What is a Cell Group?



by Joel Comiskey

Appeared in Cellchurchtalk, January 2002


What’s the most important thing about the cell church? The training track? G-12 care structure? Transition strategy? Church growth?  None of these even compare to the crowning jewel--the cell itself.  

You wouldn’t be reading this article unless you were passionate about cells.  You’ve experienced their New Testament feel. You’ve seen non-Christians transformed in this interactive environment. You’ve basked in true cell community. You’ve witnessed the transformation of Christians and the development of future leaders through cell groups.  

However, today, especially in America , there is an unseen—and often unintentional—battle for the soul of the cell.  

Small groups and cells have become commodities in today’s church. The word cell has become a “throw-away term.” When someone mentions a cell, what registers is a  Bible study, a social gathering, a Sunday school class or anything else (as long as it’s small and a group).  

And many “cell models” are even adding to this thinking by liberally sprinkling the word cell over all groups in their church.  

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






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 North American Christians. Of course, these churches would never think about telling their church members to attend the Sunday celebration once or twice per month. . .  

Let’s not be too harsh,” you might say. After all, there are reasons for these diverse, irregular groups. Here are a few reasons:    


“We need to adapt to North American culture where people are accustomed to endless variety.”


 “Our groups are evangelizing and the church is growing.”


 “People don’t always have time to be in a cell or lead a cell, so it’s best to bless their current ministry involvement and just call it a cell group.”


 “It’s easier to transition a church to small groups if you cellurize the existing programs and ministries.”  

However, let’s stop for a moment and consider the long-term effects. Remember that those involved in one of these “quasi-cell groups” will only vaguely experience cell life—if at all. Eventually, there will be little to distinguish these cells from ministries and programs in the church (I can speak from personal experience).  

My passion is for future generations. It’s for those who follow the quasi cell models, only later to discover that the people are not experiencing true body life, penetrating evangelism, and effective leadership development.  

I believe that unless we can come to agreement on the definition of a cell, we really have nothing to offer in the cell church movement. In reality, I think it’s best to bless all church activity and go our own merry way.  

I know this article sounds cynical but I believe it’s more real than most of us imagine.  

So, Where Do We Go From Here, as one famous cell pioneer said.  

Let me suggest several components that help us define a true cell. If another small group in the church doesn’t mesh with these given components, I refuse to call it a life-giving cell. I simply call it a ministry and then seek to integrate it (or delete it) into the cell system.  

Okay, here goes:  

·        Discipleship

o       The cell helps people to grow in Christ. Cells are not simply social gathering that focus on fellowship and refreshments. No, cells must transform people for them to be effective.

o       Intimacy

--Most agree that cells must remain small. With more than 15 people, cells lose their intimacy and reason for existence.

--The crying need today in America is for community. We must keep cells small, so that everyone has a chance to share and communicate.

·        Penetration Evangelism

o       Cells must have a purpose beyond themselves. Cells are for others and  must remain open to non-Christians.

o       Small groups meet outside the church building to reach people where they work and live. This was a principle that I discovered in all of the growing cell churches worldwide. I know it’s “vogue” today to use Sunday school classrooms, to break up into small groups after the Sunday morning worship, or to divide in sub-groups after the Friday night youth rally.  However, the problem is that it perpetuates the “come and see” strategy, rather than the “we’ll go where you work and live” strategy. At the heart of the cell strategy is evangelistic penetration. Let’s not compromise here.

o       As I do cell seminars around the world and see churches who have gone the easy way and allowed cells to meet in the church, my heart sinks. Over the years, I’ve grown into the conviction that the church is for celebration, coaching (G-12), training, congregational ministry, and network activity. However, the cell must remain in the community, whether that means the home, the factory, the university, a restaurant, or wherever else.

·        Multiplication

o       Cells are born to multiply. The DNA of the cell is to give birth to a daughter cell.

o       This is so essential that it will demand the total church concentration to make this happen. In fact, it won’t happen under busy pastors who have too many things on their mind. Only through total concentration and focus will cells have the necessary resources to truly make them work.

·        Regularity

o       In the cell church, we believe that the cell is the church, just like the weekly celebration. When we encourage our cells to meet monthly or even biweekly—while maintaining a weekly Sunday celebration service—we are making a loud priority statement that says: “Our small groups are just one ministry in the church—not the very life of our church.” 

o       It’s my firm conviction that cells should meet weekly—just like the celebration service.  


            Notice that I haven’t touched such things as “participation,” “cell lesson,” cell order,” etc. In reality, these questions are secondary to the above ones.  

I believe in small groups (4-15) that weekly meet outside the church building for the purpose of evangelism and discipleship with the goal of multiplication (a one year multiplication goal is the norm).    

Randy Frazee in the Connecting Church describes his groups using the acronym SERVICE:  

S= spiritual formation

·        Personal goals of growth in Christ for each member of the group


·        Pray for at least three households within their neighborhoods

R= reproduction

·        Each group is open to welcoming new people; there should be at least one leader in training.

·        Reproduction of a new cell is expected in one year


·        The cell promotes the local church

I=International missions

·        The cell supports one international mission’s project


·        Commitment to one another

E=extending compassion

·        Commitment to on-site compassion projects per year  

You might define your small group components differently. However, don’t fall into the trap of baptizing everything as a small group in your church. It will come back to bite you later. Let’s not tamper with the cell. Yes, our North American cultural patterns of individualism, independence, and personal initiative should encourage us to refine and perfect cell ministry.

 But there are some things that we should leave unchanged for our own good and for the health of Christ’s body. Let’s boldly protect the true nature of the cell and refuse to allow it to become something deformed, dysfunctional, or even viral.  

But what do the rest of you think? Suggestions? Criticisms? Share your convictions—just like I’ve done above. Please send your feedback to  Cell-Church@bible.acu.edu  and we can talk about this together.