Worldwide Cell Churches
by Joel Comiskey
Outreach Magazine, August 2008
Your church may never be featured on a list of the largest churches in the world. Your church may never even be considered large. Yet, you are part of the largest Church in the world—the Church of Jesus Christ. Granted, it can be humbling to see the amazing growth overseas while not experiencing that same growth closer to home. But my hope is that God’s work in the following five churches in El Salvador, Brazil, West Africa, Indonesia and Korea will stimulate your expectancy level and even stir you to implement some of their principles, which cross all cultural and geographical barriers.
Although Korea is home to the majority of the world’s 10 largest churches—some with attendance surpassing 250,000, other congregations in countries around the globe, although somewhat smaller in attendance, are giants in their own right. Small by global standards, 25,000-member Igreja da Paz church in Brazil still ranks No. 2 among the United States’ largest churches, and The Family of God Church in Indonesia with 20,000 members ranks No. 11 (based on Outreach’s 2006 Top 100 Largest Churches).
I’m inviting you to take a journey with me beginning in Central America and ending in Korea. We’ll discover transferrable principles that you can take home and use right away in your church. We will go inside these churches to discover what they do to so effectively reach a lost world for Jesus. No need to pack anything except a heart for spreading the Good News—and maybe a pen and paper to take notes on how to do this better!
Elim Church, El Salvador
Location: San Salvador, El Salvador
Size: 118,000 in the mother church; (11,000 cells)
Senior Pastor: Mario Vega
Background: Started in 1977, Elim is part of a non-denominational movement called Elim International. The church now has 160 churches worldwide, and its annual rally in San Salvador draws some 200,000 people.
Web site: elim.org.sv
We begin in El Salvador, in Central America’s smallest country, sometimes referred to as the Land of Volcanoes due to frequent earthquake and volcanic activity.
Elim Church sits in the city of San Salvador. Of the country’s nearly 7 million Salvadorans, 83% are Catholic; however, an estimated 1 million are Protestant evangelicals, and this number is growing with the help of the simple, but efficient Elim Church.
I first visited the church in 1996 and instantly saw how God has created a new culture at Elim, quite unlike the Latin communities around it. Elim is extremely organized, seeing God’s wonderful order in Scripture and believing that God wants them to accurately measure what’s happening in their midst.
All eighty staff pastors at Elim, for example, can tell you on Tuesday morning the previous week’s numbers: attendance, conversions, baptisms, people visited, and those trained. And all of these numbers are exact. Exact statistics are important at Elim because they measure progress toward the goal of penetrating their city for Jesus. It helps each leader to know where they stand and what they need to improve to more effectively reach the entire city for Jesus.
Elim’s main goal is to penetrate the city through multiplying cell groups. Each week 118,000 people attend the church’s 11,000 cell groups. Those same cell groups rent city buses to travel together to the weekly celebration services to hear God’s Word.
Elim defines a cell as a group of 3-15 adults who meet weekly outside the church building for the purpose of evangelism, community, and spiritual growth with the goal of multiplication. Elim’s cell groups are distinct because all of them, without exception, emphasize evangelism that leads to multiplication. The majority of Elim’s cells are family oriented (a mixture of men, women, singles, etc.), but they also have women’s cells, youth cells, and children’s cells. The cells are organized geographically, so that each group multiplies within its own geographical area.
Elim’s cells first started in 1986 but it was a long process of failing, regrouping, perfecting their cell system, and failing once again. But they kept on pressing on to improve their cell ministry it worked. It works so well now, in fact, that each cell normally multiplies within six months.
Josefina López was a Jehovah’s Witness for seven years before she was converted through contact with an Elim cell group–that just happened to be meeting next door to Josefina’s house (approx. 80,000 JWs in El Salvador).
Her neighbors befriended her and lovingly invited her to their group, but Josefina refused, remaining true to her cult’s calling. The cell multiplied and formed another one down the street. Then it multiplied again—this time behind her house. The neighbors of all three cells tried to love and serve Josefina, inviting her to their groups, but she managed to resist them. She noticed, however, the joy, the vibrant singing, and especially their changed lives. Finally, Josefina decided to attend the cell behind her house, using the excuse of wanting to taste the dessert. God used the leader to clearly present the Gospel message, and the Holy Spirit did the rest. God transformed Josefina and her struggle with anger vanished. Christ helped her to speak gently to her kids and respect their father. She was soon baptized. Just 15 days after her conversion, Josefina opened her home to host a new cell, which has now multiplied four times.
Elim’s powerful example has stimulated many churches to start multiplying cell groups outside the church building. We can’t expect people to come to church. We must take the church to them. God has used Elim to develop a church without walls that penetrates into every corner of the community and raises up harvest workers to continue the process. What would cell groups look like in your neighborhood?
To learn more about cell groups, read Passion and Persistence by Joel Comiskey (Cell Group Resources).
Where Plants Grow
Igreja da Paz
Location: Manaus, Brazil
Senior Pastor: Ace Huber
Background: Non-denominational Igreja da Paz was started in 1980 and is now 1,400 cell groups and 450 church plants strong.
Web site: igrejadapaz.com.br
Traveling southeast into South America, we arrive in Brazil, where Abe Huber, a North American missionary kid, was born and raised.
I stayed at Abe’s home in 2002 while doing a conference at his church. I found Abe to act more Brazilian in culture than North American. After each evening service, for example, he preferred to hang out with fellow Brazilians into the wee hours of the morning. “That’s just Abe,” his coworkers told me. He even married a Brazilian.
Now Abe leads a church-planting movement that is winning and discipling thousands for Jesus in Manaus, a city of 1.6 million residents located on the north bank of the Rio Negro. Some 900 miles inland from the Atlantic, and the only city within a 600-mile radius, Manaus is a place to stay for tourists eager to explore the dense Amazon jungle. But more than a place to stay, it’s home to some 188 million residents—74% of whom are Roman Catholic.
And it’s among these people that discipleship must start one-on-one, says Huber. “But isn’t that time-consuming,” I challenged Abe. “Yes, but it’s worth the effort,” he replied. Abe was personally impacted as a youth through the one-on-one discipleship method, and he hasn’t forgotten those early lessons. He’s integrated one-on-one discipleship into the church’s training process. Each person that comes to a celebration service or a cell group is assigned a one-on-one mentor. The mentor and mentoree meet weekly for encouragement and accountability. The mentor guides the new person to receive additional training classes and spiritual retreats that are part of the equipping process. The entire process is called MDA—Micro Discipleship Strategy. MDA is a is a combination of one-on-one discipleship, Biblical courses, and spiritual retreats. It takes between six months to one year for a person to complete the entire training.
The goal is for each person in the church to plant an evangelistic cell group (Igreja da Paz defines their cell groups in the same way that Elim defines a cell group), multiply it, and to even plant an Igreja da Paz church. This “effort” has resulted in planting hundreds of churches throughout Brazil. What excited me so much about Igreja da Paz was its emphasis on both large and small churches. Huber realizes that it takes all kinds to get the job done. I was amazed to see many Igreja da Paz churches located just a few minutes from the 15,000-member mother church. Most of these local churches follow the MDA strategy but it’s not a requirement. Each church is self-governing, have their own place to meet, and maintain a fraternal relationship with the Igreja da Paz movement.
Huber is a gifted apostle, able to lead his huge mother church, but he realizes that many leaders don’t have those same gifts. They will better pastor much smaller churches. The key is reproduction—which starts one-on-one and continues to the masses. Abe is taking his MDA strategy to major cities throughout Brazil and seeing powerful results. Abe’s example has inspired me to resist the small church/large church dichotomy. Why not both? I’ve been encouraged to take reproduction at all levels more seriously. Have you considered planting a church? Mothering a church plant? God might want your church to become a multiplication center—making disciples who eventually plant churches.
The Works and Mission Baptist Church (EPBOM; Eglise Protestante Baptiste Oeuvres et Mission Internationale)
Location: Ivory Coast, West Africa
Senior Pastor: Dion Robert
Background: Started in 1975, non-denominational EPBOM has 56 locations in Abidjan and many more throughout the country in addition to 18,000 cell groups.
Web site: dion.kingdomconnector.com
We head some TK miles over the Altantic Ocean to land in the Ivory Coast, a West African country slightly larger than the size of New Mexico. One of the biggest producers and exporters of coffee, the country is home to 17.7 million residents, many of whom are French-speaking and work in agriculture. It’s estimated that some 35-40% are Muslim; 20-30% are Christians; and another 40% practice indigenous beliefs.
And it’s the last sector that requires what Pastor Dino Robert terms “soul therapy.” His church EPBOM doesn’t focus on the starting point of salvation (the sinner’s prayer) as much as the end goal (a changed life). African culture has been so thoroughly dominated by animism (the belief in the appeasement of spirits who control all life events) that people for centuries have lived in fear, guilt, and uncertainty. EPBOM has discovered that unless salvation includes breaking the Satanic lies and strongholds caused by animism, believers quickly revert back to past bondage.
EPBOM know they’ll never produce an effective harvest worker who is bound by satanic strongholds. Pastor Dion says, “In the lives of the sheep there will often be strongholds that need to be torn down. These at times may be demonic hereditary ties or some form of demonization by evil spirits. Through soul therapy these strongholds can be torn down and the flock of God freed from bondage” (Brickman).
Soul therapy is the process of tearing down ungodly strongholds that include immoral activity, curses, animistic fears and ancestor worship. The training is based on the cross of Christ and the need to embrace kingdom values that leads to a transformed life. This church’s greatness is the ability to turn enslaved people into flaming evangelists for Jesus Christ. Those who go through the EPBOM training are well-prepared warriors who win unbelievers and then prepare them through soul therapy to win their friends and neighbors.
Although Robert’s brand of soul therapy may not be effective in the community you’re trying to reach, the key is to be intentional about equipping and transforming those who “accept Christ.” You might not face the same problems associated with animism, but other more subtle Satanic strongholds are present in the lives of believers everywhere. In many cultures, for example, people are bound with the sins of unforgiveness, rejection, and slavery to materialism. People with these sin patterns might accept Jesus and even attend church. But unless they deal with the deeper issues, in time, they fall away and no one knows why.
We can learn from EPBOM that our training needs to deeply touch sin issues that hold people in slavery. Let’s face it, way too many slip through the back door. They pray the sinner’s prayer but are never freed from the sinner within. EPBOM takes nothing for granted. They clean up those who are caught in their nets and then fully prepare them for the ensuing battle. The result is that this church is one of the three largest in the world.
To learn more about EPBDOM, read Preparing the 21st Century Church by Les Brickman (Xulon).
Where Everyone’s a Leader
The Family of God Church (GBI)
Location: Solo, Indonesia
Senior Pastor: Obaja Tanto Setiawan
Background: Affiliated with the Church of God, GBI was started in 1989. Now, in addition to its one main location, the church has 50 church plants and 1,500 cell groups.
Web site: gbika.org
Continuing west, we land off Asia’s mainland, on one of Indonesia’s 10,000 inhabited islands—an area still recovering from December 2004’s tsunami which killed more than 100,000 people and caused billions of dollars in damage.
But it’s also where Obaja Setiawan went to junior high school some thirty years ago. At the time, he had no hair. No one—including the doctors–knew why he lost his hair and his family couldn’t find any legitimate help. Obaja was so embarrassed, he left school. Friends and family urged him to try witch doctors and magic potions, but nothing worked. Someone suggested Jesus. Why not? Obaja thought. He prayed to Jesus and his hair began growing back. When asked about the new growth, he answered, “it must be the medicine.” The hair disappeared, and Obaja quickly realized he had denied Jesus and begged again for mercy. God answered and today Obaja has a head of black hair.
This miracle impacted Obaja so completely that he promised God that he would serve him all the days of his life. And Obaja did serve God as a successful businessman, actively ministering in his church as a layman and supporting it financially. But in September 1989, God called Obaja to start his own church. He felt so inadequate because his business training didn’t include seminary education. Yet, he obeyed and started a cell group in his home that has now grow to some 20,000 people.
Pastor Obaja has carried his simple faith message of God’s power in weakness. Throughout his ministry he has believed God to work the impossible in weak, human vessels, even in an area where 88% of the 250 million people are Muslim.
In 1999 Obaja traveled to Bogota, Colombia, to learn about the G12 strategy in an enormous church called the International Charismatic Mission. Obaja couldn’t speak English or Spanish, and since the conference wasn’t translated into his mother tongue, he didn’t understand most of what was said in the week-long Bogota conference. He did catch one phrase, however: “Anyone can be a fruitful cell leader.” He saw clearly how God wanted him to develop his entire congregation to be ministers rather than hearers.
When I visited GBI years later, I witnessed a dream come true: illiterate people leading others to Christ through cell ministry, discipling them, and then preparing them to lead their own cell groups. Obaja testified of the poor, uneducated and desperate rigshaw drivers becoming zealous evangelists for Christ. The church likes to ask the weakest and the poorest cell leaders to give testimonies of what God has done in their cell through conversion and multiplication. In this way, GBI encourages everyone to step up to the plate, get involved in a cell group, and eventually lead their own. And GBI has a great training process to help potential cell leaders succeed. Their training track includes a spiritual retreat, a seminar, and three Bible courses that each person must take in preparation to leading their own cell group. And what’s amazing is the location—a Muslim dominated area of Java, Indonesia.
GBI should encourage all of us to look beyond those who appeared to be the “leader-type” and to see God’s power in the weak and lowly. Perhaps those who sit in your pews today are the ones that God wants to use to reach your community. GBI demonstrates how God does the extraordinary through ordinary, weak people.
Where Prayer is Powerful
Yoido Full Gospel Church (YFGC)
Location: Seoul, Korea
Pastor: David Yonggi Cho
Background: Started in 1958 and in association with Assembly of God, YFGC is the mother church of 10 satellite locations, including 25,000 cell groups.
Web site: english.fgtv.com/yoido/main.asp
Continuing east on the last leg of our journey, we arrive in Seoul, Korea, home to some 10.3 million people and a number of the world’s most future-oriented industries—bio- and nano-technology, digital contents and digital publishing to name a few.
The Koreans are more group oriented—as opposed to individualistic–in their life and conduct. They are also very busy and productive. The entire culture is bustling with life and confidence. It’s a land newly touched with Christianity (only in the last fifty years) and hope, confidence, and expectation fills the air.
On Sunday, April 06, 1997, I found myself at Yoido Full Gospel Church trying to physically count how many were attending the church’s worship services. I had heard so many varying reports of church membership (ranging from 500,000 to 800,000), I decided to find out how many actually attended. I started at 5:30 a.m. and completed my count at 8:30 p.m. (I wouldn’t recommend doing this!). I counted 253,000 people attending that Sunday in April (eight years later, I witnessed the same crowded worship services).
Yet it wasn’t until the next day, April 07, 1997, that I understood the power behind this great church. I walked into the main sanctuary at 5:30 a.m. and saw 3,000 prayer warriors interceding before God. “Give us Korea for Your Son Jesus,” they cried.
That same day I took one of the buses that leaves the church every half-hour to take the faithful to prayer mountain, a converted cemetery about twenty-five miles from the church. As I walked through prayer mountain, I heard the muffled prayers coming from 100s of underground prayer caves. 10,000 prayer warriors pass through prayer mountain each week. The atmosphere is super charged with life-giving expectancy that comes only through answered prayer. Prayer has made this church great. Prayer empowers the 25,000 cell groups to reach out. Prayer gives passion to the people.
Cho’s church is not the only Korean church that prioritizes prayer. Most of them do. Various factors helped the Korean churches establish prayer as a chief priority—including the excellent instruction by the early Presbyterian missionaries that ignited the current Christian explosion.
To start making prayer a priority in your church, I would suggest preaching on prayer and then establishing a weekly night of prayer in which the senior pastor is present. In the prayer meeting, 90% of the time should be dedicated to prayer, as opposed to a 45 minute Bible study and 15 minutes of prayer. I would also recommend a half-night of prayer (6 p.m. to 12 p.m.) once per month. Of course, those in Korean would look at such a schedule as sadly lacking. And you might have other times and formulas to make prayer a priority in your church. The important thing is to do it. Prioritize prayer in your church and watch God do amazing things.
Church growth methods and techniques have some value. The problem with them is that they don’t change hearts. Only God can sustain true church growth. Only God can bring revival. Sustained prayer is the truest and most Biblical formula to grow a church.
To put it into some perspective, Yoido has 208,000 more people than the United States’ largest church, Houston’s Lakewood Church. That’s more than five times the size. But this growth hasn’t come without its challenges. In 1964, six years after starting the Yoido Full Gospel Church, David Cho collapsed of exhaustion. On his sickbed, God showed him that he was acting like Moses, trying to do everything himself. God stirred him to raise up a movement of lay leaders to help share the load. 25,000 cell groups later, the laity has propelled this church to become the largest in the history of Christianity.
I believe in God’s sovereignty. Yet somehow in God’s great wisdom, He’s chosen to bless those who utterly depend on Him through prayer. The question I ask churches around the world is: Have you made prayer the main thing? Yoido Full Gospel Church has. The fruit is obvious.