Note: In addition to this post, you may want to read this and this.
I recently started reading The Neighboring Church by Rick Rusaw and Brian Mavis. Brian is a friend who has taught me so much over the years by his insight and example. So, I recognize that I'm biased but I believe the book synthesizes what a lot of Christian writers and thinkers have attempted over the years. I commend the book to you and will write more about it in the future, but for now I want to point out something that Rick Rusaw--Brian's co-author, addresses at the beginning of the book.
Rusaw positions the popular usage of the term "organic church" in Christian circles against organization. If you're a Christian leader, you may have heard a (likely) younger, more idealistic Christian leader talking about starting Christian communities organically. You may share the frustration that Rusaw expresses if this young leaders vision appears to imply the absence of any agenda, effort or intention. In fact, you've likely heard folks talk about church this way without even using "organic" as a handle.
The term "organic church" was popularized by Neil Cole through his speaking, training around the globe and prolific writing. In his book Organic Church he writes,
"... let's bring Christ to people where they live. We may find that a new church will grow out of such an enterprise, a church that is more centered in life, and the workplace, where the Gospel is supposed to make a difference?"Clearly, Cole has an agenda and intends on significant effort to be made when he uses this term "organic church" but an authors intention is not always how it is popularized. I've sat in many of Cole's workshops and know that when he uses this term, he goes on to use the work of an organic farmer for the work of the Christian leader hoping to cultivate the organic church. Rusaw does the same to point something out: organic never implies the lack of organization. The lack of organization and effort in a garden only means neglect, the lack of fruitfulness and weeds.
If then organic and organization are not opposed to each other, what then do we really mean by "organic" when it is used in Christian circles?
It first means being present with a community, with neighbors, with a particular social group--or subculture. Not nearby, but within. It means listening to and watching, growing to understand the assets and needs of a community, its opportunities and problems. All that implies building relationships, and potentially unexpected partnerships. It is not without agenda, all relationships have an agenda. It is not simply sitting around and waiting. It requires effort, but a different kind of effort typically exerted by Christian leaders.
Why is this ministry of presence necessary? Because an "organic" approach presumes that God is already present and at work within any given context. That context, whatever it may be, has the raw tools already in place for its transformation. There are leaders, assets, resources and solutions right there. The question for the Christian leader is whether or not they will pay attention close enough, build relationships of love and trust that might nurture those gifts already present.
What I've just described is the posture of the "organic" leader. But what about when we use "organic" to describe Christian community? What, you may ask, does that mean?
When individuals in a particular community begin to find a common cause and a mission begins to formulate, community starts to take shape. Gordon Cosby said it best and I'll paraphrase him here as my books are still in storage: community does not equal mission, but mission always builds community. The Christian community embedded into the rhythm and routine of a particular neighborhood or subculture will develop from a shared mission is first cultivated. In such a scenario, Christian faith and tradition will take on the particular accent, language and genres of that context.
When we use the term "organic" it is not in opposition to organization. It simply means that we are organizing our work in a different manner, a different place, with a different mission. The result is not always as sustainable as those typically constructed within our Christian edifices. But this does not make it any less important.