Do Cells Really Work in America?


Larry Kreider has pastored and also serves as the International Director of DOVE Christian Fellowship International (DCFI) for the past two decades. He has authored several books, including House To House, a practical manual for home cell group leaders including spiritual insights for the church of the 21st century. He and his wife, LaVerne, reside in Lititz, PA.

One Saturday morning my daughter asked me to make her pancakes for breakfast. Knowing I am not a cook, I pleaded with her, “Please, Leticia, couldn’t you just eat cereal today?” She persisted, so I tried. Half asleep, I read the instructions incorrectly, and the end product was horrifying! I asked her again to eat cereal. She persisted, and I tried again. This time the oil in the pan caught on fire! “Please try again, Daddy,” my eight year old begged. I tried once more, this time without following the recipe on the side of the box. Amazingly enough, the concoction looked edible. Leticia took one bite of my freshly made pancake, looked up at me with her big blue eyes and said, “Daddy, may I have cereal, please?”

Likewise, we as a cell church had our share of mistakes. Our experiences were not unique. The lessons from these mistakes resonate in the hearts of pastors and leaders all over this country, yet there are those who give up just short of the lesson and leave with a bitter taste from errors. I once asked Dr. David Yonggi Cho, “Why is it, Dr. Cho, that it is so hard for cell ministry to work in America?” He responded immediately, “Many pastors are threatened. They are afraid to release their people.” If this is why cell ministry hasn’t worked in America, what can we do about it?

The Control Factor

Rick Warren, the Senior Pastor of Saddleback Valley Community Church in Orange County, California, commented: “For your church to grow, both the pastor and the people must give up control.

The people must give up the control of the leadership, and the pastor must give up control of the ministry. Otherwise, either party can become a bottleneck for growth.”

The traditional American pastor can control his church members, and the members can control the pastor. Pastors of cell churches are no exception to the control trap, and neither are cell leaders. In the beginnings of our cell church, we told people they must be involved in a cell group in their own community. This was a mistake.

One family felt misplaced in their community cell and came to me for assistance. I told them they needed to stay in the cell. As a result, they left our church. I recognized my mistake a few years later and asked them for forgiveness. I learned that the church is not built by geography, but by relationships.

Recently, I spoke at a church in upstate New York where the pastor had gone through a painful church split and decided to quit. However, the Lord spoke to him and said, “I have called you to release the ministry of the church to My people.” That pastor returned to the congregation and began to transition the group into a cell church. When he released the people as ministers, the people released him and his leadership team to lead under the direction of the Holy Spirit. A fresh sense of faith and expectancy came into this church.

As believers mature and prepare to be sent out to start a new cell, many go back to their own neighborhoods. However, this time, they go back because the Lord called them there, not because of dictation from church leadership.

Dr. Cho warned, “Anything that destroys personal independence and the individual’s personality and responsibility is from the devil. God never created us to be puppets. He gave us personalities to be developed into loving sons and daughters living in relationship with him. Our home cell groups are designed to promote that relationship.”Cell groups can be used to either control God’s people or to release God’s people.

Values or Methods

Why are values important? They are the core of our beliefs! They direct our actions and attitudes. Unfortunately, Americans often teach “methods” rather than Scriptural values. People become a part of a local church for the outward results but do not adopt the values of the church. When Christian leaders focus on methods rather than Scriptural values, the believer’s belief system becomes based on the methods of men rather than on the Word of God.

For a season, our church spouted the cell church buzz words rather than testifying of Jesus and His Word. We exalted our cell vision above Jesus Christ. We prided ourselves in being the first cell church in our region! We soon learned that Jesus shares His glory with no other – no matter how great the cell group vision. We repented to the Lord and His people.

Soon after our cell church started, we traveled throughout the world to learn from others. When we returned from our first conference in Korea, we exhorted our cell leaders: “The Korean cell leaders multiply their cells every six months. We serve the same God. We expect you to do the same!” A few years later we repented to our cell group leaders for burning them out with a burden that was too heavy to carry. We taught a method rather than the Word of God.

Now, is it wrong for Korean Christians to have that goal? Not at all. Is it the Lord’s will to multiply cell groups on a regular basis? Of course! Is it important to set goals? Yes, but we must understand from the Word of God why we should set goals and experience cell group multiplication. When we adopt other people’s methods before understanding their values, we become frustrated and drained. People tire quickly of the latest Christian fad. They don’t need it. We must fervently pray that our visions and goals are birthed by the Holy Spirit, not copied from the latest church appearing to be successful.

The American mindset focuses more on structure than on caring relationships and reaching the lost. Our methods must be the
infrastructure that releases life. We must focus on life – not structure. If we are not careful, the results will be program-based cell churches. Focus on Jesus and His Word. Teach values first. Then apply the proper cell group structure.

Consumers or Disciples

I was a guitar instructor a few years ago and met with students week after week, teaching them how to hold the pick, how to strum and how to play a certain chord. They practiced at home and came back the next week to learn another chord. Within a few months, they were playing dozens of songs. A cell leader disciples believers in a similar way. He or she trains the cell members by giving them responsibilities to help them grow spiritually.

Kevin was a young father in a cell group I led. One day he confided in me, “Larry I have never prayed publicly. The thought of it really scares me, but I want to learn. I need your help. Sometime in a cell meeting, when I am not expecting it, ask me to pray.” I assured him I would enjoy this opportunity! A few weeks later, at an early morning cell meeting, I looked in Kevin’s direction and said, “Kevin, I would like you to pray this morning.” He took a deep breath and prayed for the first time in public. It was his first step in discipleship. Kevin and his wife Carol became wonderful cell group leaders.

American Christians have swallowed the “holy man” and “holy building” myths. Every Sunday morning, they expect to find the holy man in a holy building who will minister to their needs. The holy man must be the counselor and must be available twenty four hours a day. Rather than becoming disciples and ministers, these well meaning Christians are merely consumers of ministry.

Pastors and their church members can develop co-dependent relationships. The pastor is paid to do the work of ministry; the
people get their money’s worth – good sermons and great programs. Inevitably, the pastor burns out, and the people never obtain the opportunity to fulfill their calling in Christ to equip and release ministers. They never become disciples.

The cell is only a forum to know one another, pray together and focus on reaching others for Christ. Real cell life happens after the
meetings when believers share and pray together. This happens when believers practice hospitality in their homes and learn to know one another as real people. This also occurs when one believer assumes responsibility to help a younger Christian grow in his new life in Christ, meeting together each week for prayer, Bible studies and discuss questions about life. Real cell life comes when believers are either being discipled or discipling others. This forces consumers to become disciples.

A Watered Down Vision

Too many times, after an American cell-based church grows and multiplies their cell groups, another migratory flock appears on the horizon. These are church people who see the new life in the cellbased church and want to connect with it. They leave their former church but bring in their former values and convictions. Immediately, the honeymoon wears off, and they long for the programs in their former churches. These consumer Christians voice their personal visions and perceptions of how the church must be run to the pastor and elders.

Gradually, church leaders walk in the fear of man rather than the fear of God, and they compromise the original vision the Lord gave them. Ministering in cell groups is minimized and replaced by new programs. The original vision for this cell church slowly ebbs.

At one point, our church was in this position. As a pastor, I reached the crossroads where I decided to continue with the Lord’s vision, risking everything. I faced the possibility of having to start over with only me and my family. However, the Lord had graciously joined hundreds of sincere and dedicated people with us, and the risk did not result in complete loss. However, He needed to bring us to the place of willful obedience.

Over the years, we learned to ask God to bring us two types of co-laborers – new believers and those called to this house to house
vision. Several times, we closed down our Sunday morning celebration meetings and met in homes for a month at a time. This helped people who were unsure of our vision to understand the importance of saints ministering from house to house. On one occasion, after we came back from a month of meeting solely in cell groups, we added one hundred people to the church. God places members in His body as He wills (I Corinthians 12:18), and misplaced believers experience much disappointment for themselves and their church leaders. At times, I have encouraged some misplaced people in our church to look for another church with a vision closer to theirs.

Earlier this year, as our church decentralized and became eight cell-based churches, I turned over the leadership and ministry of our cell church to eight pastors, twenty one elders and a host of cell leaders. I now have the privilege of being a pastor to pastors and training leaders in existing, newly birthed cell-based churches throughout the world. However, without believers trained in cell ministry, we could not make the transition.

Forgetting Our Mandate To Reach the lost

C.T. Studd, the famous missionary, once said, “I do not wish to live ‘neath sound of church or chapel bell, I want to run a rescue shop within a yard of hell.” The main purpose for every cell group must be to run “rescue shops,” or the cell becomes a powerless social club. We are witnesses (Acts 1:8), not partakers of complacent, comfortable “bless-me” meetings.

Don and Jeanni served with a cell group in Harrisburg, PA. They believed the Lord birthed their cell to reach the lost. They hosted a Japanese student, Yosiko, enrolled in a local university. Week after week, they showed her God’s love and prayed for Yosiko every week. A few days before Christmas, Yosiko, who grew up in a Buddhist family, have asked Jesus Christ to come into my life.” The cell rejoiced with her, baptized her and discipled her. When the time came, they empowered her to go back to Japan. The entire cell was changed when they focused outward.

Americans tend to forget why they are involved in cell life. The primary purpose for the cell group is not merely for fellowship but to reach the lost. A cell group must focus on reaching people in and beyond their communities, or it becomes ingrown and stagnant.

Constant exhortation, encouragement and training from church leaders for our commission to reach the lost is vital. Without these things, the law of entropy occurs. Soon, the cell group loses its vision and mandate from the Lord to reach the lost. The tendency of all new wineskins is to get old, but bringing new people into the cell and multiplying keeps us fresh and alive.

The greatest catalyst for spiritual growth is getting our eyes off ourselves and on to Jesus Christ and His heart for the needs of those around us. Looking inward prevents growth, like an ingrown toenail, and usually causes pain, competition and stagnation. When groups are content to stay the same, they subconsciously build walls around themselves causing others to feel unwelcome.

Lack of Desperation for God

I was recently asked to train cell leaders at the Vienna Christian Center in Vienna, Austria. Though only a few years old, it is the
largest Protestant Church in the nation since the Reformation. It is a cell church, with cell groups scattered throughout the city. After speaking on “New Wine and New Wineskins,” I opened the opportunity for prayer for these new leaders to receive more of the Lord’s presence in their lives. One of the men, a diplomat, ran to the front of the room for prayer, desperate and hungry for more of God, and many more with the same desire followed suit.

Unlike much of America, there is a genuine hunger for God within believers in other nations. They believe that if God doesn’t show up, it is all over! They are right! New wineskins (new cells) must be regularly filled with new wine (a fresh experience with Jesus). We must experience more of the life and presence of Jesus in our lives today than we did last week.

Americans trust structures rather than God. The Lord honors people who are desperate for more of Him in their lives. We cannot continue living on past experiences! We must be desperate for a daily and fresh touch from the Lord. We must expect the Lord to fill us with His presence when we come together in His name in our cell meetings.

Daniel and Rebecca Mbite, from Machakos, Kenya, started a new cell church last year. Daniel works for the bank during the day and serves as a pastor evenings and weekends. Rebecca gave up her job to have more time to minister to the needs of those they serve. They go into the villages and homes to pray for the sick, and the Lord heals them. Through these miracles, people give their lives to Christ and willingly open their homes for a new cell group.

A few months ago while I was in Africa, the cell church leaders told me Americans doubt there are demons in America. They doubt we believe in the supernatural world, because they know that demons are real. They grew up witnessing the supernatural through witch doctors in their villages, so they expect the Lord to work supernaturally among them in their cell groups.

In Acts 2, we see the early Christians empowered by the Holy Spirit to be ministers. Then in Acts 4, we see the disciples filled with Holy Spirit again! American believers need the same hunger for more of the Holy Spirit’s presence and power. The church in America must experience a new desperation for God. We must believe in the supernatural. We must refuse to turn back, confess our mistakes and expect the Lord to help us into a new reformation.

Thousands of churches in America are presently transitioning into a New Testament model of Basic Christian Community. Saints are released to minister from house to house. To persevere, we must keep our eyes on God and His vision. There is no turning back! He wants to use you to fulfill His purposes. Jesus Christ will build His church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it!

Perhaps you tasted and experienced cell ministry and became disillusioned or weary. Don’t go back! Like I did with the pancakes,
you may have read some of the instructions wrong or even neglected to read them. We must learn from our mistakes! The only people who never make mistakes are those who do nothing.