OK. I cheated. I maybe kindof promised a review, but after reading the books, I decided I didn’t want to join the debate. I wanted to say something else, namely this: Agree or disagree, Viola is doing what evangelicals are too cowardly to do these days, and what we’re doing instead is killing us. Consider Viola’s project a friendly kick in the pants to get your Bibles, your church history, your theology and your missional great commission in order.
Sometimes, I think we evangelicals talk way too much about the wrong things and far too little about more important things.
I hardly ever- ever- find myself in a conversation about what is the Gospel. Or what Jesus would be teaching us about the kingdom today. Or how to meaningfully repent of our entanglement in various American idolatries. These conversations just donâ€™t happen around me (and I am surrounded by evangelical Christians.)
But the church? Oh yeah, we talk about church all the time. Preachers. Sermons. Music. â€œWorship.â€ Music. Programs. Buildings, Budgets. Music. Why we changed churches again. What we like. What we donâ€™t like. How great such and such a church is. What our church needs to start doing. Why this group at our church is wrong, or bad, or stubborn. Why a particular worship leader gets it right. Why we need a new whatever.
The talk about church is endless.
Now I believe deeply in the church as a place of spiritual formation, but I am also deeply aware of the problems and limitations of the church.
For instance, I realize that the church has a tendency to become self-defining. Worship becomes those songs weâ€™re singing in the service. Discipleship becomes participation in church programs. Commitment is time spent at church and jobs at church volunteered for.
Spirituality is…..well…we donâ€™t like that word. Evangelism is what weâ€™re always training to do and telling ourselves we should be doing. Missions is whatever church program lends a hand, money or food to someone in the community.
And so on.
Or thereâ€™s the tendency of churchâ€™s today to think marketing at every turn. The morning worship service is suddenly all about people who have never been to church. All kinds of changes appear with the same justification: reaching Unchurch Harry and Sally. Ads, signs, logos and scenery worthy of a theatrical production are now very important, because every church is in competition with every other church and everything else people like to do.
Of course, itâ€™s very important your church win this little competition, or at least thatâ€™s what the pastor says.
Then you have churches that pull rather stupid stunts with money, or â€œauthority.â€ Some churches talk about leadership or gender roles to the point you want to put your head into a fan. Justifications for expenditures, new building programs and more staff all seem to come from the same playbook. These are the kind of churches that persuade thousands of people to never go back to what they’ve known as church again. Who can blame them? (I know some will, but seriously….think about it.)
If you have the kind of Christianity that needs an emphasis on the basics, spiritual formation, authentic human interaction, or some occasional experience of spontaneity, good luck finding a typical evangelical church that cares about such things.
And then, there are those of us whoâ€™ve gotten burned. Fired. Hurt. Rejected. Sent packing. Thrown under the bus and kicked to the curb. Told we werenâ€™t supporting the pastor or were quenching the Holy Spirit.
We talk about the church too much because we canâ€™t get it out of our system or get over what itâ€™s done to us that is completely outside of Christian humility and decency.
Yes, we talk about the church too much because, unfortunately, the church looms very, very large in evangelicalism. Too large, in my view, at least in its current evangelical version.
But we arenâ€™t going to get away from it either. Many of us are continuing to wrestle with what it means to be Christian in some form of community. We know the church is a long way from the ideals and commands in the New Testament, but it’s like someone has removed all the roads and markers on the way back there.
Thatâ€™s where voices like Frank Viola come into the conversation.
Viola is the primary voice in evangelicalism these days advocating â€œorganicâ€ church. Thatâ€™s not as simple as rejecting the institutional church and adopting a house church. Itâ€™s not as simple as having a massive historical, Biblical and practical critique of the denominational church, its leadership and programs.
No, itâ€™s more complicated than all of that, and you will make a terrible mistake if you read either of Violaâ€™s recent books with that mindset.
Itâ€™s not simple at all, and itâ€™s not the way of protest and accumulating reasons to never go back to church.
What Frank Viola is doing for all of us- even those of us who donâ€™t come out entirely where he does- is practicing â€œthat Protestant thingâ€ of â€œreimagingâ€ the church in the light of the scriptures, right down to the foundations; right down to the stuff we generally don’t ever hear from the clergy (surprise!).
What Viola is doing that will probably make thousands of readers mad and thousands more glad is exactly what Catholic apologist Louis Bouyer said is wrong with Protestantism in the first place: It keeps trying to reinvent the church again by going back in history and back to the scripture without going back to the Catholic church and admitting its infallibility, antiquity and endorsement by Christ.
Amen. Hereâ€™s what I say: Good for Frank Viola. We need to listen to him, even if we aren’t awarding him all ten points on every dive.
You need to read his books and when they make you angry, or when you disagree with his conclusions or spot a historical error, you need to keep reading. You may not wind up where Viola goes, but he goes somewhere, and once there, you can see that, contrary to that last announcement, there IS another way.
Frank Viola isnâ€™t content to just talk about the church. He isnâ€™t content to just live in all the usual assumptions. Heâ€™s not content to assume that the way we use words or relate to leadership or experience fellowship is the real thing.
Frank Viola believes that there is a real church and a real church experience underneath all of the mess weâ€™ve made of things. He loves the people of God and I, for one, canâ€™t fault a man who believes the people of God as a people are more important than the church as an institution.
Like any Socrates, there are people who want to get out the hemlock. This discussion makes us nervous. It ought to. We have a lot to be nervous about.
I donâ€™t for a moment believe that Frankâ€™s vision of organic church is the entire answer. I do believe that Frankâ€™s vision of organic church is a lot closer to the truth in the New Testament than the vast majority of institutional churches and Christians want to acknowledge. I don’t think one guy has it all worked out. But I have to say, in Frank Viola’s case, it’s not for lack of trying, and most evangelicals have just quit trying to be the New Testament church and they are full on trying to be a bigger megachurch.
The nuances Frank brings to various leadership and pastoral terms are much needed balances and reminders, even if they canâ€™t be pressed as far toward the option of the organic, non-institutional church as some might wish.
Iâ€™ve been reading about church renewal for years, having cut my teeth on Howard Snyder more than 25 years ago. If there is one thing Iâ€™ve learned, itâ€™s this: the people who made the problem, and who have invested large amounts of themselves in the way things have always been done, are unlikely to see any value in renewals and reformations that bring into question what has been their own religious security.
Iâ€™m not saying all of Violaâ€™s critics are purposely refusing to admit their complicity. No, I believe Violaâ€™s work can be critiqued by church historians and practitioners of Christian community in church and academy. But I believe Violaâ€™s critiques and proposals have serious merit, even with my own exceptions to them.
Many of us suspect that the church should be much simpler, more focused, more organic, more aware of its non-New Testament influences and more characterized as a movement with institutional expressions at times than an institution that struggles to remember when it was a movement.
I donâ€™t know exactly what a New Testament church looks like. Iâ€™m not sure how to detox the church from cultural influences and take a radically restorationist view of everything. Iâ€™m not entirely sure that it is particularly important that we try to fix everything or understand everything. Perhaps the church most of us are looking for is a matter of learning to see things like Jesus does and build up the church through the work of the Spirit in each of us as well as in the people of God.
On that journey, I count Frank Viola as a major asset. If we canâ€™t find the courage to read what he has to say and appropriate it as God leads, then we need more courage and more honesty. Both of Violaâ€™s books are helpful perspectives and words that will encourage us in the right direction.