Dangers in the Cell Church Movement
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 The Worldwide Cell Church: Blessings and Dangers

by Joel Comiskey

Written for The Waverly Christian Center Cell Newsletter (2002)  

In June 2002, I gave a cell seminar in  Zurich , Switzerland , in the church of Werner Kniesel . Zurich , the land that once was on the cutting edge of the reformation, is now a spiritual graveyard of secularism, pornography and apathy.  

Werner Kniesel understood the challenge he confronted when he took over a dying, programmatic 200 member church in Zurich in 1982. From the beginning, God gave Werner a vision for the cell-celebration church, even when cell church was not popular. Werner told me that every transition step was painful for his people. Yet, he kept on asking them to move forward.  

Twenty years later, the fruit of persistence has paid off. Werner’s church is now one of the largest in all of Europe with  2600 in regular Sunday attendance and 150 multiplying cells. The church’s yearly cell conferences attract people from all over the world, and through these conferences, God is birthing the cell church vision throughout Europe .    

Kniesel’s church is just one example of what God is doing. You probably have heard that the largest churches in the world are cell churches!! (for more information, see my article http://celycecomiskey.tripod.com/ten_largest_cell_churcehs.htm ) .  

God’s Blessing on the Cell Church  

Why has God chosen to bless this strategy? One reason is His desire for both quality and quantity—not just quantity.  

 Some popular growth models today emphasize quantity over quality. These churches focus on the celebration wing and promote models that teach you how to attract a huge crowd. Church growth centers around how many people attend on Sunday morning. In certain growth models, anonymity is emphasized over accountability. No one knows who was there last week, one month ago, or five years ago.  I believe, however,  that an increasing number of pastors are asking hard questions like:

bulletIf a person only attends the Sunday morning worship service, has that person truly experienced the church of Jesus Christ ? 
bulletIs it possible to sit passively, shake a few hands, sing a few songs, and participate in the true church of Jesus Christ ?
bulletIsn’t the true church of Jesus a living organism?
bulletDoesn’t it demand interaction and participation?
bulletIf a person does not experience fellowship and community in the church of Jesus Christ , has he experienced the heartbeat of Christianity?

God is blessing the cell church because it emphasizes growth in accountability, discipleship, friendship evangelism, and leadership preparation.  Churches are realizing that they don’t have to sacrifice quality for quantity. Mark Goodge, a U.K. cell church leader wrote, the cell church movement, wrote:    

I predict - no, I'll go  further, and say that I prophesy - that, within my lifetime, cell will be the normative way of doing  church, across *all* denominations. If the "last big thing" was the charismatic movement,  which changed our pneumatology (doctrine of the Holy Spirit), then the "next big thing" will be  an equally significant revolution in our ecclesiology (doctrine of the church). We have the privilege  to be in at the beginning of that, but it is a privilege we must not - dare not - guard with  jealousy. Over the years to come, other churches will turn to the cell model - and they will  bring with them their own form of church government, their own doctrines on other aspects of  belief, their own distinctives and even their own creeds. If we fall into the trap of thinking  that only "my way" is the correct way, we will be left behind, . . . [1]  

In March 2002, I met Mark, the pastor of a growing Southern Baptist Church in Nashville , TN. His church started in 1995 and had grown to 1000 worshipers and 100 cell groups. He was sold on cell-celebration ministry, telling me that it was the most Biblical and effective way to reach people in the 21st century. He told me that the Southern Baptists in Tennessee now train all of their church planters in the cell church strategy. Cell church planting, in fact, is growing in popularity.  

Emphasis on Cell Church Planting  

Many think that cell churches must be huge city-wide harvest machines. Yes, some cell churches grow to this size. But this is not the only one way to grow a cell church. Many cell church pastors are attracted to planting smaller cell churches before reaching the size of these citywide cell churches. Ralph Neighbour wrote to me recently,  “I have myself come to the conclusion that the combination of cell and megachurch is not the way to go and at present I am working on an “experimental” model of a cell church that would form cells that would in turn create congregations of 50-60, but would still belong to a vision and a movement . . When 5-6 cells cluster, you would have a “house church.” These could be integrated with sufficient leadership for fathering to take place. . . .”[2] Planting cell churches at a smaller size is a growing alternative in the cell church world today.  

Dangerous Extremes  

    I see two dangerous extremes in the cell church movement today. On one side is extreme flexibility in defining a cell group. On the other side is extreme dogmatism in asking everyone to follow one cell church model.  

Extreme Flexibility  

    Certain flagship U.S. churches have taken enormous liberty in defining their cell groups. Here are some of the latest definitions of cell groups:   

·         A group of people taking pre-marital counseling

·         A six-week course meeting inside the church

·         Kids in a bus on the way to church

·         G-12 groups

·         Choirs

·         Ushers

·         Etc., Etc.,  

    Some of these “cell groups” meet in the church, others meet outside the church. Some meet weekly, others meet biweekly or once per month. It’s now vogue, for example, to ask groups to meet once per month or twice per month. After all, we don’t want to place too much pressure on busy Christians. Of course, these churches would never think about telling their church members to attend the Sunday celebration once or twice per month. . . I believe that it’s essential to stick with the minimum definition of a cell:  

"A group of 4-15 people that meets weekly outside the church building for the purpose of evangelism and discipleship with the goal of multiplication."  

Cell churches all around the world follow a very similar definition. Is this too dogmatic? You’ll notice incredible flexibility in the above definition. It does not say:

           That you have to meet in a home (many cells meet at work, the university campus, a coffee shop, etc.).

           That you have to follow the Sunday sermon (most do, but some don’t).

           That you have to have family cells (many cell groups are homogeneous men’s cells, women’s cells, or children’s cells).

           That you have to follow one particular cell order (e.g., the 4Ws–Welcome, Worship, Word, Works).

           That you have to have a certain level of participation (ICM’s cells, for example,  aren’t as participatory as I’d like, but they’re still cell groups).     

    I believe a cell church needs to start with a definition in order to make sure that everyone in the church has a qualitative experience of discipleship, evangelism, and leadership development.

Extreme Uniformity

    Some are saying that you must follow their cell church model exactly--if  you want to succeed. They believe that their cell model is a direct revelation from God. I’m referring specifically to some in the G12 movement today.  

    I began to notice this problem back in 1998. I wrote to a friend, “I just  hope that the G-12 model doesn’t detract from the LIFE OF THE CELL. Some literature now almost promotes the G-12 as the life of the church. Find your disciples. This is the key. Cells are almost an afterthought. I even know that some have relaxed the requirement that a “disciple” has to lead a cell group.”  

    Since that time, my concern has grown. The extreme uniformity that some are promoting in the G12 movement now includes following the International Charismatic Mission’s exact material, exact numerology, exact training track,  and exact apostolic covering. You must follow it exactly to experience God’s blessing. Some G12 leaders are finding the number twelve in the oddest places in Scripture (Elijah would not have chosen Elisha had he been plowing with 11 oxen instead of 12; the anointing comes when you find your 12).    

    I believe that we should be guided by common cell church patterns and principles, rather than one model practiced in one cell church. And even those who chose to follow one model should follow the principles of that one model rather than slavishly copying a methodology. Let’s guard against trying to find instant success by copying someone else’s ministry. One cell church pastor described the current situation like this:   

We in Europe and North America , who are struggling with being successful, might believe that if we only will find the right thing, we will have the breakthrough that we so badly desire and that we see happening in other parts of the world. This creates some kind of "wave-hopping." From Power Evangelism to Willow Creek to spiritual mapping to Toronto Blessing to Cell Church to G-12. The hope is that the next wave may just be "it". After the initial excitement fades and the results are less than expected, we can be sure that the next wave will come around to save us.  I am excited about G-12 principles. And attending a Conference with César Castellanos was one of the most blessed experiences for me. We are using G-12 principles in our new church plant in Germany . This, in my opinion, is one the greatest strengths of G-12. Reducing it to one closed model that you have to follow as an exact blueprint (because we hope this finally will be "it" and will solve all our problems) is to lose one of the   greatest strengths that we have in G-12. I am completely sold on cell church, and I am excited about G-12. However, what really matters are New Testament values and principles. I believe very strongly that Jesus and the values and principles of His kingdom should be our focus. If we focus on models and waves, we will get sidetracked.[3]   

    Like Larry Kreider said, “We must fervently pray that our visions and goals are birthed by the Holy Spirit, not copied from the latest church appearing to be successful.”[4]  

Where Do We Go from Here?  

    The cell church movement is alive and well and holds exciting possibilities for the future. While avoiding the extremes, let’s run with fire. Let’s refuse to slowly move along in our cell church strategy. A dying, perishing world needs a life-giving cell group for healing and discipleship. Let’s radically multiply our cells, raise up new leaders, and build true community that reaches the world for Jesus Christ.

 


[1] Mark Goodge, August 13,2002 , cellchurchtalk email.

[2] Personal e-mail sent to me in April 2002.

[3] Andreas Pfeifer Nuremberg, cellchurchtalk, on 8/13/2001 . Andreas is a cell church planter in Germany .  

[4] Catching the Vision,” Celebrating Cell Church Magazine ( Houston , TX : Touch Publications, 2000), p. 23.