Ekklesia: Diverse or Cookie-Cutter?

be_healthyAs I delve into the history and status of the organic church community in the U.S. (and to some extent Europe), I’ve been impressed with how some “church planters” are able to help diverse fellowships emerge. Each fellowship they help looks very different based on the context of its own local community.

Others, however, seem to forge fellowships that look strangely the same – and like them – from locale to locale.

The former church planters seem, over time, to do much better – but they are more low key and unassuming than the latter.

The latter tend to have much tighter control over the churches they relate to, but do not seem to produce lasting health. Instead, they tend to create cookie-cutter imprints of themselves, rather than authentically diverse expressions of the Body of Christ rooted in existing local community.

Those cookie-cutter fellowships typically implode after a few years as the strains of conforming to the “worker’s” grand vision, pet doctrines and peculiar practices – which often are somewhat cultish but not obvious at first – finally take their toil.

I also see that the former tend to “go” and help establish fellowships within existing communities and let them find their unique identity, whereas the latter often urge people to come and move to them to be – in essence – part of their identity (although they always claim it is an expression of Christ).

Again, this seems to be a significant factor in whether the resulting fellowships are healthy. Helping ekklesia emerge within existing community and its cultural context, rather than urging new community to coalesce around the church planter and his concept of ekklesia, seems to be much more fruitful.

Of course, these problems with cookie-cutter fellowships also can emerge with local leaders, and are not unique to itinerant “workers”. (One of the best blogs I’ve seen on healthy local leadership was posted this morning by Tim Day, Running for Overseer.)

Nonetheless, discovering these differences as I listen to folks around the country tell their stories – for good and for bad – has helped shape my own approach with the fellowships in our area.

Go, rather than come…

Diverse fellowships rooted in existing local contexts…

Bringing ekklesia into community, rather than hoping community emerges from ekklesia…

None of these are absolutes, but if you read how Jesus did it in Luke 10, these seem to conform to His approach. And if that was good enough for Him, then I guess it should be good enough for us  – not as a rigid model, but as a reflection of important principles that we ignore at our own peril.

Finally, I want to emphasize that many healthy fellowships emerge without the help of outside “church planters”, “workers”, “apostles” (or whatever they want to call themselves) – so I am not saying they are required.

In fact, the “organic” fellowships which are the most healthy here in northern Virginia were not started or aided by any outside “worker” – whereas the one remaining fellowship near us that was (most have folded) is – it seems to me – not so healthy.

I am open to having or not having outside help. But where an itinerant helper plays a role, I have been fascinated to see the contrast between those who “go” and help diverse fellowships emerge within existing local contexts, and those who say “come” and coalesce around me and my vision.

I’d be interested in your thoughts, experiences or observations on this.

Feel free to leave a comment (sharing our stories openly helps many others), or you can contact me privately.

~ Jim

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6 responses

  1. I’m sure you’re right. We have also been seeing increasingly that the Lord plants things which are best fitted to the soil around them. No plant looks the same. Where we try to copy other expressions of His life, unfitted to the soil where we are, we fail. We’re more and more realising that the Holy Spirit knows best what fits where. In the religious structure where we were previously, the leadership was constantly trying to copy elements which they had seen in other churches – be it from West Redding, Pensacola or Lakeland. They meant well, but all these initiatives failed and left people emptier than before.
    I like the emphasis you put on Luke 10. It’s a salutary reminder for the church to get out there and love the poor and wounded. The only times where we have actually picked fruit has been when we have done this. At the moment we seem to be in a sowing time, plus the Lord’s dealing with us in our character. We certainly don’t want to become a waiting room for people who have left other groups where they are unhappy. I’ve noticed a tendency to rely on this, more than getting out there. It may seem cosy to lick each others’ wounds, but after a while, the taste wears off. Something we definitely need to watch.

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  2. Jim,

    As you said, those shared stories are incredibly helpful. I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised: a true account that serves as evidence is by definition testimony. Our testimony is that doing what Jesus said to do is actually practical not just idealistic.

    Just knowing that the advance of the Kingdom described in the Gospel is still occuring through attempts at obedience (and no thanks to man-made, extra-Biblical procedures) actually changes my thought patterns from theoretical / philosophical to practical.

    I suspect the next step is the natural building of family relationships between groups that are diverse geographically, culturally, and in other ways. I’m looking forward to it.

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  3. very helpful insight once again thanks jim. bringing ekklesia into community, such a powerful concept but also something that goes against much of what we’ve heard.

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  4. I absolutely share your opinion! I have been both active and passive partaker in church plantings. The most crucial point is, to let go of control and allow the Holy Spirit – allow the Lord himself to take over control and build his church while we are helpers. That does mean that sometimes my personal opinion about things will not be respected by the ones who start up their own church. Or better – the church of the Lord Jesus Christ. This again has challenged me to look at my own beliefs in a closer and better way. I also favor a multiple church planter approach. It is much better for a startup group to have various teachers from various backgrounds. Then I also find that emerging churches in their own setting, in their own environment, tend to be difficult and of mixed origins, both with respect to the background of the people who came and the teachings these people bring into the church. This helps the young group to learn together grow together and be able to listen to the voice of Jesus more closely. We are nothing but servants, church builders and coworkers of Jesus. Everyone of us is really, really limited. The better we are able to serve in our assigned function, the better the body of Jesus Christ will function.

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  5. “Those cookie-cutter fellowships typically implode after a few years as the strains of conforming to the “worker’s” grand vision, pet doctrines and peculiar practices – which often are somewhat cultish but not obvious at first – finally take their toil.”
    I have often asked myself why I could not detect the cultishness early on in my tenure. Perhaps they are on their good behavior or, to use a fishing analogy, they are paying out line until the hook is firmly set. Lately my biggest lesson from God seems to be how to distinguish when to contribute and when to be quiet and just listen…sit on my hands and shut up.

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  6. Pingback: Finding Organic Health « Crossroad Junction

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