About the time World War II ended, a plethora of new Christian organizations came on the scene. They each "targeted" an area of the Christian mission, and the scene of church life was radically changed. These were dubbed the "parachurch" groups. Thousands of church goers were drawn to them.
In every case, they specialized in reaching a segment of the Christian public with a clear-cut vision. Youth for Christ began to evangelize the high school students. Campus Crusade and InterVarsity reached out to the campuses. The Navigators began to develop the modern Discipleship movement.
But that was only the start. Overseas, dozens of new missionary movements began. Missionary Aviation Fellowship, Far Eastern Gospel Broadcasting, World Vision, and many more suddenly appeared.
Why? What was God doing with all this activity? While it may seem harsh to put it into print, I believe this is the reason: the church in America, by 1955, had become so lax in its vision of reaching the world that the Holy Spirit had to bypass it. If that generation were to be reached, new structures would have to get the job done. Churches were not effectively touching children. Thus, Child Evangelism Fellowship sprang up. Pastors were not feeding flocks. Thus, Christian radio exploded and NARB was formed. On and on the list goes-in every case, performing a task the church should have been doing, but failed to perform. Gradually, there has been a "Mexican standoff" between the organized church and the para-churches. Both protest too loudly that they love the "other side." "Yet, the scalping of church workers for parachurch ministries continues, and under the surface things are not right. Academicians have now coined special words to describe the differences between the two groups, and have suggested ways they can co-exist: like the "churches" and the "orders" of the Roman Catholic church... Why bring all this up in this magazine? Because it is obvious that with the present decline of church structures, the parachurch groups have also shown signs of becoming stagnant. Some have changed their initial directions. Others have gone into publishing. They are, one by one, showing the dreaded signs of shifting from being movements to becoming institutions. It's inevitable. That's the way things happen.
Thus, in this moment, God is again doing a sovereign work. He is creating a new wineskin-one that fuses both the community life of the true church and the clear target visions of the parachurch groups. That is what the Cell Church brings to the scene. It is God's replacement for church life that has lost its direction, and for parachurch groups that have become establishments. The Cell Church has both dimensions in one ecclesiology. Look what the Holy Spirit is doing to adorn the Bride-and rejoice!
In 1982 I made the transition from youth leader to pastor. During this time I read Dr. Paul Yonggi Cho's book "Successful Home Cell Groups." This was the story of how his church in Korea implemented a cell system and the great blessing it brought to many, many lives. When I read the book something inside me said, "This is right; this is good; this is God." I was hooked on the idea of using homes in addition to public places for the regular gathering of saints and performance of ministry. The principles of the book of Acts could and should be applied to the twentieth-century church, not just in Korea, but here in the U.S. as well.
Janie and I started Westport Church in 1986. One of the first things God spoke to me then was the words "Outreach Groups." He was speaking to me about the groups I had read about from Dr. Cho. I saw some differences, of course. What we were to do would not be a carbon copy. It was discussed, but not much happened. Then in the summer of 1989 there was another "almost beginning" as several Bible studies began. In retrospect I see that in both these instances I failed to impart specific vision and direction. I have learned that it is not enough to paint the picture. As pastor, I must be actively involved in making that picture become a reality. I was yet to see that my direct supervision of the leaders would not be a movement from freedom to bondage, but from chaos to order.
In 1990 I began hearing leading church consultant and author Carl George of the Fuller Institute discussing the same concept using a term he had coined: "meta-church." He was recommending it as the church form for the 1990's. He, too, believed that the concept was not just for foreign churches but for American as well. Traditional church structures would give way in the 1990's. He believed that cell group churches were the new wineskins that the Lord Himself was making. Carl's word "meta-church" hit on the heart of the problem for me, and others in America as well. "Meta" comes from the same Greek word from which we get the word "change." Therefore, a " meta-church" was another kind of church. It was not something you could add to a church; it was something that became the heart of the church. But even then I did not fully grasp the implications of that truth.
During this time our own church reached a point where I became very concerned with the care for and growth of the people under my ministry. Close-knit relationships were available to only a few. We appeared to be a small church to many of our members, but in reality we were in running 175 on Sunday mornings. When people didn't experience intimacy, their assessment was that they were the only ones who didn't. It seemed to them that everyone else was close.
The reality was that everyone was in the same position. It was hard for me as pastor to witness the stunted growth individually and corporately. Individuals were neither receiving the care and attention they needed nor having the opportunity to use the fullness of spiritual gifts God had given them.
By the beginning of 1991 I had become persuaded that the time for collecting information was over. We could indeed avoid some problems that other churches had solved for us, but there would just be some things we'd have to learn as we go. I was particularly concerned that we were not reaching enough unchurched people.
I announced that Outreach Groups would be the wave of the future for us as a church and that it would be our means of reaching out to the worlds of unbelievers around us. There was favorable response but not much happened.
Six months later I finally realized that unless we fully coverted our thinking to this way of church, it would never be a reality. It couldn't be added to our existing church life. Ralph Neighbour confirmed this point of view for me with his book, Where Do We Go From Here? I was at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California in a two week seminar for pastors. A fellow pastor had a copy of Ralph's book and I asked to borrow it for the evening. I ended up reading the whole book over several evenings.
Dr. Neighbour confirmed two important facts for me:
One: this concept was working all over the world. The Holy Spirit was moving.
Two: traditional churches were having a terrible time converting to it because of their unwillingness to give it a higher priority than all other church programs Specifically, we had to give up our Wednesday night service to see it come about. Wednesday nights were, for our church, the center of church life. The church's entrance sign even showed the time for Wednesday evening service before the time for Sunday's service. Cell groups had to be paramount in importance in order to exist and thrive. I to hit on the name Growth Group as a bit better since it communicated not only outreach for each group but spiritual maturity. The growth group world be a way of growing up as well as growing. In fact, Growth Group members learned that you can't properly grow up unless you are growing out.
The cell system, or meta-church, would be a means of bringing God's life to homes, offices, and schools. Groups of Christians-small enough to know, listen and care; large enough to make a difference- would be the wave of the future. Ten years of thinking, reading studying, analyzing, and praying were over-the days of doing had come. As a pastor I could not live with myself if we did not go to a caring system like this. We must continue to seek the purpose for our church that God established in the beginning, and the purposes He established for every church outlined in the Scriptures.
We do not know all that the future holds. But I do feel the same things in my heart now that I did when Westport Church was formed in 1986. This is a new birth for us. God is doing a new thing. And we have learned that although everything from God is good, He always saves the best until last.
Q: What stages must I go through to become a mature, pure Cell Church? What are some signposts for my journey into cell life? A: Those entering into the Cell Church movement often are tempted by an "instant Cell Church" mentality. The very size and success of existing Cell Churches provide few clues about how to actually begin. Many of these mature Cell Churches have overlooked or do not understand their early stages of growth. Consequently, strategies are often developed from how an existing Cell Church operates rather than how it began. These strategists often fail into the trap of trying to speed up the process of growth by seeking shortcuts that neglect essential stages of growth.
Each of the large cell churches that I know anything about went through definite beginning stages of growth. They did not arrive on the scene full blown, but paid the price (either intentionally or providentially) to develop a strong congregational base.
In Korea Pastor Paul Yonggi Cho was six or seven years into pastoring a large congregation before becoming ill. This illness forced him to delegate ministry to the people. In Singapore, Faith Community Baptist Church began with a 500 member congregation, many having been under the teaching of Pastor Lawrence Khong in a previous church. These members had grown under him over period of years, and were committed to his leadership. From this congregational core, this church has now grown to over 250 cell groups.
Dion Robert in the Ivory Coast endured almost a decade of struggle before he had a committed congregation from which exponential multiplication could take place. The 30,000 member Eglise Protestante Baptist OEuvres Et Mission is now the result of that struggle.
In developing a strategy for the beginnings of a Cell Church, we need look no further than the ministry of Christ for a model. Jesus stated that He would build His Church. Is it not possible that Jesus builds His Church today in the same way He built His first Church? Jesus seemed to follow a growth continuum that we might break down into the following stages:
After 400 years of prophetic silence, God broke into history in the lives of Mary and Joseph, Elizabeth and Zachariah, the Shepherds in their fields, the Wise men from the East, and Simeon and Anna in the temple God's new vision was nurtured for thirty years until in the "fullness of time" it broke into the status quo with a dramatic voice and life. The Convergence stage in the growth of a Cell Church begins when God's vision of the Church meets the status quo of the traditional.
The Catalytic stage, the stage during which God's catalysts actually set the vision into motion, is represented in Christ's ministry by John the Baptist and Jesus himself. John's task was passing and temporary: like a "voice in the wilderness." Jesus' ministry was anything but a temporary "voice," it was very tangible; flesh and blood. Catalysts work as stack poles upon which the leadership structure of the Cell Church is built.
Jesus selected a group who would be a model of His "ecclesia" or "called out ones." This Core stage consisted of twelve men whom Jesus chose because of their potential for obedience to Him, not necessarily because of their learning or ability. Jesus equipped and trained His growing support core network over a period of about three years within a cell community. During this Cell stage the disciples asked all of the wrong questions "why, when, where, what, how," while Jesus kept answering one question: "WHO." Jesus would build His church through His presence and power, not their knowledge or ability. This was the primary lesson taught and learned during the cell stage.
In the Congregational stage of this growth process, 120 disciples waited upon the Lord in the upper room. Jesus' promise to them in His John 14 discourse came true. In the experience of Pentecost, Jesus came to them, Jesus and the Father abided with them, and the Spirit was in them and with them. Everything was now in place in that congregation for exponential multiplication to take place. And it did!
Jesus, incarnated in His new spiritual Body, coordinated the multiplication of cells in the Church stage. This congregation was equipped and prepared to be multiplied in cells and congregations throughout "Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth." THERE ARE NO SHORTCUTS!
Today exponential multiplication does not take place out of a vacuum any more than it did in the day of Jesus. A Cell Church will not multiply exponentially until it has passed through the initial stages necessary to develop a strong congregational base. Christ Himself took the time and effort to develop a leadership base and structure that would be capable of discipling the future harvest. Jesus modeled this in the first century. Twentieth century models confirm this today.
If you told me two years ago that I would be sharing this story I would have said you were crazy. I was riding on the wings of a growing new church in Louisville, Kentucky that was receiving statewide acclaim.
God gave me the vision to plant Lakewood Baptist Church in 1986. At the age of four, Lakewood had already acquired 20 acres of property in the heart of the community with 175 in membership and two full time staff persons. Lakewood had started one new work and for three years in a row had been third in per capita giving to missions out of over 2500 Southern Baptist churches in Kentucky. With the completion of a new multipurpose facility I was looking for new visions. This was the first time that I took a serious look at the church and community because growth was keeping me so busy. What I discovered in my assessment was that 95% of our growth was coming from local membership transfer and churched people moving into the community. Why had we failed in reaching the unchurched? We had many traditional outreach ministries in place. This caused me to understand that Lakewood was not designed to reach the community.
That is when I discovered Saddleback Valley Community Church, Charles Fuller Institute and Touch Outreach Ministries. I became a sponge, soaking up anything I could find on how to reach this unchurched mass. My search ended up with the conviction that these people would be reached through a cell-based church. I was so excited because I felt that I had found truth that would affect many people for the Kingdom. I shared these new revelations with a few key leaders who affirmed me and then proceeded to make changes in the infrastructure that would accommodate a cell-based model. That's when the sparks started flying. I was met with substantial resistance but I couldn't understand why. Here was something that would work! No longer would we be a membership transfer church. After more conflict I thought I had not laid enough groundwork with the key leadership. "Surely that will do it." After six months of extensive vision casting and growing tension in the church over these new ideas the leadership reluctantly approved the plan.
I quickly discovered that their hearts were not in it. Many wanted to remain a traditional Southern Baptist Church. "Lakewood started that way and should remain that way." After six more months of increasing conflict I felt God calling me to start a new work using the cell-based model. This was hard for me because I helped birth Lakewood. I wanted to see the transition come about but I knew God was calling me to launch out with a pure cell-based church in the same area. During this time I was comforted by the words of Henry Thoreau, "If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music he hears, however measured or far away." Though I coudn't see it at the time, I now see God's wisdom. First, it liberated me from trying to retrofit a cell-based church on a program base designed church. It will not work! You end up with a hybrid church that is liked a three-legged stool missing one leg. In a cell-based church cells are not just another program added to the myriad of existing program added to the myriad of existing programs. The cells are the church! Second, it gave Lakewood the opportunity to affirm its traditional Southern Baptist program design. I know without any doubt that God called Lakewood into existence and that Lakewood will go to a traditional church setting. Lakewood and I went separate ways. That was the first part of my journey. The second part was my three months before launching Willow Cross (the new church). Shortly after leaving Lakewood I spent three days with the Beckhams in Houston. When they took me to my first cell group meeting I found a neat group of people. Sitting in the group I realized that I had been fighting fires so long that my capacity to give care was almost null. I was burned out. The group loved me and cared for me. That is the beauty of the cell group. The Body of Christ is edified wherever it hurts.
Much had taken place in the three months following that experience. I was amazed at the number of judgments pronounced upon me. I was described by some as a 'maverick' and a 'flash in the pan.' There was also a grief process I experienced from leaving Lakewood. Initially there was a lot of anger and bitterness. After a time of being depressed I began moving on to acceptance. Things which helped me through this process were my private devotions with God, my wife Pam, my children and friends who believed in me and shared some of the same visions. It was very important for me to not plunge head first into the new work without first resting, heading my wounds and refocusing my life priorities.
This time was also productive in developing the vision of the church and forming the leadership team. I was amazed at how God sent core people to me. Getting to know these people was a great source of encouragement. There were also people who came to me with the desire to an internship. Neat!
One of my visions for Willow Cross is that it will become a regional center of development for those with the cell-based model vision.
My third part of the journey is the launch phase. Much of this journey remains to be written. During the first week of February we launched two New Community Groups. I left my first meeting with a sense of peace and 'rightness' about the experience. Pure and simple, it was basic Christian community in action. We had our first celebrated gathering the first Sunday of March. I am reminded of what Douglas Steere said of the devotional writer Thomas Kelly: "Tom desired that groups like ours be started everywhere, spiritual dynamos for the revitalization of the church, groups grounded in seeking God and the meaning of life, rejoicing in the love for each other and thankful for the life that resulted from that corporate search." That is the church!
Did I do the right thing? Without question, without doubt and without reservation I can say, Yes! For me, there is no turning back, only forward.
An older generation sang, "Onward, Christian Soldiers, Marching As To War." Our generation has created a similar song: "God's got an army, marching through the land." If we dare to take either of these songs literally, a Cell Church must define itself as a task-oriented community, storming hell's gates, snatching broken lives from Satan's grip.
In the Cell Church, every member shares a common vision: a cell of seven or eight people is challenged to multiply to 14 or 15 in a period of six to eight months. All are ministers, reaching out to bring the lost to Jesus Christ-and that means face-to-face contact with the unreached. New Christians and "transfers" must be made ready for such a lifestyle.
In a military army, recruits are sent through Basic Training. Bodies are toughened; minds are disciplined; warfare skills are rehearsed. Battle-hardened men are assigned to teach novices. Likewise, those who finish spiritual "Boot Camp" must be reliable when placed in ministry situations.
Obviously, better trained soldiers will be more effective when encountering unbelievers who need Christ. Those entrusted with putting warriors into battle must take this matter seriously. What should be taught in this initial training? What form should it take?
Basic Training should be developed only after a well-defined strategy has been created. It should include reaching the unreached through the ministry of every member. Mastery of this task should be primary in all courses provided. Discipleship training should equip believers to make disciples, not just to be disciples. Of course, a Cell Church must help believers live a Kingdom lifestyle. Knowing how to apply scripture to daily activities is crucial. Therefore, a Bible survey course should be included in the curriculum.
Ephesians 4 tells us every believer must be equipped for
ministry. Therefore, spiritual Boot Camp must become a vital part of every cell member's
journey. Furthermore, Boot Camp should be standardized, uniformly used to train every
Christian. Only then can there be the assurance that all soldiers will stand firm when in
the battle. Creating a consistent equipping structure is mandatory to creating an
effective strategy for penetrating Satan's kingdoms.
For the past several years, those of us serving in Singapore's Faith Community Baptist Church have been striving to develop such a standardized training for our new cell members. One of the issues we had to solve was the time when this training would be offered. We wanted to eliminate classrooms, and we felt the length of the Basic Training should be one year.
There were several reasons for this. First of all, we didn't want to have to build Sunday-School type facilities for weekly training involving several thousand cell members. Second, we didn't want to steal another night each week for training. We decided to attach "Equipping Time" to the cell group meeting itself. The first 40 minutes of the cell group night would be set aside for this task. Each cell member would be accountable to a "Sponsor" for modules being studied:
Knowing that value systems change slowly, requiring layer upon layer of experiences, we chose 12 months as the time frame for Basic Training.
We also coupled five days of self-study during each week of this year, building one experience on top of another. Each week of self-study would be followed by a weekly accountability during the cell's Equipping Time.
Each person in the cell group would be assigned to someone who had just completed the module being studied. Thus, all learners immediately became instructors. This has helped develop leadership much faster than we anticipated.
Now in our second year of testing, we are finding the reinforcement of values using this strategy has been quite effective. We don't have all the "bugs" worked out, but are convinced we are on the right track, and want to share with others what we have discovered.
It is important to have a clear picture of the Christian who enters Boot Camp. Without a clear profile of the trainee, the equipping modules will not be appropriate. These are the conclusions we made about those entering FCBC's Basic Training:
Instead of calling the Basic Training a "school," we chose instead to describe it as a journey into ministry. A "Journey Guide" was created to describe each leg of the course.
Singapore has a mass transit system. There are three lines, each with stations for entry and exit. We chose to build the concept of a journey by adopting this motif. Thus, we developed THE EQUIPPING STATIONS SYSTEM, where the trainee "travels" to a certain place and then gets off for special training at an "equipping station." Following this, the "journey" continues for several more weeks before arriving at the next "station." We even copied the plastic card used to pay for each trip on the MRT, making it a holder for scripture verses to be memorized:
During Boot Camp, there are five stations where the trainee stops for special training. These are special weekend seminars, taught as a launching pad into the next stage of development. We have developed special 12-page booklets which guide the seminars (not yet available to you, but coming later in the year).
The journey then continues with daily study and activities, coordinated by the weekly cell group equipping time. (The materials mentioned below which are marked with a * are available from Touch Outreach Ministries). The Year of Equipping follows this schedule:
Each new member is encouraged to attend four cell group meetings. During that time, the Cell Leader conducts an interview using the JOURNEY GUIDE* and positions them on the Guide's Map. At this time, a "sponsor" in the cell group is assigned to guide the person during the Equipping Times.
Two courses are now provided: the year-long COVER THE BIBLE* COURSE, AND LIVING YOUR CHRISTIAN VALUES* (later to be replaced by THE ARRIVAL KIT, not yet written). Pastors who wish to secure SCRIPTS FOR COVER THE BIBLE* may record five-minute daily instructions on cassette tapes to be used with COVER THE BIBLE (26 tapes, 60 minutes long, cover the entire year's course).
After completing LIVING YOUR CHRISTIAN VALUES, a seminar is offered dealing with basic Biblical truths concerning spiritual warfare. This prepares the trainee to know how to minister to those who need deliverance from the bondage of sin and satanic control. (In Singapore, idol worship is a powerful demonic force.)
Along with this training, the book KNOCKING ON DOORS, OPENING HEARTS* is explained in depth. The trainee is given four hours of instruction in the use of the John 3:16 presentation, and is challenged to win a responsive friend to Christ during the next 11 weeks. We keep a careful record of the time this person actually wins a lost person to Christ. Until they do so, they don't qualify for the next three Stations. While we have not yet achieved 100%, we do have about 62% of our members who have about 62% of our members who have personally led another person to Christ (Our goal for 1992 is to see 2,500 conversions).
This weekend is offered to teams of three who are formed by the cell leader and sent for training. They are introduced to BUILDING BRIDGES, OPENING HEARTS and spend the next seven weeks learning to relate to unchurched friends. After this period of cultivation has ended, they form their first "Share Group" and return for additional training. At this time, the team of three is ready to relate to six unbelievers.
As the Share Group team prepares to launch, they return for a weekend training using the study guide BUILDING GROUPS, OPENING HEARTS.* They then conduct a 10-week Share Group, using the daily guide provided in the study guide. Upon completing the Share Group, the team returns for the final weekend.
This is where FCBC is on the journey as this article is written. The final book in the trilogy, BUILDING AWARENESS, OPENING HEARTS,* is about to go to press and should be ready by the end of July, 1992. Advance testing of these materials with special teams has shown them to be effective. It explains to the trainee how to use TARGET GROUPS as an ongoing strategy for years to come. Now fully trained, each member can pursue the goal of reaching unchurched persons through cell group teams, using Share Groups and Target Groups as the strategy. (A later issue of this magazine will explain the concept of "Target Groups").
From time to time, we get calls asking us if we have a good source for Ice Breakers. Let me give you my current thinking about using them. Like you, I have been evolving from a traditional church lifestyle to a pure Cell Church lifestyle. As a result, my earlier writings included the use of Ice Breakers for all Cell Group meetings. While I still use them in cells, their purpose changes as the group matures through these stages:
There are no ties between the people. They are strangers. There's no bonding. The Ice Breaker is critical to the structure of the gathering. I recommend that ALL groups meeting for the first time use the "QUAKER QUESTIONS," or some variation of it. They are presented in several of my books, including the SHEPHERD'S GUIDEBOOK. They are an excellent way of getting folks acquainted with each other, and revealing common bonds that already exist because of similarities in their lifestyles.
By "contrived," I mean the selection of topics that are non- threatening. These are items that will continue to let the forming group discover each other. All the Ice Breakers I have included in the SHEPHERD'S GUIDEBOOK are designed for these beginning weeks. It's important to use non-threatening topics. Don't try to use things that would make people feel the "lid" is being pried off their private lives. They will not come back for more!
The type of Ice Breaker to be used at this stage should focus on how conflicts may be solved. An example would be, "If you were driving alone and someone cut you off, what would you probably do?"
It's at this stage that the importing of "cute" Ice Breakers becomes embarrassing to the group. There are only so many times you can pass out paper and have people draw something, or take clay and mold something, or talk about what they would do if they were going to live on the moon and could only take one item with them... There, I have found in many different cultures that the best thing to do when the group has bonded is to eliminate ALL outside, "cute" Ice Breakers. The value of Cell Group life focuses on this important truth: "In this group, the agenda is . . . US!" Week after week, the group's Ice Breaker can remain the same: "What important event took place in your life since we last gathered?" With every passing week, the drama of people's lives becomes the basis for the time of initial sharing.
I will never forget the saga of Pam's life, shared weekly in this way. I had the privilege of leading her to Christ in her living room. She was married at the time to a Jewish American; she was from Brisbane, Australia. She had two daughters. We saw both of them accept the Lord through our teen-age cell groups. Her husband came home from time to time, but worked in Saudi Arabia. She discovered he was living with a little English girl he had picked up in London. Week by week, the pain of her situation was reported to us during the Ice Breaker times. The ministry time that flowed from each one in our group "catching up" with each other in this way was dramatic. It far exceeded what would have become little "games" for us to play. I'm fairly sure this is what the New Testament Christians did. No one had gone into the publishing business yet, so they didn't have many sources to draw from. Try this pattern for a year. I think you'll like it.
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