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Frank Viola on Reimagining the Church

Our church experience in America bears little resemblance to what we see in the Bible. The concepts of a church building, a church service, a senior pastor and an elder board member, for example, as commonly practiced, are unscriptural. (as in, you won’t find them in Scripture).   Fran…
By Seth Barnes
By Seth Barnes
Our church experience in America bears little resemblance to what we see in the Bible. The concepts of a church building, a church service, a senior pastor and an elder board member, for example, as commonly practiced, are unscriptural. (as in, you won’t find them in Scripture).
Frank Viola has been pointing this out and declaring “the emperor has no clothes!” for some time now. He notes that our current practice of church doesn’t come from the Bible, but from tradition. And as the large mainline denominations experience an exodus from their church buildings that number in the millions, more and more people are paying attention to his message. 
In teaming up with George Barna to write Pagan Christianity, Viola wrote his most damning critique of the disconnect between our modern practice of faith and the model practiced by Jesus’ disciples. But Viola is more than just a critic, he is a long-time practitioner of the organic church model. It’s a model that he develops in detail in his new book Reimagining Church.
Viola begins by looking at the primary expression of church, the Sunday morning worship service and contrasts it with the biblical design – believers coming together for the purpose of mutual edification. Viola makes the point that whereas the pastor and his teaching have become the focus of a Sunday service, God’s intention was always to have Jesus himself leading times of worship by speaking through every member assembled. (See 1 Cor. 14)
From there, Viola goes on to ask what God’s original idea was when he envisioned other aspects of our practice of church such as the gathering place, leadership, and apostolic authority. Because it’s all rooted in scripture and in the example of the early church, you’d think that a book like this would be helpful to those who are leaders in the church.
But because such a gulf has grown between the biblical model of church and our practice of it, most church leaders have an enormous vested interest in the status quo. To call it into question would be to undermine the very source of their salary and legitimacy. In the business world they might be said to have a conflict of interest. In government, people like Viola are called whistle blowers and are universally shunned.
Throughout its history the church has drifted from its roots. Reformers like St. Francis, St. Patrick, or Martin Luther have performed a service by calling Jesus’ followers back to his original idea of church. Where it is growing faster in places like China and India, this reformation is well underway. We in the west would do well to ask the questions Viola asks in Reimagining Church and to consider the answers he offers not as dangerous and subversive, but as life-giving.

Comments (12)

  • Seth:

    I have read both Pagan Christianity and Reimagining Church. While there is a definite “bite” or “edge” to both of these books I challenge Christ followers to read them. It is eye opening. How did we get this far off course? While I don’t necessarily agree with everything Viola writes, I am just glad he has the guts to point out that the institutional church is dysfunctional, not what Christ ever intended and at the end of the day is dying. On the other hand, the church, the ekkelsia, the bride of Christ is not dying but very alive and thriving. Good blog, Seth. Keep it coming.

  • Sounds like the voice of the LORD to me. A clear call to all who have ears to hear is being sounded. How long will we continue to prop up a dead horse?

  • Mark and I find very little to disagree with! We’ve begun a season of meeting with some other leaders to experience “gathering” with Jesus as our Head. While we are all reading Reimagining Church through the week, we don’t really discuss it much when we come together. Our hope is to experience His grace distributed through every member of the body. As Viola says in his first chapter, “..the Church is the gathered community that shares God’s life and expresses it in the earth.” God is at work here in a city of tradition and religiosity. Pray for us!

  • Messing with our “good” nest again Seth… someone will get into trouble again 🙂 We seem “okay” the way we are don’t we?

  • Seth Barnes,

    Thank you for posting this excerpt! I have been telling this to my friends, and it is so refreshing to read that others are thinking the same thoughts! The best “church” service I have had was like this: a group of people met on Thursdays, read a chapter of the Bible, spent alone time praying over it and seeking God’s voice, then came together and shared what we got. I totally heard God in me and/or through the others. It felt so natural and intimate, almost more true. I felt after awhile that the established church system in America was off somehow…

    I have been reading your blog for almost a year now, and by the grace of God and His leading me, reading it changed my world view and strengthened the counter-cultural, God-focused thoughts I have been developing. I have even decided to go for the World Race! Please keep doing what you are doing, which I am sure you will. Your blogs alone have done so much for me, and others I’m sure.

  • I have a favorite quote from this book…

    “We gather together so that the Lord Jesus can manifest Himself in His fullness. And when that happens the body is edified. Note that the only way Christ can be properly expressed is if EVERY member of a church freely supplies that aspect of the Lord that he or she has received. Make no mistake about it: The lord Jesus cannot be fully disclosed through only one member. He is far to rich for that. (Eph 3:8).”

    Kevin and I have read three of his books and are eagerly awaiting the one coming out in March. His books helped strengthen our forming counter cultural thoughts and have aided us in not sitting around and waiting for Africa.

  • As a former pastor (I just didn’t fit!), I struggled with “church” for years, and continue to do so. The time has come. We in the west are at the beginning of our reformation.

    “Lord Jesus, bring us something new and fresh. We want to do and be church as you intended. Holy Spirit, bring a huricane and blow all the junk away. We want your way oh Lord…”

    I hope, and can imagine wonderful things!

  • As Christi mentioned, Wonderful Books! His newest book is coming out in March called “From Eternity To Here” and from what I’ve read in the advance information it looks REALLY GOOD too!

  • The best “meetings” I have ever attended in my 25 years as a christian are the ones where God showed up and I could do nothing. I couldnt even get off the floor in some cases. The fire of God convicted of sin, the Holiness of God was the most powerful force any human could encounter, the presence Of His magesty made me speachless.

    All those meetings I have experienced have never took place in a Sunday morning church service where MAN was holding the reins.

    Any church leaders out there? Please give the reins back to God, its His body.

    Thank you

  • I do not condemn the Church for purchasing buildings, creating a conforming liturgy, or hiring full time ministers. I do not even condemn the Church for becoming an institution. Decisions like these were made for important reasons and with limited perspective of God’s plan.

    Our present models may not appear exactly as Acts’ model, but in the same way, an African Initiated Church (AIC) does not look the same as a church in India or China. Our model is flawed, but flawed in the same way we are all flawed. And it is offered grace by God in the same way we are all given grace.

    But I think it would be a mistake to say our model isn’t biblical. First century Jews (Christian and not), including Jesus, worshiped in synagogues when they were not in Jerusalem. I’m sure Mr. Viola addresses synagogues and how the early Christians modeled them, but I think it’s good to point out.

    Regardless, it still excites me to hear Viola’s prophetic voice. Maybe it will help us turn our eyes away from our exterior institutions and in to what God is doing with real men and women.

  • seth, seth, seth…

    i was beginning to think i was crazy. i’ve felt this and i’ve said this a lot over the past 2 years or so, and folks just roll their eyes and write me off.

    THANKS for posting this, and thanks for mentioning these books. they just made the top of my need to read list, and as soon as i can get them ordered and shipped, i’m starting on them.

    i suddenly feel alive again!

  • Sounds like a great book Seth, I’ll have to pick it up and read it. Hope all is well with you and your family. Greetings from Haiti!

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Seth Barnes

I'm motivated to join God in his global reclamation project. He's on the move, setting his sons and daughters free from their places of captivity. And he's partnering with those of us who have been freed to go and free others.

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