I’ve been thinking a lot about why significant segments of the organic church community in the Western hemisphere have failed to achieve Biblical viability – becoming instead anemic, self-focused and insular.
Even a casual observer must acknowledge that “organic” or “simple” churches in the West (unlike other parts of the world) seldom exhibit dynamic spiritual power; consistent reproduction, growth and maturity; or tangible, transforming impact.
In a word, why isn’t there consistent external fruit?
If you doubt my concerns, a very compelling survey from last year paints a grim picture. It’s the 2011 Report on Simple/Organic/House/Missional Church in the United Kingdom and Ireland (I’ll use “organic” to include all categories), and it confirms my own observations: Too many organic folks – and fellowships – are weak, anemic, introspective, insular and stagnant.
The conclusions documented in that survey are not isolated to just the UK and Ireland. From my own travels, and more recently from contacts I’ve made over the last several years, I have no doubt of similar “organic” problems prevail throughout the Western world – including the United States.
How to break out of this malaise has been a burning passion of mine, because the conclusions in that 2011 survey are very much contradicted by our own experiences where I live. While the folks I hang with are thoroughly “organic”, we definitely see passion, life, reproduction, maturity, spiritual power, transformation and impact.
Why the difference?
My Story and Experience
My spiritual roots are organic, going back to the Jesus Movement of late 1960’s and continuing into the early 1980’s. As that movement began to fizzle, however, many of those early “organic” fellowships slowly drifted into traditional, institutional structures.
Fortunately, God has been renewing a passion once again for open, participatory, multi-gifted, “one-another” and thus Spirit led gatherings and community – and that certainly has been true with me.
Like many, I finally left the institutional church a number of years ago following a major scandal. I and some others unexpectedly discovered the misappropriation of around a million dollars by one of our institutional church’s “pastors”. When we tried to Biblically address the problem, there was a heavy-handed hierarchical backlash, cover up and purge of all questioning members – including me.
Regardless, even before that happened, I had been moving more and more back to my “organic” roots and seeing great fruit outside that church as some of us started ministering in the jail and in other places where people were hungry for Jesus. Our raw, non-churchy proclamation of God’s Kingdom and Christ’s rule was having great effect.
Many were coming to Jesus in dramatic ways, but they just couldn’t “relate” when we tried to bring them to the Sunday morning “show”. So we started having gatherings in my home for those of like passion.
Although I’d filled many institutional church “leadership” roles over the years, I now felt I was in over my head. So I did what any good “organic” oriented Christian would do – I read all the books and eventually followed up with one very popular organic church author, Frank Viola. He had (and still does) a web site which solicited requests for a “church planter” to come and help new fellowships like ours.
As part of that process, I had some very pleasant communications with some of the “big names” of Organic World – especially those who write books and blogs emphasizing the need for a “church planter”to come assist folks like us. I was impressed with their accessibility and willingness to help.
But I had been around long enough to also do some behind-the-scenes fruit inspection before opening our fellowship to them.
And wow, was I shocked when I started doing some quiet checking. I found that generally speaking, they and those they promoted – like Frank Viola, Milt Rodriguez, Jon Zens, Ross Rohde and others – generally were not themselves in committed, local, and accountable fellowships.
I found they typically had a string of not just failed fellowships from their itinerant “ministries”, but a pattern of disastrous implosion after disastrous implosion extending over many years.
I found that they were very personable but also, to varying degrees, secretive and evasive about their own history of church problems and past affiliations, their personal lives, and their inevitable shortcomings (we all have them – just ask my wife, or even me!) – with a corresponding lack of healthy accountability that comes from the kind of transparency that authentic servant-leaders display.
And when I talked to others who knew them about whether they showed evidence of tangible, external fruit – beyond being really charming guys who had great aspirational ideas, liked to write books, organized workshops and spoke at conferences, and were generally good at promoting themselves in otherwise disarming ways – I largely came up blank.
Our fellowship made the wise decision to not to invite any of them to “help” us.
Now, I want to be clear. There are many mature, balanced organic church authors, bloggers and teachers – both men and women – who have proven fruit and a history of actual commitment to a local, healthy fellowship. They just weren’t into promoting themselves as the itinerant answer to all that ailed us – which I guess should have told me all I really needed to know – and so in our naivety, we didn’t think to approach them.
Since then, as we made our own necessary mistakes and learned more and more how to be an authentic community, I started looking into the the history of the “organic” scene in my part of the world – which is northern Virginia and the metropolitan, Washington, DC, area.
To be blunt, the very men we initially approached to help us – and I owe it to everyone to be frank and candid – had previously decimated the organic scene in our area as they foisted their pet theories, doctrines and practices on various fellowships that subsequently shriveled up and died. The more I learned, the more I was shocked.
To share just one example, our young fellowship eventually had a shared meeting with the one remaining older “organic” fellowship in our area which had ties to Frank Viola and his band of “workers” (their euphemism for “apostles”) like Milt Rodriquez and Jon Zens.
I was so excited about our upcoming get together, but what we actually saw as deeply disturbing. They were nice folk who had been in existence for many years, but with no growth in numbers, new believers or apparent transformational maturity.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not into numbers. But I am into fruit – like life reproducing life.
Instead of life, they were anemic. They were self-focused. They were introspective, very post-modern and existential. Even our youngest believer after just a month in the Lord could run circles around them when it came to real life, discernment and tangible fruit.
I’m sure they loved one another, and I’m sure they loved the Lord (at least, in their very limited post-modern, existential way). But they seemed all cut out of the same cookie cutter mold and their fellowship was largely irrelevant to anyone but themselves.
As I did some checking, I learned that they had longstanding ties with the very “organic” author and band of itinerant men we previously had considered asking to help us.
I also learned that those men had held one of their conferences in our area a year before, and that their prior influence and then subsequent conference effectively resulted the death of all things “organic” in our area – for reasons I list below.
Since then, I have seen time and again the same dead-end influences in other organic believers and fellowships around the country – and heard the same sad stories.
Yet it seems that the same teachings and practices that have failed over and over and over again continue to be touted in books, blogs and conferences among a small cadre of mutually-promoting authors, itinerant men and their followers. And because of it, I believe, the entire organic church community suffers.
Three Prevailing Hindrances
What I’ve seen, and my ongoing research into the history of the organic church community keeps confirming, is that our fellowships were fortunate. Unlike other fellowships, we avoided the three big hindrances that produced widespread wreckage among the rest of the organic community in our own area – and that continue to produce unhealthy dependence and irrelevance elsewhere.
Yet, despite the historic lack of real, tangible, external fruit – and in fact a history of resulting disaster after disaster – these three organic dead ends are still being promoted in various books, blogs and conferences today.
1. An extreme existentialism, often promoted under slogans like “Christ is All”, “deeper life” or some grand “Epic”. In fact, I’m expecting Frank Viola’s upcoming new book, Theography, to be yet one more step in his continuing decline into Karl Barthian existentialism and Barth’s associated “Christocentricity”.
(Note: In response to a comment below, I describe Christian existentialism in more detail for those who are interested.)
Such unbalanced existential focus elevates my personal experience of Jesus and any resulting personal “revelation” above all other attributes of Christ and all that He has given and commanded for us to grow up and advance His Kingdom.
Lately, this extreme existentialism is resulting in a growing failure to recognize – especially among second-generation devotees – valid distinctions between the Person of Jesus (and our experience of Him) and, for example:
- His creation (with gnostic tendencies that emphasize so-called “spiritual” matters to the exclusion of Christ’s Lordship and His continued engagement over all aspects of His creation and all spheres of human endeavor);
- The continuing validity of His external moral precepts and scriptural commands (with a seeming unease over the Great Commission, holiness, and discipleship);
- His multifaceted nature (with a de-emphasis on the diversity of gifts, callings and motivations within the Body of Christ, as they promote their own sensibilities and measure of Christ as normative for all); and
- The plenary authority of the Bible as the written Word of God (with a denial of our need to submit all personal “revelation”, subjective experience and life itself to the external standards God has given to insure healthy believers, fellowships and even societies).
The result is a purely subjective faith; introspective and anemic fellowships; and, frankly, the distraction of consistently weird theology.
2. The unbalanced teaching that dependence on a highly specialized itinerant “apostle”, church planter, teacher (or whatever else they choose to call themselves) is required to start or maintain a fellowship – rather than simply letting LIFE reproduce LIFE as God’s people naturally and dynamically express the passions He unleashes in them.
In reality, this dependence on itinerants often morphs into an unhealthy, limiting bottleneck that prevents exponential growth – especially when coupled with the very stifling view that only a handful of such qualified “apostles” and “church planters” actually exist today.
More often than not, the reality among those who promote itinerant dependence has been detached, unaccountable individuals who have a history of moving from disaster to disaster as they create cookie-cutter reproductions of themselves – their own individual limitations, sensibilities, pet doctrines, gifts and motivations – rather than diverse, free standing, self-governing and healthy fellowships.
As I have communicated over the last couple of years with some of these itinerant or otherwise detached authors, I have been struck by a very common trait. When I ask them about things they’ve written that seemed questionable, they would almost universally deny the clear meaning of their words. When then shown other things they wrote which said the same thing, they would then fall back into vague generalities or, in all candor, outright deceptive denials.
These guys often have very thin skin, because they are not accustomed to being directly questioned or held accountable. But it is critical that we ask hard questions – just like the Bereans did with Paul in the Book of Acts. And when you find a popular author, blogger or speaker who refuses to own his stuff or give clear, responsible answers, that is another very strong warning signal.
3. A misplaced focus on trying to build organic fellowships primarily by attracting those who are discontent and disillusion with the institutional church – rather than going into all the world (including your own community) and building ekklesia through the liberating proclamation of the good news of our glorious King and His liberating Kingdom to those who have never accepted, but are desperately receptive to, His transforming Lordship.
Jesus commanded us to go … into all … the world. This is so fundamental and important, that Jesus said the Holy Spirit specifically comes to empower us to fulfill this mandate. (Acts 1:8)
Instead, we often try to use the attractional model of the traditional church – come to us and experience Jesus with me and my like minded friends – to build new fellowships with those who are fed up and wounded by that model.
You may need to re-read that last sentence and let the irony sink in!
Sorry, folks, but it just doesn’t work. If you ignore the Great Commission and the command to go into all the world and make disciples of all cultures – including those in your community not cut from your own mold – you will remain stuck in your rut.
Our hurt, reaction and opposition to the institutional church can become the biggest rut of all. Yet this defines much of the organic community. I’m not saying it’s wrong to draw contrasts or address real problems, but finding our identity and fellowship in shared discontent will never produce long-term fruit.
True organic, we have found, means breaking out of those ruts. We do this by going into new places and help others experience Jesus in the context of their lives – among them and their friends.
It is not enough to expect others to come and find Jesus in my context – whether it be discontentment or even something positive – among me and my friends.
In fact, this third hindrance often goes hand-in-hand with many itinerant “church planters” who, if truth be known, seldom if ever “go” into the world to start truly new, indigenous fellowships.
Rather, many find it easier to attach themselves to struggling existing fellowships (which seldom seem to subsequently get much better and often actually die following several visits from the itinerant – after all, that fellowship’s problems came from reading the same guy’s books).
Or – and I find this especially bizarre – the itinerant tells you it is necessary to “come” to him by selling your house, giving up your job, moving across the country and relocating under his ministry.
Can you say “cult”?
On each of these three points, I am NOT saying it is either/or. We need the ongoing vitality of the existential, subjective experience of Jesus; there is a role for proper, balanced, transparent and accountable itinerant ministries; and there is a place for folks to come to existing fellowships – even if hurt and wounded by the institutional church.
But we can’t build healthy ekklesia around any of those as our primary focus.
Rather, it is a matter of balance and proper focus.
What Is Your Experience?
As I reflect on why some segments of the organic church community have borne authentic external fruit, but others have not, I am interested your own experiences.
What do you believe have been some of the biggest hindrances and dead-end beliefs and practices within the organic community in the Western world?
What have been the keys to real external fruit, and can you share your own related stories to illustrate your points?
If you have any personal experiences or stories that illustrate healthy organic fellowship, or hindrances to healthy organic fellowship, feel free to share them below.
If you don’t want to do so publicly, you can always pass along your thoughts and experiences by contacting me privately.
As I continue to ponder all this, I value your input.
~ Jim Wright
- Organic Worship (crossroadjunction.com)
- Half Grace – Part 1 (crossroadjunction.com)
- Myopic Ekklesia (crossroadjunction.com)