You'll have to forgive me. For those of you who were actually at this event, you'll notice that my notes are quite abridged - shorthand. See, I have a hard time turning my brain off to blindly note-take. I'd be an awful reporter.
2:45pm FRANK VIOLA
Frank opened: “I want to admit that I don’t have the foggiest idea of what ‘Recalibrating Church’” means… so I shan’t use it.” Big audience laughs.
“I want to be very clear about this: George Barna wrote every word of Pagan Christianity. I put my name on it so that it would sell.” More laughs.
“I’m honored to be here – I have no idea why I was invited. I was asked to talk about my book, Reimagining Church. This is the constructive sequel to Pagan Christianity. Pagan Christianity deconstructs, and Reimagining Church reconstructs. It took me 20 years to write this book, because I tested it… This is not armchair theology… In 1988 I left the institutional church. I gave it up for Lent.” Cue audience laughter. “And I was thrown into what I would call a spontaneous burst of body-life…”
“And brothers and sisters, I beheld Camelot! I beheld Zion! For one bright and shining moment, I saw her – the Bride of Jesus Christ! Free of condemnation, free of guilt, free of the stench of human made ritual! And it WRECKED me!! If you have never seen the Body of Christ living according to her natural instincts, then quite frankly you have not fully experienced her, as a Christian.”
I’m starting to get a hunch: this guy is really cocky. Ok, I recognize it from personal experience.
He continues: “Most denominations teach that the church is a living organism, not an institution. That is pious rhetoric. My question: if the church of Jesus Christ is really a living organism, than what does she really look like? I’m not talking about House Churches. I am monumentally unimpressed with House Churches. Meeting in a home doesn’t mean a lot. I’m speaking of the organic expression of the church. When God’s people are following their natural instincts, and the DNA of the church is operating.”
My hunch grows to a thesis: FRANK VIOLA IS REALLY IMPRESSED BY FRANK VIOLA.
Then he actually makes a good point that isn’t about himself and his own blustery experience: “God did not create, in order to save, human beings.” Meaning, God didn’t create us just to SAVE us. We weren’t created to be subsequently damned, so that a very few of those created could then be “rescued.”
Viola continues: “That mindset, that the church is a soul-winning organism for God, is in the bloodstream of every Christian on the planet. But that’s not God’s eternal purpose. That’s not his grand mission.”
So what exactly IS God’s eternal purpose? And what is the secret of the perfect church that is as rare and exciting as Frank’s testimony describes? Well… Frank didn’t exactly get to that. At least, I didn’t hear it. And if he did get to it, I must have been too annoyed to listen. Which is a problem. Maybe my problem – but maybe his.
My gut says Frank didn’t really share anything that will radically transform the church in America, no matter how loud he yells or how grandiose his claims.
3:02 THE PANEL QUESTIONS FRANK
Dan Kimball points out the centrality of “saving” to Jesus’ mission: “But Jesus said follow me and I will make you fishers of men.”
Frank: “But I’m saying that’s not the final end. Most Christianity today is fueled by guilt, religious duty, and condemnation.”
Len Sweet jumps in: “In the last 20 years, there’s been a whole critique of the winning of souls. So there’s something of a straw man that I want to be careful of… Do you think the Christians of the apostolic age were any less creepy than we are today? We have this notion that the apostolic age is the Golden Age and that we have to get back there. These were some creepy Christians, man!”
I’ve blogged plenty of times about the modern church’s OBSESSION with “getting back to the 1st Century Church” rather than moving into the future, so I appreciated Len’s comment.
Frank said: “The difference is, some wild-eyed fanatic named Paul of Tarsus would come into town and bring people together and bring them to Jesus Christ and show them how to follow the Lord. In 3 to 4 months he would get out of there, not elect a clergy or elect elders, he’d come back two years later and they’re still meeting together. They had problems, but they stayed together. What did he preach that, in the face of persecution, kept them meeting together for years?”
Frank’s explanation of his “ideal, organic church” sounds like a bunch of early morning Bible studies that magically make the church better than all of the failed evangelical churches. He says this isn’t “armchair theology,” but I’ve seen all his claims struggle, fail and sometimes succeed – in practice. No magic formula.
Frank loudly proclaims, “We need to take Sunday morning service out to the barn and shoot it!” with not-too-little satisfaction.
Look, I don't want to sound like I've got a vendetta against Frank Viola. Maybe I sound really judgmental here. But let me tell you: everyone I spoke with after the event had similar reactions. The audience responses were similar, too. I've never read or listened to Viola before - only read OF him - so I had no pre-existing vendetta.
In retrospect, I have a hunch Frank felt a little "outclassed" in this group of thinkers and leaders. It's no small thing to sit between Leonard Sweet and Alan Hirsch. I think he may have been feeling self-conscious, which may have led him to overplay his hand. That said, I still think we all got a pretty good glimpse of what Viola's internal track sounds like, and I can't say I'm impressed.
More notes coming... Recalibrating: Pt. 3