Wrapping It Up

2 Weeks of Pagan Christianity

Contrary to what others have implied, the authors do not conclude the book by prescribing house church as the “one, true church.” The ideal they espouse is organic church, as opposed to institutional church. While they are fairly clear in their definition of organic church, their meaning of institution in the book is somewhat vague, although this quote from an earlier chapter may capture their understanding of institutionalization:

Institutionalized – having a crushing investment in maintenance.
The inertia of the machine is such that the financial allocations, the legalities, the channels of organization, the attitudes of mind, are all set in the direction of continuing and enhancing the status quo.

A few final thoughts from the book about organic church:

“The New Testament church was organic, not organizational.
It was a living, breathing organism. It was born, it would grow, and it naturally produced all of what was in its DNA. That would include all the gifts, ministries, and functions of the body of Christ.”

Some features of the DNA of organic church:

  • authentic community
  • the centrality of Jesus Christ
  • every-member functioning

Healthy organic churches never produce:

  • a clergy system
  • hierarchical leadership
  • passive members

What Others Have Said

  • “If I had to distill Pagan Christianity into one sentence, it would be this: We have institutionalized, centralized, formalized, stratified, professionalized, academized, and mega-fied something that was intended to remain organic, holistic, distributed, participative, fluid, and deeply communal.” – John La Grou
  • .

  • “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.” – Leighton Tebay
  • .

  • “Pagan Christianity is not making a case that we need to return to the explicit practices of the first century church, as though there is some transcendent prescribed model there to which we must conform. There isn’t. Nor does Pagan Christianity discount that in some sense the church must adopt culturally specific practices to become incarnate within a given culture. It must. However, when our practices actually thwart the church from becoming “every member functioning” communities, it is time to re-examine the usefulness of our culture-bound practices and be willing to surrender them for the work of God in a given culture.” – Michael Kruse
  • .

  • “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.” – Bill Kinnon
  • .

I have found examining the topics of this book to be kind of like hanging out with the unpopular kid in junior high, realizing your friends are distancing themselves from you due to your apparent lack of sophistication and good judgment. I appreciate all of you who have engaged in the discussion of the topics posted. I strongly believe that we have only scratched the surface of the need for continued dialog about these topics.

In spite of the fact that we have spent two weeks on this, I hope that you do not assume that the discussion has been the same as reading the book itself. I have only presented a glimpse of each chapter and none of the extensive historical detail that is the real content of the book. Many of the questions and scriptural arguments that have come up in the comments are addressed in the book.

While reading the book, I have questioned whether the degree of dogmatism is necessary. I believe that a less provocative approach, marked with humility, may have given this book a better chance of acceptance and wider appeal. I am also aware that my tendencies to want to balance the message are based in my own unwillingness to deconstruct to the degree that the authors suggest.

I am personally wary of the idea of claiming overstatement based upon having a prophetic message. However, when I read books like The Forgotten Ways, I have to wonder if the church is yet willing to deconstruct whatever practices necessary to recapture the movement ethos of Christianity, or if we still hold to the security and familiarity of tradition. In that context, I appreciate the challenge of the authors to examine our practices.

If you have not read the book yet, I will conclude with a few pointers that may prove helpful in understanding and accessing the message of the book without being derailed by common misperceptions or frustrations with the tone of the book. These are my own interpretations and may not reflect the views of the authors.

Pagan
The most common misunderstanding that I have seen concerning this book, beginning with the title, is the assumption that pagan is used by the authors as a critical label. Before you even crack the first page, it must be understood that pagan refers to the fact that practices were adopted from surrounding cultural influences throughout church history. They are not inherently good or bad, just cultural.

Organic
When the authors refer to organic church, they are not necessarily referring to house church or to a pure restorationist model of new testament church. It is stated throughout the book that organic refers to a dynamic, participatory functioning of body life.

Clergy, Pastor
These terms are used in reference to a role or position understood to be necessary as a mediator in the spiritual lives of the laity.

Institutional
This does not refer to every model of church which has any semblance of organization or structure, but rather to a mentality that prioritizes organizational maintenance and status quo above and at the expense of body life and function.

New Testament Church
Consider this a baseline point of reference, not the ideal of the restoration of a purist model of church.

Biblical or Scriptural
These are source statements, not value judgments. In the book, biblical or scriptural refers to whether a practice has its origins in the new testament scriptures. References to unbiblical or unscriptural do not automatically imply error, simply that the history of the practice is from a source not referenced in scripture.
~

Conclusion

Around the blogosphere, especially among the emerging/missional crowd, the deconstruction of church practices is not novel or revolutionary. However, most of us realize that we would not have to look very far to find those who would consider even the mildest forms of deconstruction to be heresy. The authors are not wrong in saying that much of what occurs in church today is done without question, and the traditions and practices are often considered to be sacred decrees issued directly from God. If the book has caused this much of a buzz among those who are accustomed to deconstruction, I cannot even imagine what the response will be in the mainstream church realm.

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15 thoughts on “Wrapping It Up

  1. when our family was in hong kong this past fall we saw some old friends. one of them told me that PC has been a provocative and meaningful book for him. and now hear ya are blogging up a storm about it. i guess i might need to get it at some point. though i think i’m gonna let my book stack shrink a bit before i add another volume to it!

  2. It’s on my wish list so planning on getting the book soon. I’m amazed at how much traction this book is making in the blogoshere…. some good, some bad. Looking forward to making my own observation, but enjoyed reading your thoughts throughout.

    vapor

  3. I like what Leighton Tebay says –

    “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.”

    Compared to most buildings in the community where I serve, my church is one of the least attractive. I believe there is a place for a decent building (reflective of the community) set apart for the work and worship of the Lord.

    Home groups are great, but remember the early Church was also meeting in the temple for prayer.

  4. I have appreciated your work and thoughts here – especially the manner and spirit in which you share. I am long time reader of your blog and yours is one of my favorite.

  5. Love you and love your work, Grace! Thanks for hanging with the “other” in your wonderful way. May we all be pricked by the Spirit to remember Jesus is Lord and then act like it…. ;^)

  6. Like the others, I thank you, Grace for your posts on this book. It is interesting that when Viola first self-published this book quite a number of years ago no one paid any attention to it. Now that Barna has been named as a co-author and published it there is quite a clamor. It is important for followers of Jesus to think on these things. However, this book is only a part of the story of deconstruction that is going on today.

    What most people completely miss is that the shift from Modernism to Postmodernism has been going on for about 40 years but is only at its beginning stages. There is a continuing shift that is so enormous that our world will look completely different in another 50 years. Some of this is the result of technology just as the printing press had such an enormous impact on change 500 years ago. Thus, the Reformation/Counter Reformation and the beginning of the Enlightenment. But it is more than that. So, whether as individuals or as those within the church, we wish for the ongoing deconstruction of the meaning of church, it is going to continue. The church will be radically different in 50 years.

    One other aspect of this that those of us who are North American or European ignore is that our influence on what the church is/is becoming is in decline. Most of the followers of Jesus live outside those two regions. If current trends continue we will be even less important. It is in Africa, Latin America the Middle East and Asia that the growth is occurring in the church. In the US and Europe the institutional church is in serious decline. A recent article in the Daily Telegraph of London stated that less than one million people regularly attend the Church of England, out of a population of 40+ million. Other denominations are doing worse. Each generation of USAmericans attends the institutional church less frequently. The most recent statistics on the current generation from 18-35 found that less than 30% attend at all. In the past once these younger generations married and had children they returned to church but now with marriage postponed to the late 20’s and 30’s the period from leaving the church until children come along is so long that more and more fail to return to the institutional churchat all. The entire dynamics of what has supported the institutional church is changing.

    Three books of interest:

    “Making a Meal of It: Rethinking the Theology of the Lord’s Supper” by Ben Witherington III. This book deals narrowly with the way the institutional church has completely changed the way and meaning of Communion. It is a far more balanced approached than the Barna/Viola book by a professor at Asbury Theological Seminary. It is an easy read but deals with deep subjects like transubstantiation in an understandable way. By extrapolating some of what he says one can see how in many ways the institutionalization of the ekklesia moved it away from what Jesus began.

    For more information on the change resulting from the growth of Christianity outside North America and Europe two excellent books are:

    “The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity” by Philip Jenkins and “Disciples of All Nations: Pillars of World Christianity” by Lamin Sanneh (who writes from the perspective of being born and raised in Africa. He is from The Gambia).

    Hang on, the ride is going to be interesting.

  7. Hi Grace
    I like the way you have handled the sticky definitions that have ticked so many off about this book. So many words have emotional content to the one reading them. In a book like this it probably would have been wise to lay out the terms of reference right at the beginning of the book in a very unmistakable way (much like you have done in this post). It has been my experience that stating what I mean by using a particular word needs to be repeated many times before people actually hear what I am saying. Otherwise these people feel they are being attacked.
    Thanks for a balanced review.

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