Start A Cell Group In Your Church

by Scott Boren

Colonial Hills Baptist Church, a successful Sunday school church, built a new facility to house its growth in the early 1990s. On the Sunday that the new building was initiated, it filled up completely. Church leaders soon realized that they could not continue to build Sunday school space. As a result, they turned to cell groups and now have over 160 of them. How did they do it?

Pantego Bible Church in the Dallas/Ft. Worth area had been a teaching-based church. The church focused its life around excellent Sunday morning teaching along with other services and events that brought in special Bible teachers. Church attendance had dropped from a high of 1,300 in 1985 to 425 in 1990, when Randy Frazee assumed leadership as its pastor. Over the last 10 years, Pantego Bible Church has successfully navigated the shift from the tradition of teaching-based ministry to relationship-based ministry with over 200 cell groups. How did they make this happen?

Bethany World Prayer Center was a church that based its life around power, prayer, and worship, primarily a large-group setting. Charismatic churches similar to this hold services where a gifted pastor inspires the people and prays for miracles, seeking the touch of God's presence. Many churches like Bethany, which now has over 900 groups, have successfully grown effective cell group systems. How have these churches seen this success?

The real question to ask is, "How does a church go from no cell groups to expanding cell groups?" Since the early 1990s, hundreds of churches have developed effective cell group systems and can help answer this question. Over the last three years, TOUCH Outreach Ministries has sought the answer through case study research so that other churches could learn from the experiences of the forerunners, adopting their successes and avoiding their mistakes. This research has led to an eight-stage process for developing expanding cell groups.

When pastors and church leaders travel to model cell-based churches and observe what they are doing, they leave with a sense of excitement and vision. They often leave with something else: a sense of being overwhelmed because the vision is so different and the methods are so radical. They often feel like they have been looking at a watermelon and must eat it whole.

Yet model churches did not develop overnight. They didn't try to eat the watermelon in one bite. They took a journey from no cell groups to expanding cell groups. It is not enough to understand what the watermelon looks like. Pastors and church leaders need to understand the journeys of these model churches just as much as they need to grasp the end result. They need to hear how these churches began, the lessons they learned, the mistakes they made along the way, and the surprising successes they found. These model churches have pioneered the journey to making cell groups work. By hearing these journey stories, others can avoid many mistakes and more quickly develop a working cell group base. When they only see the watermelon, they feel pressured to leapfrog over the journey and immediately force cell groups to work.

Our latest release, Making Cell Groups Work, cuts the watermelon into eight stages so that other churches will be able to eat it one bite at a time. It provides an 8-stage process for leading a church from no cell groups to effective expanding cell groups. The eight stages aim to do four things:

  • Provide a chronological process to help a church get started with cell groups. These eight stages identify where to begin and provide steps for moving forward. They reveal the order in which watermelon should be eaten so that church leaders do not try to change everything at once.

  • Help a church that already has cell groups improve them. I recently talked with an experienced cell pastor who confessed, "I have to go back and address some key factors that I skipped in Stages 2 and 3." When pastors describe what is going on in their groups, they often express that cell groups are not yet expanding; they are more like "holding" cells. Many have implemented cell groups and inadvertently skipped key steps in the 8-stage process. When reading through each stage, pastors and leaders will be able to assess steps that they skipped and then make plans for addressing them.

  • Provide practical levers. Levers are "small, well-focused actions that can sometimes produce significant, enduring improvements, if they're in the right place." It is not enough to do things right; leaders must do the right things right. At the end of each stage is a list of levers that will help propel a church through that stage and on toward the destination of making cell groups work. They point to other books, training resources, tools, and activities that will help a church on its journey.

  • Answer the following questions:

Eight questions that pastors commonly ask when they are
trying to understand cell groups.



What is my first step?

Discover the cell group vision

How do I get people on board with the vision?

Develop vision and strategy as a team

Will cell groups work in my church?

Assess your church's current reality

How do we prepare the church for cell group success?

Prepare the church through transformation

How do we start the first groups?

Launch the first groups with kingdom-seekers

How do we experience dynamic cell group community and not just cell group meetings?

Generate cell group momentum

How do we establish cell groups as the base of the church?

Establish the hidden systems that support the cells

How do we mobilize groups to reach people?

Expand the cell groups to reach the unreached

This process will serve as a navigational guide for the journey toward making cell groups work in a church. This journey is similar to that of a ship sailing to a new destination. Much goes into a sea-going voyage, including pre-sailing preparation, gathering information, charting a course, recruiting crew members, navigating around islands and continents that impede the path to the port of call. The eight stages will serve as a travel guide for leading people into life-transforming, God-filled, adventure-loving, risk-taking, people-caring, lost-seeking, leader-developing cell groups.
Peter M. Senge, The Fifth Discipline (New York: Doubleday, 1990), 63-64.