The Confessions Of A Cell Church Planter

If I Could Do It All Over Again, The Confessions Of A Cell Church Planter
By David Buehring

Dave Buehring currently serves as a Pastor at Belmont Church in Nashville, Tennessee, where he oversees the areas of Equipping and Leadership Development. He is also an author, a co-founder of Messenger Fellowship, as well as the Artist Pastor for World Vision’s Artist Associates Program. He lives in Franklin, Tennessee, with his wife, Cheryl, and their two teenage children, Ryan and Malia.

As a fifteen year veteran of missions, church-planting and pastoring, I have observed a tremendous need for a fresh understanding of community. This is the missing ingredient needed to experience what God has commanded us to do. I am convinced the cell model is the way to experience true community from personal experience and what I glean from God’s Word.

I have seen the incredible impact that cell life has upon a town, city, nation or even an unreached people group if it includes deliberate discipleship and evangelism. As I read my Bible I see that this was the pattern used by Jesus and New Testament believers as they lived in a true attitude of community, prayer, discipleship and evangelism. From a church planting perspective, I thought this was wonderful. God placed within me the vision for a “multipliable model” of church life that was based on a scriptural pattern and could be used to impact the nations of the earth!

With all of this stirring inside of me a few years ago, my wife and I launched a weekly meeting with a small group of friends for worship, prayer and applying the Scriptures to our lives. Through this weekly interaction, we learned how to truly love and care for one another. As we began the process, others were added to the group including a retired pastor and his wife.

He merged his little congregation with our budding cell church (now called a trans-plant: a pure cell church mixed with a group of people whose values needed to be transitioned). During that first year, God graciously blended us together into one precious community of believers, bringing Jesus all the glory. Without a doubt, our sense of community was our greatest strength. It was also the essential ingredient on which to establish a cell church.

As I look back over these past four years of pioneering (or transplanting) a cell church, I know much of what we have done has been very effective and multipliable. However, there are also many things that I would do differently if I were to start over. Through my own failings and experiences as well as the input of many patient friends, I have learned much. In light of this, I’d like to share with you the ways I would go about pioneering a cell church differently if I could do it all over again.

Pray, Model Prayer for Others, and Then Pray Some More!

All successful cell churches run on God’s power, flowing through time spent in prayer. Cells may be the wheels that the church runs on, but prayer is the fuel in the tank! Early in my work, I developed a “pattern for prayer” for individuals and families based on the Lord’s Prayer (Matt. 6:9-13). I chose those who felt a call from God as intercessors. I met with this group monthly to pray for our leadership and Body. Looking back, I would add these four elements that were missing from my original pattern:

• Pastor’s Prayer Life – I would allow God to grow me beyond where I was at the time so that I might have better modeled it to those around me.

• Leadership and Staff Prayer – I would spend more time in prayer with my leadership team and staff, including an occasional prayer getaway.

• Corporate Intercession – I would begin by teaching on and taking the time for team intercession during our Sunday Celebrations as well as setting aside periodic half-nights of prayer.

• Prayer Walking – I would encourage my cells – right from the start – to commit to regular prayer walks in their neighborhoods.
Asking God for His blessings and strategy for winning the lost souls living around them would have been powerful.

Even though we devoted long blocks of time fasting and praying over our trans-plant, looking back I would have spent even more time laying down this kind of foundation. Instilling the true value of prayer into the lives of those in our first cell would have given us a greater sense of God’s heart. If I do it again, I will look for ways to help people catch a “spirit of prayer” that will become a permanent part their daily lives as the first step in cell church planting.

Scriptural Ownership

Launching out on our journey into “cellular thinking,” the Scripture became our guidebook. We taught those in our first cell what the Word said about living in true Christian community. We took our model from Acts 2:42-47, where we found many of the vital ingredients of what we wanted in our “multipliable” model. It is one thing to teach these things and quite another to see the vision of the cell church translated into the lives of the people you are leading and serving. That’s the difference between just borrowing someone else’s vision versus adopting the vision as your own. If the core member can’t see it by revelation, imparted by God from His Word, he or she will not rise and take ownership as the pastor attempts to implement the process of planting a church.

I wanted to help people come to a point where they were convinced that the vision was from God and not just from me. After all, what use is a vision if it doesn’t outlast the visionary? If they don’t see it as a God-given calling they will not own this pattern of church life very long.

If I were to do it all over again, I would encourage those in our prototype cell to personally invest more time studying the Scripture portions outside of our weekly meeting. Then the same vision God had given me of the church would become a passion for them as well.

More Modeling

In the Christian culture of our day, much of our training as believers involves sitting in class rooms with our Bibles, textbooks, notebooks and pens. While the blessing of this type of learning has filled our heads with wonderful information, it has horribly failed us when it comes to seeing lives transformed!

When Jesus called His disciples, He called them to “be with Him” (Mark 3:14). They walked, talked, ate, played and prayed as a group. They did everything together! Except for his own private times with the Father, Jesus always had two or more disciples with Him. This was not just a classroom experience; this was life experienced with Jesus. As we look at the gospels, we see that Jesus imparted His vision and Kingdom values to His disciples through modeling.

It has been stated repeatedly that much of what we learn is “caught” rather than taught. This essential part of disciple making is time consuming and uses a greater amount of one’s energy than gathering a group into a classroom once a week.

The end result is the development of deep, godly relationships and the modeling of Jesus’ character, attitudes, and ways. Jesus taught His disciples to invest in others. Paul learned and transferred this as seen in II Timothy 2:2 (Paul to Timothy; to faithful men; to others). Therefore, it is the way today’s leaders need to do it too!

Substantial time investment in people can get rather messy and is often inconvenient for the average pastor. It also makes the pastor take a good look at his own life. He can only invest into others what he lives himself and give away what he is currently doing. If we want to produce Jesus-style disciples, then we must get back to life transformation as opposed to simply dispensing information.

As a communicator, I enjoy equipping people in my role as a preacher/teacher. But if I were to do it all over again, I would invest
half of my time and energy into the lives of 6 to 12 of my key leaders. I would increase the time I spent with them praying, ministering, playing ball, etc. I resolve to “hang out” with my key leaders next time around and give them ample opportunity to be with me in a variety of settings. As a pastor, I now schedule less time in my office and more time with our present and future leaders. I wish I had started the church this same way.

The Skillful Implementation of Vision and Values

Have you ever noticed that what you value is what you pour your time, energy and resources into? Consider your time: how much of it do you spend on the job or making money? How much time is given in prayer and meditating upon God’s Word? How about time with your spouse and kids? What percentage of your life is deliberately involved in extending God’s Kingdom?

We all live out our daily lives from within a basic set of values. As a leader, part of my role is to help people move from a worldly value system to a place of walking in step with Jesus. Helping our members to “seek first the Kingdom” and assist them in seeing how this plays out in cell life is a huge undertaking.

As change occurs, people will fall into one of the five categories below. Observe the chart and consider where your own key leaders might be. Then, choose the steps needed to help them align to the changes God wants to implement, related to their values and/or to internalize the cell church vision. As the chart shows, your leadership must be graciously moved from left to right. Please note that it is not unusual for this process to take from 1-3 years, depending on each individual and the size of your church.

While this may frustrate or discourage you, continue to pray and lead them to a place where they are able to integrate the value changes and your God-given vision for the church. Statistics imply that you can expect about 16% to flow with you quickly, followed by another 34% about 6-12 months later. Another 34% may take up to three more years to make the necessary adjustments. Also, don’t be surprised if you lose some people who just choose not to align themselves to the Kingdom values found in cell life. Continue to love and bless them, knowing that God will pursue them in His own way.

My first years as a church planter have taught me that modeling Kingdom values for our people is my first priority. Once a person’s values are aligned with the kingdom, they will freely gave their time, energy and resources. This shift will bring passion for prayer and equipping, for walking in community with others, and for reaching out to unbelievers.

Values implementation has always been paramount with our church plant. However, if I could do it over, I would have led our folks through a more deliberate process of seeing their values change while simultaneously catching a vision for the cell church.

Picturing A Prototype

Like most cell church plants, we started out with a single cell. It was a healthy cell with precious people practicing real community. We remained together for eight months and then multiplied into three groups. One of those groups lasted three months and died. Theother two continued to grow and multiply because they practiced community. We were off to a good start!

Eighteen months and several multiplications later, I realized that the saying, “you multiply what you model” was really true. Even though we were enjoying the blessing of God in our relationships with one another in cell life, I was concerned.

Some of our cell leaders ran with the idea of implementing an equipping track and others didn’t. Meanwhile, the emphasis on evangelism and prayer for the lost was less than I desired. In addition to this, I discovered the discipling of future leaders by our current cell leaders was very weak.

This was a reflection of my own modeling, or lack of it, in this case. It showed me the need to begin with a prototype cell that can be an example for everyone of what cell life is all about. If I ever plant another church, I will develop an initial cell that will have all the necessary ingredients to be healthy and to one day multiply itself. I see these basic ingredients as:

• Experiencing community that loves, cares, serves, allows people to move in their gifts and holds one another accountable.

• Applying God’s Word to our lives.

• Actively reaching out to prodigals and unbelievers.

• The discipling of each cell member as well as future cell leaders, zone leaders, etc.

Given the opportunity a second time, I would have asked for input and listened to those who walked with me in the prototype cell to a greater extent. Their input was valuable and I found that giving them the opportunity to share their thoughts gave a greater sense of ownership in the overall vision of the church.

Walking through the days in my mind, I would now take more time with my initial cell. I would choose five or six other couples and walk with them closely for a full year until the Lord clearly gave us a green light to add others. We also needed to take on evangelism efforts and bring lost people to Christ and disciple them from the first day.

During that first year, I would make sure that all the ingredients listed above were added as a regular part of our lives. In this way, we would have all carried the same picture of how a cell should look and feel. This would have insured that future cells would function just like the original prototype.

Actively Engage In Evangelism Right Away

The main reason we have been left on this planet is to bring much glory to Jesus. I see this being expressed in two ways: allowing the Father to conform us more and more into the image of Jesus and to reach those who don’t yet know Him. When we look like Jesus to the world around us, His love will draw people to Him through us!

The cell-celebration structure is beautifully designed to harvest prodigals and unbelievers, see them mended, equipped and mobilized to reach others. I taught and encouraged the people in our body how to pray regularly for and to reach out to their oikos, or sphere of influence. We also had an outreach for the neighborhood on the front lawn of the school where we hold our Sunday celebrations. We have participated in mobilizing our cells to serve as servants for three weeks when Kurdish refugees were arriving in our city from Iraq.

This has all been good, but as I look back on it now, evangelism was initiated about two years too late! Because it was not actively engaged in with a sense of intensity by the initial cell under my leadership, that very important part of cell life was not viewed as the norm by all of our future cell leaders.

If I had another shot at it, I wouldn’t change what we have done, but I would have done it in my prototype cell. I would have planted a two-fold vision for reaching out to our oikos individually and a monthly cell outreach of some kind. We would have walked the neighborhoods of our members, praying for each family, and asking God for his strategy to reach them. We would have reached out as a cell to the unreached people group living in our city. And last, but not least, I would have poured into them through modeling and teaching that evangelism is not an option, but a normal and vital part of our cell life together.

I know now that if I had implemented evangelism in my prototype cell as described above, my core leaders would have seen an obvious need for our equipping track. Even the smallest amount of successful evangelism leaves a discipleship hole that must be filled.

His Presence First; His Structure Second

In the New Testament, Jesus talked about wineskins. These goat skinned containers were made to keep fermenting wine. A new wineskin would be elastic enough to stretch with the pressure of fermentation. An old, stiff wineskin would burst when the new wine was poured into it. As we all should know, the important element in all of this is not the wineskin – it is the wine. The wineskin provided a structure, but it was the wine itself that was the prize. Just as a wineskin exists to contain the wine, so the cell church structure exists to contain the corporate expression of the presence of Jesus!

In the midst of our pioneering, the experience God was giving me regarding the cell church model overpowered my understanding of the reason for the new structure. It is meant to contain within its members the very presence of the New Wine of which the world needs to drink. The structure by itself will not produce life. Only Jesus can do that! While I fully understand this now, if I were to do it all over I would allow the structure to simply facilitate and contain what God was doing in our midst. The key here is to pursue Jesus and His presence first.

Experimental Freedoms Within the New Wineskin

While establishing this multipliable model, I found it necessary to define the “core ingredients” needed to establish a well-founded and fruitful cell church. Some parts were essential to the success of the model and others could be modified or delayed without risking failure. As a result of this process, I have developed what I refer to as a “cell system” which serves as a foundational footing from which we operate. Of course, this takes a variety of people with unique gifts and callings who find their place in this model. People are the key ingredient!

To replicate this model in the nations of the earth, a common understanding of the essential parts must be understood by these unique individuals. From my perspective, the essential core ingredients of a cell church are:

1) Walking in the values of the Kingdom from the Scriptures.

2) Empowering it through worship and prayer, seeking and obeying God.

3) Experiencing relationships and community via living a cell lifestyle.

4) Every believer is mended and equipped to use their gifts in disciple making.

5) Leaders and ministries are constantly and deliberately developed and released.

6) The Kingdom is advanced by cells and its members reaching unbelievers in their oikos.

7) The leaders need to prayerfully strategize and organize to mobilize.

When we first multiplied our prototype cell, I was determined to differentiate the non-negotiables of a cell meeting and what could be “played with” by a cell leader. As I looked down the road, it was clear that we had to have a model that was easy to replicate. What I envisioned was to have the look and feel of cell #1 show up in cell #12 and so on. I knew this would provide for the effective training of sponsors, cell interns, zone leaders and even missionaries.

To help us do this, we implemented within each typical cell gathering what we refer to as the “4 W’s” (Welcome, Worship, Word, and Witness). Each time we meet for a weekly meeting, the appropriate amount of time is given to each. This has been very helpful and although we were in different cells, we all walked through cell life at the same pace.

While I wouldn’t change the 4 W’s, I would have provided our cell leaders with more freedom within these guidelines as the Holy Spirit leads. For example, one cell may choose to function as an intergenerational cell while another may focus on certain age groups or specialized people groupings, etc. I would encourage our leaders to allow other cell members-not just those they had chosen to train as future leaders – to take turns facilitating the 4W’s based on their giftedness and callings. Pastoral types should be encouraged to lead the Welcome and Word portions while evangelism-oriented people would lead the Witness, etc.

It has taken a few years to learn, but I have come to realize that if I establish a deep relationship with trained leaders they can be trusted to experiment within the boundaries of our vision. Because of the decentralized leadership base of the cell church, there is a potential for someone to stray with a part of the flock. This is where time invested in relationships, proper discipleship and leadership training will pay off. The constant vision casting I do with our entire leadership and body in our celebration service also reduces the risk of a renegade leader. Because God wants maximum ownership of His vision, I know I have to make room for leaders with godly ideas of their own.

Simplify the Vision So That Anyone Can Run With It

As I studied the model and sought God relating to the functions of the cell church, I felt I needed to write down what I was learning. In the process of doing so, I found that a whole notebook of valuable and pertinent foundations, principles and practical information was emerging that could help others.

To aid those who were working alongside me in this pioneering effort, I created a leadership notebook and asked every one to study it, along with Ralph Neighbour’s book, Where Do We Go From Here? I was excited and wanted to pass on all that I was learning and had compiled! After a short time, I discovered that only a few had read the material while the majority of them were overwhelmed with the sheer amount of new information.

If I could do it all over again, I would find simple ways to communicate the principles and truths related to cell life. One of the
geniuses of the cell structure is that the membership is able to carry much of the responsibility and authority within the local church setting. This allows them to grow and mature via hands-on ministry and leadership experience. With so much going on at home, with friends and on the job, there is a need to break these concepts down into bite-sized pieces so that they can taste it, digest it and use it as energy.

Books and binders full of information related to cell church life are still very important for study and as a resource. But if you really want to make your cell church hum, find ways within the unique culture of your local church to help leaders embrace and communicate the vision, principles and practical aspects. If I knew then what I know now, I would have very carefully considered this in prayer and sought advice from the people God had initially brought to walk with me in our pioneering effort.

Take More Time To Learn From Those Ahead of You

As a leader, it’s easy for me to run with something once I see what God is doing. Rather than just taking someone else’s ideas wholesale, I like to develop some of my own. This is especially true in the area of developing training events and materials to disciple and equip leaders.

I believe that when any of us takes ownership of a vision that God has imparted deeply inside us, we like to see how our own experiences, gifts and call will shape it. This ultimately puts your own unique “godly thumb print” on it.

I think God encourages us to do this at the proper time, but disregarding the materials of someone who is several steps ahead of you in the process is a waste of valuable energy that could be poured into people instead of printed paper.

When we began, the only helpful resource we could find was Dr. Neighbour’s books. Beyond that we had to operate out of prayer and the fear of God. We took steps in what we thought was obedience learning from our mistakes while we journeyed into the cell model.

Fortunately, the Belmont Church of Nashville had begun the transition from a program-based design to a cell model just six months before. Thankfully, the pastor allowed me to be included in their pilgrimage and he let me contribute those things we were learning as well.

Today, there are many resources available for those led by Jesus to either plant or transition to the cell model. Hundreds of transitioning church pastors are delighted to take you under their wing! I was three years into our work before I attended Advanced Cell Training from TOUCH which literally showed us how to get from A to Z as it relates to the cell model.

If I could give you a recommendation, I would suggest that you introduce yourself thoroughly to the model and consider aligning
yourself with a pastor and church who have already been doing it for a couple of years before launching out on your own. Later on, you will consider yourself wise if you can look for someone who is ahead of you in pastoring a cell church. Choose to walk in humility, and ask for a portion of their time, help and counsel.

I am very thankful to the Lord for the opportunities He has provided for me to learn about Him and His ways during the pioneering of the church where I serve. The tremendous team players God has brought to walk alongside us have been patient and trusting. We have indeed grown together in the exciting vision of the cell church. If I ever have the privilege of starting a cell church again from scratch, I know I will re-read this article as a refresher to get us off to a good start!