David Lim, an international leader in “organic” missions, wrote an important and probing article called Towards Closure.
Basically, he discusses (from a more academic but still very pragmatic standpoint) the difference between an “imperial” and an “incarnational” approach to church planting, the Great Commission and bringing Christ into new communities and contexts.
Like me, Dr. Lim is an advocate of organic (or simple) churches because he sees them as not only faithful to New Testament examples and principles, but as best able to fully express Christ in all His gloriously diverse ways in different communities and cultures.
According to him, when such churches emerge within the context of local communities, Jesus then becomes more fully “incarnational” (i.e., embodied and alive) in and through those communities.
He also makes another very important point: By allowing the Lord to adapt to each culture and setting, without imposing some intense, cookie-cutter concept of Him – and how His Church must look and operate – we avoid the trap of “imperialism”.
What I find interesting is how the “organic” concept of church is bearing so much fruit outside the West, but so little fruit in the West.
Then it dawned on me. In Dr. Lim’s part of the world, they have an incarnational approach to organic church (letting the life of Christ be uniquely expressed in diverse settings in diverse ways).
In the West, however, many have fallen prey to a much more imperial approach to organic church, by trying to conform to someone ‘s externally-imposed, cookie-cutter “vision” of Christ, His church and community.
Ironically, among our overseas “organic” brethren there is an intense submission to the discipline and authority of scripture, yet they have learned to allow Christ to become incarnate in very different cultures. They have no problem with both the Person of Christ and His propositional truths finding expression in wonderfully diverse ways.
In the West, however, the most stifling cookie-cutter approaches to organic church seem to come from those who reject the plenary authority of scripture. As a result, many have fallen prey to the plenary authority of this or that “organic” teacher and his own vision – which sounds good in a book, but often becomes very insular and cultish in actual practice.
In the U.S. and Europe, we need to listen to those like Dr. Lim and the lessons they have learned, while looking for the lessons to be learned by the failures among us. Our overseas brethren have much to teach us.
Some of those lessons are clear, although I bear sole responsibility for the conclusions I draw here from Dr. Lim’s article
In the West, the “organic” or “simple” church community by and large has not been incarnational, and thus not effective except in isolated pockets.
Its biggest failing, I believe, has been allowing this “church planter” or that “author” – through the popularity of some leading books and blogs – to push their very intense cookie-cutter concepts of what Christ, His church and community should look like.
Their vision may be “organic” – to the extent it advocates the legitimate Biblical ideas of participatory fellowships where folks can minister one to another.
Beyond that core essential, however, they have hurt the Church by injecting very intense and very specific concepts of how folks should operate as a fellowship – and what the authentic expression of Christ, both individually and as a community, must look like.
The result has been intense, insular, self-referential and very artificial “communities” – which often are short-lived or become stagnant because they lead to inevitable burn out.
Jesus is Diverse
What we have found in our own fellowships is that Jesus loves to become alive in very diverse communities, where Him can express Himself within – and through – the unique contexts of the very different cultures that exist all around us.
As such, we have learned to just chill out as we lay a very simple foundation of Christ and His Word, while then letting things naturally (or should I say supernaturally) evolve in wonderfully diverse ways among wonderfully diverse cultures.
By “culture”, folks often mistake that to mean something dramatic, like the U.S. culture verses, for example, Indonesia. Those certainly are different cultures, but in fact there is a rich tapestry of different cultures and subcultures right here in America – and that’s true to various degrees in most countries.
Furthermore, anyone who takes the time to look around their own home county or town likely will see many, many subcultures – each with their own ways of relating, communicating, acting and reacting.
God ain’t middle class American, tidy whitey or necessarily suburban – although He can express Himself even there!
He ain’t even primarily hip and post-modern millennial (really!).
He’s immigrant. He’s in the ‘hood. He’s homeless. He’s poor. He’s rich. He’s urban. He’s rural. And yes, he’s even suburban!
He loves being present wherever people find community – of whatever sort – and He wants to express His authentic, transforming life in and through all those settings.
The Great Commission
As such, our fellowships here in Virginia embrace the Great Commission and its command to “go” and make disciples of all cultures (the more accurate meaning of the Greek word often translated “nations” in Matt. 28:19) – even in our own region.
We don’t try to create “church” (organic or otherwise) and say come and find “community”.
Rather, we allow Christ to become alive within the context of each different culture in our county, thus redeeming those cultures as He wants. This allows us to avoid the imperialistic impulse to limit Jesus to some culturally-bound or personality-driven perception of Him and His Church.
We have found that although Jesus transcends culture, He delights in expressing Himself culturally – and will look very different in a suburban middle class setting than He does among those who grew up in the ‘hood as part of a “street” culture, for example.
As Dr. Lim notes, if we allow Jesus to come into and express Himself within existing communities and cultural contexts, rather than trying to impose our personal concepts of Christ and community on others:
New converts are encouraged to remain in their communities, follow local cultural and religious practices (unless they are clearly idolatrous, immoral or unjust), aim at family and communal conversions, and study the Scriptures themselves (1 Cor. 7:17-24; Acts 17:11).
In contrast, those in the organic church community who try to impose their own concept of Christ and community life – rooted in their own gifts, motivations, sensibilities and grand vision – have utterly failed at letting Jesus become incarnate in diverse communities and contexts.
Rather, they have only succeeded at reproducing their own perceptions of Christ and His Church, and foisting them on God’s people, under the guise of “organic” or some other such label – with often disastrous results.
The imperial organic approach – no matter how enticing the slogans - has totally failed.
It’s time for us in the West to become truly organic, and thus incarnational, once again.
Jesus and local expressions of His Church can never be reduced to some cookie-cutter imprint – no matter how intense, spiritual sounding or aspirational the book, blog, teacher, “worker” or vision.
Anyone who touts their own personal perceptions of Christ and the Church as normative for all – under some popular buzzwords like “organic”, “simple”, “missional”, “deeper life”, “grand epic”, or whatever – will fail.
The evidence of this is all around us, if we are willing to actually look behind the slogans.
Jesus is bigger and more diverse than anyone’s methods and concepts – which often are rooted in someone else’s own personal gifts, motivations, perceptions, personality and sensibilities.
Trying to gather and build community around some man’s own vision of Christ – no matter how enticing – rather than letting Jesus come alive in existing communities, just doesn’t work.
Really. It’s fun and exciting at first, but long term, it… just… doesn’t… work.
Instead, let’s go and introduce Jesus in new communities and cultures (including our own!) – but in ways that allow Him to become incarnationally alive within the unique context of each setting.
Go or Come?
In our fellowships here in Virginia, we have avoided the “imperial” crazy stuff that has plagued the organic church movement here in the West, and have learned to just chill out.
As we go and introduce the Lord into the existing communities and subcultures around us, He draws folks to Himself in their own context – rather than artificially drawing folks to, or trying to impose, our context.
Rather than saying come to us and our concept of Jesus and what “church” and “community” must look like, we go into their settings and let Him be expressed the way He decides and wants in each different context.
A Fork in the Road
Dr. Lim’s article is a good summary of the fork in the road facing the Church not just overseas, but in the diverse cultures that surround each of us where we live – including your own culture.
Unfortunately, many in the “organic” community here in the U.S. will think they are doing the “incarnational” model, but are not. They are very much following the imperial model, but packaging it in so-called “organic” wrappings.
It is time to finally break free, and realize that truly home grown organic is the best kind.