Joel Comiskey’s Ph.D. Dissertation

As the population continues to explode in the 21 st century, new and more effective models of church growth need to be found. One such model that is bearing exciting fruit is the cell-based model of church ministry. Many are aware that the largest church in the history of Christianity is comprised of tens of thousands of small groups. David Yonggi Cho has demonstrated that a church can continue to grow rapidly without losing the quality care of its members.

Latin America, with its growing centers of urban population is ripe for the harvest. One important question is, “How can the church in Latin America take better advantage of these unprecedented opportunities?” Several churches in Latin America have already experienced rapid growth through a cell-based ministry. These churches, while learning principles from Korea, have contextualized the cell-based model for Latin America. However, up to this point, very little research has been done on these model churches. It is my conviction that the information gathered from these cell-based churches would greatly benefit the rest of Latin America.

I have personally had the privilege of experiencing a portion of this Latin American harvest during my four years of ministry in Quito, Ecuador. As a missionary and church planter with the Christian and Missionary Alliance, I first became burdened with the need for a cell-based ministry while seeking to grow a middle-upper class church in the urban center of Quito. My principal ministry became the implementation and direction of the cell group ministry at the El Batán church. We saw the cell groups multiply from three in 1992 to fifty-one in 1994. During the same time period, the church grew from 575 to 950. In July 1994, the El Batán Church gave birth to a dynamic daughter church called the Church of the Republic. As part of the pastoral team which led the church plant, I continued to be primarily involved in the organization and direction of the new cell ministry. We started the church with ten cell groups and 150 people. In just eight months the cells had multiplied to twenty and the church had grown to 340 people (note 1). We saw first hand how the cell groups strengthened the body life of the church and aided in evangelism and church growth.

My previous cell ministry experience in Ecuador and burden for church growth have combined to stimulate my interest in cell-based ministry in Latin America. I believe the Holy Spirit is sending revival throughout Latin America. Yet, the Latin church must be prepared to reap the harvest and then properly care for it! By examining various churches that are effectively doing this through cell-based ministry, we can glean principles and practices that will be invaluable to the church in Latin America, as well as to the discipline of missiology and more specifically to the science of church growth.

In order to more fully understand cell-based ministry in Latin America, the central research issue of this dissertation is an analysis of the contribution of cell-based ministry as a positive factor for church growth in selected growing churches in Latin America. My research questions are:

  • What have been the patterns of church growth that these churches have experienced?
  • What has been the cell-based organizational structure of these churches?
  • What have been the patterns that characterize effective cell leadership in these churches?
  • What have been the factors connected with cell multiplication in these churches?

For the most part, I examined these case study churches by using the methodology of participant observation as well as extensive interviewing. However, I also prepared a questionnaire consisting of twenty-nine questions for the quantitative portion of my analysis (see Appendix A). These questionnaires were only distributed to cell leaders in the case study churches. All together, I received 424 usable questionnaires from cell leaders (note 2). The purpose of the questionnaire was to discover which factors were significant in helping a leader multiply his or her cell group. I will describe the questionnaire respondents and present the findings at the end of Chapter 9 on cell multiplication with a final summary in Chapter 10.

In order to begin this study, it is important to answer the question, What does the term “cell group” actually mean? The communists have their form of cell groups. Liberation Theology promotes its brand of cells. Across the land, various types of cell groups are forming to help heal physical disorders, chemical dependency, marital problems–and the list continues. In this dissertation I will refer to cell groups as groups of people, (normally between five and fifteen), who meet regularly for the purpose of evangelistic outreach and spiritual edification and are committed to participate in the functions of the local church (Ac. 2:46).

My definition makes it clear that I am referring to church-based small groups. Those who attend the cell groups are expected to attend the church. This is precisely the model that is used in Korea. In referring to Cho’s model, C. Kirk Hadaway states, “These groups are not seen as secondary to church membership but, rather, integral to the effective operation and ministry of the local body. This is viewed as both an expectation and an opportunity” (1987:99). In this dissertation, I will not be discussing the house church model which normally views the house meeting as an independent entity.

Churches will be considered cell-based if at least sixty percent of the regular adult attendees are also involved in a church related small group which regularly meets for the purpose of edification and evangelism. The cell group ministry is not considered to be just another program in the church but is viewed as the very heart of church life and the primary method of evangelism and discipleship.

In this dissertation, the first five chapters deal with the foundations of cell-based ministry. Chapters 6 through 10 cover the actual research and findings from the five Latin American cell-based churches.

Chapter 1 deals with the theology of the church. In this chapter I refer to the church’s nature, functions, and marks. Throughout this discussion I describe how cell-based ministry is particularly suited to carry out the functions of the church as it combines the principles of both “cell” and “celebration.”

Chapter 2 covers the history of cell-based ministry. I will review the history of small groups in both the Old and New Testaments. In the pre-reformation period, I analyze the early Monastic groups as well as those which came later, such as the Brethren of the Common Life. In the Reformation period, I examine Luther’s view of small groups, Bucer’s practice of small groups, and how the Anabaptist movement utilized small home groups. I review small group ministry in Pietism, Moravianism, and Methodism.

Chapter 3 analyzes cell group strategies today. It covers the Pure Cell model, the Meta model, and other important small group models of ministry. Chapter 4 begins the Latin American focus. This chapter lays the foundation for cell-based ministry in a Latin context by describing significant Latin American cultural factors such as the Latin family and the Latin worldview.

Chapter 5 continues the Latin cultural theme but from a leadership perspective. I analyze common patterns of Latin leadership and then apply them to leadership in the cell-based church. Chapter 6 is a description of the five Latin American case study churches–from Colombia, Ecuador, Perú, Honduras, and El Salvador. This chapter includes a general description of each church, its setting, history, and growth patterns.

Chapter 7 provides details about the organizational aspects of the cell system in each of these churches. This chapter highlights common organizational patterns among all of the churches. Chapter 8 focuses on characteristics of the cell leadership, including leadership requirements, leadership training models, and leadership functions in the case study churches.

Chapter 9 describes the process of cell group multiplication in each of the five churches. This chapter illuminates similarities as well as significant differences present in each church’s methodology of multiplication. It is in this chapter that I present the findings from my questionnaire. I describe the 424 respondents, how the survey was administered, and the findings. Chapter 10 includes the summary, recommendations, and conclusion.


  1. After nine months at the Republic church I turned the ministry over to others, and we returned to the United States for furlough and Ph.D. studies. I am excited that the church has continued to experience rapid growth with an average of 550 people in March 1997. By the end of 1997 the church plans on having seventy cell groups.
  2. Out of a total of some 445 questionnaires, approximately twenty (4.5%) were unusable due to incomplete data.