Why We Do What We Do

2 Weeks of Pagan Christianity

In the introduction and chapter one the authors discuss questioning church practices. In the introduction, George Barna asks, “Does it really matter how we practice our faith, as long as the activities enable people to love God and obey Him?”

He goes on to say:

“Adhering to the principles of the New Testament does not mean re-enacting the events of the first-century church…Just because a practice is picked up from culture does not make it wrong in and of itself.”

George describes the purpose in learning the history of our religious practices:

While we have “great leeway in the methods we use to honor and connect with Him,” we need to “sort out those cultural influences that contribute from those that detract” in order to “determine the core principles and ethos of the early church and to restore those elements to our lives.”

The idea of questioning and considering how we do church is certainly not a new idea to those involved in the emerging conversation. That is why I was somewhat surprised to see the reaction against this book by those that I would consider emerging.

These thoughts from Scot McKnight’s article, Five Streams of the Emerging Church, seem to parallel the ideas presented in this book:

“Emerging Christians believe the church needs to change, and they are beginning to live as if that change had already occurred. At its core, the emerging movement is an attempt to fashion a new ecclesiology.

Some emerging Christians see churches with pulpits in the center of a hall-like room with hard, wooden pews lined up in neat rows, and they wonder if there is another way to express—theologically, aesthetically, and anthropologically—what we do when we gather. They ask these sorts of questions: Is the sermon the most important thing on Sunday morning? If we sat in a circle would we foster a different theology and praxis? If we lit incense, would we practice our prayers differently? If we put the preacher on the same level as the congregation, would we create a clearer sense of the priesthood of all believers? If we acted out what we believe, would we encounter more emphatically the Incarnation?”

As traditional churches decline and new models and structures are explored, it seems to me it would be helpful to know the history of our practices in determining what core principles and ethos are important to carry forward with us into the future.

Also, as the discussion progresses, I would like to refrain from pitting one model against another. I don’t believe the point of any of this is traditional church versus house church. I would like to see us explore ecclesial mentalities rather than ecclesial models. When we talk about institutionalism versus organism, we should not assume that either of these traits applies to a specific model without exception.

    Len at Next Reformation offers an interesting perspective about this in his post institutions and “bad faith.” He defines institutionalization as “the process of moving from personal and shared responsibility for the ongoing life of a community to reliance on mechanisms and means that may no longer relate to the founder’s purpose.”

    Len also points out that the issue really isn’t about structure. He said:

    The problem is, if you have an unorganized church, you don’t have a church at all. There is no such thing as an unorganized organism. All life is organized, and when it dis-integrates it dies. So, the contrast between IC and organic church is not really a debate about organization.

    The core principles and ethos of church should be applicable to a variety of models and cultures rather than limited to one specific ideal of how ecclesia is expressed. I hope that as we look at each of the topics, we can look for the essence of what contributes to church life rather than attempting to prescribe a hard and fast rule that everyone must follow.

    As Dan would say, peace out.


    11 thoughts on “Why We Do What We Do

    1. I would have much the same thoughts as you put here. I think the emerging church is beginning to feel like they have “The Answer” to real believing. I feel as though there may be many ways to express our faith.
      It may be traditional worship and institutional workings for one. For another it may be an organic hands on experience.
      As the list of Spiritual gifts lists many gifts it takes many ways to put those gifts to work.
      Not sure if this is correct thinking or not but as I grow and serve, as I mature and lead it is becoming self-evident that there is no one answer but answers are as varied as those who profess Jesus Christ, and that is what it is all about.
      Pastor WaynO

    2. Grace, you have some good thoughts in this post. I think it is important to narrow the focus to the core issues.

      While I understand your surprise that many emerging folks have a negative reaction to this book, it is not surprising to me. The reason is that most of these people are still institutional in their outlook. The book questions most directly the form and shape of institutional church. So, this is just as threatening to those emerging folks who still have institutional inclinations as to the person who is in a more traditional setting. Most emerging thinkers are not attacking institutionalism just the traditional form of it.

      I would agree that the issue is not house church versus traditional church simply because a house church can be very institutional in its form. It has just been transplanted from the church building down the street into the smaller setting of the house. Indeed, from my experience most house churches actually are far more institutional than they would care to admit.

      I had read Len’s comment on his blog. While I agree that an organism is organized, I remain skeptical of what he means by this. To me, organization is code word for institution. Maybe I am just too skeptical. Also, I am not sure his definition for institution is adequate. I need to ponder that and see if I have one I like better.

      Further, I do not believe “traditional” equals “institutional”. In my view, “traditional” is just one form of “institutional”, thus, my point about many emerging folks still being very institutional.

      While I do not believe the first three centuries of the church were institutional, the question for me is can institutionalism be avoided? Or, does it happen incrementally over time? There is some evidence that prior to Constantine’s takeover of the church there was a growing tendency toward institutionalism. It is just that Constantine increased the pace of the process and introduced pagan practices that were adapted to the church.

    3. There are some good questions here, and the wrestling is important. I am not convinced that institutionalization can be avoided. History is a good teacher, and I think the truth is that “every generation must begin again.” If it were possible, every church should have in its charter: in 25 years we will shoot all the leaders and burn the building.” But since that isn’t realistic (and too painful) its best just to say with St. Francis on his deathbed: “Brothers, as yet we have done nothing. Let us begin again.”

    4. You open wit interesting quotes btw. It seems like George is saying first that the 1st C Church is not normative. But then he says it is, at least in its principles and ethos (if not practices). To me this lack of clarity is echoed in later arguments. I’m not sure if he really knows where he stands on this. And that isn’t necessarily bad… but it lends unclarity and ambiguity. Thus the need to hit and dig at this whole idea of “institutionalization.”

    5. Actually, I would like to revise one of my comments for further clarity. I said: “Most emerging thinkers are not attacking institutionalism just the traditional form of it.” It would be better to state: “Most emerging thinkers are not questioning institutionalism just the form of it shaped by Modernity.”

    6. Yes, Grace, “good stuff”. Thanks.

      Traveler makes a good point;

      I would agree that the issue is not house church versus traditional church simply because a house church can be very institutional in its form. It has just been transplanted from the church building down the street into the smaller setting of the house. Indeed, from my experience most house churches actually are far more institutional than they would care to admit.

      That, indeed, had been my experience in the past. I can no longer claim ignorance.

      I think Viola’s greatest strength is his ability to shock us into seeing our assumptions and to drag us kicking and screaming to the precipice of honest self-examination.


    7. With regard to Len’s comments, I think the question is where the organization comes from. People moving away from institutional religion want the reality of Christ being the Head of the church. In that case: 1) the organization comes from Christ so the members of the Body won’t turn it into a formula or imagine controlling it, and 2) it’s mystical (the organism is bigger and different than what you see).

      So we can give up controlling the organization and, if Jesus’ leadership is a reality, everything won’t fall apart. On the other hand, we will always have structures — ways we agree to do things in relationships — but there’s no reason all the structures can’t be temporary for a season.

      We may decide we don’t need buildings, permanent programs, and paid pastors, and without them we may step into a reality of life in Christ we never knew before. I know I have.

      But in organized emergent churches, the teachers and “deciders” often have a very centralized role. These pastors and other staff may face incredible risks if they agree with the above. Considering this type of thinking is still “new” and controversial, it may be much easier to argue against it, or turn a blind eye and keep pretending.

      Ordinary Christians, though, have had a taste of freedom and developed a hunger for Jesus. It’s hard to contain that…

    8. Hmmm…

      Just what is being critiqued as the “traditional church”? As you describe the chapter and the characteristics of “traditional church”, I see description of non-sacramental, “community church”, mega church, or pastor-dominated churches. Lutherans, for example are “Word & Sacrament” centered. Christ is at the center of worship, so the gathered community is focused around the altar rather than the pastor (or the people). For our community, the meal is every time we gather, not just occasionally. We circle the altar. Worship is for God. Our teaching and learning opportunities are highly dialogical. Emergent church values can be lived and experienced in traditional settings.

      Pondering Pastor

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