Ministry Utilities for Chi Alpha Leaders
Issue 3 August 2000
Interview with Joel Comiskey
Three things you need to know about Joel Comiskey:
1. His book Home Cell Group Explosion is one of the most practical and articulate books on cell groups available.
2. With a position as a pastor in a cell church in Quito, Ecuador and Ph.D. from Fuller, he has the goods to speak with credibility on cell groups.
3. He is a really great guy. Pictured here with his most important cell group (daughters Sarah, Nicole and Chelsea) Joel keeps busy growing cell groups in Latin America and sharing what he has learned in seminars around the world.
Upgrade: How did you get into cell groups? Why are you so passionate about them?
Comiskey: God truly led me into small group ministry. The first time I sensed Godís calling in my life was when He told me to lead a small group. My first ministry was leading a cell group among family members and friends in my parentís home for 2 years when I was 20. I was about 3 years old in the Lord. Iím so passionate about them because small groups allow a church to reach the lost and care for them and disciple them. Also, I think it helps a church or ministry to get back to the New Testament. And they emphasize the priesthood of all believers. I was able to use so many gifts and leadership qualitiesópastoring, teaching, counseling, administration, visitation, etc. Itís an excellent place to prepare and train leaders.
Upgrade: What are the essential differences between a traditional ministry and a true cell ministry?
Comiskey: A traditional ministry calls for people to come to the building to receive help. The building and programs associated with the building are the main focus. Basically, itís a "come here" strategy. Cell ministry, on the other hand, goes where the people live, work, and associate. Itís a ministry that has a penetration strategy, which then brings the fruit of the harvest to the church for celebration. Another major emphasis is how the church views members. In the traditional church, the goal is for members to come to church and listen to the gifted preacher. In cell ministry, the goal is to convert those sitting in the pew on Sunday into cell leaders who minister.
Upgrade: What do you say to those who charge that cell groups don't provide in-depth discipleship?
Comiskey: I would tend to agree with them. A small or cell group doesnít provide all the aspects of discipleship. It emphasizes outreach. I think the small group leader needs to individually visit, call, and spend additional time one-on-one getting to know the members of the groupsóthatís where discipleship occurs. In cell churches, discipleship comes from the equipping track and the care structure for those who are leading cell groups. I would say that cell groups are leader breeders. You need to get them in, but also to move them out. Make sure the cell groups have a focus on cell multiplication. A danger can be on the focus too much on themselves. Healthy groups can stagnate. Make sure the groups are multiplying. New leaders do need to be trained. Most churches have equipping tracks in place. The mother cell leader would need to supervise a new leader. People will not lead small groups until they are presently participating in their small groups.
Upgrade: Some say that cell groups promote believers who are too young to be in a position of spiritual authority? How do you answer this?
Comiskey: There is a big difference between leading a cell group and being a full-time pastor or elder in a church. When Paul and other Bible authors talk about the office of the bishop, they were talking about top-level leaders who would certainly require additional leadership qualities. We shouldnít place those same qualities on a facilitator of a small group who is seeking to win his or her friends to Christ. A person grows in maturity and spiritual authority while he or she is exercising God-given gifts. This is part of the maturing process. We must also be careful not to tell zealous believers that they must wait for years of training before they can minister. So often in the process of waiting, they lose contact with their non-Christian friends.
Upgrade: What makes for a good cell group leader?
Comiskey: An effective cell leader is one who depends on God on a daily basis. They maintain an active devotional life with Jesus Christ and minister with Godís authority. Those in the group recognize that the leader spends time with God and hears His voice. Intimacy with God is the key to effective leadership. Another important quality of an effective leader is willingness to work hard. Effective leaders are diligent. They make visits and phone calls to members of the group whether or not they feel like it.
Upgrade: What can leaders do to train people to be fruitful?
Comiskey: Leaders must model the life they want others to live. They must allow cell members to participate in the cell. Allow a potential member to lead the worship time, the icebreaker time, and even the lesson time. Afterwards, meet with the person, offer positive comments and feedback. Continue the process until the person is leading his or her own cell group. Give the potential leader some type of training. The training track will vary from church to church, but a new leader should know basic Christian doctrine, how to have a devotional time, how to evangelize, and then how to lead a cell group.
Upgrade: It is hard to change a traditional ministry into a true cell ministry? Why?
Comiskey: No one likes to change. We become locked into our programs. Some pastors are hesitant about releasing their lay people to do the work of the ministry. Theyíre afraid. Itís less demanding to simply ask people to come to church on Sunday morning and possibly be involved in a few other programs when time permits. True cell ministry asks each church member to be involved in cell ministry with the goal of actually leading a cell group. This requires a greater time commitment and a greater commitment to people and New Testament community. Many will resist this and even leave the church.
Upgrade: What are some of the mistakes beginners make?
Comiskey: Lack of proper care for cell leaders; asking the cell leader to do too much (prepare own lessons, etc.); and not laying a firm foundation. If cell ministry is just one ministry among many, it will probably die out.
Upgrade: What is the first step you recommend a person take who is looking into starting a cell ministry?
(1) Establish a prayer base;
(2) Make sure the senior pastor is 100% committed;
(3) Study growing cell churches;
(4) Make an analysis of your own church in order to see the needs; people wonít change unless they sense a need for change;
(5) Envision what you want to become;
(6) Patiently win the influential people in your church or organization who youíll need to make it happen;
(7) Start with a model cell group. The senior pastor or senior leader leads this model cell group. Some people call it a turbo group. The goal is that each member of this model cell group will eventually lead their own cell group.
Upgrade: Some may say the cell group strategy works better overseas than in America. Have you found that to be true, and if so, what are the challenges and keys to unlocking cell group ministries in the U.S.?
Comiskey: The small group explosion is alive and well in the U.S. Note the following in an introduction to my next book on the small group explosion in the U.S.: Seventy-five million adult Americans (not including all teenagers and children in groups) are meeting regularly for some kind of small group interaction and support. There are some 300,000 churches in the U.S. but more than three million in small groups. Seven percent of those surveyed who are not currently in a small group plan on joining one within the next year. With the interest in small groups mounting continually, especially in the face of an ever-increasing impersonal Internet society, people are hungry to understand the dynamics of small groups--and even how to lead one. I would also say that the small group emphasis is probably the most effective on university campuses. In general, while the small group movement is EXPLODING overseas, thatís not to say that small group ministry and even cell church ministry is not alive and well in the U.S. (Bethany World Prayer Center hosts 1500 pastors and key leaders each year for their cell church conferences).
Upgrade: What was your experience with university students in Ecuador at El Batan Church like?
Comiskey: When my wife and I first started leading university students in Ecuador, we started gathering them in a large group. We found that although they had a good time, we werenít preparing new leaders. They were slipping through the cracks. We found small groups gave them the opportunity to exercise their gifts. The university students were like a pilot project in our church. Thatís whatís happening in Bogota. The cell strategy is modeled in the university students first. In our church now, The Republic Church, Iím not the minister of youth. We have another pastor whoís over the network of small groups. He has 40 groups under his care, and 30 of those groups meet on university campuses. Weíre seeing exciting fruit from the university groups. Itís giving us a new vision. Weíve seen a number of students saved.
In Bogota, they lead small groups anywhere and everywhere. Iíve seen small groups meet outside a stadium on a Saturday, in parks, and just about anywhere. There are 8000 cell groups just among the youth. Weíre talking maybe 17 to 25 maximum, maybe 23. Every Saturday night, 18,000 come to the stadium for worship. Itís a real harvest there. When people get saved, theyíre immediately funneled into a small group. Itís kind of the in thing now, because of the harvest among young people, for parents to send troubled youth into these cell groups. The in music in their culture is now Christian music.
Upgrade: What do you think would be the keys to transforming small groups into effective cell groups on universities in America?
Comiskey: Itís important to understand the nature of a cell. Itís constantly multiplying in the human body. It needs to be outward focused. It needs to have a genetic code within it which tells it to multiply. It needs to have the focus on multiplication. It doesnít just involve evangelism; it involves preparing new leaders, and discipleship. It involves a variety of disciplines. The overriding theme needs to be multiplication for small group leaders.
Upgrade: What would you say to 300 university missionaries about implementing cell groups on universities, many with 20,000-50,000 students enrolled?
Comiskey: I think you have an incredible opportunity. Itís exciting what God is doing in your midst. Remember the words of Christ, "The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few." Raise up new leaders and release them. You need to be willing to risk for Jesus. Determine what discipleship means to you, and lead your cell groups with boldness and confidence. Make sure that youíre always preparing new leaders. Focus on multiplication. In other words, donít focus on the group as an end in itself. Think of the group as leader breeders. You must mentor and train others to lead new groups!
down this former pastor turned missionary turned Ph.D. student who traveled
around the world and wrote a book that everybodyís reading is no easy feat!
He surfaced in Ecuador, where he and his wife and 3 daughters serve as
missionaries at The Republic Church, a place where cell groups are making
inroads into the community and universities in Quito. Besides being a really
nice guy and knowing a whole lot about cell groups, Joel Comiskey offers great
resources through his website: