Monday, August 23, 2010

When the pagans influence the church, what should we do?

When reading makes me frustrated the point of abrasion can come in two forms: 1) The authors haven't done what I would have hoped that they would do or 2) What I'm reading is too far from what I (or we) are doing for me to see how to get there. Obviously the latter is not bad as it can bring new ways of looking at issues and challenge me to move forward.

I just finished reading (as part of my vacation reading plan) Pagan Christianity: Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices by Frank Viola and George Barna. I found myself frustrated as I read this book. In this case, I had alternating feeling of frustration from both sources. Viola and Barna have challenged me to do something, to think about the church and where to go from here and to live a life more centered on Jesus. At the same time, I think they fall short of their goal, even, at times, suggesting backward movement where the church has progressed positively and often deciding that the best days of the church were some glorified day that makes no sense to us today.

Their purpose was to "remove a great deal of debris in order to make room for the Lord Jesus Christ to be the fully functioning head of His church." This is a noble goal, and one that I agree with the authors as they set a need. They do a reasonable job of pointing out debris that needs to be removed. I agree that the church building has been falsely raised to a point of idolatry. Similarly, I agree whole heartedly that they idea of dressing up for church as it is a sign of my having when other don't is a great distraction from the message of the gospel. I have been pushing to move our church away from age-graded discipleship methods and from a separation of power, clergy and laity.

While I agree often with the authors as they criticized the institutionalized and paganized church, I struggle more with the solution which too often is to return to some model of church-life from the first century. That sounds fine and dandy, as certainly, if Jesus and the apostles lived in the first century, those folks had direct access to what the church should be. This might be somewhat true, but not completely. In fact, if you read the epistles, you should notice that a lot of them were written as correctives to a church that was already missing the mark.

Of course, our authors would likely respond that their premise is that the correctives where de-institutionalizing the church. This is true, but still, I think that the authors too often lead us back to a fictional image of the church. It may be that they did much research to discover what the church looked like and was supposed to act like, but it is still an image that we have little evidence to know how this early church formed, moved and interacted. Moreover, there is less evidence to help us to know what a church must look like 2000 years later. We do not really know that the first century church held normative practices or how many of their practices were our of necessity since the church was small and just begining in its formation.

I agree that we need to remove debris from the institutional church. A lot of debris. In almost everything there is junk that needs to be removed. Relics of cultures past must be put to rest or they become idols in our worship. The solution, though, is not to replicate a church from another culture long ago, but to re-learn how the church (the people in the family of God) can free ourselves of old cultural relics and appropriately connect with a culture today.

I think the church does need to be more organic; more natural to this world and culture; more focus on Jesus Christ and his gospel. Reading Pagan Christianity has helped me to take another look at influences that are clouding our relationship with Jesus Christ. I would recommend it as reading for church leaders (which the authors would say shouldn't exist) and for all church members as we continue to discover God's vision for the church today. My application, however, would be to examine our practices, know that the culture will influence who we are as a people, and eliminate any practice that distracts us from God.