Concentration in the Cell Church


Concentration in the Cell Church

CMA Cell Net, 1999

During a recent cell church seminar in Guadalajara, Mexico, a pastor from Victory Outreach announced to the seminar participants:  “I’ve tried to start small group in my church three times and failed on each attempt.  I now realize what I did wrong. I wasn’t concentrating on my small group system.”  

When you examine the churches that failed with small groups, the central problems have nothing to do with the cell group itself. Rather, the problems reside with the system behind the cell group. This is why some cell churches succeed while others wither away.

It’s my growing conviction that if you want your cell groups to succeed you must learn to concentrate on the cell system behind those cell groups. The key word is concentration.  

We North Americans love variety. We love to give our people as many options as possible.  Why concentrate on cell ministry? It almost sounds offensive.  

Allow me to answer this question by first  including a chapter entitled “One Thing I Do” from my upcoming book Reap the Harvest: Making Small Groups Work in Your Church (Touch Publications, March 1999, hardback, 240 pp). I’ll conclude this article  with some additional comments:


Fresh out of Bible school in 1982, I became intern youth pastor at Long Beach (California) Alliance Church. I attended every meeting, volunteered for many activities and hoped to impress everyone with my willingness to serve.  

During one board meeting, I said (out of habit), “I’ll be glad to take on that new ministry.” I thought: “I’m sure they’ll jump at this opportunity to use me.” After the first few positive responses, a highly respected board member, Faith Rouse, threw me a curve ball: “Joel, we appreciate your willingness to help in so many areas, but remember that you shouldn’t get involved with new ministry unless you’re willing to eliminate one of your current responsibilities.” My nod gave the impression that I understood, but I inwardly struggled to grasp the meaning of her comment.  

My good friend Faith Rouse, a seasoned Christian worker, understands human nature and me in particular: Many people tend to volunteer for new service before counting the cost of current responsibilities. She observed my propensity to divide my time and talents into a flurry of scattered activity but understood the need for me to focus on “this one thing.” By helping me do a few — and just a few — things well, she was spurring me toward success.  

Concentrate on “This One Thing”  

No one can do everything well. Therefore, a job well done requires deliberate concentration. This is true of churches, too. Successful churches cannot be all things to all people. Church growth analysts have touted this for a long time. Barna, in User Friendly Churches, distinguishes growing churches by their capacity to prioritize and their ability to reject what steers from their philosophy. Barna says,  

In speaking with pastors of declining churches, a common thread was their desire to do something for everybody. They had fallen into the strategic black hole of creating a ministry that looked great on paper, but had not ability to perform up to standards. Despite their worthy intentions, they tried to be so helpful to everyone that they wound up being helpful to no one.

Remember that the one phrase recited in all successful cell churches is “cell ministry is the backbone of our church.” The vision passed down from leaders to members is that one must belong to a cell group to receive pastoral care, because cells are the very life of the church. If your cell ministry is one more program amid endless church activity, you are bound to fail. You won’t be able to concentrate on “this one thing.” Too many interests will overload you. You don’t want to enter cell ministry only to shelve it later, because it soon will lose its effectiveness.  

Do You Run On DOS or Windows 95?  

Those using personal computers may remember the DOS operating system. Windows 3.1 certainly was an improvement, but a PC needed the most recent version of DOS to run it. I discovered this the hard way. I bought a notebook computer loaded with DOS, and also WordPerfect for Windows, but I didn’t buy the Windows operating system. I soon discovered that WordPerfect for Windows wouldn’t run on a DOS computer system without the Windows operating system. Windows 3.1 and DOS were two operating system “layers” that wouldn’t work without each other. This “latest” technology was nonetheless bulky and inadequate. Windows 95 eliminated the need for DOS because the operating system was complete.  

My first “cell” ministry was much like adding Windows over DOS because it enhanced the already-existing church programs but didn’t replace them. I taught seminars nationwide on how any church could add a small-group ministry to its structure. After all, ours helped us pastor the people better, gave leaders a place to serve, and provided better follow-up and evangelism. But we continued to maintain a wide array of church programs, resulting in constant competition for resources. The small-group ministry eventually became one program among many.  

Determined to plant cells differently at the Republic Church (the daughter church), we dug deep and laid a strong cell foundation. Everything centered on cell ministry. We placed the ministry in the hands of a staff instead of just one person. We protected it against a myriad of programs, giving it the chance to grow and prosper. In this non-competitive environment, the cells grew exponentially: In just fifteen months after becoming a cell church, the number of groups skyrocketed from 21 to 117 with surprisingly little effort. Are you giving cell ministry in your church the chance to grow? Is it the church’s most important ministry?  

Cell ministry provides a church with a new operating platform that serves as the solid base for all activities. Through the cell system a church can pastor, evangelize, follow-up new converts, provide ushers, baptize, train, educate, raise up children’s ministers, etc. It’s akin to adopting a new operating system which is more complete yet simpler than the previous one. The cell system does this just as Windows 95 did for our computers. 

A Church with Cells vs. A Cell Church  

What is the difference between a cell church and a church with cells? A cell church organizes itself around cell ministry. In a church with cells, the cells are one ministry among many. All other ministries function as separate programs but are supposed to exist harmoniously with the small groups. One person typically heads the cell ministry, while other pastors attend to their ministries. A church with cells might emphasize the importance of cell ministry, but it is not the principle ministry.  

Cell churches have two important ministries: cell and celebration. Cell ministry provides pastoral care, evangelism, counseling, follow-up and all other important activities. The core organizational structure is based on cell ministry.  

The Importance of Saying ‘No’  

Learning to say “no” is an important fundamental in the cell church. A million well-intentioned programs will knock, even pound, on your church door, but they will drown your cell ministry. “No” is a blessed word in the cell church. If you don’t learn to say “no,” your cell church system will flounder.  

People attempting to help will often say, “This program will strengthen our cell ministry by making better cell leaders.” Be cautious about these arguments. In one sense, every program on the market might have some long-term benefit for some cell leaders. But in the meantime, these programs draw leaders away from their primary focus and require loads of extra time. They normally benefit the cell leader only indirectly.  

Don’t add programs with the hope that they might benefit cell ministry in the long run. Bethany’s Billy Hornsby says: “There are many good ideas that we want to attach to the cells to help them be successful. These attachments are simply not needed. In fact, they will eventually burden the cell groups so much that there will be an “overload” factor that will kill one cell group after another, along with its leadership.” 

Admittedly, after the cell church philosophy is thoroughly implemented, other ministries might be added: television and radio ministries, for example. These do not compete with cells because everyone on staff understands where they fit. Many of the outstanding worldwide cell churches are at this point. They and others know exactly where they stand. Your cell church may reach this point some day. But to get there, you must learn to say “no.” The majority of churches are accustomed to the traditional, program style of ministry, so saying “no” is especially vital in the early stages of planting or transitioning. Until cell church ministry is a way of life, be exceedingly careful about adding programs. Placing a moratorium on new programs for a certain time is a wise move for many churches transitioning into the cell lifestyle. Tell the people that you need to establish the cell philosophy as a way of life in the church.  

Compare it to planting a new garden. You give seeds time to grow by rooting out the weeds which destroy new growth, and you must provide sufficient water and sunlight. When you plant the cell church philosophy, you must protect this seedling from the weeds of church programs and competing activities that will eventually choke it out. 

No Looking Back  

Once the cell groups are established and running, leadership tends to slip back into the program-based mentality. “After all,” someone says, “this new program will eventually help the cell ministry.” I call these reactions “programmatic knee jerks.” Get ready for them. They might not appear for years, but they will surface.  

Very subtly, someone in the church desires to add a new evangelism program, para-church organization, social program, and the list goes on-and-on. While none of these are bad, they become problematic when they draw attention and resources from the main thing, cell church ministry.  

For example, one church in Chile adopted Marriage Encounter with great effectiveness and became that program’s model for Latin America. My mission organization decided to send various national pastors to Chile so they could master this model and implement it in their churches. The mission offered to send our pastor; I objected. Not that I have anything against the program. In fact, God transformed my wife and me at a Marriage Encounter in 1989. I objected because of the simple principle of concentration.  

We as a church had not learned to do “one thing” well. We were beginning our cell church transition and once again faced the danger of adding an activity without realizing its drain on our cell system. Resources stretch only so far, so be vigilant and concentrate on this one thing. Ask these questions: Will the new program or activity directly benefit cell ministry or drain precious resources? Can it be accomplished in and through the cell church philosophy? If either answer is no, then say “no.”  

Integrate Everything  

The battle over the Internet browsers is a hot topic. Some believe that the Microsoft Corporation violated the law by bundling its Internet Explorer browser with its Windows operating system. The U.S. Justice Department charged that the Internet browser was a distinct program and thus needed to be sold separately. Microsoft, on the other hand, emphatically declared that the two were inseparable and thus should be integrated.  

This illustration is instructive for the cell church. The issue is which distinct programs are not part of the cell operating system and which ones are inseparable. This is not always easy to determine. 

The men’s movement called PromiseKeepers is a good example of this. God moved in my life when I attended a three-day PK event in 1997, and I believe in this ministry. But if you’re transitioning to the cell church and wondering whether you should add PK to your church, what should you do?  

First, pray. Second, ask whether PromiseKeepers can be integrated into the cell church philosophy. Is it a separate, stand-alone program or can it be incorporated into the new operating system (the cell church philosophy)? If you can’t integrate it, and you realize that it will compete for scarce resources, politely decline to add it. Encourage those interested men to attend the nearby rallies.  

Yet, perhaps the PK men’s groups would actually strengthen the cell vision. If you realize that these groups have all the cell components — knowing God, fellowship, and outreach, you could instruct future leaders that they must multiply their groups. In order to do this you must make it clear that these groups are an integrated part of the overall cell philosophy, as opposed to independent groups.  

In the first scenario, the PK ministry is a threat to your tender cell system; you’d be in danger of losing your focus. In the second scenario, it fits like a glove.  

Any program in your church should come under the scrutiny of these questions: Does it square with the operating system of the church. Is it integrated? Does it mesh with the cell philosophy? Bethany’s Hornsby counsels: “Whenever an idea is brought up in staff meeting, or when a church member has an idea to start some kind of ministry, ask them and yourself, “Is this sufficiently related to cell groups?”3 Does it require leadership that functions outside the cell-group ministry? Does it compete with the cell-group ministry for leaders?

Who Leads the Cell Ministry?  

Senior pastors commonly promote groups but then delegate operation of the small-group ministry to a staff person. When I started a cell ministry under the senior pastor, my area of responsibility was “cell ministry.” Everything to do with cell ministry fell under my authority. Sometimes other pastor’s responsibilities meshed with mine, but not all the time.  

This approach automatically assigns cell ministry the status of “one program among many.” You might object and say, “Our cell ministry is important even though we have a director!” I don’t doubt that. When the person in charge of cell ministry is someone other than the senior pastor, it relegates cell ministry to one ministry among many. The senior pastor’s direct involvement is one of the key distinctions between a church with cells and a cell church. In the cell church, the senior pastor is the cell minister. That’s his main job. In a church with cells, the senior pastor often delegates small-group ministry to someone else, much as he would any other ministry.  

I’m not saying that a church transitioning to the cell model will instantaneously change all staff positions. Quickly re-engineering everyone’s job could cause problems. In fact, if your church is transitioning to the cell model, you might designate a point person to work with the senior pastor for a time. The senior pastor, however, eventually must take full charge of cell ministry; he must not delegate this role to anyone else.  


The awkwardness I felt over Faith Rouse’s comment has long since passed, but my friend’s advice lingers. How I wish I’d remember it more often. Recently, I said “yes” to oversee a ministry because I thought that I should. I thought: “After all, it’s too late to turn back; I’m obligated.” For weeks that decision obscured my focus, caused grief, and cost lots of extra work. Christian leader, you must learn to concentrate on cell ministry. The good that knocks at your door is often the enemy of the best that God has for you. The word “no” is a blessed word. Learn to love it and use it often.


Allow me to conclude with four brief comments:  

1.      Programs have a life of their own

So often the top staff in a church understand how a particular program will fit into the cell church philosophy. You’ll hear leaders say, “We can implement this program in our church and still be a cell church.” And granted, those on staff might fully understand how it will fit. But the lay people, who might not be as committed to the cell church philosophy, begin to promote the particular program. They subtly become promoters for the program and expect everyone to run the program exactly like the founders of the program. Gradually (and often imperceptibly) you once again have competing structures in your church and your lay people are divided in their time commitments. Don’t complain later when your lay people say to you, “I won’t be able to multiply my cell group this year; I’m too busy with other activities.” 

2.      Be leary of the comment, “This program will help our cell ministry?”

This argument could be repeated for virtually every program on the market today. Everything “potentially” could help your cell ministry. Yet in the process you will drain your scarce “people” resources and fail to do “this one thing” well.  

3.      Protect your people so they can concentrate on cell ministry

If you expect your people to multiply cell groups, oversee those new groups, attend your church activities, etc., YOU MUST NOT ALSO EXPECT them to involve themselves in a variety of additional programs. I do not believe that there is any inherent evil in programs. I do believe that you must learn to concentrate in order to maximize your effectiveness. If you’ve decided to become a cell church, then concentrate on it.   

4.      Learn to say NO

This is so hard for pastors and missionaries. We want to be just like the church down the street. We want people to get the impression that “we’re open for everything” so we get hooked into the latest fad and eventually stray from the cell church focus. Resist the pressure from others to implement the latest program in your church


“I’ve tried small groups and they just don’t work.” Such comments are exceedingly common. If you want to be different and succeed in cell church ministry, you must take a different route. You must concentrate on your cell system. You must learn to say no. You must prioritize cell and celebration and protect your lay people from all the other competing programs that will drain their scarce resources. As you give careful thought to your structure and concentrate on cell ministry, you’ll experience an abundant harvest.