Born to Multiply: Reaching a Lost World through Small Groups

Evangelism and Multiplication

by Joel Comiskey

Strategies for Today’s Leaders, 1999

“I don’t know what to do,” wrote the small group leader. “I have two non-Christians who want to join my small group. We have decided to allow only one of them to join.” This was an actual e-mail submitted to a discussion group over the Internet. After the chat group batted around this e-mail, one participant responded, “Make your decision based on which of the two non-Christians is more worthy of hell.” Although the response was biting, I thought to myself, “Right on!”

So many small group ministries today in North America promote personal care over outreach. Evangelism is an afterthought, at best. One small group author gives counsel on how to tell someone not to attend the group. [1] Writing about one of the most popular types of small groups on the American scene, Michael Mack says: “. . . new people are not invited or welcomed—whether the group at first intended for it to be closed or not. There is no organized system for multiplication of these groups.” [2]

Such a mindset would be unthinkable in the most prominent small group churches around the world. Evangelism in these churches is the heart of effective small group ministry. Church growth provides the framework for rapid multiplication. Evangelism that leads to cell multiplication fuels the rest of the church.

From my questionnaire survey of over 700-small group leaders in eight of the most prominent small group churches in the world today, I discovered that over 60 percent had multiplied their group at least once, and that it took about nine months to do so. In all of these churches, the small group leader immediately knew his mission—cell reproduction.

These statistics and my personal observations lead me to conclude that evangelism, which results in the proliferation of small groups, is the clearest, most distinguishing feature of small group churches worldwide. Of course, group fellowship is always present, but it’s the by-product rather than the major goal. [3] Static, non-growing cells groups are simply unacceptable.

Small-group ministry constantly faces a dilemma: how to maintain the intimacy within the small group while fulfilling Christ’s command to evangelize. Cell multiplication is the only proven way to remain small while faithfully reaching out.

John Wesley practiced this principle and laid the foundation for the modern cell-church explosion. By the end of the 18th century, Wesley had developed more than 10,000 cells groups (called classes). [4] Hundreds of thousands of people participated in his small-group system. [5]

Wesley wasn’t persuaded that someone had made a decision for Christ until that person became involved in a small group. The classes served as an evangelistic tool (most conversions occurred in this context) and as a discipling agent.. [6] George G. Hunter III writes, “To Wesley, evangelism … took place primarily in the class meetings and in people’s hearts in the hours following the class meetings.” [7]

As the forerunner of the modern cell movement, Wesley promoted evangelism that led to rapid multiplication. Hunter notes, “He was driven to multiplying ‘classes’ for these served best as recruiting groups, as ports of entry for new people, and for involving awakened people with the gospel and power.” [8] Wesley would preach and then invite the people to join a class. Apparently, these classes multiplied primarily as a result of planting new ones, much like the emphasis on cell planting today. [9]

If Wesley was the forerunner of the small-group movement, David Yonggi Cho ushered in the new era. Cho is the founding pastor of Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul, Korea, the largest church in the world.

This church has grown to 25,000 cells, and the seven Sunday services draw approximately 153,000 worshippers each week (if you count the ten satellite churches, this number surges to 250,000). Cho credits the growth of his church to the cell-group system. [10] He commissions each cell to evangelize, with the goal of multiplying.

Since Cho initiated his cell ministry in the early 1970s, many other pastors have followed his lead. Yoido Full Gospel Church has directly or indirectly influenced every cell church in the world today. For example, Larry Stockstill’s 1993 visit to Yoido Full Gospel Church helped catapult Bethany World Prayer Center (Baker, Louisiana) , from a respectable church of twenty-five ingrown “fellowship” groups to a dynamic church of 800 multiplying cell groups. And in just 6 years! Bethany World Prayer Center, with more than 8,000 Sunday worshippers and a two million-dollar annual mission’s budget, dispels the myth that “cell churches just don’t work in America.”

My research among small group leaders revealed that the “anointing” to evangelize effectively and multiply a small group doesn’t rest on a chosen few. The introverted, the uneducated, and those in the lower social bracket were just as successful as their counterparts. Nor did one particular gift of the Spirit (such as evangelism) distinguish those who could multiply their groups from those who could not. Successful cell leaders don’t solely depend on their own gifts. They rely on the Holy Spirit as they marshal the entire cell to reach family, friends, and acquaintances.

Successful cell leaders, who multiplied their group, spent more time seeking God’s face, dependent on Him for the direction of their cell group. They prepared themselves first and only afterwards, the lesson. They prayed diligently for their members, as well as non-Christian contacts.

But successful cell leaders did not stop with prayer. They came down from the mountaintop to interact with real people, full of problems and pain. They pastored their cell members, visiting them regularly. They refused to allow the obstacles—that all cell leaders face—to overcome them. They fastened their eyes on one goal–reaching a lost world for Jesus through cell multiplication.

Here’s my advice to anyone leading a small group or considering such a responsibility: First, be crystal clear about your goal—cell multiplication. The successful cell churches around the world are focused on growth. They don’t waver on this point. Second, you must make leadership development your chief priority. Successful small group leaders view each member as a potential leader, and the genetic code of cell multiplication is instilled in each believer from the onset.

The rallying cry of every small group must be: “BORN TO MULTIPLY.” Evangelism that leads to rapid multiplication and ultimately church growth must propel your small group ministry onward. With this focus clearly in view, your small group ministry will experience explosive growth and more effectively win a lost world for Jesus Christ.

Further reading on this topic: Comiskey’s book Home Cell Group Explosion explains how cells evangelize. Cell Church Solutions dedicates one chapter to group evangelism. Reap the Harvest highlights growing cell churches. Buy HERE or call 1-888-344-CELL.


[1] Dan Williams, Seven Myths about Small Groups (Downer Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1991), pp. 42-56.

[2] Michael C. Mack, The Synergy Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House), p.53. The small group model that Mack describes on this page is the Covenant Model, whose leading spokesperson is Roberta Hestenes.

[3] Larry Kreider agrees, “The primary focus of each home cell group should be outreach and discipleship, rather than fellowship, . . .” in House to House (Houston, TX: Touch Publications, 1995), p. 83.

[4] Howard A. Snyder, The Radical Wesley and Patterns for Church Renewal (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1980), p. 63.

[5] William Brown, “Growing the Church Through Small Groups in the Australian Context.” D.Min. dissertation. Fuller Theological Seminary, 1992, p. 39.

[6] Doyle L. Young, New Life for Your Church. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1989), p. 113.

[7] George G. Hunter III, To Spread the Power: Church Growth in the Wesleyan Spirit (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1987), p. 58.

[8] Hunter, p. 56.

[9] William Walter Dean, in his dissertation on the Wesley class system, writes, “Cell division was much less common than might have been expected. The formation of new classes was by far the most frequent approach to growth. ” William Walter Dean, “Disciplined Fellowship: The Rise and Decline of Cell Groups in British Methodism.” (University of Iowa, Ph.D. dissertation, 1985), 266.

[10] Peggy Kannaday, editor of Church Growth and the Home Cell System (Seoul, Korea: Church Growth International, 1995) details Cho’s emphasis on cell evangelism (p.41).