Neil Cole’s Organic Church was an overnight success. I have referred back to several times for organic church principles that have shaped Austin City Life. However, Cole’s newest book Search and Rescue: Becoming a Disciple Who Makes a Difference struggles to stay afloat.
The hyper-sensitive Calvinist shouldn’t judge the book by its cover. This is not an Arminian tirade on Calvinist failures at mission, though recent research appears to support such conclusions. Using the metaphor of “search and rescue”, Cole is not trying to make a statement regarding Total Depravity, that we are alive and afloat in our sin, versus dead and drowned in depravity. Rather, Cole uses his lifeguard experience as an illustration of how the church should make disciples, which includes “seeking and saving the lost”. And here is his where the book begins to drown.
The book is littered with pictures and inundated with stories from Cole’s lifeguard days in California. I’m all for a good illustration, but Cole takes this way too far, dominating the entire book. Not only is this filler, it obscures some of his helpful comments on discipleship. In addition to riding the wave of lifeguard stories, in the first half of the book, Cole also attempts to surf 2 Timothy for discipleship principles and insights. Unfortunately, he offers mainly superficial observations and poor exegesis, particularly his comments on why we should not follow the reward structure of farmer/athlete/soldier in 1 Timothy 2 at a motivation for discipleship. He doesn’t seem to get Christian Hedonism. However, it’s great to see him addressing the notion of motivation in discipleship, in which he deconstructs religion and other forms of external motivation, pointing to the gospel as “that which transforms the soul” (97). You can skip the first four chapters of the book and go straight to chapter five, where he develops his insights from Organic Church on building the church by multiplication, not addition. If this is new to you, its worth reading about in either book.
The second half of Search and Rescue is self-admittedly a rework of Cultivating a Life for God, which rehearses the story and structure of Life Transformation Groups (LTGs). These groups of 2-3 are formed around three practices: 1) Confession of sin 2) Reading lots of Scripture 3) Praying for the lost. They are simple, reproducible, and strategic. Before I came across Cole, I had been doing something similar with friends for several years. I really like the simplicity and reproducibility of the LTG concept. Cole has inspired me to implement my own version—Fight Clubs—in our church. A summary of LTGs is found on page 175.
Cole’s strength is questioning the status quo. He doesn’t do a lot of that in this book. However, when he does it is refreshing and edgy. Like saying that we slow down the obedience of disciples when we run them through content heavy discipleship material. Or that the Early Church met in accountability groups. Or that when pastors talk about Greek and Hebrew from the pulpit they separate themselves from the flock and distance the church from the Bible.
All in all, the book isn’t worth buying, especially if you have read Cole’s other stuff. I’ve shared most of the nuggets and purchased it in hope of finding much more. In fact, the richest paragraph in the book comes from Alan Hirsch’s preface:
It was Oliver Wendell Holmes who said, “I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity the other side of complexity.” Simple answers, offered without taking into account the vast intricacies of human life in an infitine universe, are close to being out right worthless to any human being in need of real truth that addresses real, live situations. Simplicity this side of complexity simply doesn’t fit or resonate with our condition and is not worth a dime. However, when simplicity presents itself beyond the complexities that we all face, and it takes into account the nuanced and often perplexing situation we find ourselves in, the these truths are worth all that we own.