Greenbelt Interfaith News

    February 1998

    The Second Reformation
    North American Cell Churches Join New Worldwide Network
    By Heather Elizabeth Peterson
    Greenbelt Interfaith News

    Missionary work has its drawbacks. Sam Scaggs and Gerald Martin discovered this when they visited an international cell church planting team on their way back from a Hong Kong conference last November. Mr. Scaggs tried to unscrew the bayonet-type light bulb, and in doing so, he destroyed the ceiling fitting. Mr. Martin replaced the fitting and then fell off the ladder, breaking the sink on his way down. It took the two Virginia pastors a day and a half to repair the damage. As one of their colleagues dryly remarked, "If only they had had some proper cross-cultural orientation before they left home, and had learned that there are other sorts of light bulbs in the world besides American screw-in types . . ."

    Mr. Scaggs's greatest mission work awaited him at home, though: launching the Cell Church Missions Network in North America. Although other cell church networks exist in North America, this new project will be part of the worldwide Cell Church Missions Network (CCMN), designed to strengthen existing cell churches and to encourage cooperation in planting new churches. Many of the new churches are likely to be in North America itself, for in a reversal of the usual pattern, North America remains a mission field of the burgeoning cell church movement.


    "It began in Acts 2:42-46 as the original structure for the church."

    That is how cell church leader Ralph W. Neighbour, Jr., describes the origins of the cell church movement. Cell churches, like the closely related home churches, trace their ancestry back to New Testament times, when Christians gathered and worshipped in each other's homes. Supporters of the cell church movement believe that this early, intimate form of gathering, in which all Christians took equal part, was gradually destroyed as the clergy and laity developed separate duties. Not until the Anabaptist movement at the time of the Protestant Reformation, they say, did Christians begin to recover the concept of the ministry of all believers.

    In this century, the most famous cell church networks have been megachurches, such as Jotabeche Church in Chile, founded in 1909 and surpassed in size only by Yoido Full Gospel Church in Korea, with 700,000 members. Originally housed in a tent in the slums of Seoul, Yoido had grown so large by the sixties that its pastor, Paul (David) Yonggi Cho, began organizing the church into a cell structure. Some American Christians travelled to Seoul during that time, attracted by the success of the network and hoping to duplicate his efforts in the United States. Among the admirers of Yoido was Dr. Neighbour, who founded the first American cell church in 1971. The task, he has said, was "lonely." After many discouraging years, he moved to Singapore, certain that cell churches would never make a great impact on his native land.

    America surprised him. Cell churches have grown rapidly in the United States and Canada during the nineties, causing Dr. Neighbour and other delighted observers to refer to this era as the Second Reformation. A glimpse at CCMN's newsletter gives a sense of optimism that is felt by cell church leaders worldwide:

    "During the last few days Pastors Setan Lee, Albert Kang (missionary from Singapore), and Alex Ganta (missionary from India) have been communicating together about forming a Cambodian Cell Church Network. . . . This year we organised our very first Malaysian Cell Church Conference and received a tremendous response from about 400 participants from about 100 Churches round the country from every possible denomination. . . . This past week word has come from Alan George, a District Pastor and also Missions Director for Christian Fellowship Church (CFC) in Belfast, Northern Ireland. CFC began the transition to cells 3 years ago after a visit from Uncle Ralph Neighbour. Today they have about 600 people in 40 adult and 15 youth cells. . . . We are (also) involved in facilitating a long term team to Tajikistan; their vision is to plant a reproducible cell model in that extremely dark nation. Any cell church experience in the former Soviet Republics would be of considerable interest. . . . Summer trips are being planned to many cities throughout Asia from July 22nd to August 5th (2 weeks). Destinations include India, Japan, Philippines, Taiwan, Indonesia, Burma, Cambodia, plus 2-3 more sensitive countries."


    Amidst all this activity, many North Americans still need to ask: What is a cell church? The very name "cell church" suggests the movement's nature: the cell church is structured to be a basic unit that can join with other churches.

    "The cell group is the church," says Mr. Scaggs, "and functions as a real entity of the Body of Christ in the neighborhood, work place, or even school or office that it meets in. It is based on relationships, and the cell desires to use its gifts to build each other up, hold each other accountable, apprentice leaders, and reach out and evangelize their family friends and network of relationships within their sphere of influence. Instead of the focus being on the program and the weekly congregation, the basic building block is the cell."

    From this starting unit of a dozen or so Christians, networks are formed. Cells may join together for weekly worship, forming one or more congregations, and the congregations may in turn join together for conventions. "So it flows from cell member to cell to congregation to celebration to convention and then to movement," says Mr. Scaggs.

    What attracts many North Americans to cell churches is the feeling of neighborliness: within the small unit of the cell, it is possible to get to know other Christians and to work with them rather than be lost in what is frequently described as the impersonal atmosphere of the larger churches. The cell model allows these small units to work together, so that the new CCMN is simply an extension of the basic philosophy behind the cell movement.

    The idea for CCMN arose during the first Cell Church Conference in Hong Kong in October 1994, according to Neville Chamberlain, missions director of Shepherd Community Grace Church in Hong Kong and coordinator of the CCMN.

    "The handful of churches transitioning to the cell approach at that time wanted to share what God was doing in their midst with other churches," he says. "About five hundred leaders from some two hundred churches learned about the cell church model and philosophy. Out of that came over one hundred churches who began the transition to cells and decided to stay in touch, helping each other. Walls between churches started to come down as they participated in common projects: pastors' gatherings, cell leader training, a one-year full-time Ministry Training College, combined celebrations, short term missions, etc."

    Starting with interest among the Asian churches in better methods of cooperation, cell church leaders worldwide agreed at a meeting in Hong Kong last November to form a worldwide network not a parachurch, Mr. Scaggs hastens to add. "No Glory and No Control" is the watchword of the new network; CCMN will have no board or staff, but instead will use existing cell churches to cooperate "across national and racial barriers," as Mr. Chamberlain puts it.

    By forming this loosely structured network, CCMN appears to be trying to address the accusation sometimes made against cell churches, that the movement's "stratification of the local church," as one critic put it, "makes the organizational structure of the Roman Catholic Church appear flat." CCMN's goal, the coordinators explain, is not to be an organization but to be a manner of cooperation between existing organizations.

    "Each cell church respects the autonomy of every other cell church," said Mr. Chamberlain in a special issue of the CCMN's newsletter that explained the new structure. "We respect the cultural, doctrinal and methodological diversity which exists within the cell church movement. No one church or person should impose their ideas or plans on any other cell church(es), or try to control other churches within the network. Rather, we are all committed to maintaining 'the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace' (Eph 4:3), committed to the success of one another, committed to encourage each other, committed to helping other churches to the extent they themselves want help."


    The question remains, of course, whether the culture of North America is a fertile planting ground for cell churches. "Why American Cell Churches Fail" is the pessimistic title of one essay outlining the failure of cell church missionaries to make an impact in the United States. Mr. Scaggs, for one, has high hopes for the success of the North American network. He recently sent letters to 2,000 church leaders: this mailing list, he says, consisted of nothing more than "persons who have been coming to our cell church leadership conferences for the last several years and are either transitioning their churches into cell churches or are starting new cell churches."

    "Really, from my viewpoint we are at the threshold of something awesome, but that is all I know," he says. "We are trying to get the word out, and the response so far is very good. There are about thirty cell churches that I am in conversation with right now that have their own networks and have responded very positively to the whole idea via e-mail."

    Cornerstone Church and Ministries International in Harrisonburg, Virginia, the church at which Mr. Scaggs serves as associate senior pastor, may be an indicator of the future of the cell church. The church's goal is to plant new churches in each of the five "MegaSpheres" of the world by the year 2000: Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Tribal, and China. Already, Cornerstone is mother church to cell churches in South Carolina, Florida, Missouri, and other cities in Virginia, as well as Italy, Albania, and China.

    Next June, Cornerstone will hold its annual cell church leadership conference a conference, says Mr. Chamberlain, that may "mark a significant turning point for cell churches in the States." Mr. Scaggs is looking forward to the events in the months to come.

    "Ben [Wong, pastor of Shepherd Community Grace Church] told me in Hong Kong that when he shared his vision with Dr. Ralph Neighbor, his response was that this thing is going to get out of control and no one will be able to control it," says Mr. Scaggs. "If the conference we participated in at Hong Kong in [November] is any indication of what is to come, I think we are in for a pleasant surprise."

    Related Links

    The Cell Church Missions Network

    Yoido Full Gospel Church. By Dr. H. Vinson Synan.

    CellChurch Magazine. Edited by Ralph W. Neighbour, Jr.

    Why American Cell Churches Fail. By Randall Parr.

    CellChurch Homepage

    Cell Church Resource Centre

    The Home Church Home Page

    HOME February 1998 Index

    © 1998 Heather Elizabeth Peterson
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