Misconceptions in the Cell Church



 C&MA Cell Net 

 September 2000


A seeker-targeted church in the U.S. concluded that the cell model didn't work. Upon further inquiry, the pastor had wrongly interpreted the cell church model.  A pastor thought the cell church consisted only of cells.  No ministry for children.  He felt that the cell groups did everything else in the church.  Much of the resistance toward the cell church comes from wrong interpretations. "Cell churches are against everything except cells," some imagine. 


I spoke to a Singaporean cell group in Cambodia in January 2000. This group was only lightly connected with an Assembly of God church that was not yet a cell church.  During the question-answer time, the hostess made a comment about her local church by saying, "We're not worried that our church is not a cell church because after all, our cell is the church." 

I told this Singaporean group that if they really believed that the cell is the church then there was no need to attend Sunday morning service. Their home group would be their celebration and their home church would be their cell. This is the logical conclusion. 

However, if you're convinced of both, like I am, and if you believe that the cell church is the preferred strategy, than it's best to use a different terminology such as: the cell is the church and the celebration is the church and one without the other is incomplete.  J.I. Packer says something very similar,  ". . . I go around telling people that if they're not with the whole congregation on Sunday, and in the small group somewhere during the week, their Christian lives are unbalanced." 

I like to say it like this, "The church is the celebration and the cell, and if a believer is only experiencing one or the other, he or she is only experiencing half of the Christian life." Don Davidson, a cell church pastor, put it this way,  "The cells are the church, and the congregational gatherings are the church, and the worldwide Christians are the church.... it isn't an either/or proposition, but a both/and proposition." 

I understand that often the phrase "the cell is the church" is more of a practical statement than a theological treatise. One cell church pastor explained it this way: “When we say that the cell is the church what we mean is that the cell is where most of His work in and through us is done and that when the cells meet for weekly celebration they do not cease to be cells and the celebration becomes "the real church". The rhetorical emphasis is for a reason.  We do not want the cell members to be confused into forgetting that the cell is the place the Lord "actualizes being church in and through us". The  Sat/Sun celebration is where we celebrate what He is doing through  the cells and when we also hear His vision cast for us through the  sermon." 

I agree with this pastor. Church growth in America often boils down to big numbers on Sunday morning. I know that this wasn't the only teaching of Donald McGavran, the founder of the church growth movement, but this is what so many people have grasped. The unspoken priority among pastors and churches today is Sunday morning attendance. This must change. 

In the cell church, church growth means that the church is growing both in cells and celebration. Everyone attending celebration must attend a cell and everyone attending the cell must attend the celebration. Although I understand the reasoning behind the phrase "the cell is the church," when used alone, it doesn't clarify and begs an explanation. 


In today's small group market it's vogue to label any group that is small a cell. This might include Sunday school classes, prison ministry task groups, church boards, choir groups, usher groups, etc. 

One recent book on small groups defined the small group as a "a face-to-face meeting that is a sub-unit of the overall fellowship."  This author goes on to say, "Any gathering of less than a dozen people is a small group."  Small groups are defined as "cell groups, home Bible studies, Sunday School Class, Deacon Board, A.A. group, Pulpit Committee or a Prison Ministry Task Group." We are told simply to recognize that your church already has existing small groups. 

The definition of the cell in the cell church is vitally important. It separates the cell church from all of the other types of ministries and groups on the church scene today. My definition of a cell is: A group of people (4-15), who meet regularly for the purpose of spiritual edification and evangelistic outreach (with the goal of multiplication) and who are committed to participate in the functions of the local church. My definition makes it clear that I am referring to church-based small groups. Those who attend the cell groups are expected to attend the church celebration. The goal of the cell is multiplication. 

If the cell is distorted, the believer will likely be weak, lacking discipleship. Likewise, a cell must evangelize and multiply, or face certain stagnation. In the above definition, you'll notice that both discipleship and evangelism are present. 


One pastor transitioning to the cell church wrote: "Would a community center offering things like a drop-in coffee shop, counseling rooms, relationship-training and other courses be considered under  "programs" if undertaken by a growing cell church?" Questions like this weigh heavily on the minds of most leaders considering the cell church.  "Are all programs of the devil?" many wonder, thinking that the cell church teaches this. 

What is a program? According to the dictionary it's simply a system of procedures or activities that has a specific purpose. Synonyms include plan, agenda, and curriculum.  The cell church movement rightly downplays the over-emphasis on programs, believing the main focus must be the cell. Let's be careful, however, not to throw out the baby with the bath water. Even the fastest growing cell churches have ministries that look very similar to programs. 

Bethany World Prayer Center features a children's Sunday School, worship team ministry, Saturday morning prayer meeting, youth ministry, and college and career ministry. You'll find at the International Charismatic Mission in Bogotá, Colombia, one of the most famous cell churches today, the ministries of worship, spiritual warfare, T.V., radio, counseling, ushers, follow-up, social action, pastoral care, accounting, video, sound ministry, bookstore, and more. Yoido Full Gospel Church, the founder of the modern cell church movement, highlights a number of ministries. Faith Community Baptist Church in Singapore, a world renowned cell church, reaches out to the physical needs of the Singaporeans through day care centers, after school clubs, centers for the handicapped and deaf, diabetic support groups, and legal counseling. 

Even Ralph Neighbour said, "Realistically, perhaps it is best to say that in the cell church very few additional programs exist." 

The word ministry comes from the Greek word "diakonia", where we get our English word deacon. Ministry speaks of humble acts of service for others. The word program, in contrast, often carries the idea of self-perpetuation-something that has a life of its own. Ministries serve and sustain both the celebration and cell structure; programs divert the attention away from cell life. Ministries add to the success of the cell system; programs compete for time and activity. 

What kind of ministries am I alluding to? I'm referring here to ministries such as prayer, ushering, the follow-up of new converts, missions, social action, children's ministry, nursery, etc. 

Those planting a cell church shouldn't be burdened with adding ministries. Follow the policy of adding new ministries only as the need arises. Yet, many established churches reject the cell church philosophy outright, thinking that all ministries are of the devil. Don't imagine that the cell church is only a worship service and a cell meeting and nothing more.

The key question is how are you integrating the other activity in your church. In the cell church, it's not acceptable to erect ministries apart from the cell philosophy.  Nor it is acceptable to simply call every group that is small a cell (choir, board, prison ministry, etc.). 

I propose a third alternative that maintains the purity of the cell church while not butchering church ministries. I think it's best to say that a person has to be leading a cell group or in the process of preparing to lead a cell group to be involved in any other ministry.  The record-breaking cell churches ask everyone to prepare to eventually lead a cell group. Everyone. Only those who have caught this vision and are in the process of leading a cell group can be involved in a ministry. 

In the Republic Church (Quito, Ecuador) we view ministry participation as a privilege. We encourage every cell leader (or those preparing to be cell leaders) to  participate in a ministry. This is maximum integration. We boldly declare that everyone in the church will eventually become a leader. 

We refuse any competition between cell ministry and the other ministries of the church. How? By saying that only those who are leading a cell (or in the training process to lead a cell) can participate in a ministry. Cell attendance is a given ("of course everyone must attend a cell group"). 


A consultant from a well-known organization counseled a pastor in Indianapolis that the cell-based model wouldn't work for him. "Americans value diversity," the consultant said. This consultant pressed the cultural button to reject cell church philosophy. He then went on to minimize the impact of one large U.S. cell church because of its location (supposedly this cell church grew because of its cultural setting). I wrote back to this pastor saying, "Yes, cell church ministry in the U.S. must be adapted. But would this consultant also say that the cell church works in such diverse places as Los Angeles, California; Houston, Texas; Harrisburg, Virginia; Athens, Georgia;  Virginia Beach, Virginia; and Baker, Louisiana but not in Indianapolis?" [all these cities have growing cell churches].   "Remember," I told him,  "the U.S. is now one big mix of people from all over the world." 

Let's not underestimate the impact of Bethany World Prayer Center on the North American cell church scene. Bethany World Prayer Center declares by its very existence that the cell church can work in the U.S. Since becoming a cell church, BWPC has grown from a respectable church of twenty-five ingrown "fellowship" groups to a dynamic church of 700 multiplying cell groups. And in just 7 years! Bethany World Prayer Center, with more than 8,000 Sunday worshippers and a two million-dollar annual missions budget, dispels the myth that "cell churches just don't work in America." 

Interest in Bethany is obvious. Their annual cell church conference increases in attendance yearly, attracting more than 1500 pastors and key leaders. The attendance highlights the desire of church leaders to see a living, breathing cell church, rather than discuss what a cell church ought to be. 

I've highlighted BWPC here, but Bethany is not the only exciting cell church blossoming in the U.S. Other North American cell churches are reaching into the 1000s. Space  doesn't allow me to talk about the exciting things happening at the Door of Hope, Church of the Nations, Cornerstone Church, Colonial Hills Baptist Church, Clear Point Church, Long Reach Church of God, and others. 

The fact that the cell church can work in the U.S. has given new impetus and prominence to the cell church scene in the U.S. Pastors who were afraid of joining an underground non-mainstream movement are now emboldened to follow these prominent cell church models. 

I'm not saying that the cell church movement is now mainstream. Far from it. I am saying that the cell church movement in North America is gaining momentum and more church leaders are asking the questions: What is the essence of the cell church?  What are the practical steps to become a cell church? 


 In a cell seminar in Houston, an associate pastor approached me in despair saying, "Is it possible for our church to become a cell church, even though my senior pastor is juggling a dozen programs?" How I longed to offer him an encouraging word, but I lacked one. I said to him, "In all honesty, unless your senior pastor is leading the charge, you'll never become a cell  church." This is a fact. Perhaps the clearest distinction between a church with cells and a cell church is the senior pastor's involvement. The senior pastor in a church with cells delegates the cell ministry to an underling, while in the cell church the senior pastor leads the charge. 

 Don't misunderstand me. An associate pastor or even a zealous church member can help the senior pastor catch the cell church vision. But until he does, the church has little chance of becoming a cell church.  In our cell church experiment, it took one year for the senior pastor to truly capture the cell church vision. When starting, he had a cell vision, but the vision didn't have him. It didn't possess and control him. It took its place in the long-line of high-powered programs. He didn't really understand the need to concentrate, nor promote the cell church vision before the congregation. 

Those initial months were some of the hardest in my life, because I wasn't sure if he or the church was going to make it. I understood that unless he caught the vision, we'd stagnate as a church with cells. 

The good news is that the cell church vision has captured the heart of my senior pastor, and we're now growing like wildfire (1997-21 cells; 1998-110 cells; 1999-250 cells; 2000 goal-300 cells). My prayer is that the same will be true in your church. 


Experiences, not teaching, change values. Most of us have heard this many times. This phrase is commonly used to talk about equipping new leaders. Potential leaders must take incremental steps in leading a cell group before becoming cell leaders. 

Yet sometimes we fail to apply this to the cell church transition. Church members will change when they experience cell life, see the positive results, and understand the cell vision because of constant promotion. I've noticed a tendency to ask church members to wait until they've reached a certain value level before allowing them to join a cell or become part of the cell church. On the contrary, churches and members transitioning to the cell church model will learn in the process. 


I've noticed this mentality on an ever-increasing scale in many transitioning cell churches. These churches have misinterpreted the purpose of the Prototype stage of cell development. They have seen the Prototype as the place where every detail about the cell group must be developed before they can move on. They work on the cell values so that the cell groups will eventually grow. But they have missed one point. They are not taking practical steps to grow the initial prototype group. They are not putting into practice the lifestyle that makes the cell grow. 

I like to ask these churches: What are you doing right now to make your cell groups the central focus of your church? What are your cell multiplication goals for the next year? How are your cell church values manifested in an outward way? Do you promote the cell church vision constantly? Do your cell values stir you to create cell offices? How has your cell church values stirred you to reorganize your staff to be more compatible with the cell church? 

Yes, change does take time, but we should never use that fact to excuse the lack of clear, urgent goals in the present. I call this the bunker mentality  because these churches keep on adding time like a pain pill. It helps them live with the present, but does nothing to change their tomorrow. 

Successful cell church leaders are intentional. They take clear, concrete steps to make their cell church experiment succeed. They're pro-active, making history rather than becoming history. Cell church pastor, you must take practical steps to become a cell church. Starting with a quality prototype cell is only the beginning. You must also make clear, audaciously bold goals for the multiplication of your cell groups. This requires intense leadership training and clear focus on the cell system. 


After a recent cell church seminar in Philadelphia, I met with a C&MA pastor in a nearby restaurant. We talked about the cell church philosophy and its integration into our denomination. "Our district doesn't understand the cell church model," he told me. "If key leaders have heard about it, the understanding is often muddled or wrong," he continued. 

In another city I ate lunch with a rising star in the C&MA whose church plant grew to 700 people in just seven years. This young pastor, well known in C&MA circles, was very interested in the cell church but had no desire to identify with a counter-culture revolution called cell church. He simply wanted something better than his current philosophy. Pastors like this one are recognizing the benefits of the cell church, yet they're not interested in adopting some of the counter-culture elements that they perceive in the cell church. 

What can we say to this new generation of leaders? How can we help the movement bring greater blessing to God's church? More than ever, we need to clearly communicate the heart of the cell church so that others will see its value and desire to join in. Let's not allow the cell church model to be entangled by mistaken beliefs or misconceptions. Let's proclaim the good news of the cell church to those starting churches or desiring a change. Let's keep our message simple and understandable so that many will join this wonderful movement.