The Soil and Church Growth Rates

Evangelism and Multiplication

by Joel Comiskey

Winter 2008

Last week I was talking to Jeff Barbiera, founder and lead pastor of Grace Christian Church in Howell, New Jersey. Jeff was born and raised in the soilarea, and he remembers as a kid when all the neighbors went to church on Sunday. “Now it’s a ghost town,” he told me. Planting a cell based church in New Jersey is a challenge. The gound is hard. Yet, I love Jeff’s passion. He and the elders recently went on a planning retreat, and they came back with the following vision statement: The long-term vision of Grace Christian Church is to become the premier grace-centered, cell-based church in the Northeast. Grace Christian Church now has nine cells and 120 people attending worship. I’m excited about the future prospects of Grace Christian Church. Yet, the soil is hard and growth will take time.

I was on the phone with another pastor last week–Alejandro Ochoa Pérez. Pastor Alejandro and his brother, Carlos, lead a church called “Jesucristo es la Vida Eterna” (Jesus is eternal life) in Tabasco, Mexico. I spoke in this church one year ago and reported on the fact that they had 400 cells groups at that time. Alejandro told me last week that they now have 550 cell groups! The soil in Tabasco is ripe for the harvest (you might remember that Tabasco experienced a devasting flood one year ago).

Both churches are doing an amazing job at training/coaching leaders, promoting the vision, and preaching the Word. Both are 100% committed to the cell philosophy and vision. Yet, the ground is so different in both places.

I’m convinced that cell church principles work everywhere. Growth rates, however, vary considerably, depending on the receptivity factors (soil).

Someone who is planting a cell church in a very resistant area wrote me recently saying, “It is a bit discouraging to hear churches in North, Central & South America or Asian countries that are developing in great numbers, when in a postmodern context it is often much more slow.” He then went on to talk about the soil“difficulties in the multiplication process.”

My friend Raymond Ebbett used to say over and over, “It all depends on the soil.” Raymond ministered for years as a missionary in Colombia (rapid growth) and then was sent as a career missionary to Spain (very slow growth). He understands first hand that church growth is dependent on the soil–God’s working in the nation and culture.

This is one reason why we at JCG base our ministry on cell church principles, rather than models. Principles work across cultures, but many of the exciting “models” usually work well where the church is already growing.

In my book Planting Churches that Reproduce (which is now available!), I try to include examples of cell church planting in various soils. Here’s an illustration I use for cell church planting in Spain:

The Holy Spirit never changes, but some cultures are more receptive to God’s message than others. Ecuador was a receptive culture, and it was relatively easy to win converts and make disciples. Those preaching and planting churches in Spain, however, experience a long, tough journey.

Tim and Marilyn Westergren began planting a church in Madrid, Spain in early 1994, and they can testify that it wasn’t easy.

The Spaniards in Madrid are generally a non-responsive and even resistant people group. Evangelical believers in Spain make up less than 1% of the population (estimates range between 0.2 and 0.6%). Considering that gypsies make up at least twenty-five percent of the evangelical population and that a considerable number are Hispanics from Latin America, the actual percentage of non-gypsy Spaniards who are born-again believers is extremely small. While it is possible to lead Spaniards to Christ, it usually takes time for this to happen. Most evangelical churches in Spain are small and have little impact on the society.

Tim discovered that the resistant culture caused stress fractures on the dynamics of the first pilot group. The lack of response and the many aborted conversions dampened the spirit of the group. He had to guard against small group diseases setting in when the group didn’t multiply after two years. He had to continually preach the word and allow the Holy Spirit to soften unreceptive hearts.

Tim admitted that one of the greatest challenges is making long-lasting friendships with non-Christians. “I find that most people are friendly to a point, but it’s hard to go to a deeper level with people. I think a lot of Spaniards are happy with the friendship and family contacts that they already have.”

The hard soil of Spain made multiplication of groups through conversion growth very difficult. The opposition that new Christians encounter in Spain made it hard to disciple the new believers into the initial groups. Tim writes, “We have been pleasantly surprised by the number of conversions—but disheartened by the number who fall by the wayside.”

In spite of the failures and setbacks, Tim had counted the cost and realized he was in it for the long haul because he understood that the soil was hard and that it took time for the seeds of God’s word to bear fruit. Tim writes, “We are miles ahead in the lives of those who have traveled with us. I don´t think they´d ever go back to business as usual. This gives me satisfaction for the time when the Spirit of God moves in this land.”

In 2003, the team transitioned the church plant, Comunidad de Fe, to Spanish leadership. The church is now a self-governing, self-propagating, and self-supporting congregation. Before Tim left, the church had grown to six groups—five adult groups plus a youth group. They also began a celebration service which had grown to about sixty people.

Tim began leading a church planting team in a city called Tres Cantos. At the time of this writing, they now have eight weekly groups and gather about sixty adults and children in their celebration service, which meets every other Sunday for teaching, worship, and the Lord´s supper.

The more I go on this cell church journey, the more committed I am to follow cell church principles and then to watch God work in His timing.