By Next Wave
Neil Cole is the Executive Director and a founder of Church Multiplication Associates Neil has been in pastoral ministry for fifteen years and is an experienced church planter, author and consultant. Neil is also a founding leader of the Awakening Chapels and of Organic Church planting movements. His most recent book is entitled, Organic Church, Growing Faith Where Life Happens. I recently interviewed Neil in a restaurant near his home in Long Beach,California.
Next-Wave: So what is the Organic Church?
NC: Some people call it simple church, with the planting of the seed of the Kingdom in soil where there is lost-ness, allowing transformed lives to be the momentum for building God’s church.
Next-Wave: What are the practical implications of Organic Church planting for Christians who have grown up in the “regular church?
NC: Instead of putting on a show and expecting everyone to come to us, the Organic Church takes the Kingdom to places where there are lost people and lives the Kingdom life among them and doesn’t shy away from the gospel of the Kingdom. The lives that are drawn to Christ through that experience become the new church in that environment. As a result, they are immediately on board with walking with Christ and obeying him in the Great Commission and they become a catalyst for change in others and a chain reaction can occur. I think that whenever you see a church planting movement, that’s at the heart.
Next-Wave: In one sense this book is the story of your journey starting a church planting movement. You write about a pretty spectacular failure where you invested $100,000 in a church plant that lasted about a year. How did you discover the Organic Church as a means of church planting?
NC: It was that experience that helped a lot! We realized that we couldn’t buy a church. You could do everything right and still fail. We needed to get back to the Bible and learn about what Jesus said answering the question, “How does the Kingdom start?” I mean it seems like, “Duh!”, church planting according to Christ. We went back to studying the Gospels and the Book of Acts and asking the question, “How does God start and build his church?” Can you actually start a church without slick glossy brochures and direct mail advertising? What does it mean to plant God’s seed into the soil and see it grow? How can we see the church be truly reproductive, just like all living things?
Next-Wave: Is it really as natural as it sounds in your book? Or do you have to be very intentional in being evangelistic and spreading the gospel through your new converts?
NC: My personal experience is that it is very natural and you don’t have to push, beat or try to motivate people to evangelize when you plant the seed and their lives are changed. You simply immediately plug them into a discipleship path that involves the apostolic mission from the beginning. They just take to it. People who were in another kind of church environment might not be evangelistic at all. But in the Organic Church environment they are leading their friends to Christ because they don’t know anything else.
Next-Wave: In Organic Church you talk about replicating DNA. The D stands for “Divine Truth.” With postmodern people truth is relative, how does “Divine Truth” go over?
NC: In an evangelistic context we wouldn’t approach someone and start talking about “DNA.” It just wouldn’t be helpful. We would just live the “DNA.” Typically in a postmodern context I don’t want to introduce people to propositional truth, I want to introduce them to the person of truth, Jesus, and let him deal with the propositional.
Next-Wave: “D” stands for “Divine Truth” what do the “N” and the “A” of the Organic Church represent?
NC: The “N” is nurturing relationships. Each new follower is adopted into a spiritual family, a brotherhood, based on a love relationship with our Father and his son Jesus. That’s the “one-anothers.” The “A” is apostolic mission. Even the Nicene Creed says the church is holy and apostolic. It’s meant to be sent. It’s more like Jesus said, “The Father has sent me, so send I you.” So apostolic means that the church is a “sent” agency not a “sending agency.” We are ourselves going on mission.
Most churches in the West set up shop in a location and they tell the world to come to them, that’s not being apostolic. So we want to be decentralized. We don’t want to be bound to a location. We want to be planting the seeds of the Kingdom among the lost people. We are sent.
Next-Wave: Church growth practitioners might evaluate “success” using attendance, giving, size of the building or the number of parking spaces. The emerging church, in general, shies away from that kind of evaluation. Is there room for evaluation in the Organic Church?
NC: Fruit inspection is not a bad thing. However, we need to be asking the right questions. The numbers of people can be deceptive. You can have many people and not be fruitful. You might just be putting on a better show than the guy around the corner. What we are looking for is fruitfulness.
For instance we don’t care if our churches live a year, twenty years, or a hundred years. We care that while they live, they give birth. We may start a church that lasts a year, but while it lives, it births two daughter churches. That is a success. We think that if every church reproduces in that way, then the Kingdom of God will continue and grow.
But if we think that every church has to last forever, we will try to do everything we can to keep it alive artificially, and that’s not good. We find fruitfulness most often in the small, not the large. Growing larger does not seem to be the key. Massive attendance is not the key. Even counting churches has been something that I have to do, but I don’t enjoy doing. And I don’t do it very well.
Next-Wave: Is that because it is easy to count quantity but harder to measure quality?
NC: That’s a key part of it. Each Organic Church has its own life cycle. They are born, they live, they give birth, and they die. Sometimes, all of that can happen in a year. If your job is to count all the churches and you’ve got thousands of them in different stages of the life cycle, it becomes nearly impossible to keep track. Sometimes they will be born, give birth, they’ll die, and then they will get re-born again, the same church will start meeting again six months later. How do I count that? It’s just too messy to count accurately. But, people we are accountable to want us to count, so we do the best we can.
Next-Wave: Evangelism is kind of a “bad word” in the emerging church, and yet your book is full of stories of people coming to Christ through conversion and being released to living out the Great Commission, almost immediately. How is it that the Organic Church seems to be evangelistic at its core and yet the emerging church doesn’t seem to want to talk about evangelism very much?
NC: I can’t speak for all of the people in the emerging church. I know they do talk a lot about being missional in the emerging church. I don’t think you can be close to the heart of Jesus and not be seeking and saving those who are lost. That’s His heart and that’s what it’s all about. If we try to relevant to our culture and yet, don’t try to transform the culture with the power of the gospel we’ve missed something.
That doesn’t mean that we get in a person’s face. We don’t stand up on tables and start preaching to people in coffeehouses or bars. But at some point you have to bring up Jesus with people and not back down from that. It’s why Jesus came, it’s how our lives were changed, and he said, “Freely you have received, freely give.” We have to have a generous heart to give the Kingdom to others. To skip that would be selfish. It would not be Christ-like.
Next-Wave: What are the implications of the Organic Church for professional clergy, seminary-trained pastors?
NC: For people who choose Christianity as a career, it is very threatening. I don’t think the Kingdom of God was ever meant to be a career. For those who have that calling, that primal urge to be a part of the Kingdom, to be part of transforming lives it can mean freedom. It can bring them back to what they always wanted to be a part of. But it may still cost them a profession. There are people in theOrganic Church movement who get their support from doing ministry. But I think it should come after you have been doing ministry, not before. It should be based on proven-ness, not potential. And I think you should do it whether or you are paid or not.
Next-Wave: There isn’t much in the book about the economics of the Organic Church. Can you elaborate on that subject?
NC: Yeah, that’s the sequel, “Son of Organic Church.” You can’t have church without generosity, without finances. Jesus spoke so much about money. “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”
But, unfortunately, much of the way we do finances in the church is patterned after an Old Testament model, whether we want to accept that premise or not. The Temple and the Priesthood needed support. So God established a tithing system, a form of taxation, to support those institutions. The New Testament doesn’t have that.
In the New Testament, the principle is generous, cheerful giving. Not to support any institution, but to help people in need, to release people for ministry, but not necessarily a career.
The only people supported full-time in the New Testament are the apostles and the widows who have no family to support. Paul and Barnabas chose not to accept that support. The full time job description for the widows was to pray for the churches. I wonder what would happen if we started staffing our churches that way?
The New Testament does say to give honor, and double honor, to those who teach and rule well as elders. Honor is where we get the word honorarium. It is not a full-time salary and benefits and a book allowance. It is being generous to help them out.
I’m not against people being supported, but I think we need to learn to live by faith before we become dependent on salaries. Jesus sent the twelve out and he said to them, “Do not take an extra purse, extra money or a credit card with you, go and live the Kingdom life and you will be supported by the people you are reaching out to. Go by faith.” Later he pulled them together and said, “Remember when I sent you out and I told you not to bring any money?” They said, “Yes.” “Did you lack anything?” They said, “No.” He said, “Now I want you take some money with you.”
I heard Dallas Willard talking about this once, asking the question, “Why did He tell them not to take money, and then on another occasion tell them to take money.” Here’s what he said, “You are not ready to handle a purse until you know how to go without one.”
If we could get our leaders to learn to live by faith not by finances, then finances in the church would be a breeze. But the moment you make your decisions based on the need for security, dependence on organizational support, those kinds of things, then you are already making decisions based on the wrong things. You are not living by faith. I think we need to make changes in this area.
Next-Wave: George Barna has recently written a book called Revolution, Finding Vibrant Faith Beyond the Walls of the Sanctuary. He theorizes and predicts that there will be a growing number of people who are leaving “normal” churches in order to strengthen their faith. What do you see as the implications of this trend?
NC: I think that George would consider us Revolutionaries. And I think we would fit that description. I think he is right. He has known for years through his statistical studies what is happening in the church. He noticed an alarming trend that church attendance was dropping off. At first he thought it was people falling away. But he actually found that those leaving were actually “falling” into a firmer commitment to Christ than ever before. Some people were actually finding that they could live out their Christian life with greater devotion away from the church.
That trend is going to cause a lot of problems and I think there will be a backlash. I think that the more people try to hold on to what they think they possess, they are going to lose it. Unless church pastors are willing to be generous and open their hands they will find that pretty soon they won’t have anything left.
Next-Wave: Do you have any words of encouragement about the Organic Church for those in the emerging church?
NC: I think we are making a shift from the day of the ordained to the day of the ordinary. A day when common Christians are empowered to do extraordinary things for God and they are no longer going to wait for their pastors to say, “Go.”
I think the layers and layers of decision-makers between God’s people and God will be removed, so that God can have direct communication with His people without any filters, without any middlemen to interpret. When we reach that state we will see massive global implications.
I think God is setting us up that way. Some of the trends that are happening today are global in scale. They are not just regional or national, but all across the world people are saying and discovering these things. That has never happened in history, except maybe in the first century. We are on the verge of seeing something akin to the Book of Acts happening in our day, if we are faithful to God’s voice.