by Neil Cole
There are actually a lot of strategic reasons to come first as a weak missionary.
1. The indigenous people are empowered from the start. The new churches do not start dependent upon the missionary. In fact, it can be the opposite. The new churches begin with empowerment.
2. Multiplication of missionaries is much faster. The next generation of churches does not have to wait to get the strength needed to perform at a higher standard. If building hospitals and schools is our first wave of missions there will never be a second wave.
3. The missionary starts with complete faith in God. Missions are an exercise in humility and faith in God’s power, not an exercise in your own abilities. That also passes on much quicker to the next generation.
4. God gets all the glory. The missionary is seen as a normal human who needs assistance, but who also has a powerful God who grants him or her what they need. God’s provision is not just part of the story…it is the story!
5. The missionary is not better then the indigenous people. When we have nicer homes, cars, schooling for our kids and more discretionary money then those who we are trying to reach then there are a lot of negative side-effects. This dis-empowers the indigenous church. It also raises the missionary to a level above those they are trying to reach. Jesus carries this thought further when he tells the missionary to stay in their house and eat and drink what they eat and drink. The missionary is to live at the same standard as the people he or she is trying to reach.
6. It keeps the missionary’s motivations truer. The missionary’s motives are not in question. This is definitely not a career move. When someone goes out without pay and does the job just for Jesus it is pure. There is a sense of confidence that one can have in someone who has proven their heart on the fields in this way.
7. It keeps the indigenous Christian’s motives truer. The new Christian’s motives are also kept more pure because it doesn’t offer some false hope of a raise in their standard of living by becoming a Christian. Coming in strength may give the new Christians a poor incentive to be saved and serve as a missionary. There may be an unspoken promise that “you too could step up to a better standard of living if you become a Christian worker!”
This happens all over the world. There is a monetary incentive to become a Christian, and especially a Christian leader in many parts of the world. Your standard of living raises instantly as Western money supports your life. An American family giving up a daily latte can feed a family for a month in many parts of the world. That is cheap labor for the church, but what it does is mess with the new Christian’s motivations. It actually separates the indigenous Christian worker from the very people they are best suited to reach because suddenly they are in an entirely different social class.
The more I have studied the passages of Luke 10 and Matthew 10 I have an increased appreciation for Jesus’ missiological strategies. He does know what He is doing.
Many will say that the culture in the time of Christ was much more hospitable, so this sort of missionary method was able to be used. Today is a very different culture. True, but I do not think Jesus’ words are to be classified as irrelevant because the culture has changed. I believe that His words here are transcendent above culture. The point is not that the people are more hospitable, the point is that the sent one must depend upon God for his or her daily provision. Personally, that is a lesson needed in every culture and generation! At the same time, when doing cross-cultural missionary work, there are some cultures just as hospitable as the one Jesus was part of.
Jesus shows us the value in training missionaries in this manner in a later passage of Luke’s Gospel. Near the end Jesus pulled the disciples together and asked them, “When I sent you without purse, bag or sandals, did you lack anything?”
“Nothing,” they answered.
Then He said to them, “But now if you have a purse, take it.” This is what my wife always quotes back to me in the Mall when I do finally start to hold her purse.
Why does He first instruct them to not take a purse, and now He is telling them to take along financial resources? Does He want them to go without or to go with financial resources? After all the reasons given for going without finances we now have to explain this statement.
As I said earlier, it is not whether people are supported or not, but when they are supported; that is the issue. Going first in weakness and dependency is important. After you have shown that you will do it without support, support can be given more confidently. There is a testing process. It is, however, much more then a testing process, it is a growth curve. It is as much a chance for the missionary to test God as it is for God to test the missionary. The disciples came out believing in God’s provision with stories they would tell the rest of their lives. That is a foundation to build upon.
Dallas Willard was once sharing at a workshop on ministry in a postmodern world on this very passage. He asked the question, “Why would Jesus tell them not to take a purse at first and now tell them to take a purse?” His answer was, “You don’t know how to handle a purse, until you know how to go without one.”
We learn something when we trust God’s provision and He comes through. What we learn sets a course for the rest of our lives. When we have gone on faith and God shows us His miraculous care and provision it changes the way we see everything. We view God differently. We view ministry differently. We view money differently. When the tough times hit, and they will, that old lesson will fuel the same faith once again. You will be reminded always that I am not in this for the money.
This is a far better foundation for a life of service then simply deciding on a career move. Even when leaders are supported “full-time”, it’s still not a job but a life calling.
Yours for the least in the kingdom,
Jeff and Maria Gilbertson
What follows is a chapter from Wolfgang’s book House That Change the World. I believe it is the best explanation in print about the differences of traditional, cell and houses churches. We hope and pray that you come to the same conclusion he has, that housechurches are the natural solution.
Yours for the least in the Kingdom,
Jeff and Maria Gilbertson
After David Yonggi Cho, Pastor of Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul, Korea, one of the worlds most prominent teachers on the Cell Church system, it was due to the material published by Ralph Neighbour, Jr., William Beckham, Larry Kreider and others, that the concept of ”cell church” has gained worldwide momentum in the last decade. ”Cells form the basic unit of the Cell Church”, says Neighbour. All or most members of a ”cell based church” are part of a small group or cell, usually meeting once a week, and typically meet additionally in a celebration, a large gathering usually lead by a ”Senior Pastor”.
Structurally the Cell Church forms a pyramid, with the Senior Pastor on top, followed by assistant pastors, regional and zonal pastors, ”down” to the cell leaders with their respective cell leader assistants.
Although I seem to share with many of my contemporaries an inbuilt aversion against ”top-down-language” and all too elaborate systems and plan A’s and B’s for all eventualities, I can wholeheartedly agree with Ralph Neighbors’ diagnostic view of much of the traditional church in the first chapters of his book ”Where do we go from here”. He points out to the programme-drivenness of a meeting and event oriented church as one of the core culprits, replacing life fellowship with running the ”right” agendas and having exciting programmes.
Neighbour then goes on in his substantial book to explain in detail many aspects of a cell-based church. He suggest, for example, to structure cell meetings around the 4 W’s, welcome, worship, words and works. The welcome is an icebreaker to get people involved; the worship is about meditations, readings or songs; the word is the application of last Sunday’s sermon, and works means to reach out practically to the ”oikos”, the immediate circle of friends and relationships a person has.
However, I do share more than only a daunting feeling with many insiders and observers of the Cell Church movement today: could the unthinkable happen, that the Cell Church has developed many excellent programmes to prevent itself from becoming a programme based design, and in so doing has become what it fears most – namely a programme based design?
God’s hand in the Cell Church movement
I want to leave no doubt about it: I clearly see the hand of God in the Cell Church and related movements. I believe God is the prime initiator of a paradigm shift and resulting changes in terms of church of such radical and global proportions, that many of us would be simply shocked or startled, if we were to see the whole picture. I myself readily agree that what I write here is only a small part of the whole truth, and needs the complementary work and imput of many others. ”I do know in parts”, very much so. The impending changes will be so immense, that even many contemporary prophets will be ill prepared. I agree that it is difficult to swallow the whole issue and implications of housechurches in one big bite, let alone simply take them serious and implement them by tomorrow night.
But God is a gentle global teacher, he teaches us step by step, first ABC, than DEF, and finally XYZ. Through the Cell Church he teaches a return to smallness in a language that many traditional programme based churches can and do understand quite well. The fact that the Cell Church itself clearly carries some genes of a programme based design does not really disturb me, since I see that this can serve as a beautiful bridge of understanding for those yet to cross the river back from organized cathedral type religion to an organic and relational understanding of the church as a way of life, at home where we are at home.
In this sense, I see the Cell Church as one of God’s Half-way houses, giving limited focus and vision, so that we in our own limitations can glimpse the way ahead. It may be also God’s gracious hand to slow down our traditional and global church bus to negotiate the more radical bend to house-church Christianity ahead. If we do not slow down by warning signs we actually understand and heed, we would be ill prepared and possibly overturned at the corner with disastrous results. God does not want to overturn us and create chaos, but help us to negotiate the future, and therefore sometimes has to slow us down to prepare us for what he sees, but we don’t. Often our very own over-activistic mentality does this nicely, and in times of ”burn-out” and break-downs many new prophetic insights have been born, because we had the time to pray and think, to again be quiet and still before the Lord.
I am in great sympathy with the Cell Church, because I completely share the concern of developing a New Testament church, a working structure that truly disciples people and ultimately disciples nations. My intention here is not at all to create an artificial polarization, but to point out some key differences between the House Church and the Cell Church concept. For that purpose I have listed some key differences between the two systems, knowing that there are many models and structures developing today, and necessarily there will be some variations and even overlaps between the two:
Cell Church House Church
1. philosophy ”Chiefdom” acephalous (headless) tribe
2. reflects city culture village culture
3. flourishes in warrior nations peaceful nations also
4. cell is part of larger unit the unit itself
5. administration Jethro system 5-fold ministry
6. programme agenda driven house church is the agenda
7. structure pyramid flat
8. leadership leaders ladder elders and apostles
9. celebration must optional
10. center headquartered decentralized
11. visibility high low
12. setup evangelistic apostolic and prophetic
1. Chiefdoms and acephalous tribes
If we compare cell churches and house churches, they might simply echo the age old distinction between chiefdoms, tribes with a headman, and acephalous or headless tribes. Cell churches would then reflect the chiefdom pattern, house churches the makeup of the headless tribal societies.
2. City and village culture
Many of today’s Cell Churches have developed in cities or metropolitan areas, whereby house churches have flourished in both contexts, cities and villages. Most Cell Churches are city-bred. I think this is important to note. Although, some have contended, the story of redemption starts in the garden of Eden and ends in the new city of Jerusalem, many people today do simply live in both worlds at the same time, the city and the village. A person might dwell in a city, but still live in a village within the city, his colony, barrangay, apartment block, gated community, slum or neighborhood quarter.
As much as the Cell Church seems to offer a visible island in the urban sea of humanity, a castle rising above the masses, were people can seek and find refuge under a standard bearers’ flag or in the shadow of a great man of God, we need not forget that this is only a part of the full picture, and not applicable for everybody at all. It is true that many people in cities seem socially lost, without identity, waiting for someone to come along to offer them a place to belong. But that is only true at the surface. Underneath, many people even in cities actually ”do belong” already, to a club, a clan, a group of all sorts, a gang, a modern ”tribe”, or feel a strong part of their geographic location, their apartment block or neighborhood watch group, for example. They still have their tribe, their village, even within the city.
Almost all nations – with the obvious exception of typical city-nations like Singapore or the Vatican, retain most of its heritage, typical life patterns and cultural traditions and strongholds in the village. Many nations are increasingly aware and proud of that. ”India lives in a village”, exclaimed Mahatma Gandhi. But what if the church in India, for example, lives in the cities? Can a city church disciple villages? The statistics say no. The consequences are simple enough: a church developed in the city, on average, will not win the villages. If we do not win the villages, we will not disciple the whole nation. As much as we need to ”win the cities” – which we could also see as a huge network of villages and neighborhoods – we need the type of church which can penetrate and win the villages, too. If we can disciple the neighborhoods, we can also disciple the nation. The house churches seem to be able to do both.
3. War and peace
Some tribes are traditional warrior tribes, like the African Massai, the Japanese or the Norwegian Vikings, while others have a more peaceful mindset and history like the Dravidians of South India, the Finns, the Filipinos or the nomadic Berbers. Some nations have developed, more than others, a warrior culture, others are simply more peace loving and settler minded. This is expressed in the way they see their nation, see themselves as individuals, in the films they produce, in the role of the army or the law, and whether they like have a king or a president. In some countries many people simply have come to expect others to tell them what to do, in other countries that same behavior would be highly offensive. In some countries people are highly formal and ritualistic, in others extremely low key and cordial. Some countries feel like you enter an army camp, with tight control from top to bottom, where nobody moves without prior permission; other countries are more like a camping ground, a loosely organized and quite pleasurable mess.
In many western countries individualism and democracy is valued above all else, were each person is in charge of his own life, whereby in other nations the individual feels much more part of the ”Amah”, the tight-knit community, and others are generally in charge of his life. Churches growing in particular cultures and nations always reflect, to a high degree, this ”war or peace” mentality. A person growing up in a ”warrior” culture will much more expect and accept others to tell him which place to sit and belong, what to do and how to behave. From childhood on his life will be filled with little rituals and ceremonies, ribbons and badges, titles and climbing carrier ladders, and there will be always a standard bearer to which he should rally. What wonder if he expects the same in church.
The Cell Church, I believe, reflects that pattern, and rightfully so. However, people growing up with a peaceful, democratic, socialist or even communist background have something in common with today’s X-Generation culture in the West: they will instinctively question any self imposing authority, be it political, economical, or spiritual. They will resist a church with a ”military touch and a spiritual general on top”, and value an organic and relational church with servant leadership. This is one more reason why I favor house churches. They simply function in both ”war and peace climates”.
4. Interdependent status
Where the cell is an important part of a larger individual church – it ”belongs” structurally to the Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul or the Faith Community Baptists Church in Singapore -, the house church does not organizationally ”belong” to a larger unit in that sense. It is usually part of an interdependent – not independent! – network of similar house churches, or functions completely on it’s own. They are not part of a larger, ”real” church, they are the real thing all by themselves.
5. Jethro or the Five-fold ministry
In tune with a stunning absence of the fivefold ministry, many Cell Churches favor the so-called Jethro-principle, a system of administration which delegates authority to several levels of leadership. Jethro, Moses’ father in law, advised him (Ex.18) to delegate judging the people of Israel to ”rulers and officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties and ten”, because otherwise he would be overworked. What we should not fail to notice, however, is that the Jethro-principle is basically a policing structure enforcing law and order, not designed to build and empower the New Testament fellowship of grace and love. Moses was a mediator between the people of Israel and God, and this is exactly what Jesus did away with, as he himself became the mediator once and for all, opening access to the throne of grace for all people washed by the blood of the lamb. Are we literally trying to do the new in the power of the old?
In a Cell Church the unquestioned leader is typically of a Moses type, the ”Senior Pastor” with his ”cabinet of Ministers”, delegating his authority to a myriad of levels of responsibility and leadership with quite an enormous amount of counting, administration, bureaucracy, and, may I say it, control. This sometimes looks to me like a protestant attempt in Catholicism. Is it a Freudian lapse when we read in ”Church Growth and the Home Cell System” (Seoul, page 122) that ”every week new souls are being added to the central computer”? What it does to somebody’s’ Ego to know that he or she is number 5.432 in the tracking system of the churches computers I do not know. What I do know is this: few people want to be run and tracked by others, and live a life where every move is controlled and observed by the watchful eye of ”Big Brother”.
I have been proudly introduced into a number of large computer operating rooms of Cell Churches as if it were the ”Holy of Holies”. Sometimes I walked away with the feeling that the greatest unspoken fear of this church is that someone might fail to do his duty, walk out of line, the senior pastor falls ill or dies, the electricity will fail, or a computer virus creeps in, and the whole church will fall apart in an instant.
”The growth of the (Cell) Church should only be limited by our anointing and vision”, says Lawrence Khong, and Markus Koch, working with the Christliches Zentrum Buchegg, a Cell Church in Zürich, Switzerland, goes on to suggest that ”a church should be lead by one pastor”. This traditional one pastor-centred thinking does not differ much from the congregational model of church at all. In fact, the very life and quality of the church would depend very highly on the quality, vision and energy of the Senior Pastor. Knowing many Christian leaders – and myself! – I am not only suggesting that something can go wrong with anyone, and we therefore should not build too much on just one persons’ charisma. But the ”stock” of senior pastors available today is quite limited, too.
In every nation the number of persons with the caliber of a Lawrence Khong, Yonggi Cho, Ralph Neighbour, Kriensak Chareonwonsak, William Kumuyi, Gerald Coates, Max Schläpfer, D. Mohan, Bill Hybels and Cesar Castellanos is simply limited. They may be not really just ”Senior Pastors” at all, but truly people with an apostolic gifting and calling much larger than their current setup, and should and will probably not confine themselves just to ”their own church” in the future or even now.
A house church, in contrast to all this, is much less threatened by an electrical power cut, because there is not much data to loose. The elders of house churches are in relationship with people doing the five-fold ministry, were God empowers and anoints people to encourage, empower and build up others to do the work of the ministry. This fivefold ministry functions like a blood-circulating system amongst the house church-”cells”, is low key and quite invisible. The idea is not delegating authority top-down to build an ever-increasing pyramid touching the sky, but empowering each other to spread out and generate a movement which can fit under a carpet.
6. Do we have a programme, or ”are we the programme”?
In a typical Cell Church there is an agenda to accomplish and a fairly set pattern to follow for each cell. This agenda could be handed to the ”cell leader” on a sheet from the Senior Pastor or a responsible person, or discussed with the cell leaders on Wednesday in order to rehearse for the cell meetings on Thursday, or the agenda might be contained in the agreed upon pattern for such meetings. Yonggi Cho advises other ministers ”to never delegate the important responsibility of writing the teaching lessons and having seminars with the homecell leaders to others”.
In contrast, the housechurch ideally is the agenda itself. Since a housechurch is typically part of an apostolic network within which the five-fold ministry is operating, it is prevented from becoming a pious bless-me club or an isolated social club or a fellowship with koinonitis, that is a form of ”fellowship-infection” of an inward looking and self-centered Christian group, not by a programme, but by the way it functions and relates to other housechurches. Although Christians in housechurches read and discuss the Bible, it is not a bible study; although they pray, it is not a prayer meeting. Since Jesus is a person, the idea of having each meeting with that person structured around the same old pattern seems to be as creative and inventive as a bridegroom bringing his future bride each day the same set of flowers, singing the same songs, and declaring his ardent love in the same poems. I suspect after a short time she would be less than excited to receive him and listen to his programme.
Much of the programme-drivenness of the traditional church stems from the fact that most meetings are usually arranged in such a way that there can be no (unpleasant!?) surprises, like ”lay people” exercising gifts to the embarrassment of a religious professional; for the very fear of something going terribly wrong, many of them have developed democratic forms of administration. Democracy may look like the safest form of church government, but it has proven to be the very one which is quickly leading into spiritual oblivion and facelessness, because it has the ability to block out prophetic direction in the name of the numerical majority, and usually introduces bureaucracy as the most inhumane and legalistic form of administration by accountants who will make sure that the letter of the law is followed. It is yes or no. Instead of people symbolically sitting under the paradisic tree of life, we end up all sitting – and arguing! – under the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and who is right becomes more important than who we are in Christ.
The church programmes then start to become fool proof, follow an agreed-upon pattern (unpack the guitar and songbooks, sing, pray, listen to a bible study or sermon, pray again, close the meeting), where simply nothing can go wrong. In such a context, I suspect, not much can go right, either. Nothing is wrong with singing, praying and having bible study in itself. But if it becomes the dominating programme whenever Christians meet, it will soon become a tradition. This is also why a preoccupation with Bible studies or even prayer can easily kill a healthy community, because it values and emphasizes one agenda over the others. This ultimately attracts and involves people quickly into a programme, which is easy for the first few months, but then not only generates the need to go on inventing follow-up programmes to the last follow-up programme, but starts to actually wear and burn out the people. ”When we realized this with a shock, we closed down all our prayer meetings”, says Pastor D. Mohan of the 12,000 member Assemblies of God Church in Madras, India.
In a house church the idea is to come together in order to be together in the presence of Jesus, who, yes, might very well have an agenda for the asking, and will gladly reveal it through his Holy Spirit and anyone present with a prophetic ministry (1. Cor. 14:26-29: ”When you come together … two or three prophets should speak.” The core reason Christians come together is to share and transfer life, and since life is not predictable, their meetings are not really predictable also. That this very issue of unpredictability makes house churches more attractive, at least for Teenagers, may be a pleasant side effect.
An agenda can potentially even harm or prevent community and fellowship, because it may introduce an overriding focus to the community and squeeze it mechanically into a predefined direction. The very agenda-drivenness of Cell Church introduces a condition, and conditional fellowship is limited fellowship. Many such programmes or agendas develop because Christians are told that their meetings are for evangelistic purposes and reasons. This evangelistic structure carries an inbuilt evangelistic pressure to perform, which accounts for much of the startling burn-out figures of Cell Churches.
Programmes can, however, sometimes serve as a temporary method of ingraining a mentality or a pattern of behavior into people. Once they have achieved that, the programme can be discarded and life can go on. I heard about one of the best of such programmes for cell meetings from my friend Steve Dixon of the cell-based Kings Church in Slough (UK). They call it L.I.F.E.: L stands for dealing with life issues, I for intercession, F for Fun, fellowship and food, and E for evangelism.
Rather than seeing church or cell groups as ”a series of programme driven weekly meetings at 7.30 PM at Elm Street”, house churches see their essence as sharing lives, and could meet everyday like in biblical days, or any other number of times suitable. Here, the people are the resources, Jesus is the programme, fellowship is the reason, multiplication is the outcome, and discipling the neighborhood the goal.
7. Pyramid or flat structure
Most everything that man touches – buildings, companies, politics, grows into a bigger and higher structure, with any amount of levels, stairs and pyramid schemes. Beyond the Tabernacle, which was a tent, the Temple was the only building God ever designed, and it was flat, not multi-storied. The Cell church usually develops quickly into a pyramid structure with the Senior Pastor on top, followed downwards by Assistant Pastors, Directors of Pastoral Care Departments, District Pastors, Sub-District Pastors, Section Leaders and finally, at the bottom, the Home Cell Leaders with their Assistant Home Cell leader and Spiritual Parents.
The housechurch has, in comparison, a flat structure. The various tasks are not executed by people within a hierarchy, but by people uniquely gifted for a special ministry relating to each other as redeemed friends and submitting themselves to each other. In the New Testament there is no inferiority or superiority amongst members of the church, but equality: no one is more important than the others (1 Cor. 12:21-25), but everyone has to simply fulfill a different function within the Body. Ministry is therefore not delegated top-down but earned through a spirit of humble servanthood.
There are three main areas of responsibility:
a. The housechurches are led by Elders;
b. The elders are constantly equipped and trained by people who have been called by God for one of the five-fold ministries;
c. Those spiritual equippers are relating to what I call apostolic regional fathers, people with an apostolic and prophetic gifting plus a special calling from God for a city, a region or a nation.
Those apostolic fathers, usually recognizable by the almost unbearable agony and spiritual pain they bear for a place, a city, a nation or a people group, become the local backbone, the regional or national ”pillars of faith”, anchoring the whole movement of house churches and being responsible for any celebrations and the city-church that will emerge.
The house church is typically part of an interdependent (not: independent) network, a truly self-regulating system of interrelated elements or clusters of elements. ”The biotic principle of interdependence states that the way the individual parts are integrated into a whole system is more important than the parts themselves. This is nature’s blueprint: structured interdependence”, says Christian Schwarz.
The structure is flat, because there is no-one ”higher” or more important than the other person. This also has consequences for the potential corruption with money and power in the church, from which the traditional church is not exactly free and immune, because it is not all that impressing to be the humble elder of 13 others or to simply serve a number of house churches as a teacher, pastor or evangelist.
8. Lead or fathered
In spite of Jesus’ stern words ”do not let anyone call you a leader, for one is your leader, Christ” (Mt 23:10), one of the greatest cries of today’s church is for more leaders. We humans love leaders, and chuckle knowingly when we drink out of a coffee mug that reads the slogan: Lead, follow, or get out of the way. As always, when we ignore a biblical principle, there is a price to pay.
Like in the days of Saul, God wanted to be King of the Israelites, but the nation wanted to rather follow the ways of the nations and have a decent king. Today we are in the same danger. The whole world wants leaders, not servants, and so does the traditional church. Maybe we simply want what God is not willing to give, and instead of seeing our futile attempts, we carry on with what we think is persistence.
Just like a human body the Body of Christ has not many leaders, but simply many different members, all with different functions. As those members function together in collective obedience to their head, so the whole Body is literally lead by the Head. To call one member a leader over the others – and in spite of the presence of the head! – would be grossly misleading. Jesus is the Head of the church, and that is all the leadership it truly needs. The church is lead when it’s members obey it’s head. The Church experiences leadership as they collectively obey their head and function together in unity.
No leadership awards in heaven
If we want to see biblical – and not political or management type – leadership to happen, we must stop blindly assuming and usurping leadership of the church, as if it is the most natural thing to do. Man assumes leadership to anything he touches. It is part of his creational brief. However, the church is an exemption: it is not man’s invention nor property. It is truly God’s. This is something which runs so contrary to our human thinking, that supernatural faith in a God who has things under control when they long seem to have slipped out of our hands is simply required to be true and faithful stewards of his church. That is also why God is mainly reigning his church through apostolic and prophetic people who usually have the charismatic gift of faith more than others. Rick Warren, senior pastor of Saddleback Community Church says it this way: ”For a church to grow, both the pastor and the people must give up control.”
Leadership in the political sense of assuming the last responsibility, filling a ministry slot and function within a job description within a programme, or to take on some delegated authority from someone else, is simply not good enough for the church. This will choke it’s development like Saul choked Israel, or bygone bishops who behaved like little kings choked the development of the Church and led them into plain meaningless and religious chiefdoms. The Body of Christ requires humble and faithful stewards, functioning in obedience to Christ and in mutual love, respect and submission to each other, not highly professional and individual great ”leaders” in their own right, who build their little kingdoms around their personality or personal gifting for some time.
The Church requires Christ-like stewards managing God’s oikonomia, or household, well, who know that they themselves are lead by Christ, who is neither dominating and order-giving nor works with assistants, but has absolute faith in his father and has therefore been entrusted with the world.
Cell Churches are very leader-intensive; they require leadership at many levels. Housechurches, in contrast, are basically not lead, but fathered. A Cell group usually has a leader and an assistant leader, a house church has an elder. There is a huge difference. I am the father and husband of a small family, but few would call me the leader of my family.
It is simply part of a father’s brief to lead, but it is not necessarily part of a leader’s brief to father. The nature of house churches are spiritual extended families, extension centres of the heavenly father’s heart, who expresses his passionate heart for his children through special people whose hearts are beating to the rhythm of God’s own passion.
No church in the New Testament is said to be ”lead” by a pastor or any other leader; but there are always God-ordained persons – stewards – who are carrying a special responsibility for the church, namely the elders, the apostles and prophets. Again, this does not mean that they are leaders. Few would turn to a steward to ask for his business card. The stewards of the Church are servants, and the more they serve, the more they will ultimately lead (Lk 22:6) in a way which is upside-down to the way the world expects leadership. An obedient and humble servant can lead because he is lead. Leadership, if at all, is therefore a function of obedience. Many housechurch movements in the world have no leaders in the political sense; they are served by anointed stewards, who function very much like spiritual fathers and mothers, as in the case of Yuan Allen in Beijing, the ”Father” of the Chinese Housechurch movement.
For a Cell Church with a pyramid structure and ”leaders” trained at every level, it is quite possible that a new professionalism and clericalism enters through the back door. In addition, many Cell Churches have a ”leader’s ladder”, where a person can work himself ”up” from assistant cell leader level to assistant to the senior pastor. Quite apart from the danger of possible competition in such a ”career structure”, it means that a person usually performs his task only for a short time, and then moves on or up. What if God has called a person simply to be an elder, and never fashioned him or her to become assistant senior pastor at all?
9. The role of Celebrations
The Cell Church typically requires both sociological sizes, the cell and the celebration, to function well; both are necessary wings of the ”two-winged church”, as Bill Beckham illustrates it. The house church can exist independent of celebrations, especially in a hostile environment, and still spread out. They can celebrate through the way they are linked together in an interdependent structure, whereby in the Cell Church the celebration, complete with worship band and preaching by the Senior Pastor, can often become a way back into the very cathedral/congregational-type structure they have tried to leave behind.
The celebrations of Cell Churches often have a denominational character – it is our brand of cell groups that meet in our celebration -, whereby the housechurches favor and support more the regional or citywide celebrations, where the whole local church comes together as the sum total of all Christians in an area. One builds a new denominationalism, the other builds the Kingdom. Which is more biblical?
10. The Headquarter question
The Cell Church usually has quite an impressive headquarter-building, typically as an expression of the unique ministry of its Senior Pastor and his close associates, whereby housechurches are typically a decentralized system with many different centres – that is homes! -, which can change any time if needed.
I was reminded of this while speaking recently in Yuan Allen’s housechurch in Beijing, which is networked invisibly ”under the carpet” with many other housechurches. All his happens from a single bedroom with a few chairs and a minute porch, all located in a small alley too narrow for a car to pass through, just behind a bustling market. Housechurches seem to reflect more of a flexible pilgrims-mentality, they are on the move, just like God’s spirit is on the move. The Cell Churches are more settled down than that, have developed roots and a more or less huge administration structure, and usually broadcast the message that ”they are here to stay.” One of the negative aspects of a headquarter is that it generates the need for a lot of organizing and administration. The biggest problem with organizing the church is, that it introduces bureaucracy. Bureaucracy is possible the most dangerous, cruel and inhuman form of administration, because it basically asks only two questions: yes or no. ”Did you fill out the form properly, yes or no.” A bureaucratic system of administration throws the door wide open for the kind of people who ultimately would account, organize, administrate, manage, sell, run and finally control – and therefore kill – the church. Howard Astin in his book ”Body and Cell” comments that some Cell Churches feel very ”regimented”.
This can be avoided quite easily in housechurches, because everything here is relational, and therefore things are simply more humane. There is not much more to organize than in living in an extended family. We do not have to assume control of the church as if it were a company which needs ”Total Quality Management”, a modern business philosophy leaving no space for unforeseen developments and ”having all bases covered” for maximum quality and therefore maximum customer satisfaction which means maximum profit. With the Church, we can have a more humble approach, knowing that God is in control. Since there is a head – and naturally a headquarter in heaven – we can relax on earth and have as many small outlets of this heavenly chain of churches as possible, because God does not loose track of them, he does have the final oversight. In frantically trying to help God run his business by establishing visible and impressive cathedrals and headquarters on earth we might, unwillingly, have actually hindered him, because these structures may have shouted glory to men on earth so loud that the glory of the lamb was drowned in the process.
11. High and low visibility
As the housechurch can function with or without a celebration and the necessary administrative headquarter to run it, it is obviously much less visible. In many nations or cities, housechurches can function for a long time without being noticed at all by the public. The interdependent network structure of a housechurch movement links the churches ”under the carpet”, through an invisible and flat structure, so that even the celebration happens as the fivefold ministry rotates through the housechurches and carries with it good news, greetings, gifts and vision. This also means that housechurches are less prone to corruption through insecure and therefore power-hungry people attracted by powerful and impressive structures like flies to the honey. This type of Christianity makes a much more humble statement about itself, which is specially important for areas of the world with a lot of religious bigotry, where religious movements outdo each other by who competing to have the highest steeple or tower attached to holy buildings. Low visibility of human structures also means high visibility of God’s hand in all this. Finally, a low visibility structure is much more persecution-proof and prepared for all apocalyptic eventualities than massive cell churches with a vulnerable top man and a vulnerable hub.
12. Evangelistic or apostolic and prophetic foundations
Many have understood correctly that Cell Church is an evangelistic model of church. And because many feel that ”evangelism is the need of the hour”, we might feel prone to go with the flow and build evangelistically. However, as I have pointed out before, the long-term driving force of a church is not it’s evangelistic vision, but a solid apostolic and prophetic foundation (Eph. 2:20). In this way, the apostolic outward focus and a prophetic vision for the past, the present and the future, is literally built-in. I believe that the housechurches are apostolic and prophetic, because this is exactly the way the New Testament apostles and prophets built the church. Evangelists have never played the main role in propagating the church, this has always been the ministry of prophetic and apostolically gifted people. The apostolic and prophetic church as a new way of life is good news in itself, and does not really need evangelism as an activity to be driven by, with all the unhealthy pressure to perform that comes with it.
A good example for this is Argentina, a country that experienced revival roughly since 1982, as they lost a war to England, and as much of it’s national pride was sunk together with it’s big flagship, the Belgrano. Gifted Evangelists like Carlos Annacondia, Hector Gimenez and Omar Cabrera sprung up and had massive evangelistic rallies of almost unheard of proportions, counting the ”decisions for Christ” by the tens of Thousands. However, I was told that Carlos Annacondia and others have honestly asked themselves: “Where are all those people we lead to Christ now?” Omar Cabrera, in a Dawn-related conference in Miami in November 1998, pointed out that many pastors in Argentina – including himself – have found it difficult to incorporate the many who made “decisions for Christ” into existing or newly planted churches. Argentina, as a study done in Sept. 1996 revealed, has one of the lowest churchplanting rates of all of Latin America. All that ”Extraction Evangelism” as I call it, trying to extract individuals from their families through an individual and purely verbal ”decision for Christ” is not only breaking existing social structures and is therefore hated by parents of converted children around the world, but has not lead to much growth of the church, either. There must be a missing link.
”Evangelism which pulls individuals out of their family context and provides no new context is half-baked and may well do more harm than good”, says Alan Tippet.
Argentinean Alberto de Luca, together with a growing number of pastors, sees churchplanting and multiplication as the prophetic way forward. They are developing now a national church-multiplication strategy. In other words, they move from being Evangelism driven to function in an apostolic and prophetic way to see their country discipled. Good evangelism supports and functions in unity with the five-fold ministry, never isolated as a single force or cure-all for the lost or unheard witness of the church.
I have mentioned before that the Cell Church seems to be an urban product, a model of church grown in the city or a metropolitan climate. The city develops a particular culture, much different from the villages. In a village, each person is directly responsible for his actions. In an atmosphere of tight social control he cannot escape because everybody knows everybody. In a city, however, an individual quickly drowns in an anonymous mass and may start to feel that he does not have to stand up for the consequences of his actions, because he can always disappear into the faceless crowd. The city breeds a philosophy of its own, of a ”hit and run” approach, where any salesman understands that he needs to quickly touch as many people as he can with his product, because next moment they are gone. This philosophy has molded much of today’s evangelistic thinking, and much of today’s evangelistic thinking has, in turn, flown into the Cell Church approach. But as long as the church thinks the evangelists are the prophets, the true prophets will be overheard.
Transitioning for ever?
One of the most striking aspects of cell churches is that most of them seem to be constantly ”in transition”. Transition could easily become the outstanding constant of the Cell Church movement. Lawrence Khong of Faith Community Baptist Church, Singapore, a passionate and visionary man of God, mentioned in a recent brochure that they are now (1998) ”in their 10th year of transitioning.” In my view, Cell Churches have done only half a paradigm shift, have not fully concluded the circle and not finished the ”second reformation” quite yet. But they are a brilliant start into the right direction, given the fact that a large part of churches in the world are build according to the cathedral or congregational model of church.
I believe that God wants us to go full circle, returning back wholeheartedly to the New Testament God and consequently his model of housechurches, incarnated in apostolic and prophetic ways into our soil, time, people group and culture, because God one more time wants to turn the world upside down.