It is not an overstatement to say that the words church and worship are widely misused and misunderstood by christians today. Worship typically refers to a Sunday morning service consisting of singing and a sermon. You will rarely hear the word worship used outside the context of music. Church typically refers to a building, an organization, a denomination, and again, an hour-long Sunday morning service.
When prodded, some people will expand their explanation of worship to include worship as a lifestyle and their explanation of church to a broader scope to signify the people of God. Yet often, in their next breath, they will default to the more commonly understood and accepted usage of these words.
There is a movement to recapture the understanding of who we are as the people of God and what it means to be the people of God in our world today. A part of remembering the “forgotten ways” is to examine the traditions, practices, and methods that we have adopted over the years in order to determine if they contribute to or detract from our apostolic imagination and movement ethos.
The book, Pagan Christianity, by Frank Viola and George Barna, is a helpful tool in this process. Subtitled “exploring the roots of our church practices,” the book asks “are we really doing church by the book?” The book documents the origins of many modern church practices, challenging whether the practices contribute to the church being an organic and dynamic expression of the body 0f Christ.
Pagan Christianity is effective in its function of dissecting church practices. While it describes principles found in the early church, it does not suggest a particular model of church as prescriptive for the church today. The value and strength of this book is in the historical examination and deconstruction of tradition. It is a helpful addition to resources which study early-church history and practices.
People involved as leaders and members of existing expressions of church can benefit from this book by using the information presented as a lens through which to examine traditions and practices in order to determine if they are producing effective results in their communities. The intent is not to jettison every tradition or practice, but rather to view them with an objective eye toward their value in enhancing or hindering the fellowship.
People who have already experienced some deconstruction in their practices will find the historical information helpful in supporting and permitting the process of adapting religious traditions for their current cultural context rather than remaining bound to traditional practices as though they are sacred and inviolable.
Those who have become involved in simple and house church models of church will find the book supportive and encouraging of loosely structured models of church.
The book will be most dangerous in the hands of those who will use it as a hammer to denounce every model of church except those they deem the most pure and ideal.
The authors themselves do not promote a specific model of church nor a complete return to new testament methods of gathering. Do they have an ideal in mind? Perhaps. While they are careful to not suggest a model, their subjectivity does leak through in tone and attitude. This has been the biggest complaint by critics of the book.
The book could have benefited from greater objectivity. However, it is helpful to remember that none of us are as purely objective as we might like to believe ourselves to be. Complete agreement with the authors’ conclusions is not necessary to appreciate the valuable information presented in the book and to realize the importance of examining the topics the book addresses.