Organic Idols

Organic Idols

Andrew Wehrheim has written a blog worth reading, called A Message to the Organic Church Movement from One on the Outside.

In it, he provides a frank assessment of his experience – and disappointment – with “organic” church.

“Organic”

For those not familiar with the concept of organic church, it typically involves smaller fellowships that seek to forge throughout-the-week community; gather in homes (but not always homes) to worship and minister one to another in open, participatory meetings; and have a flat leadership structure where all can contribute, including elders who emerge from within the fellowship and lead by example and persuasion rather than top-down control.

In his blog, Andrew is very transparent about his disappointment that “organic” church did not meet his expectations. I liked his blog, because of his transparency and honesty. We need more of that.

I had some thoughts, though, about his disappointments.

What I’m about to say may not apply personally to Andrew, but his blog raises real issues that often thwart healthy fellowship and authentic community.

Intensity

As one who has helped start a number of “organic” fellowships, and watched various fellowships come and go in other parts of the country, a common problem is this: When folks expect some concept of “organic” church to be the solution to all that’s lacking in their own lives, and all that ails modern day Christianity, they often come with intense ideals but eventually leave disappointed.

Too often, such intense ideals turn their concept of organic church into an idol that will solve all their problems and meet all their needs.

God, however, just isn’t into idols. He tends to destroy them.

When your expectations for an organic church become an idol, God will either shatter that fellowship or shatter your ability to be part of it.

Often, He does that by letting your intensity burn you out, so that you have nothing left but to rely on Him and keep all else, like church and community, in proper perspective.

Some survive that process and move forward into health, while some do not – but it’s always their choice.

Idols

The intense idealism and expectations just don’t work. Idols demand too much.

For example, we want community, but our idealistic concepts of “community” become an idol that’s more important than letting actually community naturally emerge or function however God intends. One of two things then happen: We either become disillusioned because our concept isn’t happening, and so we leave believing real community is a myth. Or our idealistic concepts do take root, but “community” becomes all consuming and out of balance as it it eventually burns us, and everyone else, out.

God never intended for organic church and community to be an idol. They are not intended by God to be about self validation and affirmation, conforming to our own vision, fulfilling our own needs, solving our own problems, or making us feel good.

In other words, church (of any stripe) and community don’t work if they are about us or our idealistic, pre-conceived expectations.

Authentic church and community are simply some of the things God has ordained for our growth and maturity in Him. You can talk about how we are the Bride of Christ, the Body of Christ, or whatever Biblical metaphor strikes your fancy and what that means to you. But they are not everything or intended to be the totality of our life.

Nor do are they suppose to revolve around my or anyone else’s personal ideals and expectations.

Seriously. Get a life!

External Expectations

This has been the downfall of many fellowships, which have bought into the books that make organic church the utopian fix for all that’s wrong.

What crap!

Most of those books, if you bother to check, are written by men who have never succeeded at actually making their concepts work in any sustainable way, or even been consistently part of any fellowship themselves – except as occasional drop-in “apostles” or “workers”.

In fact, most of them seem very apt at staying just a step or two ahead of disaster after disaster, with a string of fellowships that have ended badly or become a crippled mess because of their unproven and, in fact, unworkable “concepts” of what church – organic or otherwise – must be.

As Andrew correctly observes in his blog, by turning to the big names we have looked in all the wrong places for outside help. Some have a proven history rooted in actual fellowship, but most do not. A book does not an expert make.

It is essential that outside help, if it is really needed, be from authentic, proven, and unassuming leaders who are secure enough to help release God’s plan for you, rather than come with their cookie-cutter models and unproven how-to books on what “community” and “doing” organic church should look like.

Andrew is spot on in this regard.

God bless the professional “church planters”. Their enticing, utopian theories sell books which create leads for them to come as “workers” who help folks “do” church in their own image – and so we become just as institutionalized, homogenized, and in bondage to some cookie-cutter expectations as the denominations we fled.

Finding Community

Our “organic” fellowships, however, are much more laid back – and each looks very different than the other. We let fellowship and community emerge based on actual need and actual ability. There is no external “ought” or “vision” that we impose, except learning to submit one to another as we express Christ – however differently He looks in each of us – to each other as God enables.

With each fellowship, we simple go and affirm whatever it is that God wants to do as He is uniquely expressed in them, among them and through them.

Frankly, some “organic” fellowships I have encountered elsewhere are so fixated on creating and conforming to some external concept of community that they have become more legalistic – and fallen into more bondage over conforming to that vision – than any legalism found in the so-called “institutional” church.

In our fellowships, we don’t try so hard to “create” community. Rather, we prefer to bring Jesus into existing, but very different, communities that are found in every subculture.

Everyone is part of a particular subculture (and sometimes more than one subculture), with its own unique, natural dynamics. In those subcultures, relationships, connections, interactions and the like are already functioning.

When we bring Christ to those existing communities, and let Him be uniquely expressed in those unique contexts, it’s amazing what then happens.

If you create or join an organic church hoping for community to follow, you likely will be disappointed because “community” often means your own idealistic expectations. However, if you bring Jesus into existing community – including your own – then true church is much more likely to happen.

Chill Out

I suspect that Andrew either burned out, or left disillusioned, because he intensely wanted others to conform to his concept of community – without having learned to honor the needs, perceptions and abilities of others.

We all do it. We bring external concepts and expectations, and want some church to conform to our vision and needs, rather than let things “organically” emerge and evolve as the Lord wants.

What I have seen is that healthy community is just not so intense – nor can it survive the pressure to conform to anyone’s external concept of what it should be. I think, for example, the “Beyond” camp has generally failed at starting and sustaining organic fellowships for this reason.

In authentic community, we can chill out and be ourselves – to whatever degree of involvement is appropriate based whatever capacity the Lord has given us.

So chill! Be “organic” and not all caught up in having to conform to some book, vision, personal concept of community, or whatever. Just chill and allow things to naturally evolve without projecting some external or personal ideals, agenda, angst or needs into it.

When we chill and let God – rather than our preconceptions and expectations – build His church His way, based on the unique strengths and abilities present among you, all that other stuff will be taken care of. Trust me!

Really, God is sovereign. He is able to build His church. Let Him do it – in His timing, in His way, and through the people He has called together with their unique abilities and messy limitations.

True church ain’t perfect. It is gloriously messy. But in it all, God shines through as we learn to express Him not in perfection, but in the reality of a fallen world.

Drop the intensity. Drop the agenda. Drop the idealized vision of what community should be and look like.

Just chill out!

Smokin’ with Jesus!

So let me shock you out of your preconceptions of “church” and “community”. We have a fellowships that’s emerged in our county within a subculture where smoking is part of their ethos.

As they puff away, Jesus is present in the haze of the cigarette smoke. They gather each Saturday night, with an enthusiasm for Jesus that is amazing – and it extends throughout the week. Day or night, they are there for each other – helping and encouraging each other as they grow in Christ.

If smoking with Jesus offends you, get over it. I can tell you on good authority that Jesus is not offended. He is able to be expressed in contexts that you can’t even imagine!

Diversity

We have a passion for starting “organic” fellowships in communities considered on the fringe of society. Even the fellowship that meets in my own home – in a middle class “respectable” neighborhood – includes those who were homeless, destitute, imprisoned, addicted, abusers and abused. They are now moving forward, however, as the Lord redeems their lives in the context of real community.

Some of them in turn have started other fellowships in their own subcultures – in places many of you would not be very comfortable going. In fact, I’m not even going to mention some of those subcultures, because it would offend many to think God can be present in “those” people. But we have found His grace IS sufficient, and “those” people are becoming mighty men and women in His Kingdom!

From that context, please bear with me on a few more thoughts regarding Andrew’s refreshingly transparent blog.

Those who come to ekklesia (the Greek word in the New Testament for “church”, but which means far more than “church”) with a pre-determined agenda – as I mentioned above – will never last long. In real organic community and fellowship, we learn to prefer and submit to others (not some “leader”, but one another) above ourselves.

We may need to lay down not only our concepts of church and community, but also our political, social and economic agendas. For example, Andrew’s blog makes much of his disappointment over how the organic community in his area did not embrace his socio-economic views and mission.

I want to be careful about this. We do not give up our values nor need to be silent about them when we become part of a healthy church and healthy community. But neither do we have the right to expect others to adopt and submit to “my” mission and “my” views on things that are, at best, ambiguous in scripture and thus matters of individual conscience.

In true community, there is a rich tapestry of many gifts, motivations, callings and views. Your views are vital to the overall health of the fellowship where God has legitimately placed you, and you need to contribute your perspective – but not expect everyone else to submit to it.

Rather, in ekklesia you should be equipped and strengthened to do the things God called you to do, while helping to do the same for others in the things they are called to do. But you have no right to expect any fellowship – or any of God’s people – to conform to your calling or mission.

(As a aside, there are many “church planters” and “itinerant workers” would would do well to also learn that lesson.)

Submitting One to Another

Ekklesia is not about others conforming to our individual ideals and agendas – even if they are 100% God inspired for us and are what God wants and calls us to do with our own lives.

Seeking ekklesia with the expectation that it adopt or focus on our own ideals and agenda will never work. NEVER.

Agenda driven fellowships never last – seen it, done it, and have the scars to prove it.

Rather, we must each be faithful to what God has individually called us to do, and the unique things we have come to perceive and believe as part of our own mission and calling.

Ekklesia is where you are equipped and strengthened in those things God has gifted you to do. Add your calling and mission and perspectives to the tapestry of that community. But walk in humility with others who just might have other things and perspectives that God has given, called and equipped them to do.

Prefer them and their different gifts, motivations, perspectives and callings by honoring them even in your differences. Add your perspective, but also receive and be open to other perspectives and individuals as you learn to honor Christ in them and validate them as equal brothers and sisters in the Lord.

This is the essence of Godly submission. It is not about losing our unique distinctives, but neither is it about elevating our distinctives above others. In healthy community, I remain faithful to God’s calling for me, but honor His calling – and differences – in others.

And I do this even when I disagree with them on something that is extremely important to me, but not a clear Biblical essential.

Humility

When we fall into the trap of believing that our unique calling and perspectives take priority – and believe others are falling short of God’s purposes if they don’t conform to them – then ekklesia is impossible both for us and for others.

Although I disagree with Andrew’s socio-economic views, and can cite lots of scripture contrary to his views, so what?

In true fellowship, he can challenge me, and I him, but with the humility that says that we still honor God’s different callings in each other. In our fellowships, we have very diverse views on many issues – but we have unity on the essentials, with the freedom to talk and even laugh over our non-essential differences.

I am faithful to what God has shown me, while remaining engaged in the lives of others with different views. That allows others to add something of value to my own life, and to our shared community, from our different strengths and perspectives – without expecting others to conform to anyone’s individual calling or views on non-essential issues.

The Body of Christ

I am passionate about people being rooted in the wonderful, multifaceted, multi-called and multi-gifted Body of Christ, where we are engaged in true community while also going out into the arenas where God individually calls us.

God seems to have called Andrew into an innovative aspect of the labor movement, with a set of strongly held socio-economic views that are important to his calling but not essentials of the faith.

Others legitimately can go forth and honor Christ, as He directs, in other arenas – like business or politics or the military or the local homeless shelter or raising a Godly family – with differing views on those same non-essentials.

If we try to guilt or bend a fellowship into conforming to us and our own agenda – especially on things that are not essential and, frankly, are not clear in scripture – then we will never find true fellowship. We will have failed to submit “one to another”.

Honoring Others

Anyway, those are my feeble thoughts on Andrew’s blog from one who has learned some of this the hard way, but still has much to learn. I made lots of mistakes before God finally burned out of me the need for church to be about me and my gifts, calling, perspectives and motivations.

I have painfully learned not to make church and community an idol, and to chill out over what God wants to do and how He wants to do it.

Otherwise, I think Andrew’s blog is spot on in most of what he says – especially on the “leadership” issues.

I honor him as he adds his voice, and perspective, to the much needed dialog on the strengths and weaknesses of the “organic” community. We need more such blogs.

~ Jim Wright

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15 responses

  1. Whew! There are so many points here that resonate with my thinking. One thing though…

    Trying to force community never works. This is the common practice of cults and christendom in manipulative conversions. But, as one who is very concerned with transformational community development, It doesn’t hurt to identify and remove (to the best of our ability) those things that impede the gospel and thereby community itself. The gospel is communal. Fostering an environment of gospel gathering is a noble intention. Divide & Hurt or Unify & Heal? There’s far too much of the former.

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    • I totally agree. One of the things I’ve been thinking a lot about is the example of Luke 10 – not that it’s the end all and be all of church planting, but as an good example nonetheless.

      Jesus said to find the person or household of peace. That, I believe, was Jesus saying to find the entrance or focal point into existing community in the town you enter. However, if they don’t receive you, shake the dust of the hem of your garment and move on.

      So we go and find existing communities by focusing on the hub of those communities. We bless them in the Lord. But if they reject us and Him, we don’t try to force anything or waste our time – we move on.

      We’ve been learning how to apply that here and it seems Jesus was on to something!

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  2. I have not yet read Andrew’s blog, but find your points to be a wonderful illumination of the church. Hebrews 4:12 says that “God is not known by private interperatations, but by those who know Him and speak from His mind.” I feel you have done that in this blog. God has given us a sound mind, but He also warned of delusions and wolves in sheep’s clothing. I believe we can know a lot about the health of a group or church by the fruit, by the transparency, by the accountability beyond a small group of people. Christ’s followers do not look away from substantive matters of the heart- which are opportunities to address matters which are important. The Lord and those in Him are not afraid of accusations, because they are Light. And light always shines the greatest in darkness.

    I am thankful for your post. As I look back on my years following men I had not done my research on, I see that the move to “group think” was so gradual. Mixing some truth in with some deception is not the Truth. And to find out the lengths gone to cover up the past of people I put my trust in, was hurtful as I am still healing and apologizing to the Lord. Unfortunately, in today’s movement should one speak any truth, or voice any problem, they become the problem. Thank you for speaking and encouraging others to do so. With the intention of love, and feeling sorrow for those I love who are left behind in the world of deception, I want to express John 16:13, If your heart is purely seeking truth, the Holy Spirit will surely guide you there. Thank you Jim, like Isaiah reporting God commanding his people to speak up, you have done so. I will leave you with this Brother, “Blessed are you when men shall hate you” because I know you have been threatened against for speaking up. You have been an encouragement to me and many others.

    Jackie

    p.s. I have a blog, which is not public, but chronicles life out of the church I was a part of. I wrote it for my children, but have decided that when finished I want to share it with others. I will keep you updated. Thank you for your truthful, God-honoring, people honoring post.

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    • Jackie, thanks for those comments. They mean a lot to me. I would be honored to read your blog when you feel ready. I have been fascinated to dig into the history of the organic church community, and believe it is essential that more voices speak up about some of the unhealthy things going on.

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  3. I love the relaxed tone…it seems that individuals are so intense abut the ‘right’ way (for them and hence for you) they become uncomfortable to be around. “Where there is no vision the people perish.” probably has good applications, bukt I’m not sure that means someone has to define the collective vision.

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  4. Ok, delayed reaction to this post: there’s a related idea going around that seems to be blocking the activity of believers. That’s this idea that it’s impossible to do what God has commanded us to do.

    Given how related the terms “fear” and “reverence” are, I wonder if this is another form of idol worship.

    It seems like we give our failures too much credit. We are confident we’ll fail again, but instead of relying on grace we use our past failure as a reason not to try and obey Christ’s commands.

    Maybe it’s another form of self-worship – if I’ve failed, the problem can’t be my yet-to-be-completely-healed sinful self, it must be that the command is impossible.

    Sorry if I’m off-topic.

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  5. Jim,

    I liked your description of organic church in your opening to this post. You captured it so succinctly. Now, while I love concepts and ideals, I appreciate your warning too! Thanks.

    Like in a family, church is where everyone gives room for everyone else to grow. But, what does one do when the general view of a group is influenced by say a book or a person within or without the group to an unhealthy extent that it flavors the entire group? I know that we need God’s grace for seasons of this, but I’m sure that this grace can quite different at different times. Are there various ways that you have seen this handled successfully?

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  6. Enjoyed Andrew’s honesty as well. I am guessing that he is young and has yet to learn that idealism talks easy but doesn’t live out so easily. As you say, life is messy, even healthy people struggle in their work, marriages and families. The church is no exception because it is made up of sinners saved by grace, who begin spiritual life oriented to self and to the world’s ways. The Spirit, the word, the fellowship and all other aspects of life in Christ are intended to transform our hearts to be like Christ.

    Your insights about idolatry are spot on! I echo your call to “chill” but must admit that my optimism that it will be heard is very limited. Andrew’s experience highlights a common pattern of human behavior called iconoclasm. We build idols from the life around us, from people and institutions like the church. We place expectations of fulfillment on these objects of worship that only God can fulfill and conjure some even He refuses to honor. These objects of worship always fail to meet our unrealistic expectations (false hope) and we end up disappointed, disillusioned and angry. Then we set out on a mission to discredit the person or group so that they won’t hurt others or simply out of spite. Then if we fail to learn that our idolatry and unrealistic expectations set up the whole situation, we will begin our iconoclastic search for some new utopian solution to life in the devil’s world.

    As a marriage counselor, I see this pattern every day, even in my own life and marriage. We begin marriage expecting the union to make us happy and for it a time it might. But then the reality that we are joined to a flawed person with their own baggage and agenda that competes with ours sets in and the challenges begin. We blame the other, seeking to change them into our image and if we do not practice daily forgiveness and grow out of our unrealistic ideas, the marriage will produce bitterness with both trying to tear the other down. We make our idols and when they disappoint us, we destroy them. This is the most common pattern in marriage counseling. We make an idol out of marriage and expect our mate to provide fulfillment that only God can provide. When they don’t because they couldn’t even if they tried (and many try), we tear them down, blaming them for our unhappiness.

    If provided the resources God has made available to us, we can all grow out of this pattern and others, expecting less from our mate, freeing them to be who they are and loving them at whatever stage of growth they are. This kind of relating is what I believe you are expressing for the church and again, it is spot on! Good job!
    Al

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  7. “When we bring Christ to those existing communities, and let Him be uniquely expressed in those unique contexts, it’s amazing what then happens.”
    powerful statement and something i’m only beginning to realize. I lean towards high expectations and ideals that get in the way so its been a painful process working through all that.
    I read andrews blog and while i agree there are personal challenges at work, i would say his general observations are fairly accurate for far too many ‘organic’ churches/groups.
    I’ve seen this first hand where we can too easily dismiss differing values as mere conscience issues relating to ‘externals’ like politics or economics.
    I guess what I mean is that the kingdom is always disruptive even as it relates to subcultures. We just tend to have certain blindspots so while most western christians would agree christ in the midst of a bunch of drug dealers will influence change in a certain direction… we struggle to agree on what might happen if christ was in the midst of say bankers or soldiers or CEOs.
    In any case god does take his time so i agree we cant force things and should chill out.
    Fantastics points about idolatry.

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  8. Pingback: Ekklesia: Diverse or Cookie-Cutter? « Crossroad Junction

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