Archive for August, 2009

pagan christianity

August 8, 2009

I should say up front that Pagan Christianity (Frank Viola and  George Barna) is worth reading.  The authors say a lot of good things that are important in these times.  Though the book masquerades as an exposé of corrupt Christianity, it’s really an advertisement for house churches.  I’m part of a house church and I’ve been a house-church advocate for years, so I’m in general agreement with much of the book.  Still, it leaves something to be desired.

Probably we’ve all been in church services where the thrust of the sermon was “We’ve got it right and the other guys have it wrong and here’s why…”.  It reminds me of high school pep rallys.  On Friday afternoon in thousands of gyms all over America cheerleaders are simultaneously shouting “We’re number one!  We’re number one!”  Frank Viola’s writing is difficult for me in the same way.  His tone often strikes me as patronizing or presumptuous, even when I’m in complete agreement with what he’s saying.

The stated theme of the book is that many aspects of traditional institutional churches are from pagan sources and don’t promote the discipleship or the community of love that marked the first century church.  If you’re very involved in a traditional church, the frustration you feel is a good indication of the truth in that.  Though this is given as the theme, really it’s only the problem statement.

The true theme of the book is that “organic” house churches are the answer to that problem.  Here are two things I think Viola could have done better.

First, be more direct.  In the first few chapters he presents house-church at the end of the chapter as the solution to the problem, without really saying what he is doing.  After that he begins to intersperse his prescription for house-churches with his criticism of traditional churches.

Second, document better.  The book has copious footnotes in very fine print, but almost all of them are from secondary sources – mostly writers of the last two hundred years.  If you want to tell me how the church operated in the first century and how it was corrupted over the next few hundred years, reference the original documents.

Third, be less dogmatic.  If Jesus had a tidy little definition of what his church should or shouldn’t be, he’d have given it to us.  He gave us some ground rules, and the Acts and epistles provide ever-so-few examples.  And the New Testament examples are given incidentally, not as “this is how you do church”.  Making a lot out of a little was a specialty of the Pharisees in Jesus’ time.

Still after my griping, the basics of the book are sound.  Traditional, institutional churches mostly don’t work.  This frustrates both “professional” Christians and us amateurs.  And churches based on personal discipling and corporate ministry do work.  “Everyone ministers, everyone is ministered to” is how I think of it.