A review of Neil Cole, Church 3.0: Upgrades for the Future of the Church, Jossey-Bass, 2010.
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 amazon.com and amazon.co.uk.), 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’.