It’s a rather inflammatory title, isn’t it? The subtitle, “Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices,” is a little less so, but you can see where the exploration has led authors Frank Viola and George Barna: a conviction that the “pagan” historic influences on the way Christianity has been practiced over the centuries strip the institutional church of all credibility. They advocate instead “organic church,” defined this way:
An organic church is simply a church that is born out of spiritual life instead of constructed by human institutions and held together by religious programs. Organic churches are characterized by Spirit-led, open-participatory meetings and nonhierarchical leadership. This is in stark contrast to a clergy-led, institution-driven church.
Frankly, that sounds pretty good to me. I’ve never experienced that, despite “growing up in the church,” as they say.
Standing back and looking at the big picture, who would disagree that the institutional church as practiced in the evangelical world does not resemble the first century church? Yet I took the historical commentary in this book with a grain of salt. For one thing, even the first century believers were influenced by tradition and culture in their expression of their faith; there is simply no such thing as unenculturated, ahistoric human beings. The fact that historic influences that were not necessarily “Christian” or “biblical” have played a part in shaping Christianity’s expression over the years does not surprise me, nor does it automatically discredit all modern forms. (C.S. Lewis pointed out, in fact, that the pagans foreshadowed and reflected the grand Christian story in some of their myths and attitudes.) For another thing, these authors paint with an very broad brush. They are up-front about this, pointing out that an exhaustive historical commentary would produce volumes rather than a single book, and it would not reach their intended audience. But the inevitable result is perhaps a few too many certain declarations about when and why a certain tradition began.
That said, I still appreciated this book, because it prompts thought about the question that is pertinent: at what point do the cultural influences fundamentally change the heart of our faith? At what point do our institutions and traditions change the gospel into something else? I think Viola and Barna offer some convincing discussion of ways this has happened. I particularly liked the sections on church architecture, in which they “exegete the building;” on tithing; and on the contemporary idea of the pastor. I was less interested in the historical dimensions of the discussion than in the confirmation of what I observe and wonder about in my own church experiences.
Full disclosure: we’re between churches at the moment. And though we need church (of course), we’re not interested in the institutional forms. So let’s just say I did a lot of underlining. I’m no more objective than the various reviewers who run churches or teach at seminaries who’ve posted their complaints about this book. (I’m a bit late to the party on this one, which was discussed plenty when it first came out in 2008.) Whatever lies ahead for us, it will reflect the characteristics of the organic church I’ve already quoted. Viola has a sequel called Reimagining Church that lays out different alternatives. I came upon this post describing a house church today, and it sounds great. Maybe something like that is ahead for us.
Eerily, we’ve run into a number of other church refugees in various settings lately. I grew up hearing that people who went from church to church were “joy poppers,” immature people looking for experiences. But these folks I’ve talked with lately are committed Christians looking for a place where they can worship with integrity. It’s enough to make me wonder if the church in America is headed toward change of the sort G.K. Chesterton refers to in The Everlasting Man:
Again and again, before our time, men have grown content with a diluted doctrine. And again and again there has followed on that dilution, coming as out of the darkness in a crimson cataract, the strength of the red original wine…
This is the final fact, and it is the most extraordinary of all. The faith has not only often died but it has often died of old age. It has not only been often killed but it has often died a natural death; in the sense of coming to a natural and necessary end…
To-day it stands once more in our path; and even as we watch, it grows.
Pagan Christianity is a book worth reading for any Christian, because it’s just flawed enough to leave you room for critical thinking, and just on-the-mark enough to send your thoughts in profitable directions if you are serious about truth and spiritual growth. Above all it’s a hopeful reminder that church doesn’t have to look the way human tradition tells us it must.