Takeaway: What is important about the church should be Jesus, not the structure.
“The world is interested in Jesus. It is his wife, the bride of Christ, that they do not want to spend time with.”
Neil Cole opens the book Organic Church with that provocative idea. I met Neil about the time that this book came out at a conference. I just got around to reading Organic Church (about five years later.) Since attending that Simple Church conference I have been intrigued by the concept of simple churches. At the time I was attending a small church of about 50. But my small church was anything but simple. Cole is practical, biblical and interested in making much of Jesus, to use Ed Stetzer‘s phrase. This is a rich book with a lot to think about. Some will be turned off because he is strong in his language about the weak and failing US church. But he is interested, not in condemning the Church, but making it stronger. Below are a variety of thoughts from the book. I listened to this on audiobook, so the quotes are my paraphrases.
Cole suggests that the Parable of the Sowers should give us encouragement to know that many (in the parable 2/3) of those that initially receive the gospel will not produce any fruit. So I can spend my time on those that do produce fruit without guilt. We have spent too much time accommodating those in the church that produce no fruit.
Later, Cole retells the story of Frog and Toad’s garden. Toad plants a garden, but it doesn’t grow as quickly as he thinks it should. So he reads to it and sings to it and talks to it. Eventually it grows but Toad is not sure that the garden is worth it. He spent so much time working on it, he is not sure it is worth having a garden. Cole’s point is that much of what we do as churches is similar to what Toad was doing. It is the Holy Spirit that brings people to Christ and causes them to grow. We have a responsibility to break up the soil, plant and harvest, but the actual growing, what we tend to spend a lot of time working on, is not our job.
Cole makes a lot of references to Jesus being what is important, not structure. At one point he describes churches as being like the pipes in our house. We never notice pipes unless they are clogged. What we notice is how good the water is. The water and getting it is what is important, not the pipes.
Cole also turn servant leadership on its head. We all know Jesus told the disciples that the leader will be the servant. And so we frequently hear from the pulpit and bible studies that leaders should be serving the rest of us. But Cole thinks Jesus also meant it the other way. People will follow those that they see serving. If leaders need to be reminded and told to serve, then they aren’t worth following. Find someone that is serving and follow them instead.
Cole spends a significant amount to time talking about releasing new Christians to work. He, quite rightly in my mind, complains about the mentality that people should be trained before sharing the gospel with others. The majority of Christians in the US feel inadequate in sharing the gospel. But Christians in the US are the most trained and equip Christians in history. Few Christians have less than a handful of bibles. Many have attended church their whole lives. But poorly educated new Christians around the world start churches and reach people. He asserts, and I mostly agree, the big issues is obedience. US Christians are trained beyond their obedience. Much better to have obedience beyond your training. The Holy Spirit is the one doing the work anyway. The part I don’t agree with, or really I think he just needs to be explicit about it, is that part of the reason that US Christians are trained beyond their obedience lies in the training. We tend to train people by talking to them, not bringing them alongside while we do the work of sharing the gospel. If trainers took one person and walked with them and mentored them in sharing the gospel and then took another person and did the same. I think we could reach a lot more people than we do by filling huge ballrooms at evangelism conferences where we talk about sharing the gospel. Cole does this, and I think more than the style of or method of simple church, his emphasis on discipleship and practical equipping is what makes his movement successful.
Overall I think this is a great book. My only complaint is that I think it could use a bit of editing. It is only 272 pages on paper, but I think it could have had 50 pages cut and still provided the same amount of punch. Many people want to condemn Cole and others like him for rejecting the church. That is just not fair, Cole loves the church. But Cole is called to reach people that the church is not reaching, and he is doing it. We should never just reject people that are successfully following the direction of the Holy Spirit because the Holy Spirit is not directing us in the same direction.