This is a book that I would likely never have found if it were not for meeting a local Pastor a few weeks ago.
(A little back story) While driving in our city, I saw a church sign (you know the kind-black letters against a lighted white background) and it caught my attention. Our Mission: Make Disciples Who Make Disciples.
This is missional language—the stuff I’ve been reading and studying over the past several years. Relationships and personal exchanges with leaders like Alan Hirsch, Jeff Vanderstelt, Caesar Kalinowski and others have conditioned me to be hyper-alert and sensitive to discipling language.
I checked out the church website, watched their membership videos, attended a service and emailed Pastor “Pete” who was gracious enough to meet me one afternoon at Starbucks. Our conversation was enjoyable, challenging, he was gracious, confident in Christ and the Gospel. He recommended The Church in Many Houses, which I ordered and quickly read.
Steve Cordle is the founding Pastor of Crossroads United Methodist Church in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania. In the book Cordle unpacks his journey in ministry and lays out his convictions after asking himself this question:
What kind of church do I want to invest my life in building?
What follows is the author’s account of his wins, losses and learning’s in following God and launching and leading a cell based church.
In the Introduction Cordle writes: “This book is not about Crossroads Church; though it is about the unique principles that shape the cell church, and how they differ from the assumptions of traditional, program-based churches. The process of becoming a cell church is more about embracing a philosophy than adoption of certain methods….This is an attempt to answer the question why?”
In terms of hitting the intended target and actually answering why, I give the overall work a B+.
Cordle continues; “This book does not advocate a specific cell model, because methods are always changing. It is about essential principles that can be applied in many different ways depending on the context.”
In truth, the book is very light on the “you must” “you should” and “you have to” statements for which I was thankful. It is clearly a thorough explanation of what cell ministry has come to look like at Crossroads Church. Which is fundamentally a model built upon deeply held principles. As a reader you have to thin slice the content to separate model from principle.
The basic structure of ministry for Crossroads and the one expressed in this book is the Cell and it is defined in this way:
A cell is a group of three to fifteen people that meets weekly outside the church building for the purpose of evangelism, community and discipleship with the goal of multiplication.
Cordle is quick to point out that a key difference between a cell and a small group is found in that a cell is fundamentally outward focused. “The group’s goal is to reach unreached people and lead them into a relationship with Jesus.”
Success then is not simply fellowship, depth of teaching or community---those are all by products of a healthy cell. Multiplication is the goal and once achieved is the definitive marker that the cell has reached maturity and health and is fulfilling its mission. For Cordle, the cell is the basic unit of structure in the church, it contains all the DNA of the church, and it is the leadership engine and context for discipleship, care, challenge and support.
Championing the Cell doesn’t mean Cordle diminishes the corporate worship gathering—this I appreciated. Cell and Celebration (Public Worship) are described as the two wings of the church. If you were to ask a Pilot which wing of his airplane was most important he would think your question absurd. Similarly, those who attempt such a dichotomy between the small gathering and the large gathering aren’t asking the right question—both are critical.
Cell church has its critics—perhaps rightly so in some occasions. One pushback Cordle addresses is the criticism leveled at cell church by culture. He writes:
“Some contend that the cell church model will not work in North America. It has been said that although cell ministry seems to work well in other cultures, our culture is not conducive to the cell model. American independence, busyness, and relational distance from one another are thought to work against the success of cell ministry. However, it is not our culture but our mindset that most determines whether the cell model will work.”
He later adds: “Cell ministry can cut against the grain of our American radical individualism, entertainment orientation and consumerism…It (cell ministry) is a lifestyle commitment that may not be reinforced by American values. The question becomes: How biblical are North American values? Just because cell ministry cuts against the grain of our culture does not mean we should discard it. In fact, it might be one more reason to embrace it.”
I found Cordle to be sympathetic and generous, but challenging of the programmatic church—you won’t find him railing against today’s church as much as he is questioning of its methods and their effectiveness.
Surveying our changing culture he writes: “As the spiritual temperature of our society continues to drop, it is vital that the church be effective as possible. The program church is not so much wrong as it is handicapped. By relying heavily upon the large gathering (worship service) it is flapping only one wing. It is not able to fly as high as God intends and the world needs.”
The heavy work Cordle proposes comes in addressing the assumptions often made about the mission and work of the church. He sets forth five essential philosophical shifts necessary for the Cell approach to work and explains them in the subsequent chapters.
1. From “growing deeper” to “reaching outward”
2. From membership to disciple-maker
3. From educating to equipping
4. From programs to relationships
5. From a church with cells to a church that is cells
Even if you are not considering Cell ministry his work in this section is worth the read and price of the book. In simple and plain ways he asks the reader to evaluate why they “do” ministry and in doing so challenges them to consider whether it is faithful to Scripture.
I found myself agreeing with him, being challenged by his questions and being both frustrated at what is and hopeful for what could become reality in the Church.