I love the work that Neil Cole is doing—and Alan Hirsch (The Forgotten Ways), Bob Roberts (Transformation: How Glocal Churches Transform Lives and the World), Frank Viola (Finding Organic Church), and many, many others.
In one form or another, they are champions of "organic church." The term is fluid, but it contains at least three ingredients: Frustration with the-church-as-we-know-it, a focus on people (vs. programs) and mission (vs. institutional maintenance), and a vision to transform the world.
As Neil Cole put it in his book Organic Church, "It is not enough to fill our churches; we must transform our world." He puts it similarly in his latest effort, Church 3.0. The book is ostensibly about how to shift from program-driven and clergy-led institutions to churches that are "relational, simple, intimate, and viral." Still, says Cole, "Changing the church is not the idea of this book … . The only reason to shift from Church 2.0 to Church 3.0 is to change the world."
I love the passion. And the prophetic word to institutionalism (believe me, I know the evils of institutionalism: I'm an Anglican!). And the vision to make Christ's love and grace known to the four corners of the planet.
What I worry about is the coming crash of organic church. And after that, I worry about the energetic men and women at the forefront of the movement. Will they become embittered and abandon the church, and maybe their God?
On not kidding ourselves
That the organic church movement will crash, I have no doubt. Every renewal movement in church history has either derailed immediately or produced temporary renewal at the expense of long-term unintended consequences. Church historians tells us that in 11th- and 12th-century Europe, churches and chapels sprang up all over the continent, signaling a revival of faith after the centuries formerly called "the dark ages." It was one of the most viral, church-planting movements in history. Unfortunately, it nurtured a fervency that longed to transform the world for Christ—which soon bore fruit in the Crusades.
Other examples of viral, organic faith gone to seed are found in Calvin's Geneva, Puritan America, and the imperialistic mission movement of the 19th century. A careful reading of these events suggests that the reformers were nothing but well-intentioned, devoted followers of Jesus just trying to make a difference in the world. And that they did—one could say they changed their worlds for the good in significant ways. But the unintended consequences—especially for the reputation of the church and Christians—make their efforts an arguable trade-off. Not exactly the type of transformation we dream of.
Take away the extreme examples, and look at the ongoing, normal, everyday life of the local church, century after century. It is not a bright example of evil, but merely good intentions in a coma. Institutional. Programmatic. And full of people whose lives look anything but transformed. Churches time and again, in culture after culture, look like they are composed of nothing but sinners. We are kidding ourselves if we think, finally, our generation will turn things around.
This is precisely why many of my seminary classmates have abandoned ministry. They ran into a brick wall of legalism or lethargy or just plain Christian hardness of heart and said, "Enough is enough." I have one California friend who would much rather put up with the headaches of the business world than those of the church. I dare say every reader of this column knows one or more ministry leaders who are burned out and angry.
So, when the organic church movement has run its course—maybe in this generation, or maybe in two or three—then what? What will become of those who have given their best years and their hard earned fortunes to the cause only to see that the world is not, in fact, transformed, or that they have sown the seeds of some bitter unintended consequence? Or what if the church never quite gets it and reverts to its old institutional self? I fear they may become bitter at the church and at God. It would be perfectly understandable if they did. It is a terrible thing to be disappointed by God when you've sacrificed all to promote what you think has been his purpose.
But it is in the midst of such disappointment—even inevitable disappointment—that we see afresh Paul's wisdom in encouraging us to be "obedient from the heart" (Rom. 6:17).
A more excellent way
The fact that everything we undertake will fail to produce the results we hope for is not a reason to do nothing. Far from it. The mistake we sometimes make is doing only those things we imagine will make a difference. When that is the case, our motive—the thing the drives us—is change. If change doesn't happen, or happen in the way we expect, we have no recourse but to fall into a funk. But there is a more excellent way.
That is the way of love, or more particularly, loving obedience. Jesus doesn't call us to make a difference in the world, let alone to transform the world. In the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:13-16), he does tell us that we will be "salt"—that is, we will preserve the world from complete self-destruction. No small thing that, but hardly world transformation. He also tells us we will be "light," that is, we'll help people see his truth. But when people see truth, often only hardness of heart sets in. Or worse: hostility erupts, and the bearers of the light are thrown into prison and killed, and the recipients of light remain in darkness.
Salt and light—that's about the extent of our effectiveness. Nothing about transforming the world through our efforts. Make no mistake: Jesus does indeed call us into the world to do stuff: preach, baptize, teach, and heal. But he does not promise results. Faithful diligence in such tasks will sometimes change lives and change communities. Whenever this happens, we can rejoice that God has permitted us to see him at work! But a lot of times when the church has obeyed faithfully, we've only received hardship—violence that seems to make things worse for victim and perpetrator alike.
The fact is that sometimes God calls us to do things that make no sense to those who calculate the effectiveness of every act. Like his calling a 20th century Albanian nun to comfort the dying of Calcutta in their last hour. Or like the 18th century Bartholomew de las Casas, who felt called to speak out against brutal treatment of indigenous people in the Americas—only to be completely ignored in his lifetime. Or going further back, like the patriarch who was told he should take his only son—the product of miracle and grace—and sacrifice him on Mt. Moriah.
Our God appears not to be particularly taken with efficiency, effectiveness, or our changing his world. He is mostly interested in our obedience. What he longs for is not people who make a difference in the world, but people who listen for his call and lovingly respond—no matter how absurd or impossible the command.
When the focus is on loving obedience to a loving Father, what difference does it make if it doesn't seem to do any good? What difference does it make if the world or church is not transformed by our lights? When our motive is results, we are bound to be disappointed, because we live in a tragically fallen world that is stubbornly resistant to transformation. But when we focus on obedience to a sovereign heavenly Father, who in love is redeeming his creation in his own time and way (often mysteriously)—well, how could we ever be dismayed?
In his providence, God has raised up in our day men and women who rail against church-as-usual, church-as-program, church-as-institutional-management. They are telling us something true and vital about the church. They are disturbing the religious establishment, upsetting our pious social order, causing a holy chaos! These are prophets in our midst whom we should honor, and for whom we should have ears to hear.
And for whom we should pray—that they would keep their eyes not on the prize of transformation, but that their ears may continue to hear and obey that still small voice that called them into ministry in the first place. Only then will they be among us, challenging and energizing us, even when things look as disappointing as ever.
Mark Galli is senior managing editor of Christianity Today. He is the author of Jesus Mean and Wild: The Unexpected Love of an Untameable God (Baker).
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Previous SoulWork columns include:
How to Have a Merry Christmas | And it doesn't require you doing another blessed thing. (December 23, 2009)
Waiting for Jesus to Show Up | Moving from loving the idea of loving God to loving God. (December 10, 2009)
The Impossibility of Thanksgiving | Why gratefulness is more gift than duty. (November 25, 2009)