How gospel communities are different to some things that look similar

This is a re-posting. The original version of this video was not working so I have reloaded it.

In this clip I try to explain how our vision in Total Church and The Crowded House is different from some approaches that look similar. While not wanting to exaggerate the differences, I try to explain how our vision contrasts with that of reconstructionists who try to reproduce exactly what was happening the New Testament and pragmatists who are driven by sociological or business models. The key is biblical theology.

This video clip is from the 2010 Total Church Conference in Sheffield, UK. The full conference media are available here.

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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 amazon.com and amazon.co.uk.

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’.

Introducing the GCM Collective

The website of the GCM Collective has gone live at www.gcmcollective.com.

‘GCM’ stands for ‘Gospel, Community, Mission’ and the GCM Collective exists “to promote, create and equip Gospel Communities on Mission”. It’s a collaboration between Jeff Venderstelt and Caesar Kalinowski from Soma in Tacoma, David Fairchild and Drew Goodmanson from Kaleo in San Diego, Jonathan Dodson from Austin City Life in Texas, and Steve Timmis and myself from The Crowded House.

A gospel community is a group of believers that lives out the mission of God together as family, in a specific area to a particular people group, by declaring and demonstrating the gospel in tangible forms. Regular people, living ordinary lives, with great gospel intentionality. The GCM Collective is a community that allows people to exchange ideas, resources and encouragement around topics that relate to creating gospel communities on mission.

Although the public site has only just gone live, we’ve had a community site for a couple of months with open discussions and resource sharing. Anyone can participate for free and we already have over 1,000 members.

Thursday Review: Keller on the Gospel in Life

A review of Timothy Keller, Gospel in Life: Grace Changes Everything DVD purchase from Amazon UK purchase from Amazon US and Workbook purchase from Amazon UK purchase from Amazon US, Zondervan, 2010.

In January I claimed that Tim Keller’s The Prodigal God DVD and workbook was my resource of 2009. I’m pretty confident that his new Gospel In Life DVD and workbook will my resource of 2010.

As the title suggests, Gospel in Life looks at how the gospel is to be lived out in our lives, in our church communities and in the world. So it’s a kind of discipleship programme. It would be great to use for training leaders within your church or with your small groups or as part of a vision-setting programme.

The DVD consists of eight ten-minute talks by Keller. It’s just Keller speaking to camera, but the windows behind open out onto different views of the city and key points are animated on cityscape backgrounds so although its very simple the overall effect is engaging and pleasing. The workbook includes and Bible study and discussion questions for each session plus fairly intensive ‘homework’ involving further reading and a small group project. Here’s the outline of sessions:

1. City – The World That Is
2. Heart – Three Ways to Live
3. Idolatry – The Sin Beneath
4. Community – The Context for Change
5. Witness – An Alternate City
6. Work – Cultivating the Garden
7. Justice – A People for Others
8. Eternity – The World That Is To Come

It’s all here – all the important missional insights we have come to expect of Keller: the focus on the city, the centrality of the heart, the need to live by grace, the significance of idolatry, the importance of cultural engagement, the role of work in mission, the integration of social involvement. If I have a criticism is that, given the constraints of eight sessions of 10 minutes, I was often left thinking, ‘I’m glad he made that point, but I fear people might miss it.’ Also the homework is too intensive for some of the people with whom we work. But you can readily adapt the material.

It’s clearly designed with a Western context in mind, but we went through it on a recent visit to a couple sent by a our church to the Middle-East and it was full of resonances for them in their context. Because time was short we combined sessions 2 and 3, 4 and 5, 6 and 7, and sessions 1 and 8 could also be combined.

One final reflection. I was struck working through the sessions how close Keller’s vision of church and mission is that to ours in The Crowded House. What’s striking is that the structure of his church is so different. Steve Timmis and I have begun refuting the idea that there is a ‘TCH model’ of church – not least because there are different church structures within The Crowded House network, but also because we have never wanted to put The Crowded House forward are the right way of doing church! But we are persuaded by the theology of church and mission that shapes what we do. Listening Keller reinforced this conviction: the principles we share in common matter, the structural outworking of those principles can and should vary in each context. So don’t get hung up on how to do this or that – get the theology right.

The workbook is available from Amazon.co.uk, but not the DVD so UK readers will have get this from Amazon.com.

Praising God for the family of God and Father´s discipline

We were due to arrive home last Friday, but like thousands of other people (including Marcus Honeysett) my wife and I are stranded by the volcanic ash cloud. We were visiting a couple sent by our church to the Middle-East. Having negotiated all the dangers and difficulties of travel through a recent war zone with no dangers and no difficulties, we ended up stranded in Istanbul. Discovering that UK airspace was closed, we booked an extra night in the hotel. But when it became clear the skies were going to be closed for some time we got a plane to Barcelona in Spain with a view to travelling home overland. But we arrived at Barcelona train station to find there were no trains to France due to a strike. So on Sunday we queued at the coach station and eventually bought the last two tickets to Paris leaving on Thursday and then we booked the Eurostar train home for Friday. I feel a bit like the apostle Paul in Acts 16 – setting off for Asia and then sending his first prayer letter home from Europe.

A couple of reflections.

1. We praise God for the worldwide family of Christ. It is a great privilege to have these global connections. We are staying on the outskirts of Barcalona with Jonathan and Clare Skipper, squeezing into their apartment with their two young children. Our only tears throughout our “adventure” came when they sent a text saying “our house is your house for as long as you need it”. They have been wonderful hosts, generously letting us impose on their hospitality without complaint. (Sadly I have to inform you, though, that they are not unknowingly entertaining angels – Hebrews 13:2!) Compare our experience to those of the travellers sleeping in airports or the woman I saw yesterday in tears of frustration, camped out in a cafe in Barcelona train station, and you realise what a blessing it is to belong to Christ´s family.

Jonathan is an NTI student and works for GBU, the Spanish Christian Union movement. Please repay their hospitality to us by praying for Spain where there is great resistence to the gospel.

2. People asked us before we left whether we were worried about travelling through a recent war zone. The answer is that we weren´t worried for our safety. Our friends assured us it was safe and we were able to trust God for our security. We went through many armed check points, but we were only stopped because the soldiers manning them were bored and interested in the foreigners visiting their country. Plus, of course, our friends live there and we were only visiting.

But we were anxious before we left. My wife was worried about committing a cultural mistake. I was worried about our rather complex travel plans going awry – missing connections, have the wrong paperwork, miscommunicating with our driver, that sort of thing. Of course I didn´t anticipate a volcano would prevent us completing the last leg of the journey! We were talking about the idols that make us fearful with our friends, little knowing God would strip me so thoroughly of the control I idolise. So one of the no doubt many purposes God has for this volcanic ash cloud has been to discipline me and help me trust his soveriegnty more.

Yet his discipline has been so kind and gentle. By his grace I have hardly fretted or got frustrated. And we really don´t deserve your sympathy. We spent a lovely day sight-seeing in Istanbul and due to availability issues our hotel upgraded us for free to a suite. And now we´re enjoying a few days in the beautiful city of Barcelona. It´s not exactly heroic suffering for the gospel! I was able to shadow Jonathan for a day to get a window onto his ministry and meet up with two fine Catalan leaders who are planning to plant a church in the centre of Barcelona.

Ten reasons why churches stall

Here’s a great article in this month’s Evangelicals Now from Marcus Honeysett on why churches stall.

Here are some highlights to whet your appetite …

1. The church forgets who we are and what we are for … When we forget that we are the community of disciples for declaring God’s greatness and making disciples, mission quickly becomes just one among many activities rather than the defining vision of who we are as a community.

2. The majority of believers are no longer thrilled with the Lord and what he is doing in their lives. When questions like ‘What is God doing with you at the moment?’ cease to be common currency, it is a sure sign of creeping spiritual mediocrity.

3. … In my view, the single biggest cause of stalled churches in the UK is the belief that material comfort can be normative for Christians. It is the opposite of radical commitment to Christ.

4. When [Christians]  see church as one among many leisure activities, usually low down the priority list. They are unlikely to see the Christian community as God’s great hope for the world and unlikely to put commitment above self-interest.

5. … Where people take no personal responsibility for their own spiritual growth a stalled church becomes more likely.

6. … When preaching, teaching and Bible study become ends in themselves rather than means to an end, something is badly wrong.

7. A church becomes afraid to ask radical questions … The danger is that people start to equate serving the church with living out the gospel. Few churches regularly evaluate every aspect of church life against their core vision.

8. Confusing Christian activities with discipleship …

9. Not understanding how to release and encourage everyone in the church to use their spiritual gifts for the building up of the church … There are two types of DNA in churches. One type of church says ‘we exist to have our personal spiritual needs met’, the other ‘we exist to impact our locality and the world with the gospel of the grace of God in Christ’. The first type is a stalled church.

10. … No church was stalled at the point that it was founded. At the beginning all churches were adventures in faith and daring risk for God. No one actively decided for comfort over risk, but at some point the mindset shifted from uncomfortable faith and daring passion for the Lord to comfortable mediocrity … The mantra of the maintenance mindset is ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’. But just like buying shoes for growing children, if structures don’t take account of future growth then fellowships end up stunted and deformed.

Marcus leads Living Leadership and the author Finding Joy purchase from Amazon UK purchase from Amazon US and Meltdown purchase from Amazon UK purchase from Amazon US.

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Community as identity

The church is not a building you enter. Nor is it a meeting your attend. It is not what you do on a Sunday. To be a Christian is to be part of God’s people and to express that in your life through belonging to a local Christian community.

Our belonging

We belong to one another (Romans 12:5). If a car belongs to me then I am responsible for it and I decide how it should be used. If a person belongs to me them I am responsible for them and I am involved in their decisions.

Our home
Peter says Christians are ‘foreigners’ = ‘without home’ in the world (1 Peter 2:11). But we are being built into an alternative ‘home’ (2:5).

Our family

Families eat together, play together, cry together, laugh together, raise child together provide for one another. Families argue and fight, but they do not stop being families and they don’t join other families because they have different tastes in music or reading. With family you can take off your shoes and put your feet on the sofa. They provide identity and a place of belonging.

Family is one of the most common New Testament images for the church. So try re-reading the paragraph above, substituting the word ‘church’ for ‘family’…

Our community

The New Testament word for community is used to describe sharing lives (1 Thessalonians 2:8), sharing property (Acts 4:32), sharing in the gospel (Philippians 1:5; Philemon 6) and sharing in Christ’s suffering and glory (2 Corinthians 1:6-7; 1 Peter 4:13). Helping poor Christians is an act of ‘community’ (Romans 15:26; 2 Corinthians 9:13). Christians are people who share their lives with one another.

Our joy

How would you answer this question? ‘For what is our hope, our joy, or the crown in which we will glory in the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ when he comes?’ Paul says to the church in Thessalonica, ‘Is it not you?’ (1 Thessalonians 2:19)

Implication #1: ‘We’ not ‘I’
We need to say not ‘I am planning to …’ or ‘this is my ministry’, but ‘we are planning to …’ and ‘this is our ministry’. We need to say not ‘you need to … or ‘the church doesn’t meet my needs’, but ‘we need to …’ and ‘why don’t we do this’.

The Gospel Story: the Story of Community

There is a summary of the gospel message which runs like this: ‘God made you to know him, but your sin cuts you off from God. God sent his Son to die in your place and reconcile you to God. Now you can know God and look forward to being with him after death.’ It is the story of an individual out of relationship with God brought back into relationship with God. This version of the story is true. But it is not the whole truth. At the heart of the Bible story is the story of a community. The foundation of missional church is an understanding of the Bible story. The Bible is the story of God saving not individuals, but a people, a community, a new humanity. The Christian community is not an add-on. It is integral to the gospel.

Creation We are made in the image of the communal God as relational beings to live in community. (Genesis 1:26-27)

Fall Our rebellion creates conflict both between us and God and between one another.

Abraham The promise to Abraham is ‘the gospel announced in advance’ (Galatians 3:8), setting the agenda for the while Bible story and at its heart is God’s promise of a people (Genesis 12:1-3).

Exodus Because of his promise to Abraham, God sets his people free to know him. Through Moses he says: ‘I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God’ (Exodus 6:7). God lives among his people (the pillars of cloud and fire and the tabernacle), but the people keep their distance and offers sacrifices because of their sin and God’s holiness.

Israel ‘The people of Judah and Israel were as numerous as the sand on the seashore; they ate, they drank and they were happy’ (1 Kings 4:20; see Genesis 22:17; 32:12). But the people turn from God and the nation divides.

Prophecy God promises a new people: ‘I will be their God, and they will be my people’ (Jeremiah 31:31). He promises a faithful remnant (Zechariah 13:7-9).

Jesus Jesus is God with us (Matthew 1:23; John 1:18; Colossians 2:9-10). But he is also the faithful people of God, the true vine who bears fruit for God (Isaiah 5:1-7; John 15:1).

The church In Christ we are God’s faithful people and the true children of Abraham (Galatians 3:7, 27). The cross reconciles us to God (Mark 15:38) and to one another (Ephesians 2:11-3:13). Christ did not die for ad hoc individuals, but for his people, his bride (Ephesians 5:25-27).

New creation ‘Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God …’ (Revelation 21:1-4)

The individualistic version of the gospel makes the church a useful help to individual Christians, but not an identity. But community is central to the Bible story. People are invited to not simply to an individual relationship with God (though that is one implication), but to become part of the new people of God, the bride of Christ. You become a Christian when by faith you become part of the people for whom Christ died.