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The VERGE missional community conference starts tomorrow, a conference that Neil Cole has referred to as “first of its kind in the missional church field.” This conference will explore gospel-driven missional community from both the micro and macro church perspectives, which is one of the things that makes it unique!
Cole is known for his work on organic church, leadership, and discipleship. His work with CMA has produced churches that reproduce quickly and make a significant missional impact. Some have critiqued his approach due to his low bar for leadership of MCs, and his soft approach to doctrinal fidelity. However, doctrinal fidelity is sometimes the obstacle to mission. As Cole has said, “we become educated beyond our own obedience.” We need more orthopraxy not more orthodoxy.
Alternatively, the organic approach to leadership can force us to be more discipleship oriented and communally sensitive. The Western approach of testing and measuring everything has its limits and can intrude on good theology. Take spiritual gifts tests, for instance. These tests can often pigeon hole people, appeal to their consumerist longings, and isolate them from community. Organic church can keep us honest, from over-structuring the church. At least that’s what Cole said in our recent discussion regarding gift testing. Cole just wrote a post in response to my query called Spiritual Gifts Inventories
Let’s continue the conversation at Verge!
In an effort to recenter church methods debate back onto the gospel, I recently proposed that we should be debating the strength of our gospel, not the effectiveness of our methods. There are varieties of methods from organic house church to attractional mega church that have been used by God to advance the gospel. But what kind of gospel?
The 50/50 Gospel
I attempted to answer that question by suggesting that some church methods operate on a 50/50 gospel, an understanding of the good news that relies on 50% of our behavior and 50% God’s grace. This gospel assumes that people are good enough to chose Christ but that they simply need to be reminded how good Christ is. Broken marriages, patterns of sexual sin, deep-seated anger, and financial hardships are primarily the product of our failure to behave like Jesus. Enter the Church. The church can reminds us, exhort us, even train us to be like Jesus, to make good moral decisions, not bad ones. We need the grace of God’s example and a faithful commitment to behave accordingly. This is the 50/50 gospel, and it is anathema.
50/50 Concoctions: Morality, Community, & Mission
The 50/50 gospel relies, not on the power of grace, but on the power of morality. As a result, the Church becomes a half-way house between our moral failures and our moral successes. We rehabilitate our decision-making under the faithful instruction of a faithless institution. But the 50/50 gospel is sometimes mixed differently. Try 50% mission, 50% grace. We need the grace of Jesus example and the goal of Jesus mission. In this concoction, churches serve as a inspiring non-profit, moving us from missional failure to missional success. We soften our social consciences under the weight of a missional institution. And then there is the 50% community, 50% grace combo. We need the grace of God to become “like the early church,” to have real community, to jettison our individualism in order to truly become “the church.” The gospel becomes a quick-fix to our lack of community.
100 Proof Gospel
Each concoction of the 50/50 gospel is actually quite dangerous. They propose that churches should attract as many people as possible to their moral-laden messages, missional activities, and communal experiences. The goal of the Church is reduced to converting people to a better way of living, not to better God to be believing. What we need is a gospel that is 100 proof grace, the work of Spirit to violate our dulled taste for what it good, true and beautiful and to get us drunk on God. We need more than changed behaviors; we need changed hearts, new affections, from which a life of worship flows. We need churches that are more concerned about pointing us to the multi-faceted splendor of Jesus Christ, than the innovative ways we can be the church through community or mission. What we need is 100% gospel.
In an effort to extend church planting discussion beyond model-based debate, I wrote this Wrong Debate: Attractional vs. Missional. Neil Cole has weighed in consistently, offering some insight on Organic Church and hopes to post on the Gospel soon. At his blog, he is running an Organic series. Check out the discussions in the comments here for some insights.
Neil Cole has a three part response to Dan Kimball’s Missional Misgivings. There is some lengthy exchange that covers very little distance in their multi-comment conversation; however, this gem emerged from Cole’s final post:
A global survey conducted by Christian Schwartz found that smaller churches consistently scored higher than large churches in seven out of eight qualitative characteristics of a healthy church. A more recent study of churches in America, conducted by Ed Stetzer and Life Way Ministries, revealed that churches of two hundred or less are four times more likely to plant a daughter church than churches of one thousand or more.
So churches of 200 plant more often than churches of a 1000, but they will have to plant 5xs as many churches to reach the one thousand of the megachurch. Methods, methods, methods. We are in the wrong debate. We don’t need to be debating mega vs. micro, attractional vs. organic/incarnational. This is a methods driven conversation, and if we have learned anything from the history of missions it is that God uses a variety of church models to bring in the lost sheep of his kingdom. For a moment, just stretch the conversation beyond America. House churches are immensely effective in China and mega churches incredibly effective in Korea. When it comes to methods, context is king, unless your contextualization of the gospel compromises the its theological integrity, in which case it is no longer contextualization but syncretism.
What we need to be debating is the strength of the gospel that is being preached, taught, shared, and shown in our churches. Are we incarnating and attracting people to a diluted gospel or a strong gospel? Are we incarnating kitsch gospel or kerygmatic gospel? In the end, what are we calling people to? Is our gospel both missional and communal or inward and individualistic? If the latter, then something is wrong with our gospel. Let’s stop debating methods and start debating gospel. Let’s refine the gospel seed we are sowing in America for the sake of our country, our future, and our Lord.
Neil Cole offers a brief, biting reflection on how service in the local church is killing her. This is one of the reasons I appreciate his writing and ministry:
We ask for volunteers all the time. We offer spiritual-gift assessments to see where people fit best in our program, but we never really offer very challenging experiences for people. Handing out bulletins, directing traffic wearing a bright orange vest, chaperoning a youth function, or changing a diaper in the nursery may be helpful for the church program, but none of it is a task worth giving your life to. Many who struggle to do these things have a nagging unspoken question: “Did Jesus come so I can do this?”
We must transition from seeing church as a once-a-week worship event to an ongoing spiritual family on mission together. Then people will see church as something worth giving your life for. Honestly, people need one another more then they need another inspiring message. You would be surprised what people will do for Jesus, or for a brother or sister, that they will not do for a vision statement and a capital giving campaign.
How are you connecting the church to the church? Are your inspiring messages creating a church that lives in community and mission? Are you pseudomissional or gospel missional?
Talking with our staff last week, I was further convinced of the value of simplicity. We have made some significant changes along the way that have pushed us into more simply being the church. I have not read the book Simple Church, but as I see it there are two kinds of simplicity–one that ignores complexity and the other understands it. It is the latter that is shaping our church.
Black & White Simple
One kind of simple church ignores complexity. This kind of church calls it like they see it. There is one way to do things. They call the outs. They insist there is one way to spell gray. This kind of “simple church” refuses to re-contextualize the gospel, insisting upon old forms for new times. Like the missionary who exports Western pews, pictures, and pet theologies, simple churches that ignore cultural complexity produce disciples and doctrines that are disconnected from the people they are trying to reach. They are simple in missiology, but they are also simple in theology. Simple in that they assert that: “if we would just interpret the Bible literally,” we would all have the same theology. This simplicity ignores the complexity of biblical theology, revelation embedded in history and culture that alternately affirms and contradicts its historical-cultural context. This kind of simplicity is not what we are after.
There is another kind of simple church that understands complexity. This kind of church realizes that things are not always what they appear. They know that what appears as an “out” to some may also appear as “safe” to others. They realize there’s two ways to spell grey. This kind of simple church critically embraces cultural change in order to communicate the gospel faithfully within complex cultural shifts. This people understand that the difference between “the world” and “the church” is not black and white. They strive to bring Scripture to bear upon the grey of culture and their relationships. As a result, they are constantly theologizing. They realize that theology is not inspired and neither are they. They struggle to take inspired stories, letters, and gospels and learn how to bring them to life in variously delightful and decadent cultures. This process forces them to deal with the complexity of suffering, human flourishing, common grace, and human indifference and come through the other side with a simple, accessible, thoughtful, and reproducible way of following Jesus.
Theological Basis for Simplicity
There is a black and white simple church that calls things the way they see them. There is a grey simple church that is willing to do mission in the mess of life, not from the safety of doctrinal and traditional towers. The grey simple does not abandon theological conviction or absolute truth, but works to convey their conviction in ways that are digestible and contextual. But why simple?
Lamin Sanneh offers a staggering simplicity in the phrase: incarnation is translation. By this he means that by becoming flesh, Jesus translated divinity into cultural form. Theologians have debated the complexity of this phenomenon for centuries. Consider Philippians 2. Whatever you make of the incarnation, it communicates a single, simple reality. God is translatable, just as the Bible is translatable. God was touchable in Jesus. He ate, he slept, he walked, he talked. In many respects, he communicated the complexity of divinity in simplicity, so that common fishermen could catch on. That is the task of the Church–communicating the complexity of the gospel in simplicity so that our people can catch on.
Oliver Wendell Holmes captures the search for grey simple very well: “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.” As a church, we are constantly striving for the other side of complexity. In fact, I am in the process of reducing our core values to three values. My original prospectus for Austin City Life has undergone a hundred revisions, most of them in space and time not paper and ink. This is primarily because we are trying to faithfully adjust methodology to our missiology, to be the church by following the Spirit through unplanned change and unchanging gospel conviction. We will be releasing a new, 2.0 website in the new year that attempts to communicate even more simply our vision and mission as a people. We are refining and maintaining a simple discipleship structure along which our church can grow. Our missional spaces are increasingly strategic and well-defined. I hope we never tarry in this task of simple church, for the sake of making the incarnation translation.
Loved this from Ed Stetzer’s new article, “Simply Missional”:
There are so many unaddressed issues in our books (intentionally so) that prevent “missional” and “simple” from being comprehensive church models…
All types of churches should be simply missional. What we are advocating is for church leaders to distill their ideology of what church is to the irreducible minimum that defines a church as God’s gathered people, sent to a particular community as His redemptive gift to that community.
We need all types of missional churches–big, small, traditional, contemporary, with country music (did we say that?), hip-hop, some with guitars, some with organs. We need churches in homes and churches in well-marked buildings.
The container is not the issue. The issue is not staying contained.