What’s in a name? Different uses of the term, “organic”

The term, organic, means natural, nonchemical, living, and alive. When applied to church, it refers to something that grows naturally.

Photo credit: thebittenword (Creative Commons)

Two people have popularized the name, organic church within the simple/organic/house church world.

Neil Cole was the first one to do so with his superb book, Organic Church: Growing Faith Where Life Happens, which God has used to teach the principles of multiplication and harvest all over the world. He uses the term to refer to planting the seed of the Kingdom out in our communities where people need the Lord. Here’s a quote from the introduction:

What would it be like if churches emerged organically, like small spiritual families born out of the soil of lostness, because the seed of God’s Kingdom was planted there? These churches could reproduce, just like all living things do.

We have seen churches meeting in restaurants, offices, homes, university campuses, high school facilities and beaches. We’ve had churches meeting in bars, parks, coffeehouses and locker rooms…

Let the church be alive, organic, in the flesh. Let it be birthed in the places it is most needed. Let the church be fruitful and multiply…

In other words, Neil uses the term “organic” to refer to bearing fruit in the harvest. Everything “alive” that God created multiplies, and church should be the same way.

Another person who uses the term, “organic church” is Frank Viola. Frank has a passion for the Bride of Christ. He uses the term to refer to a church that has life within itself–the life of Jesus. Here’s a quote from the introduction of his book, Finding Organic Church:

By organic church, I mean a church that is born out of spiritual life instead of being constructed by human institutions and held together by religious programs. Organic church life is a grassroots experience that is marked by face-to-face community, every-member functioning, open-participatory meetings (as opposed to pastor-to-pew services), non-hierarchical leadership, and the centrality and supremacy of Jesus Christ as the functional Leader and Head of the gathering.

So Frank uses the term to apply to a community of believers whose life is centered around the living Christ.

It’s a question of emphasis. I’ve been in enough groups waiting on God with Neil to know that he believes in Jesus being the center and leader of the gatherings. And Frank has a desire to see the Gospel spread. They just use the term “organic” in different ways.

We need both emphases. We need organic church.

 

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • http://frankviola.org/ Frank Viola

    Thx. for the shout-out, Felicity. One minor point. I’ve been using the term “organic expression of the church” / “organic church life” for over 15 years. But I didn’t coin the term. It comes from T. Austin-Sparks who used it repeatedly in the 1920s and beyond. (I credit and quote him in “Reimagining Church.”) Mary McDonough and some of the Plymouth Brethren, allegedly, used it before Sparks. 

    Even so, I believe Neil is the person who popularized it for our time rather than me with his fine book. In fact, I stopped using it because it’s become such a clay word right now. Also, my focus presently is on the changing shape of evangelicalism and deeper Christian life themes rather than church expressions. So to my mind, Neil is the “go-to guy” for organic church right now, and I refer people to him, yourself and Tony, Milt Rodriguez, Jon Zens, etc. for those interested in the subject.

    btw/ your blog looks great. I hope you like the Standard Theme. 

    fv

    Psalm 115:1

    • felicitydale

      Thanks for the comments, Frank. I really appreciate your new focus and have been following your blog. I’m going through your book The Untold Story of the New Testament Church and it’s giving me a whole new perspective on the epistles.

  • http://www.facebook.com/keith.smith.5492 Keith Smith

    Hummm, I fist used this term in the 1991 in my book “Organic House Church”, Neil later used unattributed quotes from the book. I was quoting earlier brethren sources. Organic does indicate living, thriving growth. I’m not sure that that accurately describes some who use that designation today.

    • Felicity Dale

      Keith, I think many have used the term “organic” over the years. I know that Frank Viola claims it originated with T. Austin Sparks, the pastor who led the church my parents-in-law went to before they traveled to China.

      I agree that not everyone who uses that term today is living it out in their church practice. It’s become something of a buzz-word, along with the terms simple church and house church. I too would love to see more of the genuine.

    • felicitydale

      Keith, I think many have used the term “organic” over the years. I know that Frank Viola claims it originated with T. Austin Sparks, the pastor who led the church my parents-in-law went to before they traveled to China.

      I agree that not everyone who uses that term today is living it out in their church practice. It’s become something of a buzz-word, along with the terms simple church and house church. I too would love to see more of the genuine.

    • http://bartsbarometer.com/ Bart Breen

      Keith Smith you lied about a PhD from UCLA in psychology, you have a history of attempting to claim credit for many things you haven’t done. Why should anyone beliwve you about this?

  • http://www.facebook.com/ann.clarkson1 Ann Clarkson

    WOW I missed something!! I first heard of “organic church” from Keith Smith in the early 1990s in England. I had never heard of Neil Cole or Frank Viola until I got to Facebook a couple years ago. Just because someone has the money to employ a marketing firm does not make them the “go to people” in my book. Rather the RUN FROM people.

    • Felicity Dale

      Neil and Frank are friends of ours, people with whom we have, from time to time, shared life in many different ways. I think of days spent seeking God together with Neil. I cherish memories of evenings laughing in our hot tub with Frank. Both are humble, laid-down servants whom God is using mightily across the nations in different ways. Who knows–maybe the Lord led one of them to use a marketing firm. They both follow the Lord–I trust them with that decision.

    • felicitydale

      Neil and Frank are friends of ours, people with whom we have, from time to time, shared life in many different ways. I think of days spent seeking God together with Neil. I cherish memories of evenings laughing in our hot tub with Frank. Both are humble, laid-down servants whom God is using mightily across the nations in different ways. Who knows–maybe the Lord led one of them to use a marketing firm. They both follow the Lord–I trust them with that decision.

  • Kat Huff

    Hi Felicity,

    First of all, hats off to Frank Viola for his mentioning of T. Austin Sparks, who seems to be who coined this word “organic” concerning the church, way back when. I think, he used this word as a description for the Life who is in the church, the Way of Life. He just was not put in the spotlight. I’ve been thinking about this popularized descriptive word that has now become a title, a name, which now seems to cover the gauntlet of any kind of meeting formed outside of religion’s doors. Odd thing it is that when we turn anything into a name for ourselves, a title we go by, then it becomes something we own and operate. “Organic” now falls into this categorical demise. However, the reality of organic is still true, but on the whole, “organic” no longer means Life, Christ. It goes to show that when we have a title/a name, it is downhill from there. That is what the annals of history mandates for titles and names. There is only one Name, all else will burn away. It is inevitable, there is only one Form, one Name, one Multiplier, one Builder, one Way, and one Life, and that is Christ Jesus the Person Himself, and nothing else. I don’t use the label of organic, simple, nor house anymore to refer to Christ in us. Just Christ and Christ in us.

    • Felicity Dale

      Kat, there are a lot of words I would like to leave out of the Christian vocabulary because they have been misused so much over the years and/or become a rallying cry. The word “church” would be one. Others would include the leadership titles “apostles, elders etc.” Obviously they are Biblical and therefore one uses them, but they often convey the wrong impression. Take “apostles” for example. Most people think of the “top of the hierarchy,” card carrying, seen on the rooftops super-leader when they hear the term, rather than the life-laid-down, trodden on by all, servant that the Scriptures describe. Maybe it just means we have to define our terms more clearly. And I agree with you–there’s only one name that matters.

    • felicitydale

      Kat, there are a lot of words I would like to leave out of the Christian vocabulary because they have been misused so much over the years and/or become a rallying cry. The word “church” would be one. Others would include the leadership titles “apostles, elders etc.” Obviously they are Biblical and therefore one uses them, but they often convey the wrong impression. Take “apostles” for example. Most people think of the “top of the hierarchy,” card carrying, seen on the rooftops super-leader when they hear the term, rather than the life-laid-down, trodden on by all, servant that the Scriptures describe. Maybe it just means we have to define our terms more clearly. And I agree with you–there’s only one name that matters.