Thursday Review: Neil Cole on Church 3.0

A review of Neil Cole, Church 3.0: Upgrades for the Future of the Church, Jossey-Bass, 2010.

Available here from and

This review is by Dan, a church planter with The Crowded House in Sheffield, UK.

Neil Cole’s Church 3.0 is step on from his Organic Church.  He has set out his vision for organic church and now he describes how churches can become healthy enough to reproduce.  Church 3.0 is helpfully written in the form of answers to questions people often ask about organic church.  Every chapter is entitled, ‘What about…?’  For instance, ‘What about baptism and communion?’ and ‘What about heresy?’

I was inspired by Cole’s heart in this book.  His passion is to see all believers released to be powerful, useful, fully-involved members of the body – fully  involved in the church family, in interacting with God’s word, in evangelism and in church reproduction.

I am part of an organic-type church—The Crowded House—and so although not much of this book was radically new, I found sections helpful.  I valued hearing what Cole had to say on baptism and communion (191-198), how to include children (220), the power of small groups (139-143), and how to guard against the danger of heresy (222-240).

Regarding baptism, I was moved by a story Cole tells (189-190).  One night a lady called Alice decided to follow Jesus while at a coffee house in Long Beach – a place where people from Cole’s church often hang out.  They decided that the best thing to do was baptise her straight away and so told all her friends what was happening and drove to the beach. Alice told everyone why she had chosen to follow Christ, and then followed her ‘disciple maker’ into the ocean to be baptised to hoots and cheers from those on the beach.  They came out of the water, held hands and prayed, and again presented the message of Jesus’ atoning death and resurrection to those around.  Two more people decided to follow Jesus and were baptised.

In the past I’ve thought baptism had to be done after a process of ‘checking’ someone’s faith, and only then by church leadership.  Cole reminds us that 1) baptism is a sign of faith, not a result of works and baptism classes and 2) anyone can do it.  That’s liberating and exciting!

Regarding including children, Cole argues that ‘integration is better than separation’.  His point is that 1) adults can learn from children and vice-versa and 2) combining the presence of both does not need to result in disruption like many assume it does.  One of the things adults can learn from having children around is how to parent effectively.  We learn through watching others interact with their children.  We can also learn from the simple, uncomplicated belief of many children.  He encourages us to plan ahead to include the children, e.g. asking them to draw a picture of something they think is important for the church to understand and encouraging them to share it (220).

Regarding heresy, Cole responds to those who question how organic churches without seminary-trained leaders can ensure good teaching takes place.  Cole goes as far as to say that organic churches can be much better prepared to counter heresy.  His main points are:

1. Empowering individual believers to know their bible well through good training is more powerful than sending the top leaders to seminary,

2. The real threat in most churches is not cognitive, but moral and spiritual – one of obedience rather than heresy. ‘We are all educated beyond our obedience’ (232)

3. People we think of as heretics at the time can turn out to be heroes (e.g. Luther, Wesley, Fox, Hus, Wycliffe, Galileo, Paul, Jesus).

Despite these many positives, there are a few things I question.  The premise of the book is that the organic church movement—‘Church 3.0’—is the biggest ecclesial change since Constantine.  (‘Church 1.0’ being the New Testament church and ‘Church 2.0’ the institutional church from Constantine to now.)  I love the organic church movement but am wary of authors who claim to be involved in the next big thing, especially the biggest thing since AD 313. (1-12)

Also, Cole can come across as believing he has the answer to all the church’s growth problems: simply implement the principles in Church 3.0! ‘If you were to use our principles and processes from the start you would end up with a rapidly multiplying network of simple churches.’ (11)  Cole has good principles and gives good advice, but surely, above all principles, God ultimately chooses where and how He works. And as Eckhard Schnabel notes in Paul the Missionary (available here from and, it’s not models that work; it’s the gospel that works.

In conclusion, although I query Cole’s emphasis, there are good things to take away from his experience in organic-type churches.  I especially learned from part 3, ‘Pragmatic Concerns’.


10 thoughts on “Thursday Review: Neil Cole on Church 3.0

  1. Hi Tim,

    Looking at the table of contents I miss what about preaching or what about church discipline? It seems that taking away the authority for the sake of conversation is the new way to go. Doubt it’s biblical though.


  2. Marc, is your comment a “dig” at organic church? It’s either that or I don’t understand your comment. Please clarify.

  3. Well, sort of… I am definitely not against organic churches, but I do notice that for instance Neil Cole conveniently leaves out particular parts of church which I would say are vital to the health and progress of the Gospel. These parts seem to focus on authority (preaching, discipline, etc) which I find interesting as the New Testament is littered with example where both seem to be vital to the make up of a church.

    Maybe I am saying that upgrades (as Neil Cole states it) aren’t really necessary, but rather a downgrade to something that’s biblical rather than cultural.

    In response to the post, some questions then:

    1. Isn’t a sign of faith (baptism) always the results of some works? (Not the works that lead to justification, but works of sanctification).

    2. Regarding children, did Cole talk about age at all? When is appropriate to include children?

    3. What does Cole mean by ‘good training’ to know your Bible well? Not seminary obviously (which I would agree with). It’s quite audacious to say that the organic church can better prepare against heresy than any other form of church which is not organic or has structured leadership of mature (not necessarily seminary-trained) Christians.

    4. I think people use the word ‘heretic’ way too easily… Some would say Cole is a heretic with his organic church and self-proclaimed answer to the ‘problem’ of the church. Look, the Bible or Church isn’t something new, so anyone who comes away with something completely new from it should be dealt with carefully… Cole included ;-)

  4. Thanks for the clarification. I’m not familiar enough with Cole yet (just ordered “Church 3.0 this morning) to know whether he’s into “preaching” or whether he includes “church discipline.” I’m inclined to say he’s in favor of preaching from my perusal of his blog, if by preaching we are willing to include dialogue that is Gospel-word-centred (did that spelling for Tim, since this is his blog) in smaller settings. As for church discipline, I don’t know …

  5. Marc,

    Yes, in Church 3.0 I do discuss church discipline (pp. 134-135) and even a small statement on “preaching” (p 191). My conclusions may not be to your liking but I do address these concerns. I do not devote an entire chapter to these as the book must have certain limitations. Frankly, I believe church discipline is an important issue that should be found within each disciple and not dependent upon “officers”. Preaching doesn’t really merit a chapter’s worth of attention in this book, and if you read the book you may understand why.

    I believe in authority but I believe that it is not found in titles or offices but in the character and example of the people who serve. Frankly, I do not find “preaching” to be an issue of authority in the church of Acts. Paul exhibits authority more in his epistles than in his preaching if you are talking about church. Preaching is always about the Gospel and is usually directed to an unbelieving audience. Teaching, is dialectic and the authority is found in the word of God and in the character of the teacher…not the practice of “preaching.”

    The idea of the book is to take a look at common issues from a whole new perspective and perhaps see that there are better, healthier, alternatives…or upgrades to the way things are done.

    I would suggest that if you want to know the answers to your questions–read the book. I guarantee, your questions do not take me by surprise as if I have never thought of them before.

  6. Marc,

    Thanks for your questions. 2) Off the top of my head, I don’t recall that he did. In case you’re interested, in the church I go to (of about 15 people), we have a kid below 5, one aged 5-10 and one in his teens. They’re all present for the weekly teaching and worship. It works well: there’s mutual learning and blessing. 3) Cole doesn’t say organic church can better prepare against heresy than *any* other form of church. His point is that organic church can do it very well. Church 3.0 mentions that Cole’s training program for church members includes a lot of set Bible reading every week followed with discussion in small groups.

  7. Pingback: Quotation for the week: from Tim Chester reviewing Neil Cole’s ‘Church 3.0’ « Nicholas Wilson

  8. This books seems to be along the same lines as The Gathering by Ray Barnett. I think the fear that worship such as this has less of a biblical basis is not necessarily true, since it seems to adhere more closely to the model set forth by Jesus and his apostles. An interesting topic and one that is getting much attention these days. Everyone must follow their own path, no matter the size of the group, the service or the building in which they worship.

  9. I think Organic Church Movement is just a remodelled Cell Group Concept! A kind of a reaction to some strict structured churches! But I learned a lot too from their books!

  10. Just purchased the book, love the emphasis and style, already heavily highlighted. I will still certainly preach and teach to large crowds…as with everything – chew the meat spit out the bones.

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