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Cell Church Explosion in Latin America
Published in C&MA Cell Net, October 1999
by Joel Comiskey
When we think of the well-known cell churches throughout the world, the countries of Korea, Singapore, and Africa usually fill our thoughts. Yet, today some of the most exciting, fruitful cell models are located right in Latin America. Take a look at the growth of the following churches:
- The Elim Church (Misión Cristiana Elim) in San Salvador, El Salvador: 5,500 cells, 110, 000 people in cells and 35,000 in worship
- The International Charismatic Mission (La Misión Carismática Internacional) Bogota, Colombia: 20,000 cells, 45,000 in worship.
- The Love Alive Church (El Amor Viviente) in Tegucigalpa, Honduras: 1000 cell groups and 9,000 worshipers
- The Christian Center (El Centro Cristiano) in Guayaquil, Ecuador: 1,600+ cell groups 5,000 Sunday worshipers
- The Living Water Church (La Comunidad Cristiana Agua Viva) in Lima, Peru: 900 cell groups and 8,500 Sunday worshipers
Not all cell churches grow to the size of the above churches. In the last several issues of Cell Net, we’ve learned about smaller cell churches that are just beginning the journey. Whether big or small, there is renewed excitement for the cell church strategy throughout Latin America. The Southern Baptists in Chile, the Overseas Missionary Society in Mexico, and the Methodists here in Ecuador have decided to adopt wholeheartedly the cell church model. Why such excitement? Why such growth? Although I can’t possibly claim to have all the answers, allow me to suggest two reasons:
REASON #1: RETURN TO THE NEW TESTAMENT CHURCH
First and foremost, I believe that there is a hunger in Latin America to return to New Testament Christianity. For too long, Latin American religion has been dominated by the middle age form of Christianity which has been dominated by institutions and hierarchical leadership. The early church grew so rapidly in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. As a persecuted religion, it was not allowed to meet publicly. Yet, this did not slow down the vital life of the Spirit of God working through home group meetings. The book of Acts instructs us that the early church met in small home meetings.
This structure of both the celebration and the cell format is first seen in the Jerusalem Church after Pentecost. Acts 2:46 states, “Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts,…” The concept of home/public meetings is substantiated by Paul when he says in Acts 20: 20, “You know that I have not hesitated to preach anything that would be helpful to you but have taught you publicly and from house to house.” John Mallison writes, “It is almost certain that every mention of a local church or meeting, whether for worship or fellowship, is in actual fact a reference to a church meeting in a house.”  This structure of both cell and celebration is being used with great effectiveness in the cell church today.
The traditional institutional church in Latin America that was established five hundred years ago has widened the gap between clergy and laity. Those higher-up performed various ceremonies while the laity sat in silence.
Today, in Latin America, there is a new appreciation for the priesthood of all believers (Rev. 1:6; I Pet. 2:9; ).
Latin America is breaking away from those shackles of the past and experiencing the full life of lay ministry and involvement. The church in Latin America today is hungry to experience the body of Christ through the use of the gifts that God has granted to every believer. The cell group provides exciting opportunities for everyone to use his or her gift.
REASON #2 CELL MINISTRY COINCIDES WITH IMPORTANT LATIN AMERICAN CULTURAL TRAITS
I believe that another important reason why cell ministry is so effective is because of cultural characteristics unique to Latin America. It seems that Latin culture is uniquely equipped for this type of ministry.
Priority Of People
In Latin America, personal relationship comes before the accumulation of wealth. For example, if a close friend asks for a material item, the typical response is "my house is yours". Far from being a trite, meaningless phrase, these words are backed up with action. There is a greater ease in opening one’s home and inviting others to partake in the group activity. Because the most important single trait in Latin culture centers around the development of personal relationships, priority time is given to this task.
There is a certain ease and naturalness that is present in the group, and these natural webs of relationships can be encouraged through the ministry of small groups. It doesn’t take long for Latin people to warm-up to one another in the atmosphere of a home.
Because Latin Americans enjoy these social relationships, I have discovered that some of the most fruitful cell ministry occurs outside of the regular cell meeting. It is often very attractive for the group to meet together in other social settings (p.ej., sports day, BBQ at the park, retreat, etc.). These gatherings not only promote fellowship among the members, but are also a great way to invite non-Christians.
Emphasis On Extended Family
It is safe to say that in Latin America there is nothing more important than family. Latins tend to prioritize their family relationships above all other relationships. If commitment to family is the reason for one not attending a particular social function or fulfilling a particular obligation, usually there are no questions asked. The family is an important element in Spanish life, not the nuclear family as in North America, but the extended family.
Since the nuclear family and the extended family is so strong in Latin America, the cell group ministry naturally attracts those who would not otherwise enter an Evangelical Church. The web of relationships that are embodied in the extended family can be effective vehicles of outreach in Latin America. I have discovered that cell outreach is most effective when each individual cell member targets his or her extended family and close friends to invite to the cell group.
PATTERNS AMONG LATIN CELL CHURCHES
Latin cell churches possess certain identifiable patterns. As I spent time in each of the five cell churches listed above, I noticed four major characteristics. First, I noticed that cell ministry in these churches is primarily an evangelistic tool. These churches were convinced that the best way to reach the lost for Christ was through cell outreach. The cells were expected to multiply over and over utilizing the ever-expanding web of relationships.
From my questionnaire survey of 400+ cell leaders (in the five different countries), I discovered that 68% had multiplied their group at least once and that 40% had multiplied the group more than once! Far more effective than "one-on-one" evangelism, the cells in these churches function like nets that spread out over the entire city. Buses haul the catch to the celebration service for worship and preparation.
I noticed that these churches did not hesitate to set quantifiable goals for their cell ministry. In fact, some of them even promoted “healthy competition” among leadership. Again, passion for the lost was the motivation that kept everything in perspective.
Second, in these churches cell ministry was the backbone. They were not just adding cell ministry as another program. Rather, cells were the very life of the church. These churches organized pastoral staff, specific programs, membership, baptisms, offerings, and celebration services around cell ministry. Cell attendance was expected from everyone in the church. For example, the Love Alive Church in Tegucigalpa, Honduras had statistics showing that 90% of the 7,500 weekend worshipers also participated in a weekly cell group.
Third, these cell churches carefully linked cell ministry to the celebration service. In other words, precaution was taken to guarantee that individual cells shared the same vision and philosophy as the mother church. To assure this continuity, in all of the churches the cell lessons were based on the senior pastor's weekly message. For example, at the Living Water Church in Lima, Peru a talented leader took diligent notes of the pastor's message in order to weave his thought into the weekly cell lesson. At the Christian Center in Guayaquil, Ecuador, the senior pastor himself prepares the weekly cell lesson. Although each church used a different method, the senior pastor's message was always the launching point for the cell group topic.
Fourth, in all of these churches cell leadership training was given top priority. Although the length and type of training varied from church to church, all of these churches were compelled to find, train, and release new leadership as quickly and efficiently as possible.
I expect that Latin America will continue to play a prominent role in the worldwide cell movement. Many Latin churches have mastered the use of the cell model to reach their cities for Christ. They have much to offer the church of Jesus Christ worldwide. We can learn from their clear evangelistic emphasis, the priority of the cell ministry within the church structure, the link between celebration and cell, and the high priority placed on leadership training. They can also teach us about the place of creativity in cell ministry while maintaining foundational cell-based principles.
Further reading on this topic:
Comiskey's book Passion and Persistence explains the history of the Elim Church and the principles that have compelled this church to penetrate San Salvador for Jesus.
Reap the Harvest details the worldwide cell churches.
Groups of Twelve reveals how the International Charismatic Mission in Bogota, Colombia has evangelized Bogota for Jesus.
Cell Church Solutions describes cell churches in North America.
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