Worldwide Cell Churches
From Inward Groups to reaching the un-churched
by Joel Comiskey
I’m assuming that those reading this article are committed and desirous of seeing small group evangelism take place in your church. I don’t have to argue this point. I’m sure you believe it. Allow me to give you six keys that will help you make small group evangelism work in your church.
KEY #1: PRIORITIZE CELL EVANGELISM: DON’T EXPECT IT WILL JUST HAPPEN
Matthew 28:18-20: Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
This is a subtle trap. I fell into it. Some of you know that my family and I ministered in Latin America for 11 years. We saw many people come to Christ in the cells and in the celebration. We were living in the midst of harvest, and it was a blessed time. Because God was moving, I began to concentrate on other things, like the training track, the G12 care structure, and various details of the cell church.
Three years ago we moved to Southern CA to become missionaries to North America . About that time I did a small group seminar in Sydney , Australia at a church called Liverpool Christian Centre. I share those things that were on my heart, those things that I was passionate about. I spoke about leadership development, the training track, G12, etc.
After giving a seminar, I like to receive positive comments—not negative ones. But I remember going out with Andrew Harper, the key cell strategist there at Liverpool Christian Centre. He said to me, “I liked your seminar, Joel, but I want you to know that a lot of people told me that they came to this seminar to learn how to evangelize. They find it difficult to do small group evangelism in this individualistic western society. I noticed that you didn’t talk about small group evangelism.” I began to justify myself, trying to wiggle out of the conversation. God, however, got a hold of my heart that evening. I realized that I needed to emphasize small group evangelism in a new way--especially in the western world. Andrew Harper went on say, "Joel, the reason why I left the staff of a huge church in Sydney is because the evangelism was done by the big event, by the super star pastor or worship leader. I was attracted to the cell church concept because everyone is encouraged to be an evangelistic worker. Everyone must get involved.”
And as I reflected back on the small group churches I’ve studied, I realized that each of the growing small group based churches made a big push to make their small groups evangelistically oriented. Then as I reflected back to the North American cell churches that were growing, I noticed the same thing. Take East Hills Alliance Church. Steve Fowler took that church over three years ago when the church had 70 people. He changed the motto to: MAKING IT HARD FOR THE PEOPLE OF KELSO TO GO TO HELL. He decided to use the cell strategy because he felt it was the most Biblical and healthy. He guided the board and elders in the process of making that decision. He then positioned his small groups to evangelize. If you go to that church, you’ll notice in the foyer a bulletin board with each small group in a boat. Over the bullet board is a fishing pole and net. The label over each life group in a boat is: LIFE GROUPS HAVE GONE FISHIN (Sort of a hokey phrase, but it gets the point across. Pictures is below). The life groups are fishing for souls. From the one prototype life group, the life groups have multiplied to 15. the church has tripled in both cell and celebration. God is doing wonderful things.
Rob Reimer is another great example of cell evangelism. Rob Reimer planted his church in New England in 1994 and the church has grown rapidly. Rob Reimer says this, “Something is unhealthy about cells that don't reach people. In my experience, every church that tries to transition to the cell church strategy and fails, misses this key point of evangelism. Some churches compromise this principle and multiply cells through transfer growth. It is an unforgivable cell church sin.” Rob Reimer won’t even allow one of his cells to multiply unless they have reached two new people for Christ. The cells are instructed to get to know non-Christians. I think that’s a bit legalistic, but the point is well taken.
I could go on and give you illustration after illustration about cell churches in the U.S.
And most of you have already heard of the huge cell churches in the majority world. Just know that everyone of those churches position their cells to evangelize. The cells at the International Charismatic Mission are poised to evangelize. And with 20,000 of them, they’re doing a great job. Elim in El Salvador has 9,000 cells with 120,000 people attending. Elim actually has a core group meeting each week to prepare for the evangelistic cell group on Saturday night. We’ve all heard of how Cho sends his cell leaders to prayer mountain if they haven’t won two souls to Christ each year.
The bottom line is that these cells groups are positioned to evangelize. The question that we have to ask ourselves is, "what are we doing to prepare our cells to evangelize?"
One common objection to small group evangelism is that if the small group is evangelizing, it won’t grow in community. I believe the opposite is true. I believe that when a small group has a common objective—like evangelism, there is a new purpose, a new reason to belong to the group. A new unity and camaraderie develops as the group has a common enemy, much like soldiers fighting a common enemy. The friendship and love develops for a lifetime because there is a common objective. The group works together and grows in intimacy.
#2: CELEBRATE THE LITTLE VICTORIES: DON’T COMPARE YOURSELF WITH WORLDWIDE CELL CHURCHES
2 Corinthians 10:12: We do not dare to classify or compare ourselves with some who commend themselves. When they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves, they are not wise.
I’ve discovered that many pastors beat themselves over the head as they compare their churches to the fast-growing majority world cell churches. The fact is, “we ain’t in Bogota or Korea or Africa." God is doing an amazing work in those areas, but here in North America we’re living in post-modernity and post Christianity. It’s not the same.
I received an email from one pastor of a cell church in England. He wrote, “One of the things that strikes me is that evangelism in Latin America and several other nations seems to be much easier through cells than here in England and in Europe . Inviting someone to a cell in some nations/places sounds so easy. From your experience, do you have any tips on how we can be more effective in evangelizing through cells?” I shared with him a few tips, but my response was simply one of encouragement: “I think you're hitting on an important point. Evangelism is more difficult in the western world and cell evangelism isn't easy. I've noticed, however, that evangelism is key in all of these growing cell churches.”
I’ve discovered that I need to offer lots of encouragement to those pastors that I coach. They need to be lifted up and to know that even the little victories are absolutely huge. Just huge.
I’ve been coaching one pastor who is transitioning to cell church in Southern CA . This pastor is excited about cell evangelism, but he’s also transitioning a 100 year old church. They haven’t seen a lot of evangelistic fruit in their cell ministry.
I feel like I need to give this pastor perspective. I’ve shared with him some of the latest research. Barna and Leonard Sweet have said:
- 75% of churches today are dying or declining
- 24% are growing by playing musical saints
- 1% of churches today are growing by reaching lost people!
Tom Clegg in his book, Lost in America , says that half of all U.S. churches fail to add one new person through conversion growth in a year’s time. He goes on to say that three times as many churches in America are closing (3,750 per year) as are opening (1,350 per year).
I share these things with pastor Rick because I wanted him to remember his context and for him to celebrate the little victories. Rick and his church were befriending non-Christians and inviting non-Christians, but he was discouraged because few were converted in the cells. Several months later, this same pastor received an email from one of the cell leaders “We had the blessed opportunity to lead a new visitor, Jessica, to salvation and to a new life in Jesus Christ!!! Praise the Lord! The Lord moved in an amazing way in that she asked us straight out if we could help her become a Christian. Wow! Yeah, we could do that. Praise God. We had the opportunity to share much of what we know of Jesus and why it is that we believe in him as our Savior. It was a wonderful blessing and I pray that God would bring this about more and more within our church body. Thank you for your prayers. Feel free to pass this praise along to others, as I do not know everyone's email.” Pastor Rick immediately sent out the email.
Are you rejoicing in the little evangelistic victories in your church. If you're a pastor, do you know what's happening evangelistically in the cells? Do you get a weekly list of how many visitors attended the cells, how many salvations?
#3: PROMOTE SUPERNATURAL CELL GROUP EVANGELISM: DON’T DEPEND TOO HEAVILY ON TECHNIQUES
Ephesians 6: 11-12: “ Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”
I believe in the various techniques of small group evangelism. And yes, there are a lot of them: picnics, barbeques, videos in the cell, the empty chair, etc. I’ve written about many of these techniques in my books. Many of them are very good.
But way beyond the techniques is God's supernatural ministry in the cell. We would see Jesus in the cell. Jesus must be lifted up in the cell. This is the key. Personally, I don’t want to save anyone because I know the people I convert won't continue. When the Holy Spirit does the work, however, the salvation experience is complete.
What I’m basically talking about here is powerful prayer and then allowing the cell to be the body of Christ. When God’s people share intimately and live in transparency, there is a supernatural outworking that touches the souls of non-Christians.
Just last week, in my own cell meeting (we’re planting a cell church in Southern CA ), Shaun shared deeply. He said, “Please pray for my 18 year old son, Jeremy.” At one time Jeremy had received Jesus when he was just a boy, but he had since rebelled, was taking drugs, in and out of jail, and had even talked about suicide. We as a cell committed ourselves to pray for Jeremy every day. To be honest I forget to pray the first couple days, but then someone from the cell sent an email to those in the cell, reminding us that we needed to pray daily. During out Thursday morning prayer meeting I really sensed a relief in my spirit as I prayed for Jeremy. I sensed something was going to happen.
The next day Jeremy’s mom, Gina, called saying that Jeremy had mentioned his need to get right with God. We invited Jeremy to our church camp the following week. He came. We just lived our lives around Jeremiah and shared our testimonies and stories. I shared about my past drug excursions and how I had hair down my back (most people don't believe me). Basically, we just lived our lives in front of him and he was touched greatly. A week later, I heard that Jeremy went to a Bible study the night before. God is working on him, and I believe God is going to do great things in Jeremy. Again, God must work. He’s the only one that can save a soul and make someone whole. We need to totally depend on Him to do the work.
Scripture says that we don’t wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers of this dark world, against spiritual wickedness in high places. Only He can convert a soul. Only He can make someone whole. We need to depend on Him to create the hunger in the lives of those we’re trying to reach. It’s all about Jesus.
And then when someone comes into the cell, the most powerful evangelistic tool is simply to live as the people of God, as the body of Christ. Transparent sharing is the most powerful testimony to non-Christians--to share how Jesus is working in our own lives and helping us overcome difficulties. When non-Christians hear and see this reality, they want what we have.
#4: EMPHASIZE GROUP EVANGELISM: DON’T ALLOW THE CELL LEADER TO CARRY THE ENTIRE BURDEN
Mark 1: 16-19: “As Jesus walked beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. "Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will make you fishers of men.” At once they left their nets and followed him. When he had gone a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John in a boat, preparing their nets.”
You’ll notice how many times in this passage Jesus mentions NETS. Jesus is talking about net fishing here. That’s how they fished back then. The best type of evangelism is a group event.
I love small group evangelism because it’s not all about one person. In fact, the best type of small group evangelism takes the pressure off the cell leader. The cell leader recognizes that it’s a group event. The group works together. Some in the group are more effective than others in reaching their friends. Yet, all share in the rewards.
#5: EXEMPLIFY BUILDING RELATIONSHIPS WITH NON-CHRISTIANS: DON’T EXPECT THAT YOUR PEOPLE WILL BEFRIEND SINNERS
Luke 5:31-32: Jesus answered them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” Luke 19:10: "For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.”
Jesus was a friend of sinners. The religious establishment, in fact, cast him out because he was always hanging out with sinners--with those who needed him the most. They called him a friend of winebibbers and sinners.
What about you? Are you a friend of sinners? Do you hang out with non-Christians.
In reality, to make cell evangelism really work, it means that each cell member will get to know a pool of non-Christians and when there is a group evangelistic event, there will be a pool of people from which to invite.
To be honest, this has been a new paradigm for me. For most of my Christian life, I was taught in the cold turkey evangelistic techniques. I was taught to preach in the open air, to go witnessing with a group of people, or to personally use an evangelistic plan in my personal witness. My application was often to go door to door or to talk to someone cold turkey. And to be honest, I was quite good at it. I could go up to a perfect stranger and say, “How are you doing? Do you know Jesus loves you? Here is the plan of salvation, let’s pray. Okay, you’re saved. Bye." Who’s next.
Yet, as God began to show me the cell church strategy, I began to realize that I first needed to become a friend of sinners and only afterwards hare the gospel with that person. And to be honest, it’s been a journey of walking in weakness. I feel very inadequate. I’m learning, for example, to turn off the lawn mower when the neighbor walks by and just talk a bit. Or during the Christmas or Easter season to bring over a gift, and just get to know my neighbors. And then to invite my neighbors over for a barbeque, getting to know them with the goal of inviting them to my cell group. For me, it’s walking in weakness. Yet, I realize that if I’m not practicing the Jesus strategy, I don’t have a leg to stand on when I encourage my church members to do the same. They don’t care what I say as much as what I do.
What about you? Are you getting to know non-Christians? Are you taking time out of your busy schedule to spend time with sinners. I know you’re busy—just like me. I know you don’t have extra time. I certainly don’t. And if you’re like me, the majority of your lives are focused around Christians. I write, for example, with believers in mind. I talk to groups like this one. I have to make time in my schedule to hang out with non-Christians. What about you?
I think of Dave Scott , in Chino Hills, Southern CA. Dave Scott is a very effective cell church pastor. Dave practices what he preaches. His congregation follows him because they know he's doing what he's teaching. He’s leading a growing cell church, largely because he’s living the life that he wants others to follow. Every week Dave plays basketball in the gym. He sweats with sinners. Dave volunteers as a chaplain on the police force, just to be around non-Christians. He also leads a cell in his neighborhood. His values and priorities speak loudly, “I want to exemplify what it means to be a friend of sinners and I want you, congregation, to do the same.”
I would encourage you, pastor, to ask the Holy Spirit to stir you in a new way.
#6: KEEP ON PRESSING ON: DON’T BE WEARY IN WELL-DOING
Galatians 6:9: “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” Romans 12: 8: He who leads, with diligence (spoudé)
You’ll notice the Scripture verse here tells us not to become weary in doing well because in due season, we’ll reap, if we faint not. You’ll notice the prepositional phrase attached to the leadership gift passage in Romans 12:8. He who leads must do so diligently. The Greek word for diligence is spoudé. According to the Greek Lexicon, the word spoudé means:
- Quick movement in the interests of a person or a cause
- To hasten oneself
- Speed in carrying out a matter
- Giving oneself trouble
- Active, industrious, zeal, effort, pains
- Standing in contrast to laziness
This applies to small group evangelism because basically those cell leaders and cell groups that are the most effective just keep on pressing on; they don’t give up. They experiment until something works. They turn the obstacles into opportunities. Think of Abe Lincoln as a great example of spoudé.
- In 1832 lost the election to become senator
- In 1833 his personal business failed.
- In 1835 his wife died
- In 1836 He had a nervous break-down
- In 1838 Was defeated in his election to the house of representatives
- In 1843 lost the election to congress
- In 1848 lost the congressional election for the second time
- In 1849 an application was denied to the registry office
- In 1854 was defeated in the election to become U.S. senator for the third time
- In 1856 lost the election to be vice-president of the U.S.
- In 1858 once again lost a key congressional election
- In 1860 won the presidency of the U.S.
After 28 years of failure. His character remained firm throughout. Abe Lincoln wasn’t deterred by his failures. He allowed his failures to create in him strength of character and fortitude to press on. He remained diligent in the face of obstacles and difficulties.
And this is what it’s all about. It’s about pressing on in the face of difficulties and obstacles. Yes, you’re going to feel like giving up. It’s not going to be easy. But remember the word spoudé. God is for you. He wants to bless you, and He’s going to do it.
I remember one cell group at Bethany World Prayer Center. The cell leader was about to give birth. And at Bethany, when a small group is going to give birth, they have a birthday party with cake and celebration. And this was quite the celebration. The supervisor was present, along with the zone pastor. The cell leader was as proud as a peacock as he sat with a smile from ear to ear. And food. What food. You name it, we ate it. I’m sure there was gumbo, but I was especially interested in the Louisiana ribs and meat. Powerful time. But when the dishes were in the kitchen and everyone had gone, I approached the small group leader, asking him about the secret of his success. He said to me, “Joel, about six months ago, we were ready to close this group. We labored for months without any fruit. We invited, we prayed, we planned group activities, but nothing! Then finally, the breakthrough came. We invited someone to the small group, and the person received Jesus. With great zeal, he began to invite his friends, and here we are, ready to multiply."
God wants to do great things in your cell, but you can’t give up. He’s for you and just around the corner He has something very special for your group. Don’t give up. God wants to grow a cell church in your city. Press on. Keep on praying. Be diligent. He’s going to do great things.
Further reading on this topic: Comiskey's book Home Cell Group Explosion explains how cells evangelize. Cell Church Solutions dedicates one chapter to group evangelism. Reap the Harvest highlights growing cell churches. Buy HERE or call 1-888-344-CELL.