that youth might lead the group as well. York Alliance Church is a great example of how IG groups work.
When York Alliance Church (YAC) in York, Pennsylvania, first made the transition from a program-based church to a cell church, it determined that the cells would be intergenerational (note 4). Pastor Brian Kannel would love to say it was a wise, well-thought out decision with deep theological grounding, but that wasn’t the case. Rather, there were a lot of kids, and the church needed to know what to do with them. IG groups answered that question. And in the past fifteen years, they’ve seen growth and maturity in the children, youth, and adults.
The church began with homogenous cell groups, but they noticed a problem. The young married couples had questions and problems that were very typical for young married couples: How do I decide on a house to buy? When should we start trying to have a family? And so, they asked others in their community. Predictably, they had no good answers. So, they pooled their ignorance and made the best decisions they could.
Meanwhile, as the group of retirees connected with one another, they discovered that while they had a lot of answers, none of them really had any questions. When they talked to one another and compared aches and pains and the current ailment of the day, they found that they didn’t have the energy to even ask questions.
The church quickly discovered that IG cells were not simply a strategy to care for children. With an intentionally-integrated community, young adults had older men and women speaking wisdom into their lives. Children suddenly had multiple adopted grandparents who loved and cared for them. The energy of young lives was somehow infused into an older generation.
Teens were no longer simply being mentored by a youth sponsor; they were being invested in by an entire family. Single men had a family to eat dinner with; widows had companionship; empty-nesters had children running through their living rooms again, which they could send back to their homes when they were ready to enjoy their hard-earned peace and quiet.
IG cells connect the best of both worlds. They bring families together to disciple children. They build up both the young and the old. Ideally, an IG cell consists of youth, children, their parents, single adults, young married couples, and senior couples or singles. However, it doesn’t have to have all these ages.
YAC tried to integrate the youth within a normal IG group along with the youth’s own parents. That worked better, but there were still problems. Some youth didn’t want to stay with their parents. As the leadership team wrestled with what to do, one of the leaders, Stacy Pope, said, "Why don’t students attend regular cells groups where their parents are not present." It was an aha moment. YAC decided to clump groups of youth together into an IG group where their own parents were not present. In this way, the teens would be seen as "normal" members of the cell. YAC typically combines three or four youth together and then places them into a willing IG group. Kannel said, "Teens are herd animals and like to stay together in groups. It’s difficult for a lone teen to jump into a group of adults and feel comfortable."
The goal of the IG groups at York Alliance is to treat the youth as adults. The entire process has worked well for them. They target youth in the ninth and tenth grades, and they also prepare an IG group to take on the youth. The youth step into the group on their own. It’s like a rite of passage. They participate just like the adults. The youth take turns with leadership, the cell lesson, worship, icebreaker and so forth.
YAC still has a youth congregational meeting. That is, the youth from the different IG groups meet on Wednesday night in a normal youth congregational gathering. YAC even has a youth pastor, but the youth pastor is constantly promoting the IG life groups, and understands that the primary way the youth will be cared for is in an IG group. Kannel’s daughter, for example, recently brought a friend to the Sunday celebration service who had been coming to the youth ministry on Wednesday night. Kannel realizes that for this friend to really grow, she’ll need to get plugged into an IG group. The youth congregational meeting provided an entry point to create interest but the IG group is where the youth are discipled. Kannel says that about fifty to sixty percent of the youth are in IG groups.
The youth congregation meets on Wednesday night and about thirty-five percent of those who attend are not in IG group. They do break up into small groups on Wednesday night, but they don’t classify these break-out groups as cells. Anyone who wants to be involved in youth leadership or ministry must first be committed to attend an IG group. The youth do other activities, like retreats and outreaches, but the IG commitment is central and the main place where discipleship happens.
Over the years, YAC has noticed several benefits of their IG emphasis.
First, when the teens go to life groups where their parents are not present, they are more willing to open up and share what’s really on their hearts. They feel like a normal part of the cell, rather than only leading the children during the Kids’ Slot (note 5). Kannel said, "We have teens as young as twelve or thirteen who lead the lesson, worship, and prayer for evangelism." In other words, the youth are full participants in the cell. They grow and mature just like everyone else.
Second, the youth build relationships with other adults in the church, and adults build relationships with them. Youth receive new perspectives about adults who are not their parents.
Third, it provides a natural care structure for them when they transition into college and come home again. Kannel said, "It’s exciting to see the strong bonds between the youth and their cell groups when they go off to college. Youth know people who are praying for them, and they have a spiritual family to connect with." The IG group walks with them all the way until they come back from college. While in college, they stay in the email loops, share struggles, and receive prayer. Without IG groups, the college person would often say good-bye and the connections were severed. "Now," Kannel said, "90% of returning college students to the York area reconnect with their IG cell group."
Finally, and maybe most importantly, it gives the youth a foundation for their own faith. The youth see it in terms of the Hebrew "Bar-Mitzvah," a coming-of-age event at the age of twelve or thirteen. The young person leaves the confines of their parent’s group and begins his or her own faith journey. The young person learns to put words to personal conviction in the midst of a caring community.
YAC recognizes the weaknesses of their IG groups. The major one is the lack of evangelism. They have found it difficult for youth to invite their friends into an IG environment where there are adults and children. Perhaps it’s because the friends don’t feel comfortable around other adults, or because it takes a while for new youth to warm up to the adults who are present.
Another limitation relates to whether the adults cell truly welcomes the herd of youth into it. If the IG group is not welcoming, the youth sense that, and it just doesn’t work well. If the adults in the group don’t prioritize youth, it doesn’t work. The adults in the IG group need to enter into the youth’s world and make the youth feel at home.
Since Kannel has become the lead pastor, there’s a huge influx of children. It’s not uncommon to have eight children per IG group. Those children are now becoming youth and will be encouraged to get involved in an IG group. YAC is prepared to welcome those young people into their IG groups with the hope that they will become disciples and connected into an intimate family.
iRest and IG Cells
iRest is an Elim Church located in Reseda, California, and connected with pastor Mario Vega and the Elim movement from El Salvador. Each year, my own ministry (Joel Comiskey Group) holds a conference at iRest and both Mario Vega and I speak on cell church topics. The participants see huge banners declaring the yearly cell goals, which happened to be 400 cell groups in 2016. From the initial cell groups in the year 2000, the church has grown to 4,000 adults and 1,500 children, with more people in cells than in celebration. iRest is an exciting cell church that is reaching the Latinos of greater Los Angeles and exemplifying the effectiveness of cell church ministry in North America.
Pastor Jorge Peña, the lead pastor, was sent to the city of Reseda, California, in 2000 with a group of family cell groups from the mother church in Los Angeles. Previously, Jorge matured in a cell group, became a co-leader, leader, multiplication leader, supervisor, network leader and then was sent as a church planter to Reseda where he began the process with a new group of people. In one year, this group of family cells had developed into a church of 300 members who were committed to reaching the city for Jesus, and the church has not stopped growing.
The unique aspect of iRest is the integration of youth and adults in the cells. iRest does not have youth cells. Rather, youth are integrated within the 380 adult cells in the church. This is a creative feature of iRest, since the Elim mother church in San Salvador does have youth-led cells, as we’ll see in the following chapters.
Armando Pavón is the fulltime youth pastor at iRest. Although Armando was converted in an Elim celebration service in 2003, he was also actively involved in a cell group from the beginning. Within three months, he was leading a cell group and within two years, he had multiplied his cell four times. This is the pattern for all those in ministry in iRest, as it is in most cell churches around the world.
Like other IG cells, the youth at iRest interact with the adults, and most youth attend the cells with their parents. In fact, eighty percent of the young people between thirteen and seventeen attend the cell groups along with their parents. About fifteen percent of the youth will go with their friends to a cell group and five percent go alone to a cell group because their parents don’t attend the church.
The cell groups are in Spanish, but many of the youth speak far better English. "This has been a thorny issue," Armando admitted. "We continue emphasizing Spanish because most of the adults emigrated from Latin America to Reseda and are not yet fluent in English." Although iRest has not yet started purely English-speaking cells, they might do so in the future.
Another unique aspect at iRest is that each cell has a youth representative that reports to the zone representative about the needs of the youth within that particular cell group. Each month, Pastor Armando meets with each zone representative to talk about the youth needs. They pray, plan, and visit those youth that need special attention.
Youth at iRest include anyone between thirteen and twenty-five years of age, but there are two specific categories: thirteen to seventeen and eighteen to twenty-five. Those who are between eighteen and twenty-five often lead the IG cells (approximately one hundred leaders in this category). However, this is much less common among those thirteen to seventeen. While iRest never tries to promote solely youth cells, some cells will naturally gravitate toward younger people.
All Elim churches have a weekly planning meeting and iRest also follows this pattern. The planning meetings, like the cell groups, are intergenerational. The core team, both youth and adults, from each cell meets together on Tuesdays or Wednesdays to plan for the upcoming Saturday cell. Those in the planning group are assigned things to do and ministries to cover.
The youth do come together each week for a congregational meeting. Because there are so many youth meeting throughout the Reseda area, there are four separate youth congregational gatherings of about eighty youth each week, depending on when a particular zone comes to the church for the biblical teaching (note 6). Then once per month, all the youth come together for a larger congregational gathering, complete with drama and dynamic teaching. There are some 600-700 youth for these events. The youth attend one of the Sunday services, just like everyone in the church.
IG Cells Birthing Youth Cells
Young people often feel the inner urge to form cells with their own peers. Adults should encourage these groups and even offer assistance. One of the weaknesses of IG cells is the lack of youth participation, and this partly stems from adults not being proactive enough to include the youth in the life of the cell. Adults, like mother eagles, can help in the process by allowing the youth to launch their own cell groups. Sometimes, in fact, it’s best for youth to be nudged out of the nest, so they can fly on their own and learn with their own peers.
Daphne Kirk, an expert in intergenerational ministry, encourages IG groups to nurture youth-led cell groups that are planted from the IG group. She writes, "The intergenerational cell can be pro-actively involved with the youth cell through prayer and support" (note 7). Kirk encourages freedom for youth to stay in the IG group, while not discouraging the formation of youth cells. When youth cells are formed, it’s important to link them with the mother IG group. Adults in the IG group can play a major role in praying for the youth, hosting the group, and mentoring youth leadership.
Ralph Neighbour says something similar, "The youth cell leaders get their modeling and receive both spiritual and practical support from their intergenerational cells" (note 8). Both Daphne and Neighbour believe there is an important place for both youth-led cells and IG groups and that one should not exclude the other.
All adults at one time were youth and know that maturity is a lifetime process. Youth eventually will need to fight their own battles and grow spiritually on their own. Youth cells are a great way for them to exercise their gifts and talents in the presence of their contemporaries. Yet, it’s very hard to do this without the support of parents and other adults. For example, adults must open their homes, drive youth to the cell, and encourage the youth to make the time to attend the youth cells.
Those planting a cell church will most likely begin with IG groups and eventually start youth cells as the church grows. The first youth cell leaders would be cared for and discipled by the IG cell group leader, becoming part of the first leadership network. 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, planted youth cells from his intergenerational cell. He writes,
Two homogenous cells (boys and girls) have now been established from this one adult cell. They are led by the young people, and they take pastoral responsibility themselves. The boy’s cell initially met with the adults and then after Welcome/Worship left for their Word and Works time. 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 9).
The connection with the IG group in the initial stages is essential in the transition. Our own church plant in Moreno Valley started with a single IG cell meeting in my house in 2003. My children participated in the IG group for the icebreaker and worship and then would go into another room during the "Word" (teaching time) for their own cell lesson. As they became older, they wanted to start their own youth cell group. My wife was instrumental in coaching second-born Nicole and then my third-born Chelsea on how to lead the cell, what material to use, and especially the debriefing times afterwards. My kids grew and matured in their own youth cells, but they were coached and supported by adults.
The youth at Dove Fellowship (founded by Larry Kreider) attended the intergenerational cells until God birthed in them the desire to start their own youth cells (note 10). The adults helped in the process of youth cell formation, and the process was very organic and natural. 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 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 11).
Dove wanted to make sure the parents were involved in the decision-making process, so they gave complete liberty for parents to either keep their teens in their IG group or to allow them to participate in the youth cells. Sauder says,
With parental consent, younger teens can join in with the youth cells already in existence. The older youth naturally mentor the young who are looking for role models. Of course, the leader of that cell and the cell members must be in favor of having his age join the cell because younger teens are less emotionally mature (note 12).
In the beginning, most of the youth at Dove attended cell groups with their parents in IG groups but the problem was the lack of involvement. They often ended up sitting in cell meetings, staring at their sneakers in boredom, going out to play basketball, or taking care of the children during the cell meeting (note 13).
The leadership at Dove noticed that the youth were not really growing in the IG groups. The youth needed to be prodded in order to mature. Dove Christian Fellowship decided to start two youth cells, made up of newer Christians who were not from Christian families. The two youth cells met weekly, but there were also weekly youth gathering for all the youth in a congregational setting. The experiment worked! The youth had close discipleship relationships in their cells and also continued to have the larger youth group to attend, mirroring the same strengths the adult ministry was experiencing (note 14).
The label called "youth" only lasts for a short time and in a blink of an eye youth become adults. They are the "generation next," the adults of the tomorrow, the ones who will eventually lead the church. Knowing this, many churches develop the youth to lead their own cell groups, to make disciples who make other disciples. What these youth-led cell groups look like and how they are formed is the topic of the next chapter.
- A lot of the material in this section came from several blogs that Brian Kannel wrote on Joel Comiskey Group in May 2012: https://joelcomiskeygroup.com/2012/05/30/our-journey-into-childrens-cells/. I’ve edited this material but some of the Kannel’s wording is verbatim.
- Wayne Rice, Reinventing Youth Ministry [Again] (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2010), pp. 188-189.
- Ibid., p. 189.
- Kinnaman, David; Hawkins, Aly (2011-10-01). You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church . . . and Rethinking Faith (Kindle Locations 3219-3226). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
- The Kids’ Slot is when children from 4 to 12 leave the adult cell to have their own lesson. The children stay with the adults during the icebreaker and worship but then leave for their Bible teaching (Kids’ Slot). Youth often lead this time in IG cells but at YAC the youth normally stay in the IG group and acts as normal participants.
- Each week, the different zones meet separately in the church for Bible teaching (Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday). In each of these four services, the youth meeting separately in an adjacent room and there are about eighty youth in each of these separate services.
- Daphne Kirk wrote these words on cellchurchtalk on 1/1/2003.
- Quote from Ralph Neighbour on cellchurchtalk in response to Daphne Kirk’s comments about IG youth cells in 2003, although it seems I lost the exact email and so I don’t have a specific date.
- Philip Woolford [firstname.lastname@example.org] wrote to cellchurchtalk on Thursday, January 02, 2003.
- Sauder and Mohler, p. 19.
- Ibid., p. 20
- Ibid., p. 98.
- Ibid., p. 19.
- Ibid., p. 20.