Neil Cole & Frank Viola Discuss Missional Organic Church

Keith Giles, who is a prolific author and blogger, recently interviewed Neil Cole and me on the subject of organic church. I really appreciate that Keith did this. My hope is that the interview will serve as a conversation starter on some important subjects.

I’m breaking custom by publishing the entire interview on the blog today. Normally, my blog posts are fairly short, so my normal tendency would be to break this interview up into 2 or 3 smaller segments.

However, I feel that the content of the interview is so important that it should remain as a whole. It’s pretty long, so I’d recommend printing it out and reading it.

On tomorrow’s blog, I will share what I’ve learned about blogging over the last two years. If you are a blogger, you don’t want to miss it. I really look forward to hearing your contribution to the discussion as well.

As simply as you can, define what “Church” looks like to you in practical terms. (Looking for an example of how an “Organic Church” would function – how a typical meeting might look – in your version of “Organic” church). 2- What is your definition of “Organic Church”?

Neil: Many scholars attempt to describe church with a list of ingredients that they believe are found in the New Testament. Here is a typical list: a group of believers that gather together regularly and believe themselves to be a church. They have qualified elders and practice baptism, communion and church discipline and agree on a doctrinal foundation and have some sort of missional purpose.

I have no problem with these ingredients being a part of church, though not all of them are indeed biblical (no where in the NT does it say that we have to consider ourselves a church to be a church—that is a cultural reaction to calling bible studies or parachurch organizations churches. There are also NT churches that have not had elders appointed yet on the first missionary journey—Acts 14:21-25). I believe that this understanding of church is missing the most essential ingredient: Jesus! If we can define church without Jesus than we can do church without Jesus and that is a tragedy at best and treason at worst.

In CMA, we have defined church this way: The presence of Jesus among His people, called out as a spiritual family to pursue His mission on this planet. Church begins and ends with Jesus among us. All the typical ingredients listed to describe church were in the upper room in Acts chapter one but the church really began in Acts chapter two when only one other important ingredient was added: the Spirit of God showed up! God among us is what makes us any different from the Elks Club.

For us church functions like a family, and family is not just for an hour and a half one day a week. We eat together and live together. We do get together, but not only for serious meetings. We meet up during the week for coffee or a meal and hold each other accountable to following Jesus in Life Transformation Groups. My spiritual family often get together to reach out to others, at cafes or with release time outreach at elementary schools and in the marketplace where we all work. We also go to the movies or on hikes together during the week.

Church is not an event, a place or an organization; it is a family on mission together. We must emphasize this shift in understanding. As such we are not defined by a meeting, though we do meet. When we meet we do not have a routine that must always be done. But for the sake of helping people get a feel for the ebb and flow of our lives I will try to describe what our time is usually like when we do get together.

When we do have meetings, we do not presume to have an agenda, but to gather, listen to God and one another. We worship, sometimes with music. About half of the songs we have are original songs written by people in our movement. In our meetings we do not have a set list of songs that are rehearsed, but rather we sing the songs that He puts on people’s hearts as the Spirit leads. We sing until we feel like we have changed our perspective of things from having been in His presence. We may then keep singing if that is what He leads us to do, but often we share next what is going on in our lives.

We have a little poem (not the height of poetry by any means) that is usually said by anyone in the group to start the share time. We do this so that even young kids can lead in the church and when people start a new church they know what can get the interaction started:

Does anyone have praises or prayer requests,

A word from the Lord or a sin to confess?

We all share what God is saying and doing in our lives and we all pray for what is happening. This could be all we do for the entire evening as well.

We usually open the Bible, read a passage and discuss it. Right now we are going chapter-by-chapter through Acts but this is not routine and we often turn to something else at the leading of the Spirit. We do not have any preparation for this time, as we are not the ones in charge, Jesus is. Our time in the word, however, is not simply pooling ignorance because of the following reasons: 1. We are all listening to the Head of the church and He is not ignorant, and 2. Because of Life Transformation Groups, most of us are all reading large volumes of scripture throughout the week repetitively and in context, so our observations in the scriptures are actually quite insightful. The Spirit of the Lord working in each of us is the teacher, and we are all learners.

When a good question arises or even some false teaching, a leader of the group does not usually step forward and decide the issue for everyone. Rather, we pray and ask the Lord to help us out. Then we ask what insight the Spirit may have given to each of us. The body responds, not the pastor. This empowers everyone to react to false teaching or to find solutions to difficult questions, not just then but anytime. We are also quite comfortable with three little words: I don’t know.

We usually pray and sing and eat until it is time to head home. We may also watch the Lakers play a game or go to a movie. Hope that helps some. As you can see we are not set on a routine and do not have a formal agenda, though we do have some consistent but very flexible patterns.

Oh, and we do not have an offering that is passed in my own church. Some of the churches in CMA do, but we do not have that as a set responsibility of church. What we do have is generous people of God who give, not just money but property hospitality and time, to those who are in need.

Frank: I’m of the opinion that the New Testament only knows one kind of church, and it’s organic. The ekklesia is a living organism not an institutional organization.

I’ve been using the word “organic church” or “organic expression of the church” for over 16 years. And I give credit to T. Austin-Sparks for the phrase. For Sparks and I, an organic church is a group of Jesus followers who are discovering how to live by Divine life together and who are expressing that life in a corporate way.

Jesus said “as the living Father has sent me, and I live by the Father, so he who partakes of me shall live by me.” Paul echoed these words in Colossians when he said that the mystery of the ages is “Christ in you,” and that “Christ is our life” (see also Gal. 2:20; Rom. 8:9-17).

Consequently, when God’s people learn how to live by the indwelling life of Christ together, a certain expression of community life naturally emerges. So for me, the word “organic” has to do with life – God’s life. The organic expression of the church comes up from the soil; it’s not mechanical. While it has organization (or an expression) – as all living organisms do – the organization (or expression) comes about naturally from the life, not through human manipulation, religious ritual, or legalism.

Put another way, organic church life is very ancient. It precedes Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Instead, it finds its headwaters in the fellowship of the Triune God before time. When humans touch that fellowship together, experience it, and make it visible on the earth, you have the life of the ekklesia, i.e., organic church life (1 John 1:1-3; John 17:20-24).

I left the institutional church 22 years ago and have gathered with numerous organic expressions of the church (completely outside the religious institutional system) ever since. I’ve seen a lot during those years – experimented with a lot, experienced some of the high glories of body life, the difficulties and struggles, and have made lots of mistakes as well. I’m still learning and discovering.

Regarding what an organic expression of the church looks like, here are some of its characteristics:

*The members meet often, not out of guilt or obligation, but because the Spirit draws them together naturally to fellowship, share, and express their Lord (ekklesia literally means an assembly or meeting).

*Jesus Christ is their living, breathing Head. The members make Christ profoundly central, preeminent, and they pursue and explore His fullness together. In short, the church is intoxicated with the Lord Jesus.

*They take care of each other, have open-participatory meetings where every member functions, make decisions together, and follow the Spirit’s leading for outreach and inreach, both in their proper season.

*They are learning how to live by Christ and express Him corporately in endless variety and creativity to both the lost and the found.

* The condemnation and guilt is gone. The members experience the liberty and freedom that is in Christ, experience and express His unfailing love, and are free to follow Him out of genuine love rather than guilt, duty, obligation, condemnation, shame and guilt – the typical “tools” that are used to motivate God’s people.

*They are missional in the sense that they understand “the mission” to be God’s eternal purpose, which goes beyond human needs to the very reason why God created the universe in the first place. And they give themselves wholly to that mission. (I’ll speak more on the eternal purpose later.)

*After the foundation of the church is laid, it is able to meet on its own without a clergy or human headship that controls or directs it. The church can sustain herself by the functioning of every member; it doesn’t need a clergy system for direction or ministry.

These features are contained within the spiritual DNA of the ekklesia no matter where or when she is born. For they are the attributes of God Himself, the source and headwaters of body life.

Regarding your question about what an organic church meeting looks like, that’s really impossible to answer. The reason: authentic organic churches have an infinite way of expressing Christ in their gatherings.

Perhaps the best I can do is describe a few meetings that one of the organic churches that my co-workers and I are presently working with have had recently. None of these descriptions will do the gatherings justice, but perhaps they may give some impression of what a good meeting looks like (not all meetings are good by the way – some are unmentionable! :-).

Last month, the church had a meeting that it prepared for over the course of a month. The church broke up into groups of 3 and began to pursue the Lord Jesus outside of the meetings during the week.

The members all came together at a scheduled day and time to worship, exalt, and reveal Christ. The theme of the meeting was Jesus Christ as the Land of Canaan. The meeting included a full banquet feast, which was really the Lord’s Supper (first-century style). The church feasted and then each group began to share Christ as the Land.

One group shared how the vine and the fruit of the vine were a shadow of Jesus. Another group shared Christ as the olive oil; another shared Christ as the milk and honey. Another shared Him as the wheat. Sprinkled throughout the sharing – which was incredibly rich – were prayers, declarations, songs, all of which were spontaneous.

This meeting went on for over 3 hours. It was a gully-washer. No human being led or facilitated the meeting. There were also elaborate creations and visual displays in the meeting place made by the church that went along with the theme.

I didn’t attend this particular meeting, but the reports I heard were amazing. People were profoundly touched. Visitors who came were blown out of the water. They had never seen a group of Christians put Christ on display like that, and without anyone leading, giving cues, or facilitating. The depth of insight, richness, and reality of Christ coming through the believers was without peer. Jesus Christ was revealed, declared, unveiled, glorified, and made visible by the every-member functioning of His body.

On another occasion, each member of the church took a name of the Lord in Scripture. (e.g., Bread of Life, Lion of Judah, Sweet Rose of Sharon, the Great Shepherd, Alpha and Omega, The Branch, etc.). During the week the members sought the Lord concerning the name they selected and came to share Him together in the gathering. The meeting was electric. Christ was revealed in a multitude of different ways. New light was shed on each of His names, all pointing to His glorious Person.

Another meeting was a rather unique way of expressing the Lord through Colossians. The church had immersed herself in the book of Colossians for four months (in some very creative ways). They then planned a meeting where they reconstructed the Colossian church.

Each member acted out a character from the Colossian church. Some created their own names (some names were quite comical). Others played the part of some of the Colossians mentioned in the New Testament (Philemon, Apphia, Archippus, etc.) For weeks the church broke up into pairs to plan and prepare for the gathering. They then had an entire meeting where they reconstructed the situation in Colosse. If you had walked into that meeting, you were seeing the Colossian church dramatized. People even dressed up for their parts.

At the end of the meeting, someone who played Tychicus came into the gathering with a letter from Paul and read the whole letter to the church. Incredible light was shed on the letter, as it addressed all the problems that the Colossian church (through drama) was shown to have had. We all awed at the Lord as Paul presented Christ in this magnificent epistle.

I could multiply many more examples, but I hope you get the drift. Note that the people who are part of these churches aren’t spectacular Christians nor are they professionally trained. They are “the timid, the weak, the lame, and the blind” . . . just like I am. Ordinary believers without any special titles, degrees, or formal theological education. In this way, they are much like the early believers we read about in our New Testaments (the exception being that most of us are able to read and write). :-)

Some meetings are planned with a theme that the Lord gives the group (as the above examples). Other times the meetings are completely spontaneous without any planning or direction. But spiritual preparation normally takes place, else the meetings will be rather poor. The meetings are the overflow of the spiritual life of the community; hence, all the believers come to give rather than to receive. (In the institutional church system, this order is reversed.)

Again, these meetings have no leaders present directing, facilitating, or coordinating. The Spirit takes that job. I’ll add that I’ve seen unbelievers visit these sorts of meetings where no one said a word about “being saved,” and the unbeliever would fall to their knees and profess that “God is here, and I want to know Him!” Strikingly, this comes straight out of the New Testament (see 1 Corinthians 14).

Also, the churches have all sorts of meetings – some for decision-making, some where the men creatively bless the women and vice versa, some for the children, some for specific prayer, some for fun, some to share the gospel with the lost, some for spiritual training and retreats, etc. But everything is “in season.” (The seasonal nature of the body of Christ is a special feature of organic church life. All life forms pass through seasons. This element is virtually unknown in organized Christianity.)

Note also that the churches I’m speaking of have been equipped to know the Lord together, to pursue Him together, to express Him with unlimited creativity, and to function in a coordinated way under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Part of this equipping is “detoxification” from a religious and institutional mindset, and being equipped to know Christ in profound depths. (One of the most common remarks that people make when they get involved in this kind of church life is, “I thought I knew the Lord well; but I now realize I didn’t know Him well at all.”)

Thus the normative passivity that flows through the bloodstream of the typical pew-sitting Christian has been drained out of them. Instead, they’ve been captured by a vision and an ongoing experience with the Lord Jesus that has dramatically affected them. I’ve been changed by the experience. Yet what impresses me just as much or more than the meetings is the remarkable way the believers take care of one another in organic church life. But that’s another story.

As you understand it, how would you describe one another’s definition of this same term? (Looking for how you two understand each other’s positions here)

Frank: I’m really not sure as Neil and I have never discussed this. But my impression is that the term “organic church” for Neil boils down to rapid multiplication of Christian groups with the goal of trying to win lost people by going to the places where they spend their time. It also includes a method of discipleship in very small groups which includes Bible reading and personal accountability questions. This may or may not be accurate, but it’s my impression.

Neil and I have shared the conference platform on two occasions, and from hearing him speak, it seems to me that the major difference is one of emphasis. I think he may emphasize the church scattered where I tend to emphasize the church gathered. But in my world, the church gathered is nothing like an institutional church “service”. For us, the gathering of the ekklesia is related to God’s highest intention, i.e., His eternal purpose.

God has had an “eternal purpose” that’s been beating in His heart from the beginning of time, long before humans fell. That purpose is what provoked Him to create, and He’s never let go of it. The eternal purpose of God isn’t the salvation of humans or to make the world a better place. (Remember, the Fall hadn’t occurred when He created.) There was something else He had in His heart before He said “let there be.”

That purpose has to do with obtaining a bride, a house, a body, and a family, all of which are by Him, through Him, and to Him. The purpose of God is not centered on the needs of humanity, but rather, to meet a desire in God Himself. So God’s end is to have a bride, a house, a body, and a family in every city on the planet. The ekklesia – properly conceived and functioning – indeed benefits humanity and blesses the world that God made; but His goal for her is higher than that.

Having Christ formed in us is an important aspect of God’s purpose (Rom. 8:28-29; Ga. 4:19). But for us, we don’t use any of the typical discipleship methods to accomplish this. Instead, we have learned how to encounter the Lord Jesus in Scripture together, to seek His face, to fellowship with Him, to be in His presence, and to share and express Him to one another.

This typically happens in groups of two and three during the week (sometimes in the early mornings), but also in the corporate gatherings. I call these groups “pursuit teams” – teams that pursue the Lord. The focus is not on us but on Christ. Paul said that we are transformed by “turning to the Lord” and “beholding His glory” – so that’s a large part of our church life experience (2 Cor. 3:16-18). In short, we experience together – in pursuit teams and as a church – perceiving and following the Lord’s indwelling life, allowing God to shape us by it. That, to my mind, is what spiritual formation/transformation is all about.

Watchman Nee once pointed out that when the Lord called people to His work, their God-given ministries were often prefigured by their secular occupations.

For instance, when the Lord called Peter, he was casting his net and bringing fish onto the shore. What was true in the natural ended up being true in the spiritual. Peter’s ministry centered on fishing for men. His emphasis was evangelism, and he brought many lost people to Christ (just think of Pentecost in Acts 2).

When the Lord apprehended Paul, he was building tents. And his future ministry reflected this. Paul was more of a spiritual builder, a “master builder” as he put it in 1 Corinthians 3. His emphasis was to build the church into the fullness of Christ. So Paul spent most of his time grounding and enriching the believing communities to gather under the Headship of Christ, establishing them deeply into Christ, unveiling to them God’s eternal purpose – or “the whole counsel of God” as he once put it.

When the Lord apprehended John, he was mending a torn net. We see in John’s later writings (1 John, 2 John, and 3 John) that he is bringing the church back to center . . . back to first things . . . back to “the beginning” of Christ as life, love, and light in a time when these elements had been lost. The tent that Paul built was falling apart during John’s day, so John prophetically began to repair it by restoring God’s original thought, bringing His eternal purpose back into view.

So Peter casts the net, Paul builds the tent, and John mends the tent. All three men were Christian workers in the Lord’s vineyard, but each had a different emphasis and disposition.

In my observation, Neil is a lot like Peter. His major focus seems to going out to the sea, casting the net, and bringing the fish on dry land and encouraging God’s people to do the same. Some have described my on-the-ground ministry to be more like Paul’s – the building of the tent – the constructive work of building the house of God to fulfill the eternal purpose “from eternity to here.” By contrast, my writing ministry in books like Pagan Christianity and Jesus Manifesto are very much along the lines of John’s ministry of repairing the torn net.

Whether that’s accurate or not, here’s my point. The ministries of Peter, Paul, and John are not to compete with one another. Instead, they are to complement one another. The body of Christ needs the ministries of Peter, Paul, and John. And each person needs the other.

That’s how the terrain looks from my hill, anyway.

Neil: From my reading, I assume that Frank and I are pretty close to seeing church as a body connected to the Head. Jesus is the main thing for both of us and we both emphasize that in our teaching. If there is a difference I believe that Frank exalts the purpose of the church and I tend to emphasize the purpose of disciple-making. Not that we don’t both teach both, but we do have our own priorities. These could be simply different focus rather than a difference of opinion. How organic church starts and multiplies is probably different in our minds.

Does the model of church really matter? Isn’t it more important what fruit is produced or how the people in the church grow spiritually?

Neil: Well, I tend to agree with this statement, but… If reproduction and multiplication is desired, model of church is an important consideration. More complex models will not empower ordinary people nor reproduce easily. Another important consideration is that many models tend to usurp the leading of Jesus with our plans, personalities and programs.

The more scripted the church is the less spontaneity will be possible. We cannot expect Jesus to lead if we are all busy maintaining the script and all our time together is scheduled down to the fraction of every second.

This may step on a lot of toes but a performance with preaching on Sunday mornings (or Saturday for some) is not conducive to a changed life or a responsive body. If the body wants to have a gathering where they praise, preach and pass the plate, fine, but if that is your sole model of church and where you think the most important work is done and than you have a bankrupt model of church. Our society today is reflective of that bankruptcy, and we must make some changes now. It is the forth quarter and we are down by twenty…it is time for a shift. I believe that organic church is not a model but a mindset that can work in any model…but will work better in some models than others.

I also believe that any model that is built upon a hierarchy of leadership is probably less healthy in most aspects. When a few are responsible to hear from God and tell the rest what God is saying the church is separated from God by a middle-man and that is not what Jesus died and rose to birth. We are all priests in His kingdom and we all have direct access to God. None are more spiritual, more connected or more responsible for the advancement of the Kingdom, but all are agents directly connected to the King Himself.

Frank: For me, organic church is a shared-life in Christ; it’s not a model. It’s not about a new structure; it’s about a new relationship with the Lord Jesus. One that is real, intimate, deep, and corporate. A common remark that my co-workers and I hear from people who attend our conferences is, “I came here to learn how to ‘do organic church,’ and instead, I received a revelation of Jesus Christ.”

The idea that church is an “event” or an “organization” was foreign to the New Testament believers. For them, the ekklesia was a community of people who lived a shared-life together in Christ and who gathered together regularly to express the fullness of Jesus. Their minds thought in terms of “us” and “we” rather than “I” and “me.”

Their identity was tied to their union with Christ and their bond with one another. They pursued their Lord together, expressed Him together in regular meetings, took care of one another, married one another, and buried one another. Think of it as an extended household . . . a new polis (city) that is blind to race, social status, economic standing, etc. They were a new kind of humanity . . . a new civilization . . . the “third race” as the ancient Christians called themselves, where all earthly distinctions, separations, and barriers were not recognized.

The church was a colony from heaven . . . a community of “resident aliens” on this earth . . . the corporate manifestation of the Lord Jesus Christ Himself . . . a microcosm of the kingdom of God . . . the house of the living God where the heavens and the earth intersect and meet . . . the foretaste of the New Jerusalem and the aftertaste of the fellowship of the Godhead that has been going on from before time. In short, a local church that is functioning properly is Jesus Christ on the earth (see 1 Cor. 12:12). And therein do you have yet another definition of organic church.

For those who are burdened for evangelism and being missional to a post-Christian country (as the USA now is), the ekklesia – when she’s functioning the way God intended – is the greatest evangelist on the planet. There’s nothing that bears witness more to the reality of Jesus as the world’s true Lord than a group of believers who share their lives together and demonstrate what the kingdom of God looks like. This point is completely overlooked by those who would argue that the expression (structure) of the church doesn’t matter.

By contrast, today’s Christianity is very individualistic – this is true both in and outside the organized church. But authentic Christianity is intensely corporate and therein was their power and testimony.

A careful reading of the Gospels, Acts, and the Epistles shows no distinction between being a Christian, being saved, being a disciple, and being a functioning member of a local body of believers. (I’ve discussed this point at length in another place where I added a plea to learn our history regarding modern discipleship methods.) Note that when Luke describes how Paul and Barnabas planted the church in Derbe, he says they preached the gospel to the city and “made many disciples” (Acts 14:20-21, NASB & NKJV).

The organic expression of the church in a given place is the true habitat of every child of God. Separating spiritual growth (“discipleship”) from the ekklesia (properly functioning) is like separating child-rearing from the family.

This again touches evangelism. One of the young men in an organic church that I relate to was a leader in a very large para-church organization that’s known for evangelism. About a year ago, he said to me after one of our gatherings, “I just go back from one of our leadership conferences and the more they talked about saving the lost, the more disinterested I was. I come to these meetings here and while nothing is said about evangelism, I’m so excited about my Lord that I want to share Him with others. There’s no guilt or duty in it at all. I’m fired up about Him.”

Properly conceived, the ekklesia is the environment in with we live, move, and have our beings. While it will never produce perfect Christians who are beyond making mistakes (we will all make mistakes on this side of the veil), their depth in Christ is unmistakable. So for me at least, it’s not about a different model, but about a different habitat.

Those interested in learning more may want to take a listen to an audio excerpt where seven members of a fairly new organic church answered common questions about organic church life at a recent conference (Threshold 2010). The excerpt contains only one question that they answered (there were 7 questions in all). The question was: How has your relationship with Jesus Christ changed since you’ve been part of organic church life? People can listen to it here.

How do you define – and better yet practice – the idea of leadership in the model of church you promote?

Neil: Leadership is not about a position, an office, or a title, it is influence. Leadership is not functioning as a delegated decision-maker for an absentee King. We are servants that distribute empowerment rather than delegate it. Leadership is all about connecting people to the King and allowing them to listen and follow His word. We do not need more servant leaders; we need more servants…period. Many leaders don’t mind being called a servant; they just don’t like being treated like one. To lead is basically to go first and let others follow your example. Often in the NT the words, “go before” or “stand before” is used to describe our leaders, but unfortunately they get translated as being above or over the others.

There is a form of servant that exemplifies maturity and can point to spiritual children and even grandchildren in their lives. We need more of these servants in the body. Their role is to equip others to function in the likeness of Christ together. These are apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds and teachers (Eph 4:11). They do not do the work but equip others to do it. For example: Evangelists are not called simply to reach the lost, but to equip the church to do so. Teachers are not called to teach the saints, but to equip the saints to teach. All are saints, so of course evangelists evangelize, that gives their equipping even more authority and practicality (besides, I can’t imagine an evangelist who wouldn’t). A teacher is good at teaching, but needs to be very good at training others to teach. We need to rediscover this type of leadership if we are going to change ourselves, and then the world.

Frank: In my experience and observation, leadership in an organic expression of the church seems to fall into three categories:

1) It’s expressed through itinerant traveling ministry where Christian workers lay the foundation for a new church, equip the believers to know the Lord deeply, to function together, to build community, and to have open-participatory meetings where Christ is made the visible, functioning Head. Their leadership is strong in the beginning, but then it literally leaves and moves to the periodic. You find this sort of leadership all over the New Testament in the ministries of Paul, Peter, Timothy, etc.

2) It’s expressed by consensual decision-making where the believing community plans how they will pursue and reveal Christ week by week, how they will handle problems, and how they will take care of one another and serve the lost in their city.

3) It’s expressed by the different giftings that will organically emerge in the community in time. Eventually shepherds will emerge who will care for those with needs, overseers will emerge who provide oversight, teachers will emerge who will bless the church with the ability to unveil Christ from the Scriptures, exhorters will emerge and function according to their giftings, etc. In other words, each person will lead according to their unique gifting. In this way, all believers lead in their own way.

The goal of each expression of leadership is to lead the church to Jesus Christ, the true and only Head of the body.

The interesting thing is that in this type of church life, we don’t use labels or titles. So the reality of the gifts and ministries are present, but in most cases, we don’t earmark or point them out. (Sometimes those who are engaged in itinerant ministry will acknowledge who the overseers are, but this is dependent on the specific situation of a particular church).

In my experience, the believers in these types of churches are so busy pursuing and expressing the riches of Christ that “leadership” never comes up as an issue or subject. Jesus is their Head, and they seek to know and follow Him together. That’s about as much time they spend talking about leadership in the churches. It’s really a non-issue.

I have the impression that it was this way for the early Christians too. Just count the number of times the words “elder” “shepherd” or “overseer” are mentioned in the New Testament, and then count the number of times Christ is mentioned or referred to. That says volumes, I think.

Which scriptures would you point to as being reflective of your views concerning organic church?

Frank: I’ve come to the conclusion that there are only two subjects in the entire Bible: Jesus Christ and His church. Everything else can be juiced down to those two realities.

Someone may object by saying that God the Father and the Holy Spirit are the subjects of the Bible. But remember, the fullness of the Godhead dwells in Christ. God is Father because He has a Son. The Spirit is the Spirit of Christ, and He has come to manifest and glorify Christ. Biblically speaking, there is no God outside of Jesus Christ. God is known in and through the Son.

Jesus Himself said that “all Scripture testifies of me.” So Genesis 1 to Revelation 22 is an unfolding of Christ and the church on every page. I add “church” because the church is never separate from Christ – it is His body and bride. She is depicted through many of the types of the Old Testament, such as all the brides of the Patriarchs, the tabernacle, the temple, the nation of Israel, etc.

Jesus Himself incessantly talked about the church. In fact, He did so more than He did the Kingdom of God. If you’re only counting the word ekklesia you’ll completely miss this.

Jesus never used the word “Trinity” or “Godhead,” yet every time He spoke of His Father and the Spirit, He was talking about the Triune God. In the same way, every time you see that little band of Twelve men and some women who lived in community with one another with Christ as Head, you’re looking at the prototype – the earthly embryo of the ekklesia – that Jesus Christ said He would build. And when the Lord spoke of the vine and the branches, “my brethren,” the light of the world, the salt of the earth, etc. He was referring to the church. If we understand what the Kingdom really is, we’ll discover that after the ascension of Christ, the Kingdom came in, with, and through the church.

So for me, it’s not a matter of going to certain proof texts to build a model for church. It’s seeing the whole sweeping, epic saga of the biblical drama from Genesis to Revelation. And that drama is all about the Triune God known and expressed through Jesus Christ and His eternal quest for a bride, a house, a body, and a family (which is the church). I unfold this thesis in From Eternity to Here, which seeks (in an admittedly frail way) to unveil the eternal purpose of God – the mission to which we are all called – throughout the entire Bible.

Once our eyes are opened to see His eternal purpose, we suddenly have a new Bible in our hands and a new vision of the Lord before our eyes. The Bible turns from black-and-white to Technicolor, and the Lord becomes infinitively greater to us.

Neil: Wow, um, all of them? All scriptures are profitable for training in righteousness. In our training, we point to the parables of Christ a lot (especially Mark 4). Jesus’ usage of the word church in Matthew is important to us (2xs). Ephesians is a powerful treatise on church for us as well. Acts is foundational of our view of a church multiplication movement. The letters to the seven churches in Revelation is also very important to us.

Have you ever met one another in person and/or read one another’s books?

Neil: To my knowledge, we have met twice, emailed a couple times and talked on the phone once. I have read Pagan Christianity, How to Start a House Church, and Finding Organic Church. I skimmed Reimagining Church, but haven’t read it entirely yet. I think Pagan Christianity is Frank’s best work and we carry it in our online store. I am grateful that he invested the time to produce this seminal work. Thanks Frank. I have also listened to a couple of his talks online, visited his website a few times and read some of his articles.

Frank: We’ve met face-to-face twice at conferences, but we didn’t have much time together. So far I’ve read one book by Neil and several articles. We have a number of good mutual friends. I have a lot of respect for Neil and am thankful for his contribution to the body of Christ.

I’ve made this statement to a few people, but I’ll say it publically for the first time. I’d love to see a Summit that includes all those who are pioneering and influencing the missional church movement/phenomenon to be locked in a room together for 3 days. The first day would be an informal “get to know one another” time, very casual and relaxed. The next day, each person would have a solid hour to share their heart, their burden, their vision, and their present work with everyone else. A time of questions from the group and answers would follow.

We would all get to know one another better as people rather than from a distance as authors and speakers. If no homicides occurred during those 3 days :-), it seems to me that the worst case scenario would be that we’d all better understand one another and what makes each of us tick. That alone would be worth the time, in my judgment. In the best case scenario, we’d all be sharpened, adjusted, and perhaps we’d even see some co-laboring going on in different degrees. And a lot of misunderstanding, assumptions, and confusion would disappear.

I am pessimistic that someone could actually put such a Summit together; but if they were able to, I’d move heaven and earth to attend and participate. (I’d even offer to help with the planning.)

Incidentally, Pagan Christianity is fairly well-known, but it’s not my most important or best work. It’s just the first half of a conversation – the deconstructive part. Its objective is to blow the rocks out of the quarry. But that’s all it does. Reading it by itself is like listening to the first fifteen minutes of an hour-long phone conversation, then hanging up the phone – never knowing what was said afterward. For this reason, Pagan was never meant to be a stand-alone book. It’s part of a multi-volume series. My most important and best book (hands down) is From Eternity to Here with Jesus Manifesto perhaps tied neck-and-neck.

What do you see as the most striking differences between your version of “Organic” church and the other person’s version? Why does it matter?

Neil: Frank does not seem to be as favorable to multiplication movements as I am. I gather that he sees church taking a long time to mature to the place where it can give birth to another church, while I see reproduction as able to occur much faster. Ironically, we both point to Acts to support our point of view.

I believe Frank teaches that one must be part of an organic church to start one and that an apostle must be involved. I think that is probably one of the best ways, but not the only way. It seems to me that Frank teaches that apostles start churches and that not everyone can do it. I tend to go the opposite direction and teach that anyone can start a family. Not everyone is an apostle and not everyone can lay a foundation for a church multiplication movement, but they can certainly reach their friends and start a spiritual family. Anyone that has Christ in them has what it takes to start a spiritual family. Some families are less inclined to reproduce rapidly and start a movement, because an apostolic and prophetic foundation is necessary for this.

I also see that an apostolic foundation can be extended without the apostle needing to be present. Colossians, Hieropolis and Laodicea were begun by Epaphras but it was Paul who laid the apostolic foundation so he could write to them as their apostle even though they’d never seen his face (Col. 2:1-3).

I see maturity for people and the church to be a life-long process so I believe that the church can reproduce throughout that process, even in the first year. We have experience in this as well. I have personally started probably six or seven churches, but grand-parented and great-grand-parented dozens more. Our training has catalyzed the start of thousands of churches. The church I currently am part of has been in existence for ten years and sent off 35+ church planters all around the world. It has birthed other networks and has several generations of churches.

Frank emphasizes the spiritual life together connected to Jesus, and I admire that. We do as well, but we tend to emphasize apostolic mission much more in addition to the presence of Jesus and our nurturing relationships. I see church as the fruit of disciple-making, not the other way around. Our life together is better because each of us is connected to Jesus, each other and our mission to the world. We refer to this as the DNA of organic church, which stands for Divine Truth, Nurturing Relationships, and Apostolic Mission. We teach emphatically that all components of the DNA must be in every part of the church from the smallest unit of disciple in relation to another disciple. We teach that the components should not be supplanted, supplemented or separated. The organic life of the church springs from the DNA at work in the heart of disciples together.

Frank: I think the only way we can accurately answer that question is if Neil and I sat down for several hours to discuss our views, observations, and experiences.

I’m pretty convinced that Epaphras was a “sent one” who received training from Paul in Ephesus, then went back to his hometown in Colosse and planted a church there that met in Philemon’s home and in two other nearby cities in the Lycus valley. I detail this account elsewhere with documentation, but that’s a short riff.

Regarding church multiplication, I’ll simply say that I believe in the multiplication of the church (I usually call it “transplantation”). But I don’t regard it as a template or metric of anything.

In my experience and observation, as well as my study of the New Testament, a specific church should follow the Lord’s leading on when and how to multiply. Like so many other things in organic church life, discerning the season is imperative.

Consequently, when and how to multiply a church is more of an art than a science. It’s dependent on the art of hearing the Spirit and rightly perceiving the season. Thus it will differ depending on the season of a particular church’s life, the spiritual maturity and development of the group, the kind of foundation that has been laid, and many other variables. If these elements are ignored, multiplication can easily lead to quick dissolution of one or both groups. That’s been my observation anyway.

It’s also not wise to push toddlers outside of the home and expect them to reproduce. So again, I’m of the opinion that there’s a danger of making multiplication a method, a science, or even a goal. I believe the goal should be God’s eternal purpose, the heavenly vision that Paul labored under and that provoked him to plant and nurture organic believing communities.

Regarding church planting, I don’t believe that an organic church can only come into existence by the hand of those who are called to plant churches. Organic church life can occur spontaneously . . . and it often does. As I write these words, it’s taking place right now among numerous college campuses across this country. The students who are touching and tasting it don’t know exactly what it is (except that it’s glorious), and they are probably not calling it “organic church life.” Yet the problem is that body life (the way I’ve been describing it) is extremely fragile, and it doesn’t last very long. It invariably dies within a short period of time. It either dissolves or it devolves into an institutional form and a clergy figure emerges to take it over.

Its chances of survival are much better if there is experienced outside spiritual input that knows how to center the group on Christ, help prepare and navigate it through the inevitable pitfalls, and give it the kind of equipping to sustain it in a spiritual way without human organization or control. This sort of spiritual input can take many forms, but the traveling ministry of broken, experienced, Christ-centered, humble, and non-sectarian itinerants who eventually leave the group to the Lord is one of the most common in the New Testament narrative. It of course isn’t a panacea (nothing is), but it can be a tremendous benefit.

As for the subject of movements, that’s too big of an issue to go into here, I think. And it’s quite complicated. (I plan to address it in the future.) I’ll just say that numbers don’t impress me at all. I grew up in a movement that stressed numbers and “counting.” The problem came with exaggerating the data (which is the scourge of virtually every movement – whether Christian or nonchristian). To get the “accurate/real” figure, you had to cut it in half and divide by two. :-) Einstein couldn’t be more correct when he said, “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”

I believe this applies to the work of God.

All told, my impression is that Neil and I probably agree more than we may disagree. Both of us are often associated with “the house church movement,” yet I get the impression that we share a common feature here. Neither of us makes the home our center. The living room isn’t our passion. As I’ve often said, meeting in a home doesn’t make you a church anymore than sitting in a donut shop makes you a police officer. :-)

While a house has many advantages as a gathering place, there’s nothing magical about meeting in a living room. Not all house churches are “organic” (the way I’ve been using the word) – so “organic church” is not a synonym for “house church.” I suspect that Neil would agree with this.

Related:

What is an Organic Church? A Plea for Clarity

House Church vs. Organic Church

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Comments

  1. says

    This was a great interview. Very insightful, and I appreciate how fully both of you answered the questions, especially those about your potential differences.

    Your idea for a summit is a good one. I have been a part of something like that for the real estate profession, and the benefits of having participated were immense, even though many of them I didn’t anticipate.

    How many people do you think would need to be included in such a summit in order to make it truly valuable to those involved?

  2. says

    John M,

    Sorry, I hadn’t been back to this post for a while, but I do take on the traditional role of pastor quite strongly. Read Organic Leadership and see what you think. I do not think that my writings are more palpable for the church leader audience and do not suppose that pastors are more comfortable with my writings than Franks. Maybe that is so, but trust me, I get my fair share of “hate mail” and “name calling” as well.

    While I am not at all tolerant of the professionalization of Christian leadership I do believe that those who are in such roles are usually indeed children of God and must also be treated with grace and truth. I usually try to take on the position and title but not the person him/herself. God’s patience continues to astound me everyday. He is far more accepting than I am of differences and uses all sorts of people to bring Himself glory. Pretty cool.

    Pressing on,

    Neil

  3. Eric says

    At the end of this post, you asked which parts of it encouraged you. I found this very encouraging:

    “In my experience and observation, as well as my study of the New Testament, a specific church should follow the Lord’s leading on when and how to multiply. Like so many other things in organic church life, discerning the season is imperative.
    Consequently, when and how to multiply a church is more of an art than a science. It’s dependent on the art of hearing the Spirit and rightly perceiving the season. Thus it will differ depending on the season of a particular church’s life, the spiritual maturity and development of the group, the kind of foundation that has been laid, and many other variables. ”

    Our organic church has been collectively sensing from the Spirit that it is time for us to focus on evangelism/outreach/multiplication. We have, for a time, been more inward/learning-to-be-a-family -focused, and it’s starting to become time for that to change.

    I’m very hopeful and excited about what the Lord will do in it, and your words bear witness to me that the Lord is leading us in this. Thanks for all that you do.

  4. John M. says

    Falling without the G, I’m not surprised by this. To my knowledge Neil doesn’t challenge the existence of the contemporary pastor role so his message is much more palpable to clergy. Clergy can take it and adapt it the way they want. Many clergy are just looking for accommodating their system rather than a foundational change.

  5. Falling w/o the G says

    Thank you Frank!
    I am so glad I found this interview! Christ has influenced me largely by your writings thus far in my search for what Church is really supposed to be, and I thank him for his leading in your life and for your obedience. As it were, I am headed to Frisco, TX this weekend for a Greenhouse Part 1 meeting where Neil Cole is to be speaking. I had only heard of Neil is passing till I was invited to go to this “round-table” by my…(are you ready to praise God?!?)…Lead Pastor!!! This man is dear to me not because he is the pastor of our church but because his heart is always bent on what Christ wants and for leading by example not words. He has been influenced to this point by Neil’s publishings and has recently started reading your books too (Pagan?, Reimagining, Untold). He is impressed, as am I, how the two of you (Frank/Neil) have expressed different views with out divisiveness in your exchanges. I have great hope and anticipation for “finding organic church” here where I live, and being used by Christ to spread this “notion” of returning to the way He intended it to be in the first place!

  6. Falling w/o the G says

    I’d encourage you to listen to the audio clip where you can get a bit of a better insight into…
    I have racked my brain looking for this, Where is it???!!! Please ; )

    • says

      It’s in the interview itself. This paragraph (below), right before the question that stars with “How do you define . . .” Find it in the interview and click the link.

      “Those interested in learning more may want to take a listen to an audio excerpt where seven members of a fairly new organic church answered common questions about organic church life at a recent conference (Threshold 2010). The excerpt contains only one question that they answered (there were 7 questions in all). The question was: How has your relationship with Jesus Christ changed since you’ve been part of organic church life? People can listen to it here.”

      How do you define – and better yet practice – the idea of leadership in the model of church you promote?

  7. Naomi says

    Thnkx for sharing this informative article/ contrast / comparison. So encouraging to see that while some of your views & directions are differant, you can hold each other in respect.

    I found helpful, that short & sweet condensation: one’s a scatterer; one’s a gatherer

    I also LOVED your idea of getting a few main leaders together, from differant housechurch streams, & locking you all up for 3 days together… Do it! Do it! Do it!

    Be the Very Necessary model to the church, at large! Lead the way, in this way, in respecting, loving, unity within His One Body…. of hearing one another out… of taking the time & investing the effort into knowing the person (not just the works) & hearing & respecting (or at least bothering to hear, & trying to understand) where each of the other is coming from.

    As you rightly say, “And a lot of misunderstanding, assumptions, and confusion would disappear.”

    And, above all, Jesus Christ would be tremendously honoured, in watching & blessing this!

    Whever I think of you Frank, & the Organic Church at large, I”m going to pray for this now.

    Look forward to hearing, & possibly even seeing, some of the fruit from it, down the road.

    ps Did you get to reading The Heavenly Man yet? (china’s house church leader, brother Yun, who was used of God mightily, in numerous matters, including, bringing the divided HC’s together, under & for Christ… ) I’m not saying that has to happen… but I am saying Christ is Very Blessed, to see respect & unity, in some form, amongst us.

    Blessings brother!

    toronto /canada

  8. Yvonne Bader says

    Dear Frank, Neil. Thanks. Learned a lot about organic church and my heart longs to be part of such a group who JESUS is head. Actually I’m in the desert. For how long ? So, I have to look to JESUS whose responsibility I am. It will be He who will lead me to that organic group He knows I will fit in.

    God bless
    Yvonne

  9. says

    reading this and about the feast that the group put together, one group being the milk and honey and it just remended me–honey is an antibiotic. I have a friend who is a specialized wound care nurse and she often uses honey on deep flesh wounds. It keeps them hydrated and heals them. Christ is our antibiotic, he heals our torn skin and feeds it while it heals. Very cool. :-)

  10. Jeff Rhodes says

    Frank and Neil,

    I have come to respect and appreciate both of you. After having read all of you guy’s books, met you both personally (though Neil probably doesn’t remember), attended both of your conferences (CMA three times, hosted a Greenhouse near Memphis, TN, and met Frank at a conference in Orlando last year), and have read numerous articles written by you and your associates, I feel I have, at least, a decent grasp of where you’re coming from. I have agreed and disagreed with you both at times, only to come back later after prayer, meditation, Scripture reading, or whatever, to change my mind again. I’m certainly not “tossed about with any wind of doctrine”, just in process and on an exhilerating journey.

    God has used you both to influence myself along with hundreds of thousands of people world-wide. After sitting at a table and looking into both of your eyes, observing your passion, and learning from you both, I beleive you both to be men called of God for our day, our time, our season. I praise God for both of you. I admire your humility, passion, and boldness.

    Though “house church” has become somewhat of a fad that will fade into the next “cool”, “relevant”, or whatever, thing, you guys stand for so much more. I hope people can see this as clearly has I have, move past the “hype”, and find the center of Christ’s being.

    I’d love to discuss further the idea of a summit. I have a list of folks I’d like to see there. Frank and I have discussed it privately, but Neil, if you’re reading this, feel free to dialogue with me about this. Memphis offers the best dang BBQ in the country! Just ask Scott Wilson! We have a potential venue, and we can host it cost effeciently!

    Blessings!

  11. says

    As for the two takes on “organic” presented, I tend to favor the potential that organic churches have to scatter and engage those who don’t know Jesus, more so than gather and create spiritual renewal amongst those who believe. In my experience of leading organic churches, I certainly targeted both. What got me most excited though was the opportunities to reach someone who’d never attend “normal” church.

    • says

      Thanks Brian. One of the things I think that many people who favor “reaching the person who never walked into a church building before” *assume* is that those who have attended an institutional church 1) know the Lord 2) know Him well 3) understand and are fulfilling His eternal purpose.

      Jesus went to those who were of the lost house of Israel. He went to what we’d today consider “Christians — God’s people.” God’s people had lost sight of His eternal purpose, and so He went to them first. The same with Paul (read his letters and Acts, he preached the gospel to “the Jew first”). Today, most Christians and “church goers” haven’t the foggiest idea of what God’s grand mission is — His eternal purpose — nor do they know the Lord Jesus Christ very well. (I trust you took the time to hear the audio clip in the interview. It brings this point to life.)

      Therefore, to my mind, I’m monumentally unimpressed with an entire congregation made up of people who are freshly converted, even if they meet in homes and call themselves “organic,” who have no idea what God’s eternal purpose is, what the headship of Christ is experiential, who don’t know face-to-face to community under, in, and through Christ, and aren’t in any practical way fulfilling the eternal purpose of God. But instead, they are imbibing the mindset of D.L. Moody which makes everything about salvation of the lost and traditional forms of “discipleship.”

      What I’m saying here is very, very difficult to get across to contemporary Christians, especially those who are mired in some form of a contemporary leadership model or position.

      Let him who has an ear hear.

  12. J says

    (I’m not the same J who posted above) Frank, this was an excellent interview and very helpful in clarifying the different emphases of you and Neil. Thank you both for your willingness to share it!
    Above, Sean ask you about your take on “insider movements”. This is a very popular term, especially among those trying to reach out to Muslims. I work cross-culturally and am dealing with this issue too (I don’t know how familiar you are with it). However, it is a BIG deal among those who are trying to plant churches cross-culturally: what are the elements of a body of believers which transcend culture and what are those which are able to vary? Sean mentioned “extraction” which I take to mean: do we pull a new believer into fellowship with others he does not know or leave them without fellowship for awhile in hopes that others will also come to Christ from their existing social network thereby keeping them “inside” their family and community. I have read all your books and from what I have seen, I think you would say that there is a lot of variability in what a gathering of believers looks like, but the four things you mention on p 41 of Reimagining Church must not be violated (I agree, but most people talking about insider movements would not agree with all of them). Most people working from an insider strategy would say that having or not having human headship in a church is a cultural matter, as is whether one or all people function in the gatherings. It also grieves me that those I know pursuing insider movements are producing some scattered living stones, but are (in my view) so afraid of shattering the “insider” status of these people that they won’t risk gathering them together in any way that might be perceived as “different” by the community thereby risking persecution and ostracism (the very thing insider strategy is trying to avoid). I don’t know if you follow all that, but it is the dominant view among MANY church planters outside the US and I think it is self-defeating because it is not actually producing churches. Sean also seemed to allude to the HUP (Homogenous Unit Principle) which also dominates church planting: the idea that people from similar backgrounds and social circles should be brought together in churches rather than “extracting” people and forming them into a new group. I see this as partly a false dichotomy (people can remain in their biological families and social circles while also re-orientating themselves into a new spiritual family). However, I think the whole spirit behind trying to plant mono-ethnic churches in places which are multi-cultural is one of pragmatism rather than willingness to serve God’s passion, though it is hard. One of God’s passions in His church is to tear down these walls of pride in ethnicity and culture which keep us apart (Ephesians 2:11-22, plus the consistent witness of Paul planting churches which were a mix of Jew and Gentile). We don’t all become the same, but we all learn to have the same passion: Jesus Christ and His Body!
    So, Frank, I’d really love to know if what I am saying resonates with you and further thoughts you have.

    • says

      J. The church is a classless society and when a group of people are meeting and sharing life under the headship of Christ together in reality, there are no discriminations of race, nationality, class, etc. That’s been my experience and observation anyway. Regarding church planting, I’ve articulated both my views and experience in FINDING ORGANIC CHURCH, and it breaks with some of the stuff — which is quite modern — that you’ve mentioned here.

  13. Dave Brumley says

    Frank, I was interested in your statement that you had attended many different churches or communities since leaving the institutional church. I am wondering if any of those communities were a Church of Christ community? If so, what did you come away from in that experience. The very essence of the Church of Christ stemming from the Restoration Movement was to be the organic church.

    • says

      Dave, yep. In short, like many other Christian movements, they departed from their original stand for oneness and being contra denominational. Today, many of their branches are sectarian, highly legalistic, and devoid of the Spirit’s operation. There are always exceptions, but the exposure I had to a number of these groups was pretty much the same. Quite institutional, “New Testament” mostly in name, but not in spirit.

  14. says

    Good question, Roxanne. We actually sent a link to the interview to over 20 influential people who are part of the missional church conversation – authors, speakers, bloggers, etc. and *invited them* to participate in the conversation here on the blog.

    Not one of them has yet.

  15. Roxanne says

    This is one of the best interviews I’ve read. I’m wondering why the other writers in the missional conversation haven’t added their thoughts to it.

  16. Nick says

    Thanks for this interview. I really appreciate how detailed it is and how civil and friendly too. The differences are pretty big. Very clarifying. The audio of those testimonies about organic church really stirred me. Makes it so much more real.

  17. says

    There is much of what is talked about here that I find beautiful and compelling, but also as a pastor, I am scratching my head wondering where my place is. I am in a very urban setting, our gatherings (or congregation, faith community) is very impoverished. They do not hold the pastor up as king, but they do desire the leadership and voice of someone educated or trained (believe me I dislike this whole terminology as well) to guide the ekklesia along (we actually “named” our community ecclesia, funny eh?) My gifts, that is my skill set in life, are pretty specific to “organized ministry,” so what do I do? I have been bi-vocational, tri-vocational and it is murder on my families (faith and wife and kid). I am capable in the “secular” work, but it is obvious that it is neither life giving or a true connect. In both Frank & Neil) your descriptions of a gathering there was not a description of where this takes place. A large house? Some sort of facility? Who provides that or those? Who pays for it or them? It was mentioned that people are generous with their money, resources, time, etc…, but our community consisting of about 75 people has two couples that would fall into a middle class tax bracket. The rest, all very impoverished, with some homeless, some with homes (four walls any ways) but not much else. Yet churches with hundreds and thousands of people come to us and ask for our advice, because “you’re the church that serves.” So I get the need and desire for “organic,” “raw” ekklesia, but I’m not sure how to provide for my family (which we live very simply and are well under the poverty level ourselves) and see tomorrow for out community. I have endless stories of God’s movement in people’s lives and in the life of our community, but we also have crushing needs or else? Most suburban churches and pastors encourage us to “sell out” and ramp up our gatherings to draw people, but how disconnected is that? Sorry if this feels rambling, but it is real and hard to communicate without discussion and stories. Thoughts? Advice? Guidance?

    • says

      Wally: I’d very much encourage you to read “Finding Organic Church.” http://www.ReimaginingChurch.org.

      One of the groups it is written to is people like yourself . . . those who are serving God in the traditional Christian leadership paradigm. Note that the entire paradigm of church, leadership, and church planting is completely different in the book. “Reimagining Church,” the precursor, goes into
      detail on what the church is exactly and how it functions in an organic way over against an institutional traditional way. The two are poles apart.

      I’ll just forewarn you that this is a whole new universe. And there’s massive unlearning to do. As well as re-learning (the learning curve is steep, and the longer someone has been trained in the religious system, the longer it takes to “detox” from it. Especially those who are in the clergy system.)

      The churches I’m related to meet in various different places. Homes, club houses, coffee shops, parks, etc.

      The members give as they are able, according to their ability. But there’s no pressure. We have no rules or laws. Yet the Lord has always supplied the needs of the churches.

  18. Philip Moore says

    You asked what part of the interview clarified things. I have read nearly all your (Frank’s) books and am completely sold on organic church, and have even experienced it to a limited extent, but when I read the first and fifth characteristics of an organic church in your answer to the first question, I had a Eureka moment! I had still been seeing organic church as a way of ‘doing church’, whereas it is really a description of what it looks like when Jesus followers gather together because they want to. I am finding it hard to describe what has happened, but the result is a freeing from duty and methodology (although some things obviously work better than others when we meet!) when it comes to functioning as a community of believers. Thank you.

    Philip Moore
    Wallsend, UK

    • says

      Philip. So glad to hear this. For whatever reason, some read my work through filters. I think it takes the Spirit of God to remove those filters.

      For me, it’s never been about a way of doing church, a method, a technique, a system. It’s always been about getting in touch with the living Lord, who is the Head (source and authority) of the body, and watching the outflow of that touch. That’s what the church is in her organic, native expression.

      It is Christ.

  19. says

    D.L.

    A careful reading of Peter and Paul shows something a bit deeper, I think. Peter’s ministry was more of catching men. He was more of an evangelistic in his apostolic capacity.

    Paul, on the other hand, was a builder. He built the churches on the foundation of Jesus Christ, and most of his ministry was working with the churches in an intense way to bring them into the fullness of Jesus Christ in the light of God’s eternal purpose.

    He always went to the Jew first, then later to the Gentile. He also planted a church, then left it on its own. I discuss what Paul would no doubt do if he were living in 21st century America today in one of the comments on this blog (this thread above).

    Further, Paul didn’t charge for his ministry nor take money from the churches he worked with to supply his needs. His ministry came free of charge while he was working with a church. In all of these ways, Paul’s ministry has been a staple and a standard in my life. (This is all discussed in detail in “Finding Organic Church” if interested.)

    In my world, organic church life is very intense. And it takes up our whole lives. We have a steady life of pursuing the Lord during the week, in pairs, small groups, and in many different kinds of gatherings. Keith asked about what a corporate meeting looked like, so the focus of our answers was on that, though I did explain a tad about how we pursue the Lord in small pairs during the week. But it looks nothing like traditional accountability methods or discipleship systems.

    I’d encourage you to listen to the audio clip where you can get a bit of a better insight into what I’m talking about from the people who are living in it themselves. The whole Q and A with those saints will be released in a month or two. The majority of the audience who heard it live were in tears. It was incredibly powerful.

  20. synergoswp says

    This statement blessed me. “Someone may object by saying that God the Father and the Holy Spirit are the subjects of the Bible. But remember, the fullness of the Godhead dwells in Christ. God is Father because He has a Son. The Spirit is the Spirit of Christ, and He has come to manifest and glorify Christ. Biblically speaking, there is no God outside of Jesus Christ. God is known in and through the Son.”

    Also what blessed me is the willingness to discuss these issues. I guess to me it’s a good example of two brothers in Christ communicating in a manner pleasing to our Lord. It’s a blessing.

  21. says

    I just wanted to share my two cents: I first became familiar with your writing a couple of years ago, and have read the whole “Re-church library”; I have just read “Organic Church” and “Search and Rescue” from Neil Cole this year. I feel that the two of you are very complimentary. It seems to me that you arrive at the same destination from opposite sides, which is the explanation for some of the apparent differences. You focus mostly on teaching those who are already Christians about how to know Christ through discovering that the church is supposed to be more organic. Neil, on the other hand, focuses mostly on evangelism and church planting, and bringing new followers into organic church fellowship. In this I might compare you to Peter, apostle to the Jews (those who already know about God, but who need further guidance), and Neil to Paul, apostle to the Gentiles (those do not know God). Also, you focus on the details of what a weekly church gathering looks like, while only mentioning in passing gatherings of 2-3 believers during the week. On the other hand, Neil discusses in detail what is involved with these meetings of 2-3, while not giving as much detail (in what I’ve read so far) about what happens in the weekly church gathering.

  22. John C says

    Frank
    Thanks so much for this venue! It is a wonderful gift to me (and I assume others) who are on a steep learning curve. You and Neil are discipling us all in this process. Love it!!!

  23. says

    Frank,

    I just have one more word for you brother. I want you to know that I have started praying for your fruitfulness and success in ministry and life. Bless you bro.

    Pressing on,

    Neil

  24. otto Beich says

    Wow! Looks like we got more than we bargained for! What an excellent exchange! I am looking to reading some of Neil’s Books and am definitely looking forward to the conference you all refer to. I have always respected Frank’s emphasis on painting an irresistable picture of our Lord first and foremost and am very encouraged to see Neil open read some more of Frank’s material. From reading Neil’s articles I’ve always loved his heart for transformation through the church. Very encouraging.

  25. John Wilson says

    Thanks Frank for your response earlier. I so appreciate your comments, they definitely hit home, my spirit sensed Christ speaking to me. Appreciate you very much!

  26. says

    Frank,

    I am honored to do this with you. I wouldn’t mind getting a way for a few days sequestered with missional church leaders. I do not think we need to all agree though, and doubt that we would (I’m sure you do as well). In fact, I think our variations found even in this interview are fun. I do not think any one of us can possibly contain all of the beautiful complexities of Christ, so our varying emphasis is actually a way to bring out more of Christ. If we were bound to one thought leader or one camp we would certainly miss a lot of who Christ is.

    In our interview, I am fascinated about one thing. We both come at our understanding of church from an organic perspective. We both have saturated ourselves with Acts and the NT epistles. We both have written books following Acts/NT representation of church models (See Church 3.0 99. 99-113) and also of Paul’s journeys (my new book to be released March 2011 called Journeys to Significance). Nevertheless, we both come out with very different perspectives on the subject. I am so intrigued by this, in fact, I think it is sorta cool.

    I see Peter as the apostle to the Jews. I see Paul as launching out to establish churches where the gospel has not gone. Yes, he starts with the Jews (and God fearers) by conviction, but he always went to the Gentiles and is known as the apostle to the Gentiles. In contrast, it took Peter quite a long time to launch out of Jerusalem. I am frankly, honored to be considered in the same breath as either of them.

    I like your observation of God’s calling from our vocation. I was a lifeguard for LA County Beaches when I was called to follow Jesus and it is a true characteristic of my spiritual call as well. You were a teacher and I can certainly see that you still are. I observe in my new book that Paul was frequently on spiritual journeys and was in fact on a missionary journey of sorts when he encountered Christ and this remained consistent in his life as well.

    You observe Paul starting just a few churches and not movements, yet I see incredible movements born. His tenure in Ephesus alone is remarkable. He was there for only 3 years and every person in Asia Minor heard the word of the Lord–and Paul never left Ephesus. So I guess some “toddlers” were sent out, as you mention, Epaphras was one. He met Christ in Ephesus, was trained and then sent out to start at least three churches in the Lyca valley all within those three years, so I think he was sent at a relatively young spiritual age.

    I say all this because our differing views are something I find so interesting, not contentious in any way. Perhaps it demonstrates how we carry our own lenses into the Scriptures and find what we are looking for. Ouch. This can also be a bit disconcerting as well.

    This is the greatest observation I have from the interview we did. Thanks for your part.

    It appears that you were able to read my responses before you turned in yours and I didn’t have that opportunity, so I will respond here just a bit to some of what you said.

    I also have struggled with counting churches and have brought much consternation to those that want me to count them over the years. My feeling is that it is impossible to count churches in a multiplication movement after a few years, and a waste of resources if you tried. I have actually used Einstein’s quote as well to reflect my feelings on this. We’re of a similar mind here.

    Like you I do not consider myself simply a house church leader. We have churches in a variety of contexts and even sizes. Like you, however, I do find that meeting in a home is one of the best places for a family.

    I have no doubt that you have used the term “organic” in reference to church for many years as I have heard you mention several times. I have as well, and I do not want to take anything from T. Austin Sparks, but others may have used the term even earlier. I have never read Sparks, but was influenced by Larry Richards who was using the term a long time ago as well. I did read your book How to Start a House Church a few years back (I think it was published in 2003) and “organic church” is not mentioned in it. So in the interest of balance, realize that we are all on a journey and our thinking evolves with maturation. Neither of us owns the word, and I, for my part, am glad you use it. I did refer to the church as more organic in my first published work, Raising Leaders for the Harvest (1995), but I assure you that my thinking has evolved a great deal since then. For the most part, I think we are both using the term well and simply have differing emphasis, which actually helps with balance. I have probably neglected the community interaction with Christ some in my writings in favor of more apostolic mission, so I am glad for your additions to the conversation.

    I do personally think Pagan Christianity is Frank at his very best, but I will read From Eternity to Here as soon as I get a chance. I will also try to get The Jesus Manifesto as well. Actually, to be honest, the title sorta scared me off on that one. I know you and Leonard enough to know better, but it comes across to me as somewhat presumptuous. I don’t think I could write a book with that title, but not having read it I shouldn’t judge the book by its cover…or title. People I know and respect have told me it is a good book, so I will get it soon. Perhaps we should have another book swap like we did a few years ago.

    It was an honor to be associated with you in this interview and I do hope we get more time together in the future. I, for one, will try to discourage any of the people that I work with from expressing any sort of “I am of Neil” attitude.

    Pressing on,

    Neil

    • says

      Neil. Appreciate the kind words, bro. I’m glad we were able to have this dialogue also. (Many thanks to Keith also.) And I do think it would be good for us to have a “Marburg” someday ;-)

      My suggestion of a Summit would not be with the expectation that everyone would leave on the same exact page. Disney will be hosting the Ice Capades in hell before that happens ;-) Instead, the object would be to get to know one another better, hear one another’s hearts, be educated on what each is doing and why, and more, to hear reactions/responses to various views, input on various issues, etc. At best, we’d all be adjusted and further educated. At worse, barring any assaults ;-), we would better understand one another. In-person conversation is a different universe than electronic communication.

      I come back to the principle of Peter, Paul, and John. Different emphases, but complementation rather than competition. I see our interview reflecting some of this. It’s in the subtext.

      One thing I do in “Finding Organic Church” is attempt to contextualize the ministries of Paul and the other apostles for our time. For me, if we can understand that Paul was motivated by and labored under what he called “the heavenly vision” … and what that vision meant and was for him (I believe it’s unveiled in Ephesians), it changes the perspective of his ministry dramatically. It has for me anyway.

      But more: the greatest teacher in my own life has been the ekklesia herself. I don’t consider myself a theologian, scholar, or philosopher, but an observing biologist who has learned by watching the ekklesia over the last 22 years in various contexts and cultures as she has expressed her Lord organically. I’ve learned more by watching and observing her in her organic expression — gathering and operating by spiritual instinct — rather than ritual or tradition. For me anyway, this has shed enormous light on the New Testament record. I’ve also learned by serendipitous discoveries and many mistakes.

      I’m still in school and expect to be until my last breath. There are no experts in this business. That I’m sure of. I am confident you agree.

      By my lights, Ephesus was Paul’s master-stroke. I believe he duplicated the ministry of Jesus Christ in Galilee there. He trained 8 men (workers) while Jesus trained 12. And the churches in Asia Minor that we read about in Rev. 2-3 were the product of his apprentices going out to raise up the ekklesia. There are hints that Epaphras learned from Paul in Ephesus; we don’t know how long that happened as Paul was in Ephesus for 3 years. And the context and the training was intense (5 hours a day in Tyrannus Hall for a few years). But the fact that Epaphras needed further assistance is evidenced by the Colossian crises and his trip to Rome to consult with Paul. That’s a short riff, but perhaps someday we can give Epaphras some back-and-forth whirls around the turn-table.

      I didn’t know L. Richard used the phrase “organic church.” I wonder if he read Sparks ;-) Mary McDonough also talked about the organic spiritual life back in the 20s. I’ve been using “organic” and “organically” to refer to the church since the 90s. The terms are contained in my erstwhile books, Rethinking the Wineskin & Who is Your Covering? (now combined, revised, and retitled Reimagining Church). I think it’s good that it’s being used in our time, and hopefully, our different nuances of it will help the Lord’s people in the way of clarity.

      Incidentally, the term “Jesus Manifesto” has been in use for many years, mostly among theologians and NT scholars. The term is used as short-hand to describe Luke 4:18ff. and the “Sermon on the Mount.” Len and I use it in a more popular way. Our manifesto doesn’t purport to be a complete or final statement. It’s rather designed to make a particular statement for this particular hour and (God willing) produce “manifests” of Jesus Christ. We talk about what that means in the book.

      I’m game for a book swap … send me whatever you would like me to read and I’ll send you “From Eternity” and “Jesus Manifesto.” I’ll also send you “The Untold Story of the New Testament Church” which is a narrative reading of the New Testament. This reading has put the entire New Testament in a totally different context for me. If nothing else, it will better explain why I arrive at the conclusions I do. It just might resolve some of the perplexity in our different approaches to the NT.

      Let’s exchange snail addresses via email.

      I really appreciate you and your labor in the Lord, Neil. And I love your heart.

      Your brother,

      Frank

  27. says

    J,

    I wanted to respond to your comments. I have 6 books published to address my ecclesiology and leadership perspective, so in fact you are not familiar with my perspective. This is evident in your conclusions. If you had read my works you would know that the two things that you said are void in my understanding of church is very wrong. In fact, I have several chapters on each of these two concepts throughout my works. To list all the places that I discuss Christ living in us and through us as a community would be way too long (multiple chapters from about every book). So I will simply address your first concern about the crucified life. Here are some places you can find my thoughts on the subject:

    Cultivating a Life for God p. 121-22
    Search & Rescue pp. 30-31, 139-141
    Organic Leadership has a chapter called: Embrace death as if your life depends on it pp. 269-279

    If you do not want to buy any more of my books, here are some free articles where I discuss dying to oneself and living a crucified life:

    http://www.cmaresources.org/article/long-live-organic-church
    http://www.cmaresources.org/node/63

    Pressing on,

    Neil

  28. David says

    Hi Frank

    Loved what you said “when and how to multiply a church is more of an art than a science. It’s dependent on the art of hearing the Spirit and rightly perceiving the season.” I think also people try to make a science out of the art of hearing the Lord, and thus miss hearing the Lord, that they say, made the science.

    Love your work, it has greatly shaped the way I perceive the Lord Jesus and His Church

  29. Angela says

    “Someone may object by saying that God the Father and the Holy Spirit are the subjects of the Bible. But remember, the fullness of the Godhead dwells in Christ. God is Father because He has a Son. The Spirit is the Spirit of Christ, and He has come to manifest and glorify Christ. Biblically speaking, there is no God outside of Jesus Christ. God is known in and through the Son.”

    This really hit me and gave me a whole new understanding of the Godhead, which always seems confusing to us humans. Thanks, Frank. Also the stuff about Paul, Peter and John was great.

    Wonderful interview, and again I am impressed with your graciousness. I need to learn how to be both direct and plain, and gracious, but thankfully we have the same Life in us. :) Thanks to Neil as well.

  30. J says

    This was a very interesting interview with two guys who love the Lord. The stark contrast between both Frank and Neil’s responses seemed glaringly obvious though. As I read each answer, I couldn’t help but notice the difference in depth of understanding of our Christ and His church. I have read Neil’s Organic Church book so I am already familiar with his perspective. I have also read most of Frank’s works as well.

    To me Neil is supporting and promoting an ecclesiology that is simply not found in the scriptures. It seems shallow and lacking. Although it does contain some important elements not found in institutional Christianity, it seems void of two pillars of the Lord’s ministry, in addition to Paul and the other apostles:

    1) The element of the cross in the believer’s life.
    2) The fact that God’s desire is for each believer (and the body as a whole) to live BY His life through an indwelling Lord.

    To me, Neil’s approach, as he stated himself, is truly just another “movement”. The problem with movements is they always come to an end. They always lose steam and die off. History confirms this whether it happened within Christianity or not. In contrast, Frank promotes a view of the Lord and the Church that dates back into eternity past and is still going strong to this day. It is not a popular view, but one that is laid out in both the old and new testaments. It is one that Paul and others suffered immensely for.

    For a long time, I desired a better way of being the church. But I don’t want to do something that is just different, or just “outside the box”. Instead, I want to know, experience, search, explore, drink, eat, be consumed with the Lord Jesus Christ. With that, I believe that Frank’s view, and the view of T Austin Sparks, Milt Rodriquez, and others is a true biblical view and lines up with the heart of God and his eternal purpose.

  31. says

    I really enjoyed getting to read this interview. You and Neil Cole are two of the authors who have strongly influenced my view of the church. It was good to see your views compared and contrasted through the interview. Thanks for posting this.

  32. Daniel Z says

    I really appreciated how Frank distinguished between the ministry of Peter, John and Paul showing how the Lord was behind each one. It says in 1 Corinthians 12:5 “… there are varieties of ministries, and the same Lord.” Sometimes it’s easy to see the variety and differences in ministries and lose sight of ‘the same Lord’ working in all. If we recognize the One Lord who is behind each other’s ministries, then we might find it easier to sit down and really listen to one another and discern the Lord who is greater and fuller than any one ministry can contain by itself. Many Saints in the organic churches today are calling for the various leaders in the organic church arena to come and seek the Lord together over an extended period of time that we may all hear ‘what the Spirit is saying to the churches.’ We are very thankful to both Neil and Frank for their valuable contribution to the Body of Christ.

  33. Sean Steckbeck says

    Frank,

    Thank you once again for your discussion. I would also like to say that I respect you, but voice the disagreements I have for you. I love your book Pagan Christianity as well, but have some differences with “Eternity to Here.”

    There is a reason I asked you about your doctrine about Israel.

    I love NT Wright’s view on the sacrifice of Yeshua, but Wright is a replacement theologian concerning Israel.

    Now before you put me in a dispensationalist box, I am not a dispensationalist. Dispensationalists are pre-millenial pre-tribulation rapture. I am a premillenial post-trib believer. My endtime beliefs probably line up more with people like Dr Michael Brown, Mike Bickle, and Asher Intrater.

    That being said, I believe Israel has everything to do with this conversation. Because you see the goal of God as being the church. I see the church being a vehicle for the goal of God which is the kingdom and the “restoration of all things.” In the end, your belief about God’s goal colours your belief on ecclesiology and missiology. I heard a debate once between you and Dr Michael Brown concerning modern day Israel, and knew then that you believed in replacement theology (Im a graduate of the Brownsville Revival School of Ministry ten years ago). I believe this colours your belief about the goal of the church. I could be wrong.

    I left the institutional church six years, and have been reading your stuff for ten years now. I love finding the body of Messiah in simple/organic forms of church. I love finding Yeshua as the head of His body. However, I don’t think this negates the Great Commission mandate to “Make disciples”, and I don’t think it is wrong or bringing people under legalism or a wrong sense of duty to “teach them to observe everything I commanded you.”

    I still find it hard also to find your comparison to Paul vis a vis with Peter in the apostolic gatherer versus the apostolic evangelist. Your reasoning is that Paul went to the Jew first and the God-fearer. However, was not also Peter “the apostle to the Jew”, would this have put him in the same boat? Funny as this may sound, I always kind of thought the opposite, that Peter stayed at home in Jerusalem to gather the new Jewish believers and to bring architecture to it, while Paul went out and “preached the gospel where it has never been preached before, as not to put another foundation.” Paul was a very skilled evangelist to the pagans, the Epicurians at Mars Hill gives one example.

    As far as extraction versus kingdomization…. its a missional term today that is used to describe “insider movements.” Before I get stoned, there are socio-insider movements and socio-religious insider movements. At the moment, I am talking about socio-insider movements. Or a c4 insider movement and not c5 insider movements (if you know the c scale). In simple terminology, do you believe that a church is made up of different people coming together extracted from different social networks? Or do you believe that an existing social network can be discipled (or kingdomized). The idea of socio-insider movements is that God already created social networks (that are also sometimes gathered religiously together) and our job is not to break up what God has put in place and create a new social network and family, but to kingdomize or disciple what already exists through finding a man of peace. Again I am not talking about socio-religious insider movements (like sheikhs that stay in the mosques and remain Muslim), but rather just socio-insider movements.

    The reason I ask is from what I’ve noticed about most house churches in America, that they are made up of people from all sorts of backgrounds coming together. On one hand its beautiful, because its a picture of the multicultural heaven. On the other hand, did God mean for us to create extraction?
    There are scriptures that support both extraction and kingdomization. Whether its Paul that said “remain as you were when you were called” and the man of peace principle promoting kingdomization, or whether its Yeshua’s comments about bringing a mother against their children and children against their mothers and not peace but a sword which may promote extraction.

    Just curious what you thought.

    • says

      Hi Sean. I think this discussion about Israel is way off topic, nonetheless, I don’t consider myself a replacement theologian. I believe more in fulfillment. The church fulfills the dream that God called Israel to live out and embody in the earth. The promise of Abraham is now fulfilled in her, the ekklesia, where there is no Jew or Gentile, rich or free, etc. but a new creation. Jesus is the New Jacob and the church is the new Israel as Galatians and Hebrews point out. (I expound on this in my message entitled VANTAGE POINT which is an unveiling of God’s eternal purpose from Genesis to Revelation. I’d love to get your feedback on it actually. There are 2 parts: http://frankviola.wordpress.com/2010/01/20/vantage-point-a-vital-message-for-the-missional-church-organic-church/ )

      However, I’m very open to the idea that God may have a future plan for national Israel according to Romans 11, etc. But I have no burden to debate over it or speculate. I’m more interested in knowing my Lord and seeing Him expressed by God’s people together — Jew and Gentile — fulfilling His eternal purpose and dream. ll get to speculations of national Israel’s future after I’ve explored all the riches of Jesus Christ with my brothers and sisters in Christ. :-)

      I’m a puzzled why you assume I don’t believe in the Lord’s mandate to the 12 to make disciples. I believe I affirm that in the interview itself. I also discuss it in an article, going into the often-overlooked question: HOW DID THE APOSTLES MAKE DISCIPLES EXACTLY? See http://frankviola.wordpress.com/2009/07/26/discipleship-mission-and-church-a-plea-to-learn-our-history/

      That’s the million-dollar question that is so-often ignored. Instead of seeing what the NT demonstrates on the question, we go to extra biblical methods to try to do something called “discipleship” that has a very important but sad history behind it. My article is a plea to learn our history on this subject, so we don’t keep repeating the same mistakes.

  34. says

    bwhope: the real thing is breathtaking at its best moments. I was talking with some sisters and brothers recently, and they were telling me that many of the new people in the group made the remark, “The reason why I got involved is because of the love you have for one another. I’ve never seen anything like it anywhere else. It’s undeniable.”

    This is one of the outstanding characteristics of the presence of God operating in a group of believers who know authentic community.

    At the same time, I’ll say something that I’ve often said: organic church life has never worked, it doesn’t work, and it never will work unless the people in it embrace the cross. There are honeymoon seasons, there are wet seasons, but then there are dry seasons, difficult seasons, and painful seasons. The cross always comes in this context.

    Consider Paul’s and Peter’s letters to the churches – problems abound in body life. Consequently, if people aren’t willing to die and let God’s chiseling hand do its work, making living stones into precious stones to fit properly with other stones to form God’s house . . . then organic church life isn’t something they would be attracted to or interested in.

    I’ve described it as a wedding of glory and gore; but that’s how God fulfills His highest intention. His house is built out of gold, pearl, and precious stone – all of which are constituted out of conflict and suffering.

    Not a popular word for American Christians.

  35. says

    Great interview! What I like most is the overview nature which can easily be shared with other brothers and sisters in Christ. I believe in Christ’s church and every time I read posts like this I am even more encouraged about what the church can be. I’m still personally wrestling with some of the issues of organic church but I have no doubt that in the end Christ will be revealed. I think right now I’m a lot like Thomas, I need to see, touch and experience organic church life personally. If it’s anything like you and Neil describe I have a strong feeling I’m going to be overwhelmed beyond belief.

  36. mark says

    In my experience, any talk of what organic church is spawns discussions of church models and methods. I’d like to offer a couple of observations from someone in an organic expression of the church that Frank has worked with.

    I’ve remarked to some new people who have become part of our church life that Frank and his co-workers don’t talk to us about church models or methods. There is no rigid structure in place. In the church that I am part of, they have spent a year revealing Christ and equipping us to live by His indwelling life. We are beginning to get this, but still have much to learn. We are pursuing this corporately as much as we pursue it individually. We spend time together pursuing and beholding the Lord in lots of ways (as Frank described in the article). As we do this, our vision of Him is ever expanding; He just keeps getting bigger! His life in us fuels our daily lives and our meetings. There is no need to debate which church model we are most like. Honestly, I don’t think we resemble anything going on in institutional Christianity, so it would be pointless anyway. Of course, in equipping the church, Frank has given us many ideas, hints, suggestions, and has coached us through the things that make the meetings run well. Frank has spent time preparing us for challenges and obstacles that arise in organic church life. But this is far from instituting a “model”. In short, we’re not bonding together to learn a model or method; we are learning Jesus as a real and living person, and to live together by His life. Christ leads spontaneously by His Spirit and we don’t even think about or discuss church models. (I’ve read lots of books/blogs/articles on church models and am so thankful for the freedom from that bondage!) Instead, we discuss Christ. We see Christ in each other (and we tell each other how we see Him in them).

    It is difficult to get past these intellectual ideas and jump into an environment where the structure is so fluid and Christ Himself is the system. I’m reminded of Indiana Jones in his quest for the Holy Grail, coming to the invisible bridge, and being required to take a “leap of faith”. Using his physical senses, his mind could not conceive how he could get across the chasm, but then, his mind was never supposed to.

  37. Derek says

    I haven’t read anything from Neil, nor do I know much about him. I can say that there was a time when his approach would have been immensely attractive to me, in terms of having a “plan” and a “strategy” (my words, not necessarily his) for growth of the church. I’m glad, at this point, that I hadn’t found his stuff first. :) Not that his approach is bad, or even wrong, but the call to lay my own desires down at the cross have been instrumental in my growing experience of Christ. The desire to have a model, a formula, a structure, a strategy, etc., is too close to my institutional background, and too close to my self-motivated desire to be in the forefront of a movement. The more I can lay such thoughts and desires down at the cross, the more I see a vision of a Christ that is unsearchable and unfathomable, and the more I learn to live by His life. Bind individuals together with the same pursuit through body life, and the experience of Christ is truly indescribable. It’s not a pattern, structure, or movement. It’s just Christ!

    All of that said, get the summit together. I think it would be amazing.

  38. John Wilson says

    Frank, I really appreciate you and Neil being able to work together and discuss the difference and similarities that seem to be flowing in the organic expression of church. I came to Christ in my early 30s and have worked in the traditional and cell institutional churches. (Praise God I’m out of both!) It seems Neil’s flavor of organic church comes out of cell institutional church (focus on accountability and one on one discipleship) and yours comes out of traditional institutional church (focus on corporate body life). At least from the appearance. I think the church living organically by Christ’s life can learn from both and perhaps based on the “type” of institutional church one comes out of the better they will understand and find organic church life from the approaches that you and Neil have given to the body of Christ. I do truly appreciate the wholly organic approach you provide to the church and understanding the seasons of church life makes so much sense. How important it is to detox and bring to death the religion we have been brought up in and see Christ resurrected through our lives in a corporate expression of His glorious life. Thanks so much for sharing! Look forward to hearing more from the discussion!

    • says

      Thanks John.

      Let me add something further from my experience. My early Christian life was entrenched in several movements that were all about “discipleship” as one-on-one methods where it was all about heavy accountability. It was all focused on the question: “how are you doing as an individual Christian?” Are you being a “good Christian?” These movements were also highly focused on evangelism as a duty/religious obligation (not understanding spiritual seasons). People quickly got burned out trying to save the lost and do all the “stuff.” This also generated lots of guilt and condemnation because the focus was on ourselves and how/what we were doing or not doing.

      This all changed when I encountered the Lord as Head of His body, Lover of our souls, and the All in All. As I discussed in the interview, my experience of church life is very intentional in pursuing the Lord, but the entire focus is on Jesus Christ instead of ourselves. This throws all the guilt, condemnation, self-effort out the window. We begin to discover HIM in profound depths and in freedom and liberty (of the Spirit). The focus of learning to be a follower (disciple) of Jesus really becomes learning how to live by His indwelling life. The two cannot be separated. We follow Jesus BY LIVING BY His indwelling life through the Spirit. There’s no other kind of “following” in a post-ascension world.

      Jesus followed the Father by living by His Father’s indwelling life (“without my Father I can do nothing.”). Now in His resurrection, the passage has moved. And what the Father was to Jesus, Jesus is to us. He’s our indwelling life and presence (“without me you can do nothing”). For this reason, one of the first things that happens when people experience organic church life (in my observation/experience anyway) is the condemnation and guilt goes out the door and people fall in love with Jesus Christ like never before. I’ve had pastors tell me, “I’ve been trying to get Christians to do these things for years, and I’m so frustrated!” My answer has always been, “Give them Christ and not *things* about Him.” There’s a world of difference.

      You may want to give a listen to the audio clip in the interview and hear the firsthand testimonies yourself. The saints do a much better job than I can in explaining these things.

  39. John says

    Frank,
    Really enjoyed this interview. This venue of give and take is soooo good! This is all coming late in life for me and my wife. We retired a couple years ago from “official pastoral ministry”. Since then have been exposed to the whole “Simple Church/Organic Church” arena. Have been reading all your books after having read Wolfgang (Starfish Manifesto), E. Stanley Jones (Unghanging…)& Felicity Dale (Elephant…) etc. I’m almost finished with Untold Story and ready to begin Finding Organic Church.
    Have said all that to say this. I have never been more excited, felt more engage in the KOG, more relivant with those God is bringing us in contact with. We do not exactly what the community piece is going to look for us going forward, but I’m very thankful for this type of venue where questions and observations can be addressed. THANKS!

  40. Kat says

    Frank: Thank you. Thank you. THANK YOU. Oh, how the heart cries to hear such words! What a blessing it was to also read the interview with you and Neil. My only comment is that, while there may be many legitimate callings, people tend to see everything through the lens of whatever thing they feel called to. All that need be is for these callings and emphases to be submitted to their proper order according to the eternal purpose of God, and divisions over these will CEASE.

    The interaction of everybody has MADE MY DAY.

  41. Josh says

    Frank,

    One of the things I’ve noticed as my wife and I have been exploring the world of organic church is that there are many groups who major on one of two things. Either they will major on social justice and outreach and neglect dedicating themselves to the teaching of Jesus or they will major on living in community and growing together without reaching out to the lost, poor, persecuted and/or marginalized.

    My question to you is how do the organic churches that you have been a part of live in balance? I realize that living in balance is a result of being centered on the Spirit. I am really wondering what happens when the divine life of Christ overflows in the body and evangelism is done. What do you do? How do you bring new believers into community? What are the ministries that God has led you to? etc. My wife and I are thirsty and are looking to be a part of a community that takes seriously the call to be the body of Christ in all aspects, not just in community and not just in acts of social justice. Perhaps the understanding of the seasons plays a role in this balance, but I’m eager ot hear your response.
    Thanks!!

    • says

      Josh, the answer is to understand *seasons* and for a church to be equipped on how to discern the proper season it is in. When this is understood and experienced, these fruitless *either/or* debates and tensions disappear. Discerning the season of a church gets into the very core issue that governs authentic organic church life – learning how to live by an indwelling Lord corporately. I give a lot of attention to the issue of spiritual seasons and living by Christ in my book FINDING ORGANIC CHURCH, all of which comes out of my experience of the last 22 years of gathering in this way (under the headship of Christ). You can check the book out at http://www.ptmin.org/foc

      • says

        p.s. You may also be interested to see how Len Sweet and I tackle the issue of social justice in our book, JESUS MANIFESTO. We look it from an entirely different mountain. One that transcends the old, tired “justification” vs. “justice” dichotomy.

  42. says

    Hi Sean,

    1) Most of the believing communites that my coworkers and I have planted and work with are made mostly of people who never heard the full gospel message. Some of them thought they had, but later they’ve testified: “I never really knew the Lord nor have I really heard the gospel.” Some of these folks grew up in an institutional church, others never were a part of it. Similarly, most of the people who responded to Paul’s message were mostly God-fearers. These were Gentiles who were part of the Jewish system and faith. They had religion, but never gave their allegiance to Jesus Christ. People like Cornelius, who God had spoken to and deemed “righteous.”

    If Paul were here today, I’m convinced he would go to “the Jew first” then to the Gentile. Meaning, he’d first go to the people who are invested in the Christian faith to whatever degree to lay a new foundation of Jesus Christ ALONE to see the house of God raised up and functioning as He intended (which fulfills God’s eternal purpose — which is His end and goal. Where Jesus is Head.)

    He wouldn’t steal sheep, as it were; but would go to the scattered sheep whom the Lord had put a hunger and thirst in their hearts for more of Christ, causing them to leave organized religion. (We feel compelled to do the same.) The above statements assume a knowledge of my arguments in “Pagan Christianity” and “Reimagining Church,” which argues that the organization we’ve called “church” really doesn’t map to the NT concept of church.

    2) I don’t understand your second question as “kingdomization” is not in my vocabularly. (It’s also connected with some unhealthy movements of the past, btw.)

    3) I agree with N.T. Wright’s view on national Israel. Too much to go into here and somewhat off topic.

    Observation: It seems to me that your questions are coming from the viewpoint of D.L. Moody where the name of the game is “the salvation of lost souls.” This, to me, misses the ultimate purpose of God. What God is after is beyond that. He’s after a corporate expression of His Son in every city. In that respect, many people who believe on Jesus today are not part of such corporate expressions, though they may attend a building once a week to hear a sermon. The foundation that Paul spoke of was corporate in nature. It produced the ekklesia, not an institutional organization.

    In short, God isn’t simply after turning dead stones into living stones and filling the earth with them. He wants living stones to be built together to form His house. That’s the ministry of Paul; if we miss this, we’ve missed the heart of Paul’s gospel and calling.

    I speak more on this at http://www.FromEternitytoHere.org – See also http://bit.ly/cvtXa0

    Here’s a riff from my book FINDING ORGANIC CHURCH (p. 133, ff.) which may be of further help:

    Objection: Conditions are very different today in the Western world than they were in the first century. Back then, the entire world was unsaved. There was no institutional church. Church planters like Paul did not take born-again Christians from traditional churches and teach them how to meet New Testament–style. Modern church planters, therefore, cannot point to Paul as an example of what they do.

    Granted, the apostolic mission of the first century was one of pioneer evangelism into virgin territory. The gospel of Jesus Christ was brand new. There was no institutional church. Thus the bulk of Paul’s converts fell into two categories: (1) those who came straight out of the pagan pool, and (2) God-fearing Gentiles who were institutionalized by the Jewish synagogues. Both were “virgin soil” situations.

    But Paul’s mission had two objectives. First, it was to convert lost souls. The second objective was interconnected with the first. It was to form local communities that bore corporate testimony to the kingdom of God. We have sadly reversed this order today. We have made the saving of lost souls the goal of the church when the opposite is true. The goal of saving souls was to build the ekklesia so that God may have a bride, a house, a family, and a body. This is His ultimate purpose.1

    The contemporary practice of saving souls outside the context of the church of Jesus Christ is foreign to the Bible. The first-century Christians had no such concept. For them, being saved meant being added to the local community of believers. And being added to the local community of believers meant being saved. The two were inseparable. This is why the New Testament says that to be added to the church was to be added to the Lord and vice versa (Acts 5:14; 11:24 NKJV).

    Put another way, Paul’s chief goal in preaching the gospel was to create Spirit-baptized communities that corporately expressed the Lord Jesus Christ on earth. Consider the following:

    The New Testament does not offer much support to evangelistic strategies that concentrate merely on the converting of individuals. (Stuart Murray)2

    Paul, unlike the field preachers, did not primarily deliver an individualistic challenge to give up vicebut aimed at forming a community with those who responded to his proclamation. (Abraham Malherbe)3

    From what has already been said it is manifest that St.Paul did not go about as a missionary preacher merely to convert individuals: he went to establish churches from which the light might radiate throughout the whole country round. (Roland Allen)4

    The only exception in the entire New Testament that records a case of individual salvation is that of Philip leading the Ethiopian eunuch to the Lord (Acts 8:26ff.). Everywhere else, people were saved into the community of the believers.

    To put it in a sentence, Paul’s missional impulse was not the saving of lost souls. Nor was it to relieve human suffering or poverty. Rather, it was to create Christian communities that fulfilled God’s ageless purpose. Out of the life of such communities everything else would flow.

    Paul formed Christian communities by fathering, mothering, and nursing the Christians with whom he worked (1 Thess. 2:7–12; 1 Cor. 4:15). He showed the church how to fellowship with its Lord, how to mature in Christ, how to function in its gatherings, and how to solve specific problems endemic to community life.

    Tragically, these are things that many (if not most) Christians in the institutional church know little about. To put it bluntly, being a seasoned Christian does not equip one to be a functioning
    member in an organic church setting. Nor does it prepare one to be a contributing member of a Christian community. In addition, finding oneself two thousand years into Christian history and five hundred years down the Reformation pike does not prepare one for such a task.

    As A. W. Tozer once put it, the modern church “is an asylum for retarded spiritual children.” It’s a nursery for overgrown spiritual babes, most of whom do not have a clue about how to function spiritually with their fellow brethren in a coordinated way. And why is this? Because they have never been shown how. Instead, they have been habituated to stay silent and passive. (Except, of course, when it comes to sharing the gospel with the lost. Preachers have been pounding that into the heads of Christians since the days of D. L. Moody.)

    God’s people, therefore, need to be unleashed and empowered to minister in the house of God. For this reason, the Pauline ministry of planting churches is still very much needed today. Again, far more goes into building a church than leading people to the Lord. Winning converts is merely a first step. Enriching, equipping, and empowering them to get on with God and with their fellow brethren make up the rest of the trip.

    To use Peter’s language, to lead a sinner to Christ is to convert a dead stone into a living stone (1 Peter 2:5). But the accumulation of living stones is not God’s purpose. Today, we have many living stones on the planet, but they are scattered and isolated. God’s goal is for all of those stones to be formed into a house—His very own dwelling place (Eph. 2:22). Therein lies the main calling of the Christian worker (1 Cor. 3:9–10).

    It’s not merely the conversion of dead stones into living stones; it’s to build the house of the living God with those stones. And that takes far more than simply preaching sermons once or twice a week. It means equipping the people of God to function in the church meetings, to take care of one another, and to witness to the glories of Christ before the world as a close-knit, Christ-centered community.

    Consequently, if Paul were in the Western world today, it’s extremely likely that he would seek out the lost sheep as well as the isolated sheep. To be sure, Paul would present the gospel to lost souls. But hungry Christians in the traditional church would doubtlessly attach themselves to his work as well. Would Paul refuse to minister to them simply because they were “already” converted? Not a chance.

    Paul’s goal was a kingdom community. It was a shared-life assembly that lives by divine life and is held together by Jesus Christ and nothing else. So he would undoubtedly minister to all the Christians who were open to him—new converts and institutionalized believers. He would enrich them to know Christ, equip them to express Him corporately, and empower them to function in a coordinated way. Genuine workers in our day do just that.

    Not to put too fine a point on it, Paul’s passion was to establish Christian communities marked by every member functioning, and that expressed the fullness of Jesus Christ. It was not to rescue individuals from eternal judgment (though that was included). We can be confident that if Paul were with us today, he would not be hindered from this all-consuming mission.

  43. Jan Pack says

    Loved reading both yours and Neil’s responses to the same questions. So encouraging to see brothers who love Jesus sharing their thoughts without the “debate”. Don’t want to get into the, “I am of Apollos, I am of Paul, I am of Christ” or “I am of Neil Cole” ~ “I am of Frank Viola” discussion, which leads to division. So wonderful that God leads each of us by his spirit to work and minister in our areas of life. I appreciate you taking the time to answer these questions.

  44. Sean Steckbeck says

    A couple questions for Frank:

    1.) How much of your work is transfer growth versus new believers?

    2.) How much is it extraction versus kingdomization of social networks?

    3.) Do you really believe Israel as a physical nation is not a reality for today’s church and Yeshua’s kingdom?

  45. Jennifer Marks says

    Wow! I am longing for this kind of church. I loved reading about the valentine’s day celebration and all the creative meetings you have.

  46. Tom Guffey says

    Well done. Very interesting read. This will also make a very convenient article to show people as they question what we are doing as an organic church. Thanks for all your efforts. 1Cor.15:58

  47. Jim says

    Outstanding interview! I teared up listening to the audio of those people talking about their experience in organic church. Thanks for this.

  48. mark says

    Really interesting interview. I applaud yours’ and Neil’s decision to do the interview and your gracefulness in answering the questions. Great illustration about the roles of Peter, Paul, and John, and that our service to the Lord is often patterned after the work we have chosen.

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