Posts Tagged 'Reimagining Church'

Frank Viola & Leonard Sweet on ‘Jesus Manifesto’

Happy June! In May I was able to chat with Len Sweet and Frank Viola, penners of the declaration-turned book Jesus Manifesto: Restoring the Supremacy and Sovereignty of Jesus Christ (not to be confused with the Anabaptist-anarchist Jesus Manifesto webzine edited by Mark Van Steenwyk – same great Jesus, two different manifestos.). It garnered a ton of signatures and acclaim last year when put online in short form – as well as a little controversy for its emphases and what it didn’t say. That’s why I wanted to interview these two gents, to set the record straight with the book’s release today.

And so, without further ado..!

1. Jesus: He’s the central figure of our faith, and yet in so many ways He’s like a living Rorschach test – everyone sees what they want to see: Mystic, sage, redeemer, prophet, reformer. Who is your Jesus? Is He the Jesus of history? The Christ of faith and inner experience? What are your sources, and what need do you feel that Jesus Manifesto is fulfilling in publishing, yet again, about the Most Talked About Man in History?

Frank: We believe that the Jesus disclosed to us in the New Testament is the same Christ whom the Holy Spirit reveals today. He is the Christ of the cosmos, the Christ of Eternity, the Alpha and the Omega, as well as the Christ who lived on this earth as the quintessential human – the second Adam, or more accurately, the Last Adam – who then died, rose again, was glorified, ascended, enthroned, and now lives in His people.

By my lights, the Christ that is presented to us in Colossians and Ephesians is little known or preached today. Mind you, He’s the same Christ as the One born in Bethlehem. But His incomparable greatness has been lost sight of in so many quarters.

We feel that for many Christians today, their Christ is simply too small. And so we chase all sorts of other things . . . good things, religious things, spiritual things even. And Jesus becomes a mere footnote or a stamp of approval – an Imprimatur – that we place over those other things.

We expound on the following point in one of our chapters, but take for instance Paul’s letter to the Colossians. Scholars have spent a lot trying to figure out the exact nature of the erroneous teaching that captured the minds and hearts of the Colossian believers.

One of the reasons why there is so much debate over it is because Paul never directly addresses the problem. Paul’s primary way of dealing with church problems is to give God’s people a stunning unveiling of Jesus Christ. (Therein lies a valuable lesson for all church leaders.)

For Paul, Jesus Christ is the solution to all problems. And any problem that a believer or a church has can always be juiced down to one common denominator. They have lost sight of the Head, Christ. They have lost touch with the living Christ. Or to put it in Paul’s words, they have stopped “holding fast to the Head.”

But whatever the error was, we can be sure of this: The Colossians thought they could graduate beyond Jesus Christ. They took Him as Lord and Savior, but they felt they could advance to higher and deeper things. Higher and deeper things beyond Jesus . . . hmmm.

In short, if we ever get to the place where Jesus Christ isn’t enough … if we ever get to the place where we feel we can advance beyond Him … then we haven’t met the Christ of Colossians. And our Christ is too small.

In the same connection, there is a debate within much of Christendom presently. It’s not new, but it’s grabbed the attention of many young believers, so it seems novel to some.

One side argues for the Jesus of justice – who is largely derived from the Gospel accounts. The other side argues for the Jesus of justification – who is largely drawn from some of Paul’s statements in Galatians and Romans.

While Len and I embrace the Jesus of justice and the Jesus of justification, our book attempts to present a Christ who is far greater, far more glorious, and far richer than simply being the Justice-Giver or the Justifier.

We feel that this third vision of Jesus is sorely neglected in our time. It’s possible to put justice and justification on the throne, and leave the living Christ out in the cold.

The indwelling life of Jesus also seems to be a missing note in both discussions.

In this regard, I don’t think I can improve upon what Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, said about the book:

“This is a really exhilarating reintroduction to a Jesus who seems sometimes to have become a stranger to the Church; a passionate and joyful celebration of God with us, which cuts right through churchy quarrelling and brings us back to wonder, love and praise – and the urgent desire to make Him known to all.”

Len: When I was 17, I deconverted from Christianity and became an atheist. After college I decided to go into academe and study the history of religions from a scientific, critical perspective. When I was in graduate school, and gradually finding my way back to faith, I made an appointment with a professor to talk about my return journey to orthodoxy. This theologian confessed that for him personally, “I am in pursuit of truth. Whatever truth is, and wherever it is to be found, that is the journey I’m on. When I seek truth and find it, and if truth turns out to be two hydrogen atoms that accidentally collided, and no more than that, I will kneel in front of those two atoms and give them my worship and praise.”

I shall never forget the power of his words which sought to embrace the meaning of meaninglessness.

At about the same time, I encountered a letter Dostoevsky wrote to Natalya Fonvizina, in which he admitted that he was a “child of unbelief and doubt” and would remain so “until my coffin is closed over me.” That got my attention. But then Dostoevsky went on to say more: in the letter he laid out his conviction that “nothing is more perfect than Christ . . . .” He then adds: “If someone succeeded in proving to me that Christ was outside the truth, and if, in reality, the truth was outside Christ, then I should prefer to remain with Christ than with the truth.”

It suddenly hit me that here were the two choices I was facing in my spiritual journey: the worship of a Big Bang, or the worship of a Savior, Redeemer, Sanctifier and Friend who sticks closer than a Big Brother (Proverbs 18:24).  That was a decisive moment for my spiritual pilgrimage, and I immediately immersed myself in our sacred texts and traditions and learned from them that it is dangerous to separate three things that enliven and enfaith us: Jesus, Scriptures, Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit brings Christ to life, and the Scriptures point us to Christ. Separate one from the other and you risk writing another chapter in the history of the waylaying and wrong-footing of the Christian story.

2. The Jesus Manifesto started out as an online declaration by you two; now it’s a book. How did this come together?

Len: I smelled Jesus all over Frank and wanted to know how he had kept his faith “fixed” on Christ. Frank and I met at a GFU event, and stayed in the same bed & breakfast. In the course of coming and going, we both commiserated about how, to hold on to tolerance, so many of us think we must let go of Christ and just hold on to God. So the Christian story becomes Unitarian, primarily about God, only peripherally about God’s Spirit. But Jesus no longer has the leading role . . . that belongs to God alone.

Then I mentioned to Frank that I could not get to Colossians 2 because I couldn’t get past Colossians 1, where it says that “the secret that has been kept hidden has now been revealed, and that secret is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” When I found out that Frank also was transfixed and transfigured by Colossians, we first talked of jointly writing a commentary on Colossians. But then we were led in this direction, and now no one knows the rest of the story …

Frank: In August of 2008, Len and I began conversing via email and phone. One of the things that came up in our conversations (as a pleasant surprise to both of us) was that we both felt that Jesus was getting short-changed in His church, being eclipsed by other “hot” topics and subjects.

In February 2009, we both spoke at a seminar hosted by George Fox Seminary, and we were able to spend some time in person to discuss what was on our hearts. Our burden only increased, as well as an awareness that God had something for us to accomplish together to discharge it.

In April, the idea of writing a joint article/essay emerged. We wrote it in approxiamately18 days, titled it “A Magna Carta,” and subtitled it “A Jesus Manifesto.” It was published online on June 22, 2009. It went viral immediately. I’m told that it was viewed 500,000 times in 8 weeks.

Thomas Nelson was interested in turning the essay into a book (and we were as well), and that’s what happened.

Folks can visit www.theJesusManifesto.com and read sample chapters, hear some brand new songs that were recorded by professional Christian artists based on the book (one of them by the man who wrote some of Amy Grant’s most popular tunes), check out the iPhone app, read endorsements, etc.

3. Frank, you’ve been identified with the ‘house church’ and ‘organic church’ movements – how has Jesus Manifesto been nurtured in that soil? In what ways do you think if functions as a kind of prophetic critique to it?

Frank: In 2005, I began working on a project that I finished at the end of 2009. The project has come to be called the ReChurch Library – five books on radical church reform and the restoration of God’s grand mission in the earth.

The dominating subtext of these five books is the absolute, functional headship and supremacy of the Lord Jesus Christ. Each book in the series themes around this subtext. The afterword of From Eternity to Here is fully dedicated to it.

In short, the organic expression of the church and the supremacy of Christ go hand in hand. Christ is the head; the church is His body. They are organically connected by life. I’ve defined the (local) church as a group of people who are learning to live by the indwelling life of Christ together and displaying that life in their locale. I don’t believe the New Testament knows of any other kind of local church. In addition, the church has no other specialty but her Lord. Everything else flows out of that relationship. Thus for me, the issue of the church has never been its structure. The issue has always been its center – Christ. If Christ is truly the functional head in a particular church, the expression of that church will be effected—sometimes radically. This is my chief argument in Reimagining Church.

Jesus Manifesto takes the thread Christ’s supremacy and builds an entire volume around it. Consequently, the book is a blending of both our (Len and mine) hearts, voices, and burdens regarding our shared vision that Christ should “have the first place in all things” (as Paul put it). Our book explores what that means exactly.

In short, I view Jesus Manifesto as an enlargement of the thread that runs through all of my previous books.

On a lighter note, for the last two years I’ve been writing cook books, but this is my first sweet book 😉

With respect to your last question, I am of the opinion that the driving force of much of the house church, organic church, simple church, and missional church movements is not Jesus Christ. And so I’d like to see this changed. Hopefully, God will use the book toward that end.

4. Len, you have been a pioneer in Christians’ being responsive to the postmodern cultural and philosophical turn – what is now known in different circles as ’emerging’ or ‘missional’ church. Is Jesus Manifesto a departure from your earlier fascination with cultural change and its impact on faith, or in some ways a fulfillment of it?

Len: Even though my primary field is history and semiotics, I challenge you to find one of my books where I do not make the case for the supremacy and sovereignty of Christ in some fashion. In fact, for the last decade, in one book after another, most blatantly in So Beautiful (2009) and Out of the Question, Into the Mystery (2004), I’ve been obsessed with making this case for understanding Jesus as “The Truth” and for understanding discipleship as becoming a Jesus manifest. I am only saying here what I have said in other places and other forms and other ways: how do we speak the name of “Jesus” in such a way that the world we’re in can actually hear us, not the world we wish we had but the world we actually have. The difference is that here, I feel like Robin Williams in “Dead Poets Society,” where he has the students throw away and tear up the text books and instead stand on top of the desks and speak at the top of their lungs. In Jesus Manifesto, maybe I’m back to my “shouting Methodist” and holiness Pentecostal roots.

5. Up until last year, I would have never expected Sweet and Viola to be sharing a book byline together! What was it like collaborating for this? Did your styles naturally gel, or was co-authoring difficult?

Frank: We were given a very quick deadline from the publisher after the book idea was finalized. As a result, we wrote the entire book in roughly six weeks. We were laboring on it Christmas Day even, rushing to meet our January 1st deadline.  The book was also bathed in prayer. We deliberately prayed for one another as we wrote our chapters.

But despite the haste, the process went smoother than I expected. We complimented each other’s chapters, adding to them our own unique ingredients and seasoning them with our own peculiar spices. Len made my chapters stronger, and I hope I did the same for his. I trust that readers will feel that the mix works.

Len: For me, what Frank and I did was not “work” but “play.” You don’t “work” a violin. You don’t “work” basketball.  You play a violin; you play basketball. All the best creativity comes from a play paradigm, not a work paradigm. “Labor” was what we got when we were banished from the garden, and in writing this book I felt that I was back in the garden, living out of God’s Prime Directive to Adam (“Conserve and Conceive”), with my pen a plow and my keyboard a seedbed.

I always feared that co-authoring a book would stymie rather than stimulate my creativity. When I tried my hand at woodworking, I never could master the art of mortise and tenon joinery. But I found that Frank’s passionate investment in the project opened the sluices of my soul and the rain that flowed out from both our beings is what you hold in your hand. It’s a fine line between drawing out a colleague’s best and dredging. Frank never crossed the line. It was a joy to play with him in making mudpies of praise out of soil and rain. But as Frank says, the reader is the ultimate judge and jury of our Back to the Garden project.

6. You all were up against some pretty strong critiques toward your original online Jesus Manifesto last year. Some folks thought that you were so ‘Christ-centered’ that you weren’t Trinitarian enough; others thought you magnified Jesus’ person at the expense of His teachings and deeds. Reading the book length Jesus Manifesto, I see that you more than address Jesus’ place in the Triune dance; perichoresis, the community life of God. But what would you say to the readers approaching your book who are looking to integrate this high view of Jesus with their desire to pursue a witness of good works and social justice toward expressing God’s Kingdom?

Len: Actually, we spend a lot of time talking about this in the book, maybe too much time (two chapters is a lot). But we did it because justice is now top dog among social values, and for many in both the more liberal and emerging sectors of the church, justice is another word for “equality”—making more equality more just than less equality.

The truth is no one knows what justice is. No philosopher in history has been able to satisfactorily define justice, whereas everyone knows what injustice is. Injustice is subject to Justice Potter Stewart’s “you-know-it-when-you-see-it” test (first applied to pornography). In fact, one of the best definitions of justice may be this: justice is what emerges in the struggle against injustice. If you don’t believe me, read Amartya Sen’s new book, The Idea of Justice (Harvard University Press, 2009), where he argues that justice is not a philosophical category or principle (“niti”) but a practice (“nyaya”). Justice is a practical matter of dealing with injustice; justice is asking “what is best to do in the here and now, given what can be done.”

In other words, even philosophers are bringing us back to Micah 6:8 where we are to “love mercy,” and “do justice” all the while “walking humbly with our God.” Notice what we’re to love: mercy. We’re to “do justice,” or to “practice justice,” but we are to “love mercy” and “walk humbly.”

My critique of the emerging movement is precisely here: it’s like these “young evangelicals” discovered the “social gospel” movement a century after liberals did, or fifty years after their boomer parents did in “Sojourners.” I’m a “social gospel” person (is there any other gospel than a social one?). But when you replace the “kingdom of justice” as the “framing story” rather than Jesus’ life, death and resurrection as the framing story, there ends up everything “social” and nothing “gospel.” In the Scriptures the kingdom is never something you build or create; the kingdom is something you receive as a gift and enter with your whole being, because the kingdom is the presence of Christ. A couple of years ago Relevant magazine interviewed me about my critique of Emergent and the emerging church along these precise lines, so you can read more about it there.

Frank: Someone once counted almost 200 blogs on the original essay. As I recall, there were only five that were negative. The ones I saw did mention that we neglected to discuss the Trinity—a correct observation. The others felt that we were somehow pitting Jesus against justice.

We certainly failed to talk about the Trinity in the essay. Right or wrong, we didn’t feel it was necessary to discuss it because our entire focus was on Jesus, and we were attempting to point out those aspects about Him that we felt aren’t getting enough air-play today. The Trinitarian nature of God wasn’t one of them; hence, it didn’t come up in our radar. We also wrongly assumed that most of our readers were familiar with our other books that go into the Trinity in detail.

On the other point, we tried to state as clearly as possible that it’s a gross mistake to separate the Jesus of the Gospels from the Person of Christ depicted in the epistles. And that it’s a profound failure to separate His Person from His teachings. For us, neither should be neglected; both should be held together. I addressed this very question (as well as the topic of God’s kingdom and liberation theology) more fully in an interview last year.

Having more space to unravel our vision and burden in the book (which is roughly 190 pages of actual text), we discuss the Trinity and we explore why the Person of Jesus shouldn’t be separated from His teachings and the problems that (we believe) ensue when we divide the two.

7. There seems to be a lot of grassroots energy behind this book, as well as some high-profile friends of its message via endorsers from across the Christian spectrum. If your fondest dreams could be actualized, what do you hope Jesus Manifesto will accomplish – on the literary landscape, in the Body of Christ, in the marketplace of ideas?

Len: When the Marx brothers were in the early stages of their career, the New York City family home was heavily mortgaged to the “Greenbaum” banking firm. Often the payments were very hard to come by. When the three elder brothers (Chico, Harpo and Groucho) and two younger brothers (Gummo and Zeppo) were on stage, their mother would stand in the wings. When her five zany sons began to improvise too much (especially Groucho) and depart  from script, she would snap them back with a loud stage whisper: “Greenbaum! Remember Greenbaum!”

With this book Frank and I are hoping to snap the church back with a loud whisper: “Remember Christ. Remember Christ. Remember Christ.” It’s okay to improvise as long as you stay on script/Scripture and don’t short-shrift Christ. Don’t ever forget the supremacy and sovereignty of Christ.

One more thing: Christianity has lost its liturgical and devotional language. To be sure, English is not the best language for liturgy or piety, as it has largely lost its stately, magisterial register that makes the 1611 King James Version (which was mostly cribbed from Tyndale’s 1537 translation) so resonant and thrilling. Frank and I purposely wrote this in a worshipful way in an attempt to re-introduce the church to a devotional way of talking about Jesus that seems to be missing in the life of faith today.

Frank: Yes. We are thankful that we have over 20 endorsements from some of the most influential leaders on the Christian landscape today. They include Baptist, Reformed, Anglican, Methodist, Charismatic, Pentecostal, New Monastic, Neo-Anabaptist, Missional, etc. It’s a nice mix of theologians, biblical scholars, pastors, and renowned authors, all of whom share our passion for the supremacy of Christ.

My dream in a nutshell: That the Spirit of God would taken the unveiling of Jesus that’s presented in the book and press it upon the hearts of every reader, bringing us all to our faces in the presence of so great a Christ. That we would make Christ and Christ alone our chief pursuit, our chief love, our chief passion, and our chief obsession in life, in ministry, and in our churches – at whatever cost it may exact. That the body of Christ would begin to learn how to live by His indwelling life, which (according to the New Testament) is a major part of “the mystery of the ages.” And that churches all over this planet would be built upon the only foundation that exists – the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. Not in rhetoric, but in reality, thus discovering and displaying His inexhaustible riches to one another, to principalities and powers, and to a lost world.

All told: I see the body of Christ in battle with its own. Some are fighting on the left; others on the right. This is true politically as well as theologically. May these timeless words from our Father stop us all dead in our tracks:

“This is my beloved Son, hear HIM.”

Jesus Manifesto is our frail attempt to reflect this heavenly voice.

Jesus Manifesto: Restoring the Supremacy and Sovereignty of Jesus Christ (Thomas Nelson) releases Tuesday, June 1st (today!). Check it out and be re-centered.

House Churching: Where I’m at Now

https://i0.wp.com/web.ku.edu/%7Erusscult/visual_index/images/orthodoxy/rublev_trinity.jpgUpdate: I’ve written more, in response to some thoughtful comments below. If you’ve already read my original post, scroll down…

So: I’ve been house-churching for a decade now. I thought I’d share a little bit about how I’ve gone from being an ardent member of the house church’s self-described ‘radical wing’ to something of a house church moderate. I’ll begin with a comment I left on Late Emerger’s blog:

I agree with the Stuart Murray book recommendation. I’d like to see you blog more about Reimagining Church – if the ideas aren’t ‘new’ to you due to your Brethren background, what do you find helpful (or not) about them, regardless of their relative novelty?

As a decade-long house-churcher, I wrestle with these questions a lot. (I blogged about Reimagining a bit here). In light of my recent posts, I should share where I’m headed today, albeit briefly: I still enjoy the house church emphases of the direct leadership of the Trinity in our gatherings (‘direct’ being a rather tricky word; I fully acknowledge the problem with language, immediacy, and analogy that postmodern theologians grapple with) and the priesthood of all believers for the ‘open-sourcing‘ of the Church. That said, I like the anabaptist emphasis on the political and social dimensions of the gospel, and I’ve gotta say, I’m more and more drawn to High Church smells & bells too – what’s a 21st-century friend of Jesus to do? For now, I think ‘what to do’ in my decidely low-church (basement church!) expression is to compost church expressions, give expiring institutional models the dignity to die well, and let something organic grow from its decay; liturgy is ‘the work of the people‘ after all and can work, even thrive, in an open-source setting.

Update Starts Here

Thanks for the feedback, all!

Monasticism Old & New

https://i2.wp.com/www.geocities.com/tjbd/Waldenser-Wappen.jpgKevin, you’re absolutely right. Had I written A Somewhat Less Brief Post on House Churching: Where I’m at Now, (Oops! It looks like I am!) I would have certainly included the insights from both monasticism and the new monasticism as key influencers in my sensibilities-shift. One thing I like about the ‘wing’ of the house church movement we come from is the attempt to locate ourselves historically beyond ‘the first century church.’ Through the influence of books like The Torch of the Testimony and The Pilgrim Church, hagiographies though they may be, we were  able to see (an amusing little essay I wrote ages ago) lines of spiritual continuity with many minority movements that went before us, some of them heterodox. These included Montanists, Donatists, Waldensians, Lollards, Anabaptists, Quakers, and ‘post-Brethren’ movements like the Little Flock in China. Similarly, the New Monastic folks, coming from more ‘mainstream’ evangelical backgrounds, took a look at our equally-neglected heritage of the Desert Mothers and Fathers, Catholic mystics and activists (including Oscar Romero, Liberation theologians, African and Latin American base communities, Catholic Worker houses), the rich tapestry of monastic movements, and again the Anabaptists – our two streams share them in common inspiration! So they take all of these groups and personalities for inspiration, but also feel free to retain the best of their evangelical backgrounds too, remix, and stir with a sensitivity to contemporary culture – both where it needs to be affirmed and prophetically critiqued. Hence they move the monastery back to the city, ‘relocating to the abandoned places of empire.’ I love it.

Ten-Year Itch

Marion, I understand where you’re coming from. Why, in you perception, exchange the Substance for mere types and shadows? I get it. First off, a question: How long have you been actively involved in house-churching? I only ask because a wise older brother, who had been living in an intentional house church community that I began gathering with early on, said to me – a young buck house church zealot – “Before you commit to anything for life, give it ten years. Let’s talk in ten years.” At the time I thought he was trying to be a downer, but you know what? It’s been ten years. And my perspective has changed.

Leadership: What Is It?

As to your thoughts on hierarchical leadership: I’m no fan of hierarchy per se. And in case I was unclear, what I meant by

I still enjoy the house church emphases of the direct leadership of the Trinity in our gatherings and the priesthood of all believers for the ‘open-sourcing‘ of the Church

sermons

…is that I’m still a huge supporter of participatory gatherings open to all to share. But I’ve also come to realize that leadership is not a dirty word. It’s certainly been misused and abused in some bricks-and-mortar church settings, but I think we house church folk can sometimes romanticize what ‘the headship of Jesus Christ in our midst’ means in actual practice. To be specific: I think we’ve sometimes sold ourselves a bill of goods in the idea that New Testament churches just kind of magically got together without direction or leadership, and their gatherings just ‘came together,’ magically and marvelously. In my experience, some people are just naturally more gifted at motivating the rest of us to practice our own priesthood in a variety of ways. These people either arise after awhile in a house church setting, or the overall house church experience ends up being pretty sub-par. Don’t get me wrong: I still bristle when I visit house churches that are trying to re-create Big Church Sunday Morning Worship in a living room; they’re just getting started and they seem to already have a Pastor, Worship Leader, and Greeter all picked out! It’s annoying. At the same time, I can’t throw stones. I’m way less judgmental as to how that occurs in each particular group, fellowship, or congregation.

The Work of the People

Regarding liturgy: Believe it or not, there is a growing segment of people who are now ‘doing’ liturgy without hierarchy. Many of them are on your side of the pond, in the UK. (See this section of zoecarnate.com for some extensive links, photos, videos and stories) It’s known as ‘alternative worship’ or ‘fresh expressions.’ For some, it’s following more or less a traditional liturgy, though sometimes simplified for smaller groups or acapella singing – creating a rhythm of regularity around which spontaneity can be supported. For others – like the Ikon community in Belfast, Grace in London, or the late, lamented Vaux (it’s really worth going here and here and here to see all that the Spirit wrought with the Zeitgeist in their day) – it’s a bit more community-created from the ground up, more creative and elaborate…though these groups typically meet on a monthly, rather than weekly, basis, their worship takes so much time and energy. And I don’t think most of ’em wear robes! Though I’ve gotta say, I’ve lightened up on this count too. I’ll never forget earlier this year when Jasmin and I met up with our friend Sara Miles (and Paul Fromberg) at St. Luke’s Episcopal in Atlanta. Sara and Paul were talking about various aspects of their life together at St. Gregory’s in San Francisco, including the food pantry they started from their altar. It was an informal chat with about 40 people present, and lots of interaction. Then came a transition point where they were teaching us St. Gregory’s uniquely homegrown style of alt.worship liturgy, which is a blend of Anglican and Byzantine sensibilities, open-sourced so the whole congregation can genuinely participate. It’s all a capella, with just some hand chimes and a Tibetan prayer bowl for accompaniment. But the part I won’t forget is how I was chatting with Sara and then she nonchalantly said “Excuse me a sec while I slip into something less comfortable,” and voila! Five minutes later, Sara had donned a – I don’t even know what you call it, a robe with some a tie-dyed stole. It’s wasn’t pompous, it was festive! And then we all began dancing around a table, arm in arm, hugging and kissing, and eating holy bread and wine. It was one of the most open, participatory gatherings I had been to in awhile – all in an ornate downtown Atlanta cathedral. While the setting was unfamiliar to me, I sensed the unmistakable aroma of Jesus.

I don’t know if this responds to all of your (very well-stated) concerns. I’m particularly curious to hear others weigh in on what ‘poor and ordinary’ people think of liturgies versus house church gatherings. I’ve heard anecdotal corroboration that both people from more ‘roughneck’ backgrounds appreciate the beauty and poetry of good liturgy, and that sometimes seekers feel more at home in cathedrals than in living rooms. Of course I’ve heard/seen the reverse to be true as well. Jesus was certainly ‘everyday’ in many respects, but he was also seen as a sage. His parables involved everyday objects and concepts, but turned them on their heads. Paul was a master of rhetoric (despite his protests to the contrary) and the prophets, not to mention authors in apocalyptic and Wisdom genres, were skilled poets. So I think we see every level of discourse in the Bible as well as everyday life. I agree with you, though, that sisters and brothers in Christ don’t need to be eloquent or profound to share real spiritual depth. But they also don’t have to not be those things.

Where Do We Go from Here?

I don’t think I’ve mentioned this on my blog before, but Jasmin and I are leaving our beloved house church community here in Raleigh in late March 2009. We’re moving back to the Atlanta area to be closer to family – our little girl’s grandparents in particular. What does this mean for us spiritually, and church-wise? I honestly have no idea.  We’re not quitting ‘house church’ – or as its increasingly referred to nowadays, ‘organic church’ – per se. At the same time, I’m not sure if that’s where we’re headed again immediately when we return. My wife and I are amazed by what we see the Spirit working in the ATL; it really seems like Kingdom movement if afoot in many streams and tributaries of the household of God – ‘house church’ included. I’ve told Jasmin that I’m wide open to whatever – house church, Episcopal Church, Mennonites, Quakers, Vineyard or East Orthodox or one of those start-up emerging churches – Oh my! It might just be the season of life I’m in, looking at age 30 – but I’m more concerned about our rhythms of everyday life than where and how we worship. I’m learning to see my house church heritage, like any other set of cousins in the family of God, as a particular tradition. And insofar as I continue gathering for fellowship, action, and encouragement in homes, I’m committed to seeing her as a living tradition, for her own health and well-being.

Related posts:

Open Gatherings and Life’s Wisdom

I May as Well Admit It…I’m a House-Churcher

House Church: Ready for Prime Time? Pt. 1

House Church: Ready for Prime Time? Pt. 2

House Church: Ready for Prime Time? Pt. 2

Happy post-election day!

So a couple of weeks ago I posted concerning house churching, an ancient-future ecclesiological habit that just a decade ago seemed relegated to a listserv backwater*, but is now one of the forefronts of consciousness around the world today. In its North American flavor, the people who have done the most to make this a reality are Tony & Felicity Dale, Neil Cole, and Frank Viola. The latter has been especially visible in publishing and online milieus, and is likely most familiar to emerging church folk.

(*nothing against HCDL, the oldest and one of the best house church discussion lists. I am a member!)

Pagan Maelstrom

In July and again in September, Viola had some fascinating exchanges with noted New Testament scholar Ben Witherington III. First Ben reviewed Pagan Christianity (which I blog about in Coming out of the Pagan Christianity Closet):

Pagan Christianity Pt. 1
Pagan Christianity Pt. 2

Pagan Christianity Pt. 3

Pagan Christianity Pt. 4
Pagan Christianity Postlude

I can’t possibly summarize these posts – they’re so flippin’ long! – so you’ll have to read ’em if you want. But I will give you a coupla quotes. I think BW3 has a point when he said (in post 2):

While I understand the complaint about things done by rote, it all depends on the spirit in which such things are done. If they are simply done mindlessly, repeating words without thinking about what one is saying or without focusing on God—well that’s not a good thing. But frankly I’ve seen far too many people who find joy in the recitation of the liturgy, and meaning, and are drawn closer to God by doing so. And there is nothing unBiblical about ritual. Try reading the psalms for example, which as Ephes. 5 makes clear Christians recited and sang. Here’s an important point When one rules out pre-set liturgies and orders of worship, that in itself becomes a ritual by default if one does it over and over again that way.

Here here! I agree. With community intent and understanding, fellowships can worship in whatever way they choose. And as the alt.worship movement in the UK shows us (not to mention St. Gregory’s in San Francisco) it’s possibly to have open-source, participatory liturgy. ‘Liturgy’ after all is ‘the work of the people.’ My house church has personally benefited, at times, from utilizing Phyllis Tickle’s magisterial compilation The Divine Hours.

[ben_frank.jpg] Nonetheless! Dr. Ben loses me utterly when he says “And here we come to an important point- Christ is not the leader of the worship service.” Sorry, I guess I’m just too Quaker or Pentecostal or what have you, but a sense in which the Spirit is directly leading and guiding our activities together is just too precious to relinquish simply because we can (of course) trace some human agency in the process of God’s speaking in our midst.

Overall, Ben Witherington III’s review of Pagan is insightful in that it shows Christians of good will and historical awareness can disagree – it’s not as though there will ever be a cut-and-dried air-tight case for ‘organic’ church meetings based in homes. But I’ve gotta tell ya: Independent scholar Dr. Jon Zens does a devastatingly good (and irenic) job sparring with Dr. Ben’s posts right here. It’s well worth the read.

Reimagining the Dialogue

So they say controversy sells – it certainly does. While BW3’s posts are only the tip of the blogstorm in terms of online response to Pagan, I’ve noticed that Frank’s followup Reimagining Church has received comparatively little online traction. This is really a shame, as Reimagining is the crucial reconstructing to Pagan’s deconstructing, and as such is my favorite of the two. As I said in my inside-cover endorsement of the book:

Reimagining Church is a readable (and livable!) description of organic, New Testament–rooted church life for the twenty-first century. Avoiding the weeds of both wooden fundamentalism and unreflective overcontextualization, Frank Viola paints a winsome and attractive portrait of a gospel people, inhabited by the Holy Spirit with God in Christ as their energetic center. Frank helps us learn from the peculiar genius of Jesus and his earliest followers, planting seeds for authentic, deeply rooted life together.

Further, I’ve reviewed the book here for TheOOZE. But enough of what I think. While Reimagining hasn’t found as much of a blog traction as I would have liked, BW3 has been a faithful engager. Here’s his (even longer!) series on this one:

Reimagining Church Part One
Reimagining Church Part Two
Reimagining Church Part Three
Reimagining Church Part Four

On these Ben invited Frank to reply directly. So he did:

A Frank Response Part One
A Frank Response Part Two

Ben’s Epilogue

Frank’s Coda

(And Frank also edited his responses together in one handy-dandy PDF document, right here.)

Whew! Their exchange is friendly, and in Frank’s case fairly witty. Ben lets his guard down a little (especially in his Part Three), but in some ways makes Frank’s case for him. When BW3 talks about subordination in the Godhead, or how we might be ‘ontologically’ united with Christ but kinda not really, he comes across as…well, a cautious scholar to Frank’s animated prophet. Which I suppose is all well and good in the grand scheme of things, but makes me feel more clearly that Frank ‘wins’ this round if winning means venturing out and exploring fresh terrain.

There are some other posts in this latter mix that are worth reading:

Bill Heroman Part I II & III (I spent a good 4-5 years with Bill in a house church community)

Neil Carter: (Whom I also spent 4-5 slightly-different-but-overlapping years with in the same community.)

Reimagining Church
Reimagining the Trinity
Out on a Limb

With blogs, books, and – oh yes – more and more house churches being planted – it would seem that ‘house church’ has indeed reached prime time. My friends and my family continue to talk, with helpful interjections by scholar-teachers. We will all be the better for the exchange.

Coming in Some Subsequent Post (I cannot guarantee you when): The Future of ‘House Church’ – Where It’s Going (at least for me). In the meantime, enjoy the first chapter of Reimagining Church.

Frank Viola is Blogging

Check it out.

Coming Out of the “Pagan Christianity” Closet

pagan1.jpg

Update: Brother Maynard at Subversive Influence has completed a good three-part interview with Frank; check it out here, here and here.

Also: P.C. has been breaking into Amazon best-seller territory.

So: My buddy Frank Viola‘s book Pagan Christianity? has been causing quite the stir. Many responses have been positive, but some clearly have taken issue with matters both of tone or content. I’ve sort of just realized that I’ve largely been sitting on the sidelines of the debate raging through the blogosphere, even though many of the participants are my friends and I care deeply about what’s being discussed. Why?

Because I suck at time management. It’s tough being a new daddy, husband, have 2.5 businesses, and take graduate-level courses. I’m seeing a life coach friend. I’m getting better–slowly but surely. So here’s my belated entry into the fray.

I feel deeply ambivalent about the talk going ’round, like the kid with a lot of friends whose friends are really really different from each other. One day the kid has a birthday party, and the friends are all under the same roof for the first time…and they ain’t getting along so well. My journey of knowing Jesus led me into house church waters in 1998, and into the pre-emergent discussion in 2001 (back when it was just PoMo Christianity, baby! Who remembers Stranger Things?). I have since felt like the bastard child of both, a hopeful amphibian breathing the air and water of two similar yet distinct movements/phenomena. Of course emerging saints are waaaay more media saavy (new media, old media, all of it) and so have made far more headway into the popular religious imagination and discourse. But now that me pal Frank has graduated from guerilla publishing to real, live publishers, our subterranean wares are being offered in the marketplace of ideas for the first time and eeesh! We’re like that odd gypsy family offering homemade trinkets to snobby European connoisseurs. What to do?

Continue reading ‘Coming Out of the “Pagan Christianity” Closet’


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  • Friend of Emergent Village

    My Writings: Varied and Sundry Pieces Online

    Illumination and Darkness: An Anne Rice Feature from Burnside Writer's Collective
    Shadows & Light: An Anne Rice Interview in MP3 format from Relevant Magazine
    God's Ultimate Passion: A Trinity of Frank Viola interview on Next Wave: Part I, Part II, Part III
    Review: Furious Pursuit by Tim King, from The Ooze
    Church Planting Chat from Next-Wave
    Review: Untold Story of the New Testament Church by Frank Viola, from Next-Wave

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