Lots of people have reviewed the content of the book chapter by chapter with varying degrees of intellecutal honesty. I thought the book was beneficial in that it provided some history and context for much of what happens in church these days. It raises the issue of the relevance of the New Testament on ecclesiology. It also puts some fire underneath church leadership which should feel the urgency of our present situation far more than they seem to. I’m not sure the book will convince a lot of church leaders to change but it will be warmly welcomed by those of us who have moved on to a new paradigm. It is my earnest hope that such a bold and sometimes insensitive challenge will bring many more of us back to scripture.
I give the authors strong marks on the research on the history of church practices but lower marks on their summary conclusions and their arguments against specific church practices. I think the book would have been stronger if they spent more time proving their assertions about the negative impact of things such as clergy, buildings, and sermons. In some places The authors make allusions to “organic” Christianity as the solution without even attempting to make that case which legitimately annoys some. The next book is supposed to address solutions.
While I agree with the direction of the many of the authors positions I came away thinking they base way too much on 1Cor 14:26 NRSV: “What should be done then, my friends? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up.” I believe it could be the most ignored clear chunk of scripture relating to ecclesiology but one verse isn’t enough to make a strong case against most of our church practices. I tend to take 1Cor 12 more universally than one verse in chapter 14. This is especially true because of 1Cor 14:34.
I found that many of the footnotes I looked up were to Viola’s other books. In building their case for certain points they didn’t always deal with all the evidence that isn’t in harmony with their point. On the topic of buildings the authors correctly point out that the church chose to gather in homes but they neglect to mention some of those homes would have had court yards that could handle 60 or 70 people. The ever present threat of persecution would have also played a factor even in times or areas where persecution was non-issue.
The book can’t be all things to all people. It isn’t a theology book, nor is it a biblical examination of church and it isn’t a book about solutions or a new model. It is a historical examination of the practices the church imported from the culture around them and a critique of their usage. There is much to debate about in the book but it is definitely worth reading.
I’d like to reflect on the most important issues the books raises for me.
How does the church evaluate traditions we imported from the broader culture?
The book points out a number of church practices that have no basis in scripture. While the authors acknowledge that just because a given practice is not found in scripture (or in their terms the more rhetorically charged “pagan”) it isn’t necessarily a bad way of doing things. The authors examine the lion’s share of church practices and find fault in almost all of them. Because they don’t actually dedicate any significant portion of the book to something that is “pagan” that they don’t find fault in it can give people the impression that they really have no use for any aspect of contemporary church whatsoever.
In each chapter most of their energies were spent deconstructing any given church practice like the use of buildings or the role of pastors. It was at the end where judgment was passed on the church practice. I thought the arguments they made for abolishment of things like buildings and clergy lacked the same depth that the deconstruction had.
In response to the challenge of this book we could be researching the real world outcomes of the things like sermons, paid clergy and buildings. Each of these practices undoubtedly has a positive and negative side. What is it about a building that hinders broader participation? Can a church change what they do in the building and make it a base for compassion or justice minsitries? How would one evaluate the Internet as a vehicle for church ministry?
While I may pick on the authors for not presenting a complete picture of the impacts of these church practices I have to fault contemporary church leaders for their inordinate focus on the positive outcomes on current church practices while ignoring the negative. All church practices should go through vigorous scrutinty and comparison.
The fundamental assumption behind conventional church ministry
The primary paradigm for church ministry today is information transfer. There are people who are properly trained and certified to convey messages to people who are less qualified. These messages are conveyed primarily through preaching and teaching which will instruct, encourage and admonish he faithful in to a deeper more life changing relationship with God. The buildings are necessary because you need lots of room for all the people to financially support one of these specially trained and certified people to do the proper preaching and teaching. The sermon is the primary vehicle for the message. Christian education is used for training people and tithing exists to financially support the system.
Some people might want to nuance the concept to be something broader and deeper than “information transfer.” One might call it “word” ministry. This kind of ministry has some scriptural basis. In the New Testament we see it largely in operation among people who hadn’t decided to follow Christ or were very new in their committment.
Among more mature Christians there is a shift. It is abundantly clear that genuine love was the glue that kept things together, not a committment to an organization or attending an event. God’s power is evident through the spiritual gifts working in the body. The primary vehicle for ministry was interpersonal relationships. This can be seen in the kind of instructions we see in the letters. The problems that were dealt with were ones that would arise from a “ organic” kind of community.
I believe that one of the primary reasons why conventional ministy has provided diminishing returns over the last couple of decades is that it is geared towards the illiterate masses of the world of yesterday. A movement towards more relationships and stronger participation by all members would fit better in our context.
Our reliance on “ information exchange” is a major point of weakness because among the mature it does next to nothing.
The New Testament is worth reading when it comes to church
Last summer I spent a number of days of my vacation reading through the New Testament gleaning what I could about church. There isn’t much in terms of explicit instructions about church and many of those instructions were sent to very specific churches to address very specific problems. The wealth of the knowledge comes from how ministry is described, the values of the authors, and the kinds of problems that are dealt with. The picture of church in the New Testament is primarily relational with lots ministry participation. It is very different from what we know today.