Friday, May 21, 2010

The REAL Dirt on Organic Church

In the Spring 2010 issue of Leadership Journal, Brian Hofmeister shares his disappointing experience with organic church in an article called The Dirt on Organic. A couple things seem apparent from the article. Hofmeister did not try organic for very long, perhaps only a year or so, and he took the expectations of the institutional expression of church with him into the work, so his experience is less than a full trial.

Having written the books Organic Church, Organic Leadership and Church 3.0, I know that there is dirt on the organic church, but Hofmeister’s minimal experience didn’t really get a chance to unearth it. Perhaps you want to hear the real dirt on organic church from someone who actually has worked through the principles and practices for a couple decades now. Let me oblige. The dirt is deep under all my nails and the stench of fertilizer is all over my clothes.

Here are a couple things about organic church that you may want to know before you try it. Let the reader beware, organic church is not something every leader should attempt.

Organic Church Hurts More

Doing church relationally and starting in the harvest fields is one of the most rewarding and at the same time discouraging experiences of my life.

I remember back when I used to pastor a “real” church I would read the verses when Paul would mention how he wept with his prayers every day for the churches and frankly I would feel guilty that I didn’t have such passion for my own church…until I started the first Awakening Chapels.

When you usher a new life into the kingdom of God, baptize them into obedience to their new Lord and disciple them in their first steps of faith they become your spiritual children. John explains to us that he has no greater joy than to hear of his children walking in truth. When you see a young church where just weeks before there was only darkness and evil, you feel a far greater sense of joy and responsibility, much like a parent. When your disciples fall away it hurts more than if you simply have an empty seat in your auditorium on Sunday morning for a couple weeks. It feels as though one of your own children has fallen away, because they have. This explains Paul’s passion when he said, “Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn?” (2 Cor. 11:28-29) In the context Paul just finished talking about beatings, multiple scourging, shipwrecks and even suffering execution, but these things seem to pale compared to the pain he felt when his own spiritual children fell back into sin. I have felt that pain myself and it is deep and sticks with you for a long time, perhaps for your entire life.

That pain never leaves you and can give you pause to keep on going, but the rewards of new life that stays faithful is enough to keep me at it. I can never go back to the way I used to do church, no matter how painful it can be in the present manner. I know too much and have been ruined for regular church forever. Discipling people and investing in proveness rather than potential does help to reduce this pain some, but not entirely. Paul had Demas and Jesus had Judas and you will have some people who deeply hurt you with a kiss on the cheek. So I am willing to endure the pain. I willingly count the cost and pay the price for doing church organically.

Organic Church is More Messy

Mistakes and foolishness are more evident in organic church where your experience is unscripted and spontaneous. You are often taking great risk and on occasion the risk pays off well. When you choose to do church organically you intentionally release control and that means you have to live with the results that grow out of the soil of broken lives. We call this “organic panic” for those who are just beginning to see how messy life can be when it is organic rather than organizational.

For many of us we desire spontaneous multiplication of disciples, leaders, churches and movements. You simply cannot have something scripted and spontaneous at the same time, so control must be given up. Your hope for order is faith in the actual DNA that is planted in the seeds of transformed lives. I have been to churches where every single minute is accounted for with a detailed and well-rehearsed script. This may produce a wonderful show but it does not allow for anything spontaneous. If you want the church to grow and multiply spontaneously, you have to allow for spontaneity. How can God lead us if we have no place for Him in our schedule of church life?

Often the beautiful fruit that grows out of the dirt of organic church surprises me; but sometimes I shake my head with wonder at what God is willing to endure in people’s lives. Sometimes my church is a beautiful bride full of life and hope; at other times it more resembles the island of misfit toys, all broken and forgotten by the world. I’ve stopped feeling responsible for other people’s decisions when I grant them freedom of choice, but I still cringe on some occasions. In my opinion, the best leaders are not those who draw the largest crowds but those that produce other leaders. A good leader who is developing other leaders simply must allow apprentices to try new things, even silly ones, and make mistakes or they are not empowered. If excellence and perfect timing is your desire than you may want to stay away from the spontaneous organic ways of doing church and instead maintain a scripted performance as core to your church experience. But do not be surprised if you find that you are not producing leaders but simply consuming ones already developed by others. This is part of the problem Mr. Hofmeister was wrestling with; he was feeling unprepared without already formed leadership in place. Organic panic seized him and he let go of the opportunity he had.

If you are unwilling to let people make some mistakes, even theological ones, than you are forfeiting any real original thinking and conformity to what has been is all you will be left with. If that is your desire, stay away from organic church. I let people make mistakes and learn from them and I believe that in the long run the results are better people, not worse ones. We may not have an excellent production once a week, but we have long-term fruitfulness. People learn from mistakes, if you eliminate the mistakes you also eliminate the learning.

Organic Church Has Less Applause

When multiplication is your desire the work simply must begin small and slow. There is no other way to go. I believe it is for this reason, more than any other, that true multiplication is forfeited by most Christian leaders on the altar of quick success. We so easily shift from the long-term fruit of multiplication so that we can have larger numbers faster with addition. Driven by our own insecurities and need for admiration and respect that we start doing things that attract more attention and invest less in reproduction.

Jesus often turned away from the glow of the multitudes to invest instead in a small band that could do the same. When he rose to heaven He left behind 120 disciples after three very productive years of exceptional ministry (He must’ve missed the “How to break the 200 barrier seminar”). He could have easily left with far more applause, but His goal was to incite a movement, not attract an audience. His plan eventually did what no earthly army could ever do—overcome and defeat the mighty Roman Empire. This result, however, would not occur in his lifetime or the lifetime of any of his own disciples. The exponential momentum of a multiplication movement is eventually unstoppable and rapid, but it doesn’t start that way, but builds with the life and death of each new generation.

Criticism is also a reality for the pioneers battling in the organic fields today. In real war, they call this “friendly fire,” but there is nothing friendly about it. To be out ahead facing the conflict with our enemy head on and get shot from behind by people who are supposed to be on your own team is harsh, especially when you realize that the armor provided by our Lord only seems to cover your front leaving your backside uncovered.

If you are someone who needs the approval of others for your own sense of well being than organic church is not for you. Hate mail is common for me, but strangely enough it is often sent to the address of many other people before mine. It seems that people often will make public accusations without even approaching me first. Thick skin is a mandatory requirement for those who are blazing new trails in organic church life, and not every leader is made for this stuff.


Jon said...

Good post Neil!

You hit the nail on the head.

Neil Cole said...

Thanx Jon.

Jerry Barker said...

It's amazing to me that some can find fault when eternal life transformation is accomplished in a manner foreign to them. Isn't that God's business? Are we so spiritually shallow that we can't celebrate where God is moving because we can't feel a personal connection to the methodology?

Keep up the great work, teaching and writing. God is using you!

Anonymous said...

Excellent post, Neil. In my experience, it took a while to get used to those aspects of organic church--especially the slow start. But the freedom from the scaffolding it takes to hold up a traditional church model makes all of the chaotic mess worth it.

Unknown said...

Great post Neil!!

Looking forward to spending a great time with you and everyone else at the Greenhouse here in Florida in three weeks!

Mathias said...

Thanks for this post Neil!
You had some important points that seem so easy to miss out when coming from the more traditional way of thinking about church.

Marty R said...

Thanks for your insights, Neil. On June 1 we'll be celebrating one year of organic church planting. You hit the nail on the head with several areas that have proven difficult for us. But I'm holding strong to the passion the Lord has given me for the lost souls and broken families here in the Denver area.

I'd like to get some ideas from you in one area of difficulty for us. When we come together on a weekly basis, what are some things we could be doing? We usually share how we're really doing, read some verses together, discuss them, and pray for each other. Every now and then the Lord leads us to sing a song or three. Is there anything you suggest - content or practices - that tend to keep the group learning and growing together?

Anonymous said...

your disciples?

Rob Ross said...

I very much enjoyed reading your post. As I was reading it I could picture in my mind examples of things we have gone through over the past ten years. Thank you.

Party Hardy said...

This dream of organic church is something that has been growing within me, before I knew there were others who had been writing about this and thinking about this for a long time. I'm hoping to get involved and, someday, hopefully be helping plant them. It's good to know some of the difficulties in order to be prepared for them.

John Hobbs said...

Thanks Neil, those word are so true, painful and encourageing. And can only be spoken by someone whose been there. Hope you don't mind, I shared a link to your article on my blog along with some of my own thoughts. You can find it at:

If you happen to drop by I would love your comments.

Blessings and thanks for your leadership and helping clear paths not yet taken. You are one of many who are making great sacrifice for generation to come who many or may not know of the sacrifices made for the paths they will take. For those who find your word resonating whith their own journey, it brings great comfort knowing they are not alone. For that I am grateful. Peace!

Diane said...

Loved the article.
I loved the bit about letting people even make theological mistakes. Who are we to know that we have interpreted scripture correctly?
I'm reading Nehamia Gordon's book the Hebrew Jesus v the Greek Jesus and the bit I like best is about how so much in the Jewish lifestyle is the traditions of the Pharisees not the teachings of God and actually how the teachings of the Pharisees could trump the Torah!!! How often I wonder does this happen in scripted church? What does the doctrine of the apostles really mean?
Like "Party Hardy" the dream of organic church has been growing with me for a long time and your blog has stirred it even more rather than put me off
Thank you

Anonymous said...

Great article, man. Thanks!

Sister in Canada said...

Thank you for your encouraging words as we are embarking on the same journey in Christ. Blessings, brother.

DL said...

"Criticism is also a reality for the pioneers battling in the organic fields today. In real war, they call this “friendly fire,” but there is nothing friendly about it."

That is true, but it is also true that many Christian leaders feel the non-friendly fire from many in the organic movement. You may think what you're doing is "pioneering" but there isn't anything new about bashing the status quo.

Brian Hofmeister said...

Thanks Neil for a well seasoned perspective.

Dave Lewis said...

Neil, we are not merely "trying organic." It is, what I believe, God has led us to. After 3 years of attempting to plant a church from the institutional/attractional mindset we were frustrated to have drawn only a handful of church members. Then I attended Exponential a couple of years ago where you led one of the conference tracks, along w/Alan Hirsch and a few others. I began to hear more about "organic church" and then read your book by the same title, and it has resonated with me because I was already thinking that way. The whole concept of indigenous, organic church planting led me to change directions...not merely because it seemed like something to try, but because I believe this is how church planting is to be done. Perhaps that institutional/attractional model works for some, but it was not working for me, simply because, as I am still learning, God has wired me differently. I have had greater success in reaching 1 or 2 at a time than in reaching a multitude.
Your blog post here really had helped me to see the value of investing time into the lives of a few and not feel like a failure because we're not reproducing like rabbits, as some seem to measure church planting success by.
I've been experiencing some of that "organic panic" in my life and you have helped me to see it as part of the experience instead of as failure or something else.

There's more to our organic/house church story which I may share on my own blog or facebook page.

Thanks Neil!

Mercedes said...

I heard somebody say today during a podcast sermon I was listening to that when a website is created to solely go against one's ministry, you can consider yourself to have arrived! Though I know many ministries do have opposition for genuine causes, I also know your heart truly breaks for the things of God and so I am encouraged to see the passion and fire with which you have written these lines and have no doubt that what you are doing in the name of Jesus means more to the kingdom than what the majority of the institutional church is currently doing.

God bless you


Pam Hogeweide said...

a seasoned southeast asia missionary has introduced me to your writings. Instant fan. Have added your blog to my reader.

I will see you around the blogosphere...and did I see you on Shapevine as well? Lance and Alan are warm from Portland, OR

Smiller said...

When I have people ask me what I think about doing house church, I truthfully explain it is the hardest way I've ever done church but that I can't imagine going back to the traditional way. If we ever have anyone coming to visit us out of traditional church, we always advise that they will experience some dizziness during the detox period. :)

stravo lukos said...

it is said that the church is the only institution that shoots its wounded. sicko. the biggest problem i see in any church gathering is the abject repulsion at being challenged on one's pet belief-- even if the fruit of that belief is hatred and death. God help us, because no church format can do the work that needs to be done inside us. that was a great article, btw.

Claire Hunter said...

Great post. Thanks for the encouragement to allow mistakes to be made. Looking forward to hearing you speak at Newforms Gathering in England. :-)