Friday, January 8, 2010

Is There an Organic Church Movement?

I'm hearing a lot about the organic church movement lately. This past week Newsweek and Time mentioned it. Christianity Today also mentioned it. Even Brit Hume mentioned that he is part of a home church this week. According to one of the above articles 7% of Americans are in a house church. Anyone reading this blog post knows that this was not the case just a few years ago. Some are saying that organic house churches out number traditional churches in many countries (that's actually not news), and would be considered in the top three of the US church groups, alongside Roman Catholics and Southern that is news.

I've heard the experts say that we are not a movement. David Garrison, author of Church Planting Movements has consistently said so. Ed Stetzer and Warren Bird have a new book called Viral Churches coming out that says that we are not a movement, but that if there is one that is closest it would be us. Bob Roberts said in a recent blog post that we are not a movement.

So what do I think? The term movement can mean all sorts of things. We are definitely moving and, so far as I can tell, we are going in the right direction. We are out of control. No one can point to the person in charge, though there is a short list of the most influential leaders of the movement. No one can accurately count the number of churches in the movement. There is not a single organizational label that can be applied to this "movement," this runs across denominational lines.

I believe there are a few reasons why people do not want to put the label movement on what is happening, and I will share these below. The first three are petty, but just as real as the others. The later points are more substantive critiques. I'm sure ALL of you that say we are not a movement are only spouting the later points.

3 Petty reasons:

1. People have a set picture of what a movement would look like and until they see that they will not ascend to one existing. For many, the way it will look is surprisingly much like what they are doing, just a lot more people doing it. We come to such questions with preconceived notions of what would be the best scenario, and if we do not see it we will not admit that a movement is afoot. I think a lot of that is going on. People have prayed for God to bless their efforts for so long now, and invested their whole being into it so that the hand of God on anything else could just not possibly be right.

2. The old system is threatened by the new and will not grant that the new is good in any way. Yeah, sorry, but I do believe some of this is happening too. For many, their identity, security and success is all determined by how well the institutional church is doing, and so they are left having to say that what is happening is not a movement. This has always been the case, and from history's point of view the people who are attacking the new now, were once attacked by the former movement just a short time ago.

3. God couldn't possibly bless a work as a movement that has a different theological/cultural point of view. Some are so convinced that they have the right doctrine so that God Himself is limited to only blessing people that fall into their own camp. If something is growing and does not have the same theological persuasion than they must be compromising in some way and that is causing the appearance of growth. Occasionally they find a spattering of the same beliefs that they hold and then they would asses that the success that the group is feeling is because they got it right on those few points.

I sometimes wonder if we do not qualify as a movement because we are not Southern Baptist exclusively, but that is another blog post that I will probably not ever write. maybe we do not qualify because we are not truly emergent. Or perhaps it is because we are not Reformed enough.

Warning, Tangent Alert: As good as the reformed doctrine is, I grow very weary of those who view it as separate from all the rest of the Christian family. How stupid is that? Does it seem strange to some of you that when people classify the emerging church movement they have one category of emerging attractional churches and then they have an entirely different category for emerging reformed attractional churches? There is a serious spiritual bigotry going on in Christendom that is not only tolerated but reveled in. We need to learn to embrace brothers who may differ from our point of view (no matter how right we are, after all God Himself predestined that they be in that camp).

The one characteristic common to the above points is pride. We are all a little to full of ourselves. God is not bound by our activities, doctrinal categories or strategies. He also is not going to bless pride. The Scriptures are consistent throughout in declaring that God is opposed to the proud. If pride is causing jealousy and envy in your life, you no longer need to worry about Satan as your arch enemy, God is now opposed to you and that is far worse.

3 Non-petty reasons:

1. We are not seeing the conversion growth rate that Church Planting Movements are seeing in other parts of the world. This is true, but I wonder if that is cause to disqualify what is happening as a CPM. While I would wish that we would see more conversions, we are in a country where the predominant faith of the people is Christian. That has to change the way we view this in the US. While I am not really wanting a renewal movement as much as a true spiritual awakening of lost people, I for one, am not going to tell Christians that they cannot join us. To see the conversion growth rate found in China or India we would have to exclude Christians from joining the movement, and that is not healthy or realistic. That said, this could easily derail the birth of a true movement if we spend all our time, resources and affection on the Christians that come in.

Church Multiplication Associates, which I am part of, is seeing more than 25% conversion growth rate in this environment which is pretty high. Can we do better? Yes. Should we do better? I suppose, but how do we do better is the real question. I am not going to tell Christians that they cannot be part of our movement. I am also not going to start pushing evangelism with external drives that produce guilt ridden evangelists and false conversions. I will just continue listening to the Holy Spirit and trusting Him as the only true evangelist to usher in the new life. Deepening the spiritual life of the disciples so that they are unable to keep quiet about their love of Jesus is probably the best way to mobilize evangelists.

2. Reproduction of churches must be beyond the third generation. Those who know me know that I myself say the same thing. It is not until we see fourth generation disciples, leaders and churches that we are truly a movement in my opinion. This is really a mathematical equation, to see real multiplication each unit must be reproducing. If we are not multiplying we are not the movement we want to be. That said, if we are multiplying, counting the churches and getting accurate information will be impossible, always leaving us vulnerable to pundits who sit on the sideline criticizing us. What we have found out from independent surveys is that we have a very high rate of reproduction (near 100% as 52 out of 53 churches surveyed in one account had daughter churches in that same year). 30% of the churches that have started churches in our movement have started 6 or more churches! 30% have also seen grand daughter churches started, so I would say that if we are not a movement yet, we are on the way.

3. Transformation of society is the true mark of a movement. This I agree with whole-heartedly. As I have said to many who question our legitimacy, it will not be our contemporary critics and experts who will give us our validity, but future historians (yeah, I know, and God). I often think of the future historian and what their perspective will be when I look at things, it helps to gain a bigger and broader perspective.

If we truly saturate our society with vital followers of Christ capable of making disciples, the world will change. But of course, this will not be evident for a little while. I am willing to wait for it. There are ways to have a more noticeable impact immediately such as large social programs, political lobbying by a few motivated individuals, aggressive and vocal assertion of our values in society. We could do that, as others are, but I believe that simply connecting God's children to their spiritual Father in such a way that they listen to His voice and courageously follow His lead will transform society in much broader, holistic and longer lasting ways.

I guess I am willing to say, we are a movement, but our best days lie ahead. So, for that reason, I can live with the less petty critiques as they are actually quite helpful. There is nothing I can do about the petty ones.

My next book, Church 3.0 addresses this subject at length and is available soon. It answers the questions most often asked of our movement and uses those questions to discuss what a true movement looks like. The uniqueness of this book is that it provides an insiders perspective of a movement. It addresses the issues from the place of trying to figure out how to instigate, propagate and release such movements as opposed to simply describing one from the outside.

For those who think we are not a movement I have a final question: at what point would you say, "Yes. there is an organic church planting movement in North America?" How many people will it take? What percentage of the population is required?

Next time I will address what is necessary for our "movement" to have longevity which is the main question put forward by the excellent article in Christianity Today this last week.


Josh Hunt said...

have you read God is Back? Interesting read.


Ed Stetzer said...


It is a good question and I look forward to the dialogue.

Let me say that a "movement" is not the same thing as a "Church Planting Movement" which has been defined in the missiological mainstream by David Garrison.

You may not like the definition, but if it is used in a technical way (and it is), and someone uses the same term to describe their movement, people will (and do) discuss whether or not it fits the definition.

That is not a belittling of a movement or efforts. It is good missiology and social science research.

Facts are our friends and to join God in what He is doing we need to have good research and accurate analysis of what is (and is not) happening.

For what it is worth, there is an organic church movement. However, in North America, it does not (yet) meet the definition of a church planting movement as held in the missiological literature.

One final thought: I will say that your "we are not Southern Baptist" seems out of place in an otherwise well-done and thoughtful article.


Toby Stevens said...

As a church planter who has just recently given up and gone totally to "whatever it is that God wants from me", let me say that Pride was the motivational factor for the first 5 years of our church plant. I love people and Jesus, but I love to succeed too. What has happened recently is a paradigm shift I needed.
Last night marked the beginning of a new era. In so many words I told our church of twentysomethings that as a pastor, I am pooped (plus we just took on 3 boys from foster care). Personally I needed a church that supported me as much as I did them. And suprisingly, they manned up (and womanned up?).
We traded our Sunday "services" for a sunday brunch at a member's house and a Bible Study on thursday night at my house. We are leaving our $3500 rented facility to use that money in our community.
We talked a lot about the Boys and Girls club, Big Brothers and Sisters, after school programs ... and other places we can put our God-given energy and talents to use. Even in place of a Sunday service or bible study.
So, all in all ... there is an organic church movement, at least in Anchorage, Alaska. And it is painful and great and God's Spirit is hopefully finally in the driver's seat.

Neil Cole said...

Josh, I just ordered it at your suggestion. Better be good! \;o},

Neil Cole said...


Thanks for your comment bro.

Sorry about my poorly thought out sense of humor. I did also pick on the emergent and reformed guys as well, so you S. Baptists are not alone. I know you and David Garrison, Ed, and I know that being So Baptist is not the issue. But you gotta admit that Southern Baptists like to stick together on things and sometimes don't trust others who are not Southern Baptist. Truth is, that describes a great portion of Xtianity, so if you feel picked on its just cause you guys are the biggest group. There ya go, from a perceived insult to a backhanded compliment.

Regarding your more technical input:

Yes, I understand. To date, however, I cannot find reasons why we do not fit the CPM definition. The technical definition is: a rapid multiplication of indigenous churches planting churches that sweeps through a people group or population segment.

I am not hurt in any way, bro, but how do we not fit that? Then David goes on to list a few different top ten lists of descriptions, and I must say we fit those too.

So that is where my questions come from. I imagine that there are other factors that are not found spelled out in the book that are leading people to the assumption that there is not a CPM in North America.

Trust me, I do not want the label if it doesn't fit. AND I am not hurt by not receiving it. Like I said, I think we have room to grow and improve.

Just thinking out loud on the blogosphere. Thanks for chiming in.

Pressing on,


Glenn Steers said...

I believe that a movement becomes a "movement" when there is enough movement to cause attention to be paid to it. That's it! The media coverage of "Tea Parties" clearly makes it a movement. Similarly, several high profile news articles verifies Organic Churches as a movement.

On a completely unrelated note, I'm trying to imagine a situation where Jesus, or Paul for that matter, would use a word like "missiological" in the defense of a position...

Andrew j said...

Good post neil

I have found the ten marks of a movement from Paul pierson to be helpful in this. I have posted them online before so they are googleable

J.R. Mahon said...

Movement... no. The American church is dead. People need gathering points for their faith always have, always will. The Holy Spirit thank God is using the "organic movement" which a dumb name btw to rebuild a tattered and distressed American Christan faith. Christ was never movement, social cause or organic flavor. Christ is to be followed that's what we are seeing a new generation of followers who need faith played out face-to-face not system to system.

J. Guy Muse said...

I read the CT article. Interesting, but I think Reggie McNeal's take is closer to what I personally see happening out there,

"You are being asked to lead during a time when you are not sure where all this is going. If previous history is an accurate indicator, the kinds of changes we are undergoing will not settle out for another century or more. This means some of you are giving direction to the great-great grandparents of the leaders of the Christian movement when it shakes out on the other side of the postmodern wormhole...your courage to believe with partial sight will be rewarded one day when a full view is afforded." THE PRESENT FUTURE, pg.120

Anonymous said...

I'm wondering why it is important that what is taking place gain the title of "movement." Interesting... Many Christian movements tend to get blessed by the those with credibility followed by someone trying to organize the movement. Then at some point what has been organized is institutionalized and the movement dies. Maybe we ought to just leave this alone and let God continue to do what He is doing through these Spirit-driven micro-churches.

Unknown said...

I'm wondering why it is important that what is taking place gain the title of "movement." Interesting... Many Christian movements tend to get blessed by the those with credibility followed by someone trying to organize the movement. Then at some point what has been organized is institutionalized and the movement dies. Maybe we ought to just leave this alone and let God continue to do what He is doing through these Spirit-driven micro-churches.

Jon Van Bruggen said...

Neil, thanks for your thoughts and vulnerability in this post. It seems to me as if you're seeking an answer to a question that many instigators/apostolic missionaries wrestle with, that being, "How legitimate is the work/ministry that I've given my life to?" It's one I wrestle with quite regularly and unfortunately the criticisms (sometimes negative) of some leaders in more traditional church settings have only made faithful obedience to Jesus more difficult for those functioning outside the traditional forms of church. The greater question for me then becomes "How faithful am I being on a daily basis to the calling God has given me?" Finding legitimacy for my life's work in the approval of the King alone is sufficient for me to continue pressing on with the task of loving God, loving my neighbors as myself, and making disciples as I go. I just wish a few others would join Him in his approval! :)

Jon VB

desistarr said...

really great post.
if the definition of a church planting movement is as you stated in your reply to ed stetzer,
"a rapid multiplication of indigenous churches planting churches that sweeps through a people group or population segment," then i think we are seeing at the least the beginnings of one.

in the last few years in denver we have seen the organic church movement go from being a very disconnected and almost sectarian feel where organic churches had no interest in being on mission together to seeing mission flow out of listening to the Shepherd of the sheep and simply follow where He will lead us.

we now regularly have gatherings where house churches are sharing what God is leading them into and others are supporting them on mission as God speaks to them to do so. we now get contacted by new simple churches all the time that are springing up that are all over the denver metro area and beyond who want to relate together and mutually encourage each other to be churches who love God, love others and make disciples and to see all of this flow not out of programs but simply listening to God, doing what He says and teaching others to do the same.

we have seen around 50, maybe more CO2's (churches of two who connect together on a heart level and practice listening prayer together as close to daily as possible) here in the denver metro area just since october. this is all SO exciting for us because Christ, our head is directing it and leading us.
for more on this, check out

ok, all this to reiterate, God is at work even here in north america in great ways and i think we are seeing the beginnings of what roland allen calls "the spontaneous expansion of the church."

sorry for such a long comment. i'm just excited to see the Lord at work among us.

desi starr

SteveB said...

Why on earth would anyone care if they are part of a "movement?" For me, as a pastor, I am doing what God called me to do: serve Him. The only "movement" I want to be a part of is "THE movement" begun with the words: "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations." Anything else is just a footnote.
God bless any who follow His lead, represent Him well, stay humble, love people, and use the creativity, strategy, and resources He provides. Let's do it anyway we can until He returns! Let's enjoy the "success" of others! Go for it!

SteveB said...

P.S. Neil, If you like LOTR and Narnia . . . you gotta read Dekker . . .
(Red-White-Black especially)


Neil Cole said...


Well, yes, it isn't important in the grand scheme of things if we have the label "movement" or not. I understand and share your sentiment.

It is something that the people I interact with talk a great deal about, so it came out in the blog, but I am not losing any sleep over what label we have.

Why do I want a movement? I want to see the gospel spread spontaneously in every domain of society in a manner that is unstoppable. Call it what you like, that's what I want to see. If you don't want to see that, fine. I do.

J.R. usually, a name is given to a movement from observers not self-proclaimed (i.e . methodist, quakers, Christians). All of those could be said to be dumb names, but if you don't care about the label "movement" than what they call the movement shouldn't matter either.

Steve, I have read four of Dekker's books and frankly I do not like them. I've given him more than enough chance. I read Red, Black and White first and they got me caught but in the end I was not really satisfied. Sorry Ted.

Thanks for all the comments, keep 'em coming.

Pressing on,


Rick said...

Great article. Good topic. Obviously, one key factor is one's definition of movement. By some definitions, house church is irrefutably a movement, such as your "Church Planting Movement."

However, there's at least one other reason some resist applying the term movement to house/simple/organic church. Some of the other comments touched on it, as did your article when you mentioned there are no "leaders" per se. Beyond that, for many who have taken this direction, the desire is to get away from man made hierarchies and simply follow the Lord - in day to day living, in what happens when they gather, in evangelism, etc.

To many of us, the idea of a movement suggests something that has become organized, which as you noted, this is not. But, it also suggests something that people are defining or even packaging (saying this is how it's done) and trying to duplicate. It's hard to duplicate "just do what God tells you to do - follow the leadership of the Holy Spirit." When it becomes about "here's how it's done, and this is what it will look like when you do it," then it will become dead works carried out in the strength of man. Somewhere between those two points it will probably become a movement.

This is what has happened repeatedly through history, and is where many of our denominations came from - a renewal or revival, inspired of God, then copied and packaged so that it could be duplicated and repeated. What begins as a move the Spirit, becomes a lifeless movement of men operating in their own strength rather than the Lord's enabling.

Glenn Steers said...

Here's what Frank Viola has to say about this:

Note his Point #2 regarding the term "movement"

Neil Cole said...


Yes, this is where Frank Viola and I differ the most. He seems to believe that it takes years to plant a single church and that the idea of rapid multiplication is wrong. I am on the opposite side of the aisle on that subject.

I like what he writes about how an organic church functions internally and I loved Pagan Christianity. I disagree with his synopsis of Paul's life and I am currently writing a book following the apostle's missional life and how he not only started many churches but multiplied them rapidly.

Anonymous said...

As with anything that rejuvenates the reality of our faith, I dig it to the Spirit. Before I even heard of organic church/house church, I was wandering...without a church influence, but only God/Christ/Spirit and a Bible...Bowels "move", but Church "Functions"...the new is the old functioning for His purpose. God is beyond time so the Church (past, present, and future) hasn't "moved" at all for serves to function for Him...that spiritual organic-ness really cuts through the veil when imparted AND received...good words though...I don't think Jesus fit the "definition" of messianic "mover" when He came on scene...they thought killing Him was preventing a "movement"...and He's been functioning ever since...let the Pharisees decide if we're a movement..."Follow Me, and let the dead bury their own dead"...

Neil Cole said...


Actually, as read over my last comment I need to clarify something. I think what Frank teaches is that in order for a church to reproduce it takes a while. Actually getting the first church started may be relatively quick.

I would imagine that we both are agreed for the most part on Paul's life, but I do favor seeing the church releasing a rapidly multiplying spontaneous movement and I do not think that is Frank's preference. I would love to be wrong though, but even if I am not wrong we agree on a whole lot more than we do not.

grimtraveller said...

I think that the churches the apostles in that first century planted were a mixed bag. They grew and multiplied at different rates, there doesn't seem to be one fixed way or timespan. I think Frank viola's point is that it takes a long time for the relationships in a single group to deepen sufficiently for them to have a real shared life in Christ.
I would say that that may well be the case. But I feel we all miss a really important point in this regard. It doesn't matter what our aims or ideas are or how fast we want churches to multiply. It's at Christ's behest that his church is built and as Acts and the letters so clearly showed {just by simple acts like not letting the apostles enter certain towns or separating Barnabus and saul to go a plantin'}, it's the Lord who decides the when and where. If he decides that after 4 years a church is ready to multiply by sending apostles out, then so be it. If it takes a year, so be it. He and he alone determines that. So "movements" or non movements are kind of unimportant. Whether a happening fits this or that definition is kind of by the by. Surely the whole point of being organic is that the life of the Lord is the soil that determines the shape things take ? It cannot be predicted or prearranged. If media and other social commentators notice, bully wee, but sometimes, that kind of attention brings about it's own pressures to perform.

Bill Bremer said...

Shalom all,
Victor Choudhrie was one of the conveners and keynote speakers at the Global House Church Summit, where 200 Christian leaders from 40 nations met in New Delhi, India, Nov 11-14th, 2009, to explore the scope and significance of house based discipling communities and emerging house church movements worldwide. He encouraged participants by presenting a message on trends. It goes way past this issue. You can read it on my blog.

David Watson said...

Hi, Neil. It's interesting that you are dealing with some of the same questions as I had to deal with 15 years ago as one of the first overseas Church Planting Movements was emerging. The critics can be a trial, but the questions asked can help us to refine our definitions and explain what we are doing and how we are doing it.

I work with a number of ministries in North America and Europe. From my perspective, one of the problems with defining a Church Planting Movement in the West is the fact that there is no common seed for all that's going on. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of groups that are emerging and moving without any or with minimal contact with other groups. These groups tend to be isolated and may be doing good work without anyone knowing it.

There is diverse leadership, and with blogs, conferences, and mentoring, many of us are speaking into numerous different groups over whom we have no leadership responsibility and no direct contact. I receive communications from people all the time who are deeply involved in church planting, and are reading and using my materials without my knowledge. I suspect the same is true for you and others.

So, even though there may be thousands of new churches, most of the lines of reproducing churches may have not reached the level required to be identified as a Church Planting Movement. There are certainly lines that are close to the definition or may have surpassed the definition. But again, they have limited communication networks or accountability networks to communicate and verify a Church Planting Movement.

I can already hear those who want to complain about counting results or accountability, but please remember that Jesus took reports, and the New Testament reported numbers.

We need better research and reporting mechanisms, which are not going to happen easily. Who’s in charge? Who’s going to pay? Who gets the credit? Who owns the work? These are hard questions to answer in organic situations. One of the advantages I have had in overseas work is that most of what is happening can be traced back to my leadership teams. There is a common root that is identifiable. Who trained you? or Who is your mentor? are easy questions to ask and get answers to in places where church is new. In places that have deep Christian traditions, these are not so easy to answer.

God is doing some interesting things globally. There is tremendous spiritual change sweeping the world. Some of us are in the curl, others are so far out to sea they can’t perceive the wave.


David Watson

Lynnette said...

Toby Stevens,
I was reading the beginning and I found it a blessing...I admit not finishing to end. My comment was what I read up to so far )pls forgive the rush) pls but never "opt out" of Bible Study & coming together in the word of God. We grow via Bible studies (note not Books written by people who study the Bible...but actual reading & exhorting togther). Where is not essential but how is. God wants us to carry Jesus to 'Big Bros & Big Sis' be His hands & feet 7 know what the Gospel is; making disciples of others. If we leave out His word...then well any ole volunteer consumed with humanism can serve temporary but not be building into the eternal kingdom. Now, I don't believe you are saying to stop studying just opting to place that time in service at times vs studying togther. Well, if you meet 3,4, etc times a week I tottaly see that...but I'm encouraged by meeting at least 1 per week with other saints for real Bible study. All the hoopla about is it 'Organic' in a Building, or House, etc ...seems to be man issues. Where is not important...but what is done, and how always. May GOD bless richly!

Unknown said...

i agree to a certain extent with grimtravelers synopsis. Franks main concern as i understand it is 2 fold

1. He believes that before multiplication can occour there must be the life of Christ being expressed in the church. If there isnt we must ask aourselves what is it multiplying?

2. multiplication is a part of the dna of the divine life, but not the sum total. The church exists for Gods purpose, and multiplication is only a part of that purpose.

If we take the Great Comission for ourselves, and look at Christs command to "make Disciples", how do we put legs on that command? We look to the model, Christ, how did he make disciples? How did this divine life operate? He drew men into Community, lived with them, and these men lived watched this divine life in operation, for 3 years they drank in this new wine from heaven, it was after this they where sent out. I believe this should be the model we need to take a serious look at.

Natan Pierce said...

How can a movement be deemed a movement if it is still going on? I think the writer of the Christianity Today article forgot that there was a movement...and it's dying. The movement was the Organized church and did not start in the USA but started early on (325AD) with Constantine the Great making church a different model than what Christ intended and might I add, one that the reformers were kicking against. (Just so gingerly as not to loose their lives in which many did). The organic term may be new- "Simple" and "House" may have a new terminology affixed to these organic missional congregations but this is not new at all. It predates the middle ages and archaeology shows some early Sabbath Jewish house churches. The Temple was destroyed. That settles it for me. Our organic group is growing and we are missional- being salt unto the darkness.
Natan Pierce