Ever so subtly, God has led me down the path of small-group ministry. Three years after receiving Jesus Christ at age 17, I felt called to start a home Bible study. Friends gathered each week to hear this young, zealous teenager; by God’s grace, some of them stayed. During one of those sessions, Jesus called me to be a missionary.
As a missionary candidate with the Christian and Missionary Alliance, I planted an inner-city church in Long Beach, California. To start the church in 1984, I gathered people in my home. That same year, David Yonggi Cho, pastor of the world’s largest church, presented lectures on church growth at Fuller Theological Seminary. I sat awed as he related story after story about how every one of the 500,000 members of Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul, Korea, received pastoral care through one of the church’s 20,000 cell groups.
Filled with enthusiasm, I bought Cho’s book Successful Home Cell Groups and began to teach key leaders in my church. [i] The excitement lasted for awhile, and we started four cells. But after we introduced a Sunday morning service, I lost the grip on my small-group focus. Church chores sapped my strength. Still, I never lost the vision and excitement for what a church could become through a small-group ministry.
A few years later, I was a missionary in Ecuador, and the opportunity arrived to reclaim the embers of my vision for small-group ministry. My wife and I, placed on a pastoral team in a strategic church in Quito, Ecuador, were supposed to stimulate growth that would result in a daughter church. Many received Christ month after month, but relatively few stayed. We wrestled as a pastoral team about how to close “the back door.” We planned Sunday school activities, new believers’ classes and visitation programs, all with little success.
My first year on that pastoral team was a dark night of the soul. The other pastors listened politely as I made suggestions in broken Spanish. I longed to communicate church growth ideas, but I lacked the fluency and cultural knowledge. Week after week, I left the pastoral team meeting discouraged and downtrodden. At one point, the team leader seriously considered replacing me with a more experienced missionary who was returning from furlough.
In those dark moments, as I hovered between success and failure as a first-term missionary, God began to speak. He showed me that our church (El Batán) desperately needed a cell ministry. God placed a burden on my heart that I couldn’t shake. I knew it was of Him. Insights from David Yonggi Cho flooded my mind. When I shared this vision with the pastoral team, they gave my wife and me the green light to pursue it.
We already were working with university students, so we organized them into five groups that focused on evangelism and discipleship. Those groups began to grow. Soon the young married couples wanted us to organize small groups among them. Those groups began to multiply and bear fruit, too. We grew from the initial five groups in 1992 to 51 groups in 1994. About 400 people, most of them new converts, were added to the El Batán Church and began to attend the Sunday morning services. In Ecuador, where only 3.5 percent of the population knew Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior, it was especially clear that this was a work of God.
We eventually birthed a daughter church from El Batán. Using the cell concept, we started with 10 cell groups and 150 people. In less than one year, the 10 cells multiplied to 20 and the church grew to 350 people. The church growth continues unabated with the cells as its base.
God is sovereign. Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined traveling around the world “in search of the perfect cell church.” But that’s exactly what I did for two years. My Ph.D. studies on unlocking the secrets of the cell movement took me to Korea, Singapore, Louisiana, El Salvador, Honduras, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru. My mentor, C. Peter Wagner, believed in me and my work, thus providing needed inspiration.
I know what it’s like to start a cell ministry from scratch. I’ve experienced failure, but I’ve also tasted success. From both personal experience and thorough research, I’ve discovered dynamic principles and practical insights to share with others who have a vision for reaching the world through cell churches. By God’s grace, they are presented in the following pages.
SUCCESSFUL CELL-BASED CHURCHES
“If you want to know how churches grow, study growing churches!” This one sentence embodies the core of church growth research. You may have thought this was a book about small-group evangelism, but the two can't be separated. At least they shouldn't. Small-group evangelism and dynamic church growth are two sides of the same coin. They are one.
When I began to study small-group evangelism, I chose to research the
most prominent and fastest growing cell-based churches in the world. Why not
study what works? These churches are located in eight different countries and
four distinct cultures. They are:
Table DESCRIPTION OF CASE-STUDY CHURCHES
As this table illustrates, small-group evangelism that results in
dynamic church growth is a worldwide phenomenon. No longer is the U.S. the
fountain of Christian knowledge for the rest of the world. However, one
excellent example in the U.S. is Bethany World Prayer Center in Baker,
Louisiana, the premier cell church in the U.S. Each year, 1,000 pastors attend
small-group seminars at BWPC. Bethany is on the cutting edge primarily because
of its willingness to learn from other fast-growing churches around the world.
Bethany has sent its leaders to capture principles from cell churches in
Colombia, El Salvador, Korea and Singapore.
As this table illustrates, small-group evangelism that results in dynamic church growth is a worldwide phenomenon. No longer is the U.S. the fountain of Christian knowledge for the rest of the world. However, one excellent example in the U.S. is Bethany World Prayer Center in Baker, Louisiana, the premier cell church in the U.S. Each year, 1,000 pastors attend small-group seminars at BWPC. Bethany is on the cutting edge primarily because of its willingness to learn from other fast-growing churches around the world. Bethany has sent its leaders to capture principles from cell churches in Colombia, El Salvador, Korea and Singapore.
To learn from the eight case-study churches, I spent an average of eight days in each one. More than 700 cell leaders completed my 29-question survey, designed to determine why some cell leaders succeed and others fail at evangelizing and giving birth to a new cell group. [ii] The questionnaire explored such areas as the cell leader’s training, social status, devotions, education, preparation of material, age, spiritual gifts, gender, etc. This statistical analysis helped keep my bias at bay and enabled me to unlock common principles across diverse cultures.
Donald McGavran once gave an illustration of two pastors who preached the Word of God. One claimed that his church grew because he preached the Word of God, while the other insisted that his church did not grow because he preached the Word of God. I chuckled at first, but then acknowledged its application to the current scene. So often, Christian leaders really don’t know why churches grow or decline. Individual interpretations and opinions prevail. Similar confusion abounds about cell multiplication.
As the population continues to explode in the 21st century, the cell church model holds exciting possibilities of reaching a lost world for Jesus Christ. I pray that the information gathered from these cell-based churches will help you and your church more effectively complete the mission of our Lord Jesus Christ.
David Yonggi Cho, Successful Home Cell Groups. (Miami, FL: Logos International 1981)
[ii] Jim Egli, director of new products at TOUCH Outreach Ministries and a Ph.D. student at Regent University, adapted my questionnaire (improved it) and administered it to 200 cell leaders at Bethany World Prayer Center in Baker, La. His findings coincide with mine, and thus confirm the validity of this study.