Led by the Spirit: Pictures of a Real-life Organic Church

In this interview with Dave Wilmarth, I discover a world beyond "church-in-a-box" and catch a glimpse of the "treasures of wisdom and knowledge" available to every church member when they follow Jesus as their only leader

Dave Wilmarth is one of the facilitators in an organic church I was fortunate enough to stumble upon in my local area. Or rather, I should say, Dave stumbled upon me! Given the fact I live in an area (Sonoma County, CA) that’s not exactly the Christian “Mecca” of America, I was delighted to find other like-minded individuals living so close. I interviewed Dave to get his perspective on the organic church movement, why some people choose to attend instutitional churches even after getting a taste of organic church, and what sorts of things actually happen during an organic church gathering.

Jared: Thanks so much Dave for joining me on this interview. First off, in your own words, what exactly is organic church? I think a lot of folks out there struggle with figuring out just what the heck we’re talking about when we use that term, or more specifically why it’s anything different from a small group/Bible study/etc.

Dave: It’s nice to hang out with you, Jared, and discuss our shared passion which I think you would agree is simply Jesus and all that He is. Paul in Ephesians tantalizes us with the words “the unsearchable riches of Christ” and in Colossians of Christ he says “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” So, our passion to pursue Him, see Him, and know Him is central to who we are as believers if we’re going to have any peace or sanity in this sometimes painful, confusing world that we find ourselves in. As believers we have a natural instinct to want to be with other saints to have the opportunity to express His life in us and also to feed on His life through others. Christians in the Bible were always wanting to be together. Meetings were the highlight of their week. Seeking Christ together was a big deal!

The Bible describes in 1 Corinthians 12-14 what a church meeting was like in the early days. And more specifically in 1 Cor. 14:26, Paul says that “when you come together, each of you has a psalm, a teaching, a tongue, a revelation…” meaning that each member has the right and responsibility to open up and share their portion of the Lord. The meetings were led by the Holy Spirit. He spoke by His Spirit both in the moment and during the week to the family members and they brought to the meetings spiritual presents for each other. There wasn’t a designated human leader. Jesus was the leader as the Head of the Body and the meetings flowed with His life in an organic manner rather than being led by a person with an itinerary or order of worship. It was simply people together with the risen Christ in charge.

So, the term organic church simply means a meeting where human leadership is shared by all in the room. Structure is minimized. It’s how Jesus wants things to work.

Jared: I love what you’re saying about bringing spiritual presents for each other! It’s all too easy to put “gifts” in a theological box and forget how practical an idea it is and how participatory Paul’s vision of Church really is.

So I’m curious: how long have you been involved in organic church, and what got you started on that journey?

Dave: I first met Jesus in 1971 during the Jesus Movement and was joined to a commune where organic life was the order of the day. So for nine years I experienced a beautiful (very painful with lots of trials, too) expression of the Lord’s family. That movement slowly became institutionalized, meaning it adopted official human leadership and the spontaneous life that resembled the early church just faded.

The only other option was “Church-in-the-box” so I resigned myself to that option but always had a nagging feeling that my family and I were really missing something. Around 2010 we were attending a local church in Santa Rosa and I was part of the worship team which had a leader who was similarly as bored as I was. During the Pastor’s message we would sit outside and hang out or read and drink coffee. The worship leader pulls out this book with a bright red cover called Pagan Christianity which I pick up and started to read and I was just blown away!! It exposed how Orthodox Christianity had been blended with non-biblical practices to get what we have today in America, a form of Christianity that is mocked and laughed at. We then set out to find organic simple church.

So that’s how my re-introduction to organic church life happened. I just couldn’t sit in those rows any more. I was bored to tears and needed to experience the Life of Jesus Christ in a simple setting. I’ve been meeting with a very beautiful little family of believers for 4 or 5 years now and am sooo blessed.

Jared: Great story! Pagan Christianity was a major factor in my journey into organic church as well. What do you tell people when you bump into them and they ask you where you “go” for church?

Dave: When I see friends that I haven’t seen in a while and they ask me what church I’m going to and I tell them that I’m going to a house church that doesn’t have a Pastor except for Jesus, generally their eyes glaze over. The look on their face seems to say “I don’t have a place in my brain to file that statement. Every church must have a Pastor.” When I say that we meet like the Bible says to meet the conversation ends quickly or the subject changes right away.

Jared: I know that look well! For me the challenge is always how to explain the reasons behind what we’re doing and why it’s not yet another “Churchianity-style” small group. Sometimes people just have to experience organic church life for themselves before they really “get it.”

On the other hand, Dave, I remember during a previous conversation you’d mentioned that at least one family who were part of your church ended up after a time attending a traditional/institutional church instead. Why do you think some Christians who do get a taste of authentic, organic-style church decide to go back to the familar setting/format of institutional church?

Dave: Wow, great question. When we’ve had people leave our flock we’ve never felt comfortable with asking them what are the reasons that they’re leaving. It just seems simpler and cleaner to say “see ya down the road somewhere” and part in peace as friends. This leaves the door open to resume fellowship in the future as the Lord allows.

That said, I’ve been a shepherd and counselor to many over the years and have studied counseling and have needed much counsel myself. As we live our lives before the Lord and each other we learn to follow the Spirit into people’s hearts and can arrive at clues as to why certain people act in particular ways. If I had to make a generalized statement as to why some would leave the intensity and blessedness of organic church and either be in no fellowship at all or return to institutional church, I would say the main reason would be that some are very frightened of the level of transparency needed to thrive in an organic setting.

We sit in a circle and get to know each other very, very well. There’s no hiding and if we try, and we all do, then it’s just a matter of time till the Spirit deals with us and we must come clean. It’s really hard to be in the presence of the Lord for any amount of time and stay hidden. It’s not our goal to dig into each other’s lives. Our goal is to know Jesus together and as we do that, our sin, flesh and immaturity gets exposed. It’s paralyzingly fearful for some to begin the process of growth and sanctification in the midst of a face to face community, but that’s God’s way. How can we be knit together in love if we are holding back from letting others see our junk?

Also, being in an organic setting where there isn’t a designated leader demands that each member contributes their portion of their spiritual life to the other saints. In the modern Western church, people are accustomed to sitting in rows and passively receiving, and are not taught that Christ lives within us and wants out in a way that will bless the meeting. They haven’t had a deep revelation of the indwelling Christ. 

Jared: For the curious, just what goes on anyway in one of your meetings? Do you wear funny hats? Do you chant? Should I be wary of what you’re putting in my drink when I come over?

Dave: One tradition we have is that during the week we capture little animals, then we bring them to the meeting and sacrifice them in our fireplaces. Kidding!

Each meeting is different. Sometimes we’ll sing and worship most of the meeting, or we study books, or we share what happened the previous week and how we saw Jesus in our circumstances. We eat together, we have taken turns sharing our life stories from birth to the present, we share our faults and sins and pray for each other, we laugh till we cry, study scripture, pray, we teach one another, disagree with each other, find consensus and play. Whatever we do, though, we do all in the name of the Lord Jesus and seek Him together for His leading both in the meeting and in our individual lives. It’s really exciting because it can’t be predicted where Jesus will lead us.

When I was part of “Church-in the-box” I couldn’t wait for the service to end. Now, when we meet, we have to kick each other out of our houses! I sometimes have to jokingly say “get out of my house” or else they’d stay all day or night!

Jared: Fantastic. I can attest to the truth of what you are saying. Our family simply had a wonderful experience when we were guests visiting your church. 

Dave, I really appreciate your taking the time to help us gain a better sense of what organic church can be like “on the ground” and not just as a theory in some popular book. I wish you and your fellowship every blessing as you continue to come together to celebrate Jesus and everything He has done for His people, the Church.

Dave: Thanks Jared. It’s been sweet touching lives with you. Yes, Jesus loves us so deeply and I pray that the Church you’re meeting with experiences the height, depth, length and breadth of Him and His love. Let’s get our Church families together soon.

Jared: (thumbs up)

To learn more about organic church…

On the website for the church I participate in, I have a number of resources listed that are incredibly valuable for learning more about organic church, missional church, and related topics, including Organic Church by Neil Cole and Pagan Christianity by George Barna & Frank Viola that was mentioned above. If you have any questions about this interview, please contact me and address either me or Dave and we’d love to chat with you!

Jared White