by Joel Comiskey
This chapter is taken from Comiskey’s book Youth in Cell Ministry
Chapter 5: Student-led Cell Groups
Ted Stump has dedicated his life to prepare students to become world-changers. Stump was considered a successful youth worker in the mid-1980s because thousands of kids were coming to Christ through his ministry. Yet, he was also increasingly frustrated by the lack of discipleship. If thousands of kids came to Christ during a three-day crusade, only a small percentage followed through with their commitment. But this was the only method Stump knew at the time. It was the typical way to reach youth back then—heavy on the flashy entertainment and low-key gospel messages and light on follow-up and nurturing. Stump saw kids having fun, but he also saw little depth fostered in them.
Then Stump heard Ralph Neighbour of Touch Outreach Ministries talking about cell groups. Neighbour said the cells never grew larger than fifteen members, they met in homes, were focused on evangelism, and were discipleship oriented. Something inside of Stump exploded. "That’s the answer to the follow-up question!" (note 1) Soon he was studying the cell movement and ended up traveling to thirty countries where there were large, exemplary cell churches.
Stump applied what he learned to youth ministries. He trained committed student leaders to facilitate, follow-up, and nurture the groups, just like the adults in the cell church model. Stump and his ministry, Student-Led Cell Groups, have now trained thousands of youth and youth ministries in how to develop youth to lead youth cells. He has worked with some 2,000 youth ministries to help transition them to cell-group oriented youth ministry.
Students Leading Students
In youth-led cell groups, the youth are developed to actually lead the cell groups. The host of the group is often an adult, but those leading and attending are youth. According to Stump, it’s best to have a leadership team that consists of:
- student leader
- student co-leader
- adult mentor
The adults pour their lives into the student leaders by encouraging, equipping, and building them up. The adult does not lead the group but focuses on mentoring and discipling the student leaders and addressing any difficult questions and situations that may arise. Stump says, "The adult is only there to mentor, disciple and equip; they are not leading the group in any way, shape or form" (note 2).
Only if students step up and lead their peers will the cells reach their full potential for evangelism and discipleship. Youth have a special ability to reach other youth. While adults have to think and act like youth to reach them, youth are already there. As youth are developed and trained through cell groups, they become prepared to move into adult-led cell groups. If a student can lead a cell with peers, he or she is much better prepared for those adult years.
Students have a keen ability to reach fellow students and continue the process of multiplication. Student cell groups become the families the students never had. Yet the youth cell is not just for believers. Youth-led cell groups give students the chance to exercise their faith and to evangelize those who don’t know Jesus. Lost, hurting and saved students all meet together in the cell.
First Baptist Campo Grande, located in the western state of Mato Grosso do Sul, Brazil, develops young teens to lead cell groups. An adult has to be present in the teen cell group because they have found that this helps parents to release their teens to attend these groups. The adult is ultimately responsible, but the church’s goal is to develop adolescents into leaders. Having an adult present assures the parents that their kids are safe and that there won’t be any abuse.
Gabriel, a thirteen year old, leads an adolescent cell group. He has multiplied his cell three times since he has been in charge, although the cell itself has multiplied seven times. An adult sits in the cell with him to provide accountability. Gabriel goes to the Tuesday equipping each week, where he receives his cell lesson and training on how to teach it. Although the church gives him the lesson, Gabriel realizes he is ultimately responsible for the lesson and the life group in general, so he makes adjustments where needed. His goal is to meet the needs of those in his group.
Youth cell groups reach out to youth in the context of love, care and support. In a world that is void of meaningful relationships, kids are drawn to Christ by their peers, and in the group they can experience—often for the first time—unconditional love.
Effective youth cells meet outside the church building, with the emphasis on the home. Stump encourages the groups to meet in different homes and believes that rotation makes it easier to reach lost friends. Stump writes, "There’s something special, intimate, and safe about meeting in different homes each week. Plus, it makes more sense and is easier for kids to attend meetings in homes—they’re probably visiting them on a regular basis anyway" (note 3). It’s important to create an open loving environment. Room size, lighting, chair arrangement, and how visitors are greeted contribute to the success of the cell.
The goal is to make disciples that results in multiplication. If the group has too many people, the members do not feel cared for and eventually leave the group. Adults have to give teens the responsibility of leadership while mentoring, encouraging, teaching, and yes, allowing them to fail.
Nuts and Bolts of Student-Led Cells
Youth-led cell groups meet for approximately 1.5 hours. Some might stay longer, but it’s important to have a start and stop time. The meeting normally includes:
- Ice-breaker. This is an open ended, interesting question that gets students talking and getting to know each other.
- Lesson. Most youth-led cell groups follow an adaptation of the pastor’s message. Ted Stump, on the other hand, has developed some one hundred youth topics, which include open ended questions, discussions, testimonies, and application to the needs of youth today (note 4).
- Ministry time. Students apply what they have learned during the ministry time. God’s Word speaks to each person and transformation is the goal
The best youth cells are dynamic and fun. Ice-breakers, the application of God’s Word based on questions, worshipping Jesus and allowing him to speak through each person characterize great youth cells.
Over the years, Ted Stump has become increasingly convinced of the need to prioritize the Spirit’s working in student-led cells. He longs to see healing take place among the students as they pray for one another. He said, "If I could do it all over again, I would spend more time equipping people in the gifts of the Spirit. At this time in my life, I am re-thinking everything and want to emphasize worship and the gifts of the Spirit in an ever-increasing way" (note 5)
Ted Stump, like many others, has become convinced that young people need to hear and respond to the Holy Spirit in cell ministry.
Extending the Kingdom
John Peter began leading a cell group when he was sixteen years old. His parents were Foursquare pastors in Belo Horizonte, Brazil and his group was one of the ten cell groups in the church at the time. His involvement was more out of obedience to his parents as the eldest child rather than a heart-felt commitment to Jesus. Although having responsibility to lead the cell, he was still drinking liquor with his buddies. One night he shared the gospel in his youth cell and nine people received Jesus. As he reflected on how God saved people through him, even though he was not actively living the Christian life, he realized that he had a responsibility to serve Jesus. In the process, he became a serious follower of Jesus and gave up drinking altogether.
He began to research online about how to lead small groups and began to apply his newfound knowledge to cell leadership. His cell grew to sixty-six people. He knew it was too large, so he encouraged the youth in the cell to attend IG groups with their parents. He also started three more youth cells.
The youth eventually began to meet once per month as a congregational group, and as of 2016, the church has 380 young people in forty-two youth cells (in a church of 600 with sixty cells). John Peter is a fulltime youth pastor, along with three others.
Youth reaching youth through cell ministry has the potential of discipling a new generation for Jesus. Youth know their own generation and are best able to evangelize those in their own age group through meeting needs, building relationships, and establishing friendships.
Surveys have consistently shown that 75-90% of converts to Jesus come through a friend or relative (note 6). So when it comes to reaching students for Jesus, it is most effective to develop a friendship with the non-Christian and eventually invite him or her to the cell. Some have called this strategy oikos evangelism, a strategy as old as the New Testament era, wherein oikos relationships were the bridge of outreach. Oikos is the Greek word for house or extended household relationships. In the New Testament, the gospel spread through these household and extended family relationships as the church met house to house. Applied to youth evangelism, oikos relationships are with those people who the youth know the best, come in contact with most frequently, and who God has placed in their path. In other words, God gives youth relationships with others, and then reaches those people through friendship evangelism.
Thayana from Belem, Brazil, developed a relationship with Elem and Edy during a homework study group time. They became friends through studying together and encouraging each other to get the best grades possible. Eventually, Thayana shared the gospel with them and asked them if they wanted to receive Jesus as their savior. They said yes and that same week went to Thayana’s cell group. They felt God’s love and the excitement of being part of a youth family. Everyone welcomed them and not long afterwards they went to an "Encounter with God" retreat. God opened Elem’s heart and she was baptized a couple months later. However Edy waited almost three years to be baptized. Both became powerful and great small group leaders. They are both coordinators now in the Belem ministry team.
Group evangelism is most effective when people feel comfortable. This is part of the reason why the majority of youth cells meet in homes. Brian Sauder and Sarah Mohler write, "The primary method that is used in youth groups is to have the youth cells meet in homes during the week and have a corporate youth gathering at the church facility on a regular basis" (note 7). Meeting in homes has the advantage of:
- Homes are more comfortable, whereas building space is more academic.
- Homes get families involved. When the student group is in the home, it gives opportunity for the adults to host the group and sometimes coach the youth leaders.
- Home groups allow more pastoral responsibility for the volunteers.
- Home groups lessen the driving distance, are more accessible to students, and allow for different meeting nights. Doug Fields, former youth minister at Saddleback Community Church, says, "The strategic positioning of our meeting places throughout the community allows us to reach more students who can’t get a ride to the church property. Meeting in the homes also gives us the freedom to have alternate meeting nights and times" (note 8).
Apart from home meetings, some youth will meet in coffee houses, parks, office buildings, and campuses. Some of the most life-changing cell groups in the church I helped plant in Ecuador met at universities. At one time the Republic Church had over thirty cells meeting on university campuses in Quito, Ecuador.
Some youth groups have taken the first step of transition to small groups by breaking up in smaller groups within the church after the larger youth meeting, but this should only be a transitioning step, rather than the norm or ultimate goal. The goal is to meet in groups outside the church building to penetrate a lost world. Like the early Church, youth cells take the gospel where youth live, study, and play.
Resistance to Student-Led Cells
There is a dynamic, life changing movement among teens throughout the world today. Youth cells are exploding with Holy Spirit life and fire around the world. Yet there is resistance to student-led cell groups. Two common reasons for this resistance are tradition and fear of losing control.
Tradition: Most courses or books on youth ministry fail to even mention cell groups. What is mentioned is how to attract and keep a crowd of youth in a larger congregational youth setting. Since there is an inadequate supply of literature on student-led cell groups, youth leaders tend to retreat to what they know best: speaking events and a variety of youth activities.
Fear of losing control: Most youth pastors would never overtly confess to having control issues. Yet, covertly many have imbibed the teaching that success in youth ministry depends on ministry plans and talent. Meeting in the church building simply makes it easier to control what’s happening.
Knowing why there is resistance is the first step in overcoming it. Adequately equipping youth leaders and then proactively coaching the youth is the second step in overcoming resistance to student-led cell groups. There is a third step, however, that requires faith, trust, and pushing youth out of the nest, just like eagles teaching their young to fly.
Helping Youth Fly
Baby eagles need a push in the process of flying—they don’t instinctively fly on their own. To initiate the process, the mother eagle nudges the young out of the nest and as the eaglet falls down the face of the cliff, the mother catches and carries it back to the nest. The mother bird pushes the little one out again, and again, over and over. She never lets them hit bottom, but she does let them fall, because they have to learn something they don’t know. Those little birds were made to fly, but they don’t know it, so she needs to teach them. The mother eagle then pulls the nest apart because she knows the young will never learn to fly as long as they remain in the nest. Deuteronomy 32:11 says, "Like an eagle that stirs up its nest and hovers over its young, that spreads its wings to catch them and carries them aloft. The Lord alone led him; no foreign god was with him."
To help youth step out of the nest and start the process of cell leadership and ministry, it is helpful to show youth what others are doing around the world. In the next chapter we will highlight five world-changing churches that are helping youth spread their wings and fly.
- Ted Stump’s material can be purchased at www.cellgroup.com. Telephone and email information is also available at this site.
- Ted Stump, "Student Led Cell Groups: Nothing Short of a Revolution," Published in Youthworker Magazine, September/October, 1998. Ted Stump is the founder and director of High Impact Ministries. He holds a Master of Divinity from Columbia Biblical Seminary. Ted’s ministry experience includes study and travel with Dr. Ralph Neighbour, Jr., Josh McDowell, and evangelist John Guest. Ted serves as a national consultant to churches and youth organizations on developing and implementing student cell groups.
- Personal email on Thursday, March 10, 2016.
- Survey results courtesy of American Institute for Church Growth in Pasadena, California as quoted in Jimmy Seibert, Reaching College Students through Cells (Houston, TX: Touch Publications, 1997), p. 37.
- Sauder and Mohler, p. 24.
- Doug Fields, Purpose Driven Youth Ministry: 9 Essential Foundations for Healthy Growth (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1998), p. 152.