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.
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
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,
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
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
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.”
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
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
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.