Discipleshp through Group Evangelism

Taken from Chapter 5 of Making Disciples in the Twenty-First Century Church

by Joel Comiskey

Spring 2014

Here in Southern California we have amusement parks such as Disneyland, Knott’s Berry Farm, and Magic Mountain. I’ve lived in this area most of my life, and at some point in the last fifty-seven years, I’ve experienced many of the exciting rides in each of these parks—including some of the most exhilarating roller coasters in the world.

The journey of the disciples with Jesus reminds me of a three-year roller coaster ride. They grew more like Jesus in the process, but it certainly wasn’t easy. The disciples went from a career of fishing to following a miracle worker who opened blind eyes, multiplied loaves of bread, and raised dead people from the grave. They heard the best teaching from the perfect teacher—the God-man. And they were taught in an unsurpassed didactic setting that included hearing, doing, and application to real life experiences. One teaching that escaped them, however, was Christ’s death and resurrection.

When Jesus died on the cross, it felt like the roller coaster had flown off the rails. It’s hard to imagine how horrendous it must have felt for the disciples to watch Jesus suffer and die on the cross. They all forsook him and fled.

But the ride wasn’t over. In three days, Jesus rose again. He appeared to them and their joy was overwhelming. They could see with their own eyes that Jesus was alive and even the brutal Roman cross couldn’t keep him down. Christ had already breathed the Holy Spirit on them, and his strange parables began to make sense.

Now it was their turn to do radical things and turn the world upside down. Jesus told them to go into the entire world and make new disciples. They already knew what strategy to use because the Master had prepared them to go into the homes, get to know the householder, watch for divine appointments, and then stay in the same home until the city was reached.

They were ready to work but were very fearful. Then Pentecost happened. They were empowered. The Holy Spirit dominated their lives and they preached boldly. They established house churches, just like Jesus had taught them.

They proclaimed the good news and let the world know Jesus lived by their own transformed lives. When persecuted, they blessed and prayed for their enemies. They allowed the Holy Spirit to take care of the rest. Yet the entire experience was ordained by God to grow them and make them more like Jesus.

And the early church grew and multiplied. As Jesus transformed people, they behaved differently within their family relationships. Husbands loved wives, slaves were treated with dignity, and married partners submitted to one another. Friends and neighbors were drawn to this new transformed community. The Christian movement attracted people because of the Christians’ behavior toward one another and toward those outside the church. People could see the changes up close as community life was lived out in the open.

Growth in those early house churches was organic and natural. Evangelistic expansion was built into the way of life of the church, and in this same organic setting, church members became disciples. We can learn lots from the early house church movement—especially how to create an environment for discipling where evangelism naturally happens.

Giving Community Away

Paul the apostle summarizes growth through evangelism when writing to a house church in the first century, “I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith, so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ” (Philemon verse 6). As this house church in Colossae shared their faith, they grew in their relationship with Jesus Christ and became strong disciples as a result.

Many in the western world have learned to share their faith individually, but we haven’t been as successful in practicing group evangelism. Yet, group evangelism is at the heart of New Testament evangelism.

One of the first barriers to overcome is the underlying assumption that evangelistic outreach weakens community. Normally group members love community and have tasted its transforming power. They just don’t believe that community and evangelism go together. Research and experience, however, show that better, more biblical community develops when a cell reaches out to non-Christians. The process of evangelizing, in fact, strengthens the bonds of community. When a new person comes to the group, members develop close bonds as they minister to the newcomer.

When the group only focuses on fellowship, it is missing an important aspect of spiritual growth and failing to take the group members to the next level of discipleship. The very process of cell evangelism brings spiritual growth, not just when someone comes to the group or receives Jesus. I encourage cell groups, therefore, to pray for non-Christians each week and plan ways to reach out, even if those evangelistic efforts don’t bring much fruit.

When a small group has a common evangelistic objective, it starts working together to accomplish the outreach goal. This mutual vision creates a unity and camaraderie. Everyone gets involved—from the person who invites the guests to the one who provides refreshments to the one who leads the discussion. The team plans, strategizes, and finds new contacts together.

The cry of the lost drives cells to share their rich community rather than hoarding it among themselves. When multiplication takes place, new groups are available for lost people to receive Christ-like community. The friendship and love develops in the process. Today’s broken society desperately needs a loving family. How will people find it unless small groups are living in community and willing to spread it?

Stepping out as Friends

God is the one who converts, but he expects us to do our part. I’ll never forget doing a cell seminar in Ireland in 2007 with Laurence Singlehurst, bestselling author on evangelism and cell church pioneer in the UK. He asked people from the audience to come forward and then asked them to form a small group in front of everyone. He posed as the leader of the group and asked each one whom they were praying for and what they were doing to reach out (this was in front of about eight hundred people!). I don’t remember the responses, but everyone in the audience was listening intently, and Singlehurst succeeded in demonstrating how to mobilize a cell group to reach out.

Kim and Kim Cole are shining examples of praying for the lost, reaching out to their non-Christian neighbors, and mobilizing their cell to minister to others. Kim Cole, the wife, told me that her church’s emphasis on friendship evangelism not only transformed their own lives but also the members of the cell group.

Kim was born and raised in York, PA and accepted Jesus at York Alliance Church when she was fourteen years old. She experienced great teaching, friendships, and memories during her years at the church. Yet she also realized that during those years, York Alliance Church concentrated primarily on church-based programs. When York Alliance started emphasizing cell ministry in 2001, she and her husband, Kim, recognized that God was challenging them to reach their own neighborhood for Jesus.

She, along with the other cell members, began developing relationships with close friends and neighbors. She understood that she needed to open up her own life to those around her. She told me, “It’s very scary to live life in the open. I was not accustomed to being real to my neighbors.” On one occasion she made home-made ice-cream in the front yard and invited neighbors to join in. The neighbors began to get to know the Coles as they interacted around fun things. Kim told me that those in her neighborhood were from English and Irish descent and took great pride in their homes. She discovered that the best way to enter their worlds was to ask for help.

So she took a leap of faith and asked her neighbor, Crystal, who lived two doors down, if she could borrow a pot. Kim and Crystal talked at the doorstep and began developing a relationship. Crystal and her husband, Todd, were already going to a church, but the church didn’t preach the gospel, and Crystal and Todd were not believers. As the relationship deepened, Kim eventually invited them to their life group. Crystal and Todd began attending the life group and also the Sunday worship service at York Alliance Church. Kim told me that she nearly lost them when they came to the church and read in the bulletin, “Invite your unsaved friend to the upcoming event.” Crystal turned to Kim and said, “Is this what you think of me.” Kim apologized, saying, “We really love you and just wanted you to come.”

Crystal knew that Kim had something she needed, so she kept on coming back to the life group, wanting to experience something more. Crystal asked the hard questions, and Kim grew in the process of depending on God to give answers. Kim said to me, “I grew as much as Crystal during that time period.” Crystal and Todd eventually received Jesus, got involved in the cell group, and made their way through the discipleship equipping (discussed in chapter 8). They eventually became life group leaders and continued the process of friendship evangelism.

The fruit of Kim’s outreach and Crystal and Todd’s subsequent conversion is a wonderful testimony. Kim and Kim Cole grew and matured in their relationship with Jesus in the process of reaching Crystal and Todd. Paul’s words to the Colossae house church is worth repeating, “I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith, so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ” (Philemon verse 6). It’s doubtful that we can know every good thing within us without giving those treasures out to others.

Kim and Kim Cole are exceptional. They’ve multiplied their own group some six times and have won many neighbors to Jesus. Their example has inspired the entire church. But we can’t just depend on one or two people, like Kim and Kim Cole. Each member of the cell needs to do his or her part in relational outreach.

Developing relationships with non-Christians is not easy. It stretches our faith and stirs us to depend on God. We grow in the process. Often, relationships with non-Christians are developed in the context of something else. Coaching softball, going to one particular hairdresser, joining the volunteer board at the home association, or getting involved in a special interest group are among the many ways to build relationships. Developing business colleagues, sport associates, special interests and hobby associates are other ways to broaden your friendship base.

Communities are eager for volunteers to serve in social action programs, whether it is daycare, counseling, outreach to the homeless, or some other program. In every community there is an opportunity to share love and Christian values in a positive way. You can join a parent/teacher association, neighborhood watch, or one of the many other committees and organizations that make up the local community.

We’ve been getting to know our neighbors since returning from Ecuador in 2001. We invited them over for meals, asked if they had particular prayer requests, and brought them baked goods during the holidays. We developed a relationship with them, and we grew in the process of getting to know them.

When we invited them to join our home group, the husband said, “We can’t make it on Tuesday night, but our youngest daughter would like you to baptize her.” I said, “I’d be thrilled to do that. However, I’d like to take her and you through some discipleship material in preparation for baptism.” I began to take the entire family through the first book of our discipleship equipping process, Live.

The first lesson was about knowing God, and each of them prayed the sinner’s prayer as part of the lesson. We then continued to go through the book, in a relaxed, relational setting in their own home. I had the privilege of baptizing their daughter, yet the process has not stopped there, and the journey of discipleship continues.

The best cell facilitators, in fact, remind those in the group to develop relationships with non-Christians and then plan cell outreach activities. I remember speaking in an Assembly of God church in Vero Beach in which the cell groups were actively reaching out and encouraging their members to develop relationships with non-Christians. I heard many testimonies of the power of cell outreach. I soon learned that the lead pastor not only talked about evangelism but regularly hung out at the local restaurant with the sole purpose of getting to know non-Christians. He lived what he wanted others to follow and the cells in that church bore much fruit. Evangelism was a natural part of his own life and his zeal spread throughout the entire church.

Relational evangelism works best when the group is praying. I entered one host home and saw a mini-white board in the living room. The leader told me the cell group had bought the white board for the sole purpose of writing down names of non-Christians and then praying evangelistically for them. I noticed that several names were crossed off the list. The leader explained that God was miraculously answering prayer. Group members grew in their faith as they saw God answer prayer and were encouraged to keep praying and witnessing.

Not all members are excited to reach out. Some abhor the idea. I’ll never forget the resistance I faced from a group member who said, “I came to this group for fellowship, not evangelism. I want to get to know people—not invite new ones to the group.” I knew that our community would grow inward and stagnate unless we as a group made a concerted effort to reach out. I took the couple aside after the next meeting and told them that our group had the dual focus of community and outreach and that cell outreach was essential in the disciple-making process. Thankfully they accepted my exhortation, stayed in the group, and even reached out in their own neighborhood.

Fishing in New Testament Times

As a teenager, I used to fish each year in Ensenada, Mexico. My family would camp at Estero Beach, and I would find my favorite spot on a rock near the entrance. I remember casting out my reel with two hooks and bringing in two decent size bass. The disciples, however, fished differently. They fished with nets rather than poles. Mark says:

As Jesus walked beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will make you fishers of men.” At once they left their nets and followed him. When he had gone a little farther, he saw James, son of Zebedee, and his brother John in a boat, preparing their nets (Mark 1:16-20).

When the disciples cast out their nets, they did it as a group and depended on each other to haul in the catch. When Jesus told them that he would make them fishers of men, he was also thinking about net fishing. Jesus, in fact, never sent the disciples out alone—only in teams. He wanted his disciples to live out the gospel before others so that the unbelievers might see their changed lives and believe in him.

Group evangelism takes the pressure off one person, and gives everyone the opportunity to exercise their faith and become disciples in the process. It’s not the experience of one person doing the work of the ministry. Rather it’s a shared experience. Everyone has a part to play. It’s not the preacher’s job. Success doesn’t depend on the evangelist. In fact, there’s a good chance the visitor will show up because of the quiet witness of one of the silent ones in the group. Wise cell leaders understand this and empower everyone in the group to do their part.

When the entire group sponsors an outreach activity (e.g., special film, barbeque, tea party, or something as fancy as a paint ball party) each person has a job. Dale Galloway, early pioneer of cell church ministry in the U.S., writes, “Once the list [of invitees] is built, the team begins to pray the prospect list, then to work it—making phone calls and home visitations. This responsibility can be shared with others in the small group.”[i]

As we saw in the last chapter, personal involvement matures people as each becomes a priest of the living God. God uses large group evangelism, like campaigns and concerts, but the danger is a few people doing the lion’s share of the work, while the rest just watch and stagnate. In cell group evangelism, there’s the shared responsibility, which is critical for growth in discipleship. God desires that each member is using his or her muscles to reach out.

I spoke at a cell conference in Sydney, Australia, and the associate pastor of the host church, Michael, was very excited about cell evangelism. He joined the staff because of the evangelism potential through cell ministry. He previously was on staff at a large megachurch in which each person was instructed to tell others to come to the larger service so that the preacher could get them saved. Michael disagreed. He believed that each person was a minister and needed to be reaching out and evangelizing. He left that church because he believed that cell evangelism not only was more effective but also grew disciples in the process. The cells at the host church were robust and passionate about spreading the gospel message across the entire city. Pastor Michael played an important role in casting the evangelistic vision.

Belonging and Then Believing

My last name “Comiskey” is of Irish descent, so when we as a family visited Ireland in 2007, we were eager to explore the area. By far the greatest experience of the trip for me was to see where Saint Patrick ministered and to understand the impact Patrick had on Ireland. Saint Patrick combined discipleship with evangelism, and his relational strategy started a movement that changed the world.

In the fifth century A.D., when Patrick was about fourteen, he was captured by Irish raiders and taken as a slave to Ireland, where he lived for six years before escaping and returning to his family in England. God saved Patrick, raised him up to become a bishop in the church, and then called him to go back to Ireland as a missionary. Patrick’s ministry was so effective that not only was most of Ireland converted, but God used the church in Ireland to send missionaries around the world.

Patrick’s model of reaching out to others was highly relational, hospitable, and community-oriented. Patrick and his followers modeled what they wanted others to follow. They lived life in community, but this was never an end in itself. They never lost sight of giving their community away. Patrick and his followers would move into a pagan area, set up shop as a team, and become a part of the community. They tried to make the church accessible. They took seriously the passage in the book of Psalms that says, “Taste and see that the LORD is good; blessed is the man who takes refuge in him” (34:8). Patrick believed that the truth is first caught and then taught.

Saint Patrick’s Celtic movement relied on Christ’s own evangelistic strategy in John 17 where he tells the disciples that the world would know and believe by their unity. In fact, Patrick’s bands of believers talked a lot about the love and unity within the Trinity and used the three-sided shamrock to explain the Trinity. The evangelistic bands knew their own lives needed to reflect God’s character if they were going to win the unreached Irish.

Patrick taught that belonging comes before believing. They invited seekers to join their community and participate within it. Those who entered the group saw transformed lives, love in action, and how disciples were supposed to act. The seekers were then invited to become Christ’s disciples. As a result of this strategy, many received Jesus, new groups multiplied, and missionary bands infiltrated unreached areas. The discipleship and the outreach were intimately connected together.

Saint Patrick started a movement, and he did it by developing relationships with the people and engaging their imagination by using symbols they understood. Many have made comparisons with Saint Patrick’s ministry and our own current situation. Like the civilization in Saint Patrick ’s Day, people today are hungry for relationships. They want to taste Christ in their midst, become involved in a community, and then naturally grow in their relationship with Christ.

Actually, what Patrick accomplished in his day was very similar to evangelism in the early church, where neighbors could see and hear what was happening in the house churches. The unbelievers wanted change, became believers, and then grew naturally as disciples as they participated in a new community. People saved in those house churches were immediately known to the rest of the members, became part of a new family, were able to exercise their gifts and talents, and ultimately grew to become strong disciples of Jesus Christ.

Churches have spent countless hours trying to figure out how to connect “follow-up” with evangelism. The problem is that step one has been divorced from step two. The relational model offered by Saint Patrick and the early house churches brought people into the community, allowed them to see the change, and discipleship happened naturally in the process.

Loving relationships are attractive to the world. Jesus, in fact, told us that our love for one another would draw an unbelieving world to himself. As the church loves one another, people will be attracted to Jesus, become disciples, and then repeat the process of making more disciples.

Natural Sharing in the Group

I often tell the story of Dora, a lady in our cell group in Ecuador. Dora’s parents were not believers. She often shared with the group her doubts about religion. People listened, loved her, and encouraged Dora to go directly to God with her doubts. One Tuesday evening in December, we showed part of the “Jesus” film at our home as part of a special Christmas outreach. Dora was with us, along with other seekers. Dora was accustomed to speaking her mind in the group and felt comfortable with everyone present. After showing the presentation, suddenly Dora cried out, “I’m confused.” Everyone was shocked, but we simply loved Dora and cared for her as part of our family.

One week later, Dora received Jesus in our house. God used my wife Celyce to lead Dora to Jesus, but my wife was just one instrument. The entire cell group participated in Dora’s conversion and follow-up. Each member of the group grew as disciples of Christ as much as Dora through being Dora’s friend, witnessing to her, praying for her, and then welcoming her into the new family of God.

Dora matured over time, and we began to see her doubts fade away. Eventually, she was evangelizing others through prayer and connecting them to the cell. She began attending our larger Sunday celebration services, and I had the privilege of baptizing her in front of hundreds of people. She completed the discipleship equipping (more in chapter 8) and in the cell group we watched her grow and mature as she developed a deep relationship with God and others. Over time, she and her fiancé, Paul, began their own cell group, rescuing other “confused” people and drawing them to a new family of faith.

In the small group atmosphere, non-Christians can ask questions, share doubts, and talk about their own spiritual journey. Sharing openly gives unbelievers a new sense of hope as they realize that Christians have weaknesses and struggles too. More than an explanation, the “gospel” in the small group is seen and felt. The Holy Spirit is the one who convicts.[ii] Dr. Peace, professor of evangelism for many years at Fuller Seminary, wrote the book, Small Group Evangelism. Peace believes the small group is the ideal place to evangelize and then to conserve the fruit of evangelism. Peace writes,

. . . in a successful small group, love, acceptance and fellowship flow in unusual measure. This is the ideal situation in which to hear about the kingdom of God. In this context the “facts of the gospel” come through not as cold proposition but as living truths visible in the lives of others. In such an atmosphere a person is irresistibly drawn to Christ by his gracious presence.[iii]

Those saved through this natural environment continue to grow through the relationships they’ve already established. They become disciples in the normal process of being part of the new family of God.

The reality is that often non-Christians stay away from churches because they have the mistaken idea that they have to be good enough to become Christians. They have known Christians who failed to live up to biblical standards and have seen phoniness in churches and the Christian mass media. Unbelievers long to know, see, and hear people who are on a journey, wrestling with God each day, not afraid to talk about marriage conflicts, and are willing to the share Christ’s power to change people. These same non-Christians are refreshed when they go to a community of honest people who are willing to share their struggles with sin and their dependence on the living God. This type of authenticity often wins unbelievers to the Christian faith.

Cell members also come alive in their faith and grow as disciples in the presence of non-Christians. Paul the apostle was talking about a house church in 1 Corinthians 14:23ff. when he talks about an unbeliever entering the room. Paul says,

So if the whole church comes together and everyone speaks in tongues, and some who do not understand or some unbelievers come in, will they not say that you are out of your mind? But if an unbeliever or someone who does not understand comes in while everybody is prophesying, he will be convinced by all that he is a sinner and will be judged by all, and the secrets of his heart will be laid bare. So he will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, “God is really among you!”

When the scripture says “everyone was prophesying,” it literally means that everyone participated. In those early house churches, everyone was involved. The word prophesy in this passage refers to each person ministering or speaking into the life of the unbeliever who entered the house.

When the unbeliever entered the room of Christ followers, prophesy began to flow naturally as the individual believers longed to minister to the needs of the unbelieving visitor. God’s power was manifest in their midst, first moving in the midst of transformed believers and then overflowing to the lost among them.

And so it is today. Cell groups come to life when an unbeliever attends. The members exercise their gifts in a new, fresh way. Believers minister to unbelievers and unbelievers give believers a reason for ministry. Spiritual gifts come alive when this mix comes together. There’s a new desire to serve and give to others. As the world beholds this type of practical love and unity in action, Christ tells us that they will be won to himself. They will not only hear the gospel, but they will see the gospel lived out. Ultimately more and better disciples will be made.

[i] Dale Galloway, The Small Group Book (Grand Rapids, MI: Fleming H. Revell, 1995), p. 122.

[ii] John Mallison, Growing Christians in Small Groups (London: Scripture Union, 1989), p. 9.

[iii] Richard Peace, Small Group Evangelism (Pasadena, CA: Fuller Theological Seminary, 1996), p. 36.