p How to Plant a Cell Church

Church Planting

by Joel Comiskey

Taken from chapter 8 of Planting Churches that Reproduce (CCS Publishing, 2009).

What are some of the key steps to plant a simple cell church?

First step: recruit a team of prayer warriors

When my wife and I first left for Ecuador in 1990 to plant churches, we somehow believed that by establishing many social relationships and eating lots of desserts with people, we had established a strong base. We faithfully wrote personalized letters to twenty-five churches each month, but the impact was minimal. When we returned for furlough, we realized that earlier friendships had faded. People moved on. Then I read C. Peter Wagner’s book, Prayer Shield, and caught a new vision to gather intercessory prayer warriors to stand with me and my family. Gathering a team of committed prayer warriors has revolutionized our ministry.

In Prayer Shield, Wagner shows why intercessory prayer for Christian leaders is needed, as well as how to ask for it. I bought seventy-five copies of this book and handed it out to people who I recruited as prayer warriors. It was well-worth the money spent. Anyone planting a church will benefit from reading this book. Each team member needs to develop a prayer shield and form part of someone else’s prayer shield.

The apostle Paul was a prayer recruiter. Paul wrote to the Colossian church, “And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains. Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should” (Colossians 4:3-4).

He said something similar to the church in Thessalonica, “Brothers, pray for us” (1 Thessalonians 5:25). Then to the church in Rome, Paul wrote, “Now I beseech you, brothers, through the Lord Jesus Christ, and through the love of the Spirit, that you strive with me in your prayers to God for me” (Romans 15:30). To the Corinthians, Paul said, “You also helping together in prayer for us, that thanks may be given by many persons on our behalf for the gift granted to us through many” (2 Corinthians 1:11).

Paul, the superb church planter, knew he couldn’t make it without prayer. Do you know this?

Second step: develop values and vision

You’ll know if God has called you to plant a cell-based church by your passion and conviction. Do you feel compelled to raise up leaders who multiply new groups? Do you love relational evangelism? Are you convinced of the need for community? As you read through the last chapter on starting a cell church, did you feel called to start a simple cell church?

Probably you’ve read some literature on cell church ministry. Read everything you can. There is a recommended reading list on my own site, www.joelcomiskeygroup.com. I encourage cell church planters to read through as many of the recommended books as possible. One of the pastors I coached took a six-month sabbatical just to read and reflect on cell ministry. He was convinced that God had called him to plant a cell church but didn’t know much about it. He read and reflected on cell church literature, and we worked through key books together. Not everyone can take a sabbatical, but all church planters need to take time to learn the basics of cell ministry. This particular church planter looks back at his sabbatical as one of the best choices he made.

Visiting a cell church will also help you get a feel for the vision and values of cell ministry. The pastor who took the sabbatical also visited two dynamic American cell churches. In my book, The Church That Multiplies, I include forty-four cell churches I’d recommend in North America (there are many more). In Reap the Harvest, I highlight many more worldwide cell churches.

I would recommend that you attend a small group seminar to find out how to lead and multiply a small group.

You must come to the place where you are ready to move beyond cell church models and discover key cell church principles on your own. I consulted one pastoral team who was constantly trying to copy the success of another churches. They bounced from trying to copy one successful church’s format to another, never discovering their own philosophy of ministry. They had neglected the basic principles of cell church ministry and became entangled in duplicating the outward form of someone else’s experience. Reading, visiting cell churches, and going to seminars will help you understand the heart of cell ministry—the key principles (see appendix four for a list of key cell church principles).

If at all possible, become involved in a cell church before trying to plant one. It’s also important to lead a cell group and multiply it before trying to plant a cell church. Why? Because this is essentially what you’ll be doing in the church plant. Bob Roberts, Jr. wisely counsels:

The church planting interns start small groups in our church, so they are part of our normal, ongoing community. They get to “take with them” anyone they reach in their small group, keeping in mind that the majority of their people are going to come from outside Northwood. If they can’t start a small group, why should they think they can start a church? If all they do is gather existing church members for their small group, they haven’t indicated their ability to plant a church. When they gather people from outside Northwood, we start getting excited (note1).

Leading and multiplying a small group will give you confidence to do the same in a church planting setting. Simple church planting is all about raising up leaders for the harvest who can lead home groups and keep the process going.

Third step: invite people to the pilot cell group

The pilot group is your first cell group. When you start your pilot group, you have started your church. The first people in your pilot group are the charter members. They will be the foundation stones for the future.

The pilot group should not exceed fifteen adults. If it does, start two or more pilot groups at the same time.

Why start a pilot group? Because cell ministry is better “caught than taught.” As the first leaders catch the vision for cell ministry, they will then impart what they’ve experienced to others. The core members will also get to see, feel, and interact with the values of the lead pastor.

Mistakes made in the pilot group stage are more easy to correct at the beginning. If the pilot group does not practice evangelism, neither will any of the resulting groups. If pilot group leaders do not model leadership development, neither will any of the resulting groups.

You can find people for your pilot group from friends, family, neighbors, a mother church, or co-workers. As mentioned earlier, the whole process of recruitment needs to be bathed in prayer. Through your prayers, God will guide you to the divine appointments—the people He has been sovereignly preparing (note 2).

Places to find your core group

In Ecuador we were blessed to take 150 from the mother church, along with ten cell groups to start a daughter church five miles away (note 3). At Wellspring we had no such advantage. We planted the church with my family and one other person.

So where do church planters find their initial group?

Jeff French is a great example of finding his pilot cell group from neighbors and friends he met at a bar and other places. Before starting a pilot cell, Jeff volunteered for a variety of activities with the hope of making contacts. People learned to love and appreciate him, and he was their friend. Soon a group formed from his contacts.

Jeannette Buller promotes finding the people for the pilot group through the use of multiple “pre-cells” that are short-term. She writes:

I would suggest starting with some short-term “pre-cells,” which are focused on a particular need or interest in your ministry focus group. These could be evangelistically oriented Bible studies, instructional help such as finances or parenting, or simply an interest group on a specific topic. As the trust develops, you will be able to talk to them about joining something more permanent (note 4).

Some have found it helpful to ask people for prayer requests. Sometimes God decides to miraculously answer the prayers, which in turn builds trust in the church planter and the church plant. Those who God has touched are willing to join the core group.

It sounds ideal to find all of the members of the pilot group from non-believers. Yet, it’s also good to have some foundational members who know Jesus and have caught the cell vision. Aubrey Malphurs writes:

The vision of the new church is not to steal sheep from the other churches (transfer growth), but to win sheep from the community (conversion growth). At the initial planting, however, the new church will need a group of mature believers as an important part of its foundation. This may involve some transfer growth initially (note 5).

Ultimately, it’s good to have a mixture of both believers and unchurched. Peter Wagner writes:

I am aware that some recommend that when we start a new church. . . it is best to start with a group of unchurched people and develop them into a church. I can understand where they are coming from. They say that if we want new wineskins to contain the new wine, we do not need those who are dragging old wineskins around with them to get in the way. And this has worked in some instances. It is my opinion, however, that most church planters would do well to have a core of people around them who bring some of the technical skills that unchurched people would not have (note 6).

One couple who joined our initial pilot group at Wellspring had moved from Long Beach to Moreno Valley. The wife had been involved in a cell church in the Philippines and was excited to get involved in what we were doing. This couple served as foundational members for the first two years of the church (note 7).

Yet, some church planters find the core from among non-traditional Christians. One cell church planter wrote, “I know it sounds a little strange, but when starting new cell churches, I look for people who love Jesus tremendously, but who are sick of church.”8 Here in Moreno Valley we had a few people who were tired of church as usual and wanted to be involved on the ground floor of something new and exciting (note: they were not attending another church at the time).

Discerning the level of commitment among the core

It’s not wise to accept people into your pilot group who are already committed to another evangelical church. You will face problems of conflicting authority and time commitments. Since the “other church” is where they worship and already have social relationships, they will be unwilling to commit themselves fully to the new church plant.

Those who have split loyalties will have a hard time accepting your church’s overall vision. Take outreach, for example. If a person has not yet committed to the church plant, most likely they will not be willing to evangelize and bring new people into the church, since they themselves are not committed. And even if they were to attract unchurched people, they would send out mixed signals about commitment to the local church, since their own loyalties are divided.

When it comes to serving, can they be counted on to be there and contribute to the larger goals? And what about financially supporting the new work? If a person is not committed to one church, it manifests itself in finances.

More importantly, cell church ministry is about making disciples in community. Community comes with bumps and bruises. You can’t avoid times of real struggle as you accept the faults and failures of others. Like a marriage, it takes a real commitment to be there through good and hard times. It means saying, “We are a family, and we will stick this out until God changes us.”

If a person is committed only half-way, when things get difficult, they will go somewhere else.

My recommendation is to allow the person to test your cell for a short while (perhaps a month or two). Then simply ask the person to make a decision. Try to do it as gently as possible, knowing that it’s perfectly OK if the person decides to leave and minister elsewhere.

Many cell church planters have their pilot group meeting on Sunday evening. This is a good choice because people are accustomed to viewing Sunday as “church day.” Meeting on Sunday evening sends the message that the pilot cell is the church.

We also had our first training events on Sunday morning, partly to send the message that we were truly a church from the very beginning and expected people to commit to our pilot cell as their church.

In the initial stages of a cell church plant, there won’t be a full-blown Sunday worship service. It is not a problem if someone wants to attend a Sunday service somewhere for a more complete experience of worship and teaching. I do make sure the person is primarily connected to our church, both with their time and financial commitment.

Find your key leaders

Jesus chose his twelve disciples from among the multitude and then He selected three to enter into a closer relationship with Him. Those three were part of Christ’s inner circle.

We felt led to do something similar among those in our pilot group at Wellspring. We discovered that not all pilot group members were equally committed. Some stood out. We had one couple, for example, who could never clearly tell us if they were fully committed to our church plant. They attended the celebration service at a church in a neighboring city and weren’t sure about their commitment. They wanted to “see what was going to happen with our church” before they made their commitment.

We realized that this couple would not be part of our leadership team. Yet, we didn’t exclude them, since they were with us from the beginning. So we made a list of requirements for those who chose to form part of the initial leadership team.

Requirements/Commitments: top leadership at Wellspring

  • Commitment to make Wellspring the main local church:
    • Commitment to the vision of Wellspring.
    • Commitment see pastor Joel Comiskey as the primary pastor.
    • Commitment to see Wellspring as their church (note 9).
  • Commitment of time:
    • Commitment to be at all planned training events.
    • Commitment to Wellspring–just as a person commits to be at their job every day, so also a person should be commit to be at Wellspring.
  • Commitment of tithe:
    • Agree that 10 percent or more of gross income should be given to the Lord.
    • Agree to give the majority of that ten percent to Wellspring.
  • Commitment to eventually lead a cell group.
  • Commitment of purity and holiness.
  • Commitment to maintain a regular, consistent devotional time.

The couple in question was not willing to make a deeper commitment and became attendees of our initial cell group, rather than part of the key leadership core.

Give yourself enough time in forming the pilot group

Ralph Neighbour writes, “In answer to the question about how a cell church plant finds its core group, here in Houston for me it has been v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y!” (note 10). My experience is that a true pilot group takes time to gel.

Some will come, check out the group, and decide it’s not a right fit. Some will not want to commit the time to join a church at the beginning. Others will be critical of the lack of normal church programs and activities. Some won’t feel comfortable with those present. One experienced church planter, wrote:

I have found that in some cases the core comes together fairly rapidly. In most cases so far, though, it takes time. In one case, I went an entire year with just one family. When God finally moved, it was an awesome thing to watch. The trick is to stay faithful in prayer and watching. Henry Blackaby says we should watch to see where God is working and seek to join Him. I say it a little differently. I am looking for the footprint of God and trying to step in it. The hard part, though, comes when I haven’t seen a footprint in a while. The temptation is to make one for Him, but it’s the wrong thing to do! (note 11).

Trying to find new ways to invite people is part of the process of growing the church. It’s easy to underestimate the struggles and loneliness. The bottom line is that church planting takes time.

What to do in the pilot group?

Lead your pilot cell like a normal cell group. It’s important to exemplify from the very beginning what you plan the future cell groups to follow. The values and vision you establish in the first cell will reverberate to all the future cell groups. I included in appendix three a normal cell group order, using the 4Ws, along with a sample lesson to follow.

Train future leaders

Training is in addition to the modeling that will take place in the pilot group. Training those in the pilot group can be done either before or after the cell group or on a different day. In the beginning stages of Wellspring, we used Sunday morning to do training.

Most cell churches have developed a training track, and they ask all their people to go through it. I’ve written about training tracks in cell churches in my book, Leadership Explosion (note 12).

What kind of materials should be used for training? Great materials are available today. I’ve developed a five-book equipping series that is available for purchase. Look at what someone else has developed as a template for your own training track. On my website, there are helpful articles about how other cell churches design their equipping series.

Fourth step: multiply pilot group

When you have trained future leaders and have between ten and fifteen in your pilot group, it’s time to multiply into at least two cells. Determine who will go into each cell group. Plan the date for multiplication with the group itself.

After multiplication, your new role as church planter will be to coach the new leaders as well as lead one of the cell groups (note 13). As coach of the new leaders, you will visit their groups and meet with the leaders on a one-on-one basis.

Leading your own group while coaching others will remind you of the importance of developing relationships with unchurched people—an absolute necessity in effectively planting a cell-based church.

Rob Reimer, church planter in New England, exemplifies the evangelism fervor he wants others to follow. He writes, “I’m passionate about reaching lost people, and I preach it and model it. If the senior pastor doesn’t preach it, bleed it, and model it, people won’t listen to what he says, and do what he does! He has to lead the way” (note 14). Reimer likes his groups to multiply only after they have reached two new people for Christ. The church planter’s role is critical in maintaining the evangelistic focus.

Advice for multiplying a group (note15)

  • Prenatal (weeks #1, 2 and 3)
    • Have new leader, host, and a few members selected who will start the new group.
    • Talk about the upcoming birth and why it is important.
    • Divide the group for ministry time. Have the new team go to different parts of the house.
    • It is important that the new team develops social relationships during the week (phone calls, social contacts, etc.).
  • Birth (week #4)
    • Meet as separate cells but in the same house.
  • Postnatal (weeks #5-12)
    • Meet as two separate cells in two different locations (weeks #5, 6 and 7)
    • Meet back together for a reunion. This should not be a formal meeting but a time of fellowship and enjoying one another (Week #8 – one month after birth)
    • Meet as two separate cells in two different locations (Week #9, 10, and 11)
    • Meet back together for a reunion. Generally by this time cell members enjoy being together but find they have made the transition and their new cell is really where they are connected! (Week #12 – two months after birth)

Fifth step: start celebration worship

Just like a new birth that begins in the womb and results in a fully formed child, the cell church strategy starts behind the scenes and grows into a public demonstration of what’s already happening. Bill Beckham writes:

One method of beginning a cell church is the popular but flawed “big bang” theory. In the “big bang” theory a cell church develops out of a cataclysmic event by which the church appears complete and fully formed. The theory is the opposite of the process principle Jesus used to build the first church. Church leaders, especially pastors of large churches, are attracted to the “big bang” theory because it seems to eliminate much of the pain and the patience required in a step-by-step process. It promises to give instant gratification to vision. However, the “big bang” theory is a fatal attraction. It weakens the learning process of leaders and compromises the developing process necessary to strengthen the infrastructure (note 16).

In the cell church strategy, the church has already begun through the cell. The essence of the celebration is connecting the cells together. The celebration services causes each person in the church to see themselves as part of a greater whole.

Many cell church planters start celebration services too early and get trapped placing too much energy into a celebration service, losing the cell focus and momentum. Bob Logan and Jeannette Buller write:

Most traditional church plants begin with a full-blown public worship with as many buzzers and bells as can be mustered. Much time and energy goes into preparing for this service, including various forms of advertising and, often, borrowed leadership to pull it off. Because cell-celebration churches want to put their emphasis on reaching unchurched people and participating in life-transforming cell groups, the worship service is not usually a primary focus in the initial stages of the church plant (note 17).

The importance of waiting

Granted, it’s very hard to wait to start celebration services because church culture still expects a Sunday morning gathering. I personally started the celebration service too soon in my first church plant in Long Beach, California in 1983. Everything went well in the beginning when the church met in my home. The house church grew and prospered. The time came to multiply to an additional home group and my original plan was to start various cells that would then meet once per month together on Sunday night.

One key couple, however, resisted my plan. They wanted to meet every week in a celebration gathering. At the time, I had not established my own philosophy of ministry. I was tossed back and forth by every wind of church growth theory. To please this couple, I decided to have a weekly celebration for everyone who wanted to be involved. We started meeting on Sunday morning. I hoped to keep the home groups alive, but soon found that all my time and attention were going to the weekly celebration—just trying to get people to attend that service. It was an exhausting experience, and I don’t recommend it.

Launching a celebration service too early is a common problem. When a few people come together in such a situation, it feels like eating at a bad restaurant. The lack of people seems to indicate the food is bad. Jason Hoag, a church planter in Florida, said:

We have started a cell church (or what we thought was a cell church) in April 2000 in Orlando, Florida. The leadership team and I are realizing now that in our ignorance, we started with a big meeting (boy do I wish we could do that one over again) (note18).

I gave a seminar to Southern Baptists in Florida and discovered that most of the church planters started their church with a celebration service. When I spoke about the need to first multiply the pilot group and to grow the infrastructure naturally before starting the celebration, most of them nodded in agreement. They knew firsthand the difficulties of trying to celebrate with so few people. They regretted that their celebration service felt more like a cell group than a true Sunday service.

Keith Bates, a church planter in Australia, writes: “I think now I would probably have just run cells and not had a bigger meeting for a while. That would have said that this church is radically different.” Like a lot of church planters, Keith Bates probably thought that a weekly celebration would give him more people, but, in reality, it doesn’t. It often hinders church growth because people don’t get a true sense of celebration.

Resist the temptation to begin regular celebration services before establishing the infrastructure of the cell groups. Otherwise, it puts too much strain on too few people.

Dean Dequera, a former church planter in the San Francisco area, writes:

Although we take full responsibility for the failed attempt, there were a lot of factors that led to our failure. We basically found ourselves in a crowd to core approach instead of a core to crowd. Then we were stuck trying to teach “old dogs new tricks.” Values take time to develop and we must resist the pressure to produce a crowd overnight in order to help us survive financially (note 19).

Dean, a good friend of mine, found himself having to produce a quick crowd with no foundation. He faced the church planter’s dilemma—produce or perish. The instant crowd approach created a false dichotomy and put too much strain on the church (note 20). Lyle Schaller writes:

If the mission developer yields to those pressures to begin corporate worship soon after arrival, that often means beginning with a smaller number and diverting much of that church planter’s time and energy away from cultivating new constituents (note 21).

When to go public

Small groups are supposed to be small. Large rooms, however, with few people lack vibrancy, and a certain emptiness engulfs everyone. A study from Leadership Journal a few years ago found that the average size for starting a church was forty-three (note 22). Increasingly, however, church leaders have recognized the need to have even more people to start a viable weekly celebration service. A blurb on the Disciples of Christ website encouraged their church planters to start weekly worship services when there were 100 people involved in the core group.

I think it’s best to wait until there are between 75 and 100 people in approximately ten cell groups before committing to a weekly celebration service. Until then, it’s normal and acceptable for the cells to meet once per month in a celebration service or once every two weeks (note 23). Many cell church plants also fulfill the need for the larger gathering with half-night prayer meetings and social gatherings.

Waiting for approximately 75-100 people before weekly celebration assures that the same people won’t be doing the same Sunday ministries over and over. It’s also essential not to depend on a few key families to show up each celebration time in order to have enough people to truly celebrate. With 100 people in the cell groups, some families can miss the celebration, and most likely the key celebration functions will continue as planned (e.g., children’s church, worship team, and so forth).

Several years ago, two church planters started pioneering a cell-based approach at River Rock Church in Folsom, California. They worked hard to build cells, develop leaders, enter into the life of the community, and build infrastructure for the church. All that required great patience, persistence, keeping faith with their vision, and delaying the grand opening.

When they had their first public service, they were ready. The infrastructure was in place. They had eight cell groups with leaders, apprentices and several experienced members, ministry teams, a leadership team, a web site, and a clear vision for their church.

Most importantly, members were inviting people. The church has grown rapidly in both cell and celebration. People who came to their first celebration service saw something alive, exciting, authentic, and worth coming back to (note 24).

Key Question: do you need weekly celebrations?

The cells of a cell church should meet together in a large group gathering. Not all cell churches, however, meet weekly in corperate gatherings. Cell churches, in other words, do not need to gather together weekly in corperate worship to be called a cell church. Weekly celebration services will not be the norm for every church.

I don’t think that the definition of a cell church requires a weekly celebration meeting. Rather, I believe that the cells do need to gather together in corporate worship to be called a cell church. The frequency of that meeting is what’s in question. The great benefit of the weekly celebration is that the cell church can reach out more frequently through the celebration wing. Yet, the cell must drive the church. The main priority is for the cells to meet weekly. Those cells should be networked together through pastoral care, coaching, training, and coming together. And these are the things that define a cell church—not whether the celebration meets weekly or not. I asked Bill Beckham about this, and he wrote back saying:

It seems to me that large group celebration can be very flexible in terms of frequency, place, number of people involved and even format of the meeting. Celebration was certainly flexible in the New Testament. Of course we must answer a question about the reference in the New Testament to “the first day of the week.” What were they doing on the “First Day of the Week?” Were they meeting every “First Day” of the week in a large group expression? Or, were they meeting weekly in small group expression and from time to time in large group expression. I am inclined to believe that it is the second suggestion. I believe that we must operate from the large group celebration principle and not from the historical precedent of a large group meeting. The Body of Christ needs to experience God in a large group expression along with the small group and house church expression. I believe the 21st Century Church is finding innovative ways to live out the principle (note 25).

The cell church movement needs to develop new models of how the church will function in its large group expression. And we must remember that the large group expression is not just the time of public worship. In addition to public worship, the large group expression could be used for training, for showing a public face in the city, for fellowship, for coordina­tion, and for evangelism. Lon Vining writes:

The church I helped plant in Boulder, Colorado, called Quest has now gone to once-a-month services, and the other three Sundays they hang out with their cell groups and bring along lost friends. They have programmed in enough free time in which they can actually spend time with each other and with lost persons, making friendships. Statistics and experience have borne out that that’s really the place Christ is introduced to a non-believer—through deep, committed friendships. When we know these two facts, then to throw all of our eggs in the relationship building basket makes complete sense, and doing

anything that takes a lot of time and energy that does not build our cell or our outside relationships does not make much sense (note 26).

I coach some cell church planters who never want weekly celebrations. And that’s okay. And then some pastors can’t manage both a weekly cell structure and weekly celebration.

The focus should remain on the weekly cells, and the celebration should develop as the cells build strength. Those cells might celebrate all together on a weekly basis or a monthly basis. Or they might meet together more than once per week, like in the case of Elim (note 27). They might even meet once a quarter.

Finding a location for the celebration service

  • Most church planters recommend renting property to start a church.28 I would suggest that churches save money and rent facilities. Meeting in a rented facility means developing a “portable approach” to ministry. There are various choices:
  • Many churches use another church’s facility.
  • School rentals are another great option, because they are neutral places. In my first church plant, we rented at an elementary school for several years. Today school rental can be a very expensive option.
  • Day care sites are another option.
  • Community centers hold promise for many church plants.
  • Restaurants and meeting halls (legion hall) are great choices for many.
  • Fire stations often provide great meeting places.
  • Hotels are the choice of many. Wagner says, “I feel that one greatly underutilized space in many of our communities are hotel or motel conference rooms. These are often full during the week but empty on weekends. Hotel sales managers would like to keep them full seven days a week. The prices on these rooms are in most cases highly negotiable” (note 29). In my current church plant, we are meeting at a Best Western Hotel in Moreno Valley.

People do get tired of needing to set up church for each celebration, so the pastor needs to diligently cast the vision and delegate responsibilities to a wide variety of people.

Sixth step: build the infrastructure

After the cells have multiplied and you’re able to bring them together to celebrate, it’s now time to work on the coaching structure, perfect the equipping track, and develop other components of the cell church such as the cell reporting system.

I always encourage the pastor to continue to lead a cell or be part of a cell leadership team. Personal involvement allows the pastor to freely add cell examples to sermons. A pastor who is personally involved in a cell can speak from personal experience about the need for community, body-life evangelism, leadership development, and the use of the gifts of the Spirit.

The coaching structure should stay strong on two levels. The first level is the senior pastor coaching his team. The second level is volunteer lay cell leaders coaching the new leaders who have multiplied new cells.

Group coaching meetings are more necessary between the senior pastor and his team. If the senior pastor has gathered a paid staff, they should meet weekly. If the senior pastor has gathered a volunteer staff, I recommend a group meeting every fifteen days.

During those group coaching meetings, the senior pastor ministers to his key leaders through the word and prayer. Then the group talks about the cell system by carefully analyzing cell statistics, the training track, multiplication dates, and prayer needs. Like a quarterback in a huddle, the senior pastor directs the cell system through the hub of his leadership team.

I encourage volunteer leaders to continue leading a cell group while coaching up to three cell leaders. A cell coach could call each leader under his or her care once-a-month and meet with each person once a month.

In some cultures, group meetings between the volunteer coach and the cell leaders might not be as frequent. Too many “ideal” coaching structures fail because they were based on what should happen rather than what is actually happening. Thus, if time doesn’t permit the volunteer coach to have a huddle meeting with cell leaders, by all means the coach should commit to the one-on-one personal time each month and a once-a-month phone call.

Some churches will have a quarterly huddle with all of the cell leaders present. The senior pastor normally leads this time.

Seventh step: plant new cell churches

Cell churches value reproduction of disciples, leaders, and cell groups. Some cell church pastors believe in multiplication at a cell level but not at a church level. Yet, it’s inconsistent not to carry out multiplication at a church level as well. The logical conclusion is the reproduction of churches. Healthy churches are fruitful and multiply. The early church multiplied leaders, disciples, and churches at all levels.

The goal is to raise up a church multiplication movement. Bob Logan says, “Of all models of church, the cell church has the greatest multiplication of churches” (note 30).

Yet, why do some cell churches fail to multiply other churches? Often the initial vision is too small. The church planter only talks about starting one church, rather than planting multiple churches.

When Jesus saw the multitudes around Him, He said to His disciples, “Do you not say, ‘Four months more and then the harvest?’ I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest” (John 4:35).

So often we see the multitudes but don’t think about their lostness. Jesus did more than analyze their condition. He had compassion on them because “. . . they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36). This compassion stirred Christ to exhort his followers to, “Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field” (Matthew 9:36-38).

Ask God to break your heart with what breaks His heart. Then pray that the Lord of the harvest will raise up new church planters. Most likely, they’ll come from among your fruitful cell leaders. Cast the vision for future church plants and be willing to hive off a group from the church to start a new work.

As you plan to start a cell church, follow the seven steps outlined above. You will make many adjustments along the way. We did in our cell church plant, and you will in yours. As Proverbs 19:21 says, “Many are the plans in a man’s heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails.”

  1. Bob Roberts, Jr., The Multiplying Church: The New Math for Starting New Churches (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008), p.66.
  2. Kitt Mason sent this information to cellchurchtalk on Wednesday, August 16, 2000.The information is adapted from an address given by Carol Davis at the World Impact Crowns of Beauty Conference, February 1999. Source: Dawn Ministries and Joel-News-International, 329, August 16, 2000.
  3. We gathered approximately 150 people who were willing to plant the church. We gathered those people in various planning meetings to prepare for the launch. I trained the small group leaders who were going to lead groups in the new church. On a particular Sunday in 1994, we held our first Sunday service.
  4. Jeannette Buller wrote this comment on 11/15/2001 to cellchurchtalk.
  5. Aubrey Malphurs, Planting Growing Churches (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1998), p. 313.
  6. Peter Wagner, Church Planting for a Greater Harvest (Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 1990), p. 56.
  7. From the beginning this particular husband was more skeptical of cell church ministry, having been accustomed to the Sunday morning church experience for most of his upbringing. His wife was full of excitement and passion, and she was the reason for their involvement. Eventually they both left our church plant to find a more traditional church. And this is always the problem in finding “churched people” to be part of the pilot group. Often they are unwilling to wholeheartedly support a new vision, like cell church, because they are so accustomed to the way things were.
  8. Don Tillman wrote cellchurchtalk, an internet chat group on the cell church on Monday, May 15, 2000.
  9. For example, if someone is tired because of a busy week, that person would not skip Wellspring. Rather, he or she would not attend the other church in which he or she is celebrating. The other church is extra. In summary, any other church involvement is extra.
  10. Ralph wrote this to cellchurchtalk, an internet chat group on 5/11/2000.
  11. Don Tillman wrote cellchurchtalk, an internet chat group on the cell church on Monday, May 15, 2000.
  12. Leadership Explosion can be obtained at https://jcgresources.com/bookstore/leadership-explosion-multiplying-cell-groups-to-reap-the-harvest/ or by calling 1-888-344-CELL.
  13. A fulltime pastor could coach up to twelve cell leaders. This is an idea number and most likely it will be far less.
  14. Rob sent the following email to me on July 25, 2002: “Our cells evangelize by building relationships with people outside the family of God—family, friends, co-workers, neighbors, school mates, etc. We build authentic relationships, love people, pray hard, and do ‘teamwork’ evangelism. I was struck one day by the pattern of evangelism in the New Testament–Jesus sends out the 12, 2×2. He sends out the 70, 2×2. You get to the book of Acts and it’s Peter and John, Paul and Barnabas, Paul and Timothy, Paul and Luke, Paul and Silas (Paul and everybody), but it’s always in teams. The only exception that I can think of is Philip (‘The Evangelist’). Yet, we Americans do evangelism like we do everything else, in isolation, clinging to our individualism. So, we train, teach, and practice ‘teamwork’ evangelism. I build a relationship with my friend Jon. Jon likes golf, so I invite other members of my cell to play golf with my friend Jon. You’ve seen the church growth stuff about if someone doesn’t make six friends within three months, they don’t stick. Well, teamwork evangelism dramatically increases our chances of assimilation. Plus, many people are too timid to share their faith, but they are much bolder in teams. It works.”
  15. Jay Firebaugh, former senior pastor of Clearpoint Church in Pasadena, Texas, invented this order for multiplication. He offers the following additional insight: Don’t expect the members in your cell to WANT to birth. In fact, if they wanted to get away from one another you would have a problem! These people have likely grown to value and love each other. They have longed for community in their lives and now a birth can seem a threat to losing it. Be empathetic! However, you have got to know that the greatest threat to community is becoming too large and / or ingrown. It is imperative that the Shepherd and Apprentice clearly believe and present that birthing is the best thing for the cell. If a cell doesn’t birth at the appropriate time (around 15) one of two things will happen:
    • The group will continue to grow and become a medium-sized group rather than a cell. Community will be lost because sharing will become surfacy and safe. The small group dynamic will be lost and community will be lost along with it.
    • The group will stop growing and become ingrown. It will be “us four and no more!” When the focus moves away from the empty chair and evangelism and asking who else God would want to benefit from this group it is the beginning of the end! The group moves from the dynamic of “Christ in the midst” (Matthew 18:20) to navel-gazing.
  16. The only way to hold onto community is to let it go! Birthing allows the focus of the group to remain outward while continuing to encounter community within the dynamic of a cell. Be patient with your members as you take them through this process. Physical birth is difficult because the baby doesn’t want to leave the safe environment of the womb for the unknown risk of the world outside their mother. But life is outside the womb! As you help your members through this traumatic time, you’ll experience the life of God at work in and through your cell!
  17. Bill Beckham, Redefining Revival (Houston, TX: Touch Publications, 2000), p. 216.
  18. Bob Logan and Jeannette Buller, Cell Church Planter’s Guide (Saint Charles, IL: ChurchSmart, 2001), 8-15.
  19. In response to Jeffrey Long, Jason Hoag, wrote the above quote on cellchurchtalk www.cell-church.org on Tuesday, August 22, 2000.
  20. Personal email sent to me on Friday, January 28, 2005.
  21. Many churches do start with a celebration service. The Christian and Missionary Alliance launched 101 congregations in the United States and Puerto Rico on Sunday on April 19, 1987. The average attendance on that first Sunday was eighty-eight persons. Four years later, thirty-one churches were closed, thirty-four were under fifty people, twenty-four averaged between 50-100, and twelve churches were averaging over 100 people (Ken Davis, “A Hundred Churches in a Single Day,” Doctoral Dissertation, Fuller Theological Seminary, January, 1992). I personally don’t think this is a good average. I would also add that even through all church planting strategies have problems with transfer growth, it seems to me that the celebration strategy has the most difficulty. Why? Because anonymity is a key value. It’s important not to ask for commitment right away. The goal is to allow the people to be anonymous. Neil Cole correctly asserts, “I went to a seminar on how to start a church. Church planting was reduced to simply getting more people in the seats on Sunday. Personally, I want to give my life to something bigger than that. In the seminar, the secret to growing a church was explained as revolving around two very important things: clean bathrooms and plenty of parking spaces. Apparently, the Kingdom of God is held up by dirty toilets and poor parking. Jesus will have to wait for us to clean up our act. In India and rural China, however, where the church is growing fastest, among the most noticeable missing ingredients are clean toilets and parking spaces, so I guess the theory espoused is not necessarily true” (Neil Cole, Organic Church , San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2005, p. 94).
  22. Lyle Schaller, 44 Questions for Church Planters (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1991), p. 72.
  23. As quoted in Peter Wagner, Church Planting for a Greater Harvest (Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 1990), p. 63.
  24. Bob Logan recommends the following:
    • When there are three cells, celebration once per month
    • When there are five cells, celebration twice per month
    • When there are seven to eight cells, celebration every week.
  25. I like Logan’s advice. I would simply tweak it to assure there are sufficient people in the seven to eight cells before starting the weekly celebration. Cells can be quite small (five to eight people), so even having seven to eight cells might mean there are only forty to fifty people. I do believe that a catalytic, gifted leader can start weekly celebrations with less people attending the cells. Eric Glover, the lead pastor of Wellspring, is sufficiently gifted to start celebration sooner than later.
  26. 335 people showed up for the first service, and they estimated that between 180-200 were taking a look for the first time. Information gleaned from Coachnet: The Cell Church Chronicles, received on Monday, April 15, 2002 from Coachnet.
  27. Personal e-mail Beckham sent to me on Sunday, May 19, 2002.
  28. Lon Vining comments to cellchurchtalk on Monday, April 28, 2003.
  29. The cell members at Elim normally gather in celebration gathering two to three times per week.
  30. Ralph Moore, Starting a New Church (Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 2002), p. 117.
  31. Peter Wagner, Church Planting for a Greater Harvest (Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 1990), pp. 120-121.
  32. Bob Logan and Jeannette Bulller, Cell Church Planters Guide (Carol Stream, IL: ChurchSmart Resources, 2001). I heard this quote on this tape series.