The ESSENCE of the Cell Church



by Joel Comiskey

Summer 2002

As I was chatting with Vern, one of the pastors I’m coaching, he asked, “Joel, in a nutshell, what is the essence of the cell church? What is the key message that I’m supposed to communicate with my people? How do I describe cell church in a clear, succinct way?”  

I fumbled around a bit, looking deep within for the answer. What surfaced was a long-term, yet sometimes forgotten, conviction. I told him that I believed the cell church was primarily a leadership strategy. I told him that the essence or the key principle of the cell church was the development, training, and deployment of leaders (or you might call them facilitators or guides).  

I believe, in fact, that cells are just the vehicle to allow a potential leader to emerge, develop, and eventually lead. Cells are leader breeders, and ultimately should focus on mobilizing the laity to do the work of the ministry.  

It’s easy to get bogged down in the details: cell systems, definitions, the statistics, coaching, etc. Yet, we must focus on the big picture: converting pew sitters into harvest workers. The rallying cry of the cell church is found in Matthew 9:35-38; 10:1:  

Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.” He called his twelve disciples to him and gave them authority to drive out evil a spirits and to heal every disease and sickness.  

The need was too great for Christ alone. He knew that only way to get the job done was to raise up more laborers. He then practiced what he preached by calling his twelve disciples to help him in the harvest.  

Churches do not reap the harvest because they have small groups. They reap the harvest because they have harvest workers. Churches that have no plan to develop people have by default planned to lose the harvest.  

“The growth of the cell movement is based on raising up leaders from within. The highest priority of the cell leader is to identify prospective interns and begin the mentoring process.”[i] With this quote, Gwynn Lewis pinpoints the essence of the cell church. Cell leaders are not primarily called to form and sustain cell groups; their primary job is to find, train, and release new leadership.[ii]  Jim Egli expands on this same point: “The cell model is not a small-group strategy; it is a leadership strategy. The focus is not to start home groups but to equip an expanding number of caring leaders. If you succeed at this, your church will flourish.”[iii]  

The best forum for leadership emergence and development is the cell, where everyone is able to exercise spiritual gifts and influence others. Such development simply doesn’t happen in a large celebration context. Nor does it effectively take place in choir groups, usher groups, Sunday School classes, or board meetings. Potential cell leaders are best developed in groups that emphasize evangelism, discipleship, and multiplication. Thus a cell should be:   

"A group of 4-15 people that meets weekly outside the church building for the purpose of evangelism and discipleship with the goal of multiplication.”  

I  cling so tenaciously to a clear definition of a cell because leadership development takes place when  the developing leader learns how to evangelize, disciple, raise up a new leader, penetrate the society and participate in regular group meetings.  I emphasize the need for cells to meet weekly, outside the church building, evangelize, disciple, and multiply. Just remember that beyond the “correct definition” is the purpose: develop leaders who reap the harvest!!  

I have discovered one flaw to the theme that leadership multiplication is the key essence of the cell church. Andrew Harper , an Australian pastor, cautioned me on this point, and I immediately knew he was right. Here’s the caution: We must make sure our future leaders are developed to evangelistically penetrate their communities and oikos. In other words, it’s possible for cell leaders to fill their cells with people from the Sunday celebration and then to multiply their cells with those same people and never have to reach the lost world around them.  

To avoid this, we must encourage our leaders to get their core people from the Sunday celebration (perhaps 7 people) but to then mobilize that core to continually exercise their “outreach muscles.”  

Cell church is all about how to do raise up leaders for the harvest. If you measure your success by this standard, you’ll develop disciples into harvest workers who will reach a lost and dying world for Jesus Christ.  

For a more detailed understanding of this subject, please see my book Leadership Explosion (Touch Publications, 2000).



[i] Gwynn Lewis, “Time Bombs that Kill a Cell,” Cell Church magazine, Summer, 1995, p. 10.

[ii] Cell Leader Intern Guidebook (Houston, TX: Touch Publications, Inc., 1995), p. 101.

[iii] Jim Egli ,  “The Ten Commandments of Transitions,”  Cell Church magazine, Summer, 1996, p.14.