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Sunday, June 07, 2015

Reimagining Church

I wouldn’t normally be the type to start writing a positive review before completely finishing a book, but I’ve been enjoying Frank Viola’s Reimagining Church: Pursuing the Dream of Organic Christianity immensely.

Viola is not merely a theorist. In 1988, he left what he calls “institutional Christianity” and began meeting in “organic churches”.

Organic churches are not the latest vegan trend. They are local gatherings mapped to what we read in the New Testament. They seek to practice Christianity as it was practiced in the first century, minus any details that were merely a product of the culture(s) in which the early church grew and thrived. The result is a church that, at least on paper, seems both relevant and authentically “New Testament” in ways I’ve never seen before.

The book is divided into two parts, the first entitled “Community and Gatherings”, in which Viola explores how the early church lived its life and how it gathered together, then compares and contrasts these elements with the practices of the contemporary church. The second part is titled “Leadership and Accountability”, and introduces a fresh model for understanding leadership, authority and accountability. Twenty years of watching this model rooted in biblical principle work itself out in the real world only reaffirmed Mr. Viola’s convictions and led him to write Reimagining Church.

The book is loaded with scripture and (as if we needed more) supplemented with quotes from Christian writers of note (Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Watchman Nee and F.F. Bruce, among others) who agree that, yes, this is what the word of God actually says, not some flaky new twist from a non-conformist.

Now as far as the “institutional church” is concerned, we know exactly where it and its practices have come from. If we are evangelicals, for instance, we make our way through history from the early church to Constantine and the beginning of Roman Catholicism through to the Reformation, Protestantism and finally evangelicalism. And yet if we are honest readers of scripture who take the word of God to mean what it says, it must be conceded that all the ‘reforming’ that has taken place has never quite gotten us back to where we were more than 17 centuries ago, at least not in significant numbers.

All attentive students of the book of Acts and the epistles know we’re not even close.

That has, quite honestly, bugged me most of my life — at least the part of it where I cared about the church of God and what its Head desires of me. Many of these church issues have been hashed out in our first 500-or-so posts on this blog, as IC, Bernie and I have tried to reconcile where we are as a church with where we really should be. The same things concern other serious Christians I know as well (and some are regulars here), but of course because we are all acquainted and have discussed these subjects many times, it’s difficult to say that any one person’s convictions have been arrived at completely independently.

It is tremendously confirming to come across a book by a Christian living in Florida — one whom I’ve never met or corresponded with — that reads the scripture and sees exactly the same things we do, time after time (and many things we haven’t).

One wonders how many ‘Frank Violas’ there have been throughout the years and how many there are now. Their presence is naturally much more visible to those of us still in the “institutional church” today than it might have been before the advent of the internet. There may well have been hundreds and thousands of Christians with such convictions in other generations, but because they erected no buildings, declined to engage in huge parachurch projects or take to Sunday morning TV to seek financial support for their little empires, the traces they have left behind them are purely spiritual ones, measurable only in changed hearts and lives and in the increase of reality in worship, fellowship and faith, even if they remain largely undetectable to the world.

Mr. Viola starts with the triune God, and uses the interaction within the Godhead as a model for the interaction of believers. He describes the church as an organism rather than an organization, something most of us already see in scripture, but then goes on to apply that principle in almost every area of church life.

I found myself agreeing with him almost every step of the way, the sole exception being a section on decision-making by consensus that I think requires further qualification and elaboration to be truly practical. But it will take a separate post to do that subject justice.

Overall, it seems to me the ideas set out in Reimagining Church deserve serious and prayerful consideration by every believer who grasps the idea that the church belongs to Christ, and is no place for either the indulgences of man or the default assumptions of the world.

And yes, I did finish the book ...

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