Observing Neil Cole and Ed Young Jr. is a study in contrasts. The soft-spoken Cole quietly entered the vacant sanctuary where we were meeting. He lingered in the back for a while before anyone realized he had arrived. By contrast, Young burst into the room with a shout—every head turned. The sanctuary was immediately electrified.
Their contrasting personalities are paired with very different approaches to ministry. Ed Young Jr. is senior pastor of Fellowship Church, a seeker-driven congregation that began in Dallas in 1990. After surpassing 20,000 in weekly attendance, Fellowship Church is still growing with a highly structured multi-site model that uses video broadcasts of Young's sermons. The megachurch now has four locations in the Dallas/Fort Worth area and recently launched its fifth campus in Miami, Florida.
Neil Cole is a pastor and the director of Church Multiplication Associates (CMA), a "growing family of organic church networks." Cole advocates a decentralized, micro-church strategy to reach the growing number of people who will never be attracted to a worship service. CMA began in 1990, the same year as Young's Fellowship Church. In that time, Cole's network has launched hundreds of churches in homes and coffeeshops across forty states and thirty countries.
The contrasts between Young and Cole are striking: extrovert and introvert, megachurch and microchurch, centralized and decentralized. But what's surprising is what these two leaders share in common. Beyond a passion for reaching the lost, both men played basketball in college and both majored in art. Both cut their pastoral teeth at megachurches, and both followed their fathers professionally—Young is a second-generation pastor; Cole is a sixth-generation lifeguard. These commonalities only make their divergent ministry strategies that much more intriguing.
Leadership editors Skye Jethani and Brandon O'Brien met with Young and Cole at Fellowship Church's Miami campus to discuss their different approaches to mission. Befitting Fellowship's attractional model, the entire church had been converted into a studio set for the summer sermon series, "At the Movies." Film posters and a marquee were displayed outside the entrance; even the restroom signage was changed to resemble dressing rooms.
While most pastors are probably not as committed to the seeker model as Ed Young Jr. or as gung-ho for the organic/missional model as Neil Cole, investigating the divergent ends of the spectrum is helpful for clarifying your own church's strategy for reaching out with the gospel.
How did you come to faith, and how did that inform the type of ministry you do today?
Neil Cole: I came to Christ in college and grew at a very strong megachurch. I ultimately went on staff there. Later, when the senior pastor left, our church went from 3,500 people to 600. So I've seen the struggles of being part of a large church staff.
After finishing seminary and leading a small church in L.A., my denomination asked me to oversee church planting in Southern California and Arizona. We really wanted our first plant to succeed, so we poured in a lot of money. We paid for two full-time pastors, a sound system, worship teams, lots of publicity, consultants and toolkits. But a year later the church died.
What went wrong?
Cole: I think God wanted to teach us something. The parables about the kingdom are usually about starting with something small, like a mustard seed. We learned a church cannot be bought; it must be planted. And that means starting small.
Ed Young: I grew up in a pastor's home, but when I went to Florida State University my understanding of the church changed. I was attending a good, traditional church in Tallahassee, and I invited my teammates from the basketball team to come. Nothing connected with them. That shocked me. I began seeing the church with a different set of eyes.
I eventually went on staff at my dad's church in Houston. Like Neil, I had the opportunity to be on staff at a megachurch. But I wanted to help start a new church that would be attractive and accessible to people like my college teammates. We moved to Dallas and began Fellowship Church. I didn't intend to start a megachurch; no pastor worth their salt does. We had no idea it would be so big.
Big is an understatement. You clearly invest a lot of energy and creativity in your worship services. Why?
Young: The worship event is the port of entry into the church. We have many, many, many, many other things that connect people to the church, like small groups and hospital visitation. Relationships are really important, but worship is the biggest entry point. So we are very intentional about our sermons and creating an experience.
Is it about attracting as many people as possible?
Young: Yeah, we want people to come and hear the gospel, but it's also about creativity. I think church should be the most creative place in the universe. That's a big part of who we are. The movie series we're doing right now, and the way this whole place is decorated and transformed, that's about creativity.
I've heard that you once preached from the turret of a tank. Is that true?
Young: (Laughing) That story always comes up. We had a guy in our church who said he owned a tank. I didn't believe him, so he took me to see it, and sure enough he had a tank. I was planning a message on spiritual warfare, so I thought it would be great to have a real tank in the church.
Are those ways to create buzz; to draw a crowd?
Young: Honestly, it just seemed like fun to me. Ultimately the creative stuff we do is about good communication. A tank is a great visual in a sermon. It's got to be about communicating the message. Period. We're not interested in creating a sideshow. Church cannot, cannot, cannot become a circus. If something isn't going to reinforce the message, we just don't do it.
But as word travels about the crazy things you've done, doesn't that attract more people?
Young: I suppose, but that's not why we do it. We want people to connect with the message of Christ, and we'll use creativity to make sure that happens.
Neil, how does your approach differ?
Cole: I was trained like Ed—to create a church experience as an outpost and invite people to find Christ there. One of our early plans was to rent a coffeehouse to reach young people in Long Beach. We were getting ready to launch. But in the middle of one of our strategy meetings God spoke to us and said, Why not go to the coffeehouses where they are?
Rather than trying to convert people from their coffeehouse to our coffeehouse where we could then convert them to Christ, we decided to bring Christ to them. So we started hanging out at their coffeehouses, and things started rolling. People started coming to faith in Christ. That's the difference between being centralized and decentralized.
What happened after they became believers?
Cole: We organized them into home groups that met every other week. They were so eager to grow and be together that they started meeting every week. Eventually I tried to launch a worship service, because that's what I was taught to do. People who had grown up in the church came, but none of the new believers did. I was expecting people to leave life to come to church. We learned that wherever life happens, church should happen.
So, the meetings in the coffeeshops became their churches?
Cole: Right. And it also meant that the mission continued to spread. After a person becomes a believer, we tend to extract them from their context where they're primed to make an impact. Then we plug them into the church. It isn't long before all their friends are Christians and the impact is lost.
What's been the impact of your decentralized model?
Cole: We are seeing churches multiplying because we focused on the micro level, not the macro level. We all begin life as a zygote; we start multiplying at the smallest possible level. If we can't multiply on a small scale, we'll never multiply on a larger scale.
Ed, we're sitting 1,500 miles from your church's main campus. Why have you chosen a large scale, multi-site model?
Young: First of all, I didn't think it would work. I sometimes call the multi-site movement the gymnasium of 2008. I remember as a kid all these churches were building gymnasiums and buying roller skates thinking that would cause growth. It may have worked for a few churches, and then everyone just copied the trend. It's tempting to think if we just open another site or launch satellites we'll grow. I was skeptical.
But do you believe it's working for Fellowship?
Young: Yes, it's working, but I'm not just talking about numbers. I'm talking about lives being changed. Numbers are great, but what do they represent? We're seeing people come to Christ. If that wasn't happening, it wouldn't matter how many sites we have or how many people are attending.
With multiple sites in multiple cities, how do you now see your role as the pastor?
Young: I like to say I lost control of Fellowship Church as soon as we grew larger then one hundred people. The role of the pastor changes as you get bigger; it become less about control and more about influence. I believe churches are led by leaders. I believe God gives one person the vision—the pastor. I don't believe a committee-led church can be as effective as a pastor-led church. That doesn't mean a pastor shouldn't be accountable to anyone. It's not a dictatorship, but there needs to be strong leadership. My wife and I have four kids. If we put everything up to a vote, the immature would win every time. It doesn't work.
Neil, what does leadership look like in a dispersed, organic church model?
Cole: In Ephesians 4, Paul talks about five leadership roles—apostle, prophet, evangelist, teacher, and shepherd. And he says leaders are called to equip the saints to do the ministry. So the evangelist isn't called to reach the lost, but to equip other believers so they can reach the lost.
The difference between a skilled Christian and a true leader is how interested they are in the success of other people. It's about equipping others instead of being the superstar yourself.
Has your movement been effective at that kind of leadership?
Cole: Yes, but not always. Back at my office we have a shelf we call The Shelf of Shame. We put all of our unsuccessful projects and resources on display there. Some resources may have been successful at addition, but they didn't multiply leaders—they didn't translate into other cultures. So we shelved them.
I don't know too many ministries that display their failures like trophies.
Cole: I had an art professor whose critiques were harsh. People hated him, but I didn't because he taught me not to fall in love with my own creations.
That's why we have the shelf of shame. It teaches us not to love our own creations too much. We've got to be willing to let go, to scrap things we've made.
Christianity at its core is about dying to one's self. The shelf teaches us not to take ourselves too seriously, and to trust Christ more. That shelf contains some of God's best lessons to us. So we're not ashamed of the shelf—we celebrate it.
Ed, what has been an unexpected lesson you've learned since launching Fellowship Church.
Young: When I started, I didn't realize the financial mantle the pastor carries. Even though I grew up in a pastor's home, I didn't understand what a significant part of ministry that was. Whether your church has a hundred people or ten thousand, the financial burden is a heavy one. I used to be scared to talk about giving, but that was a mistake.
It's part of ministry, and it's part of growing in Christ. I feel that burden, but I use it to help people grow in their faith through giving.
Cole: A lot of pastors feel that pressure, but I don't. Church Multiplication Associates has only one and a half employees. We don't have any overhead. We don't really have a budget for anything.
And you've planted churches in forty states?
Cole: Early on, we were fully supporting our church planters, but we realized the cost of reaching even one city would be huge. Using traditional planting methods, it would cost $80 billion to reach Atlanta! To have a spontaneously multiplying movement, we needed everybody involved. So we stopping paying church planters. The next year we got more, and better, leaders because they weren't looking for their next career move.
So fewer paid staff means more growth. That contradicts conventional thinking.
Cole: Three things deter spontaneous multiplication: buildings, budgets, and big shots. They may add to the kingdom, but they deter spontaneous multiplication. If ministry requires a highly trained, professional staff member, then an ordinary person is prevented from doing it.
And buildings may be useful, there's nothing immoral about them, but they don't multiply. If buildings grew out of the ground, that would be nice. But they don't. If we have to wait for the space and money to build facilities, we're not going to multiply very quickly.
Imagine that God calls you to make disciples in Chicago, where we live. How would you begin?
Young: Fellowship Church started in order to reach people, like my teammates, who don't connect with the church. I'd probably launch a church in Chicago like we've done in Dallas and in Miami—one that connects with people who don't go to church.
What are some of the key steps in that process?
Young: We'd need to find a team and a campus leader to run the church in Chicago. Our leader here in Miami came from a site in Dallas. We'd need someone like him to move to Chicago. There would be a giving campaign to support the effort—there's that financial mantle again. We'd need to find a facility to rent or buy. Eventually we'd launch a worship service and start reaching out to the community.
Would you use video preaching?
Young: Probably. That's what is working for us right now, but we're always open to new ideas.
Neil, how about you?
Cole: We would drop two people off in Chicago and then spend a lot of time in prayer.
Cole: We want to see a kingdom epidemic. That begins by sending a carrier of the virus. It doesn't really matter if that's me or someone else, but we think sending pairs is really important. You see that all the time in Scripture. But it starts very small.
What happens once the team is on the ground?
Cole: Our two workers will walk the streets of Chicago, in prayer, with their eyes and hearts seeking God's direction. Once they make some connections and engage a community, they'll look for a person of peace that God has prepared. We believe that if God calls us to start a church somewhere, then he's already prepared a person of peace in that city. When that person comes to faith, a chain reaction begins.
What about actually organizing a church?
Cole: In Matthew 10 and Luke 10, Jesus sends his disciples out. He tells them to stay in one house, or oikos. The word really means a household; a social web of relationships. That's where they find the man of peace. When he comes to faith, rather than extracting him from his oikos and into a church, he is positioned to transform his original oikos. That transformed network becomes the church.
I think that's why Jesus told his disciples to stay in one house. He didn't want them to carry the gospel from house to house. He wanted it to spread like a virus, an epidemic, from one carrier to the next. That's a chain reaction. That's multiplication.
Apart from reaching the lost, how is your church maturing disciples?
Young: Sometimes larger churches are accused of not doing discipleship well, but that's not the case. The truth is we have more people at more stages of maturity, so just looking at a few doesn't give an accurate picture of what is really going on. I like to think of Fellowship Church as a table, and the pastor is the dude with the food. In one chair are people who don't know Christ. In another chair are the new believers. In the last chair are the most mature—what I call "the core." We want to move people from the first chair to the third.
As your paid staff has gotten bigger, has it made people less involved in serving and ministry?
Young: It's a big staff, but considering the size of our church it's small. That forces us to give the ball of ministry to the people, and we measure what they do with it. We're always asking, are they serving, are they tithing, are they bringing new people? We give them a lot of responsibility in our programs, and some don't like it. That's ok. I tell them that Fellowship Church probably isn't for them.
Cole: Most churches try to mature people by using programs. But if the program is the agent of change, then the program gets the glory.
But can't Christ use the program?
Cole: Yes. I'm not saying it doesn't work. I'm saying it's not always the most effective way to mobilize changed lives. We want people to imprint on Christ from day one. Imprinting is a term from ornithology, the study of birds. When a baby gosling hatches, it imprints on the first moving object it sees. That object becomes its mother, and the gosling expects to be fed and protected by it.
When a person comes to faith in Christ, most churches tell them to just sit back and receive. They're spoon fed by the church. And what happens? They imprint on the church or the pastor. They expect the church to do everything. And we wonder why there are so many passive Christians.
What is the alternative?
Cole: Christ immediately deployed people. Matthew was back with his friends. The Samaritan woman went back to her village. When a brand new Christian is thrust into a hostile environment with a mission, they're going to pray like crazy. That makes them imprint on Christ immediately.
But they still need to learn and mature in their faith. How does that happen?
Cole: We use LTGs—Life Transformation Groups. It's a gender-specific group of two or three that meets together once a week for about an hour. Every week, every person commits to reading thirty chapters of Scripture.
Young: Thirty? That's incredible.
Cole: They'll meet together to confess any sins. And the group's goal is to reach someone else for Christ. That is what makes it different from an accountability group—it has a missional focus. Our goal is to multiply groups of two or three, because ultimately a church is only as good as her disciples, no matter how good the programs are.
What do you see as the greatest challenge facing the mission of the church in the years ahead?
Young: I'm always hearing about new ideas that churches are trying, but I'm concerned that we're making things too complicated. We've got to fight to keep things simple. I tell leaders, I don't just want to hear about something new you're adding. Tell me about the things you're subtracting. To be effective in the future, we've got to resist the temptation to make our systems overly complicated.
Cole: The way we've done church for the last fifty years, the attractional model, is going to reach a certain population, but we're getting close to tapping out that market. We have to think in terms of mobilizing the kingdom to go where people are. Too many Christians are passive and unengaged. They may listen to Christian radio and read Christian books, but they're not communing with God directly. Therefore, they are not dynamic witnesses, and they rely on the church to do all the missional work. We need to help people hear from God directly and obey him.
Copyright © 2008 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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