Unlike many churches who transition gradually to small-group ministry, we changed rather abruptly. We became completely convinced of cell-based ministry after visiting David Cho’s church in Seoul, South Korea, in 1986. When we returned to Elim Church in El Salvador, we asked everyone to join a small group. We even discontinued our small, nearby church plants, asking the pastors to become zone and district pastors in one large cell-based church. By God’s grace, the change to small-group ministry worked, although in those early days we learned more from our failures than our successes.
We now have 110,000 people in our 9,000 weekly cell groups in our mother church in San Salvador, and we’ve become an international church. We view our small groups here as an army that is penetrating the city of San Salvador for Jesus. In order to get where we are today, we made some key decisions that continue to guide us into the present. One of those creative decisions was asking all groups to hold a planning meeting each week.
We originally did this because we noticed that our groups weren’t prepared for the new people who were streaming into them. We also realized that we were far too dependent on one or two leaders and not tapping into the strength of other people in the group. And then there were the many “Extra Grace Required” people in the groups we were unprepared to deal with. Plus, people were losing their passion for evangelism.
To counteract this, group leaders develop a leadership team that meets together on Wednesdays nights to plan for the Saturday night small-group meeting. These leadership teams are essentially anyone willing to make a consistent commitment to attend the Wednesday night planning meeting.
Getting People Involved
Although we allow anyone to attend the Wednesday night planning meeting, the reality was that the committed and faithful members actually attended. Some would call these people the core group or the nucleus of the cell.
We’ve discovered that the midweek planning meeting allows those with a hunger to serve Jesus Christ to get involved more deeply in small-group life, being able to plan, pray, and act. People feel wanted and esteemed when they’re involved. The planning meeting is also the time to strategize to reach those who don’t know Jesus as Savior and Lord, and it provides the impetus to decide how to hold people accountable to make sure that evangelism takes place.
We’ve learned from experience not to exalt one person. Long-term fruitfulness in the small-group vision requires developing an army of leaders who are planning and praying together. The planning meeting has now become part of the culture of Elim. After almost 30 years, the small-group members know that the goal of the small groups is to make disciples who make disciples, and the Wednesday night meetings are where the groups plan to make this happen.
What the Meeting Looks Like
We try to keep the planning meetings to one hour because we know everyone is busy. In fact, our main challenge with this meeting is busyness and not prioritizing it. We allow for flexibility in our planning meetings and each one is a little different. We have found, however, most of the planning meetings follow a similar order:
Initial prayer. The leader will open in prayer, ask for prayer requests, and have each person pray for one another.
Scripture reading and encouragement. We start with God’s Word, and the leader might share something that God is laying on his or her heart during personal devotion time.
Sharing the vision. The leader reminds the group of the overall vision of making disciples through small-group ministry.
Results from the last planning meeting. Accountability is critical. The leader will ask whether people were visited/evangelized and whether the particular tasks were completed.
Planning for the following Saturday cell meeting. This is the main part of the planning meeting. To ensure that the cell is meeting its purpose, the planning group works through several items each week. First, they delegate the care of group members. It’s important that group members who have not been attending recently are visited, so the team assigns who will visit each person. They also assign team members to any new converts in the group so they can be intentionally discipled. Also, because transportation is such a problem in San Salvador, the team makes sure that everyone in the group has a ride to both the group meeting and the Sunday celebration service.
Second, they plan for the meeting. Together they decide how each team member will participate in the meeting such as leading worship, taking the offering, or leading the lesson. We believe the Saturday night cell meeting will be more productive the more people who are involved.
Preparing for multiplication. The team considers who will lead the next cell, the next step in preparing this person, and logistical information about the new cell (like where they’ll meet). This happens over time.
Personal prayer requests for team members. The team grows especially close, so this is a great time to minister to one another.
General church announcements. This is the time we ensure our core leaders are aware of everything happening at the church.
The Wednesday night meeting is not another edification meeting. We don’t want to replicate the Saturday night group meeting. Rather, it’s primarily about planning. The purpose is crystal clear: get ready for the Saturday night cell by delegating tasks, inviting people, and preparing every aspect of the meeting. In a lot of ways, the Wednesday night planning meeting takes the mystery out of cell ministry.
Keeping the Vision Alive
We’re convinced of the importance of the planning meeting. It helps maintain the excitement level of the cell group and reminds people that anything worthwhile—including a cell group—requires planning and prayer.
We believe that the planning meeting is a key reason our groups continue to reach out and multiply throughout the city. Our goal at Elim is to penetrate our city of San Salvador with multiplying small groups. To make that happen, our people must be proactively involved in the process. The Wednesday planning meetings are the place they get involved.
—Mario Vega is Lead Pastor of Misión Cristiana Elim in San Salvador, El Salvador.