MISCONCEPTIONS in the CELL CHURCH
C&MA Cell Net
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,"
MISCONCEPTION #1: THE CELL IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN CELEBRATION
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
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
MISCONCEPTION #2: A CELL= SMALL GROUP
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.
MISCONCEPTION #3: THERE ARE NO MINISTRIES IN THE CELL CHURCH
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
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").
MISCONCEPTION #4: THE CELL CHURCH DOESN'T WORK IN THE U.S.
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
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?
MISCONCEPTION #5: YOU CAN BE A CELL CHURCH EVEN THOUGH THE
SENIOR PASTOR ISN'T IN AGREEMENT
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
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
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.
MISCONCEPTION #6: DON'T LET PEOPLE JOIN A CELL BEFORE THEIR
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.
MISCONCEPTION #7: PROTOTYPE CELL + TIME = CELL CHURCH
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
KEEP THE MESSAGE SIMPLE
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.