Cell Church in Phnom Penh
Alliance Life, July 2000
By Joel Comiskey
Word Count: 1100
“Hate filled my life,” said Seetha. He was 12 years old when the Khmer Rouge invaded his homeland of Cambodia in 1975. “They treated me like a slave. They punished me if I didn’t obey,” he recalled painfully. Seetha thought he had to resign himself to hatred all his life—until Jesus took control. “He’s taken away the hatred that controlled my life,” Seetha declared. Jesus liberated Seetha from the slavery of hate one year ago, showering him joy, purpose, and forgiveness. Seetha’s wife, Phalli, chimed in, “He was very hard to live with back then. Since he received Jesus, I’ve seen a total change”
Both Seetha and Phalli are baptized members of the new Cambodian C&MA church called Cell Church of Christ—an exciting new church plant started in May 1998.
Steve and Mary Westergren entered Cambodia in 1990. At that time the Christian Church was extremely small and meeting underground. Only ten years earlier, the Killing Fields era had claimed close to two million lives. In those early days, Steve and Mary were primarily involved with encouraging believers in Cambodia and seeking a way for the C&MA to re-enter the country after a fifteen year forced absence.
In 1998, the field asked Steve and Mary to plant a new church along with Paul and Terry Masters. They asked missionaries for advice. “What’s the best way to plant a church among the middle-upper class?” they inquired. Fellow-missionary Rick Drummond recommended planting a cell church, due the phenomenal growth of cell churches worldwide. He encouraged them to visit the cell church in Singapore called Faith Community Baptist Church (600 cells, 10,000 Sunday worshippers). Steve and Paul attended the FCBC cell seminars for two consecutive years. Before attending the second seminar, they launched the new church. “We had to trust Jesus every step of the way because it was our first cell church,” Steve told me. From the beginning, they targeted the middle class of Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia. Since starting in May 1998, the church has grown to four cells and sixty people on Sunday morning.
Jesus Christ has liberated many through this new church plant—just like Seetha. “I decided to become a Buddhist monk,” Seetha told me. “For eight years, I studied in a monastery, but hatred still controlled my life. Buddhism couldn’t satisfy the emptiness within.” Then a friend told Seetha and his wife Phalli about an exciting gathering in the Master's home. In the cell group, Seetha found a community of friends, people with a different perspective and sense of real purpose.
Most cell groups begin with the WELCOME. “If you could take a vacation any where in the world, where would it be?” or “What do you like to do in your spare time?” are examples of Ice-breaker questions used in the WELCOME time. Questions like these (normally prepared by Terry Masters) are designed to break down walls and encourage open interaction, something that even the visiting non-Christian seeker can participate in.
Then the cell enters the WORSHIP phase. Each member in both of the cell groups I attended received song sheets and hymnals. “They are very well-organized here,” I thought to myself. The worship is lively and edifying. Even non-Christians feel comfortable. As part of the worship time, the cell leader asks people to testify. One older man shared, “I praised the Lord that I still have my motorcycle. My friend asked to borrow my motorcycle for 5 minutes last week and 48 hours later I still had not received it (robbing motorcycles is the #1 theft in Cambodia). I praise God that he directed me to the black market where this guy was planning on selling it. I thank Jesus that I recovered it.”
Next comes the WORD time. The cell leader uses questions to apply the previous Sunday morning message. The Sunday before I arrived in Cambodia, Steve Westergren preached from Acts 2, about the coming of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost. Chanta, the Cambodian cell leader asked the group, based on Acts 2, “Why do we need the Holy Spirit to fill us each day? “To give us power over sin,” said one cell member. “To make us bold witnesses,” said another. Chanta called on another person who seemed particularly quiet.
The WORKS time concludes the cell by focusing on those without Christ. I attended the daughter cell of Paul and Terry Masters, and during the WORKS time I witnessed one of the three non-Christians receive Jesus Christ. The WORKS time might also focus on visiting someone in the cell. Steve Westergren asked those in his cell to accompany him to pray with Vouch, a godly member of the church who was terminally sick with Lupus. “If any of you would like to accompany us tonight, we’ll be leaving right after the meeting to pray with Vouch,” Steve told the group. “Just remember that Vouch’s husband isn’t a believer.” Steve continued.
Seven people jumped into the Westergren’s van and we rumbled over the dark, dirt-paved roads of Phnom Penh. I couldn’t believe the poverty that I saw around me. “Most of the people live in shacks,” I thought to myself. As we took off our shoes and entered Vouch’s humble house, she beamed with delight and gave us a warm welcome. The disease had already claimed much of her eyesight and now was attacking other parts of her body. We all kneeled down on the living room floor and prayed fervently for God’s healing touch. I noticed that both Vouch and her husband Chhiv were visibly touched by our prayers.
The Cell Church of Christ in Phnom Penh emphasizes both cell and celebration, since it’s a cell church. Those attending the cell are encouraged to attend the Sunday celebration and those attending the Sunday celebration must also attend a cell group. On Sunday morning, I sensed the presence of Jesus Christ in the worship, prayer, and preaching.
Jesus has totally changed me,” Seetha said to me. “I want all my friends to know him. Three of my friends have already become believers through our cell group. One day, in fact, I’d like to lead my own cell group.” The five-year goal for the Cell Church of Christ is 50 cell groups and 500 people by 2003. Please pray that this church might prepare many leaders to reap the harvest in Cambodia through cell ministry.