Book Review: Church 3.0, by Neil Cole

Review
12.23.2010

In a world of constantly advancing technology, obsolescence is many people’s worst nightmare.

According to Neil Cole’s book Church 3.0, that is the danger that the church is currently facing. We live in a time in which the “world has changed in dramatic fashion, right out from under us” (10), fundamentally altering our vocabulary and our way of relating to one another. Therefore, the church needs to “leave the old ways of doing church for new, more relational and viral churches” (10). This is the vision Cole seeks to implement in Church 3.0.

A NEW OPERATING SYSTEM FOR THE CHURCH

Using the analogy of a computer operating system, Cole describes the first-century churches as operating under Church 1.0. Though there were minor differences among the early churches, they were all similar in that they remained largely a grassroots movement. However, all this changed with Constantine as the church institutionalized and transitioned to Church 2.0, which has remained the standard operating system since the fourth century. Though there have been incremental upgrades, such as the Reformation (Church 2.1) or the Anabaptists (Church 2.2), “the actual system of church has gone relatively unchanged. You have priests or pastors, the Sunday service with singing and a sermon, the weekly offering, the pulpit with pews, and the church building” (7). Clearly, this is quite a broad category that allows Cole to group a medieval Roman Catholic mass with the latest contemporary mega-church service!

However, according to Cole, what’s needed today is not a return to Church 1.0, but further improvement, a re-thinking of what the church should be like. What’s needed is Church 3.0. “The change to Church 3.0 is a shift from a program-driven and clergy-led institutionalized approach of church to one that is relational, simple, and viral in its spread” (11).

Cole outlines this change in three sections: first, the changes that are taking place in our world today, namely globalization and postmodernism; second, the structural changes that need to happen within the church, including new ways to think about the church’s mission, growth, models, and corporate gatherings; and finally, how these changes work out in the areas of evangelism, the ordinances, children’s ministry, dealing with heresy, and church finances. Each chapter, then, is a discussion of what it would look like for the church to make this transition in each of these areas.

TROUBLESHOOTING CHURCH 3.0

There are all kinds of problems with Cole’s presentation of church history, not least of which is the suggestion that his conception of the church is the biggest revolution since Constantine. But despite this, Cole does provide some accurate observations about problems local churches presently face. Pointing to cumbersome, business-like structures, a lack of personal relationships, an excessive inward focus, and the professionalization of the ministry, Cole joins many others in arguing that something is seriously wrong with a large number of churches today.

Cole says that the root of all these problems is the institutionalization of the church, which is a caricature that’s too broad and vague to be of any help. Still, this is what he says Church 2.0 is all about, and it has resulted in ineffective and even unspiritual practices which plague the church today. In response, Church 3.0 strips the church of its institutional structures and presents decentralized house churches and house church networks as the way forward.

What is a Local Church?

In all this, there is one glaring question that Cole leaves unanswered: What is a local church?

The closest thing to a definition that Cole gives is: “the presence of Jesus among His people called out as a spiritual family to pursue His mission on this planet” (57). Cole admits this is a broad definition, but this is intentional, in order “to lower the bar of how church is done so that anyone can do it” (65). As a result, high school students singing songs in a living room can be a church. What would normally be a small group or a campus fellowship can be a church. Dozens of churches can easily be planted and just as easily disbanded over the course of a few weeks. Such an imprecise definition of the church will have many implications for how church is practiced, but in the end, all this contributes to the organic, unstructured nature of Church 3.0.

Christians over the centuries have wrestled with the question of what constitutes a local church. The Reformers, under persecution from the dominant institutional church of their day, studied Scripture and found two marks of the true church: the true preaching of God’s word and the right administration of the sacraments. Though inhabiting diverse cultures and contexts, Christians over the years have arrived at these two marks from Scripture again and again, so they should be helpful diagnostic tools for us to use as we troubleshoot Church 3.0.

Does Church 3.0 Practice the True Preaching of God’s Word?

First, does Church 3.0 practice the true preaching of God’s Word? The answer seems unclear.

In Church 3.0, the preaching of the Word is not central to the life of a church. While Cole does emphasize personal discipleship and one-on-one study of Scripture, he finds the Sunday service and sermon to be “a less than effective way of making disciples and transforming the world” (137).

Even more concerning, however, is that the gospel is not explicitly at the center of the church. Historically, the true preaching of the Word was understood to exist wherever the gospel is faithfully and authoritatively proclaimed. Yet throughout Church 3.0, it’s not entirely clear what the gospel is, nor is there an emphasis on how churches need to be faithfully proclaiming it. The message of God’s holiness, man’s rebellion deserving God’s wrath, Christ’s substitutionary sacrifice and resurrection, and the need for repentance and faith is never explicitly shown to be at the heart of the local church. To be fair, one could probably piece together all the main aspects of the gospel from this book and demonstrate that Cole is at least not denying the gospel. But in failing to show how essential the gospel is for the church, Cole obscures the heart of the local church and its mission.

Does Church 3.0 Rightly Administer the Sacraments?

Second, does Church 3.0 rightly administer the sacraments?

Through the phrase “right administration of the sacraments,” Christians have historically set out the biblical teaching that the sacraments are gifts to the local church, but are not to be viewed as saving; rather, they are symbols of the gracious salvation God had performed. As a result, church membership and discipline are inextricably bound up with this mark, as only those who know this grace are allowed to partake.

So what about Church 3.0? While Cole is careful to affirm that baptism and the Lord’s Supper are not saving acts, he significantly distorts their meaning by removing them from the authority of the local church and placing them in the realm of everyday life. In Church 3.0, baptism is something to be performed by any individual Christian, wherever he might be. Even more radical is that the Lord’s Supper is longer a celebration for the gathered church, but an everyday meal celebrated in private homes by any who attend, whether they are Christians or not.

So, while Cole does not teach that the sacraments are necessary for salvation, he undercuts their significance for the local church by removing them from that sphere altogether. Rather than being ordinances given by Christ to the church that mark entrance (baptism) and ongoing inclusion (Lord’s Supper) in the covenant community, these practices are now individualistic and therefore are divorced from any meaningful authority. At best, Cole is advocating an extremely unwise practice of both of the ordinances. At worst, he is presenting a confused message to the world about what it means to be a Christian.

CHURCH 3.0 MISSES THE MOST IMPORTANT QUESTION

Although it strives to solve problems facing the church today, Church 3.0 misses the fundamental question of what it means to be a church at all. Both at the center (the gospel) and at the boundaries (the ordinances), Cole fails to articulate what the Bible teaches about the local church. Rather, his attempt to de-institutionalize the church removes the very substance of the local church. Like many others, he seems to assume that the Bible has very little to say about how we should “do” church and therefore is driven by various pragmatic concerns, only turning to Scripture for the occasional proof text.

If you want to acquaint yourself with one of the leading voices of the house church movement, read this book, but then turn elsewhere for what Scripture teaches about the local church.

By:
Geoff Chang

Geoff Chang is an associate pastor of Hinson Baptist Church in Portland, Oregon.