Will the Cell Church Work in North America ?

Church Leadership

By Joel Comiskey

Written for C&MA CELL NET, Summer 2002

I’ve been working for one year as a C&MA missionary in North America , on loan for three years to the Free Methodist church of Southern California . In this time period, my full time job has been coaching six pastors in cell church ministry. I’ve spent the first year laying the foundation for cell ministry. The major theme of my personal study during this time has been how cell church best works in a western, individualistic, and secularized culture. The sad reality of the U.S. church scene, according to George Sweet, author of several best-selling books on Postmodernism, is that:

  • 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!

George Barna adds, ”The United States has so many unchurched people that the nation has become one of the primary missions targets of Christians who live in other countries around the world.”[1]

Many believe, in fact, that the cell church will simply NOT work in the U.S. I posed this very same question to Rob Reimer, a CMA church planting pastor in New England . He fired back, “The cell church clearly works in the U.S. I’m in New England, a place steeped in tradition, slow to change, and the second least ‘churched’ region in the U.S., and we’re grown from 0 to 425 in less than 7 years (50% of the growth has been conversion growth).” The same day I received an email from Damian Williams, a Weslyan pastor in Rice Lake , Wisconsin , who said:

God is blessing the ministry of Red Cedar Community Church. In the month of July our cells participated in a month of servant evangelism. Our efforts have led over 20 people to make decisions for Christ. The most exciting aspect of our church is that we grew from an average of 341 to 617 this past year. Our church year runs from May-April. But in the the past church year we connected over 200 new people in our cells. We now have 0ver 400 adults and teens in healthy, reproducing cells. Our cell ministry is really startng to take off. You are right when you say that strong cell systems produce strong cells. I’m in a very fortunate situation because we have very few ministries competing with cells. Cells are the backbone of our church.

I’ve given some shining examples, but as you can imagine, not all U.S. cell churches are growing. Many are struggling–just like the majority of U.S. churches in general.

I believe there are some bedrock principles that, if followed, will help the North American cell church movement to succeed. The following are a few of them:

Total Commitment to Prayer and Spirituality

The largest cell churches in the world (and for that matter the largest churches in the world) prioritize prayer.

One thing that greatly concerns me about various North American models of church growth success is that prayer is not a large priority. You don’t hear about diligent, earnest prayer. Rather, you hear about the technique and the marketing strategy. I’m gravely concerned about this, especially the repercussion that it will have on the U.S. church in general.

Certain magnetic personalities can and will attract crowds but such a strategy is not reproducible, nor does it stand the test of time (when the great leader leaves, the church often declines).

We must come back to the simple truth that we can do nothing apart from Him. He must give us fruit. Let us only ask for fruit and blessing that come directly from Him. I believe in church growth, but only the type that is birthed by God.

Shift in Values

1. Value of Understanding the Church

What is the church? Traditionally, we in North America have defined the church as the Sunday morning event in which the preaching of the Word and worship takes place. Our European heritage has instilled this conviction within us. Yet, is this the church? An increasing number of people are asking hard questions like:

If a person only attends the Sunday morning worship service, has that person truly experienced the church of Jesus Christ ?

Is it possible to sit passively, shake a few hands, sing a few songs, and participate in the true church of Jesus Christ ?

Isn’t the true church of Jesus a living organism? Doesn’t it demand interaction and participation?

If a person does not experience fellowship and community in the church of Jesus Christ , has he experienced the heartbeat of Christianity?

Listen to one pastor, convinced of the cell-celebration strategy:

A conviction I have is that the small “cell” — people meeting together for fellowship, worship, praise, prayer, and outreach — is the essential structure of the church. Everything necessary for the growth, maturity, and outlet in ministry of the individual believer exists within the small group. It’s tough to be a phony in the small group, and it’s nearly impossible to remain anonymous in the small group. I think we understand that it’s very possible to be a phony in a large group, and to remain anonymous. The net affect of “the-large-meeting-is-church” perspective is that about 90% of the gathering sit passively, staring at the back of someone’s head for an hour, while “worship” and instruction are given by no more than 10% of the gathering. The church was meant to be a place where everyone has a gift, everyone ministers, everyone participates, everyone has something to give for the good of the rest of the body. This kind of thing doesn’t happen in the large group meeting on Sundays. It hardly happens in Sunday school either, as many Sunday school formats are “mini-churches” where a teacher lectures or controls the discussion. The place where ministry really takes place, where gifts are exercised, where leadership is developed, where needs are met, where encouragement is given, where people come into contact with the intimate Jesus Christ, is in the small group. The large assembly on Sunday (or Saturday, or whenever) has its rightful place, but it is the place where people come, collectively, to worship and to experience the transcendence of God. The intimacy of God, expressed in a group, is not experienced on Sunday morning. By design, it can only be experienced in the small group — the cell-group, if you will — the core of the church.

2. Shift in Understanding the Cell

For many in the U.S. the definition of a cell group is all inclusive. Certain small group gurus have encouraged churches to view all small groups in their church as cell groups. These churches lump everything under the cell category–the choir, board meeting, Sunday school, along with multiplying small groups. The result has been a skewed understanding of cell.

Cell churches all around the world follow a very similar definition of a cell group: “A group of 4-15 people that meets weekly outside the church building for the purpose of evangelism and discipleship with the goal of multiplication.”

Is this too dogmatic? You’ll notice incredible flexibility in the above definition. It does not say:

  • That you have to meet in a home (many cells meet at work, the university campus, a coffee shop, etc.).
  • That you have to follow the Sunday sermon (most do, but some don’t).
  • That you have to have family cells (many cell groups are homogeneous men’s cells, women’s cells, or children’s cells).
  • That you have to follow one particular cell order (e.g., the 4Ws–Welcome, Worship, Word, Works).
  • That you have to have a certain level of participation (ICM’s cells, for example, aren’t as participatory as I’d like, but they’re still cell groups).

The most foundational conviction of the cell-celebration church is that it flies on two wings, both cell and celebration, and thus anyone involved in other ministries must participate in both cell and celebration.

3. Shift in Understanding Success

I believe that cell ministry, more than any other type of pastoral ministry, has the potential of liberating the pastor to truly do the work of the ministry. Sadly, many pastors are taught that church boils down to the ABCs: ATTENDANCE, BUILDINGS, CASH. Randy Frazee, in his excellent book The Connecting Church, says,

As a matter of fact, job security for most pastors comes more from numerical growth than from spiritual growth. The reality of this whole matter disgusted me as I pondered the purity of my motives for going into pastoral ministry in the first place. . . I saw among those who wanted to break away from the numerical-monitoring grind of head count, square footage, and cash was this: the attempt to pawn off an assimilation strategy as spiritual formation. What happens is that instead of taking attendance at the worship services only, we now take it at other church-sponsored events, . . .[2]

I believe true success comes by raising up an army of leaders to reap the harvest. This was the prayer of Jesus, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field” (Matthew 9:37 -38). The goal of raising up an army of committed cell leaders is so crucial to what Christ meant about discipleship that it’s worthwhile to measure it and base our success on it.

This means that we will have a commitment beyond the small group. The goal is to develop each person emotionally, spiritually, and Biblically to the point that they can gather their own friends in a small group setting. To do this, the training track must be clear, succinct and feasible.

One of the key differences between a normal small group and a cell group is that the cell group sees a future role for each member. A small group often becomes an end in itself.

4. Shift from Getting People to Training Workers

The successful cell churches know nothing of fuzziness and fog in leadership training. The track is clear, and many have boarded the train. The best equipping tracks include:

  • Clear place to start
  • Clear knowledge about where to go
  • Clear idea of victory (leading a cell group).

Successful cell churches train leaders well, and they aim for clarity and practicality. The new Christian know where to go and how to get there, from the initial discipleship stage to leading a small group. Because the top leadership realizes that training new leadership is the chief task, the entire church functions as a leadership production system.

How different from the traditional church in which everyone is funneled through a general educational system, without any clear idea of where they’re going. The general education system fails to equip the entire church and often those needing equipping seldom come. Again, because there isn’t clarity in what to do with the lay people after the training, the goal simply becomes more training with little practical application.

5. Shift from Mobilizing Cell Members to Reach out during the Celebration Service

In March 2002, I met Mark, the pastor of a growing Southern Baptist Church in Nashville , TN. His church started in 1995 and had grown to 1000 worshipers and 100 cell groups. He was sold on cell-celebration ministry, telling me that it was the most Biblical and effective way to reach people in the 21st century.

“I train our cell leaders to be ready to pounce on every visitor in the church. Our cell leaders immediately try to assimilate the newcomers by inviting them to their cell groups. We’ve discovered here in North America people prefer to first attend a large celebration service and afterwards attend a cell group for fellowship and growth.”

“What about cell evangelism?” I countered. “Shouldn’t we be training and encouraging cell members to evangelize their friends and neighbors?”

Pastor Mark agreed wholeheartedly with me. “It’s not an either-or situation. We should ask our people to do both,” he said. “Most of our small group growth, however, comes through assimilating people from the large group gathering.”

We’ve heard over and over the need for small group evangelism. And yes, we need to constantly exercise our small group evangelism muscles. But let’s not forget the large group context. The ideal is that everyone in the church attends both cell and celebration. In reality, there will always be a pool of those who attend only the celebration. Some of these people are visitors; others have attended the church for quite a while. Some will participate in a cell group after one invitation; others require a shove.

I tell churches to aggressively invite all people at the celebration service to the cell: “I’d like to invite you to my cell group on Friday night at 7 p.m. I think you’d really like it. Do you need a ride?” Cell leaders don’t need to worry about competition among themselves. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if five different cell leaders or interns invited the same visitor?

Growing cell churches around the world have implemented systems so newcomers don’t “fall through the cracks.” Visitor cards are collected in the church and distributed to the various cell groups, who in turn contact the newcomers. Because of this organized approach to reaching out, many visitors attend a cell. These churches track newcomers to ensure that they receive proper follow-up and care.

6. Shift from Hierarchical Ministry to Deccentralized Ministry

Hierarchy is important in overseas cultures, and thus a care system that is more hierarchical is common. In North America , our power distance is much lower than in other cultures. That is, we allow freedom and individuality in our leadership styles. Elaborate hierarchical structures simply don’t work in North America . North Americans tend to resist rigid categories, and thus, fluidity and flexibility must be part of any cell structure in the U.S.

7. Shift in How to Coach Cell Leaders through an Adapted G-12 Network

In my book, From Twelve to Three, I promote what I call the G12.3 care structure. The gist of this care structure is that a full-time pastor oversees twelve cell leaders, while a lay leader envisions caring for three daughter cell leaders and continues to lead an open cell group. The number three is a more realistic and manageable number that gives lay volunteers a feasible goal: multiply the original cell three times and care for each one of those leaders while continuing to lead the original cell.

The G12.3 care structure works well among homogeneous groups and allows for a smaller care ratio between lay supervisor and cell leader (one to three instead of one to twelve).

I believe adapting the G12 model that originated at ICM in Bogota will work better in the U.S. than following it exactly.

8. Shift from Bible Studies to Participation in Cells

The American culture is very democratic. Because we’re individualistic, we believe that each person’s contribution is very important. Edward Stewart, in American Cultural Patterns says, “Even when bypassing formal procedures, the American is persuaded by the appeal to give everybody a chance to speak and an equal voice in the decision.”[3]

In North America , everyone has their own story, their own individual identity. We must promote participation in the cell, allowing each person to freely talk, in a non-judgmental atmosphere. The Bible is central, of course, but the application of the Bible guides the cell lesson.

C.G. Jung once observed that modern psychotherapy arose partly in response to the void in Christian community left by the Protestant insistence on “private confession.” We no longer struggle together with our deepest concerns and our most internal battles. Religion, we often hear, is a personal matter between us and God, where we keep our distance from others and relate openly with God. One difficulty with that philosophy is that when we are less open and honest with people, we also end up being less than honest with God as well.[4]


Without watering down the cell or cell system, we need to adapt the cell-celebration strategy to North American culture.

The principles I listed are not exhaustive. I didn’t cover, for example, relational evangelism, punctuality of the meetings, etc. The list does provide some foundational building blocks to help the cell church movement thrive in North America .

People are hungering for relationships, and in general, they’re turned off to the institutional church. The time is ripe to bring the church to them. As we mobilize our congregation to be an army of missionaries starting cell groups, we’ll fulfill the passion of Jesus Christ to raise up laborers to reap the harvest in an ever-increasing North American mission field.

Further reading on this topic: Comiskey’s book Cell Church Solutions: Transforming the Church in North America expounds on how to make cell church work in a North American context. Buy HERE or call 1-888-344-CELL.


[1] George Barna in September 25, 2000 at http://www.barna.org/cgi-bin/PagePressRelease.asp?PressReleaseID=71&Reference=B Accessed on Saturday, December 01, 2001 .

[2] Randy Frazee, The Connecting Church (Zondervan Publishing House: Grand Rapids , MI , 2001), 88.

[3] Edward Stewart, American Cultural Patterns: A Cross-Cultural Perspective (Chicago, ILL: Intercultural Press, Inc., 1972), 32.

[4] Dan Lentz, “Shepherding Broken People,” Small Group Network,