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God is Setting All Things Right. So I am Blogging Through the Bible in a Year.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Book Review 4: Organic Church by Neil Cole

Recently I read the book Organic Church: Growing Faith where Life Happens by Neil Cole. Cole is a church planter and one of the cofounders of Church Multiplication Associates. He has been interested in planting churches since the early nineties and has worked for the past 10 years planting churches and encouraging church planters all over the world.
Organic Church is the third book (out of nine) written by Cole and the most popular and controversial one by far. In it he presents his philosophy of church planting, critiques of where the American church has gone wrong and encouragement that normal people can do just what he has done.
After describing a scene from The Matrix and warning people not to read unless they were willing to change their concept of ‘church’ as Neo changed his concept of ‘reality,’ Cole presents a very factual and respectful critique of the American church conscious. I say respectful because his purpose is not to demonize traditional churches, become a sanctuary for evangelical outcasts, or become a new trendy “prophetic” voice. The problem is not that American churches are too culturally bound or removed; it’s because churches have detached themselves from Jesus to the point that the world no longer sees a connection between the two. The rest of the book is his resolution of this problem.
Part one (chs. 1-4) gives his rationale for changing his conception of ‘church.’ Chapter one is a call for the church to leave its place of comfort and, using a metaphor from Lord of the Rings, ride out into the fray of a world thirsting for righteousness but unable to find it. Encouraging churches to get beyond “defending the faith,” he wants them to know that Jesus has already won and they have the right to go on the offensive. He gives an example of his radically changed state of mind by telling a new Christian drug addict to kick the habit by evangelizing to his drug dealer. Cole’s ability to think outside the normal boundaries of “safe church” is amazing and almost always germane to the situation. Chapter two gives his story of being awakened to the ‘organic’ style of planting churches, “to lower the bar of how church is done and raise the bar of what it means to be a disciple” (p. 26). Chapter three provides hope to the church that all is not lost. The church can survive only if it allows the light of Jesus in to revive its “zombie flesh.” Chapter four asks a dangerous question: “Okay, Lord, so what is a church anyway?” (p. 47). This question is very important. First, it invites God as the centerpiece. Second, the question is not, “how do I do church” (neglecting God) or “what is ‘church’” (neglecting man) but gets to the heart of the matter: God, what is a church? This shift is extremely important because it is both emanating out of God and yet remains practical.
Part two (chs. 5-7) gives a biblical basis of organic churches. Chapter five presents a very interesting and thought-provoking extension to the phrase “you reap what you sow” with “you eat what you reap.” If Christians sow nothing they eat nothing. Also, if they spend all of their time tending to the bad soils they may end up with a bad crop: “I am convinced that we have made a serious mistake by accommodating bad soil in our churches” (p. 69). This concept should and could revolutionize the makeup of the church and cause a great repentance and renewal to come upon a multitude of congregations. Chapter six calls the church back to a simplistic view of growth, one that expects yet still is amazed at God’s power to give increase. Chapter seven looks back at the beginning of life to show that a church is at its best when it is only two or three people. This is important because if these two or three people are on fire for God, there can be no opposition to their spiritual growth.
Part three (chs. 8-9) looks at the foundation for an organic church. Cole uses the basic building blocks of all living organisms to form an acrostic of the three irreducible complexities of churches (ch. 8): Divine truth, Nurturing relationships and Apostolic mission (DNA). Any additions, subtractions or relegations of one of these will cause a church to become less than adequate for its mission. Chapter nine gives more specifics on leadership style (diffused), structure (supporting not limiting), and design (fractals, meaning each mimics the others in having DNA unique but similar to all others) of organic churches.
Part four (chs. 10-12) gives encouragement that everyone is capable of planting a church but only if they are willing to fully rely on God, pray, and give Him room to work. He encourages leaders to allow and push new converts to spread their new faith to their acquaintances since they will be the best workers (ch. 10). Chapter 11 expands on the “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” game to show that everyone has connections to people around the world. If we are willing to use those connections towards expanding the reign of God starting at home and working outwards we could change the world. Chapter 12 is a passionate plea to spread the news the way Jesus tells the apostles to spread the news in Luke 10. Normal door-knocking campaigns focus on hitting every door in the neighborhood. Jesus told the apostles to look for a person of peace and not to leave them. So we should knock on the first door asking if they know who needs the gospel. This simple shift is brilliant.
Part five humanizes the entire book by giving examples of failed attempts (ch. 13) and his final plea to action (ch. 14). I appreciated this chapter greatly because this is where most books fail. They focus so much on getting it done right that one may feel paralyzed with fear and unable to even start. Cole’s mistakes and subsequent successes show that this is not going to be done perfectly at first; however, by learning from their mistakes, Christians can plant churches that reproduce.
Obviously, I have so many great things to say about this book (this review is over twice the assigned size). I suggest that anyone (that is, anyone able to get past his faulty soteriology to see the great strengths in this book) should run and get it. However, heed his warning: “After reading this book, you may not want to go back [to the ordinary church].”
Cole, Neil. 2005. Organic church : growing faith where life happens. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.