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.
A Model for Discipleship
After a few years of trial and error, we finally had a functioning model. The Micro Discipleship Accountability (MDA) cell church model was born. The mother church in the Igreja da Paz now has over 6,000 small groups and 60,000 members practicing the MDA model. Each small group is sub-divided into tiny discipleship micro-cells. In the mother church alone, there are 35,200 micro-cells.
We encourage every member—from the brand-new believer to the senior pastor—to participate in three exciting meetings every week:
1) Celebration services (usually on Sunday)
2) Cell group (that meet in homes)
3) Micro-cell (one-on-one discipleship with someone in their cell group)
While the cell groups help in discipleship, we’ve discovered that people find it much easier to open up about their struggles with sin when it’s with just one other person. By guaranteeing a discipler for every member, we’ve provided an atmosphere that lovingly encourages transparency and spiritual health. The cell meetings, then, become a place to celebrate the growth that’s happening in the micro-cells, and this makes them very meaningful.
We encourage each micro-cell to have a set time every week. It can be over a meal, before or after the cell group meeting, or any other time that’s convenient. During this meeting, the discipler will invest in his or her disciplee in three key areas: relationship with God, family relationships, and involvement within the cell group. Disciplers train disciplees in winning their "oikos" for Jesus, and then train them to disciple the people who are won to Jesus.
Discipleship is a deep, loving relationship, where disciplers see themselves as a servant of the disciplee, never lording over them. The discipler and disciplee are always the same gender, and disciplers are trained against creating dependency. They are encouraged to model a deep relationship with Jesus, seeing themselves as pouring into their disciplee.
One of the goals of the micro-cells is to help disciplees prepare to disciple others. To do that, they must become members of our church, go through a class, and complete practical training on one-on-one discipleship. This ensures that there are always enough disciplers for new believers. To be honest, though, it’s a struggle to keep up. Because everyone has realized the benefits of being discipled, we don't have a problem with people agreeing to be discipled. We constantly need more disciplers. This means we must both intentionally train disciplees quickly and push the more timid ones to step up as disciplers.
Despite the challenges, we are so grateful for all God has done. Now the pastor is no longer tasked with discipling everyone in the church, and the church has been able to grow much larger as a result. Plus, this model provides the best care to each person in our church, something that a single pastor simply can’t do. Between the cell groups and the micro-cells, everyone is deeply cared for. I really believe the church is caring for the 60,000 members better than when there were only 200!
With the success of the MDA model in the Santarém church, I have had the privilege of taking the vision for discipleship to other regions of Brazil. After being the senior pastor for 24 years, I passed off the church to my disciplee, Pastor Geraldo, and moved with almost 100 people to start a new church in Fortaleza, a city of over 2 million people. This city is in the most unevangelized region of Brazil. We started the church from scratch a little over 9 years ago, and we now have 8,500 people, 1,070 cell groups, and over 5,000 micro-cells meeting every week. Besides that, we have 107 daughter churches in the region. God has poured out his grace and mercy in a mighty way as we’ve focused on discipling every member of our cell groups.
—Abe Huber is Senior Pastor of the Igreja da Paz in Fortaleza, Brazil.