Review: Radical thinking on the church

29 March 2018

Lots of people these days seem to be saying Yes to Jesus but No to church. While some have given up on church completely, others still hope to find an expression of it that they can live with and find satisfying. Maybe they should read this book:

Reimagining Church: Pursuing The Dream Of Organic Christianity by Frank Viola (David C. Cook, 2008).  

rclargeOrganic Church is an attempt to embrace the simplicity of church life as portrayed in the New Testament. That life, the author maintains, reflects at a human level the ‘community life’ of the Trinity. The Organic Church, therefore, means no ordination, no officially-recognised leaders, no hierarchy, no purpose-built buildings, no formal sermons, no denominations. Instead, only Jesus is recognised as Head of the church, meetings take place in homes, and everybody contributes on an equal basis, yielding to the leading of the Holy Spirit. This is church that attempts to measure up to the NT’s primary metaphor for it: family.

The author is no mere theorist. He has many years of working with churches that operate this way. He has helped them work through the inevitable difficulties to arrive at a place of vibrant viability, and he shares his insights with warmth and passion.

Ironically, while he insists that the NT contains no blueprint for ‘how church should be’, his own approach assumes that the NT’s presentation of the early church is itself a blueprint to follow. Whether or not he is right is for you to decide.

He admits that, for many of us, the transition from our familiar traditional patterns of church life to Organic Church will require an enormous adjustment, and that many will find it too much. He may be right. But even for those who can’t go the whole hog there are valuable insights here that could benefit us all. This is a book worth reading.

Here are some quotations. [I read the book in Kindle format, so the numbers are Location, not Page, numbers.]

I took the daring step of leaving the institutional church. That was in 1988. Since that time, I’ve never returned to institutional Christianity. Instead, I’ve been meeting in what I call “organic churches.”  (36)

It’s the present practices of the church that I’m seeking to reimagine, not the church itself…  The church as we know it today evolved (or more accurately, devolved) from a living, breathing, vibrant, organic expression of Jesus Christ into a top-heavy, hierarchical organization whose basic structure is patterned after the ancient Roman Empire. Tellingly, most churches today still hold that structure.  (63)

I’ve met countless believers who have said, “The church is an organism, not an organization.” Yet as they formed those very words, they continued to be devout members of churches that were organized along the lines of General Motors and Microsoft.  (116)

This book reimagines a vision of church that’s organic in its construction; relational in its functioning; scriptural in its form; Christ-centered in its operation; Trinitarian in its shape; communitarian in its lifestyle; nonelitist in its attitude; and nonsectarian in its expression.  (245)

I have a dream that the clergy/laity divide will someday be an antique of church history, and the Lord Jesus Himself will replace the moss-laden system of human hierarchy that has usurped His authority among His people.  (245)

The DNA of the church is marked by the very traits that we find in the triune God. Particularly, mutual love, mutual fellowship, mutual dependence, mutual honor, mutual submission, mutual dwelling, and authentic community. (336)

Neither “going to church” nor “church services” appear in the New Testament. Both of these terms emerged long after the death of the apostles. The reason is simple: The early Christians had no such concept. They didn’t view church as a place to go. Neither did they see their gatherings as “services.” (544)

Today, the weekly “church service” is designed for worship, the hearing of a sermon, and in some cases, evangelism. But in the first-century church, the governing purpose of the church meeting was quite different. The purpose was mutual edification. (562)

Perhaps the most startling characteristic of the early church meeting was the absence of any human officiation. Jesus Christ led the gatherings by the medium of the Holy Spirit through the believing community. The result? The spirit of “one-anothering” pervaded the entire meeting. (612)

The Reformation recovered the truth of the priesthood of all believers. But it failed to restore the organic practices that embody this teaching. (665)

The only sustaining force of the early church gathering was the life of the Holy Spirit. The early Christians were clergyless, liturgyless, programless, and ritualless. They relied entirely on the spiritual life of the individual members to maintain the church’s existence and the quality of their gatherings. (731)

One of the tasks of an apostolic worker is to equip God’s people to function together in a free-yet-orderly meeting that expresses Christ in His fullness. (797)

There is a natural affinity between the home meeting and the family motif of the church that saturates Paul’s writings. Because the home is the native environment of the family, it naturally furnishes the ekklesia with a familial atmosphere—the very atmosphere that pervaded the life of the early Christians. (1066)

The ghost of Protestant individualism haunts the average postwar evangelical church. And until it exorcises that spirit, it will continue to see little spiritual formation in its congregants. (1300)

Because we are made in the likeness and image of God, we are only truly human when we are living in community. A church that is hierarchically structured or that relegates its fellowship to a weekly religious service violates this spiritual reality. (1333)

The church that’s introduced to us in Scripture is a loving household, not a business. It’s a living organism, not a static organization. It’s the corporate expression of Jesus Christ, not a religious corporation. It’s the community of the King, not a well-oiled hierarchical machine. (1365)

Anytime a group of Christians undercuts the biblical basis for fellowship by excluding those whom God has accepted—whether explicitly or implicitly—they are a sect. (1492)

The division of the Christian church is rooted in the evolution of the clergy/laity class distinction. This distinction began to crystallize around the third century. The emergence of this hierarchical system, which violently ruptured the priesthood of all believers into a clergy class and a laity class, was the first major division known to the body of Christ. (1511)

Many evangelicals have been taught that when Adam and Eve fell, God decided to scrap the earth and redeem a small group of people out of it that He will take to heaven. But God loves the earth, and He wishes to redeem it (Ps 78:69; Eccl 1:4; Rom 8:20ff.). He has promised to fill the earth with His glory as the waters cover the sea (Isa 11:9; Hab 2:14). Ultimately, God will bring heaven to the earth (Rev 22), just as it was in the garden of Eden. (1837)

Whenever the church gathers together, its guiding and functioning principle is simply to incarnate Christ (1 Cor 12:12). (1887)

Leadership in the New Testament places a high premium on the unique gifting, spiritual maturity, and sacrificial service of each member. It lays stress on functions, not offices. It emphasizes tasks rather than titles. (1920)

Whenever the New Testament describes people who are chiefly responsible for spiritual oversight, it does so by mentioning the work they do. Functional language dominates. Verbs are prominent. (2002)

The clergy profession is little more than a one-size-fits-all blending of administration, psychology, and oratory that’s packaged into one position for religious consumption. (2021)

“Elder” means mature man. “Shepherd” means one who nurtures and protects a flock. And “overseer” means one who supervises. Put plainly, the New Testament notion of oversight is functional, not official. True spiritual authority is rooted in spiritual life and function, not title or position. (2236)

Every time Paul wrote to a church in crisis, he always addressed the church itself rather than the elders. This is consistent from Paul’s first letter to his last. (2288)

The New Testament consistently rejects the notion of ecclesiastical officers in the church. It also greatly downplays the role of elders. (2340)

What was the New Testament pattern for decision-making in the early church? It was simply by consensus. “Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church,” and, “it seemed good to us, having become of one mind” was the divine model for making corporate decisions (Acts 15:22, 25 NASB). In other words, the decision-making of the early church was not in the hands of the elders. It was in the hands of all the brothers and sisters. (2470)

When the church reaches a consensus, murmuring and complaining are eliminated. Why? Because every member has had an equal share in the decision. The church owns the decision. It was made by and for the church under the Holy Spirit’s guidance. (2502)

The New Testament knows nothing of an authoritative mode of leadership. Nor does it know a “leaderless” egalitarianism. It rejects both hierarchical structures as well as rugged individualism. Instead, the New Testament envisions leadership as coming from the entire church. The brothers and sisters supply direction and decision-making by consensus. Seasoned brothers supply oversight. (2535)

If we strip it down to its bare roots, the idea of “covering” rests upon a top-heavy, hierarchical understanding of authority. This understanding is borrowed from the structures that belong to this world system. It in no way reflects the kingdom of God. (2573)

The Bible never teaches that God has given believers authority (exousia) over other believers. Recall our Lord’s words in Matthew 20:25–26 and Luke 22:25–26 where He condemned exousia-type authority among His followers. (2736)

Those exercising organic authority never demand obedience to themselves. They rather seek to persuade others to obey God’s will. Paul’s letters are wonderful examples of this principle. They resonate with appeals and pleas rather than commands. They’re littered with the language of persuasion. (2788)

God’s idea of accountability works from community to person. Not from parson to person. (2958)

Many so-called nondenominational, interdenominational, and postdenominational churches are just as hierarchical as mainline denominations. (3023)

My experience suggests that unless the extrabiblical clergy system is dismantled in a particular church, efforts to recover the organic nature of church life will be handcuffed. (3309)

The megachurch movement is built on a corporate business paradigm that utilizes a market-driven approach to building the kingdom of God. It’s no wonder that churches of this ilk are successful at swelling their ranks. (3324)

When individuals taste body life, they will be forever cured of the unbridled urge to travel “to and fro ” to attend the latest “hot spot” of renewal. Instead, they will discover true and lasting refreshment and stability within the local assembly that’s captivated by a revelation of Jesus Christ and God’s eternal purpose in Him. (3389)

It seems to me that many of us are willing to tip over any sacred cow except the modern pastoral office and the Sunday-morning Protestant ritual. Regardless of how unbiblical these two religious traditions are, they seem to be off limits even to the most radical thinkers. (3457)

The church doesn’t need renewal. It needs a complete overhaul. That is, the only way to fully renew the institutional church is to wholly disassemble it and build something far different. (3596)

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Review: Small, intimate churches

2 February 2018

In the ‘new churches’ today, the trend is towards big buildings, concert-style auditoriums and slick programmes of activities. But some don’t care for that, holding that small and more intimate is beautiful. Here’s a book that argues that case. It is:

Grassroots Christianity: The church as it was created to be by Duncan Kellard (Authentic Books, 2009).

gclargeKellard argues for home-based, small-group churches with few or no paid leaders, where the emphasis is on wide member-participation, the leading of the Holy Spirit and the sharing of everyday life together. His argument for it is twofold—one aspect of which I agree with wholeheartedly, while the other I view with some scepticism.

The first is that ‘it works’. He is frank and open about the problems this model can throw up, but he reckons that they are worth it for the benefits it brings. And these are, among others, that it is best for developing individual character and Christlikeness, for allowing scope for the Holy Spirit to use every single member’s gifts and contributions, for producing relatively stress-free leaders, for reaching the unchurched, and for coping with opposition. I believe he’s right. He cites the millions in the ‘underground’ churches in China as a living example.

His second argument is that this model is ‘the biblical pattern’ (his own phrase). I’m not sure about that. His approach assumes that, in the New Testament, we have some kind of blueprint as to how church should be, and that the modern type of church with a smart building, a worship band, stage-led meetings and seats facing the front, run by frazzled, paid pastors, is failing chiefly because it departs from the ‘biblical model’.

Kellard’s arguments are a bit naïve in places, to my mind, but there’s no denying that he is speaking, with utmost sincerity, from wide experience of both types of church, and the huge number of real-life cases he quotes is one of the book’s strengths.

You may feel that he over-emphasises the either/or of what church should be like, and that there is a good case for both/and. Or that the two models could in some way be combined, as when a church of several hundred active members has a thriving cell-group structure. You must make up your own mind on that. But, wherever you stand, you will find plenty in this book to make you think—and maybe to make you tweak your church methods.

Here are some quotations.

Inspiration releases life; institutionalism eventually quenches it. Because the tendency of any significant movement is to become institutionalised, the best, longest-standing examples of simple, inspirational church life occurs where either persecution or poverty prevent the church from becoming more ‘sophisticated’, and the raw, rustic state is maintained and multiplied. (p18)

The premise of this book is that far from helping us attain the life of the early church, the trappings of organisation and institutionalism often hinder it and, more alarmingly, cloak a loss of vital purpose. People are preached to but wouldn’t choose to be called ‘disciples’, they experience high-quality music, but often struggle to engage in worship, they fund expensive missions but may lack the boldness or desire to share the gospel with friends or colleagues.  (p21)

The grassroots quotient: ‘Our dependence on God is inversely proportional to the value we set on human method and ability.’  (p23)

In traditional churches, there may be ‘home groups’ for the keen ones in the mid-week, but real church is perceived as what happens on Sunday. New churches, ironically, usually burst into life spontaneously in homes. But when they outgrow them, rather than starting new local home meetings, they move into a hall or school and the intimacy, participation and flexibility begin to wane immediately. (p30)

[Re participation in meetings]  There are two dynamics here. First, people speak up in home gatherings in a way they are reticent to in the more formal setting of a hall. Second, quite simply, the more people in a meeting, the fewer will actively take part.  (p37)

In a recent sabbatical I visited a number of churches over a twelve-week period. I was taken aback by two things. One was the ‘sameness’ of what went on in terms of style, length and even choice of songs. The other was the palpable sense of boredom and passivity among many in the congregations. They knew what would happen, and that it was the same last week, and that it would be next, too. The shocking thing is that these were, for the most part, charismatic churches reputedly at the vanguard of radical renewal. (p41)

One of the most moving and satisfying aspects of our journey from structured, front-led church to flexible body-life church is the way children have naturally moved in the Spirit and used their gifts.  (p48)

As leaders, we must abandon status, shun selfish ambition, relinquish comfort and resist being controlling. Instead, we rejoice in others’ elevation, delight in unrecognised service, revel in making sacrifices and excel in releasing others into fruitful ministry.   (p63)

The critical issue for the western church today is that we are rich in the things that don’t matter. Professionalism, real estate, communication technology and sophisticated structure and programmes. Yet, too often, we are paupers in spiritual currency of real worth: a humble dependence on God producing an experience of his presence, expressed in devoted fellowship, passionate worship and unbridled disciple-making ministry.  (p88)

Putting people into small groups doesn’t make them devoted friends immediately, anymore than planting a few saplings makes a border. But given time, what develops, like a carefully laid hedge, is strong and intertwined and becomes a place for others to take refuge in.  (p99)

I would contend strongly that there is an environmental problem with larger gatherings that violates against a sense of belonging and family intimacy by which biblical church is defined.  (p100)

[Re Spirit-led worship]  Freedom exalts God and puts every believer on the same plane, regardless of status or office, and reflects the New Testament pattern perfectly. But this is too risky for the timorous human heart. It might get out of control (Whose control, we might wonder?). Traditionalists respond with liturgies, conservatives with orders of service, and charismatics with worship leaders. Each of these ultimately controls God’s people, domesticating their worship with the frequent, dire result of the Holy Spirit being quenched.  (p117)

Most meeting set-ups resemble a concert rather than a participating body. No wonder gifts of the Spirit are becoming as rare as hen’s teeth in many places, as people receive the subliminal message, ‘You are here to watch’.  (p119)

In adopting the simple forms and radical-disciple lifestyle advocated in these pages, we will be preparing both spiritually and practically for a time that is coming on soon, when Christians and their message will be no longer enjoying acceptance by society.  (p140)

The huge number of once-keen church members who have haemorrhaged from the church in the past two decades is evidence enough that we need a return to grassroots church forms, where every person belongs, is cared for as a friend, and fulfils a vital role.  (p143)

I love to think that there are ‘churches’—functioning gatherings of believers—that don’t yet realise what they are. You see, you don’t need a group of forty, a full-timer and a building to start a church. It could be three devoted friends with open homes and hearts to reach out, surely a wineskin God loves to fill with his best vintage!  (p150)


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