By: Neil Cole I have been a published author and pioneer of organic church movements for 20 years (yeah, I’m officially old). The term “organic” has come to mean many things in church world over those years. Often it has been hijacked from my original ideas and mutated to mean something less than healthy. It has become as suspicious as the same label used on food packaging at the grocery store.
I’m not the first to use organic ideas to describe the church (that would be Jesus and Paul). As the person who published the book Organic Church ten years ago let me set the record straight on what “organic church” means.
1. Organic Church is not just a house church. Many people assume that is what I mean when I use the word, and I assure you it is not. I’m not against house churches but I’m also not against organized churches. Organic is not a descriptor of one kind of model, it is a description of a necessary quality for all churches. In fact, I often say every church is organic or it is not the church. Organic simply means it is alive and natural. It can also mean being void of artificial ingredients. As such, organic is more a quality of the church rather than the type of church. Some churches can be partly organic and partly inorganic. Our goal should be 100% organic. A house church can be completely inorganic, and a mega church can be very organic. So I would suggest we stop using organic to describe one model of church. That said, you cannot do church organically and skip intimate relationships with one another in a spiritual family. Actually one can argue that you cannot be a follower of Christ and skip that. Just because a church meets in a house doesn’t make it organic, but one that never brings life into the home is less than organic.
2. Organic Church is a way of relating to God, one another, and the world. In our movement the DNA is the key component of organic church. Our life giving code is within each disciple (a result of internalizing and activating/obeying the gospel) and is the most important part of being organic. The DNA is Divine Truth (relating to God––The great commandment), Nurturing Relationships (relating to one another––the second greatest command) and Apostolic Mission (relating to the world––the great commission). Again, these are qualities every church should aspire to have. This DNA should be found healthy and whole within the smallest unit of church life––the disciple in relation to other disciples. Any church void of the whole DNA is unhealthy, and no amount of better musicians, buildings, programs, staff or sermons can make up for it’s absence.
3. Organic Church is about the true life source and the development of that life within a church.Perhaps the most distinguishing mark of what is organic is the source of life and consequently how it grows, develops and reproduces. So much of churchianity is growth being perpetuated from an external source. This is the inorganic approach and is in fact a counterfeit gospel where we try to make people and churches grow with motivation from the outside. When we use guilt, shame and fear to coerce behavior we are being inorganic. When we try to entice people with glitzy entertainment and “motivational” talks, we are delving into less than organic practices. When dollars are required to bring growth inorganic church is the result.
As my mentor George Patterson described, such methods are like trying to make a corn stalk grow faster by grabbing it and pulling on it. Foolishness. We all know that the growth comes from within the plant as cells reproduce. Our life must come from Christ within and grow out because of the internalized good news. Anything else is futile. Christ in you is the hope of glory––and nothing else is.
Combining inorganic practices with organic ones simply nullifies the true with the false. You cannot add just a little poison to a casserole and expect it to be healthy just because all the other ingredients are natural. As I often say, “If the death, resurrection and indwelling of Jesus Christ is not enough to motivate you, a sermon and a song isn’t going to be enough.”
It is the life within that causes health, growth and reproduction. Every dollar spent in inorganic practices is an investment in the opposite of life and produces something less than real. Every type of church can release true life rather than suffocate it with inorganic methods. Movements have potential for release when we organize around life instead of thinking that we get life by organizing. It is life that produces healthy organization. Organization never produces life––but it can kill it.
I am now a part of a team launching new movements from a few established churches. It is called 100Movements. I am honored to be working alongside a team of exceptionally gifted and godly people, including Alan Hirsch, Will Mancini, Dave Rhodes, Jessie Cruikshank and Eric Pfeiffer.
One of the six areas we work to bring health to an existing church is in the area of organic systems, which we call Multiplication Organizing. In order to release movements we must begin to allow the true life of Christ to burn bright within us. Organization must be built around life, and never the other way around. Good organization never produces life, but good life can produce healthy organization. Your own body is full of systems that make it structured and working properly. All those structures began with a single cell containing your DNA…then multiplying. Church can learn much from this form of organizing.
One symptom of being inorganic is if the organization and programs of the church take precedence over the simple obedience of God’s people outside the church. If the life of the disciple is only about promoting the organization of the church everything is backwards. The life in the disciple should be more important than the organization of the church. If everything is about growing an organization than you probably have to pull a few inorganic weeds from your midst. In an organic church, the organization is to help the disciple produce and reproduce the life of the gospel in others. It doesn’t really work the other way around.