Discipleship through Multiplication

Taken from Chapter 6 of Making Disciples in the Twenty-First Century Church

by Joel Comiskey

Spring 2014

In February 2010, I had an “aha moment.” I was speaking at a cell conference in Dallas, Texas with Mario Vega, lead pastor of the Elim Church in San Salvador. I sat down, and it was Mario’s turn to speak. Mario’s theme was the biblical basis for cell ministry and during his talk he said, “Multiplication is the result of the health of the cell.” Mario explained that multiplication is not the goal. Rather, the goal is making disciples who make new disciples. As those disciples are formed and developed in a caring, loving environment, multiplication is the result. Knowing that Mario was the lead pastor of one of the fastest growing churches in the world, I listened intently to what he had to say about cell multiplication.

As I think back, I probably heard those words many times previously, but I wasn’t ready to really hear them until that moment. It had become increasingly clear to me that multiplication could not be the primary goal—like I had previously thought in 1997.[i]

It would take many more years and living in a different context to understand that multiplication is not the goal. Rather it’s the result of a focus on making disciples who make disciples. In other words, a healthy disciple is formed and shaped in a life-giving cell.

We should desire to make as many healthy disciples as possible, but it’s equally important to understand that multiplying a cell group isn’t the same thing as making a healthy disciple. It’s possible to multiply a cell group and not even have a leader, as some cell churches have done. These churches have multiplied cell groups by asking one leader to facilitate more than one group. Yet having a lot of groups is not the purpose of cell ministry, and such activity can have harmful side effects, like burn-out and discouragement. The mission is to make disciples who make disciples—just like Jesus taught.

Don’t Force Multiplication

When I truly caught the vision that healthy cells multiply because disciples are prepared and ready to start new groups, I began to focus on making disciples and stopped worrying about how long it took to multiply the group. Until then, I was more concerned about multiplying the group within a certain time period or on a planned multiplication date—even if healthy disciples were not developed. It was a mechanical, knee-jerk reaction, and I was placing the cart before the horse.

I remember one cell group, for example, in which we enjoyed sweet fellowship and community. The main couple who attended the group had a lot of non-Christian friends, booming secular business in the city, and loved the group. Yet, after a certain amount of time, I felt we needed to multiply because that’s what cells were supposed to do. The problem was that disciples were not prepared. This couple correctly realized that I was forcing a multiplication before the right time—something that I only later realized. They eventually left the church.

Yes, new births will be painful, and discomfort is part of the growing experience, but I also think we need to make sure that the pain isn’t self-inflicted through man-motivated, forced activity. The emphasis should always be on making disciples who make disciples and the result is multiplication—not the other way around.

As I’ve grown in my understanding of healthy multiplication, I’ve also changed my cell definition to highlight making new disciples that results in multiplication:

A group of three to fifteen people who meet weekly outside the church building for the purpose of evangelism, community, and spiritual growth with the goal of making disciples who make disciples which results in multiplication.

In the past, I prioritized multiplication and implied that making disciples was the result. Yet, I’ve often passed over that implication and failed to practice it. As I travel around the world, I see many pastors falling into the same trap. They push multiplication as an end in itself, rather than the result of something greater—making disciples who make disciples. Prepared disciples are molded in nourishing, life-giving cell groups—just like healthy babies are shaped in healthy wombs.

Formation in the Womb

The formation of a baby and the subsequent new birth is a miraculous process. One of the most wonderful moments of my life was seeing Sarah Comiskey born in Quito, Ecuador on September 16, 1991. I couldn’t believe that what the doctor placed in our arms was a living, breathing human being. Yet, Sarah’s birth didn’t happen overnight. She was formed in an atmosphere that prepared her to face the challenges of new life.

Throughout the first three months, a baby grows at an astonishing rate, turning from a tiny group of cells into a fetus. The baby draws nutrition from its mother, and by month seven, the baby reaches nine inches. The baby’s internal organs are maturing and now has a fully formed face. Some babies have even been photographed sucking their thumbs in the womb during the second trimester. The baby continues to gain weight rapidly and by the end of the seventh month has eyebrows and eyelashes. The baby’s brain develops rapidly during the last trimester

The nutritional environment of a mother’s womb affects the baby’s health, not only at birth and during early infancy, but for the rest of his or her life. This means that the future health of the baby will be affected when the mother gets either too little of the right nutrients or too much of the wrong ones.

Just as a developing baby needs the proper conditions within the uterus to thrive outside, healthy disciples grow as they are developed in healthy cells. What are the key signs that disciples have been formed within the cell and ready to give birth?

Sign #1: Is Community Taking Place?

Jesus chose twelve diverse disciples and took three years to mold them together as a single unit. It took that long for them to learn to look past their differences and love one another. Jesus told them that their impact on the world depended on the love they showed toward one another.

Jesus molds and shapes cell groups in the same way today. If a new cell multiplies that hasn’t experienced true community, there’s a good chance it won’t survive. Before multiplication happens, those in the cell should first experience what it means to be the family of God. If community is not happening in the mother cell, what will the new group have to offer? Those new disciples in the womb of the cell need a chance to depend on their brothers and sisters in times of difficulties and struggle. Future disciples need the opportunity to consistently share transparently, ask for prayer, contribute praise reports, and pray for others.

They should have learned to deal with conflict in the group. Without conflict, believers won’t exercise their muscles to grow deeper in their Christian faith. Peter says, “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:7-8). The word deeply in Greek literally means to stretch out. It denotes the tense muscle activity of an athlete. Loving others requires the stretching out and exercising muscles we didn’t know existed. We have to cover the sins of our brothers and sisters with a love that only the Holy Spirit can provide. This type of love doesn’t come naturally—only supernaturally. Pressing through the conflict to community is worth the pain, and it’s not wise to rush the multiplication process until community is happening. Remember the goal isn’t simply a new cell group. Rather, the goal is healthy disciples who are forged in God-given community.

Sign #2: Is Everyone Participating?

The New Testament house churches were flexible and dynamic. Everyone participated and Paul could say to the house church in Ephesus, “. . . the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work” (Ephesians 4:16). Paul wrote to another house church in Colossae, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God” (Colossians 3:16). Paul wanted the house church believers to freely share, to encourage one another, and to rejoice in God’s goodness. We don’t see a rigid agenda or one person giving the Bible study. Rather, the meeting was a time to minister to one another and meet needs. The Holy Spirit used each member as an instrument of edification. The members enjoyed each other’s presence, laughed together, and experienced rich fellowship. Robert Banks writes, “We find no suggestion that these meetings were conducted with the kind of solemnity and formality that surrounds most weekly Christian gatherings today.”[ii]

A group is not ready to multiply unless the group members are actively ministering to one another, applying the word of God to real life, and actively using their gifts. The disciples who will eventually lead the daughter cell are best prepared in this type of environment. Future disciples will also need to know how to identify their own gifts and help others in finding and using theirs. They need to first witness an organic, dynamic cell group, so they can reproduce the same thing in the daughter cell.

Sign #3: Is the Group Evangelizing?

If the mother cell group has not practiced evangelism together, most likely the daughter group won’t practice it either. And if the mother cell is ingrown, future disciples who will lead the new group won’t have a positive mental image of what they are supposed to do.

Some have taught that the mother cell needs to win a certain number of people to Jesus before multiplication occurs. I disagree. God has to give the fruit. Our part is to sow the seed. The responsibility of the cell group is to consistently reach out, both as a group and individually. Maybe the daughter cell will see far more fruit than the mother cell! But if the mother cell is not actively evangelizing, the new disciples who will guide the new leadership team won’t know what to do. If the mother cell leader only populates the cell with people already in the larger gathering (celebration), the cell will reproduce after its own ingrown kind.

It’s also true that disciples are formed as they exercise their muscles in developing relationships with non-Christians, serving in the community, praying for non-Christian friends, contributing ideas to cell outreach, and inviting people to the cell groups. If we believe the goal of the cell is to make disciples who make disciples, it’s important that the potential disciples have been using their evangelistic muscles to reach out and win new people.

Sign #4: Are New Disciples Formed?

If no one is being formed in the group to lead the next group, multiplication won’t take place. It’s possible to envision and even set goals for cell multiplication, but if a potential new disciple-maker is not moving through the birth canal, multiplication won’t take place.

Fully-Functioning Cell Member

The first step is for cell leaders to observe the members in the cell, paying close attention to their character development. Those who will serve on a new leadership team must be FAST: Faithful, Available, Servant-hearted, and Teachable. Have they demonstrated these characteristics within the cell? Do they attend consistently? Show up on time? Are they prepared to pray, lead worship, guide the ice-breaker, or facilitate the cell lesson?

The Bible is clear that a growing disciple needs to have a good testimony toward outsiders (1 Timothy 3:7). You don’t want to lift someone up who will later malign the church. I think it’s also essential that team members walk in a certain amount of holiness (Hebrews 12:14). I’m not referring to perfection, because that won’t happen this side of heaven. I am referring to freedom from major sins, such as fornication, pornography, and so forth.

Secondly, has the person been tested to actually lead the cell meeting? A new disciple is not ready to lead the new group unless he has fully participated in the mother group—including leading the lesson on more than one occasion.

Completed Discipleship Equipping

We’ll learn in chapter 8 that future disciples must complete the discipleship equipping, which teaches doctrine, spiritual disciplines, evangelism, and leadership development. Group members, for example, will learn within the group how to evangelize, but the discipleship equipping will teach them the specifics of how to share the gospel, prepare testimonies, and implement the biblical basis for evangelism. The discipleship equipping path is intimately linked with cell ministry and furthers the process of making disciples who make disciples that results in cell multiplication. Cell churches use different terms for this discipleship equipping such as training track or school of leaders.

The discipleship equipping takes the new believer from point A to point B. Everyone in the church should go through it. The equipping is specific, and the process produces disciples who make other disciples through new cell groups. Cell church equipping features clarity and “do-ability.” There is a definite beginning and ending and a new person entering the church can readily understand what it takes to go from A to B.

So while the new disciples are being formed within the cell, they are also being shaped by the discipleship equipping that takes place outside the cell group. It’s this one-two punch that helps cell churches excel in the discipleship-making process.

Character Check

Even though a person has completed the discipleship equipping, faithfully participated in the cell group, and is considered FAST (faithful, available, servant-hearted, and teachable), it doesn’t mean that the new disciple is ready to lead a group—or even be part of a discipleship team. There might be hidden character flaws that would hinder leadership involvement and ultimately cause problems down the road. This is why it’s important that upper level leadership approve the new candidate before he or she is placed on a new leadership team.

Love Alive Church, in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, is a great example of the benefit of requiring a character check for candidates for a new cell leadership team. Love Alive requires that the pastor interview each new potential team leader. A series of questions are asked about the person’s devotional life, marriage, available time for the church, and personal attitudes. When I first observed this process, I thought it was overly restrictive and too time-consuming, but over the years I’ve seen the importance of this quality control. It helps ensure (not guarantee) that the leader will remain strong under pressure and that the cell group has a better chance of surviving. And I was told that only one out of ten cell groups fail at Love Alive Church.

Sign #5: Is a Leadership Team in Place?

I’m more and more convinced that a cell shouldn’t multiply until a team of disciples is in place and ready to lead the new group. This means those who start a new cell have fully participated in the mother cell and have gone through the equipping process.

The Biblical Norm

A plurality of leaders guided the early house church. Paul, for example, told the leaders of the Ephesian church that the Holy Spirit had made them “overseers” of the flock (Acts 20:28). When writing to the church at Philippi, Paul greeted the congregation and, separately, the “overseers” (Philippians 1:1). When he wrote to Titus, Paul directed the appointment of elders, whom he also identified with the functions of “overseer” (Titus 1:5-7). Whether they are designated as a “body of elders” (1 Timothy 4:14) or simply as “elders,” this form of leadership was always exercised by a group of people rather than by one single individual (Acts 20:17; 1 Timothy 5:17; Titus 1:5; James 5:14; 1 Peter 5:1-4). Michael Green says about early church leadership,

Leadership was always plural: the word “presbyter” from which we derive “priest” is regularly used in the plural when describing Christian ministry in the New Testament. They were a leadership team, supporting and encouraging one another, and doubtless making up for each other’s deficiencies. This team leadership is very evident in the missionary journeys of the New Testament, and Acts 13 is particularly interesting. It indicates not only a plural leadership in Antioch, consisting of five members, but diverse types of leadership: some were “prophets” relying on charismatic gifts, while others were “teachers” relying on study of the Scriptures.[iii]

Even the first apostles operated as a team. While guiding the Jerusalem church, they shared the leadership of the congregation with a group of elders (Acts 15:4, 6, 22), who remained long after the apostles were gone (Acts 21:18). The New Testament writers avoid the idea of one, single leader. The norm for the early churches was to have a team of pastors rather than only one. In addition to elders, two churches are mentioned as having deacons (Philippians 1:1; 1 Timothy 3:8, 12). Whatever their functions may have been, their services were also provided on the basis of shared leadership since they are always mentioned in the plural.

I find it much more liberating to tell future disciple-makers that they will not be leading the group individually but will function in a team. Potential disciple-makers feel more secure when knowing they won’t have to do everything themselves. New groups are also much healthier when led by a leadership team. But how do we make this practical?

One Person in Charge

Even with the emphasis of plurality of New Testament leadership, there are indications in the New Testament that a point person led the house church teams (e.g., 1 Timothy 5:17). I have coached churches who didn’t have a point person due to their Scriptural convictions about equality of team ministry. While I liked their team spirit, I discovered that when no one is in charge, it’s common for no one to take responsibility, which leads to lack of clarity and direction.

I believe it’s best to have one person guide the discipleship team, although it’s essential that the point person lead the team with a servant attitude. Scripture is clear that those in charge need to lead in humility, rather than a controlling, dominating spirit. Jesus said the greatest in leadership would be the servant of all (Matthew 20:25-28; John 13:13-17).

Extend the Team

Too often in small group ministry, we’ve emphasized one or two people who we call leaders. But why limit the team to two people? Why not have a team of three, like Jesus, or four or five, like the apostle Paul? Not only can small group responsibilities be distributed more widely on a larger team, but there’s more possibility of multiplication.

It seems to me that when we use the term co-leader or assistant leader, we are cutting ourselves off to additional team members. Why not just use the term team leader or team member and slowly add new potential disciple-makers to the team.

With more on the discipleship team, more people will actually attend faithfully each week (assuming that the team members are always there), and more people can help with the functions within the group (e.g., bringing refreshments, worship, prayer, lesson, evangelistic outreach, and so forth).

Focus on the Giftedness of Each Team Member

Team leadership functions should be distributed according to the giftedness of each member. If Joe has the gift of evangelism, he should be responsible to lead the small group outreach. If Nancy has the gift of mercy, she can help in the visitation of a hospitalized member or organize the visitation. If Jose has the gift of teaching, he can rotate in leading the small group lesson or in the taking a member through the church approved discipleship equipping. If Jeanie has the gift of apostleship, she should be spearheading the next multiplication. If Andrew has the gift of administration, he can be in charge of distributing small group responsibilities—who brings refreshments, leads worship, prayer, lesson, and so forth.

Communication as a Team

Once you’ve established who will be on the team, it’s essential to emphasize love and servanthood. It’s important to establish the rule that team members will talk directly to other team members, rather than gossiping, especially to avoid the subtle trap of gossiping in the name of praying for so-and-so. Absolute honesty and willingness to walk through conflict—and actually growing through it—are important traits that make or break effective team ministry. Remember that even the great apostle Paul experienced issues with his team (Acts 15:1-4) and with team member Barnabas (Acts 15:36-41). Paul’s willingness to walk through these conflicts honestly and face these issues directly resulted in continuation of his great ministry. Team ministry can be intense, and therefore it’s essential to keep short accounts, allow love to cover a multitude of sins, and especially to develop friendship among team members. In fact, friendship is the glue that sustains the team over time.

How can you do this? I recommend touching base by phone, texting, email, talking to each other at church, and personally meeting one another. How often? The more the better, but I would say at least once per month the team should meet together for fellowship and planning.

What should you cover in the group meeting? First, it’s a time to pray for one another and the small group. Second, get to know each member of the small group. What are their needs? Does John need a personal one-on-one meeting? Does Jane need more responsibility in the group? Who in the cell group needs to be encouraged to go through the church-wide discipleship equipping? Third, assign responsibilities for the small group meeting.

Multiplying Disciples

As mentioned in the introduction, Mario Vega believes that healthy cells multiply. Before Mario became lead pastor of Elim Church San Salvador, many leaders would start and lead more than one cell during the year to fulfill the church’s goal (often under pressure). When Mario Vega assumed leadership of Elim San Salvador, he starting promoting a healthier view of multiplication, one based on making disciples rather than just starting new groups. In fact, he stopped counting groups that didn’t have their own leader because he felt such groups were padding the Elim statistics, but not fulfilling the goal of making disciples who make disciples.

Rather than making new groups, we need to emphasize making disciples. Abe Huber is the founder and pastor of a Brazilian cell church movement that has grown to almost ten thousand cell groups. He writes:

From my experience, the key to great cells is great discipleship.

The big question is: “How can we guarantee that all will be cared for and truly discipled?” To begin a process of discipleship in your church, you have to take the lead and be an example. First of all, you as the pastor need to have a mentor/discipler with whom you are accountable for your spiritual life. I’m referring to someone who will pray with you and give you counsel. This person should be someone who you look up to, who is also respected by your congregation, and who gives you spiritual covering.

Once you have a discipler, it is always a lot easier to encourage the whole church to want to be discipled. You should then start discipling some of your key men, one-on-one. Spend quality time with them, helping them with their relationship with the Lord, and in their relationship with their family.

It is also very important that your key disciples become leaders and supervisors of your cells. Your discipleship time with them will include mentoring them on how to effectively lead, multiply, and supervise their cells.

You and your disciples have to remember this: Our priority is not to multiply the cells. Rather, cell multiplication is the natural outgrowth of effective disciple-making. Our priority is to make “disciple-making disciples.” As leaders we should be reproducing new leaders. If your disciples are cell leaders, and if they are being effective in their discipleship, they will definitely be reproducing new cell leaders!

Lovingly, I have to remind you, however, that you can only reproduce in others what has first been produced in you. You can only give birth to new leaders, if you humbly permit someone to speak into your life and allow the “birth pangs” of Christ to be formed in you. You will only be a good discipler, if you first become a good disciple. That is why it is so crucial that you model discipleship. Your key leaders and members of the church will also want to be discipled and mentored as they see how much you value your discipler and receive from him.

I believe that this is just the beginning of a discipleship revolution that will transform you and your ministries![iv]

The focus of making disciples through cell ministry remains true across cultures and boundaries. In some places, like Spain, multiplying new disciples might take a long, long time. In other places, like Brazil, the multiplication of groups and disciples can happen rapidly because of the receptivity. While multiplication frequency differs, the process is the same.

Envisioning New Groups

Should each leader set a goal for a new cell group? In my earlier days of cell research and ministry, I would have said, “Yes, all cells need to set multiplication goals.” It didn’t matter if the cell had any idea whether it could multiply, but I felt it was best for the cell to set a goal for multiplication. Part of the reason was my original research that showed that cell groups that actually had goals for multiplication multiplied faster than those who did not have one.

But does this fact mean that the cell leader from the first day of the cell should say, “We’re going to multiply on such and such a date.” Talking about multiplication before the cell has formed a sense of community can do more harm than good. First, it can hinder community. The people immediately feel they will be saying good-bye very soon and won’t take the time to establish close relationships. Some might not even commit to the group for fear of a quick departure. Second, it places fear in some people that they will be “leaders” before they have had a natural chance to develop in the cell and work through the discipleship equipping component of the discipleship process.

I think it’s much better for the team leadership to work behind the scenes. As leaders grow through participating, they will grasp the purpose of stepping out and being part of a discipleship team. We also know that discipleship equipping is a crucial component in the discipleship process, so it’s best for the team leader to invite all members to take the discipleship equipping—rather than immediately telling they will be part of a future multiplication team! In other words, they’ll understand team leadership better when they are going through the discipleship equipping and have had more time to participate in the cell.

I asked one cell church pastor how he had become so successful in cell multiplication. He said to me, “My people are born again in the cell and learn to speak the language of cell multiplication. Like a baby learning a new language, they understand that they are called to be disciples and form new cell groups. They know their purpose is to reach out and infiltrate new neighborhoods for Jesus.” When a church reaches the point of seeing new spiritual births in the cell group and then maturing these new people through the natural process of cell discipleship, the cell becomes a powerful tool in the hand of God to reach out to a hurt and dying world.

[i] In 1998 my first and bestselling book, Home Cell Group Explosion, hit the market. The book showcased my research on explosive cell group multiplication and the church growth that followed. I taught a lot about how cells multiplied but not much about cell health and making disciples through cell ministry.

[ii] Robert and Julia Banks, The Church Comes Home: A New Base for Community and Mission (Australia: Albatross Books, 1986), p. 39.

[iii] Michael Green, Evangelism in the Early Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Eermans, 2003), Kindle edition, p. 25.

[iv] Abe wrote this series of blogs on www.joelcomiskeygroup.com/blog_2 in January 2013.