Recalibrating Church: Part 2...

Recalibrating Church: Continued...

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.


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.”


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.


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


Anonymous said...

So Pete, having no idea who these people are, I'd really like for you to talk a bit more about why you didn't care for Frank. What is it about what he said that bothers you. I'm really, really interested. I really am. I'm also going to try to find his books, if I can...I'd really like to hear your thoughts on this dude.


Josh Mueller said...

I think I understand what Frank meant by our eternal purpose not being equivalent to salvation. On the other hand, looking at the magnitude of the mess we find ourselves in, I can't see how steps 2-infinity can be all of a sudden the focus when we haven't even figured out how to do a better job helping people take step 1 first. said...

would you say this to his face? if you didn't care for his talk and attitude that is fine, but to write up a whole post ripping him a part is way over the top.

Peter said...

Becca, good call. Let me dig for a little more info. Meanwhile, the book that really got Viola most of his attention in the past few years is Pagan Christianity. From what little I've read, there IS some very interesting information about the formation of Christian practices. Historically, every culture Christianity has developed in has had a radical impact in forming the traditions and liturgies of the church: from iconography to the holidays we observe. I think it's interesting, and absolutely unavoidable. Christianity is a religion that seems inherently designed to contextually reflect the cultural landscape it emerges in. My biggest frustration with Viola is that he points out some interesting and historically verifiable qualities of the religion - but then he suggests he has the "secret" to unlocking the "real" purpose or truth or ideal Christianity. And I don't buy it. I could answer "YES" to his laundrey list of requirements for "authentic, organic Christian community," and still provide examples in my personal experience that demonstrate there is no utopian Christianity. Only messy people doing their best (sometimes) to serve God. And there are periods of high emotions (joy) and functionality - and inevitably, there is the law of entropy - things rarely stay cohesive and orderly. The entire New Testament (Acts, Pauls letters, etc...) bear witness to this.

I'm all for discovering new ways of doing church. And I think I've said here, before, that if someone can show me a better way of following Christ (than Christianity) then I'll go there. So my allegiance is not to the institutional church. But I didn't find anything particularly "new" in what Viola offered at the symposium. I think his "Pagan" book served as a very valuable reminder to Christians that what we do - as Christians - is not non-negotiable. It is not even inherently Christian. The condition of our hearts matters more than the orthodoxy of our practice.

Peter said...

Would I say it to his face? I would if I thought it would matter to him, but I don't think it would.

I understand your rebuke, and I get your "over the top" comment. But I guess I've gotten a little cynical. I've been running in some "celebrity Christian circles" for a few years now. No, not as one of the celebrities - just a friend. And the reality is, it's not all that different from the acting/artistic community. I was an aspiring actor for several years - celebrity culture is alive and well in Christendom. So when people like Frank or Len or Brian McLaren or Pat Robertson or Joel Osteen choose to become public figures and make public proclamations about their personal religious, spiritual and cultural opinions, then they are stepping into an arena where criticism and disagreement are as unavoidable (and I would argue, NECESSARY) as sycophantic agreement.

I should be careful not to judge Frank Viola the Christian, but I don't feel guilty or even rude for critiquing Frank Viola the Christian Celebrity. Comes with the book deal, my friend... said...

fair enough. i'd just be careful not to add to the montra that blogs are a place for us to say things that we wouldn't say in real life. while i had some disagreements with what Frank said, I also thought he had some great thoughts as well. I just want to desire and thinkt he best for a brother before tearing him down.

Sue Van Stelle said...

I'm not sure how "arrogant" Frank is, but he is certainly reacting strongly to something. I bet he has a story to tell that would make his reactiveness make sense.

I couldn't quite figure out why I was uncomfortable with his insistence that he had had this experience of "seeing the bride of Christ." It wasn't clear if this was any different than your run-of-the-mill charismatic experience. (And yes, this liturgical person has experienced some authentic charisma.) In any case, to say that some elusive experience represents the "bride of Christ" seems like thin theology to me, and today I figured out why.

Today I was at the Kaleo conference at George Fox listening to Shane Claiborne, who is the real deal, imho. He was talking about the church, about rebuilding the church, about not abandoning the church in its current form, but loving it back to life (not his exact words.) And then he quoted St. Augustine, who said, "The church is a whore, but she is my mother."

That rings more true to reality than pursuing this intense experience. It is the love of Jesus that will turn the whore into a bride, not our pursuit of some kind of pure experience.

Bill Kinnon said...

My question to the gathered "Recalibrating Big Guns" would be "tell me where it's working for you, personally." I suspect that only Dan and perhaps MaryKate, would be able to answer that question.

Dan said...

Hi Bill,

Those on the panel were asked to speak about the current books. I chose not to and didn't do a normal "They Like Jesus" presentation but specifically crafted this presentation for this event. I intentionally made it a personal testimonial of missional change and lessons learned and learning. My presentation was basically about our was about our church and what I am currently recalibrating and have recailbrated regarding mission. So I made it based on current practice and lessons learned in our church. I will be blogging about each of my point/recalibrated things I spoke on. So if you check over the next week or so, I will list what I did. But I cannot speak without giving ongoing examples of what I am currently doing. I don't want to be simply talking about myself, but I believe it is important to show tangible examples of what I am communicating about. So hope this answers your question of "what is working for me personally", that is actually what I presented about. And I will blog about it, so you can read it there what I said.


Bill Kinnon said...

I appreciate your response (here and on my humble blog). I look forward to reading what you write.

My concern is that the theorists have taken control of the missional conversation - and the practitioners are not/don't have the time to tell their stories. (The story telling being part of the hope in the launch of Missional Tribe.)

Peter said...

Sue, a gracious reminder that our experiences dramatically shape our approaches and reactions:
" I bet he has a story to tell that would make his reactiveness make sense."

Thank you. I'm probably writing from a vantage of Viola reminding me of evangelists from my adolescence. Then, I felt that if I wasn't aggressive and over-the-top, someone would doubt my passion (or my salvation). I saw a lot of people hurt by my own behavior, and the "evangelism" of those close to me.

But you're right - all of them (us) were working out our own "stuff" while we evangelized. And when you're in the middle of it, it's hard to see from the outside.

Peter said...

Bill, good question: "tell me how it's working..."

I agree that Len is a theorist, but I think he could probably list a lot of friends and practitioners he has worked with and influenced, who have subsequently taken his ideas out into the practicing church.

But you're right to ask: is this all just THEORY?

I think Alan Hirsch is pretty actively involved in evangelism.

And even if I'm not very approving of Viola's approach, it seems obvious that he's SEEN SOMETHING! Something genuine and exciting. I think what he's seeing is through culturally disconnected lenses: i.e. an American looking in on Asian/African/Latin/Middle-Eastern churches and judging them (albeit, positively) from a Western vantage. If you're not a part of a culture, it's pretty hard to judge what is good and transformative, and what is simply culturally-fed and perhaps less powerful from the inside.

Sue Van Stelle said...

Hi, Peter,

I like how you've stated that Viola may be looking through culturally disconnected lenses. That's a great way of putting it. I also believe there are a lot of genuine "church/bride-of-Christ things" that are going on that aren't so easily seen.

Yeah, everybody's got a story, including me, and we all get reactive at some point. Understanding that is tough, though. It's hard work to listen to people on multiple levels, and it means I don't get to put my thinking on autopilot. Dang that George Fox Seminary training; they really mess with you there.

(Hey, maybe that could be their new promo line!)

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