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Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Why Primal Fire?

It took me 10 years and 3 attempts to actually write this book, though I've had it in mind for over 15 years. Primal Fire is a book that any Christian can read and find helpful in their calling to serve Jesus. It is not about a model of church or a style of leadership, it is about being "in Christ" and letting Christ within you be evident to all. Primal Fire is a paradigm shifting work that will affect the way we understand ourselves and how we relate to one another in Christ's body.

Primal Fire looks at the Magna Carta of ecclesia: Ephesians 4:1-16 and provides clarity and vision. As I wrote the book I had two goals in mind for the reader: 1. that the reader would find Jesus evident on every page, and 2. That the reader would also discover themselves on the page. I think the book succeeds in those goals but I've also found that we learn more about our family and friends by reading this book.

There are few people who have actually functioned fruitfully in an APEST team for a long period of time, but my coauthors and I have. Books written by committee are not easy to read. For that reason I wrote every page of Primal Fire, but I didn't write it alone. Most books on this subject are from an author who has one of the gifts. The result is a book that leans heavy toward that gift. I wrote this book along with the influence and help of the other four gifted team members who are mentioned on the cover: Neil Cole (apostolic), with Dezi Baker (prophetic), Ed Waken (Evangelistic), Phil Helfer (Shepherding) and Paul Kaak (Teaching). This team has served alongside one another for almost 20 years and helped ignite the organic church movement. Each is a mature leader in their giftedness and that experience is found on every page. This makes the book helpful because it is balanced and based upon real experience.

We draw out the strengths of each gift as well as the shadows that each one casts (the dark side of each gift that reveals why we need each other to shed light on our blind spots). We also explain how these gifts work best together for a variety of tasks. Much of the learning of this book you cannot discover without years of working together through a variety of challenges. All that learning is now available to you minus the heartache of the hard lessons learned though mistakes.

So far the book is receiving high reviews. Here are some quotes from the reviews it is receiving:

"This is by far Neil's best work. In fact, it's probably the best book I've read in the last 10 years."

"Many in mission circles are talking about the need for an APEST community of leaders, but hardly anyone really has that kind of community. What Cole and friends express in Primal Fire is the real deal. It is not merely theory, but theology, theory, principles, practice, victories and pains through real life and ministry. It is a treasure to have this snapshot as captured in Primal Fire."

"In the final section of the book, [Cole] gives a fresh look at reimagining the gifts in practice. And I found this a good way of combining all of the teachings into a coherent synopsis with vivid illustrations, that allow the reader a different perspective on how these gifts can (and sometimes do) function today."

"I can say, without qualification, that this is by far the best book on this subject that I have ever read in my life. I consider it to be one of the best books that Neil has ever written – at least so far – and that is saying a whole lot considering the quality of his previous work."

"A different Neil Cole [book] than I’ve read before."

"Right now! Don't even bother reading my review. Just go get the book."

"Primal Fire is one of the clearest, most encouraging, and most biblical and theologically based APEST books out there right now. Not to mention, it will also ignite a fire under you."

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Who Needs Persecution? Part Two: A Plausible Scenario to Dismantle Church as We Know It


Like Amos, "I am not a prophet, nor a son of a prophet," but for the sake of discussion let me simply map out a few feasible steps that would permanently alter church as we have known it. In fact, it wouldn’t even take any real persecution to dismantle most churches, just a few legal changes that are likely already being considered.

If the following benefits were revoked many churches would close: the tax deduction for contributions, tax exempt status for churches and the parsonage allowance. I say this because the way we do church is so expensive that we rely upon these special privileges to survive. This is especially true in a struggling economy where our government is looking for ways to reduce its deficit and increase tax revenue to provide more services for its constituents––services that churches no longer supply to the community.

If you are a leader of a church, as you read this I suggest that that you ask yourself how your church would survive if these three tax benefits were revoked. That is far better than to simply write off what I am saying by telling yourself this could never happen. Crunch the numbers. Do the math. It will be scary but may lead to some good sound steps to be better prepared.

Removing the Parsonage Allowance

Few ordinary citizens know about this special perk that pastors get. I have enjoyed this benefit and to be honest, I don't even know why it is afforded to me. All money spent on housing (rent/mortgage, utilities, furniture, home improvements/repairs/upkeep/supplies) can be taken off the salary of a paid church leader even up to the entire amount they are paid in salary. I actually feel like I am betraying our "special club" for even speaking of it publicly...like I might jinx it. Add to that the fact that church leaders are able to opt out of social security and you can easily see how pastors are able to get by on much less than the rest. If you don't think churches rely upon this your head is in the sand.

A pastor’s support can literally double with the parsonage allowance allowing a church to maintain a professional staff twice the size that it can actually afford. Nevertheless smaller churches on the whole are already unable to afford their pastors. There are not many churches in the West that feel like they have more staff than they need, in fact, their ministry is likely stretched beyond what the current staff can accomplish. Most churches have far more ministry than they have leaders. The more a church relies upon professional staff the more vulnerable it is in this way.

If the special perk of a parsonage allowance were taken away we would see an immediate hardship on churches struggling to keep their staff employed. Churches that rely upon professionals would have to make due with at least half the leadership they currently have, and I'm pretty sure most do not feel they have enough staff as it is. The number of unemployed pastors is already high, but this would flood the market with unemployable church leaders whose only skill is exegeting Greek and Hebrew sacred texts and preaching sermons on it. Seminaries will probably go out of business as quickly as smaller churches once this happens. No one will be able to afford getting a professional degree that doesn't lead to employment.

If churches cannot afford their pastors they will likely also not support their missionaries. Mission agencies will be just as vulnerable if not more so. Parachurch organizations as well. Removal of this one benefit could be all it takes...but there are other legal vulnerabilities as well.

Removing Tax Exempt Status 

What would happen if our churches were forced to pay taxes on their property? This would push most churches over the edge of viability, at least in their current form––especially if the other perks mentioned above were also removed.

Most cities are already openly hostile to churches and trying to prevent them from acquiring property because there is no income from these organizations. When city officials try and understand the benefit to the community these organizations provide (from their perspective) they usually only come up with two things: marrying and burying. The payoff isn't worth it. I cannot imagine that the city of Houston isn't glaring at Lakewood Church's $32 million/yr income and wondering what the property taxes should be. The Houston Rockets used the same space more often during the week and paid their fair share. This is how the world views our special perks.

Removing Tax Deductions for Contributions

If people could no longer write off their contributions to churches I am sure that many  churches would see their annual income drop severely. I would like to think it isn't so, but why else is it that we count on larger gifts at the end of the year? Its because we know people are looking for a tax benefit. Granted, this is likely the last perk to be removed because so many other non-profits benefit from this. Perhaps this could be engineered in specific examples for punitive reasons (see below).

Why Would We Lose These Perks?

What could possibly cause the government to take these privileges away? Besides our government's current multi-trillion dollar deficit and desire to raise tax revenue, as well as the increasingly hostile stance toward right-winged fundamentalists in our nation who benefit from all these laws, there is some tangible reasons that may lead to these changes. If the church is labeled as hateful then the government would feel obligated to punish it in an attempt to correct its inappropriate behavior. The government's first punitive move is always economic sanctions. This would not be the first time that our government has used tax laws to leverage conformity.

When laws are passed that allow for gay marriage, and soon after laws are passed that require organizations to not discriminate in hiring practices based upon gender or sexual preference, many churches will be found on the wrong side of these laws. Some churches will fall in line and avoid penalties, but others will not and these will face increasingly stiffer punitive restrictions. Passing such laws is not the persecution that will come, but merely the initial movements to set us up for it. But these small changes alone may be enough to close a majority of churches in America. We do not need persecution to break down our current expressions of church.

How Church will Contribute to These Actions

We already have earned a reputation of being intolerant in our society. Evangelical and fundamental expressions of Christianity that are too closely tied to the Tea Party and Republican agendas have consistently decried those who have entitlements. This will set us up for public mockery...something we should be used to by now. When these laws take our own entitlements away and we are found complaining louder than all others, our reputation as hypocrites will be confirmed in the eyes of the world and will only expedite passage of these laws.

This damage to our reputation (some earned and some not), and subsequent increase in financial penalties, combined with the weak economy will greatly reduce the local church’s income and many will not survive. It’s a simple scenario and as you can see it is not only possible, but there is movement to already enact some of these plans. Are your churches getting ready?

Like the Russian church prior to communism, our churches are dependent upon holy buildings (remove tax exemption) and holy men (remove parsonage allowance) that perform holy practices in those buildings (enact gay marriage laws). Our vulnerability is quite obvious. These three areas of dependence will kill us. What is interesting is that none of them are truly Biblical and yet they are central in importance to the way church is done in our society. In fact, it is how we are even identified as a church by our own culture and society. That is the saddest part to me. Where does the Bible say that pastors and or churches perform weddings and funerals? It doesn't.

Would the church survive these legal changes? Some would, many would not. Those that would survive will find that they must become simpler, more organic and underground. We must decrease our dependence upon buildings, budgets and big shots. We must also respond to our society with love rather than with lobbying for self-interested legislature.

Note: Do not think I am against these benefits. Do not write comments justifying them to me. What I am suggesting is that others will question them and may remove them and we are not ready for this.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Who Needs Persecution When We Can Easily Implode Without It?

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You may choose your weapon: a machine gun or a bazooka. You can also choose your foe: A gargantuan and angry grizzly bear or a swarm of killer bees, both feel threatened by you. What choice do you make?

Even though the fierce bear may be terrifying in appearance and a single bee may seem small and insignificant (sans allergies), a swarm of bees is something you cannot take out with such weapons. The choice should be an easy one. [Note: no animals were hurt or injured in the writing of this blog post. This is only an analogy to make a point about vulnerability. I do not need any comments from animal rights groups because I would never shoot a bear with either a bazooka or an automatic weapon, and if I shot a swarm of bees with either I would not likely hurt or injure a single bee]

There are two contrasting movements in the US church. One is preparing the church and the other is setting her up for a huge crash. The micro church movement, like the Chinese churches mentioned in a previous post, is preparation. The mega church movement, like the Russian Church (also mentioned), is painting a huge target on the church.

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You may be tempted to think I am one of those fringe conspiracy theorists, and who knows, maybe I am. But I do not think persecution is so far off. What would it take? Not much. I believe the pieces are already on the board and being pushed into play. Truthfully, however, I think most churches can be taken out before any persecution ever occurs.

The church in the West is far more vulnerable than most care to admit. With the rapid rise of the mega church we have been watching the church become more centralized and dependent. In fact with the closure of so many smaller churches and their people being assimilated into the larger ones, we have actually concentrated all our people, resources and ideas into a few large targets rather than many smaller independent ones. We have also seen that the church is more dependent upon a single charismatic leader. Take him/her out (or compromise this person) and the whole church suffers greatly.

The mega church is far more fragile than it appears because it is expensive to run and dependent upon a large collection. This is not usually discussed but recently became public when a single weekend collection from the largest church in America (Lakewood Church in Houston) was stolen and the amount of the theft indicated that the church takes in upwards of $32 million dollars annually. That is a lot of cash and raises loads of legitimate questions. Another mega church pastor is in hot water for using church funds to manipulate the NY Times bestseller list so that his book can be claimed as a bestseller. Another is being scrutinized for having an excessive mansion built for him and his family. The pastor of the world’s largest evangelical church in the world is now serving time in prison for embezzling 12 million dollars, so I would say that our dependence upon mammon and a single leader is a serious vulnerability. These are only stories coming out in the last six months. We do not need persecution to take us out of play, we seem to fall victim to simple temptation and dependence upon our consumerism. If we cannot resist simple temptations than persecution is really not even needed.

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The mega church in America appears to be successful, well financed and solid. It is not. We are beginning to see how weak it is as certain mega church leaders are being taken out. Robert Schuller was removed and the Crystal Cathedral is all but gone and the hour of power has passed to the past and is now a blip in history. David Yongi Cho is in prison and the church in Seoul will finally have to admit what it has kept secret for a long time…it is not as large as it once was and is unable to draw young people. Chuck Smith passed away and we will see how well Calvary Chapel does in his absence. Will Mars Hill survive the current exposure of troubles that Mark Driscoll is swimming in? How do you replace Rick Warren or Bill Hybels in the churches they founded?

The problem is not these leaders, but the Christian celebrity culture that created them and is dependent upon them. You might say that the Christian culture is set up to fail.

That is why some of us have been hard at work planting seeds of change and preparation. We must learn from the past. Will we be more like the Russian church that had all its assets centralized into an easy target or like the Chinese church, which was decentralized and not dependent upon buildings, budgets and big shots? Right now the answer is both. There is a little time left and our churches can take steps to be better prepared, but there is not as much time as we once thought.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Two Related Conditions with One Solution: Preparing for Persecution, Part 2

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I am convinced that there are two related conditions we have not experienced in the Western Church in recent days: rapid multiplication movements and persecution. These two conditions are directly related to one another though the sources of these results are quite opposite. 

I believe that we are not persecuted simply because our enemy is content with the way we currently are. Why would he want to mess up the church when we have done so for him with our selfish ambition, competitive spirit and greed? He’d be a fool to mess with that, and he is no fool. Our influence is marginalized in society and our reputation is of hateful and selfish people–the opposite of Jesus. Satan is quite content with a once a week, consumer driven, model of church that is a mere shell of what we are supposed to be.

The second thing we haven’t experienced in the Western Church is rapid multiplication and I believe that is not the enemy’s fault, but God’s. Frankly, God doesn’t want to multiply our current expressions of church because he doesn’t want more of them. He’s smart that way. Unhealthy things tend to become infertile and lose their ability to reproduce.

We must see these two factors change. The good news is that they will both change with only one solution: become a healthy threat to the darkness and God will want to multiply the church. That is something the enemy will attack. After years of traveling all over this nation and Europe I am delighted to say that we are finally on the verge of seeing these things happen.

The church is becoming healthier and more indigenous. I am seeing ordinary people empowered to carry the work of God’s kingdom out of the meeting place and into the market place where it is a threat to our common enemy. I believe multiplication and persecution are not far away.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

A Parable from the Past: Preparing for Persecution, Part One

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I’m often asked if I feel that our organic church movement has accomplished all that I had hoped. The answer is no. We are not the movement that I hoped for…yet. But that is partly because I have always felt that what we were doing was preparing the church for what is coming: persecution. Because it has not come yet the movement has not fully realized all that it was meant to.  I see our work as sowing seeds for a future harvest, and I believe that future is getting closer every day.

One of the heroes of my faith is Watchman Nee. God used him (and his contemporaries) to prepare the church in China before the Communist revolution took over. He launched the “Little Flock” movement, which was a radical departure from the Western church model that had been planted in China prior. It was smaller, simpler in structure, less expensive and more indigenous. The churches met in smaller gatherings in homes led by ordinary people with real jobs.

When the communists took over the nation they arrested the church leaders (like Nee) and seized all church property. The indigenous expressions of simple churches meeting in homes not only survived…they thrived. The Cultural Revolution of Mao Tse-Tung sought to eliminate all religion from society in China but instead mobilized the church and it grew from about 2 million Christians in 1949 to over 60 million.[1] It is estimated today that there may be upwards of 80 million Christians in China.[2]

Contrast this with the church of Russia. The Russian Orthodox Church was dependent upon three things: holy buildings, holy men in robes, and holy services performed by those men in those buildings. When the communists took over in Russia they seized all the buildings and arrested or compromised all the leaders of the church. The church was devastated.

I carry deep inside a feeling that everything I have been about for the past 20 years is just preparing the bride of Christ for what is to come. Like Nee, I have been striving to bring health and simplicity back to the church, and with that an ability to ride out any storm that may come. 

But there is another movement in America that looks far closer to the Russian church than the Chinese. Just as it was easy to decimate the church in Russia the church in the US may be equally weak and not surprising it is the same three areas that will be the downfall.

In the next week I will post a few ideas on this blog about how vulnerable our churches are to persecution and what I think may take place in the next couple years to expose those vulnerabilities.


[1] Alan Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways, Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2006, p. 19


[2] Philip Yancey, “Discreet and Dynamic: Why, with No Apparent Resources, Chinese Churches Thrive,” Christianity Today, July 2004, p. 72

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Weakness is Key to APEST Team Building

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I have been part of a functioning APEST (Apostolic, Prophetic, Evangelistic,Shepherding, Teaching) team for over 20 years. Together we helped catalyze the organic church movement. We also combined to write Primal Fire. 
 
Left to myself I honestly would have formed a team of apostolic people and ignored the other gifts. This grave mistake is unfortunately quite common. By God's grace, I was not alone at the start, but with Phil Helfer (the Shepherd on our team). Because of Phil's gift the strengths of each gift were equally important and we built a team based on mutual submission rather than individual strengths.

Mutual submission is particularly necessary when addressing the APEST roles of Ephesians 4:11. In our twenty plus years of experience, we have found that focusing on our own gifts and the strengths they bring to the church does not produce unity at all. In fact, it’s almost guaranteed to bring separation. Rather than starting with our gifted orientation, we must begin by establishing genuine relationships with one another. Surrendering one’s own strength and glory for the benefit of others–which is really just love–is the foundation of unity. Focusing on one’s gift usually turns selfish, rather than unifying it tends to separate and divide. Our relationships must be more important than anyone’s agenda or ability. We have learned that abandoning all of our goals and dreams to maintain our love for one another can actually birth a far greater outcome.

Each one of the five gifts has an area of weakness that casts a shadow—a consequence of the gift that is not always positive. This shadow is always easier for others to recognize than it is for the one who casts the shadow. Until we recognize our own weaknesses, we will not achieve real unity. But when we come to recognize our own shadows, we begin to appreciate the other gifts more. The secret to forming a team of the various gifts is not to focus on the strengths of each one, but rather on their weaknesses. Only then will we have the unity necessary to be a potent, diverse team.

This post is adapted from our book Primal Fire

Monday, March 24, 2014

Unity Is Found Only in Humility

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––Ephesians 4:2

Ephesians 4:1-16 is the paramount text on the “called out ones” (ecclesia). It is the Magna Carta of the Church. It begins and ends with unity, which is not the same as uniformity. In fact, unity amid great diversity is God’s desired intent. He loves diversity, but He also loves unity. This requires a common commitment to humility. The off-ramp that leads to Unityville is neither “doctrine” nor “agreement.” It’s humility. It is amazing how often we try to make adherence to doctrine the glue that binds us together, yet the result is always division over minutia. Our glue is not a creed or statement of faith, but a common humbling of ourselves.

Two humble people may not always agree, but if they are truly walking in humility, they will always get along, despite their differences. When each is more concerned for the betterment of the other, the two will live in harmony and achieve unity. When everyone strives to bless others, everyone is blessed.

Paul challenges us to live with humility, gentleness, patience, and tolerance. These are the qualities that lead to unity amid diversity. Notice what is not on the list: agreement over doctrine, common practice, church models, heritage, culture, or style.

Paul says we are to diligently guard the unity that is ours because of the same Holy Spirit that dwells within us. This is not always easy; in fact, it’s hard work. Markus Barth, in commenting on the verb being diligent says:
It is hardly possible to render exactly the urgency contained in the underlying Greek verb. Not only haste and passion, but a full effort of the whole man is meant, involving his will, sentiment, reason, physical strength, and total attitude.[i]
If we ever hope to attain to the “unity of the Spirit” that we are meant for, we must start from a place of humble submission to one another—especially with those who are different from us. Unity in diversity is a beautiful goal that we must press toward with all haste and urgency. It requires that we daily lift the interests of our brothers and sisters above our own.

This post is taken from my new book Primal Fire.


[i] Markus Barth, Ephesians 4–6: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (The Anchor Bible), (New York: Doubleday, 1974), 428.