Pagan Christianity is a book that seems to be capturing some attention. It is written by researcher George Barna and “New Testament” church advocate Frank Viola. I haven’t read this book but I’ve read a couple of books by both authors. I have a pretty good idea where they are coming from. Viola says that this review does a good job of summarizing many of the main points. The book has generated some controversy as the authors claim that the contemporary institutional form of church has no biblical or historical basis. If you want a taste on what some people are saying there is my friend Dash: Post 1, Post 2, Post 3, Post 4, Joe Thorn Intro, Part 1, Part 2, Alan Hirsh,Trevin Wax and I’m assuming iMonk. There is lots more to be found on Technorati.
Barna used to be a very popular man in the pulpits of North America. His primary role was surveying the spiritual and religious landscape of America. He has shared the fruit of his research through dozens of books, conferences and in academic institutions. His life, career and business were driven by the needs of conventional churches and para-church organizations. Over the years he identified several areas of deep concern for church and tried to be an agent of change. Despite becoming one of the most authoritative voices on the church in America his own research revealed there was very little positive change. He concluded that the average Christian in America was biblically illiterate, failed to hold to a biblical worldview (from an evangelical perspective) and lived a morally indistinct life. He discovered the impact of churches on society was dwarfed by that of the media. After years of trying to help conventional churches change he gave up. Unlike most of the church which keeps trying to do the same thing over and over again and expect different results he changed. He became an advocate of unconventional churches and a prominent voice in the simple church movement.
I’m less familiar with Frank Viola but I have read some of his stuff. I’d venture to say this book wouldn’t have near as much attention if it didn’t have George Barna’s name on it.
So Viola and Barna put out this book and some Christian leaders are getting really upset. In one blog post the self-proclaimed "voice of sanity in the midst of the evangelical circus" tells Barna to shut the "F—" up while trying to not technically say it posting using an imaginary dog’s name. Does this disturb anyone else?
While I see lots of people coming up with all kinds of criticism (including a healthy dose of straw men and mockery dressed up as humor) of the book I’ve yet to find someone appeal to scripture to prove that contemporary church practices are biblical. The reality is most of conventional church practice has very little basis in scripture. In my very intentional efforts to study what the New Testament says about church I became more and more convinced of this. While a great many Christians are willing to split hairs over what the bible says about sexual ethics or the sovereignty of God most don’t care about what the bible says about the church. This is a huge HUGE mistake. The church in the western world is adrift and we still refuse to consider the possibility that guys like Jesus and Paul actually knew what they were doing. Meanwhile many churches in various cultures that more closely resemble the New Testament church have no problem making disciples.
Unlike many simple church advocates I don’t believe there is one universal approach to organizing Christians in to local churches. I don’t reject any specific approach just because it has adoped extra-biblical traditions. We should make every effort to be faithful to the universal aspects of church while finding structures and forms that are relevant to the current context. That isn’t what we do. Today most of our traditions aren’t thoughtfully worked through by people attempting to be faithful to the nature of the church in a specific context. We do most of what we do because somebody started it anywhere from a few decades to a few centuries ago and it has since become an institutionalized sacred cow.
Currently we are caught with a great many traditions that cannot be sourced biblically or are in any way relevant to our current context. If we look at what we know about your average western Christian in the areas of biblical knowledge, worldview, ethics, finances and church commitment one has to conclude what we are doing is almost completely ineffective. What we do isn’t biblical, it isn’t relevant and it doesn’t work. In the last decade thousands upon thousands of mature Christians have given up and moved on. Why would we hold on to the status quo? Furthermore why do we freak out on people who are calling us to reconsider the New Testament as a guide.
Why is there no urgency for change? I think far too often we spend times congratulating ourselves for each anecdotal success story while paying far less attention to the people that slip through the cracks. We deceive ourselves in to thinking we are in better shape than we really are. We compare ourselves with others and not by the standard of Christ’s words. We lull ourselves in to complacency.
Ultimately I think there are issues that are more important than how we organize ourselves. Our understanding of God and what it means to be in relationship with him is fundamentally flawed. Sometimes all the discussion about church keeps us from getting to issues that cut deeper in to our personal lives. I think that we often organize and strategize because it is easier than getting involved in messy relationships. It is also easier than following Christ’s teaching.
I think I’m going to have to buy this book.