Why we “organic types” shouldn’t abandon the established church.

Empty School Bus

If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll know there’s been a movement going on in the church for the past few decades, picking up momentum over the past 10 years or so. An increasing number of God’s people are shunning organised religion and seeking organic expressions of church life. They can clearly see the problems inherent in the “machine” of institutional church, and they’ve decided to get off the bus. They are swapping rows for circles, Sunday sermons for missional communities, formal lectures for interactive learning, and professional clergy for the priesthood of all believers.

People make the decision to get involved in organic church for various reasons. Some are deeply hurt by traumatic experiences in institutional church. Others are searching the New Testament for the original design for God’s church. Still others are bored with the traditional “sit+sing+sermon” model of service delivery, and long to find something more.

I celebrate the changes that are happening. I love to see the creativity and vision of the organic church movement, in all it’s many forms. But I’m also worried. There’s a danger that our disappointment and discouragement may cause us to abandon the established church altogether. I want to put forward a few reasons why we “organic types” must not completely give up on the institutional church (despite all her problems).

#1. There is only one church.
God has established Jesus as the only head of the worldwide church. Each and every Jesus-follower is part of the same church – even the ones who worship differently from you and I, or interpret the Scriptures differently. The established church is filled with millions of our brothers and sisters in Christ, men and women who long to follow Jesus, love people and change the world – and they’re worshipping God the way they’ve been shown and taught. If we think we have a better model, we owe it to them to communicate it effectively (not aggressively).

#2. The church needs us
We are the risk-takers, the change-embracers, the non-conformists, the free-thinkers. We are discontent with what is, and seek a vision for what could be. We question the status quo. We have useful experience, practical knowledge, and prophetic imagination. We’ve made mistakes – and learned from them (which is even more valuable than our successes). We’ve been thinking about and studying the issues relating to church and culture for some time. The established church needs our input if she is to navigate this season of change.

#3. The world is watching. 
The world is watching God’s church closely, and with great interest. Have you seen how excited they are about the current Pope as he confronts the institutionalisation of the Catholic church? It may seem strange, but the world is longing for the redemption of the church. They don’t want us to be self-absorbed, inward-focussed, fragmented, greedy, judgemental, hypocritical or irrelevant. They are curious to see what it looks like to follow Jesus in community. They crave the hope we offer, our capacity to point to God. They are horrified and disappointed by what they have seen in the past, but they still have a faint hope that we may, indeed, have something to offer them.

#4. The time is now. 
We are living through a time of rapid change to the underlying structures of our society. The connectedness of the internet and social media is overturning our established ways of relating to one another, and opening up a world where everybody can have a voice and participate. We are no longer restricted to one-way broadcasting methods of communication, as we were in the past. Church-as-we’ve-always-known-it isn’t appealing in the 21st century. The message hasn’t changed, but it’s time to rethink the model.

I’m grateful for the leaders in the organic church movement who have not cut their ties with the institutional church, but are clearly communicating a new vision of how churches can be more missional, more relational, more empowering. Alan Hirsch, Neil Cole and Mike Breen are just a few of those who are working alongside “normal” churches to help them shift their way of thinking and discover a new paradigm for God’s people in community.

I’m not asking you to sit silently in rows and be a passive audience member. I think you have a gift to offer God’s church, in your own unique way. I think your voice, your story and your vision are important, even critical. This is a time to be courageous and creative, to take risks and forge new pathways. To ask big questions and challenge the-way-we’ve-always-done-things. To paint pictures of what could be. To let go of hurt and resentment, and seek ways for God’s church – with her weakness and her beauty – to face tomorrow in unity and maturity.


12 thoughts on “Why we “organic types” shouldn’t abandon the established church.

  1. Well said! Exposure seems to be the next way for someone to be able to even consider alternatives. We must taste and see, right? If there is just finger pointing or debate, it just ends in stronger fortresses.

    I struggle to work alongside. My passion makes me impatient. But, I fully see that it needs to be moderated by Holy Spirit’s gentle persuasion. He inspires me, and I know He can teach me how to teach.

    I love your perspective Kathleen!

    • I relate to your impatience, Eric! In fact, I’m pretty sure the organic movement attracts the “pioneers” and “early adopters” – who are the ones most likely to get frustrated with the majority as they take their time deciding whether to get on board. Some of us need to provide a “bridge” (and learn to bite our tongues) to facilitate the process. (I’m not always good at the tongue-biting thing, although I’m trying to be).

  2. So true. I do have a question though: You mention we need to ‘work alongside normal churches to help them shift their way of thinking’. The names (Hirsch, Cole, Breen) you mentioned are all recognized leaders. Some traditional churches will give them a certain level of respect (or at least listen to what they have to say) based on their status. For the majority of us that are ‘regular’ followers of Christ we do not get the same courtesy. So my question is What does that look like for most of us who have no influence within a traditional church?

    • Such a good question, Mark – and one we wrestle with, also.

      Ultimately, I think we “little people” are more important than the “big guys”. We need to make the small, grassroots changes. We need to engage our brothers and sisters in gracious dialogue, listening to them as well as sharing our ideas and experiences. We need to pursue the values we desire to see in the larger church, and put them into practice.

      The “early adopters” play the most pivotal role in any period of change, by demonstrating to the early majority that change is safe and desirable. Once the early majority get on board, everyone else starts to follow. That makes us the “bridge-builders” and “pioneers”, willing to take the risks for the benefit of everyone else.

      Hope I’ve answered your question! Blessings,

      – Kathleen

  3. Hi Kath, I think what you say should always be an option, just as getting out must always be an option. We need to very seriously pray for God’s guidance about which course to take at any given stage in our lives.

    Mark, we are currently in a traditional church which holds very tightly to power and control. But we have worked where we were able, and this happened to be in building a social justice group within the church which now numbers more than 20 people. We have gradually begun new activities and now have some respect and influence within the church. I would hope we can build from here to gradually show the church how to relinquish a little control, empower and delegate to lay people and do genuine mission in the community rather than just attractional come to us in the unlikely event you are interested “mission”.

    There’s a brief rundown of our story here, plus a few principles we believe may be useful. I think if we are in a traditional church, just talking at the leaders may not often work – it will likely be seen as negative. Perhaps the best way forward may be to find positive things we can do and have a little autonomy, so we can follow more inclusive postmodern relevant approaches that will be seen in a positive light, and then hope to build from there by example.

    • Thanks Eric. I don’t mean to imply we can’t leave unhealthy churches and join organic churches – just that we shouldn’t reject and make enemies of the institutional church.

      Thanks for the link to your story!

      – Kathleen

  4. there are a number who see themselves as helper-reformers of the institutional church. That’s interesting, since Martin Luther (and others) approached helping the larger institution of his day as an aid into the “one church” — a bit naive for the young scholar, Martin, since the RCC already had a long history of both divisions and entrenchment.
    Through years of an organic church movement, hearing some trickle of reaction from inner chambers of “mainline” and “mega” dependent in a system of worship & religion: some growing dissatisfaction in that, well, it seems the organic ideas and liberties aren’t as much widely appreciated long-term as we may hope. Add to this, a stream of folks running back into their fave ICs with fresh conviction that organic church must be bad for Christianity because _____ (fill in their dissatisfactions here).
    In part because “organic church” has been cast as a “movement”, there comes an expectation that it will eventually wind-down. When HC, and later OC, was picking up speed, I remember a pastor or 2 commmenting how “they will be back”… since then sentiment progressing toward “need to come back”, and even “re-join the church”. The label “cult” is popping more frequently with the passing months, now enhanced via a few names-with-a-history. (a “cult” presumably needs a “cult leader”, right?)
    On face, IC may seem copestetic with organic church, while stirring on the inside to re-write the OC wiki and be getting on to the next set of church-enhancing programs. After all, this little organic-churching thing appears to both Rome and Baptists as little of nothing on scale of the Protestant Reformation or Revival.
    If you’re cool with the operations & dictrine of a select denominational church or 2, what’s coming may be of little import. It’s likely that somewhere nearby will be a new cell group where we can at least imagine ourselves “simple” or “organic”.

    • You may be right, Marshall – it may not ever be possible for institutional models to transition to organic, or even to coexist. It may be naive to even try to shift the system. I personally want to maintain hope of effectively communicating to folks within IC some of the advantages of OC, and to see where that may lead. Who knows what God may do within any individual church community?

      Blessings in your journey,

      – Kathleen

  5. dear CinaC, I like your posts and am v much in sympathy. One small(ish) comment: I think it might be helpful if you could acknowledge you are talking in a North American, probably USA(?) context. Therefore your diagnosis and prescriptions about church are probably fundamentally oriented to your context and may not apply to other contexts/cultures etc. Unless you think that you are describing what God is doing across the whole world. I notice that many Americans – conservative or radical etc., – often make sweeping comments about what God is doing based on their very particular experience. Even if you just said you think God is teaching Americans about x, y or z that might be helpful.

    • Thanks for your comment, Ian. I am actually from Perth, Western Australia – on the other side of the world from the U.S. However, you are quite right that I speak in broad generalities that apply mostly to the western church. Obviously, my words will not be relevant to all cultures, to all denominations or to all individuals.



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