I read Pagan Christianity over the Christmas Holidays. I’ve been struggling to write a review since then. This is not a normal problem for me. So let me see if I can unpack it.
Last April, I wrote a post called The People Formerly Known as the Congregation. It was a polemic and as such it created a lot of reaction. For some folk, it was like permission had been granted to unlock their own pain from the Institutional/Consumerist Church. A wonderful number of writers participated in the meme (there are links in the right sidebar to a few of them). For others, primarily church leaders, it was seen as a direct attack and elicited questions of my character, my maturity and my poor understanding of "authority" to name but a few of the negative responses. (Sheep need to be lead, you know.) Oddly enough, the substance of my polemic was rarely addressed by the critics.
If you’ve read TPFKATC, then you would be right in thinking that a positive review from me on Viola and Barna’s Pagan Christianity would be logical. It would be. So why is it so hard for me to write a glowing review?
Let me say that I think PC is an important book. I think it’s an important book that you should read. If you are a church leader, and blog reactions are accurate (other than perhaps the ever gracious Triple D), it might make you very angry. Read it anyway. If you are a reader happy in the plush comfort of your megachurch, read the book. If you’re "mad as hell and not going to take it anymore" when it comes to the Institutional/Consumerist Church, read the book. If you’re a Christian who lives in the Rodney King world of "why can’t we all just get along", read the book. But let me suggest a few caveats.
I was introduced to Frank Viola’s writings in the late ’90’s by Lloyd, a white South African friend who was pastoring a fast growing mixed race church in Johannesburg. He was captivated by Viola’s house church descriptions and in the midst of apparent success as a pastor, was longing for the fellowship he felt Viola described. (I should note that my friend is no longer a full time pastor and does not attend a fast growing church – but nor has he found the elusive life of wonderful fellowship in a house church.)
I didn’t respond to Frank’s writing the same way as Lloyd. Some of it may have been that at that time, I was flirting with the US megachurch world as a communications consultant. And I was being courted to join the staff of a particular megachurch (which I never joined). But my reaction was also a response to Frank’s writing style. He writes as a "true believer." The house church movement is the "right way" to do church and everything else is the wrong way. Let me be blunt. I find the writing style grating and arrogant. And even after losing my affection for the megachurch world a number of years ago, I still found Frank’s style off-putting. That style is alive and well in PC.
I’m reminded of this quote from Tim Keller (via Triple D’s blog) – I believe Tim is responding to the pugnacious nature of some of our reformed brethern,
We can’t avoid drawing boundaries. Everyone does it, and if they say you’re not doing it, then you’re drawing a boundary by saying you’re not doing it. But what matters is how we treat the people on the other side of the boundary. We’re going to win the younger leaders if we are the most gracious and the most kind and the least self-righteous in controversy toward people on the other side of the boundary.
I’m not the most gracious person on the block. It’s not my strong suit – and perhaps I respond to the lack of graciousness in Viola’s writings because of my own failings in that area. But I strongly believe that had an irenic spirit infused PC – starting perhaps with its title – then the many important points the book makes, and the questions it asks about the present shape of the church as we know it, may have been more easily received.
We are at a liminal point in the life of the church. I believe that profound change is taking place. There are those folk who want to hang on to the post-war CEO-driven church model, others who firmly have their feet planted in Calvin’s Geneva, others who think the only truth can be found in the magisterium and are madly swimming the Tiber and still others who want to throw it all away and return to the glorious church of the 1st Century. (Corinth? Galatia? Ephesus?)
It is a time when we need to be infused with the Grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ for each other and for the broken world around us.
Let me end this feeble attempt of a review by recommending you read PC. But also read the equally important book by David Fitch, The Great Giveaway. Read Paul Metzger’s Consuming Jesus . And download and read Wolfgang Simson’s Starfish Manifesto. Not one of them is remotely perfect but each is a piece of the puzzle for me of this liminal space we find ourselves in. Perhaps they will be for you as well.
You might also find the voices of The People Formerly Known as meme interesting and instructive as well. Grace, one of the key writers in that series is doing an excellent and grace-filled review of PC.