Monday, November 29, 2010

Constantine & The Institutionalization of Church

My wife and I spent a couple days in York, England recently. While there we saw a statue to Constantine erected just beside the main cathedral in the area--the York Minster. While beautiful and impressive in many ways, we were reminded by the cathedral of how far from the original intent of the church people had taken her.

The early church was organic and a movement for the first couple hundred years. Driven underground by waves of Roman persecution, it remained a viral movement that could not be contained or stopped. Though many tried to stomp it out all attempts only made it stronger.

All that changed in 313 AD when the emperor Constantine declared that the empire would not only tolerate Christianity but restore to the church all lost property. He was the first “Christian” emperor and Christianity went instantly from the margins to the mainstream and everything changed. Christianity became the state religion and the church did not change much from that point on. Our enemy, the devil himself, learned that if he cannot stop the church, he might as well join it and change it from the inside so that it is ineffective and less a threat. But for occasional breakouts of remnant expressions he succeeded. He used Constantine to launch this sinister attack.

Over the centuries, after Constantine, the Western church has evolved in many ways, but none have been a significant systemic change. There was the establishment of both the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodoxed Church and for hundreds of years there were very little changes. The Reformation split the Western church into the Roman Church and the volatile protestant church. But as an institution, in spite of the differences, the institutional system remained mostly unchanged. The Anabaptists were set lose by the reformation (and persecuted by it) but quickly would institutionalize as well.

Whether the church adapts to reach coal miners in the 18th century England or postmodern pilgrims in the 21st century, most of the changes have been minor shifts. Whether you are talking about high church or low, Pentecostal or Presbyterian the church has remained institutional in its approach. From Baptist to Brethren, from Mennonite to Methodist, the changes in the system are relatively untouched over the centuries. Music or no music? Pipe organ or electric guitar? Tall ceilings with stained-glass widows or meeting in a box building without windows, the actual system of church has gone relatively unchanged.

You have the priests or pastors, the Sunday service with singing and a sermon, the weekly offering, the pulpit with pews and the church building. These have been constants since the forth century. Even if you move the whole show into a house instead of a church building, if the system hasn’t changed you have only shrunk the church, not transformed it. Changing the style of music does not upgrade the system. Turning down the lights and turning up the volume is a simple patch to the same old system. Choirs and hymns or praise bands and fog machines, kneeling or standing the system is changed very little. Sermonizing with topical messages or expositional ones is not changing the system just making minor adjustments. Sunday Schools or small groups as secondary learning environments are not a systemic change at all, just a variation on the same old operational system.

Constantine was declared Caesar while in York in 306 AD. Today, near the spot where he was named the emperor is a statue of him beside a large cathedral, which I find quite symbolic. Constantine turned the church into an institution and in that state it remained for for 1700 years. He is now remembered beside a very institutional expression of what church is--the York Minster Cathedral. Today we are seeing a rapid shift back to organic and viral expressions of ecclesiology.

We should remember Constantine so as not to make the same mistake. We must begin to awaken once again to the true nature and expression of Christ's body, not as a building, a program, an event or an organization, but as a spiritual family called out on mission together. We must come to realize once again that the form of church is not the issue, but the way we relate--to God, one another and the world.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Just how sick we really are, Part 2

A relationship should not be defined by a calendar appointment, a task to complete, or a roster in an organization. Relationships should transcend all of these things. Compare your relationship with your spouse, parent or child to such minuscule things and you will see that these connection points do not make a family but simply acquaintances or fellow members of a group...not familial at all.

The core of relationship is devotion to one another. The fulfillment of God's entire law is to love one another. This is a commitment to each other in the face of anything and everything. If simply not maintaining an ongoing meeting is enough to sever the relationship it was not a true relationship built on love, but on convenience. Welcome to Christianity in the world today, a faith of consumerism and convenience.

I look forward to my buddies (Hirsch and Frost) release of their book on liminal experience called The Faith of Leap (April 2011) which I believe with help us understand how relationships are affected by missional experience. You see, when a relationship is tested in an adverse situation where we need to come through for each other, it becomes real, deep and lasting. If it cannot even endure the cancellation of a regular meeting it is not a relationship of depth in any degree.

We no longer bring our relationships into environments where we simply must depend on each other for survival. Instead we limit what our relationships are to easily managed but not very deep activities that do not develop beyond the level of acquaintance. Ironically, the very thing that can forge a true, deep and lasting relationship--mission--is feared because it is seen as a threat to our weak but convenient relationships.

It is when we take our relationships into mission that they become stronger, not weaker. By avoiding mission under the pretext that regular meetings are necessary to maintain a relationship then we do not have relationships worth maintaining in the first place.

When the flaming missiles whiz past your ears and your brother or sister is the one watching your back as you watch theirs, you become connected in the depth of your soul. You need each other, and when you are there for one another the relationship becomes deep and lasting. As you sacrifice for each other's success, you have learned what love truly is.

The young men who stormed the beaches of Normandy under a barrage of bullets, and who lost many comrades, have come to know a deep relationship with brothers that endures a lifetime. They may not see each other every day, every week, or even every year, but still many keep connected more than 66 years later. Their lives are tied together, not by convenience but by a deeper experience that transcends meetings, tasks or membership. When you know that you are alive today because of this other person's sacrifice, you value the relationship at the depth of your being.

If you cannot even maintain a relationship after a regular meeting has ended then the relationship was not much. Convenience is not the foundation of the Christian faith. Love is.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.
Love is not always convenient, but it is always true and faithful and for the benefit of others.

Paul's description of what a community looks like in the face of opposition and for the cause of the gospel reveals what our relationships should actually look like:
Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Then, whether I come and see you or only hear about you in my absence, I will know that you stand firm in the one Spirit, striving together as one for the faith of the gospel without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you. This is a sign to them that they will be destroyed, but that you will be saved—and that by God. For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him, since you are going through the same struggle you saw I had, and now hear that I still have. (Phil 1: 27-30)

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Just how sick we really are

It has recently dawned on me that we really have no idea whatsoever what living in true community is. Perhaps the most telling symptom is found in the response so many of us receive when we speak of multiplying groups. It is quite common that people do not want to reproduce a group because they value the relationships they currently have and are afraid that if they start a new group they will lose the relationship. A recent review of Search & Rescue even mentioned that Life Transformation Groups foster short term relationships because they are to multiply frequently and discipleship must involve much longer relationships than LTGs promote.

Well, this is actually a glaring symptom of a much more serious issue: we do not have very good relationships! If our relationships cannot endure maturation and development over the years then they are weak and anemic.

For centuries church has been mostly defined by meetings. As a result we have settled into a superficial understanding of how we relate to one another that is completely limited to scheduled meetings together. The result is that we think if the weekly meeting changes the relationship is lost. This, my friends, is shallow and sick. A relationship is so much more than seeing one another at a weekly event. Church is so much more as well. I believe that church is to be a spiritual family on mission together, not a weekly meeting or religious event. We actually believe that when we send people out to start meeting in another group that we have lost or severely hurt the original relationships. Really? Is your relationship simply about meeting for a once a week Bible study, worship service or potluck? We must have stronger "ties that bind" than these.

Once we begin to see church as a family instead of a religious meeting everything changes. We are no longer restricted to a two hour scheduled meeting. Family is 24/7. Even when a child grows up and moves away they are still part of the family and thought of with affection and belonging, right? Of course. They will be missed and there may be more expensive phone bills, but the relationship is still strong and in tact. To be honest, when I look at old photos of my children as toddlers I miss them in that stage, but I am so glad I get to know them in all the stages of life. I look forward to the thrill of grandchildren, and I would never know this thrill if I somehow kept my own kids from maturing. And if children mature and become parents themselves, the family is stronger for it, not weaker. The fact that we are so concerned with a church giving birth to another indicates that we really do not understand church naturally--as a family. Imagine if you actually treated your own family they way we practice church. What would your family be like if you only saw each other once a week, seated in rows, with one person doing all the talking and another collecting the weekly offering. Then you sing a song and depart for the week not to see each other until the following meeting. That is not a strong family at all, nor is it a strong church.

I maintain strong relationships with people that have moved on to start new groups and reach new people. Our relationship matures over the years but doesn't diminish. We may begin to know each other in a Life Transformation Group, but when the group multiplies into two other groups our relationship has ended! No, in fact most of the time it matures into something better, not worse.

I think that the reason people cling to a group meeting with such desperation is because it is the closest thing to relationships in church that they have every known, which is quite sad when you think of it. We simply must develop stronger relationships that are not threatened by the thought of naturally birthing new generations. If in your own family you stuck together and never matured or allowed your children to grow into independent adults and parents themselves you would have an extremely unhealthy family. Grandchildren do not weaken familial ties, they tend to strengthen the family in almost every way.

Grow up church! Become the family you are meant to be. Celebrate the birth of the next generation and enjoy your grand kids! If you are too afraid to do it you will miss out on the best part of family.

Friday, October 8, 2010

A New Release is Coming, Well Sort of.

Friends, if you bought Cultivating a Life for God, and then Search & Rescue, you will notice that some of the two books have the same basic message. Search & Rescue is an update on the original, but also written with a different audience in mind. When I wrote Cultivating I was writing for Pastors, missionaries and church planters. When I wrote Search & Rescue I was writing for ordinary folk in the church that need to be inspired to do something courageous for Jesus---make disciples. There is, however, new material in Search and Rescue and every chapter is mostly new, so we continue to have both books in print. I personally believe that the chapter on motivations of a disciple in Search & Rescue alone is worth buying the book even if you already read Cultivating a Life for God.

Now Ordinary Hero is about to be released. I want you all to know that this book is Search & Rescue being released as a paperback under a new title. It is not a new book. I originally wanted the Ordinary Hero title, but Baker decided to go with Search & Rescue with the first release. Now they are trying out the original title I suggested.

But one thing bothers me: it does not mention on the front cover that this is a re-release of Search & Rescue. For that reason, I am putting this out to the blog world so that you don't buy the same book twice. If you read Cultivating, then Search & Rescue and then bought Ordinary Hero, I am afraid you will think I am trying to sell the same book over and over again. I am not.

I think you will find that the new title fits the content of the book better. Ordinary Hero is a great book to get for family or friends that want to be inspired to live more heroically for Jesus. If you have read Search and Rescue, however, there is no need to get Ordinary Hero. If you have never read any of my books, Ordinary Hero is a great one to start with.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Getting to the Bottom of the Deep Church: A Review of Jim Belcher's Book, Part Two

Jim Belcher, in his book Deep Church, sincerely feels he is offering a third way between the traditional and emerging church, but in the end it is just diving down deeper into the traditional church side of the pool. Which, by the way, is fine with me. Let me now share a couple concerns that I had with the book.

The first thing I struggled with is a dangerous idea espoused in the chapter on deep ecclesiology, though it is actually a running theme throughout the book. He summarizes the idea of a deep ecclesiology this way:

The Bible + Tradition + Mission = Deep Ecclesiology (p. 173).

Wow, see I told you he is honest (in part one of this review). Honesty aside, this recipe can produce a whole lot of bad stuff. This is actually the very formula that created the Pharisaical legalism that Jesus and Paul fought so hard against. The Old Testament (Bible) + the oral law or Talmud (Tradition) + Mission = Legalistic Judaizers. This formula can endorse doctrinal abuses such as purgatory, RC priesthood and sacraments, and even indulgences (selling a ticket to heaven) all with the same basis of authority.

The problem that Belcher will run into is that the creeds he considers the Great Tradition do not at all address church practice, which is actually where most of the frustration comes into play between the emerging and traditional churches. I do not find anything I object to in the three creeds he includes (I’m not too comfortable with the way the Athanasius Creed reads, but push comes to shove I agree with its content), so simply agreeing on these does nothing to bridge the vast difference Belcher and I have for what church is and how it works. At that point, Belcher is then forced to appeal to certain church fathers and practices that tend to have the greatest amount of acceptance by the church over the centuries. Frankly, I am very uncomfortable with that. We can all pick and choose which fathers we like best and it does nothing to bring us to consensus. We all find at the end of the day that church tradition lacks the authority needed to speak to the issues we are facing today.

The second thing I didn’t like was a blatant disregard of the Anabaptist non-creedal point of view. At first I wanted to just chock that up to naïveté, but as I kept reading Belcher proved to be too well read and thought out to be that ignorant. Perhaps in his devotion to finding a way to blend his passion for tradition with his learning in the emerging church world that he could only find a compromise in a world that accepts his Great Tradition. Unfortunately, there are many who are non-creedal doctrinally and that prevents such a compromise. Being non-creedal is actually a value for many, myself included. The Anabaptists wanted nothing to be held as authority but the word of God, and so even a well worded and agreeable creed is incapable of standing on the same ground as the bible. Scripture is universal truth that will not fade with time, but the doctrines and systems of men are not that way. As time progresses and culture shifts so does one’s perspective. Creeds are written by men in response to an historical context, and therefore bound by the culture in which they were written. They are not inspired by God and therefore by nature are capable of being erroneous, imbalanced or incomplete as we learn more things with progressive revelation. But perhaps more than that, when you put anything at the same level of Scripture two harmful things happen: the authority of scripture is weakened and the authority of the tradition is elevated to the status of the Bible. That is the most dangerous part, which leads to abuses over time.

Finally, I was a little put off by his reformed bias. Frankly, with the upsurge of reformed thinkers today there is a growing Calvinistic culture that borders on bigotry at times. Jim Belcher is not an arrogant or bigoted man, from what I read, but nonetheless the neo-Reformed view has left a residue on him that comes out at times. Perhaps the best example to demonstrate this is whenever he had nagging doubts about emerging church viewpoints, he called them “Calvinist misgivings.” What is wrong with this? Well trust me, having misgivings about philosophy that borders on (or crosses over into) relativism is not the exclusive territory of Calvinists! Calvinists are not the only ones smart enough to be troubled by this encroachment on truth.

This Neo-Reformed group consistently draws lines that become boundaries and are often as committed to their bounded-set as any staunch traditional church “heresy hunter.” To help illustrate this point I am going to use an example from a friend of mine--Mark Driscoll (I think he can handle the controversy).

When explaining the same categories of the emerging church mentioned in the first part of this post, Driscoll (one of the prominent leaders of the Neo-Reformed movement) actually added a forth category: the Reformers According to Mark there are reformers (not changing structure or doctrine & reformed), Relevants (not changing structure or doctrine, not totally reformed), Reconstructionists (changing structure but not doctrine) and Revisionists (changing doctrine). The Reformers, according to Drischoll are the same as the Relevants except they also hold to a reformed doctrine.

My question then is do we also want to have Reformed Reconstructionists and Reformed Revisionists because there are reformed folk in those “camps” too. Why not have Dispensational Relevants and Dispensational Revisionists as well? It is quite common for these guys (and yes it is almost exclusively men) to cite as their heroes Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Edwards, Kyuper, Spurgeon, Lewis, Schaeffer, Keller and Packer and any other very intellectual leader in church history as if the rest of us can’t claim them as our heroes. As a protestant I can tell you I have benefited from these people and consider them fathers of my Christianity as well, even though I do not sign off on all five pedals of the Calvinist tulip.

This is the sort of attitude I am bothered by. Driscoll draws lines in as bounded-a-set as one can. He goes so far as to describe the Reconstructionists (he actually uses me as an example of this "camp") as on the same highway, but not in the same lane. “We’re not going to run them off the road or do any drive by shootings against them, but were not in the same lane.” Frankly, speaking as one of the Reconstructionists, that is not a healthy way to work together as the body of Christ.

Don’t confuse Drischoll’s strong Irish fighter stance (I can say that because he does, and I am also Irish and a fighter) with Belcher, because Belcher’s tone is conciliatory, friendly and respectful. But on occasion, I felt like he was unaware of how much his immersion in the reformed subculture has rubbed off on him in ways that might come across to others as a little insulting. I'm sure that I have the same blind tendency from an Anabaptist tradition, and if so we both need to talk, and work together, not draw lines and ignore each other. It is not enough to simply not shoot at each other in a drive by shooting.

Frankly, I like Mark and have considered him a friend for many years now. Two times in my life I can connect a radical change in my life to hearing Mark preach a message, so as far as I am concerned I am one of his friends, but I am not a full-fledged, card carrying, Calvinist. I hope that the neo-Reformers can accept that and we can work together to change the world, even if we do not appeal to the Great Tradition to do it.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Gifted Teacher, Part Two

All of us who have fulfilled the role of teacher are aware that we learn so much more by teaching than we ever did by being taught. In fact, one of the most frustrating realities of teaching is that you are not able to convey to the people all that you have been able to learn studying for the process. There is good reason for this. It is God's design for teachers to teach people to become teachers, for then they will learn the truths of God's word on much deeper levels.

This pedagogy has many benefits...

  1. The people learn the truth on a far deeper level.
  2. The people understand the truth, not just remember it.
  3. The people are held to greater accountability to practice the truth they learned.
  4. The people own the message, not just know it.
  5. The people spread the core message to others, who in turn learn to own it and spread it themselves and the kingdom multiplies into a movement.

When you take a test you reveal what you remember from someone's teaching. When you practice what you have heard you demonstrate that your will is involved in the learning process and you are learning beyond a cognitive level. When you start to teach the subject to others you engage the lessons on a far deeper level and you have to reconcile the logic behind the facts, and not just remember the facts themselves.

When you pass on the lessons to others you demonstrate a greater level of ownership. Isn't that what we want? We do not want people who know facts about the Gospel, but apply them and then own them in the depth of their soul. We do not want only an audience, or even practitioners...we want agents of the Gospel. Change is not enough, we want change agents.

We have developed a learning system for systematic theology based upon this type of thinking. It is a one year learning process for proven leaders where they learn theology in a small community by teaching it in a highly reproducible manner. It is called TruthQuest and is available on our website. TruthQuest will not teach you what to think but how to think. The participants may not come out thinking the same as you, but they will come out able to think for themselves. I for one value that even more than simply agreeing with me.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Keeping it Real

I just returned from a wonderful trip to France. Doesn't that sound romantic and adventurous? Well, it wasn't so much that, but it was good for my soul in a different sort of way.

First of all, it was for meetings with my peers and my denomination so I had to pay my own way and of course there was no honorarium. God provides.

I stayed in a room with lots of noise from my roomates. All night mosquitoes were buzzing in my ears and biting any exposed skin. My bed was broken and sagging in the middle. One night U2 songs started blaring at 4:00 AM (at least it was a good selection of music).

I have a stock of upgrades good for anywhere in the world in my United frequent flier account, but I didn't pay enough for my tickets to qualify to use them. Hmm? Airlines can be strange in the way they promise gifts that are not really gifts. I willingly sat in economy feeling that I do not want to become some spoiled traveler. As the trip progressed, the Lord made sure of that.

The trip home was long (24hrs) and uncomfortable. There was no audio in my seat entertainment system so I couldn't watch any of the movies. The batteries in my computer were depleted from usage on the train ride from Lyon to Paris. The passenger next to me consumed both arm rests, but that wasn't really enough for her, so her elbow was in my side for the most of the 9 hour flight. I was leaning into the aisle for air which meant being jarred awake occasionally by passengers, flight attendants and a service cart or two. In Chicago I was bumped from my last leg and sat in O'hare airport for four additional hours.

For all this discomfort I came home with $650 in vouchers for other flights (like I said, God provides). Isn't it strange that the reward for discomfort is to have the advantage of getting more...for free? I guess that's better than paying for it. The airline industry is really something else these days. They are masters at giving us less for a higher cost and convincing us that we are getting a deal.

Actually, I am glad for the trip for many reasons. Our meetings were in an old French Castle in wine country known as the Chateau de St. Albain. This is a special place in my own denomination's history, and it holds some important memories in my own life as well. I have had some of the most dramatic spiritual experiences in my life here on this property.

By God's sovereign hand two groups were at the same retreat site at the same time and in both groups were important mentors and life long friends. It was almost rediculous to consider such a "coincidence". Linus Morris, the founder of Christian Associates International was there with the other group. I went to High School with his daughter, Laina, and the two of them are the first people to ever share the gospel with me. Obviously it stuck. Phil Graf, an old buddy and now husband to Laina was also there. Dave DeVries, whom I have known for almost 20 years was also there with the other group.

In the group I was with Tom Julien was there who is a spiritual father to me in many ways. Tom first purchased this property 45 or so years ago and used it as a sort of L'Abri similar to Francis Schaeffer. Tom is an important mentor in my life and helped me discover what we refer to as the DNA (Divine Truth, Nurturing Relationships and Apostolic Mission) of church. He mentioned that this trip could be his last to the Chateau, but in my heart I do not believe it true. Either, way, this was an important trip for him and for the rest of us who were with him.

Some brothers that I rarely see but have deeply spiritual experiences with were also in the group I was meeting with. When I consider all of this I realize I would pay much more for such an opportunity.

Our discussions were rich with profound implications, which is usually not the case with denominational meetings. Church planting leaders from my denomination scattered all over the globe came together to discuss the releasing of the apostolic gift in missional church movements around the world. Wow, just that I could say that sentence is a miracle worthy of note!

From the Chateau I went to stay with my good friend Florent Varak in Lyon and share some teaching at his church there. Before the training time, however, I had the unique priviledge of sharing a lunch with his mother and father at their beautiful french home. After the delicious meal Florent and I had a remarkable discussion with his father, a spiritual seeker. I had strange feelings in this home, as if it was a French version of my own home. Beautiful artwork was all over and the home reminded me of my own childhood home, though it was larger and better kept. I felt a strong feeling of love for Florent's father and consequently I feel an even stronger kinship with Florent. Florent's two daughters and Lorie his wife were also with us and their affectionate banter really reminded me of my own two daughters and Dana. Their brother was away (at school) and my girls brother is also away (at Discipleship Training School with YWAM).

The travel was not easy, but the time was definitely worth it. So I am not complaining. When I realized that the apostle Paul's travels were far longer, far more uncomfortable and occasionally quite wet (shipwrecked 4xs) I understood that the discomfort in this travel was like traveling in luxury. Sometimes we just need a heavy dose of reality to sober us up and show us that we should not be spoiled divas. Entitlement settles in our souls with such subtlety.

God's grace is sometimes a splash of cold water in the face and I am grateful for it. It is also served at times with a delicious meal and meaty discussion in a beautiful home in the French countryside.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Gifted Teacher

Getting the message right is only a quarter of the task for the teacher. Communicating the message so that others understand the content only brings the teacher to half of his or her role. Seeing the content applied well in the listener's context is another 25% of the task of the teacher, but still only brings the teacher to 75% fulfillment of the task. 75% on an exam is barely passing, and certainly not a success. Releasing the learners to fulfill the task of the teacher themselves with other people is the only way a teacher can fulfill one hundred percent of the call of the teacher. It is also the only way to see the role of the teacher a catalyst for multiplication rather than a bottleneck for it.

When you are starting to pass the content on to others is when you have learned the content on its fullest level. To teach others best you must see the process through until the learners become the teachers.

I used to think that a great teaching gift was actually a bottleneck to multiplication. When a truly gifted thinker and communicator is at work people want to stay and listen to them and rarely feel that they can do it themselves...and reproduction ends. At one point in my own ministry I was tempted to dumb down my teaching for the sake of reproduction of ministry, but that is tantamount to being ungrateful for Christ's gifts and neglectful stewardship of His blessings. So how do we allow for great teachers and still have reproduction?

The gifted teacher is called to equip the saints for the work of ministry, not to do it for them. A true teacher is not simply to teach the saints, but to equip the saints to teach. Are all saints to teach? Yes, they are to teach disciples to obey all that Jesus has commanded them. We need teachers, but we need teachers that will truly fulfill their complete call. We should not settle for teachers that only go half way any longer. If you are a teacher do not be content to fulfill only a portion of your task.

We need to redefine what it means to teach. It is not simply passing on content to others. I prefer to see teaching this way: facilitating the leaning of others so that they know, do and pass on to others the relevant and meaningful truth.

We in the Western church are educated beyond our obedience and more education is not the solution, we need more obedience. A couple of suggestions for the teachers out there: never teach a second lesson until the first one is done. A lesson is not done until it is being passed on to another.

What would the kingdom of God look like if we had more teachers like this?

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Frank Viola & Neil Cole Interviewed Together By Keith Giles About Organic Church, Part Two

This interview was very long so I am posting it in two parts...

Does the model of church really matter? Isn't it more important what fruit is produced or how the people in the church grow spiritually?

Neil: Well, I tend to agree with this statement, but...If reproduction and multiplication is desired, model of church is an important consideration. More complex models will not empower ordinary people nor reproduce easily. Another important consideration is that many models tend to usurp the leading of Jesus with our plans, personalities and programs.

The more scripted the church is the less spontaneity will be possible. We cannot expect Jesus to lead if we are all busy maintaining the script and all our time together is scheduled down to the fraction of every second.

This may step on a lot of toes but a performance with preaching on Sunday mornings (or Saturday for some) is not conducive to a changed life or a responsive body. If the body wants to have a gathering where they praise, preach and pass the plate, fine, but if that is your sole model of church and where you think the most important work is done and than you have a bankrupt model of church. Our society today is reflective of that bankruptcy, and we must make some changes now. It is the forth quarter and we are down by is time for a shift. I believe that organic church is not a model but a mindset that can work in any model...but will work better in some models than others.

I also believe that any model that is built upon a hierarchy of leadership is probably less healthy in most aspects. When a few are responsible to hear from God and tell the rest what God is saying the church is separated from God by a middle-man and that is not what Jesus died and rose to birth. We are all priests in His kingdom and we all have direct access to God. None are more spiritual, more connected or more responsible for the advancement of the Kingdom, but all are agents directly connected to the King Himself.

Frank: For me, organic church is a shared-life in Christ; it’s not a model. It’s not about a new structure; it’s about a new relationship with the Lord Jesus. One that is real, intimate, deep, and corporate. A common remark that my co-workers and I hear from people who attend our conferences is, "I came here to learn how to ‘do organic church,’ and instead, I received a revelation of Jesus Christ."

The idea that church is an "event" or an "organization" was foreign to the New Testament believers. For them, the ekklesia was a community of people who lived a shared-life together in Christ and who gathered together regularly to express the fullness of Jesus. Their minds thought in terms of "us" and "we" rather than "I" and "me."

Their identity was tied to their union with Christ and their bond with one another. They pursued their Lord together, expressed Him together in regular meetings, took care of one another, married one another, and buried one another. Think of it as an extended household . . . a new polis (city) that is blind to race, social status, economic standing, etc. They were a new kind of humanity . . . a new civilization . . . the "third race" as the ancient Christians called themselves, where all earthly distinctions, separations, and barriers were not recognized.

The church was a colony from heaven . . . a community of "resident aliens" on this earth . . . the corporate manifestation of the Lord Jesus Christ Himself . . . a microcosm of the kingdom of God . . . the house of the living God where the heavens and the earth intersect and meet . . . the foretaste of the New Jerusalem and the aftertaste of the fellowship of the Godhead that has been going on from before time. In short, a local church that is functioning properly is Jesus Christ on the earth (see 1 Cor. 12:12). And therein do you have yet another definition of organic church.

For those who are burdened for evangelism and being missional to a post-Christian country (as the USA now is), the ekklesia – when she’s functioning the way God intended – is the greatest evangelist on the planet. There’s nothing that bears witness more to the reality of Jesus as the world’s true Lord than a group of believers who share their lives together and demonstrate what the kingdom of God looks like. This point is completely overlooked by those who would argue that the expression (structure) of the church doesn’t matter.

By contrast, today’s Christianity is very individualistic – this is true both in and outside the organized church. But authentic Christianity is intensely corporate and therein was their power and testimony.

A careful reading of the Gospels, Acts, and the Epistles shows no distinction between being a Christian, being saved, being a disciple, and being a functioning member of a local body of believers. (I’ve discussed this point at length in another place where I added a plea to learn our history regarding modern discipleship methods.) Note that when Luke describes how Paul and Barnabas planted the church in Derbe, he says they preached the gospel to the city and "made many disciples" (Acts 14:20-21, NASB & NKJV).

The organic expression of the church in a given place is the true habitat of every child of God. Separating spiritual growth (“discipleship”) from the ekklesia (properly functioning) is like separating child-rearing from the family.

This again touches evangelism. One of the young men in an organic church that I relate to was a leader in a very large para-church organization that’s known for evangelism. About a year ago, he said to me after one of our gatherings, "I just go back from one of our leadership conferences and the more they talked about saving the lost, the more disinterested I was. I come to these meetings here and while nothing is said about evangelism, I’m so excited about my Lord that I want to share Him with others. There’s no guilt or duty in it at all. I’m fired up about Him."

Properly conceived, the ekklesia is the environment in with we live, move, and have our beings. While it will never produce perfect Christians who are beyond making mistakes (we will all make mistakes on this side of the veil), their depth in Christ is unmistakable. So for me at least, it’s not about a different model, but about a different habitat.

Those interested in learning more may want to take a listen to an audio excerpt where seven members of a fairly new organic church answered common questions about organic church life at a recent conference (Threshold 2010). The excerpt contains only one question that they answered (there were 7 questions in all). The question was: How has your relationship with Jesus Christ changed since you’ve been part of organic church life? People can listen to it here.

How do you define - and better yet practice - the idea of leadership in the model of church you promote?

Neil: Leadership is not about a position, an office, or a title, it is influence. Leadership is not functioning as a delegated decision-maker for an absentee King. We are servants that distribute empowerment rather than delegate it. Leadership is all about connecting people to the King and allowing them to listen and follow His word. We do not need more servant leaders; we need more servants...period. Many leaders don’t mind being called a servant; they just don’t like being treated like one. To lead is basically to go first and let others follow your example. Often in the NT the words, "go before" or "stand before" is used to describe our leaders, but unfortunately they get translated as being above or over the others.

There is a form of servant that exemplifies maturity and can point to spiritual children and even grandchildren in their lives. We need more of these servants in the body. Their role is to equip others to function in the likeness of Christ together. These are apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds and teachers (Eph 4:11). They do not do the work but equip others to do it. For example: Evangelists are not called simply to reach the lost, but to equip the church to do so. Teachers are not called to teach the saints, but to equip the saints to teach. All are saints, so of course evangelists evangelize, that gives their equipping even more authority and practicality (besides, I can’t imagine an evangelist who wouldn’t). A teacher is good at teaching, but needs to be very good at training others to teach. We need to rediscover this type of leadership if we are going to change ourselves, and then the world.

Frank: In my experience and observation, leadership in an organic expression of the church seems to fall into three categories:

1) It’s expressed through itinerant traveling ministry where Christian workers lay the foundation for a new church, equip the believers to know the Lord deeply, to function together, to build community, and to have open-participatory meetings where Christ is made the visible, functioning Head. Their leadership is strong in the beginning, but then it literally leaves and moves to the periodic. You find this sort of leadership all over the New Testament in the ministries of Paul, Peter, Timothy, etc.

2) It’s expressed by consensual decision-making where the believing community plans how they will pursue and reveal Christ week by week, how they will handle problems, and how they will take care of one another and serve the lost in their city.

3) It’s expressed by the different giftings that will organically emerge in the community in time. Eventually shepherds will emerge who will care for those with needs, overseers will emerge who provide oversight, teachers will emerge who will bless the church with the ability to unveil Christ from the Scriptures, exhorters will emerge and function according to their giftings, etc. In other words, each person will lead according to their unique gifting. In this way, all believers lead in their own way.

The goal of each expression of leadership is to lead the church to Jesus Christ, the true and only Head of the body.

The interesting thing is that in this type of church life, we don’t use labels or titles. So the reality of the gifts and ministries are present, but in most cases, we don’t earmark or point them out. (Sometimes those who are engaged in itinerant ministry will acknowledge who the overseers are, but this is dependent on the specific situation of a particular church).

In my experience, the believers in these types of churches are so busy pursuing and expressing the riches of Christ that “leadership” never comes up as an issue or subject. Jesus is their Head, and they seek to know and follow Him together. That’s about as much time they spend talking about leadership in the churches. It’s really a non-issue.

I have the impression that it was this way for the early Christians too. Just count the number of times the words "elder", "shepherd", or "overseer" are mentioned in the New Testament, and then count the number of times Christ is mentioned or referred to. That says volumes, I think.

Which scriptures would you point to as being reflective of your views concerning organic church?

Frank: I’ve come to the conclusion that there are only two subjects in the entire Bible: Jesus Christ and His church. Everything else can be juiced down to those two realities.

Someone may object by saying that God the Father and the Holy Spirit are the subjects of the Bible. But remember, the fullness of the Godhead dwells in Christ. God is Father because He has a Son. The Spirit is the Spirit of Christ, and He has come to manifest and glorify Christ. Biblically speaking, there is no God outside of Jesus Christ. God is known in and through the Son.

Jesus Himself said that "all Scripture testifies of me." So Genesis 1 to Revelation 22 is an unfolding of Christ and the church on every page. I add "church" because the church is never separate from Christ – it is His body and bride. She is depicted through many of the types of the Old Testament, such as all the brides of the Patriarchs, the tabernacle, the temple, the nation of Israel, etc.

Jesus Himself incessantly talked about the church. In fact, He did so more than He did the Kingdom of God. If you’re only counting the word ekklesia you’ll completely miss this.

Jesus never used the word "Trinity" or "Godhead," yet every time He spoke of His Father and the Spirit, He was talking about the Triune God. In the same way, every time you see that little band of Twelve men and some women who lived in community with one another with Christ as Head, you’re looking at the prototype – the earthly embryo of the ekklesia – that Jesus Christ said He would build. And when the Lord spoke of the vine and the branches, “my brethren,” the light of the world, the salt of the earth, etc. He was referring to the church. If we understand what the Kingdom really is, we’ll discover that after the ascension of Christ, the Kingdom came in, with, and through the church.

So for me, it’s not a matter of going to certain proof texts to build a model for church. It’s seeing the whole sweeping, epic saga of the biblical drama from Genesis to Revelation. And that drama is all about the Triune God known and expressed through Jesus Christ and His eternal quest for a bride, a house, a body, and a family (which is the church). I unfold this thesis in From Eternity to Here, which seeks (in an admittedly frail way) to unveil the eternal purpose of God – the mission to which we are all called – throughout the entire Bible.

Once our eyes are opened to see His eternal purpose, we suddenly have a new Bible in our hands and a new vision of the Lord before our eyes. The Bible turns from black-and-white to Technicolor, and the Lord becomes infinitively greater to us.

Neil: Wow, um, all of them? All scriptures are profitable for training in righteousness. In our training, we point to the parables of Christ a lot (especially Mark 4). Jesus’ usage of the word church in Matthew is important to us (2xs). Ephesians is a powerful treatise on church for us as well. Acts is foundational of our view of a church multiplication movement. The letters to the seven churches in Revelation is also very important to us.

Have you ever met one another in person and/or read one another's books?

Neil: To my knowledge, we have met twice, emailed a couple times and talked on the phone once. I have read Pagan Christianity, How to Start a House Church, and Finding Organic Church. I skimmed Reimagining Church, but haven’t read it entirely yet. I think Pagan Christianity is Frank’s best work and we carry it in our online store. I am grateful that he invested the time to produce this seminal work. Thanks Frank. I have also listened to a couple of his talks online, visited his website a few times and read some of his articles.

Frank: We’ve met face-to-face twice at conferences, but we didn’t have much time together. So far I’ve read one book by Neil and several articles. We have a number of good mutual friends. I have a lot of respect for Neil and am thankful for his contribution to the body of Christ.

I’ve made this statement to a few people, but I’ll say it publically for the first time. I’d love to see a Summit that includes all those who are pioneering and influencing the missional church movement/phenomenon to be locked in a room together for 3 days. The first day would be an informal "get to know one another" time, very casual and relaxed. The next day, each person would have a solid hour to share their heart, their burden, their vision, and their present work with everyone else. A time of questions from the group and answers would follow.

We would all get to know one another better as people rather than from a distance as authors and speakers. If no homicides occurred during those 3 days :), it seems to me that the worst case scenario would be that we’d all better understand one another and what makes each of us tick. That alone would be worth the time, in my judgment. In the best case scenario, we’d all be sharpened, adjusted, and perhaps we’d even see some co-laboring going on in different degrees. And a lot of misunderstanding, assumptions, and confusion would disappear.

I am pessimistic that someone could actually put such a Summit together; but if they were able to, I’d move heaven and earth to attend and participate. (I’d even offer to help with the planning.)

Incidentally, Pagan Christianity is fairly well-known, but it’s not my most important or best work. It’s just the first half of a conversation – the deconstructive part. Its objective is to blow the rocks out of the quarry. But that’s all it does. Reading it by itself is like listening to the first fifteen minutes of an hour-long phone conversation, then hanging up the phone – never knowing what was said afterward. For this reason, Pagan was never meant to be a stand-alone book. It’s part of a multi-volume series. My most important and best book (hands down) is From Eternity to Here with Jesus Manifesto perhaps tied neck-and-neck.

What do you see as the most striking differences between your version of "Organic" church and the other person's version? Why does it matter?

Neil: Frank does not seem to be as favorable to multiplication movements as I am. I gather that he sees church taking a long time to mature to the place where it can give birth to another church, while I see reproduction as able to occur much faster. Ironically, we both point to Acts to support our point of view.

I believe Frank teaches that one must be part of an organic church to start one and that an apostle must be involved. I think that is probably one of the best ways, but not the only way. It seems to me that Frank teaches that apostles start churches and that not everyone can do it. I tend to go the opposite direction and teach that anyone can start a family. Not everyone is an apostle and not everyone can lay a foundation for a church multiplication movement, but they can certainly reach their friends and start a spiritual family. Anyone that has Christ in them has what it takes to start a spiritual family. Some families are less inclined to reproduce rapidly and start a movement, because an apostolic and prophetic foundation is necessary for this.

I also see that an apostolic foundation can be extended without the apostle needing to be present. Colossians, Hieropolis and Laodicea were begun by Epaphras but it was Paul who laid the apostolic foundation so he could write to them as their apostle even though they’d never seen his face (Col. 2:1-3).

I see maturity for people and the church to be a life-long process so I believe that the church can reproduce throughout that process, even in the first year. We have experience in this as well. I have personally started probably six or seven churches, but grand-parented and great-grand-parented dozens more. Our training has catalyzed the start of thousands of churches. The church I currently am part of has been in existence for ten years and sent off 35+ church planters all around the world. It has birthed other networks and has several generations of churches.

Frank emphasizes the spiritual life together connected to Jesus, and I admire that. We do as well, but we tend to emphasize apostolic mission much more in addition to the presence of Jesus and our nurturing relationships. I see church as the fruit of disciple-making, not the other way around. Our life together is better because each of us is connected to Jesus, each other and our mission to the world. We refer to this as the DNA of organic church, which stands for Divine Truth, Nurturing Relationships, and Apostolic Mission. We teach emphatically that all components of the DNA must be in every part of the church from the smallest unit of disciple in relation to another disciple. We teach that the components should not be supplanted, supplemented or separated. The organic life of the church springs from the DNA at work in the heart of disciples together.

Frank: I think the only way we can accurately answer that question is if Neil and I sat down for several hours to discuss our views, observations, and experiences.

I’m pretty convinced that Epaphras was a "sent one" who received training from Paul in Ephesus, then went back to his hometown in Colosse and planted a church there that met in Philemon’s home and in two other nearby cities in the Lycus valley. I detail this account elsewhere with documentation, but that’s a short riff.

Regarding church multiplication, I’ll simply say that I believe in the multiplication of the church (I usually call it "transplantation"). But I don’t regard it as a template or metric of anything.

In my experience and observation, as well as my study of the New Testament, a specific church should follow the Lord’s leading on when and how to multiply. Like so many other things in organic church life, discerning the season is imperative.

Consequently, when and how to multiply a church is more of an art than a science. It’s dependent on the art of hearing the Spirit and rightly perceiving the season. Thus it will differ depending on the season of a particular church’s life, the spiritual maturity and development of the group, the kind of foundation that has been laid, and many other variables. If these elements are ignored, multiplication can easily lead to quick dissolution of one or both groups. That’s been my observation anyway.

It’s also not wise to push toddlers outside of the home and expect them to reproduce. So again, I’m of the opinion that there’s a danger of making multiplication a method, a science, or even a goal. I believe the goal should be God’s eternal purpose, the heavenly vision that Paul labored under and that provoked him to plant and nurture organic believing communities.

Regarding church planting, I don’t believe that an organic church can only come into existence by the hand of those who are called to plant churches. Organic church life can occur spontaneously . . . and it often does. As I write these words, it’s taking place right now among numerous college campuses across this country. The students who are touching and tasting it don’t know exactly what it is (except that it’s glorious), and they are probably not calling it "organic church life." Yet the problem is that body life (the way I’ve been describing it) is extremely fragile, and it doesn’t last very long. It invariably dies within a short period of time. It either dissolves or it devolves into an institutional form and a clergy figure emerges to take it over.

Its chances of survival are much better if there is experienced outside spiritual input that knows how to center the group on Christ, help prepare and navigate it through the inevitable pitfalls, and give it the kind of equipping to sustain it in a spiritual way without human organization or control. This sort of spiritual input can take many forms, but the traveling ministry of broken, experienced, Christ-centered, humble, and non-sectarian itinerants who eventually leave the group to the Lord is one of the most common in the New Testament narrative. It of course isn’t a panacea (nothing is), but it can be a tremendous benefit.

As for the subject of movements, that’s too big of an issue to go into here, I think. And it’s quite complicated. (I plan to address it in the future.) I’ll just say that numbers don’t impress me at all. I grew up in a movement that stressed numbers and “counting.” The problem came with exaggerating the data (which is the scourge of virtually every movement – whether Christian or nonchristian). To get the "accurate/real" figure, you had to cut it in half and divide by two [Symbol] Einstein couldn’t be more correct when he said, "Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted."

I believe this applies to the work of God.

All told, my impression is that Neil and I probably agree more than we may disagree. Both of us are often associated with "the house church movement," yet I get the impression that we share a common feature here. Neither of us makes the home our center. The living room isn’t our passion. As I’ve often said, meeting in a home doesn’t make you a church anymore than sitting in a donut shop makes you a police officer. :)

While a house has many advantages as a gathering place, there’s nothing magical about meeting in a living room. Not all house churches are “organic” (the way I’ve been using the word) – so "organic church" is not a synonym for "house church." I suspect that Neil would agree with this.


If you have any further questions, please post them in the comments here at and Frank or Neil will respond when they can.

Again, comments will be moderated. Please do not take an argumentative tone, or attempt to respond to something that another commenter has posted.

I want to thank both Neil and Frank for taking the time to respond to these important questions and help provide more clarity on such an important topic.

Frank Viola:
Neil Cole:

Frank Viola & Neil Cole Interviewed Together By Keith Giles About Organic Church, Part One


When I approached Neil Cole and Frank Viola about the possibility of hosting this interview on my blog, they were both in agreement about one thing: This is not a debate. It's a dialog between two brothers who see different sides of the same coin.

As you may know, both Neil and Frank are seen as thought leaders in the area of organic church. However, the very term itself isn't always very clear. Sometimes we need to stop and define our terms before we engage in a dialog so that everyone understands what we're actually talking about. That's the purpose of this interview between Frank and Neil. We hope to engage in an encouraging dialog concerning the Church.

I'm blessed to know both Neil (who wrote the forward to my book, "The Gospel: For Here Or To Go?") and Frank (who has been kind enough to correspond with me on occasion). So, as I began to see that both were attempting to talk about Organic Church in different ways, I thought it would be helpful to everyone if we could hear their perspective on certain terms and clear things up a little for everyone.

Since this isn't a debate, we're not seeking to declare a winner. Hopefully you will learn something from both participants engaged in this dialog. Comments are welcome, but they will be moderated. Both Neil and Frank have agreed to respond to questions in the comments section as much as they can.


What Is Organic Church?
An Interview with Neil Cole and Frank Viola

As simply as you can, define what "Church" looks like to you in practical terms. (Looking for an example of how an "Organic Church" would function - how a typical meeting might look - in your version of "Organic" church). What is your definition of "Organic Church"?

Neil: Many scholars attempt to describe church with a list of ingredients that they believe are found in the New Testament. Here is a typical list: a group of believers that gather together regularly and believe themselves to be a church. They have qualified elders and practice baptism, communion and church discipline and agree on a doctrinal foundation and have some sort of missional purpose.

I have no problem with these ingredients being a part of church, though not all of them are indeed biblical (no where in the NT does it say that we have to consider ourselves a church to be a church—that is a cultural reaction to calling bible studies or parachurch organizations churches. There are also NT churches that have not had elders appointed yet on the first missionary journey—Acts 14:21-25). I believe that this understanding of church is missing the most essential ingredient: Jesus! If we can define church without Jesus than we can do church without Jesus and that is a tragedy at best and treason at worst.

In CMA, we have defined church this way: The presence of Jesus among His people, called out as a spiritual family to pursue His mission on this planet. Church begins and ends with Jesus among us. All the typical ingredients listed to describe church were in the upper room in Acts chapter one but the church really began in Acts chapter two when only one other important ingredient was added: the Spirit of God showed up! God among us is what makes us any different from the Elks Club.

For us church functions like a family, and family is not just for an hour and a half one day a week. We eat together and live together. We do get together, but not only for serious meetings. We meet up during the week for coffee or a meal and hold each other accountable to following Jesus in Life Transformation Groups. My spiritual family often get together to reach out to others, at cafes or with release time outreach at elementary schools and in the marketplace where we all work. We also go to the movies or on hikes together during the week.

Church is not an event, a place or an organization; it is a family on mission together. We must emphasize this shift in understanding. As such we are not defined by a meeting, though we do meet. When we meet we do not have a routine that must always be done. But for the sake of helping people get a feel for the ebb and flow of our lives I will try to describe what our time is usually like when we do get together.

When we do have meetings, we do not presume to have an agenda, but to gather, listen to God and one another. We worship, sometimes with music. About half of the songs we have are original songs written by people in our movement. In our meetings we do not have a set list of songs that are rehearsed, but rather we sing the songs that He puts on people’s hearts as the Spirit leads. We sing until we feel like we have changed our perspective of things from having been in His presence. We may then keep singing if that is what He leads us to do, but often we share next what is going on in our lives.

We have a little poem (not the height of poetry by any means) that is usually said by anyone in the group to start the share time. We do this so that even young kids can lead in the church and when people start a new church they know what can get the interaction started:

Does anyone have praises or prayer requests,

A word from the Lord or a sin to confess?

We all share what God is saying and doing in our lives and we all pray for what is happening. This could be all we do for the entire evening as well.

We usually open the Bible, read a passage and discuss it. Right now we are going chapter-by-chapter through Acts but this is not routine and we often turn to something else at the leading of the Spirit. We do not have any preparation for this time, as we are not the ones in charge, Jesus is. Our time in the word, however, is not simply pooling ignorance because of the following reasons: 1. We are all listening to the Head of the church and He is not ignorant, and 2. Because of Life Transformation Groups, most of us are all reading large volumes of scripture throughout the week repetitively and in context, so our observations in the scriptures are actually quite insightful. The Spirit of the Lord working in each of us is the teacher, and we are all learners.

When a good question arises or even some false teaching, a leader of the group does not usually step forward and decide the issue for everyone. Rather, we pray and ask the Lord to help us out. Then we ask what insight the Spirit may have given to each of us. The body responds, not the pastor. This empowers everyone to react to false teaching or to find solutions to difficult questions, not just then but anytime. We are also quite comfortable with three little words: I don’t know.

We usually pray and sing and eat until it is time to head home. We may also watch the Lakers play a game or go to a movie. Hope that helps some. As you can see we are not set on a routine and do not have a formal agenda, though we do have some consistent but very flexible patterns.

Oh, and we do not have an offering that is passed in my own church. Some of the churches in CMA do, but we do not have that as a set responsibility of church. What we do have is generous people of God who give, not just money but property hospitality and time, to those who are in need.

Frank: I’m of the opinion that the New Testament only knows one kind of church, and it’s organic. The ekklesia is a living organism not an institutional organization.

I’ve been using the word "organic church" or "organic expression of the church" for over 16 years. And I give credit to T. Austin-Sparks for the phrase. For Sparks and I, an organic church is a group of Jesus followers who are discovering how to live by Divine life together and who are expressing that life in a corporate way.

Jesus said "as the living Father has sent me, and I live by the Father, so he who partakes of me shall live by me." Paul echoed these words in Colossians when he said that the mystery of the ages is "Christ in you," and that "Christ is our life" (see also Gal. 2:20; Rom. 8:9-17).

Consequently, when God's people learn how to live by the indwelling life of Christ together, a certain expression of community life naturally emerges. So for me, the word "organic" has to do with life – God's life. The organic expression of the church comes up from the soil; it's not mechanical. While it has organization (or an expression) – as all living organisms do – the organization (or expression) comes about naturally from the life, not through human manipulation, religious ritual, or legalism.

Put another way, organic church life is very ancient. It precedes Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Instead, it finds its headwaters in the fellowship of the Triune God before time. When humans touch that fellowship together, experience it, and make it visible on the earth, you have the life of the ekklesia, i.e., organic church life
(1 John 1:1-3; John 17:20-24).

I left the institutional church 22 years ago and have gathered with numerous organic expressions of the church (completely outside the religious institutional system) ever since. I’ve seen a lot during those years – experimented with a lot, experienced some of the high glories of body life, the difficulties and struggles, and have made lots of mistakes as well. I'm still learning and discovering.

Regarding what an organic expression of the church looks like, here are some of its characteristics:

*The members meet often, not out of guilt or obligation, but because the Spirit draws them together naturally to fellowship, share, and express their Lord (ekklesia literally means an assembly or meeting).

*Jesus Christ is their living, breathing Head. The members make Christ profoundly central, preeminent, and they pursue and explore His fullness together. In short, the church is intoxicated with the Lord Jesus.

*They take care of each other, have open-participatory meetings where every member functions, make decisions together, and follow the Spirit's leading for outreach and inreach, both in their proper season.

*They are learning how to live by Christ and express Him corporately in endless variety and creativity to both the lost and the found.

*The condemnation and guilt is gone. The members experience the liberty and freedom that is in Christ, experience and express His unfailing love, and are free to follow Him out of genuine love rather than guilt, duty, obligation, condemnation, shame and guilt – the typical "tools" that are used to motivate God's people.

*They are missional in the sense that they understand "the mission" to be God’s eternal purpose, which goes beyond human needs to the very reason why God created the universe in the first place. And they give themselves wholly to that mission. (I'll speak more on the eternal purpose later.)

*After the foundation of the church is laid, it is able to meet on its own without a clergy or human headship that controls or directs it. The church can sustain herself by the functioning of every member; it doesn't need a clergy system for direction or ministry.

These features are contained within the spiritual DNA of the ekklesia no matter where or when she is born. For they are the attributes of God Himself, the source and headwaters of body life.

Regarding your question about what an organic church meeting looks like, that’s really impossible to answer. The reason: authentic organic churches have an infinite way of expressing Christ in their gatherings.

Perhaps the best I can do is describe a few meetings that one of the organic churches that my co-workers and I are presently working with have had recently. None of these descriptions will do the gatherings justice, but perhaps they may give some impression of what a good meeting looks like (not all meetings are good by the way – some are unmentionable! :) ).

Last month, the church had a meeting that it prepared for over the course of a month. The church broke up into groups of 3 and began to pursue the Lord Jesus outside of the meetings during the week.

The members all came together at a scheduled day and time to worship, exalt, and reveal Christ. The theme of the meeting was Jesus Christ as the Land of Canaan. The meeting included a full banquet feast, which was really the Lord’s Supper (first-century style). The church feasted and then each group began to share Christ as the Land.

One group shared how the vine and the fruit of the vine were a shadow of Jesus. Another group shared Christ as the olive oil; another shared Christ as the milk and honey. Another shared Him as the wheat. Sprinkled throughout the sharing – which was incredibly rich – were prayers, declarations, songs, all of which were spontaneous.

This meeting went on for over 3 hours. It was a gully-washer. No human being led or facilitated the meeting. There were also elaborate creations and visual displays in the meeting place made by the church that went along with the theme.

I didn't attend this particular meeting, but the reports I heard were amazing. People were profoundly touched. Visitors who came were blown out of the water. They had never seen a group of Christians put Christ on display like that, and without anyone leading, giving cues, or facilitating. The depth of insight, richness, and reality of Christ coming through the believers was without peer. Jesus Christ was revealed, declared, unveiled, glorified, and made visible by the every-member functioning of His body.

On another occasion, each member of the church took a name of the Lord in Scripture. (e.g., Bread of Life, Lion of Judah, Sweet Rose of Sharon, the Great Shepherd, Alpha and Omega, The Branch, etc.). During the week the members sought the Lord concerning the name they selected and came to share Him together in the gathering. The meeting was electric. Christ was revealed in a multitude of different ways. New light was shed on each of His names, all pointing to His glorious Person.

Another meeting was a rather unique way of expressing the Lord through Colossians. The church had immersed herself in the book of Colossians for four months (in some very creative ways). They then planned a meeting where they reconstructed the Colossian church.

Each member acted out a character from the Colossian church. Some created their own names (some names were quite comical). Others played the part of some of the Colossians mentioned in the New Testament (Philemon, Apphia, Archippus, etc.) For weeks the church broke up into pairs to plan and prepare for the gathering. They then had an entire meeting where they reconstructed the situation in Colosse. If you had walked into that meeting, you were seeing the Colossian church dramatized. People even dressed up for their parts.

At the end of the meeting, someone who played Tychicus came into the gathering with a letter from Paul and read the whole letter to the church. Incredible light was shed on the letter, as it addressed all the problems that the Colossian church (through drama) was shown to have had. We all awed at the Lord as Paul presented Christ in this magnificent epistle.

I could multiply many more examples, but I hope you get the drift. Note that the people who are part of these churches aren't spectacular Christians nor are they professionally trained. They are "the timid, the weak, the lame, and the blind" . . . just like I am. Ordinary believers without any special titles, degrees, or formal theological education. In this way, they are much like the early believers we read about in our New Testaments (the exception being that most of us are able to read and write). :)

Some meetings are planned with a theme that the Lord gives the group (as the above examples). Other times the meetings are completely spontaneous without any planning or direction. But spiritual preparation normally takes place, else the meetings will be rather poor. The meetings are the overflow of the spiritual life of the community; hence, all the believers come to give rather than to receive. (In the institutional church system, this order is reversed.)

Again, these meetings have no leaders present directing, facilitating, or coordinating. The Spirit takes that job. I'll add that I've seen unbelievers visit these sorts of meetings where no one said a word about "being saved," and the unbeliever would fall to their knees and profess that "God is here, and I want to know Him!" Strikingly, this comes straight out of the New Testament (see 1 Corinthians 14).

Also, the churches have all sorts of meetings – some for decision-making, some where the men creatively bless the women and vice versa, some for the children, some for specific prayer, some for fun, some to share the gospel with the lost, some for spiritual training and retreats, etc. But everything is "in season." (The seasonal nature of the body of Christ is a special feature of organic church life. All life forms pass through seasons. This element is virtually unknown in organized Christianity.)

Note also that the churches I’m speaking of have been equipped to know the Lord together, to pursue Him together, to express Him with unlimited creativity, and to function in a coordinated way under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Part of this equipping is "detoxification" from a religious and institutional mindset, and being equipped to know Christ in profound depths. (One of the most common remarks that people make when they get involved in this kind of church life is, "I thought I knew the Lord well; but I now realize I didn’t know Him well at all.")

Thus the normative passivity that flows through the bloodstream of the typical pew-sitting Christian has been drained out of them. Instead, they’ve been captured by a vision and an ongoing experience with the Lord Jesus that has dramatically affected them. I’ve been changed by the experience. Yet what impresses me just as much or more than the meetings is the remarkable way the believers take care of one another in organic church life. But that’s another story.

As you understand it, how would you describe one another's definition of this same term? (I'm looking for how you two understand each other's positions here)

Frank: I’m really not sure as Neil and I have never discussed this. But my impression is that the term "organic church" for Neil boils down to rapid multiplication of Christian groups with the goal of trying to win lost people by going to the places where they spend their time. It also includes a method of discipleship in very small groups which includes Bible reading and personal accountability questions. This may or may not be accurate, but it’s my impression.

Neil and I have shared the conference platform on two occasions, and from hearing him speak, it seems to me that the major difference is one of emphasis. I also think he may emphasize the church scattered where I tend to emphasize the church gathered. But in my world, the church gathered is nothing like an institutional church "service." For us, the gathering of the ekklesia is related to God’s highest intention, i.e., His eternal purpose.

God has had an "eternal purpose" that’s been beating in His heart from the beginning of time, long before humans fell. That purpose is what provoked Him to create, and He’s never let go of it. The eternal purpose of God isn’t the salvation of humans or to make the world a better place. (Remember, the Fall hadn’t occurred when He created.) There was something else He had in His heart before He said "let there be."

That purpose has to do with obtaining a bride, a house, a body, and a family, all of which are by Him, through Him, and to Him. The purpose of God is not centered on the needs of humanity, but rather, to meet a desire in God Himself. So God’s end is to have a bride, a house, a body, and a family in every city on the planet. The ekklesia – properly conceived and functioning – indeed benefits humanity and blesses the world that God made; but His goal for her is higher than that.

Having Christ formed in us is an important aspect of God’s purpose (Rom. 8:28-29; Ga. 4:19). But for us, we don’t use any of the typical discipleship methods to accomplish this. Instead, we have learned how to encounter the Lord Jesus in Scripture together, to seek His face, to fellowship with Him, to be in His presence, and to share and express Him to one another.

This typically happens in groups of two and three during the week (sometimes in the early mornings), but also in the corporate gatherings. I call these groups "pursuit teams" – teams that pursue the Lord. The focus is not on us but on Christ. Paul said that we are transformed by "turning to the Lord" and "beholding His glory" – so that’s a large part of our church life experience (2 Cor. 3:16-18). In short, we experience together – in pursuit teams and as a church – perceiving and following the Lord’s indwelling life, allowing God to shape us by it. That, to my mind, is what spiritual formation/transformation is all about.

Watchman Nee once pointed out that when the Lord called people to His work, their God-given ministries were often prefigured by their secular occupations.

For instance, when the Lord called Peter, he was casting his net and bringing fish onto the shore. What was true in the natural ended up being true in the spiritual. Peter's ministry centered on fishing for men. His emphasis was evangelism, and he brought many lost people to Christ (just think of Pentecost in Acts 2).

When the Lord apprehended Paul, he was building tents. And his future ministry reflected this. Paul was more of a spiritual builder, a "master builder" as he put it in 1 Corinthians 3. His emphasis was to build the church into the fullness of Christ. So Paul spent most of his time grounding and enriching the believing communities to gather under the Headship of Christ, establishing them deeply into Christ, unveiling to them God's eternal purpose – or "the whole counsel of God" as he once put it.

When the Lord apprehended John, he was mending a torn net. We see in John’s later writings (1 John, 2 John, and 3 John) that he is bringing the church back to center . . . back to first things . . . back to "the beginning" of Christ as life, love, and light in a time when these elements had been lost. The tent that Paul built was falling apart during John’s day, so John prophetically began to repair it by restoring God's original thought, bringing His eternal purpose back into view.

So Peter casts the net, Paul builds the tent, and John mends the tent. All three men were Christian workers in the Lord’s vineyard, but each had a different emphasis and disposition.

In my observation, Neil is a lot like Peter. His major focus seems to going out to the sea, casting the net, and bringing the fish on dry land and encouraging God's people to do the same. Some have described my on-the-ground ministry to be more like Paul’s – the building of the tent – the constructive work of building the house of God to fulfill the eternal purpose "from eternity to here." By contrast, my writing ministry in books like Pagan Christianity and Jesus Manifesto are very much along the lines of John’s ministry of repairing the torn net.

Whether that’s accurate or not, here’s my point. The ministries of Peter, Paul, and John are not to compete with one another. Instead, they are to complement one another. The body of Christ needs the ministries of Peter, Paul, and John. And each person needs the other.

That's how the terrain looks from my hill, anyway.

Neil: From my reading, I assume that Frank and I are pretty close to seeing church as a body connected to the Head. Jesus is the main thing for both of us and we both emphasize that in our teaching. If there is a difference I believe that Frank exalts the purpose of the church and I tend to emphasize the purpose of disciple-making. Not that we don’t both teach both, but we do have our own priorities. These could be simply different focus rather than a difference of opinion. How organic church starts and multiplies is probably different in our minds.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Organic Church Pioneers Remembered

George Bernard Shaw once quipped, "One out of one people die, that's a startling statistic!" Sobering, to the point, and real. I remember hearing a radio spot while driving that was advertising for a funeral home. A deep, trusting voice said, "If you should ever die..." I remember swerving as I laughed and said, "If?!" There's no "if" we all die sometime. It is appointed for every man to die.

This Organic Church movement is so young, yet already we have lost several pioneering leaders. It seems like only a couple years ago that we were just a handful of friends sitting around a fire chatting about what could be, and now some of the faces are noticeably absent.

The first Greenhouse training Paul Kaak and I ever did together was in 2000 in Oxnard, CA. We had about 25 of our own leaders there, two of those leaders have gone home already: Brian Ollman and Mark Palmer. I miss them.

Brian was a spark of creativity in our movement that always stretched us to think outside of the box. He was always coming up with a new creative idea. He was a magnet for young creative people that were looking for a place to unpack their art. We are coming on the one year anniversary of his home going.

Palmer (he preferred to be called by his last name) had a real heart for reaching young people that were not connecting with the conventional church. For that reason he called his church the Landing Place, it was a place where people could come and connect with God, one another and a mission.

Yoshito Ishihara was one of the cutting edge leaders of organic expressions of church in Japan and he recently went home to be with our Lord after battling cancer. Josie seemed to laugh so easily and so infectiously. The church he led is unusual in Japan, it is full of freedom, joy and is very expressive of that joy. It is also larger and younger than most. This is a legacy of Josie. He was a father to many. I miss him too.

We actually teach that death is a part of life, so we shouldn't be shocked when it happens, but some how we still are.

There are others that have passed on (3 people from my own church in the last ten years). There will be even more. I remember C.S.Lewis speaking about the casualties of WWII and remarked that there were not more deaths in that generation than any other...because the death rate for every generation is the same--100%. Nevertheless, death is always too soon for those you love.

We do not mourn as those who have no hope. We have a very real hope and confidence in a great reunion. We already miss our friends, but the seeds they planted are already bearing fruit. We are grateful for their lives, and I for one, hope to live better for having known each of them.

I think that each one of these friends would challenge us to live our lives each day as if it were your last. Live well every day friend. I just completed a book (to be released March of 2011) that follows the life of a leader who finishes well. Finishing well is not something we do at the end of our life, it is what we do every day of our life. Live so that you will finish well, or die trying.

I often ask myself what would be left behind if I died today. Being prepared for death seems rather morbid, but it is actually a very wise thing to do (Ecc. 7:1-2). Are you living your life so that the end is better than the beginning? Will others prosper because of the investment of your life? What will remain after you go? Are you ready to meet God? What will it take to be prepared so that when you go others carry on the work? I'm not talking about life insurance, a funeral plot and a will, I'm talking about the seed of your own spiritual life bearing lasting fruit for eternity.

I have seen fruit from these men that will bear more fruit. I have loved each one and look forward to seeing them again. None of them were perfect, but Jesus' love for them was perfect, and it still is. That love of Jesus was the best part of their lives and it is that love that will bear fruit in all our lives.

Pressing on,


Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Getting to the Bottom of the Deep Church: A Review of Jim Belcher's Book, Part One

I have read Deep Church by Jim Belcher, twice—once in pieces and once from start to finish. The reason for this is that I immediately found chapters so intriguing I read them first, isolated from the rest of the book. I was actually shocked by some of the chapters conclusions, so I felt to fully understand the book I needed to start at the beginning and read it all the way through before I could really form an opinion of the book, so I did. It turns out that this exercise helped me to understand what Belcher was saying, and yet I found that my initial concerns were confirmed.

What got my attention was his bold embrace of tradition to define church as deeper. While many of us are trying to break from tradition, Belcher espouses that we need to get back to it in order to find a peaceful way to get along. But his idea of tradition is quite specific (or is it? more later on this).

The title of the book comes from a phrase C.S. Lewis coined in his book Mere Christianity. It is a Christianity that holds to the Great Traditions of the original creeds—The Apostles Creed, The Nicene Creed and The Athanasian Creed to be specific and this is what Lewis calls “Deep Church.” Honestly, after reading the entire book I still think that the title comes off as sounding arrogant even after all the explanation, as if those who do church this way are truly in the deep end of the pool while the rest struggle in the shallows. I must say, though, that Belcher himself does not come across as arrogant, for the most part.

First, I want to share some of the things I liked and then in my next post I will share a couple of things that I didn’t.

In an attempt to find a third way rather than be in either the emerging church camp or the traditional church side, Belcher takes a kind, respective and honest look at both sides. This is one of the things I greatly appreciate about the book and is quite frankly rare. In these days full of people shouting across the aisle at one another without ever really hearing what is being said this is refreshing. Belcher not only listens, but he is fairly articulate at espousing what each is saying before he offers his “deeper” alternative. He would actually make a good marriage counselor. In each chapter he begins with writing about what the emerging church is protesting over the traditional church, then covers how the traditional church counters before he finally settles the issue with his own alternative, which he refers to as Deep Church. He looks at truth, evangelism, the gospel, worship, preaching, ecclesiology and culture in this way.

When it comes to understanding the emerging church, he uses Ed Stetzer’s categories of Relevants, Reconstructionists and Revisionists. Relevants are those who are not changing how church is formed or structured and definitely not changing the doctrinal stance but merely working to make the church relevant to the postmodern world. Mark Drischoll and Dan Kimbal are offered as leaders of this type of church. Reconstructionists are questioning the old systems and structures of church but not the doctrines as much and Alan Hirsch, Mike Frost and Myself are offered as the type of leaders found in this camp. Revisionists are questioning our epistemology—how we understand and believe what is true/real. Brian McLaren and Doug Pagitt are cited as leaders among this group.

Belcher also uses Hirsch’s and Frost’s idea of “bounded-set” verses “centered-set” to help forge a way of peacefully working together. A bounded-set is where those who are in and who are out are clearly defined by a well-established list of beliefs and practices. Only those who subscribe to the boundaries are allowed into the camp, everyone else remains outside. He thinks it is far healthier (and I agree) that we function in a centered-set manner where there is no in or out but we simply stay in close proximity to a central set of doctrines—core beliefs that we can all agree on—and allow open hands and discussions on the views that are not part of this core set. With this in mind, he offers a two-tier view of doctrines, the essentials and the nonessentials, as a means to be centered and get along.

We (CMA) have done this consistently within our own movement defining the core doctrines as “bullet doctrines”—those that we would rather take a bullet for than renounce. The non-bullet doctrines are those that we believe but will not take a bullet for (or shoot anyone over). With this in mind, we want unity in the essentials (bullets), liberty in the non-essentials (non-bullets) and love in everything (even for those who would pull the trigger). I find it interesting, and perhaps slightly inconsistent, that he suggests a centered-set approach but clearly defines the boundaries of the emerging church, dividing the whole thing into three camps with people that are in each one. Nevertheless, I can understand that he needed to make the book coherent to the reader and there is much confusion over what is emerging, what is emergent and who is doing what. So overall, this is helpful and makes the conversation more reasonable.

I found myself liking Belcher as I read, even though I often disagreed with his final suggestions. He is definitely likable and thoughtful. He has done his homework and I can tell he is a real thinker who enjoys learning. He actually comes across child-like in the way he enjoys discovery. His child-likeness is also evident in the somewhat naive way he believes that he will find a viable third way that will bring us all together to sing Kumbaya around the campfire of the Great Tradition. I can’t help but love the guy because he is so endearing in this child-like enthusiasm, idealism and optimism. I am confident that I would enjoy his company and we would have some great discussions around that campfire even if we do not agree on some of the non-essentials, so maybe he is not as naive as I first thought.

Another thing I liked about the book was Belcher’s honesty. He not only fairly treated both sides, but he was bold in his own embrace of tradition in order to maintain his church view, in spite of the fact that it is not always clearly taught in the Scriptures. Let me explain what I mean by this. In Christendom it is common for people on all sides to claim that their view is the “biblical view,” thus informing everyone that disagrees that they are not biblical. We even put scripture verses in parenthesis next to our comments to make sure everyone knows we are Biblical. Belcher is too smart to buy or sell this. In order for him to hold to a traditional view of what church is, and yet honestly deal with the arguments from the emerging side, he has brazenly chosen to appeal to tradition for his authority. In other words he doesn’t defend tradition against the attacks, instead he dives “deeper” into it by appealing to the more ancient traditions for the authority that the Bible does not provide for his church practices. Honest, yet dangerous. People think that my approach (non-hierarchical, non-controlling leadership) has dangerous implications should carefully evaluate what Belcher is appealing to for authority in his ecclesiology.

Belcher is unapologetically reformed. He is one of the many Neo-Reformed leaders that are increasing in the US. There are some great doctrines in the reformed tradition. Many of my closest brothers and coworkers are reformed, and my own denomination (Grace Brethren) has a strong and growing reformed influence over it. The reformed church however is full of structures, systems and ideas that are solid and inflexible practices, treated as doctrine but not really found in the Bible. In order to be truly reformed and also be honest, one has to deal with the many practices that are not found prescribed in the Scriptures. Okay, I will let you reformers fume a second and then I’ll give you a few examples. Are you ready yet? Whew, okay. The clergy and laity separation is a good first example. Lets stay with that one for a bit. Granted, the reformation brought the “priesthood of believers” back to the doctrinal round table, the practice established in the reformed church tradition has yet to actually release this important doctrine. Now, as I walk down this theological aisle you will see how more and more of what is dogma in the reformed church comes from tradition rather than Scripture. Watch: Ordination of pastoral leaders and presbytery is a very core doctrine in the reformed tradition and is hard to find in Scripture without some heavy handed manipulation. To say you cannot be ordained as a pastor without at least a Masters of Divinity degree from a specific reformed seminary is not a biblical idea, it comes from tradition, nevertheless it is carved in stone for most reformed denominations. The idea that only ordained pastors can perform baptism or communion is found nowhere in the bible, it is a tradition that has been well established and passed on as doctrine. Am I right? Is this making sense now? Be honest. Within the reformed tradition, church offices are established doctrine, though the idea of “offices,” in my opinion, must be imported into the Bible to make it stand upright. Elders and deacons and the fivefold gifts of Eph 4:11 are all found in the NT but to call them “offices” forces upon the biblical text ideas that are foreign to the inspired scriptures. If I were to ask for Biblical support for "offices" rather than functional roles, Van Til, Owen, Edwards and even Calvin himself would have a hard time doing so.

Belcher is an honest reformed theologian, so it is not a surprise that he appeals to what he calls the Great Tradition for authority for church practices and polity, which the New Testament does not provide.

In my next post I will look at a few of the more troubling concepts in the book.