by Frank Viola
Since I left institutional Christianity twenty years ago, I have groped for language to communicate the kind of church experience I have lived in since that time. About fifteen years ago, I began using the term "organic church." Interesting, this word has recently become somewhat of a clay word, being molded and shaped to mean a variety of different things by a variety of different people.
T. Austin-Sparks is the man who deserves credit for this term. Here's his definition:
God's way and law of fullness is that of organic life. In the Divine order, life produces its own organism, whether it be a vegetable, animal, human or spiritual. This means that everything comes from the inside. Function, order and fruit issue from this law of life within. It was solely on this principle that what we have in the New Testament came into being. Organized Christianity has entirely reversed this order.
The phrase, "the organic expression of the church" was a favorite of Sparks'. I've yet to find a better phrase to improve upon it.
By "organic church," I mean a non-traditional church that is born out of spiritual life instead of constructed by human institutions and held together by religious programs. Organic church life is a grass roots experience that is marked by face-to-face community, every-member functioning, open-participatory meetings (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.
Put another way, organic church life is the "experience" of the Body of Christ. In its purest form, it's the fellowship of the Triune God brought to earth and experienced by human beings.
To use an illustration, if I try to create an orange in a laboratory by employing human ingenuity and organizational skills, the lab-created orange would not be organic. But if I plant an orange seed into the ground and it produces an orange tree, the tree is organic.
In the same way, whenever we sin-scarred mortals try to create a church the same way we would start a business corporation, we are defying the organic principle of church life. An organic church is one that is naturally produced when a group of people have encountered Jesus Christ in reality (external ecclesiastical props being unnecessary) and the DNA of the church is free to work without hindrance. In short, "organic church" describes a kind of church life that embodies the biblical teaching that the church is a spiritual organism and not an institutional organization.
To put it in sentence, organic church is not a theater with a script. It's a lifestyle-a spontaneous journey with the Lord Jesus and His disciples in close-knit community.
An organic church can be contrasted with "institutional church." By "institutional church," I mean a church that is created by human organization, chain-of-command styled leadership, and institutional programs. It's marked by a weekly order of worship (or mass) officiated by a pastor or priest. It's controlled by a top-down hierarchical organization and human social conventions (called "offices") that people fill. The institutional church has often been called "the traditional church," "the organized church," and "the audience church." Congregants watch a religious performance once or twice a week, and then retreat home to live their individual Christian lives.
Leadership is hierarchical in the institutional church, and Christians are divided into "clergy" and "laity" (or their equivalent-"pastors" and "laymen"). Granted, some institutional churches have small group meetings outside of weekly church services where members get a taste of community life. But this community life is not the driving force of the church. And a hierarchical leadership structure is in place in the small group gatherings. Someone is always "in charge," and the group is ultimately under the authority and restrictions of the pastor or priest.
We can think of the difference between organic churches and institutional churches this way. When God's people assemble together on the basis of the organizational principles that run General Motors and Microsoft, we call it an institutional church. But when God's people assemble together on the basis of the life of God, we call it an organic church.
One of the common mistakes that is made today is to confuse all house churches with organic churches. The reason is simple. Not all house churches are organic. Some are quite institutional.
I have often been asked: "How does a house church operate?" That's impossible to answer because the term "house church" is about as wide an umbrella as the word "plant." To my mind, asking how a house church operates is like asking, "What does a plant look like?" There are countless kinds of plants -- weeds, shrubs, trees, bushes, vines, etc. In the same way, there are countless kinds of house churches. I've seen so many types and varieties over the years that it seems that the only thing they all have in common is that they meet in a home.
"Organic church," therefore, best describes the kinds of churches that I and many other Christians around the world have experienced, lived in, and enjoyed. And it's the kind of church that I believe the Lord is raising up in this hour. Add to that, the church that we find in the New Testament was above all things . . . organic. So it seems to me anyway.
Reprinted with permission from BeyondEvangelical.com