Over the last 10 years, more people have become Christians than in all
of church history. 140,000 people a DAY are coming to the Lord! This is 46
times the number that believed on the day of Pentecost. In China, a country
officially closed to the Gospel, over 20,000 a DAY are turning to the Lord.
Even though the world population is growing so quickly, the
number of evangelicals is increasing more rapidly that any other movement or
religion. It has doubled in just 10 ½ years.
But what about the church in North America? Is it keeping up with the exciting pace of church growth that the rest of the world is experiencing? Actually, the church in North America has stagnated. More than 80% of the churches in America have plateaued or are in decline in Sunday morning attendance. [iii] Church attendance in America is at an all-time low. [iv] One-third of the churches in America never grow beyond 50 members; two-thirds never grow beyond 150 members, and only 5% grow beyond 350 members. [v]
For years, North America has been the world leader in exporting Christianity around the world. Now we only hear about the amazing growth in other parts. Is there a remedy for the ills that confront the North American church today?
I believe that God wants us to reap the harvest once again here in North America. Many churches today have felt the need to return to small groups as modeled for us in the New Testament. They’ve chosen to concentrate on meeting the needs of their people through cell and celebration. Many of these small group churches are experiencing phenomenal growth. Churches are seeing the potential and power of cell-based ministry. Christian A. Schwanz’s, in his recent book, Natural Church Development, examined church growth factors in over 1000 churches in thirty-two countries. He concludes by saying, “If we were to identify any one principle as the “most important, ” then without a doubt it would be the multiplication of small groups.” [vi]
theme of this book is how to prepare your church for the harvest. Cell
churches are growing churches. This book will show you how to organize your
church for growth around cell group ministry. This book is an attempt to help
you to rethink your church structure and get ready for the harvest. It will
help you prepare to reach a greater harvest.
But what about the failures. Many churches have tried and failed in their cell system. Many claim that small groups caused church splits, pastors being run out, and proliferation of incorrect teaching. “I’m here to let you know that we don’t believe in cell ministry. Small groups cause too many divisions.” With this statement a prominent board member successfully stamped out our pastoral initiative to become a cell-based church. This board member probably remembered the failure of starting small group ministry several years earlier: Leaders were found; five groups were started; they were then left to die a slow, painful death.
Bad experiences like this have caused many to oppose cell group ministry. Maybe you’ve experienced failure in small group ministry. But just remember that most failures have nothing to do with the cell group. The problem resides with the system behind the cell group. This book is not about starting more small groups in your church. You’ve probably done that. And most likely you’ve seen them fade away over the year.
The goal of this book to help your church prepare for growth by developing a solid cell system. Why? So you can properly care and feed your cells over the long haul. Strong cell systems make effective cells. Churches that quickly launch cells often see them wither over time. The difference lies in the system you develop—not the cell itself. This is why some cell churches succeed while others wither away.
churches care for their cells and know how to gather the harvest into large
celebration gatherings. If you
look, in fact, at the largest churches in the world, you’ll see that they’re
structured to contain endless church growth. These churches have learned to
place both cell and celebration at the center of their agenda.
“But I know that celebration, congregation, and cell are important,” you might say. “I’ve read about it for years.” And yes, church growth theorists have written about the 3Cs for a long time. Yet, while acknowledging the importance of the three, in practice, churches have often started cells without establishing a strong cell system. They’ve added cell groups without building the infrastructure so common to all successful cell churches.
For many the attitude has been: “If there are people with extra time, they can be cell group leaders. If certain ones aren’t too busy, they can attend the cell groups.” Or perhaps the senior pastor became excited after reading a book about cell group ministry. The cell group ministry was initiated without counting the cost—before developing the cell system.
some churches take another route. Before Bethany World Prayer Center started a
cell system they sent their pastors to the largest cell churches in the world.
They took careful notes on the various cell systems. With this information,
along with a deep knowledge of their own context, Bethany dug deeply and
erected a cell infrastructure that models cell church effectiveness to the
rest of the world.
you’re not able to visit the successful cell churches around the world. This
book was written with you in mind. I’ve studied them for you and believe
that the principles from these models can help you prepare your church for the
harvest. These churches are located in eight different countries and four
distinct cultures. They are:
I spent an average of eight days in each church. More than 700 cell leaders completed my questionnaire designed to discover the reasons why some leaders were able to multiply their groups.
I also expanded the base of my study to include various churches using the Meta Model in the U.S. such as Willow Creek Community Church (South Barrington, Illinois), Saddleback Community Church (Saddleback, California), Cincinnati Vineyard (Cincinnati, Ohio), New Hope Community Church (Portland, Oregon), and Fairhaven Alliance Church (Dayton, Ohio).
This book, then, investigates how churches that use small groups as a base grow so rapidly and what we can learn from their systems. This book is for both pastors and lay leaders--all those interested in fine-tuning their church for growth.
phrase “Church Growth” brings a negative reaction to many. Some say that
Church Growth proponents have accepted worldliness in the church in order to
“attract” visitors. “Come
to my church and hear all about what I’m doing,” is often the theme of the
latest church growth seminar.
Have you been to one of these seminars? I have. As a new pastor I made my rounds to many of them, hoping that something would click. I listened, got excited, tried to apply the latest technique, and eventually let it die because of a new church growth method that caught my interest.
At that time, I had not articulated my philosophy of ministry. I did
not view God desiring to win men and women. In fact, it almost seemed like God
wasn’t interested in winning souls. It was I who wanted to save souls to be
successful. I had to twist God's arm to produce numerical growth so that I
could be considered "successful."
North American success and the latest church growth seminar are a
struggle for many sincere, godly pastors. Richard
Halverson, the former chaplain of the U.S. Senate said: "When faith began
in Palestine, it began with a relationship with a person, it moved to Greece
and became a philosophy, it moved to Rome and became an institution, it moved
to Europe and became a culture, it moved to the U.S. and became an
He goes on to say, "The church is big business in the U.S.
The entrepreneur is the pastor of the big church." "Yet, 95% of the
pastors are implicitly if not explicitly
being told, brother, if you're doing a good job, you'll be at the
let’s not confuse the latest fad with the original principles of church
growth that Donald McGavran delineated in his book Understanding Church
Growth. Before I read that book, I was a fierce critic of church growth.
After nearly five years of pastoring my own church, I decided that I wanted
nothing to do with this movement. I
resisted, in fact, taking a required Fuller course called “Church Growth”
taught by Peter Wagner. I remember entering into a heated argument with a
Fuller colleague about the merits of church growth only a few days before the
Wagner openly discussed common criticisms of church growth and even required
that each student read an entire book AGAINST church growth. But he also
required that we read McGavran’s book Understanding Church Growth.
After reading McGavran’s book, for the first time I understood that church
growth was not a method to “make me successful” as a pastor. Rather, the
focus was to evangelize the lost and not let them get away. The passion of
Donald McGavran for evangelism permeated every page of that book.
I weighed the pros and cons of both books, I knew that I was faced with a
decision. Would I accept the simple point of Donald McGavran about winning the
lost and discipling them through Christ’s church or would I continue to
reject this new philosophy. I made the decision to follow the church growth
philosophy—knowing full well the wide array of criticisms against it.
later discovered that it was the late Donald McGavran that encouraged Ralph
Neighbour Jr. to research the cell church movement. It was Donald McGavran
that encouraged Neighbour to visit David Yonggi Cho’s church and discover
how cell ministry had revolutionized that church.
desires that His church grows—both in quality and quantity.
This one sentence sums up the driving force of the church growth
movement. It’s not God’s will that anyone should perish. The apostle Peter
says: “But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day
is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not
slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with
you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2
Peter 3:8-9). Paul wrote to his
disciple Timothy: “This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all
men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one God
and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:3-5).
God desires to save ALL men and to bring them to the knowledge of the truth.
a missionary to India, Donald McGavran noticed that some churches grew rapidly
while in the same city other churches were hopelessly stagnated. Instead of
studying the reason for this discrepancy, many Christian leaders simply
attributed the difference to the Will of God. God willed that some churches
grow while others languish. God’s people were simply called to faithfulness
and that it was not Biblically sound to question the mysteries of God.
But McGavran wasn’t satisfied with such answers. He concluded from the Bible that God desired His church everywhere to grow both quality and quantity. McGavran wrote, “Among other characteristics of mission, therefore, the chief and irreplaceable one must be this: that mission is a divine finding, vast and continuous. The chief and irreplaceable purpose of mission is church growth.” [xi]
all too common for pastors and leaders to relegate the growth of their
churches to “will of God.” If God desired numerical and qualitative
growth, He would grant it. If there was no growth, it must be God’s will.
After all, leaders were called to faithfulness—not success.
I differ with those who diminish the importance of church growth in the cell church movement—as if just having the methodology was sufficient. Although we can look backward and testify of New Testament patterns and principles of cell ministry, if we’re honest, we’ll admit that the early church doesn’t give us the one and only NT model of the church. The House Church movement, in fact, points to the same NT evidence to justify their model.
I find lots of NT evidence for the cell model, but let’s face it, the excitement for cell ministry today comes from the fact that it works. Churches are growing. I don’t agree with those who tell you to “just hang in there” for long, long periods of time “even though you won’t see growth for years.” Friend, if you’re cell church experiment doesn’t’ provide dynamic church growth, you have ever right to ask why! Right now. Don’t excuse your lack of growth on the New Testament Church—You won’t find any consolation there. The growth of the N.T. church puts us to shame!
Why do people flock to International Charismatic Mission in Bogota, Colombia? Is it simply because it’s a cell church? Why do thousands of pastors attend the cell conferences at Bethany World Prayer Center? Is it simply because Bethany decided to do cell ministry. No. It’s because it works. Cell church ministry has captured and held the imaginations of pastors because it works.
If your church is not growing, whether it has cells or not, you have to ask some hard questions. The church is made for growth and if growth is not taking place then some of the keys to unlocking growth will be found in this book.
might insist, “I practice the cell church because it’s THE Biblical model.”
I congratulate you. I also think that the cell model is Biblically based. But
I insist that you shouldn’t practice cell ministry ONLY because of the
Biblical precedence. There are practical concerns that must fill your soul. Do
you have a wide-open back door in you church? Nothing will close it like cell
ministry. Has your evangelism program lost steam? Cell ministry will give you
new life. What about your pastoral care? Are you trying to do it on your own?
The cell church offers a pastoral care structure second to none.
What kind of growth does God will? The “quality versus quantity” debate has raged through the church for years. “I’m more concerned with quality than quantity,” they say. “I don’t play the numbers game,” others assert. These arguments have their merit. God is interested in the minute details of our lives—the very hairs on our head. To overlook the person-hood of individuals to fill out statistical charts is wrong.
But we must also be concerned for the multitude. The ministry of Christ on this earth was a flurry of visits to villages, towns, and cities. We read in Matthew 9: 35-37 that
He was constantly telling his disciples that he must labor in other villages and in other places. After giving of Himself unreservedly, He found compassion for the multitudes who were as sheep without a shepherd. The answer is clear. Our churches need both quality and quantity. The books of Acts teaches us the need for both.
Churches are realizing more and more that they don’t have to sacrifice quality for quantity. Cell churches are growing churches. It’s part of their genetic make-up. Yet, cell churches are also New Testament Churches. They breathe New Testament life and ministry. A built-in closeness is present in cell church ministry. Cells are small groups—rarely over 12 people. In such an atmosphere, everyone feels important. Personal care and ministry happens in this setting.
I was brought-up in a church well-known for its excellent youth and children’s ministry. The church has grown numerically as a result. Many adults are willing to attend the church because of the excellent programs for their children. Yet, because of the lack of adult ministry opportunities, the majority of adults only attend the Sunday a.m. service. The youth pastor once commented to me that the numerical growth of the church on Sunday morning was superficial. He felt that the adults could not experience the true meaning of church without having more contact during the week.
I’ve wrestled with these questions: If a person only attends the Sunday morning worship service, has that person truly experienced the church of Jesus Christ? Is it possible to sit passively, shake a few hands, sing a few songs, and participate in the true church of Jesus Christ? Isn’t the true church of Jesus a living organism? Doesn’t it demand interaction and participation? If a person does not experience fellowship and community in the church of Jesus Christ, has he experienced the heartbeat of Christianity?
Yes, it would probably be correct to say that those who attend an evangelical church on Sunday morning are normally treated to a Biblically, relevant message. This is good and right and hopefully each person leaves the building with new, applicable insight. Yet, if a church member receives theological correctness without the very life of God pulsating from within, there is a serious imbalance.
Most pastors determine those who are “in their church” by Sunday morning worship attendance. There are exceptions, but for the most part, this is the standard measurement for determining whether or not a church is growing numerically. I personally believe that God wants His church to grow, and therefore I, too, desire to see as many new faces as possible on Sunday morning (primarily the unchurched). Most pastors, like myself, will diligently labor to fill their Sunday worship services as a sign that their church is growing and that they are doing God’s will.
Yet, if a church is content with the Sunday morning worship attendance as the key sign of success, I wonder if that church is truly fulfilling the call of Jesus Christ. Could a church that is a model of “church growth success” be rebuked by the Lord, “I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead”? (Rev. 3:1). Could it be that many do not know how to provide a true sense of community to their members? Perhaps, there is a lack of knowledge concerning how to lead the congregation to a deeper sense of Christian fellowship. Hadaway touches this raw nerve by saying,
. . . churches have grown larger
and larger in the wake of rapid Christian advancement in recent times,
churches like society itself, have become more and more impersonal. They have
come to reflect, understandably, the bureaucratic model, which increasingly
has influenced all organizational forms in society, religious as well as
secular. It is not enough to hear it from the pulpit, read it in the Bible, or
see it in individuals. It has to be experienced in community.
are not just a church growth technique; they are the key vehicle for the
church of Jesus Christ to experience the true church in a living,
dynamic way. The cell model depended on the success of both cell and
celebration. One without the other just doesn’t suffice. Remember, we’re
talking about the Cell church. We’re not talking about the CELL Church nor
the Cell CHURCH. We’re promoting the CELL CHURCH. Celebration and Cell make
the motor work.
The church is the means by which God disciples a lost world. Unless the new convert becomes a responsible member of a local church, evangelism is not complete. It’s not enough to simply “sow the seed.” What pleases God most is when there is a harvest. How does one know if and when there’s a harvest? When the “seed sowing” and the “decisions” result in increased church membership. Church growth proponents teach that the proclamation of the gospel is not sufficient. We must not be content until we see those people who received Christ gathered in His Church. Church growth, plain and simple, is winning the lost and gathering them into the local church for the purpose of discipleship. Peter Wagner writes,
The cell church movement takes this one step farther. The cell church
believes that responsible church membership requires participation both in
Sunday celebration and weekly cell. While
some of the cell churches that I studied number into the hundreds of thousands
of members, the membership does not feel lost. The reason? These gigantic
churches are made up of thousands of small groups of 5-15 people who
meet weekly for worship, ministry, outreach and fellowship.
When McGavran made his famous statement, “Men like to become Christians without crossing racial, linguistic, or class barriers,” a flood of criticism issued. [xiv] McGavran taught that evangelism is more effective among people of the same race, language, and class. This is called the “homogeneous unit” principle of church growth thought. Thomas Rainer writes, “When Donald McGavran began to advocate that principle as a tenet of church growth, an avalanche of criticism and debate ensued. Cries of ‘racism,’ ‘narrow-mindedness,’ ‘exclusiveness,’ and ‘psychological manipulation’ were voiced as a reaction to the much-debated principle.” [xv]
What is a homogenous unit? A broad, standard definition is that it’s a sufficiently large sociological grouping of individuals who perceive themselves to have a common affinity for one another.
One only has to look out on the cultural landscape to see the vast grouping of like cultures in our world today. It is a fact of life that similar cultures group together. Why has there been so much conflict in this area? Partly because many believe that church growth advocates are promoting a subtle type of racism or that they’re “watering down” the gospel. However, the very heart of this principle is summed by Rainer,
rapid evangelization takes place best when people of a culture share their
faith in Jesus Christ with others within their own culture. Second, Christians
must not insist that a person abandon his or herculture in order to become a
Christian. Such is the essence of the homogeneous unit principle.
Therefore, the homogeneous unit principle can be a helpful evangelistic tool, but never the goal of the Christian life.
Cell groups evangelize best when they are allowed to function as homogenous units. Individual cell groups forge natural ties that might be built upon friendship, gender, class, occupation, neighborhood, or age grouping.
My wife Celyce, for example, has a special burden for young mothers. As a mother of three small girls, she understands the joys and struggles of motherhood. God stirred her to start a home cell group for this homogenous group.
Getting the women to share is not a problem in my wife’s group. If anything, the difficulty is making sure everyone has a chance to share. These young mothers feel comfortable sharing with those who have faced similar concerns and struggles.
Within eight months, her one cell group multiplied to five groups. Celyce knew from the beginning that she needed to start new groups, if she was going to maintain the small, intimate atmosphere while at the same time reaching more mothers for Christ. One of the main reasons for the success of the group is the intense interest among the young mothers to invite their friends and family members who are in the same stage of life. Like attracts like.
Bethany World Prayer Center reaches entire communities for Jesus Christ through its homogeneous cell groups. They’ve discovered that people are more willing to invite their non-Christian friends to a homogeneous group, and those same friends are more resolved to attend such a group. Bethany added 300 homogeneous cell groups in just 1 ½ years. Cell groups of this type naturally grow faster, and are soon ready to give birth to daughter groups.
Yet, cell churches are by no means exclusive churches. They welcome all of God’s rich creation. Those same homogeneous cells that meet during the week come together for a weekly Sunday celebration. In these festive moments, those from every tribe, language, and people celebrate together. Celebration in a cell church echo the apostle words, “And they sang a new song: You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth” (Rev.5:9,10).
the Middle Ages it was strictly forbidden to study the human body. “After
all,” the church reasoned, “Our bodies are the temple of God and should be
held in great mystery.” Due to the lack of scientific investigation on the
human body, diseases and other infirmities abounded. But everything changed
during the Enlightenment period. Doctors put away their religious inhibitions
and began to study scientifically the make-up of the human body. We all know
the result: incredible advances in modern medicine and new treatments.
people react to investigating the church of Christ.
“The church is a great mysterious,” they say,
“and must be left that way.” In
contrast, McGavran proposed that God wanted His children to investigate the
reasons for growth as well as for non-growth. After determining those reasons
(based on scientifically founded research) and looking carefully at each
individual context, principles could then be transferred to help God’s
worldwide. Truly, much of church growth will always remain a mystery, but we
can benefit from those principles common to all growing churches.
I’ve studied the fastest growing cell churches in the world to unlock the secrets of their growth. These cell churches demonstrate that it’s possible to grow rapidly in number and maintain intimacy among the members—both quality and quantity are essential. God desires both.
culture doesn’t hold the key to successful cell ministry. The principles I’ll
share with you work in a wide variety of cultures. Christian Schwarz, after
studying 1,000 churches in 32 countries concludes: “Our research in growing
and declining churches all over the world has shown that continuous
multiplication of small groups is a universal church growth principle.”
[i] Tent Of Meeting In Print (May - August 1997) This article was published in Joy Magazine (July 1997 page 4) - Joy is the official magazine of Assemblies of God in Great Britain and Ireland and is submitted with permission for Internet publication obtained from Peter Wreford, the editor email@example.com) July 31, 1997.Editorial Office: New Life Publishing Co., P O Box 64, Rotherham, SouthYorkshire S60 2YT
[ii] Ralph Winter quoted in Rick Wood, "Christianity Waning or Growing," Mission Frontiers Bulletin (Jan.-Feb., 1993), p. 25.
[iii] Alan McMahan, “Church Resource Ministry’s Refocusing Networks as a Systemic Church Growth Intervention,” Ph.D. tutorial (Pasadena, CA, 1996), p. 4.
[iv] L.A.Times March 2, 1996: B 4-5 as quoted in Alan McMahan, “Church Resource Ministry’s Refocusing Networks as a Systemic Church Growth Intervention,” Ph.D. tutorial (Pasadena, CA, 1996), pp. 37-38.
[v] Ralph W. Neighbour, Jr. Introductory Cell Church Seminary Miami: FL, 1996 (Houston, TX: Touch Outreach Ministries), pp. 2-3 of section entitled “Why the Holy Spirit has Launched the Cell Church Movement.”
[vi] Christian A. Schwarz, Natural Church Growth (Carol Stream, IL: ChurchSmart Resources, 1996) p. 32.
[vii] The figure 35,000+ worshippers and 20,000 cells groups only apply to the mother church. There are an additional 10,000 worshippers and 7,000 cell groups in the twelve satellite churches around Bogota, thus totaling 45,000 worshippers and 27,000 cell groups.
[viii] The figure “155,000” is an accurate attendance figure for those who attend the mother church on Sunday. There are, however, an additional 100,000 people attending the fourteen YFGC satellite churches in different parts of Seoul, Korea. These satellite churches are considered extensions of the mother church and could be included in the mother church attendance, thus totaling 255,000 people in the Sunday morning worship services at YFGC. The 155,000 figure is included in the chart because the 25,000 cell groups only operate in the mother church. It’s unknown how many cells function in the fourteen extension churches (official statistics at YFGC only mention the 25,000 cell groups of the mother church).
[x] Richard Halverson, tape of his message when he spoke at World Relief in 1987.
[xi] Donald McGavran, Understanding Church Growth, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: William Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1990), p. 22.
[xii] C. Kirk Hadaway, Francis M. DuBose, and Stuart A. Wright, Home Cell Groups and House Churches (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1987), p. 211.
[xiii] Peter Wagner, Leading Your Church to Growth (Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 1984), pp. 20-21.
[xiv] Donald McGavran, Understanding Church Growth, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: William Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1990), p. 254.
[xv] Thomas Rainer, The Book of Church Growth (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1993), p. 254.
[xvi] Thomas Rainer, The Book of Church Growth (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1993), p. 260-61.
[xvii] Christian Schwarz, Natural Church Development (Carol Steam, IL: ChurchSmart Resources), p. 32.