THE ORGANIC-MISSIONAL APPROACH TO CHURCH HEALTH
With reference to the last point above, indeed one of the criticisms levelled against church health teaching, especially the principle approach, is that it is too much focussed on the church body. Charles Van Eggen remarks that seven out of NCD’s eight quality characteristics, the possible exception being “need-oriented evangelism”, are concerned almost exclusively with the internal life of the church.1 Ed Stetzer, who propounds a missional matrix of christology, ecclesiology and missiology, comments that the Church Health Movement focuses largely on ecclesiology in order to grow. Hence, Stetzer argues, “by emphasizing ecclesiology, with a limited Christology and an absent missiology, the Church Health Movement stepped outside of the scriptural and theological foundation leading to blindness to the world outside the church walls.”2 That is to say, if missions or the Great Commission is not the focus and pursuit of the church the latter cannot be deemed to be healthy.
This is where the organic-missional approach to church health needs to be seriously considered. The primary proponent of this approach is Neil Cole who wrote Organic Church: Growing Faith Where Life Happens.3 The purpose of “organic churches” is to multiply healthy disciples, leaders, churches and movements,4 and this multiplication can happen anywhere and everywhere.5 They endeavour to accomplish their purpose by emphasising on the health and the natural means of reproducing the foregoing.[end_notes]Ibid, 23[/efn_note] Cole argues for the organic nature of the Kingdom of God.6 He uses the agricultural-setting parables of Jesus as his Scriptural basis for organic churches: the sower7 (Mk 4:3-20), the growing seed8 (Mk 4:26-29), and the mustard seed[end_note]Ibid, 97-98[/efn_note] (Mk 4:30-32).
As far as the organic nature of the church is concerned Schwarz and Cole are in agreement. How they apply that biblical truth, however, differ. Schwarz would say that we need to produce a healthy environment for the church to grow.9 Cole would say we need to produce the right DNA at every level: the individual disciple, small groups, church and movement so that growth and reproduction take place.10
The stress on the organic nature of the church may at first appear to be the overriding characteristic in Cole’s idea of the church because of the name given to it, namely “the organic church”. However, the missional aspect of his idea of church cannot be glossed over as secondary. Missions is at the very heart or thrust of the organic church.11 Indeed his understanding of the DNA of the church is made up of Divine truth, Nurturing relationships and Apostolic mission.12 This DNA may also be seen as Cole’s short list of characteristics of a healthy church, and missions is not only one of three critical components it is also the outward thrust for the church.
Colin Marshall and Tony Payne’s The Trellis And The Vine: The Ministry Mind-Shift That Changes Everything13 has similarities with Cole’s Organic Church. The trellis refers to the structures and programmes that support the ministry of the church. The vine essentially refers to the people who are part of the Body of Christ or who will eventually be incorporated into His Body. Marshall and Payne write, “This is what the growing of the vine really is: it is individual, born-again believers, grafted into Christ by his word and Spirit, and drawn into mutually edifying fellowship with one another.”14 In essence The Trellis and the Vine is the authors’ argument for the church to make paramount disciple-making. “Church health” is not a term they use, but it would be right to say that in their view when a church gives attention to the vine work of making disciples the church will be healthy. Their follow up book The Vine Project: Shaping Your Ministry Culture Around Disciple Making15 provides a detailed roadmap for churches who wish to embark on this journey. The two key things that such churches must do is one, to develop a culture of making disciples16 and two, multiplying gospel growth through training co-workers.17
It seems odd that while the title of the book is The Trellis and the Vine, nothing significant is said about the trellis. When the trellis is mentioned it is written with a negative view—that churches have allowed structures, programmes, polity, management and the like to stifle disciple-making.18
Cole’s Organic Church has a better balance, to use Marshall’s and Payne’s imagery, of the trellis and the vine. Cole writes, “Structures are needed, but they must be simple, reproducible, and internal rather than external.”19 He goes on to draw an imagery from the exoskeleton and endoskeleton of the human body. He writes, “The structure should not be seen, yet the results of it should be evident throughout the body. Organization must be secondary to life and must exist to help support the organic life of the body.”20 The church as a living spiritual organism must inevitably be organised. However, the structures must not dominate the church’s missional purpose of making disciples but to serve it.
Each individual approach to church health, principle, biblical and organic-missional, is insufficient to provide us with a comprehensive study and understanding of church health. The three approaches should be woven together if we are to have a better grasp about what constitutes a healthy church and how we are to measure it. The student of church health must begin by studying what the Bible says about the church—what it is and what it is to do, as the advocates of the biblical approach would counsel us. What the Bible says must form the foundation for any definition and set of characteristics of a healthy church.
However, simply knowing what the Bible says about the church is, by itself, insufficient to determine the health of a church. The latter needs to be analysed, and the process of analysis should include the use of social science research tools. This is one aspect that the principle approach to church health has to offer. To be certain, the areas to be “measured” are not simply from an organisational aspect, collections and attendance at worship services. What the Bible says about the life and calling of the church must be our guide. In this sense the commitment and effectiveness of a church to its missional calling and the Lord’s commission to make disciples, that the organic-missional approach stresses, must play a prominent part in the assessment of the health of a church.