Monday, February 2, 2009

Pagan Christianity

I recently finished the book Pagan Christianity by Frank Viola and George Barna and it has turned my world upside down. In many ways, nothing has changed. In other ways, everything has changed.

Some in the church have called Frank a heretic, but I don't think anyone has ever called George Barna one. In fact, he is considered THE Christian statistics guru and is probably one of the most quoted or referenced persons in Christendom, at least through our modern day sermon.

Now that I'm ready to blog about my experience with this book though, I think a better title for the book should probably be Pagan CHURCHianity. The book deals with the "evolution" or modernization of the historical process of the how the church has come to it's current form. The basis of the book is this. Most churches would claim that everything they do is by the book, er the Book. However, much, if not most of how we do church has evolved from it's original form due to the influence of it's surrounding culture, ie Pagans, Greeks, etc.

Clearly the church has changed from its original early church experience. That cannot be denied. How, why and whether this is a benefical thing to the Kingdom of God is where this book can create division and a variety of differences of opinion. Has the church evolved? (changed in order to survive) Has the church developed or matured? (changed due to its growth) Has the church become secularized? (changed due to worldy influence) These are the major questions with major implications.

The book discusses most of the major practices of how we do church. The Church Building. The Order of Worship. The Sermon. The Pastor. Sunday Morning Costumes. Ministers of Music. Tithing and Clergy Salaries. Baptism and the Lord's Supper. Christian Education. The New Testament (order and breakdown).

When I first became a Christian, I was really enthused with church. Why do we do this? Why do we do that? How come the Bible says this, but we don't do that? How come these themes come up repeatedly but, go untalked about in church? I had all these questions. The Scriptures didn't seem to line up with the church(es) I had attended. It's not necessarily that my church experience was in opposition to the Scriptures, but they just didn't line up clearly. Such as the trivial issue of dressing up for church. I was reading through the New Testament and Jesus seemed to be focusing so much on the heart and the motive, not outward appearances. And yet, many seasoned, veteran Christians were telling me I need to look my best on Sunday morning in order to show God respect and honor. These teachings just didn't seem to match up with any Scripture. There was certainly nothing to say dressing up was bad (at least not clearly), but it sure didn't seem to say what was our common church experience (more especially at that time than now).

So, it was amazing as I read through this book that so many memories came to mind, where I remember wondering why do we do this like this and I was given a pat answer, that more often than not was completely uneducated and something they had just been told to do (toll the company line!) presumably, hopefully by well intentioned people who weren't quite sure themselves. How many times have I done that? Egad!

If you've been trained in Christian ministry at college or seminars or wherever, you're brain right now may be considering these implications, as mine did throughout the entire book. Methods change from time to time, culture to culture, but the message never changes. Therefore, of course, the church has changed. The methods have changed due to times and culture that it existed in to meet the needs of that culture. The question is not do we use other methods (as the culture that we live in necessitates), the question is when we use other methods, are they helpful to what they Church is called to be and do or does it ultimately undermine or even significantly hinder the message and the people called to deliver that message. (ie, all Christ followers, not just pastor types) An extremely important part of this discerning process is to remember is what the early church was and what the Bible actually teaches rather than simply our human traditions based on the progression (or regression) of the church for a certain time and culture that no longer even exists.

I will admit that Frank and George seem pretty harsh toward our modern church(es). Even, too harsh for me sometimes. But, if I trust their words, it is because they love the church that they can come across so strongly. That and though they did not say, I would guess at least Frank's spiritual gift would be that of prophecy. (Prophets love to point out sin or atleast that which has the appearance of sin and call Kingdom people to repentence. :) Or course, our culture is not so enamored with these kind of gifts. They kinda hurt sometimes.

In each of these categories, (The Church Building. The Order of Worship. The Sermon. The Pastor. Sunday Morning Costumes. Ministers of Music. Tithing and Clergy Salaries. Baptism and the Lord's Supper. Christian Education. The New Testament (order and breakdown), Frank and George argue that when they changed based on their culture and time, that these changes have been for the detriment of the church. In some cases, I totally agree. In others, I'm not buying it. At least that it's as bad or as clear as they make it out to be. But, let's quickly look at each one.

The Church Building. The early church knew no "church owned" buildings. They met in homes and public arenas. (not even rented locations) Because of this, they had little overhead and most of their giving went to help the poor and those in need. Why has the church building been created then? Why to accomodate larger numbers, of couse. (many other reasons as well) But, if we multiply our churches instead of growing them larger, (ie, simple/organic/house church) then space is not the issue that we now see. (There are other issues as well, but those are dealt with as we go along here)

The Order of Worship. A great pastor friend of mine likes to remind me that all churches pretty much do the same thing. We sing, we pray, we preach, we give (money). Then, we go home. He's right. That's pretty much it. Nothing wrong with that, but the order of worship, though more flexible in some circumstances than others, is still pretty much the same. We sing. We pray. We give. We listen. Maybe we sing some more. Frank and George trace these origins to other religious rituals of their day and time, yet the early church knew no such type of order of worship. These were free flowing meetings with great participation (not a show to observe, but an experience to participate in, not just philosophically, but practically as well). I'm not sure how much this matters, in my opinion. I definitely see the need to be open to the leading of the Spirit of God. Never should we quench the Spirit and not allow him to move because of OUR schedule of events, but that has usually not been my church experience. Many pastoral leaders I know plan a great deal during the week, but are also very sensitive to the leading of the Spirit in the midst of the worship service. I just heard a story not long ago of my home church pastor being sensitive to the Spirit during a Christmas Eve service, so much that an individual gave their life to Christ because of it. If ever there would be a time to stick to the plan, it would have been Christmas Eve. I definitely see a great need though to give opportunity for greater participation by the attenders either through discussion, leadings of the Spirit, prayer, teaching, or some other interactive way of expressing Christ to each other. We need to return to our roots in this matter. This is how God made the Church, to minister to each other, not just the paid professional doing all of this.

The Sermon. Never had I thought much of this. I had assumed that the way we preach (though the New Testament clearly doesn't give us direction on HOW to do this) was similar to what was originally done. Frank and George make a great case for how and why the sermon has changed from the New Testament style of preaching. In turn, it gives us great cause to change the way we preach. I think most of us would agree that our current preaching, no matter how inspirational or great of a speaker, only lasts for a short while and does little to truly change lives, which of course, is why need our fill again so soon afterwards (ie Sunday morning, sunday night, and wednesday night, not to mention revival services, of course, those have greatly shortened over recent years).

The Pastor. I'm guilty. Here's an interesting fact, that I never considered. The word pastor is never mentioned in the New Testament. PastorS is mentioned once as a function, not as a title or a role. The shepherding role or function is mentioned numerous times, but not in the way that we experience today. This will cause quite a bit of controversy today. Both to those filling called to this role and to those who have experienced the demise of our current pastoral role. How many conversations have I had with other pastors on the unbelievable amount of pressure and expectations of a pastor. So many people in this role have been chewed up and spit out! Jesus could never fulfill these expectations that people have for a pastor in our current system. They are CEO, Shepherd, Teacher, Preacher, Mercy Giver, Community Representative, Perfect Dad and Husband, Money Managing Expert, Hand Shaker, Baby Kisser, Hug Giver, Administrator, Prophet, Evangelist, and much, much more. While the rest of the Church, sits around and pays him/her to do it. Many pastors break free from the constant tugging from all of these directions, and a few even stay in ministry and do it. Another thing that I think is a sad reality. Since we do pay pastors, if they are able to encourage and equip the church to actually do the ministry (the context of that one pastorS passage), then people would start wondering, why do we pay him/her anyway??? I definitely sense this and wonder a bit myself even as I am taking a part-time salary (very part-time, mind you). Paul was paid, you say? So did I. He was paid because he was a traveling church planter, not as a pastor of a local congregation. Is this to say the Bible condemns being a pastor? I wouldn't say that, nor would Frank or George, mostly because the Bible doesn't say that. However, does paying a pastor discourage everyone from giving to the community because that's what we pay him for and does it take up extremely valuable finances that could be used to help the poor? These are tough questions that we do have to consider. Jesus clearly calls us to help the poor and Paul clearly calls the entire church to serve one another and their community.

Sunday Morning Costumes. I don't feel like I need to say much here, but know that dressing up for church came from other cultures and religions and was completely unthought of in the early church. Most churches and Christians have gotten over this.

Ministers of Music. They argue that our development of music (choirs, worship band, etc.) have hurt the every member funtion even of worship. I tend to disagree, since everyone is involved and participating (not leading, but participating) but money could be an issue here as well.

Tithing and Clergy Salaries. Much has already been discussed on clergy salaries. The main part of this section is on tithing. Frank and George argue that tithing is biblical (ala Old Testament), but not a part of New Testament Christianity. The few times that they say to set money aside in the New Testament, it is not called tithing and it is clearly for a specific context/purpose and is in no way stated to be done for all churches at all times. Also, tithing was a part of the Old law system that Christ did away with with his death on the cross. (ie we don't give sacrifices anymore, restrict eating certain types of meat, etc.) While I will admit their argument is persuasive and doesn't leave much substantial argument on the other side (due to a lack of source material), the New Testament is not clear on this teaching, in my opinion, so let everyone do as God puts in their heart as the purpose and principles of tithing are taught out of joy and not out of compulsion by man.

Baptism and the Lord's Supper. Oh my goodness. Let me just say, I totally agree with them here. This is something I've been passionate about for a long time, since I first read the New Testament, but most totally disagree with me. Baptism in the New Testament took place immediately after a person desired to become a Christian. It was used almost in the same way as our "sinner's prayer" that we use today at the altar when someone desires to become a Christian. It was not a formal ritual that we invited all of our friends and family to and took pictures. It was simply a part of becoming Christian. It was not a growth step. It was not a maturity issue. It was not a "now I've cleaned all the big sin in my life up" kind of a process step. It simply happened as people became Christian. Secondly, the Lord's Supper or communion as we've come to call it was a faith community meal. When they came together every week to celebrate the resurrection, they ate a meal together. This was the Lord's Supper. This is why some ate too much, some didn't get enough to eat and some got drunk during the Lord's Supper in the early church. (of course, Paul yelled at them for these things) It was because the Lord's Supper was a meal (as in the Last Supper). It was not a cracker and shot of juice kind of dark and dreary kind of experience. It was a life giving, thankful appreciation and celebration kind of a meal that in we were reminded of the body and blood that was shed. Although these things aren't completely clear and Frank and George explain how they think these things did develop in the church based on their research, the reality is that tradition is hard to break once you've done something for a couple of years, try a couple thousand (or almost a couple thousand). While I believe both of these things to be true, baptism immediately after becoming a Christian regardless of opportunity for ritual/family/etc. and Lord's Supper as a meal, not a cracker/juice kinda thing, I know that the emotional ties that come with these things, most well meaning people will never change their practice of these traditions. Emotional ties run deep and mean alot to people, even if they aren't true expressions. How much do they hurt the church in their current form? That's a tough question. I'm not sure it is much, but maybe how we practice them could make up for how much they take away.

Christian Education. This is not huge for me, but it does make sense. Christian education in the early church was life on life, mentoring, experiential OJT kind of learning. Our current collegiate/seminary system creates brain/information/theoretical learning, but not much hands on practical learning, that comes when you get to your first church and they eat you up for breakfast. (in pastoral roles) Or in Sunday School extra preaching kind of ways if your just a laymen (sarcasm in the just a laymen thing). I will say there are a lot of good mentoring/discipleship type of programs in our church today that could be similar to the early church type of education, as long as they are relationally/practically based on not simply adherance to some theoretical knowledge of facts.

The New Testament (order and breakdown). The New Testament was put in an order other than chronologically. They argue that if we had it in chronological form, it would be easier and more apparent some of these issues that the early church was dealing with and the context for the letters that were written to different churches. While I would definitely agree and am intrigued enough to get a New Testament rearranged in chronological form, I'm not sure how big of a deal this is. I guess I'll have to read it this way to find out. He also argues about the section/verse breakdown causes us to miss the context of many verses of scripture that we misuse constantly and out of context. While this may be true, I've learned it also makes it much harder in groups to follow along (ie using the Message with the NIV).

Overall, the most important things that I took away from this were to not assume a biblical basis for why we do many of the things that we do in the church. Many of them actually have a Pagan or Greek or Secular origin. And if that is okay for the church to change with the times and culture (I do believe it is), then when we change, we must evaluate that according to the purpose and life that we as a Church are called to.

For example, when I first started sensing God calling me into planting a church, one of my first ideas was to have church in a theater. It's a building that is built similar to a church sanctuary and lies unused most Sunday mornings and most newer ones are a lot nicer than most churches. It is in the community and people are already used to going there. It is contemporary and uses modern technology. Everyone goes to the movies, while some people are afraid the roof will fall in if they go to church. (I disagree dad.) There are plenty of great reasons to "do" church in a theater. However, a theater also carries the connotation of being an observer of a good show, not a participant in a world changing movement of a family showing people the Father. However, since I'm not the only one in the church, we, together, as a community must evaluate our methods according to God's purpose for the church and when they don't line up, let's go back to our original practices and see how and why they helped the church thrive so much in it's infancy.

2 comments:

Jilliefl1 said...

The sequel to “Pagan Christianity?” is out now. It’s called “Reimagining Church”. It picks up where “Pagan Christianity” left off and continues the conversation. (“Pagan Christianity” was never meant to be a stand alone book; it’s part one of the conversation.) “Reimagining Church” is endorsed by Leonard Sweet, Shane Claiborne, Alan Hirsch, and many others. You can read a sample chapter at
http://www.ReimaginingChurch.org .
It’s also available on Amazon.com. Frank is also blogging now at http://www.frankviola.wordpress.com .

Shawn said...

Thank you. I am just getting started on it. I hear it answers lots of questions that people are left with after reading Pagan Christianity. I look forward to blogging and discussing that book, as well!