Monday, February 20, 2006

'Organic Church' Review, Part 1

I've been reading Organic Church by Neil Cole. It professes to be the 'red pill' that will cause the reader to see church differently, although I find it much more tame than other suggestions made around the blogosphere and various internet fora. He mentions church practices that he finds inadequate and presents an alternative ecclesiology. It's a book not just about method, but about the very definition of Church and church. It's also a book with a heavy emphasis on evangelism and church planting. It's heavy on theory and not much on practicality, which is actually because of certain pieces of his theory. You'll see.

A few notes so far...

~He critiques what he calls the 'Sunday morning show.' This is what he calls the notion that we put so much time and energy into that 1-2 1/2-hour slot on Sunday mornings to make music lively and the preaching engaging, creating a 'y'all come' model of church. Actually, when talking of preaching, he doesn't use the word 'engaging,' he says something like 'entertaining.' The point that he wants to make is that we want the worship time to be so attractive that people will want to come at the expense of our venturing outside our safe walls into the community. He mentions that non-Christians and unchurched people aren't clamoring to come to our worship services no matter how flashy or modern they are. There's something else that we need to reach people with, that being the gospel (and our definitions of the gospel differ...he's much more of a blood atonement person...however, he does use a lot of Kingdom of God language, so I was able to relate to this piece of his theology).

~Related to the first point, he states that we spend so much time on making our buildings bigger and better-looking and more comfortable that we insulate ourselves from the world and hope that it will either go away or come in on its own.

~He states that there's no basis in the New Testament for weekly worship time. There isn't? And if there isn't, so what? Jesus is show teaching during a synagogue time more than once. By the time the New Testament was written, people were gathering for prayer and teaching and agape meals. He acknowledges the meals, but apparently misses the moments in the Gospels and Acts when people gather in worship spaces. Never mind all the corporate gathering times in the wilderness around the tabernacle and later in the Temple in the Old Testament. Finally, the argument that since there's no Biblical basis it must be wrong or ill-advised doesn't hold up. We do all sorts of extra-Biblical things that can be and are beneficial. Computers, refrigerators, baseball, the moveable type printing press, and keeping cats as pets all aren't mentioned either. It's time to give up this notion that only Biblical things are worthwhile things.

~Cole spends a good amount of time talking about letting God take control, letting Jesus run the committee meeting, letting God grow the church and accepting our roles as the planter rather than the grower. He bases this on Mark 4:26-29 where the sower sows seeds but can't control the growth. I like the metaphor as it recognizes that both we and God have active parts to play. However, it's also a little frustrating. Saying 'let Jesus run the board meeting' sounds nice and not many would disagree with such a notion. However, he doesn't really dare to define what a Jesus-run board meeting might look like. Through all his suggestions that we let God take control, he assumes two things: 1) churches that operate outside of his model aren't striving to do that already, and 2) a God-controlled church function will look tremendously different. He paints himself into a corner a little here, because by suggesting that God take over and being prepared to be surprised by what ends up happening, he can't define how one might discern that what ends up happening is really God-inspired. It's the latest in a long line of anti-institutional ecclesiology that limits itself in defining an alternative by saying to 'let God handle it' and not much else. He does present an alternative, though, as best he can. I'll write more about that in Part 2.

~Cole and I share some of the same theological keywords: the kingdom of God and transformation. He recognizes that it truly is God doing the transforming and recognizes our role as instruments through which that can happen and spends a good amount of time reminding the reader that church isn't about's about God and neighbor. For him, love of neighbor is mainly shown through correcting his or her 'lost'-ness and getting them 'eternal fire insurance.' He botches a Schindler's List analogy, which I'll also mention in Part 2.

I thought I was enjoying this book more before I started writing this entry. I guess I have a lot more issues with it than I thought. By Part 2 I'll probably be finished with it and I'll present the rest of my critique.


Wadena said...

"Correcting their lostness and getting them eternal fire insurance?"

But, being a nice guy, you'll keep reading the book, right.


Sure you thought you were enjoying the book.....until you thought about it.

But.....hey, you are desperate for help, right? Looking for answers, right?

Somebody out there must have the answers, right?

I see an eternal quest for more disappointing books coming on.


Anonymous said...

What if there is nothing wrong with churches, per se?

Jeff Nelson said...

Desperate? No. I'd heard about the book from another blog and thought I'd take a look. I like knowing a little about what else is out there. In this case, Cole's critique of the 'church as safe comfortable haven' is decent. It's his theology of evangelism and his use of metaphors that are terrible.

That's been the case with most books I've read dealing with how to make the church cooler/bigger/more genuine/more passionate/etc. That's why I don't read them that often.

will smama said...

Thanks for the helpful look into this book.

Unknown said...

Coffee Pastor,

I would like to disagree with you a little please.

1) I have read Neil's book too. I would say that he tried very carefully to NOT give method. He waited a long time before writing the book, because of the strong success in their movement. (At the time of writing 700 churches with an average of 15 people per church, that's over 10 000).
This is a book about practicality.

2) You seem afraid of letting Jesus be the head of your board. Perhaps you are clinging to it too closely. The reason he did not say what it would look like is that you need to find out for yourself.

Jeff Nelson said...

Pasha, you're perfectly welcome to disagree. However, the trouble with responding to a book review that is over 2 years old is that its author has since forgotten much more about the book to present much of a response. I hope you understand.

However, I'm not going to let your accusation in #2 go unanswered. What in my review suggests that I'm "afraid" of Jesus running the board meeting, or that I'm "clinging" to the board too closely? Have you been to my church? How do you know that beyond what I've written here?

What I was asking of Cole's book was to paint even a slightly clearer picture of what having Jesus run the board meeting might look like. As I initially wrote, it's a nice phrase and there are some assumptions that may be behind it. If I missed the picture (and it's especially likely after two years that I may have), then point it out to me.

But don't sling around accusations just because I wanted more information. I'm as interested as anyone in "letting Jesus run the board meeting." But as I said, it can be problematic because it both needs definition and can't be clearly defined.

Unknown said...

Please forgive me for the accusation.

It just sounded to me like you were fairly critical of Neil Cole's approach because it breaks with the traditional approach. But frankly, the organic church movement is having far greater success than any other western movement. In non western countries the growth is absolutely staggering.

I think we need to give up our pride in how we have done church. I have come from a traditional church like you.

It's pretty hard when you are in the position of pastor, because you are under a lot of pressure to maintain the status quo.

For me the organic church is revolutionary and this is pretty scary for the traditional evangelical church.

Jeff Nelson said...

It's revolutionary for me, too. And I'm not even close to the traditionalist that you think I am. Read back through the archives a little and see for yourself.

I also like revolutionary ideas that are clear on what they're about. I don't see Jesus running the board meeting as an incredibly revolutionary idea, but I didn't find Cole's suggestion to be backed up with much that helped illustrate how to maintain such a mindset.

OMD said...

The church we attend is moving into the Organic Church model now. If I can read church history with any proficiency, right off the pages of the Bible, then I see these things: the early church established by Christ and the disciples was under the scrutiny of the Roman Empire. Romans didn't like large gatherings and neither did the Jewish council who tried to squelch the whole thing. Believers ended up getting kicked out of the synagogues, to retreat to smaller groups in homes out of necessity. There is precedent for larger gatherings though. There were 120 folks in a second or third floor building one night when the Holy Spirit came upon them. Not exactly a small group. The believers were first called "Christians" at a place called Antioch, where they openly gathered in a larger number and drew a lot of attention. Cole insinuates that larger groups are not what's happening today. Well, it's happened since these early days. Is this all wrong?

Small groups are great and should be encouraged. It's nice to say Jesus is leading the thing, but many times people with good intentions get into a cult-like experience because nobody has the spiritual wherewithal to know the difference. Depending upon where the government goes with our religious freedoms, we may be compelled back in the semi-private small group settings of the early church because we have no where else to go. For now, I think we need both. Teaching ought to be paramount in the local church to support the small group activity. Maybe Cole's unhappy experience with local church turned him off altogether? It's clear to me that in an effort to bolster a sagging attendance, many church leaders resort to whateve "gimmicks" they think will lasso more people. The Bible doesn't seem mean what it used to mean. Places that used to be called "sanctuaries" are now "auditoriums" with spilled coffee stains on the carpet. The nonchalant "come as you is", theme diminishes, if not erasing, the sense of reverence, not for a building, but that this is the place we revere for worshipping our God through Jesus Christ. This also creates a back slapping good ol' boy attitude toward God when people want to approach a relationship with God. The flippancy is irreverant. You either hear little, or seldom hear the message that Christ and the cross are the center of it all. Without whom we all have the equivalent of the square root of zero! This observation has cut across demographic lines. Many who are young or older are just not buying it. Why? Because their personal relationship with a Holy God through Christ, enabled by the Holy Spirit, just isn't bearing witness with the swerving of the steering wheel from side to side; the church reeling in disbelief at what their leaders are driving home. I need to refill my coffee cup just now, and take a breath.