Unification News for November 1998

Book review: The Cell Church

Reviewed by Chris Corcoran-NY, NY

The Cell Church, by Larry Stockstill, Regal Books, Ventura, California, 1998
"You will know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes, nor figs from thistles, are they?" (Matthew 7:16)

Every Christian faith community has at its core the mission to spread God's word and save souls. Opportunities for harvesting these souls abound, from tent revivals to altar calls to simple one-on-one witnessing. Yet the initial inspiring aspect of revival is often the easy first step, containing the harvest from such witnessing is the tricky part. All churches suffer this problem in one way or another. For those interested in a viable way out of this predicament, read on.

Rev. Larry Stockstill, in his book, "The Cell Church," writes from his own experiences as a burned-out, over -burdened pastor, and provides us with a compelling blueprint on how to overcome the persistent problems surrounding church growth and management. For those of us more interested in developing the Family Federation, the same principles apply.

In a slim book of 136 pages, Stockstill recounts for us his journey, starting as a graduate of Oral Roberts University, doing missionary work in Africa with his wife, and then returning to America, where he eventually became senior pastor of a 5, 000-member Protestant church when his father retired from that position.

Like many pastors, Stockstill led revivals and outreach programs which brought an initial increase in church membership but eventually resulted in a zero-sum gain; as many people were drifting away out the back-door as were joining through the front. He had organized what seemed to him a good system of assigning new church members to mentoring and education classes. However, he began to realize that education classes and Sunday service weren't enough to keep members spiritually alive. The deep human bond which knits a faith community into a family was missing in his church. Also, as the senior pastor, he was the driving force behind all the church programs; if he wasn't doing the driving, then things weren't really moving ahead. Something had to change.

It was then that another pastor introduced him to the concept of the cell church. He was extremely skeptical; he knew the cell church idea had worked in China for decades and he also knew of the huge success of Dr. Yonggi Cho, pastor of the world's largest church in Seoul, Korea. Perhaps it was something in the Asian character that made the program so successful, thought Stockstill.

Through a series of affirmations from God, he pursued the cell church idea that he now found intriguing. Unable to find a successful American cell church to pattern his church after, he flew to El Salvador and studied a thriving cell church in San Salvador. Now he was convinced that the cell church concept wasn't just an Asian thing and that it could actually work for him.

What exactly is a cell church? First, let's get past the name. The actual name "cell church" is not necessary. For those of us who spent years battling against Marxism-Leninism, the word "cell" is rather odious. Call it neighborhood groups, home church, faith-based mentoring groups; it's not important. What's important is understanding the mechanics of the structure and the internal dynamics so that it can be replicated.

Many of us did and still do home church and Father has given us a wealth of knowledge upon which to draw. For me, Stockstill's ideas put the necessary flesh on the bones of what I already knew about pastoring. The recent direction from headquarters is for our pastors to model their outreach programs along the lines of the Chicago church (see Dr. Hendricks’ letters to church leaders: Chicago Report, Part One, 11/10/98, and Parts Two and Three, 11/12/98). The cell church ideas are a perfect fit for the Chicago model and in fact they already use many of the ideas.

"The cells are not an appendage, demanding attention like all the other programs (in the church); they ARE the program," writes Stockstill. In structure, the cells operate as weekly meetings in someone's home. There's a group leader who takes care of the purpose and direction of the cell and who reports to a zone leader. The zone leader then reports to a District Office leader who then reports to the pastor; this is simple enough (see "Moses: Wilderness"). This allows for two-way hierarchical communication with a geographical overlay. New members can easily join a cell close to their home.

Each cell consists of from six to fifteen people. When the cell grows to about 15, it splits and forms a new cell, and a new leader is raised up to take care of that cell. Ideally, the process repeats itself, much the same way the cells in the body replicate.

The nurturing, teaching and evangelism which takes place in the cell is the important part. Stockstill recommends alternating each weekly meeting between edification (teaching, testimonies, strengthening one's faith) and evangelism (devising and executing a specific witnessing plan). This inhale/exhale model helps keep the members balanced between nurturing their own souls and raising up new members. This purpose and focus also helps prevent the cell from degenerating into a "care group" mentality where the goal is simply fellowship and refreshments.

Stockstill proposes some ideas for the edification meetings. "The first week's 'planning and edification' gathering centers around meeting the needs of believers, doing spiritual warfare, releasing spiritual gifts and teaching on spiritual maturity. The following week's lesson centers on a 'felt need' topic (divorce, loneliness, depression, parenting, etc.), and the cell members invite their unsaved friends who may fall into that category," Stockstill writes.

On evangelism night, strategies are developed for outreach. It wasn't clear in the book, but I believe this would also be the time to actually visit new homes or street-witness. Stockstill describes in detail what he calls the four basic principles of evangelism: purpose, partnership, prayer and penetration. If a new guest happens to attend the evangelism meeting, the focus of the group shifts to the nurturing mode and the needs of the guest become paramount.

Not surprisingly, Stockstill's initial 54 cells in his church had doubled to 108 within six months. Interestingly, almost all the new cell members came from his own church, members who developed an interest in the revival fire and the soul-winning passion the cells exhibited. After one full year, church records showed that a net growth of 600 new families were added to his church. The loss of members through the "back door" had finally ceased. After three more years, 310 cells were in place and 2,000 more families had joined and stayed.

What's important to remember here is that the original cell members started the cell because they wanted to be more spiritually alive and spread their faith. No one should be pushed into a cell group. People should be drawn to the cell through feelings of joy and love and a longing to see their church grow.

The real secret to the success of cells, which for Unificationists should be no secret at all, is that the love and nurturing experienced in the intimate setting of someone's home is the key for church health and growth. The cell becomes an extended family where everyone is automatically cared for and embraced.

Sunday service still has its place as a time for high-powered fellowship. Also, Stockstill recommends that children go to the home of the cell meeting and receive religious education during the more adult discussion-time of the cell. That eliminates the need for hiring baby-sitters.

This well-thought-out book is really for anyone looking for witnessing and church growth inspiration and guidance. Stockstill's inspired testimony of success propelled me to try this method in my own faith community. How it turns out will be material for another article, reporting what I hope will be a successful outcome.

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