Common Ground Between “Pagan Christianity” and “Provocative Christianity”.

A few days ago I had breakfast with Frank Viola. No he is not the Cy Young winning pitcher who played for the Minnesota Twins, although that would be a great breakfast also. This Frank Viola is the author of “Pagan Christianity”, a book that calls the church to consider the ways in which we have gotten off mission by adopting structures and values from outside the Bible. To say the least the book is controversial and challenging. For example the quote, “The traditional church has neither the biblical nor historical right to exist as it does”, is bound to stir up some serious response. Unfortunately what people focus on is the structural issues related to church that Frank talks about. He is a huge proponent of churches meeting in homes. So you can understand why some people get a bit touchy.

What people need to focus on, and what I had the privilege of exploring at breakfast, is the heart Frank has for followers of Jesus living in community with one another and doing so in a way that brings glory to Jesus. Far too many churches function as large groups of passive people watching a small group of people do all the ministry. They are often filled with people who have not had the blessing of being grabbed by the awesome power of living in real community with Christ and His people. They are people who have not been confronted with the amazing miracle of being used by God to lead another person to faith in Jesus. Far too often our churches are filled with people who have had a very limited and a very diluted experience of Jesus and the power of being fully devoted to Him.

As a result of our diluted and passive Christian experience most people never have an impact on the world around them. Most Christian lives are just not provocative. We don’t provoke questions from others. Part of the motivation behind Provocative Christian is that our lives are too much like those of people who are not following Jesus. As a result nobody sees any difference in our lives as Christians, at least not a difference that they want in their lives. Frank wants to help Christians live in such a strong biblical community that our lives will be different and those lives will draw people to Jesus. I couldn’t agree with Frank more.

One of the best parts of our discussion was on how much of American Christianity is focused on the individual follower. It focuses on how to be a better Christian who does all the right things. What gets left out is that we can never be the kind of followers Jesus wants us to be if we are not in community with other Christians. It is impossible to become more like Jesus if you are not living out your faith in community with others. A basic theological reason for that is our understanding of God as trinity. The Father, Son, and Spirit exist as one God yet in the marvelous relationship that we call the Trinity. If God is such a relationship of unity and we are created in His image, then in some way we must demonstrate godly relationships.

On a more concrete level, any reading of the Book of Acts shows how incredible that first century community was. They loved, served, cared, challenged and died for one another. If anyone was in need then they met that need. If anyone was sick, the visited and prayed for them. If anyone was straying from the faith they went to them in love and urged them back. Living in such community made it possible for them to grow in Christ like character. It also caused the world to take notice of the difference in those followers of Jesus. Some people were in repulsed by those differences. People always will hate some aspect of the Christian life. But many were attracted by it. It was a compelling witness to how life could be different and so they asked why these Christians lived as they did, why they loved one another so deeply. Eventually the world was turned on it’s collective ear because of that community of believers.

Frank Viola is coming at this from the direction of the House Church or Simple Church. I come at it from the direction of discipleship and the need for each follower to give it all for Jesus. Yet in a very real way we are both coming at it from the same starting point. That starting point is the questions “What needs to happen for Christians to live a life so united to Jesus that they change the world for His glory”. There are lots of details that Frank and I would think differently about or at least have a different perspective. But when the bottom line for both is bringing glory to Jesus through changed lives then we stand on a pretty solid piece of common ground.

A mega-church fish in a house church ocean

I am used to being different from people whom I connect with. In college I was the lone protestant getting a degree in Theology from a Roman Catholic/Charismatic university. I was one of two non-episcopalians getting a Masters degree from an Episcopal seminary. So being possibly the only mega-church staff member at a national conference for house churches does not freak me out in the least. I am comfortable enough in my own skin and calling to know that God uses the differences to make a more perfect whole. That is evident at this conference in ways I never expected.

This morning I heard Frank Viola speak to this group of house church folks and urge them to not treat the institutional church as the enemy and remember that many people, Frank among them, have come to Jesus through such churches. I also heard a call to make sure that they do not become the elitist, exclusionary kind of movement that often morphs out of movements that were once pure. Words like that give me great hope that the day will come when we will see churches of all sizes, types and shapes working together for the sake of the Kingdom and the glory of God.

Movements start out wanting to reform something. In the early stages that often means identifying the problem that you are speaking against. But very quickly the emphasis must be on what the movement is FOR, not just what it is AGAINST. Being always against something leads to death and decay and the fossilization of the movement. The house church and the mega-church can work together if the focus is on how together we can glorify God and bring more people to Him. It can do this if we remember that the people who are in a structure different from ours, are still people of God and fellow laborers in the vineyard.

It reminds me of the time when the disciples were upset with the fact that people who were not in their group, where never the less, casting out demons in Jesus name. Jesus made it clear that they too were about Kingdom business and the people around Jesus should not take offense at what those other were doing.