Monday, June 8, 2009

Frank Viola Makes My Head Hurt

Just finished Reimagining Church by Frank Viola (he of Pagan Christianity fame). Found it to be, in general, a provocative and stimulating read. Okay, let me be more frank (sorry)... it's got me pretty stirred up.

Summary: everything about the way we traditionally do church has no real foundation in the New Testament. Not the offices like "senior pastor", not the speaker / audience or clergy / laity split (stated or implied), not even the "worship service" idea itself. Frank's been at this long enough to appreciate that God still uses people who are involved in these things, but he is definitely advocating that we stop reading our present practices and structures back into the New Testament record and change, well, everything about how we "do church".

For those who have read Pagan Christianity (I am not yet one of those), Frank says that book was about deconstruction and Reminagining Church is about reconstruction. Fair enough, but those look for a handbook of how to totally reorganize their lives, ministries and churches around what Frank presents here will only get a limited amount of detailed help from the book itself. Nevertheless, it will definitely start many a conversation and, no doubt, change many a mind. It will also make many people upset.

As for me, Reimagining Church has not made me a total convert when it comes to Frank's ecclisiology and missiology, but it has definitely turned up the tension I have been in for awhile to a new level. I've decided that's okay. I'm not in a hurry to totally abandon the traditional church and all its features nor to embrace a completely different model of the type Viola proposes until I have allowed myself to work through the kind of issues he is raising. However, I've got to say that I find that many N.T. passages make much more sense to me through Frank's paradigm and that scares me some.

As a follow up to the book, I have read through the lengthy (and very informative) exchange between Ben Witherington and Frank Viola on Ben's blog. While Ben makes good points in defense of the familiar church distinctives, nothing appears to take Viola by surprise and the exchange is both respectful and spirited.

In the end, what Viola's book makes me want to do is more homework and that's a good thing. I was intrigued to find he has some history with the Vineyard in the '90's. This helps me to feel as if we are not starting into this "reimagination" project from wildly different places. Specifically, I want to look more deeply into several topics:

1. How much of the New Testament ecclesiology is descriptive (simply describing how things were at the time) and how much is prescriptive (a once and for all design of how it ought to be).

2. Is the thought of a hybrid between church as we know it and missional house church a la Vineyard Central in Ohio (one of the ways I have been "reimagining church") a real option or is it a cop out?

3. As a church leader, what parts of this conversation should I be introducing my brothers and sisters in traditional church to and what parts should I stay mum about until I myself am more certain of my own convictions?

Reimagining Church did a good job of getting me to question everything and push me to delve deeper into the issues I have been working with for the past two years. Anyone who knows our Crown Valley / VCMN story knows that we have been reimagning and repracticing church for almost a year now. Viola's work begs me to face even tougher questions than those that have pushed me this far into change.

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