Planting a Discipleship System
The preceding description of a church planting process only
seems unusual when contrasted with a cell church, discipleship system church
planting process, which is also quite unusual. This process has only a few
uncomplicated steps and costs virtually nothing; rather than providing a place
for people to come, it involves going to where the people are, making disciples
out of lost people and then making disciple makers out of disciples. Below are
two statements about the church planting ministry of Neil Cole, whose work was
featured in Unit 6 of this course:
Statement #1: Steve
Lawson, Jesus With An Iced Latte
Neil Cole has a saying: “If you want to reach this
world for Christ, you have to sit in the smoking section.” This planter of
postmodern congregations has a way with words. He also has a way of acting on
his pithy maxims and seeing dramatic results in the form of changed lives. In
1999, Cole jettisoned his traditional pulpit ministry in Alta Loma, California,
to launch Awakening Chapel‑‑founding it literally in the smoking section of The
Coffee Tavern in Long Beach, an urban beach town southwest of Los Angeles. In a
little more than four years, the crew he gleaned from the smokers’ ranks on the
patio at The Coffee Tavern has ballooned into a movement of 400 churches in 16
states and 12 countries. Almost four new congregations started up each week in
2003 under Church Multiplication Associates (CMA)‑‑the umbrella organization
Cole leads and started simultaneously with Awakening Chapel.
When Cole, 42, landed in Long Beach from Alta Loma, his
initial brainstorm was to birth a coffee shop‑‑à la the Jesus Movement‑‑in a
storefront he had rented on busy Cherry Avenue. He said God had told him:
“‘Why don’t you just go to the coffeehouse where the lost people are
“Instead of trying to convert them from the
coffeehouse they really love to our coffeehouse so that we could then convert
them to Christ, we just went and hung out at the coffeehouse where they were
already at,” Cole recounts.
This taking‑church‑to‑where‑life‑happens approach has been
a cornerstone of the movement since a group of about a dozen people started
meeting at the coffee shop, as well as in Cole’s living room and in the
storefront, to worship, read the Bible, pray and fellowship. Nothing too
unusual about that‑‑many congregations have been launched in homes. What wasn’t
normative was that the first church plant happened within months‑‑among the
smokers at Portfolios, another local java joint that has become a nucleus of
Not all the churches‑‑which seldom grow to more than a few
dozen members‑‑meet at coffeehouses. One came together on the lawn of the art
building at California State University in Long Beach, another in a parking lot
in east Los Angeles and another on a local beach. Many meet in homes, but Cole
shuns the classification term “house church” and doesn’t apply it to
“The church is not a building, whether it has a
steeple or a chimney. It is the people,” he says.
Nor are these groups defined as “cell churches”‑‑because
the term implies that the smaller, or cell, church is part of a larger
“In our case we are decentralized and most of them do
not have any larger celebration meetings,” Cole explains. “Usually
new believers do not want a large gathering‑‑it is just the people who were
raised with that tradition who want it.”
The core of Awakening Chapel and the associated churches is
called the Life Transformation Group. Usually only two or three strong, these
same‑gender units meet weekly for Bible study, prayer and confidential
discussion of shortcomings. There is a major emphasis placed on new believers
reaching out to the people in their circles of influence.
Cole comes from a Grace Brethren denominational background,
but churches in his movement are aligned with many denominations. Some of the
groups have started as offshoots of 12‑step programs; one met in a barrio and
another among a group of Filipinos.
Pastors are called shepherds. They include people from a
variety of backgrounds‑‑a former grocery produce manager, a truck driver, an ex‑party
girl. “The goal is to always see leaders come from the harvest,” Cole
Some of the churches align themselves with Awakening
Chapel, but several other groups of churches have also been launched, including
The Refuge in Salt Lake City; Big Fish in Mesa, Arizona; and The Fountain, east
of Los Angeles. This is all part of what Cole calls organic or natural church
growth. Even Cole’s daughter, Heather, 17, has started a high school church.
“We did not plant a church. We planted a movement of
churches,” Cole explains. “We want to reach young, urban, postmodern
people. We want to reproduce disciples, then leaders, then churches, then
In fact, Cole would like to see a multiplying of similar
movements that have no direct connection to Awakening Chapel or CMA.
What kind of people come? All sorts‑‑from athletes to
artists to students. There have been Satanists, businessmen and musicians. Take
Scott Hughes, for example. He was one of the first people Cole encountered at
The Coffee Tavern.
Hughes was there to meet his drug dealer. Reluctantly he
agreed to come to a gathering at Cole’s house. Later, more willingly, he went
to a baptism at the beach, where he snapped photos. Soon enough Hughes made a decision
to follow Christ.
How did he celebrate his new life? He got high. Hughes was
an addict and could not buck it. Cole tried everything to help but finally told
Hughes: “You and me have got to get into the car and drive over to your
drug dealer’s and tell her about Jesus.” This runs right on course with
Cole’s belief that Christians must bring light to wherever darkness exists.
Hughes laughed at the idea and said he would go alone. The
next day he kept his word. The drug dealer did not accept Christ, but her son
did, and he is now a part of Awakening Chapel. Moreover, since that day Hughes
has not once been tempted to take drugs and is now a shepherd of an Awakening
Chapel church plant.
“We value seeing true transformation of lives, not
just converts and not just numbers,” Cole says. “We are not afraid to
go to very dark places where there is much ugliness. Church should happen
wherever life happens. The church is a sent agency, not a sending agency;
therefore, we must go.”
And go Cole and the people of Awakening Chapel do, even if
it means sitting in the smoking section.
For a description of this approach, see www.greenhouseSTL.org.
Steve Lawson, Jesus With An Iced Latte, http://www.charismamag.com/display.php?id=8847.
NOTE (my response)
The quote is from Major League Disciple Making: An Overview of the Best Research on the Cell Church, an online course developed for the Institute for Discipleship at www.BeADisciple.com in 2009. Course materials, including these lectures, can be downloaded here: http://www.disciplewalk.com/IFD_MLD_Class_Links.html
All Scripture quotations are from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright © 1946, 1952, and 1971 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please review the page How and Why We Use Quotes.