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).
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.