Post Published on January 15, 2011.
Last Updated on July 12, 2021 by davemackey.
[This post is in large part thanks to Andrew Hess, who has pushed my thinking on organic church and ‘forced’ me to do more reading and thinking about underlying church philosophy.]
In this post I will attempt to summarize and respond to many of the main thoughts in Frank Viola‘s work Reimagining Church which argues that church is not as it should be and requires a radical abandonment and re-imagining. If you, like me, “love the church” Viola’s writings can be quite inflammatory. Yet, we must admit that the issues he raises are the same issues we talk about over meals, in classes, and bring before God in our prayers. Let’s see if we can pass over the broad generalizations and take to heart the specific errors and admonitions that may be useful to us.
“After thirteen years of attending scores of churches and parachurch organizations, I took the daring step of leaving the institution church.”Frank Viola, Reimagining Church
- Red Flag. I am not surprised Viola didn’t find “church” in these thirteen years, one has to be the church to find the “church” – and moving between churches this much (unless this is significant hyperbole) does not allow one to be the church.
“…the spiritual growth that I myself experienced seemed to occur outside of traditional church settings.”Frank Viola, Reimagining Church
- I’d agree, the church is not a replacement for our personal spiritual growth but a facilitator of this growth.
“…something deep within me longed for an experience of church that mapped to what I read about in my New Testament.”Frank Viola, Reimagining Church
- I’m expecting him to develop this idea further…what exactly does he want to experience that the NT church had? The order of service? The community? The passion?
“By no means am I criticizing the church. In fact, I’m writing this volume because I love the church very much.”Frank Viola, Reimagining Church
- I know, I know, we might feel a little skeptical about this statement – but Scripture tells us that loves “hopes” and “believes the best” – so let us apply this metric to Viola.
- I think Viola does desire the best for the church, the question is whether the best he conceives is always the best in all places, everywhere, for all people and whether the manner of the discussion is helpful or harmful to the furtherance of the church – as it truly is and should be.
“Please note that my aim in writing is constructive rather than controversial.”Frank Viola, Reimagining Church
- Ahh, now that is an attitude to work with, it will take one far in making progress – whatever arena of life one may be working in.
“We are living in an age hopelessly below the New Testament pattern–content with a neat little religion.” – Martin Lloyd-Jones.Frank Viola, Reimagining Church
- Ouch! Viola that’s not fair! You can’t quote people within our own “church” circles to undermine our ideas! Ouch!
“Countless Christians…have come to the conviction that the institutional church as we know it today is not only ineffective, but it’s also without biblical merit.”Frank Viola, Reimagining Church
- On the one hand, “church” can be extremely ineffective…on the other hand – how does one define the “institutional church”?1Yes, I am purposely participating in the revolt against including punctuation within quotations. Viva la Geeks! Can one really stroke so many various churches with one broad brush?
- I like to encourage specific criticism, rather than generalizations. Tell me what is wrong specifically, not generically, I am a little concerned, thus, by the general broad strokes…but, hey, we are just at the beginning – give Viola some time.
- Viola suggests that the church is an organism not an institution, and notes that most Christians agree with this statement but “as they formed those very words, they continued to be devout members of churches that were organized along the lines of General Motors and Microsoft.”
- Yes, I agree the church is an organism…No, I don’t attend a mega-church, so it’s not like GM or Microsoft, but might be a bit like the mom and pop store on the corner…
“The ‘institutional church’ is a system–a way of doing‘church.'”Frank Viola, Reimagining Church
- I’d suggest that everything organic (in movements, etc.) has a tendency to move towards institutionalization, and that this is not necessarily (in and of itself) a bad thing, rather that when the organic is sacrificed on the altar of the institution (and this is a natural tendency), then one has a bad thing.
“…I am referring to those churches that operate primarily as institutions that exist above, beyond, and independent of the members that populate them. These churches are constructed on programs and rituals more than relationships. They are highly structured, typically building-centered organizations regulated by set-apart professionals…who are aided by volunteers…They require staff, building, salaries, and administration. In the institutional church, congregants watch a religious performance once or twice a week led principally by one person…, and then retreat home to live their individual lives.”Frank Viola, Reimagining Church
- The first sentence sounds nice but I found it lacking in preciseness. I cannot conceive of a church that exists in this manner (at least not any growing/thriving church). I think even businesses realize that they exist b/c and by the participation of their customers.
- “programs” – yeah, we have those…not sure if that is a bad thing in and of itself? Programs can facilitate or destroy organic life.
- “rituals” – yeah, we have some of those…and again, I’d say these can be bad, or not. It depends on whether we are intentional in our execution – individually and corporately. Do our rituals facilitate interaction with God? If not, by all means throw them out the window.
- “highly structured” – yeah, and this can be a problem…unless the structure facilitates rather than restricts.
- “building-centered” – yeah, that can happen too…but I don’t think many church leaders are building-centered…and, yet again, buildings can facilitate or inhibit organic life.
- “set-apart professionals” – CCC doesn’t have those right now…we are all volunteers – but I’d love to see us have one! I can’t tell you how much work it is to do while working full-time! So, I’m not sure that I see this as being an issue either, necessarily.
- “congregants watch a religious performance” – Yes, this is oftentimes true…and this is bad…but I do not want “church” to be this, and I don’t think most other ministry leaders do either – spot-on criticism.
- “led principally by one person” – Spot on again, but again, not how it needs to be, should be, or how most ministry leaders want it to be.
- “retreat home to live their individual lives” – Yes, this is very true…but the “church” can encourage this behavior or it can encourage life in community, life as part of the body.
“In short, this book reimagines a vision of church that’s organic in its construction; relational in its functioning; scriptural in its form; Christ-centered in its operation; Trinitarian in its shape; communitarian in its lifestyle; nonelitist in its attitude; and nonsectarian in its expression.”Frank Viola, Reimagining Church
- Yes! Yes! YES! I don’t know many who would object to this reimagination of church…so what is all the hubbub about? Implementation. I think people generally agree with Viola’s essential evaluation of the issues and ideas of what church should be, but the means by which this is accomplished.
Whew! I had intended to write on the first chapter as well, but this post is quite long already and its 1:00 a.m. and I have to work in the morning! Pahh! Well, there ya go. Feel free to give me your feedback and I’ll try to post on Chapter 1 soon.