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Reflections on Central America
Pastor Steve Cordle

From May 12-19 I traveled to Central America with Joel Comiskey and a few other cell church pastors. Our purpose was to visit and learn from two exciting cell-based congregations: Mana Church in San Jose, Costa Rica, and Elim Church in San Salvador, El Salvador. As we saw the great things God was doing through those ministries, we were spiritually invigorated, and inspired to raise our vision for ministry.

Latin America is a different culture, and it is unwise for us at Crossroads to try to simply copy what they do there. However, we can benefit from some transferable principles. Here are just a few of my many observations and reflections.

May 13-15
Mana Church: (“Mision Apostolic Nido de Aguilas”)
San Jose, Costa Rica
Pastor Guido Luis Nunez

About the Church

Mana Church began in 1990. After 8 years of hard work, the church had grown to about 400 people. Then Pastor Nunez attended a cell ministry seminar in Bogata, Columbia. During that cell church conference, the seminar leader called him to the front of the audience and before everyone asked, “Isn’t it true that you’ve been seeking to grow your church?” Núñez could only acknowledge the truth of those words. The seminar leader continued, “I want to tell you that now is the time for growth.”

Núñez went back to Costa Rica and began to implement the cell church philosophy that he had learned in Bogota. During the next two years, by January 2000, his church skyrocketed to 4,000 people. For eight years he had worked hard using a program-based model for ministry, but did not come close to the fruitfulness he desired. The cell-based model allowed him to see God-sized results.

Then, from 2000-2003, the church struggled. They lost 1,000 in attendance during that time. Pastor Guido realized that he was applying far too much pressure on people; he had become overbearing in demanding that everyone become a cell group leader immediately. He changed his approach, though not his goal. Today, though everyone is encouraged to enter training to become a group leader, no one is forced to do so. Everyone is seen as valuable, whether they are group leaders or not.

Worship services at Mana are high energy and colorful. We attended the Saturday night youth service. There were about 1,700 young people present, all enthusiastically worshiping God. During the time of prayer, they all prayed simultaneously and with great fervor. It was a moving experience to see so many in their teens and early 20’s calling out to God for holiness of life, and for the nations of the world to know Christ. (Flags of many nations hang on the side walls of their 3,000 seat worship space – which is a converted warehouse.)

Mana strongly emphasizes training (what Crossroads would call School of Discipleship). They have 5 levels of classroom training, with one of them, the “Apprentice” level, taught by the pastor. The sessions are offered at 3 different times through the week.

Today Pastor Nunez emphasizes what he called “the spirit of the vision”. That is, he regularly communicates the biblical mandate to reach people for Christ , and to help them grow in the faith as disciples who can reach others.

Some possible transferable points:
Some of Pastor Nunez’ ideas which deserve further exploration for Crossroads:

1. Love the leaders you coach

2. Use a team approach to cell planting.
At Mana, the “parent” groups help the “daughter” groups get going. That is, the original cell contributes people, helps the new group core to pray for and invite new people.

3. Make sure all groups are “robust”.
Mana tries to makes sure each group doesn’t fall too far below 10 in number. This provides a healthy environment for the apprentice to learn leadership, and keeps new leaders from discouragement. (Crossroads’ goal: “every group a healthy group”).

4. Use the “Prayer of Three” to build groups
The “Prayer of 3” is a prayer-based strategy: Pick three unbelievers or unconnected people you know, pray for them (perhaps 3x/day: at meals or pick a time like 3 pm) Look for way to serve them or meet a need. Invite them to worship then to group. If after 3 months they don’t come, pick another 3 (while not writing off the first three).

5. Pay attention to follow-up ministry
Mana is very intentional about the way it responds to those who make commitments to Christ during their services. They have trained teams to connect those people to cell groups.

Pastor Nunez says: “Anyone can bring someone to church, but not all trained/able to follow-up with that new person.”

May 15-18
Elim Church: “Mision Cristiana Elim”
San Salvador, El Salvador
Pastor: Mario Vega

About the Church

Elim is the second largest church in the world. They have a attendance of 147,000 in cell groups: 117,000 adults plus approximately 30,000 in children’s cells. On November 21, 2004, Elim held rally so the whole church could worship at once: 200,000 people, including the nation’s president and major political leaders, gathered to celebrate Christ and to hear the Gospel.

After spending time with their senior pastor, as well as with their other district and zone pastors, I was deeply impressed with their humility, dedication, servanthood, discipline, love, prayerfulness, and zeal for Christ.

Elim’s cell groups are organized into 9 geographical districts. Each district is led by a District pastor, who oversees the Zone Pastors of his district. Each Zone pastor oversees numerous (unpaid) Zone supervisors, each of whom oversee 5 cell group leaders.

Paster Steve talking with Elim Church’s senior pastor Mario Vega in El Salvador

It is obvious that the cell system is vital to what is happening there. One cannot understand what is happening at Elim without understanding its cell-based ministry philosophy. But it is vital to realize this important point: It is not the cell system which works, it is God who works. The cell ministry simply is the most effective and efficient means of preserving and spreading the fire of the Holy Spirit’s work among the people. Put the cell structure on a spiritually dead church and you will have a spiritually dead cell church. Put the cell system on a spiritually vital church and you will see the fire spread even faster and further.

Elim has 6 worship services on a Sunday. Each zone of the church is assigned to worship at a certain hour. They also hold Bible-teaching services Monday through Wednesday and on Friday. Many more people attend the cell groups than attend the weekend worship celebrations. (There is no such thing as being part of Elim without being in a cell group) In fact, Elim doesn’t even count how many people are at the worship services, but every week they know exactly how many attended their 6,500 adult cells, plus how many came to faith in Christ at the group meetings.

The country is poor, and so is the church. This impacts the way the ministry works, but not in a destructive way. Few people have cars, so cell groups pool resources to rent buses to bring people to the services. I was moved when I stood in the parking lot before the service and saw the buses roll in from all around the city.

The church began in about 1979. About 8 years ago it was traumatized when its founding pastor had multiple affairs, divorced his wife, and took up with another woman. He refused to submit to church discipline, so the church had to dismiss him. After a brief interim, Pastor Mario Vega, who was leading one of Elim’s satellite churches, became senior pastor. He has restored the vitality and confidence of the church. I had a chance to spend several hours with Pastor Vega and found him to be a quiet, humble man, with a deep love for God, for the scriptures, and for God’s people.

Visiting the church

We attended one of Elim’s 6 Sunday worship services. The facility is a warehouse-type space with no walls – through that is not a problem in the tropical climate of San Salvador. (They are preparing to build a new 11,000 seat space which will help them handle their growing crowds.) There were a few culturally curious practices: The congregation sat down to sing even the most spirited worship songs. I noticed the men sat on one side of the worship area, and the women on the other. Most of the women also wore head coverings (an interpretation of 1 Corinthians 11).

It was inspiring to talk with some of the worship attenders. One randomly picked man told us he came to Christ six years ago. Before he found Christ at Elim, he and his brothers were gang members. Now they are all leading cell groups. He showed us his weekly cell report: that week 8 people attended; 4 of them gave their lives to Christ.

Another teen age girl said she had come to Christ in the children’s cell group some years before, and her eyes sparkled as she told us she was anxious to become a leader of her own group very soon. She wanted to keep working with children.

A zone pastor told us that in his area a women sick with cancer had been told she had 15 days left to live. At her cell meeting last week she had been healed! (That can spark some real evangelism!)
In the midst of El Salvador’s poverty, hopelessness, and violence, Elm is a beacon of light. I was reminded again that the local church is the hope of the world.

Hub of the ministry

We spent several hours in a couple of the 9 district offices. Here the pastors give detailed attention to the health and work of the cell groups.

In each office there is a District pastor plus 6-9 zone pastors (who oversee volunteer zone supervisors who oversee cell leaders). In one district we visited there were over 10,000 people in their cell groups!
The districts are very organized: the zone pastors had a graph on the wall behind them with pictures of cell supervisors and leaders.

They spoke of working to make sure the people were growing spiritually and the groups were multiplying. cared for – meeting personal needs of people.

Elim also owns 5 radio stations which blanket the nation 24 hours per day with teaching and other programming from Elim.

Many unique features of Elim’s ministry probably won’t translate into American culture. For example:

a. Their ministry approach is heavily time intensive.
Each leader can have 5-6 meetings per week! (Worship twice, cell group planning meeting, cell meeting, and coaching meeting...) While ministry does take time, Elim’s model is not very practical in the US.

b. Zones of groups are strictly geographical
People are directed to cell groups in the area where they live, and the leaders are assigned a coach based on geography instead of relationship (at Crossroads we use relationship-based coaching)
Rented buses bring people to worship because virtually no one drives or owns car.

The geographical approach can work in the US, but less easily than relationship-based approaches. People tend to move primarily in relational networks more than geographically proximate circles.


1. Keeping Christ our first love
At Elim Church it is obvious that the pastors, leaders and people have put Christ first in their lives, and have a passionate desire to know and honor Him. That translates into any setting!

2. Prioritize Coaching over training
Elim offers only 4 short sessions for group leadership training. However, the zone supervisor is at almost every meeting the leader holds, both planning an open cell meetings. So the new leader is supported, guided, and they walk alongside the new leader for a good while.

While we won’t be so time intensive as Elim, it is good for us to keep strengthening coaching.

3. Changing citizenship: the power of Christian Community
The believers become part of a community.... and with a church the size of Elim it is almost like becoming a resident of a new city/country.

Example B: Owen; 24 years old, and last week had 165+ cells and attendance of 2,200 in his cell network the week before.

Owen had been essentially orphaned at age 9 when his parents split up. He was shuffled to uncle, then into homes of church members who raised him, and the cell groups became his family. He grew in Christ and ministry, leading (adult) cells when young teen. He was very effective in multiplying his cell, had strong character, so became supervisor. He succeeded there, too. He worked as an administrator in a Christian school until he became zoned pastor, which is now his job. He is doing well as a zone pastor.

4. Keep feeding Head AND heart;
Passion for Christ and being built up by teaching go hand in hand to create the spiritual vitality which is changing San Salvador.
There is much more I could say, but you can learn more * about Elim, by reading Joel Comiskey’s book Passion and Persistence.)
Guido Luis Núñez, Transition to a Cell Church, audiotape of lecture presented at the Fifth Convention of Multiplication and Revival, January 2000 (Bogota, Colombia: Name of audio recording, 2000).

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