“I can’t believe this book is getting published by a big-time publisher,” writes blogger Brant Hansen. “This is going to be interesting…This book is going to honk people off.”
The book he’s talking about is Pagan Christianity, originally written by Frank Viola but now updated with George Barna as co-author. Here, in a nutshell, is the argument of the book:
- The origin of many of our church practices (examples: church buildings, orders of worship, sermons, pastors, tithing, clergy salaries) is non-biblical and inconsistent with the practice of the early church. “Almost everything that is done in our contemporary churches has no basis in the Bible.” (p. 4) Much of it was lifted from pagan culture.
- Just because something does not appear in the Bible does not mean it is wrong. However, our non-biblical church practices often hinder the development of our faith and keep us from encountering the living God.
- “The church in its contemporary, institutional form neither has a biblical nor a historical right to exist.” (p. xx)
- The church must return to its biblical roots. At a personal level, we must ask questions of church as we know it and pray seriously about what our response should be.
This book threatens a lot that pastors and churches hold dear. But that shouldn’t scare us. If they’re right, it doesn’t matter what it threatens. This book has to be evaluated on the evidence and the strength of its arguments, not on how much it will cost us if they’re right.
Most of the book traces the origins of common church practices today. They succeed in showing what should be fairly obvious: many of our practices do not appear in the Bible, which in itself does not make them wrong. Barna and Viola argue, however, that many of these practices are harmful. However, they don’t always get the history right, and sometimes overstate the case. Still, they do have a point. We should question practices that get in the way of faithfulness.
It’s when you get to their solution that, in my view, the wheels fall off. Viola and Barna argue: “The church in its contemporary, institutional form neither has a biblical nor a historical right to exist.” (p. xx) [UPDATE: This quote is from the advance review copy. The final copy reads, “The church in its contemporary, institutional form has neither a biblical nor a historical right to function as it does.” Still strong, but a definite improvement.]
Wow! There’s a bit of a jump to get to this point, and I’m not sure if I missed a step somewhere. It could be that Viola and Barna are correct, but I don’t think they’ve proved their case. Pointing out problems with a model means that the problems need addressing. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the entire model must be scrapped.
It’s one thing to argue that there are problems with our existing ways of doing church. I’m fully prepared to accept this. It’s also okay to argue that models of church sidesteps these issues, but it could be that they end up encountering a whole set of other issues – as is the case. But is it possible for institutional models to be redeemed? Viola and Barna say no. I’m not so sure.
I’d much prefer to ask questions like these:
- Is there a way to use buildings missionally and in a way that expresses the true nature of the church?
- Can orders of service be structured so that the corporate nature of worship is emphasized, and performance is minimized?
- How can preaching and teaching promote spiritual growth and emphasize the giftedness of the body?
- How can churches move beyond being pastor-driven?
- How can our giving be channeled beyond maintenance to mission and care for the poor?
- How can we recover the biblical emphasis on baptism as initiation into discipleship, and communion as a robust communal celebration?
- How can Christian formation take place that his holistic?
These are excellent questions, and they may or may not lead to shutting down institutional churches. This book, I think, gets at the right questions, but ends up presenting the wrong (or at least insufficient) solution.
By the way, it’s theoretically possible to have discovered that pretty much everyone from the church fathers on got it wrong, and that you are right – but it’s highly unlikely. This is especially true in this case, because Scripture is largely descriptive (not prescriptive) in how churches can be shaped. Barna and Viola don’t make a sufficient case for anyone to say that almost everyone has got it wrong until now.
Boars Head Tavern has posted a great quote from Eugene Peterson:
What other church is there besides institutional? There’s nobody who doesn’t have problems with the church, because there’s sin in the church. But there’s no other place to be a Christian except the church. There’s sin in the local bank. There’s sin in the grocery stores. I really don’t understand this naïve criticism of the institution. I really don’t get it. Frederick von Hugel said the institution of the church is like the bark on the tree. There’s no life in the bark. It’s dead wood. But it protects the life of the tree within. And the tree grows and grows. If you take the bark off, it’s prone to disease, dehydration, death. So, yes, the church is dead but it protects something alive. And when you try to have a church without bark, it doesn’t last long. It disappears, gets sick, and it’s prone to all kinds of disease, heresy, and narcissism. (Eugene Peterson)
The Tavern also has another amazing quote: those who seek to correct the church’s moral failings and produce a “pure” church are “…looking to the Law rather than to the Gospel. We need rather to look at the Gospel. It is not about what we are to do to purify the church (Law), but about bringing the Gospel to the church as she is” (from a lecture by Ron Feuerhahn).
In conclusion: Barna and Viola have raised some valid issues. Some dynamics of church life that should be present often aren’t. We need to take these seriously. However, their conclusion ultimately falls short. There is room for all kinds of churches, including the institutional. What matters more than structure is the life contained within, and that can come only from God- who, it seems, is more than willing to give us that life.