Though I’m not Brazilian, I’ve lived in Brazil most of my life. I was born and raised on the mission field here. I went away to Colombia Bible College, but I came back as a missionary when I graduated. In 1983, I started pastoring a church of 40 people, the Igreja da Paz in Santarém, a city in the heart of the Amazon Basin.
Many of the church members were not faithful attenders, and my goal was to personally visit, pastor, and care for each church member. After a couple of years of this, we had about 200 members—and I was totally exhausted. Though I was working so hard making visits and caring for the members, I could tell that I wasn't doing a good job. There were just too many people for me to pastor all by myself.
When I read books by Ralph Neighbour and Joel Comiskey, we finally had the tools to develop a small-group system that could work in our context. By God’s grace, we became a church of small groups, and these cells were effectively pastoring and caring for our members.
This created a healthier model for me, too. My wife and I personally discipled the cell-group leaders rather than everyone in the church. We saw great fruit as we developed the leaders. Their lives changed as they grew spiritually, and they began winning their families and friends for Jesus. Because of the maturity of the leaders, over 90 percent of our church members joined cell groups, and we consistently saw conversions happening in the groups.
As the groups grew and multiplied, we ran into another problem: my wife and I couldn’t continue to invest in all of the group leaders. There were simply too many! How could we guarantee that all our cell leaders would be effectively discipled if we couldn’t meet with them one-on-one?
We also began to wonder how well the individual group members were being discipled. We believed that the people in our church weren’t as fruitful as they could be. I believe that the main reason for not producing fruit is that we have hidden sin that we’re struggling with. We had seen the fruit of changed lives as we met one-on-one with our group leaders for discipleship. How could we ensure that every group member was being discipled effectively?
A Frustrating Question
Dr. Carl Horton had a doctorate in church growth from Fuller Theological Seminary and served as a chaplain with the U.S. Marines. He would visit us in Santarém, and every time he came he had one theme: discipleship. He once told me: "Abe, I have visited the largest cell-based churches in the world, and I have not seen any of them as focused on the Great Commission as the Igreja da Paz in Santarém, but imagine if everyone was discipled one-on-one! Then the church would grow so much more in quality and quantity!"
I confess I was irritated as Dr. Horton kept saying this over and over to me. I was very grateful that he would visit us and offer advice, but he kept insisting that we should have everyone in our local congregation discipled one-on-one. In my mind I thought: "Here he comes with a lot of ideas from the 'ivory towers' that will never work in a practical way in the day-to-day life of a local church.”
One day, I finally told him that the idea of discipling everyone one-on-one wasn’t realistic within the context of the local church. But soon after, I sensed the Lord telling me that I was being very proud. Because Dr. Horton had never pastored a church, I wasn't being open and humble enough to really hear what God was trying to teach me. So immediately I apologized, asking for advice on how we could possibly disciple everyone in our church. He encouraged us and helped our pastoral team determine our next few steps to make this vision a reality.