Reimagining Church (Chapter 1) (Frank Viola) – An Interaction (Part 2).

A Painting by Bernt Notke
Image via Wikipedia

You can find introductory material and the introductory/preface interaction here. Without further delay…

Chapter 1. Reimagining the Church as an Organism.

  • “The church we read about in the New Testament was ‘organic.’ By that I mean it was born from and sustained by spiritual life instead of constructed by human institutions, controlled by human hierarchy, shaped by lifeless rituals, and held together by religious programs.”
    • The Christian church is most certainly organic, but the early church also shared many institutional aspects with the Jewish religion – particularly in its utilization of the temple and synagogue.
    • Rituals are meaningful or meaningless according to the assignment they receive from the individual. Communion and Baptism can be meaningless – unless they are imputed with meaning by remaining true to their inspiration in Scripture. While these rituals have a Scriptural mandate, other rituals are not necessarily evil – though they may become lifeless.
  • “To put it in a sentence, organic church life is not a theater with a script; it’s a gathered community that lives by divine life.”
    • Amen! Though I think the existence of a community that lives by divine life does not remove the possibility or even necessity of script within practice. A community is intentional and can be fostered or inhibited by a good script (especially if the script is flexible to the realities of life – which are not scripted).
  • “The biblical teaching of the Trinity is not an exposition about an abstract design of God. Instead, it teaches us about God’s nature and how it operates in Christian community.”
    • I do think that the Trinity is an archetype for human community, though this actually lends itself against Viola’s suggestion that church is non-hierarchical. While there is not a relationship of superiority/inferiority within the Trinity, there is a relationship of submission and roles.
  • “Properly conceived, the church is the gathered community that shares God’s life and expresses it in the earth. Put another way, the church is the earthly image of the triune God (Eph. 1:22-23).”
    • No disagreement from me here…nor do I think from most others I know?
  • “There’s an absence of passive spectatorship. There’s an absence of one-upmanship. And there’s an absence of religious rituals and programs.”
    • The spectator nature of traditional church and the politics of church are both disturbing realities of gathered community – they happen. We strive to live by grace in the Spirit, but we fail often, and this is the result. I agree with the removal (as far as is possible) of these elements from the church – but I do not see how the organic church has any stronger position in this battle.
    • I am hoping later on Viola will describe more of how one has an organic church without rituals and programs…and perhaps a more precise definition of what classifies something as a “ritual” or a “program.”
  • Viola highlights several different church philosophies:
    • “Biblical Blueprintism” – The Scriptures contained detailed instructions as to how the church should operate, we just have to correctly find these instructions and extract them. This is not the underlying concepts, but rather particular modes of expression, program, and ritual.
    • “Cultural Adaptability” – Suggests we must make the church relevant in the cultural in which the church exists in a specific time, place, and situation.
      • Viola wisely cautions, “Overcontextualization eats up the biblical text to where it disappears entirely. And we are left to create the church after our own image.”
      • I appreciate that while Viola thinks the church is not as it should be he also cautions that, “The early church was not perfect. If you doubt that, just read 1 Corinthians. So romanticizing the early Christians as if they were flawless is a mistake.”1Steve Brown has an interesting article fleshing out this concept called The Ugly Bride.
      • “The great difference between present-day Christianity and that of which we read in these [the New Testament letters] is that to us it is primarily a performance; to them it was a real experience. We are apt to reduce the Christian religion to a code, or at best a rule of heart and life. To these men it is quite plainly the invasion of their lives by a new life altogether.” – J.B. Phillips.
        • I want this invasion of new life altogether in my life!
    • “Postchurch Christianity” – The church as a formal entity ceases to exist, it is only spiritual and organic, it occurs over coffee in the grind of life.
      • Viola argues against this position on the basis that, “The first-century churches where locatable, identifiable, visitable communities that met regularly in a particular locale.”
    • “Organic Expression” – This is the philosophy Viola advocates.
  • Viola outlines four “DNA” elements to the true church:
    • “It will always express the headship of Jesus Christ in His church as opposed to the headship of a human being.”
    • “It will always allow for and encourage the every-member functioning of the body.”
    • “It will always map to the theology that’s contained in the New Testament, giving it visible expression on the earth.”
    • “It will always be grounded in the fellowship of the triune God.”
    • I don’t particularly see any of these being an issue for me, in fact they all seem to be in line with my heart – and with most other minister’s I know…again, the implementation appears to be where the difference lies.
  • “Yet despite the incredible power of God’s Word, there is one thing that can stop it dead in its tracks. That one thing is religious tradition.”
    • I could object to this, on the grounds that God is able to accomplish His will – there is nothing that can bar its advance, but this would be arguing for only one side of the coin. Better to live with the paradox of reality – God’s sovereignty and human responsibility.
  • “Whenever we see the word pastor in the Bible, we typically think of a man who preaches on Sunday mornings. Whenever we see the word church, we typically think of a building or a Sunday-morning service. Whenever we see the world elder, we typically think of someone on a church board or committee.”
    • Yes, some of us think this way, but many of us do not…and our ability to think outside of “the box” is not dependent on our dedication to the particular implementation Viola proposes. Rather, I have seen “out of the box” definitions of all these terms operative within the “traditional church.”
    • The pastor is much more than a preacher, though preaching is an important responsibility of the pastor.
    • The church is certainly not the building, and while I’d love to move away from calling buildings “churches” and to something else (“meeting house” or “chapel” perhaps?) I think this is more a matter of semantics, and helping individuals with a limited view of church (as the building) understand the dual aspects of the word – as a cultural word we use to denote the building in which the organic body congregates.
  • Viola highlights the use of ‘proof-texting’ as a significant issue and suggests that it allows us to read back in our current cultural traditions and rituals into the New Testament. I don’t disagree. Proof-texting is a dangerous method of Scriptural interpretation when misused…though I do think it can be utilized properly.

Summary Thus Far:

In general, I find myself agreeing with Viola’s criticisms of the institutional/traditional church, but disagreeing as to the necessity of completing revamping the church in order to achieve a truer vision of the church. I think that most leaders and ministers are on the same page with Viola – cognizant of the issues Viola is raising. Viola has proposed good ideas in theory, but I always find my theories smash to pieces when they hit the pavement of real life…but I’m looking forward to hearing and exploring Viola’s practical application of these ideal visions.

Reimagining Church (Preface / Introduction) (Frank Viola) – An Interaction.

 

 

Cover of the book Reimagining Church by Frank Viola
Cover via Amazon

[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.

Preface:

  • “After thirteen years of attending scores of churches and parachurch organizations, I took the daring step of leaving the institution 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 outsideof traditional church settings.”
    • 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.”
    • 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.”
    • 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.”
    • 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.

Introduction:

  • “We are living in an age hopelessly below the New Testament pattern–content with a neat little religion.” – Martin Lloyd-Jones.
    • 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.”
    • 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 broadly 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.'”
    • I’d suggest that everything organic (in movements, etc.) has a tendency to move towards instititutionalism, 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.”
    • I like this definition, though the first sentence sounds nice, 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.”
    • Yes! Yes! YES! I don’t know many who would object to this reimagination of church…so what is all the hubbub about? Its 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 – and whether it can be accomplished within church bounds is what is the rub.

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.

Amazon Kindle for PC – Frustrations.

Photo of Amazon Kindle
Cover of Kindle Wireless Reading Device
Cover via Amazon

I don’t have an Amazon Kindle – but I do regularly download books for the Kindle – onto my computer and my Android phone. Recently a friend recommended to me the book Reimagining Church: Pursuing the Dream of Organic Christianity by Frank Viola. I decided to purchase a copy – and get the Amazon Kindle version for a few reasons:

  1. I wanted to begin reading right now, and I can download a Kindle book in seconds.
  2. The price is right – while not as cheap as a library or a used book, it still beats buying it new from almost any retailer.
  3. I generally take fairly extensive notes on the books I read and didn’t want to do the note taking by hand – I knew the Kindle included highlighting/notes capabilities.

I must admit, I’ve been a bit frustrated in my endeavors thus far to read this book using the Kindle for PC software. Why? (From most important to least important to me)

  1. The highlighting doesn’t always work. Sometimes when I highlight text it only gives me the option to “search”. I’ve tried doing this several different ways, but for the time being I’ve resorted to noting the location in the text of items I want to quote in a separate document when Kindle refuses to allow me to highlight.
  2. Then there is the issue that you can’t copy and paste from Kindle into another application. What the crap?!? Come on now! I understand you are trying to protect the publisher’s rights, but this is ridiculous. Even if I make it a highlight first, I still can’t copy the highlight. Amazon could limit the amount of text we could highlight – thus preventing outright pirating while still allowing ready use of the text.
  3. There are no page numbers!

Gahhh! I’m not sure what Amazon is thinking on this front – but Google Editions is looking really attractive right now…I’m sure they’ll have more reasonable methods for copying text?!?