good questions

The fastest growing church in the world

The fastest growing church in the world is growing through groups that are doubling every two years or less. In fact, a lot less. They require each group to double each year, but encourage them to double within six months. I wonder what kind of growth would result. More on that later.

I have been saying for a long time that if we could perfect the skill of doubling groups every two years or less, you couldn't build buildings fast enough, start services fast enough or launch new churches fast enough to contain the growth. The fastest growing church in the world is an example of this.

Pastor Castellanos went to Korea in 1986 and was fascinated by Dr. Cho's cell system. He went to work right away to develop a similar system in his church. By 1991 they had 70 groups. Then, they tweaked the plan and developed the G12 system. (Described below.) To say the church took off is a gross understatement. By 1999 the church had 20,0000. . . you think I am going to say 20,000 in attendance, right?  No. The church had 20,000 groups. Today, they have about 52,000 groups. If each group averages 10 they have half a million groups at International Charismatic Mission in Bogotá, Columbia. I would say that easily earns the title, "Fastest Growing church in the world." And how does it happen?

The fastest growing church in the world is growing through groups that double.

The example of the pastor

At the fastest growing church in the world, the pastor eats, sleeps and dreams small groups. Pastor Castellanos is in a group and models group life from the top of the organization. Groups are not one ministry of the church; they are the church. They are not one thing the church does; they are the main thing.

This is a major, though unnoticed problem in most of the churches I visit. Pastors talk about the glory and benefit of Sunday School and group life, but they don't actually attend. Ministers of Music don't attend groups. Ministers of Youth often don't attend groups. Even Ministers of Education don't attend groups. The top level of leadership does not do, in many cases, what they say is important.

You can't have it both ways. You can't communicate to people that group life is wonderful and important and just plain fun and not be in a group yourself. As Bill Hybels says in his excellent book on Courageous Leadership, "The leader must embody the vision." Not only cast the vision; embody the vision.

Pastor, people will never believe groups are more important that you show them by your example.

Notice I use the word "group" in a rather generic way. There is some debate in this generation between proponents of Sunday School type groups (on campus groups) and home groups. I think the debate misses the point. A group is a group is a group is a group. Where it meets is not so important. What is really important is that the top level of leadership are joyfully involved in helping a group double.

I used to be big into Sunday School type groups till I started traveling so much and am gone 40 Sundays a year. Now, my group is a week night group. But, there is no essential difference. It is pretty much the same as my Sunday School style groups used to be.

I have heard people say, "Sunday School groups are content oriented where home groups are relational." Mine were not. And, don't we want some content? "Sunday School style groups are lecture oriented; home groups are discussion oriented." Mine were not. I write two discussion oriented lessons a week for use in Sunday School. "Sunday School is theoretical; home groups are practical." Really?

Home groups have some advantages and Sunday School style groups have some advantages. As Andy Stanley says, "We will never run out of room; we will never run out of parking for out small groups." Maybe we can get into that at another time. I simply want to point out here that whether the group is a Sunday School style group or a home group, if you and your staff, pastor, are not joyfully involved in helping a group double--and loving it--there is no way to convince the rest of us that it is a wonderful way to live.

Many Sunday School don't grow because the pastor does not go.

Goal setting at the fastest growing church in the world

Allow me to quote from Joel Comiskey's fine book, Groups of 12. "Those at ICM take their goals very seriously. Pastor Castellanos asks each group to make goals for group multiplication. Every three months the leaders at ICM review their goals, and at that time the leaders confirm both the long term and short term goals. Every group must multiply at least once per year, but cell leaders are encouraged to multiply their groups every six months. Every cell must evangelize, win others and eventually multiply.

"Pastor Castellanos says, 'Our future projection must come through definite goal setting. All of the growth we have obtained thus far has come by focusing on specific goals.' He goes on to say, 'Since the beginning of ICM the Lord revealed to me the importance of defining goals and since that time I have always focused on goals. Goals place rails on our faith; they arm us with a clear path--not to help God but to help us. Clear goals help us to evaluate our work because our work must bear fruit. The church must make specific goals, which will help the growth of the church."

Cell multiplication without division

ICM has solved one of the thorniest problems of group life through their G12 system. Although, they have done it in a way that may be unpalatable to North American church goers. The G12 system is all about multiplication without division. They have found a way to multiply groups will maintaining long term relationships.

Growth will eventually kill a small group. That is, eventually it is not small any more. Group Gurus banter back and forth as to when is the ideal size for a group to divide, but they all agree that the must divide. This is where the rub is, because it is common that many groups refuse to divide. Many a Minister of Education has told me countless stories of people who have said to them, "Don't you ever think of dividing this group!"

Pastor Castellanos has solved this problem in a very creative way. They don't ask the group to divide. They ask each group member to form their own group. Thus, they have multiplication without division. Each member goes out to form their own group, while remaining a part of the existing network.

The fine print is this. Say I am in a Monday night group. Everyone in the cell is encouraged to start their own group. All those who will move to a Tuesday night G12 group. A G12 group is not an open cell group. It is a leadership training group. So, I leave the original Monday night cell group, but I leave with all those who want to go and start their own groups. Then, I have my own cell group, say, on Thursday night. This may be composed of some of the people who went to the original Monday night group. So, I now have my G12 group where I am fed, nurtured, and pastored on Tuesday night, and my own open cell on Thursday night.

Eventually, I will encourage the Thursday night participants to form groups of their own. From this group, will form my own G12 group where I will be feeding, nurturing and pastoring these disciples to have groups of their own. Thus, I will be in one G12 group where I am fed, another G12 group where I train leaders and an open cell group. Once all of my disciples have 12 disciples of their own, I would close my open cell group and just concentrate on training my 12.

Because of the nature of the way this works, it is common for disciples to give three nights a week to group life. This is why I said earlier that Pastor Castellanos solved this multiplication without division issue in a way that may not be palatable to all American church goers. It requires a very high time commitment. In Bogotá, they actually have many cell leaders who lead more than one group, thus give four of five evenings a week.

(The model is a little different than what we are used to. I'd invite you to do some further reading on the subject.)

G12 churches are springing up all over the world. Here are a few examples:

  • Bethany World Prayer Center, Baker, Louisiana. 800 groups. 8000 in attendance. They conduct an annual conference for pastors on the G12 model.
  • Abbalove Church, Jakarta, Indonesia. 510 groups. 6000 in attendance.
  • Church of the Nations, Athens Georgia. 1000 in attendance.
  • The Christian Center in Guayaquil, Guayaquil, Ecuador. 6,500 in attendance.

As best I can tell, all these churches are Charismatic churches. But, I don't think there is anything in the system that is Charismatic per se, and it should would in a variety of theological contexts. Willowcreek and Saddleback are ample proof that non-charismatic churches can grow. One of the smartest things Rick Warren ever said was, "It takes all kinds of churches to reach all kinds of people."

We can take our world for God by giving the ministry to laymen who are using their gifts to grow their groups to double every two years or less. International Charismatic Mission is exhibit "A".