It’s a bit like the story of the mythical phoenix. Out of the ashes of one life came another. In this case, it was a failed church plant that caused Grace Brethren leaders in Southern California to re-evaluate their methods. The result has been a thriving church-planting and leadership development ministry with world-wide impact.
“There hadn’t been any church planting going on in our district (the Southern California/Arizona Fellowship of Grace Brethren Churches) for years,” recalls Neil Cole, who was then pastor of the Grace Brethren Church in Alta Loma, Calif. “We poured a lot into it– a lot of money, a lot of resources.”
He remembers the district church planting board consulted experts in the field, conducted demographic research, and did numerous direct mail campaigns into growing communities. Several churches, including his own, gave up members who moved to targeted areas to develop new Grace Brethren congregations. By all standards, the ministries should have flourished, but sadly, none survived.
“They were all very costly and produced no lasting results,” remembers Ed Trenner, who was the district moderator at the time.
“We did everything by the church planting book,” Cole recalls, “but it didn’t work. So we decided to go back to a different book and ask the question, what does the Bible say about planting churches?”
He says the answer surprised even the most seasoned pastors. “It [the Bible] doesn’t tell us to plant churches,” says Cole, who pastored the Alta Loma church for eight years. “It tells us to make disciples. It tells us to plant the gospel, that the seed of the kingdom of God is the gospel. It’s the presence of Jesus, not a church.”
“It got us thinking about ‘organic’ church planting, instead of more institutional methods,” stresses Cole, who recalls it was then the church planting board changed its name to Church Multiplication Associates (CMA) and hired him to direct the enterprise. (The group continues to report to the Southern California/Arizona district conference and provides any training to pastors in the region at no charge.)
Cole defines the organic church as “the presence of Jesus among His people, called out as a spiritual family to pursue His mission on this planet.” He stresses that church should become about relationships and not about an event, seeing the church as “family” rather than a weekly event.
Mindset, Not A Model
“Organic church is a mindset and not a model of church,” echoes Ed Waken, who moved to Phoenix, Ariz., in 1994 to begin ValleyLife Church, which is affiliated with the Fellowship of Grace Brethren Churches and has been successful in sowing seeds of the gospel in the communities surrounding America’s fifth largest city.
“We believe that [these] principles are timeless and [other] methods are time-bound to a specific culture, generation, or context,” Waken adds. “An organic church can be a church of three or a church of 30,000.”
At first, Cole began to develop organic churches in his hometown of Long Beach while recruiting individuals to plant other Grace Brethren ministries in Southern California and Arizona. They were licensed and financially supported by the district and assessed as valid church planters. “We learned that paying the church planters was not helpful, so we stopped,” he says.
It wasn’t long, he says, before high quality church planters from other denominations were approaching CMA, asking if they could associate with them. “Since we were not using any Grace Brethren funds, we felt that it was not necessary to demand that they leave their spiritual tribe to work with us,” adds Cole, noting that most continued to work with their own denomination.
“We also found that many of our own [Grace Brethren] wanted to plant churches in places where we either had no Grace Brethren district or they wanted to plant in another district and maintain relational ties to us (CMA).”
“We felt that we could freely associate with our coworkers and not demand that they leave their spiritual heritage to do so,” he says. “All love Jesus, are free in Christ, and are committed to expanding God’s kingdom in their region and beyond by multiplying disciples of Jesus. We agree on the [major] doctrines and have fun conversations about the others.”
That was the beginning of what has become an international organic church movement and that has jettisoned Cole to the forefront of church planting conversations around the world. He regularly travels internationally to speak at church planting conferences or to provide leadership training.
The new process at first met some criticism from Grace Brethren in the region, according to Trenner. “The new groups were regarded as little more than a Bible study by some,” he recalls. “Some questioned the credibility of the teaching, since some of the leaders lacked formal training in theology.”
But Trenner, who pastored the Grace Brethren Church in Orange, Calif., for 18 years, was impressed with the groups’ commitment to reading and studying the Scriptures. “They were accurate in handling the Word and knew how it applied in practical ways to daily living,” he says. “The passion and simplicity of their faith was very refreshing to me.”
In 2000, CMA led a weekend retreat to teach the principles of planting an organic church. The initial event included 35 Grace Brethren pastors from the Southern California/Arizona district and quickly blossomed. Today, there is more than one Greenhouse training, as the events have come to be called, going on each weekend in the world with almost 100 experienced trainers. It is estimated that some 40,000 people have been trained in this method.
A Growing Family
“Ed Stetzer did a survey of our movement and discovered that we have a 25 percent conversion growth rate, which is high considering how many Christians are joining us every week,” Cole says. He also says that studies have revealed most of churches developed as part of the movement have had a daughter church, that 30 percent have had a hand in starting six or more churches in five years, and another 30 percent have seen the birth of granddaughter churches.
“We have no intention of creating our own denomination or institution,” stresses Cole. “We would rather die first. CMA does not request dues nor have people sign a letter of covenant of agreement. We believe that the best and strongest glue to any movement is our DNA: Divine Truth, Nurturing Relationships, and Apostolic Mission. If the DNA is not enough then we would rather end our association than revert to something inorganic.”
He knows that the organic church has been typecast as a house church, or a body of believers who meet to worship in homes. But he also recognizes that the concept is best carried out in a small group.
“If you really want the best expression of family, it’s going to look similar to a house church,” he admits. “But it doesn’t mean that a church of 70 people can’t feel like a family, or a church of a hundred. But once you get up into the multi-hundreds, you start losing that family sense and you have to build other mechanisms into your church structure to feel like family. I think that’s possible, but it’s more of a struggle.”
The efforts of Neil Cole and CMA have been credited for gathering new believers in every continent.
“We didn’t invent organic church planting,” Cole emphasizes, noting the method has been functioning since the first century. “What we have done is contextualized it for the western context,” he says. “The DNA of the organic church movement fits with the concept of biblical truth, biblical relationship, and biblical mission as articulated for years by Tom Julien, executive director emeritus of Grace Brethren International Missions (GBIM), as the core of what it means to be Grace Brethren,” he adds. “CMA can be understood legitimately as an offshoot of our Grace Brethren movement when viewed from a historian’s perspective.”
“Over the years many of [Grace Brethren International Mission’s] staff members have found Neil’s insights to be very helpful as they seek to plant churches in resistant soils,” says David Guiles, executive director of GBIM. “He is frequently invited to share with our team and with national churches outside of North America.”
“It is another way to bring the gospel to a lost world and gather believers in communities of faith,” underscores Trenner, who now works with GBIM as its west coast mobilizer. “And, it is very effective.”
For more information, see cmaresources.org.
To hear Neil explain the Church Multiplication Associates, visit cmaresources.org/article/cma-explanation