Church is a living organism, church planter says

Communications Staff — December 19, 2003

Successful church planters must view the church as a living organism rather than an inanimate institution, church planter Neil Cole said at a church planting conference Nov. 20 at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

In the Bible, “almost every metaphor, description or parable of the Kingdom or the church has a natural element to it. … The church is described as a mustard seed, a sower and soils, a body, a bride, branches, a flock and a family,” said Cole, who serves as executive director of Church Multiplication Associates, a California-based church planting organization.

When church planters understand the church as a living organism, he said, they will be able to plant churches that honor God and result in changed lives.

Cole highlighted four important implications of the church’s status as a living organism.

First, church planters must focus on planting the seed of the Gospel rather than being consumed with logistical details.

Successful church planters are like farmers who spend most of their time working in the fields, Cole said, while unsuccessful church planters are often analogous to farmers who focus on repairing their barns to the neglect of harvesting crops.

“If you’re going to start a church, where should you start?” he asked. “In the soils, in the dirt. Can you imagine a farmer who builds a nice barn and stands in the doorway and says, ‘All right crops, come on in?’ What kind of crop would he have? … Would he have a bigger crop? If we’re really talking about expanding the Kingdom, we have to get out there and plant seeds in soil, and that’s where it all starts. You have to get your hands dirty.”

Second, church planters must understand that God grows His Kingdom through supernatural and natural means rather than artificial and manufactured means.

Churches that see their work as selling a product to non-Christians misunderstand the biblical picture of the church, Cole said. Rather, the work of churches is to authentically introduce people to Jesus Christ.

“Madison Avenue may work for selling tennis shoes, but I don’t think it’s really the way the Lord intended for His Kingdom to grow. It needs to be more natural,” he said.

Third, like all living things, the church is meant to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.

To be fruitful and multiply “was the commandment Jesus gave in the beginning to all the living creatures, to man and woman,” Cole said. “He also gave the same command to the church: Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth. So I think He sees the church as one of His living creations.”

Thinking of the church as a multiplying organism could shift the mentality of many pastors, he said.

“In God’s eyes, the church is meant to be seen as a living thing. We’ve been training pastors in recent years to think like CEO’s, and we need to get them to think more like farmers because it’s really more organic than it is institutional,” Cole said.

Fourth, church planters must understand that the church is a holy people, not a holy place.

“God doesn’t live in buildings. There is no building that can house God. So we need to divorce ourselves a little bit more from the idea that this is the house of God, this building,” he said.

“The new covenant has the human heart as God’s dwelling place. God’s people are now the temple of God. … Jesus’ death tore the vale between man and God, removing the separation so that all people have access to God. I think that’s important.”

Because the body of Christ is a group of people rather than a specific location, churches should focus more energy on taking the Gospel to unbelievers and less energy on drawing unbelievers to the church building, Cole said.

“[Jesus] shed His blood and died on the cross, rose from the dead so that the Kingdom of God could be decentralized and spread all over the planet. And we’re trying to get everybody to come to us when He bled so we could go to them, so we could take the church to where people are,” he said.

A proper understanding of the church, Cole said, will enable church planters to eliminate unbiblical practices in their congregations and grow churches that powerfully impact the world.

“Most of the time in church planting, we cast vision for this church rather than bringing people to know who Jesus is. It’s often a problem. We think that if we play the right music, we have the right preaching, we’ll impress them so much they’ll say, ‘I want to be a Christian too.’ And our preaching and our buildings and our programming, they don’t compete with what the world can offer. And so we don’t really impress them that much.

“But what we can do is bring something that is very impressive to the lost: a changed life. If we just show them a life that’s changed by the power of the Gospel, that’s a seller. That’s something powerful.”

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