Interview with:

Neil Cole,
author of
Organic Church: Growing Faith Where Life Happens

by Christianity Today

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.

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.

I was trained —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.

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.

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.

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.

Would you use video preaching?

Cole: We would drop two people off in Chicago and then spend a lot of time in prayer. 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.

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.
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?

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.

Don’t miss reading this book!!!

981290: Organic Church: Growing Faith Where Life Happens Organic Church: Growing Faith Where Life Happens

By Neil Cole / John Wiley & Sons

Churches have tried all kinds of ways to attract new and younger members – revised vision statements, hipper worship, contemporary music, livelier sermons, bigger and better auditoriums. But there are still so many people who aren’t being reached, who don’t want to come to church. And the truth is that attendance at church on Sundays does not necessarily transform lives; God’s presence in our hearts is what changes us. Leaders and laypeople everywhere are realizing that they need new and more powerful ways to help them spread God’s Word. According to international church starter and pastor Neil Cole, if we want to connect with young people and those who are not coming to church, we must go where people congregate. Cole shows readers how to plant the seeds of the Kingdom of God in the places where life happens and where culture is formed – restaurants, bars, coffeehouses, parks, locker rooms, and neighborhoods. Organic Church offers a hands-on guide for demystifying this new model of church and shows the practical aspects of implementing it.


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