July 4, 2020

The Church Membership Question: Open Thread on Frank Viola’s “Why I Left The Institutional Church.”

Perhaps the most talked about recent challenge to the traditional, institutional church comes from “organic” church advocate Frank Viola.

In a recent article at The Ooze, Frank chronicled his reasons for leaving the institutional church. Think what you want, and criticize as you wish, Viola states his case Biblically and eloquently. And millions of people agree with his criticisms, even if they don’t buy the house church movement as an alternative.

So pay your ticket money by reading the article, then come back here and make this a good open discussion with your response. Is Viola’s assessment of the institutional church correct, or is he over the fence in left field?

Read, return and talk amongst yourselves.


  1. I think what did it for me in this article is his story about the Pentecostal churches that wouldn’t touch Derek. If they really believe what they claim to then that doesn’t make any sense. It tempts one to lump them in with televangelists at that point.

    I think he makes a lot of great points about the church. However, I’m not sure if I’m quite ready to chuck the whole thing out. However, I do think that much of what we consider to be mandated by Scripture is really just tradition (i.e. dressing up on Sundays, teetotaling Baptists, etc). The thing is that there is nothing wrong with these traditions. You like hymns on the organ, I like them on the bagpipes, and someone else likes singing U2 songs. Fine.

    Generally speaking, when we say that someone doesn’t “do church” correctly what we really mean is that they don’t do it the way we like to, right?

  2. I found this article to be pretty compelling and I agree with his argument. Its also along the same lines of things I’ve thought over the past year.

    I intern at a 2500 member SBC. We just built a brand new atrium and gym complete with a fitness center. It cost like $13 mil. Going into they had a “If we build it they will come” attitude thinking that was going to get people to join the church, it hasn’t.

    The church is in one of the poorest sections of our city, and as I’ve seen the church shrink after the “evangelistic construction”, I’ve realized there is a better way. Instead of buying into the norms of mega-church philosophy, we should have used the resources to impact our community first hand, and without any selfish motives, (new members for more tithes.)

    I’ve come to the point where I’ve realized if this is the gospel I’m expected to teach and preach, it’s not for me. I’m finding myself more and more drawn to Frank’s idea of church and Shane Claiborne’s idea of outreach. I would say Frank’s ideas are right on the money.

  3. I gather from the comments on the site that I’m not supposed to try to draw conclusions until I’ve read Pagan Christianity myself. I’m not likely to do that anytime soon.
    But I’ll note that his experiences differ somewhat from mine. WRT demons, a charismatic church my college roommate attended sometimes tried casting demons out of people. I suggested to one friend of mine that if they tried it on her again she should quote from Acts: “Jesus I know and Paul I know, but who are you?”
    We left a church not too long ago that was dissolving everything into fashionable seeker-friendliness. One elder in particular did a lot of damage, and many people left with very bad feelings. But often when I’m reading Psalms I read the texts of some of the songs we sang, and remember that once upon a time we really did worship God together. I’ll not go back, and if he ever shows up at my current church I’ll work like mad to keep him out of any position of leadership, but I remember and am grateful for the good things, and hope that someday we can walk into the house of God in company.

  4. I think a lot of the criticisms made about the instiutional church are valid criticisms of the church in America. The things Frank found in the New Testament are galaxies apart from what we see practiced in American churches. “There is an empahsis on building the buildings not helping the poor” is a problem that some other nations do not have. The real work of the church is being done in other places, those outside of the United States. If only 1% of Chinese are born again believers in their underground movement, then there are more Christians in China than in the U.S. I know that Michael has been an advocate for supporting Gospel for Asia. That’s the true missional lifestyle of the New Testament church, not local First Baptist on our block. If Africa, people walk many miles to worship for HOURS in a hot and uncomforatable service, because they hunger to hear the Word of God taught. The church in America is just like everything else in America; we’re spoiled rotten by excess. Our only redeeming quality is what we do to support international missions, and we actually give so little out of our abundance when doing that.

  5. Jeremiah Lawson says

    What intrigues me is that the reasons Frank gave up on the institutional church remind me why I gave up on the house church movement. I saw a strange attempt at an exorcism, I saw people get distracted by get-rich-quick schemes, I saw house churches get turned into stumps for political goals that swamped out the Gospel. I got tired of paranoid right wing conspiracies about how the Clinton administration was going to suspend the Constitution and set up martial law after a few songs about Jesus were sung. If the home church leaders I came across were still married, still connected to other believers or out of prison it’d be easier for me to see the home church movement as an alternative, but that doesn’t mean the critique of the institutional church doesn’t have teeth.

    I guess the thing that springs to mind when I read the article is that for all the talk about the visible and invisible church, and for all the talk I’ve heard Protestants provide about the priesthood of all believers this is the sort of critique of the institutional church that will draw out where the hearts of many Christians REALLY are on the subject.

  6. Clark said: ” The church in America is just like everything else in America; we’re spoiled rotten by excess.”

    How dare you sir! 🙂 God just wants us to be healthy and happy and air conditioned. God just reaches us in our cultural context, and wants us to be His followers without creating unecessary conflict with “Amerkin Values” 😉

  7. …that was never an option in any of the churches I attended (that list would include Southern Baptist, Independent Baptist, CMA, Evangelical Free, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Episcopal, non-denominational (many), Church of Christ, Assembly of God, Church of God, and a host of different charismatic churches.)

    Some interesting omissions here. Methodist? Orthodox? Catholic? Messianic Jew? For someone so frustrated, you’d think he would have tried everything.

    He might have found a home in the charismatic Catholic renewal. They would not have let him perform exorcisms for himself – but I’ll bet Derick would have been freed a lot sooner.

  8. Why not stay within the institutional church and try and make a difference?

    Isn’t leaving the church taking the path of least resistance?

    Doesn’t leaving the church foster and solidify the spirit of individualism?

    Haven’t we seen already how going out and starting a new work for God (i.e., all these independent Bible churches, etc.) has resulted in a lack of accountability of pastors and doctrinal purity?

    Is there a philosopher in the house?

  9. Without weighing in on Frank’s article or his book (as I plan to review his new book later), let me say that this statement stuns me:

    >Isn’t leaving the church taking the path of least resistance?

    I’d have to say that for many people, it’s quite the opposite. It’s the beginning of being labeled, ostracized and persecuted.

    And I know that Frank believes that the institutional church has largely failed to create real community, and has left millions of people in lonely individualism.

    I completely agree. The greatest failure of the institutional church is the failure to be a community and to, instead, create an isolated, passive audience.

    And as I’ve said before- leaving a church doesn’t mean becoming the lone ranger. For many people it’s the beginning of community.

    The Willow Creek REVEAL study basically said that the job of the church is to create “self feeders.” Individualism anyone?

  10. Hmmm… Lots of food for thought here. I share many of his frustrations, including the Prosperous Church syndrome, the traditions being passed off as NT christianity, the lack of demonstrable spiritual power, etc. But one thing I can’t get past, and that’s the synergies possible when several churches link together (read: denomination). It’s very difficult for a single church to support even one foreign missionary, much less maintain a network of support, but these things are possible with “organized” churches. (Mind you, I’m thinking more of the average corner church, not a Lakewood or some other such monstrosity.)

    I agree with Jason’s comment about preferred traditions, to coin a phrase. Not liking the structure of my church’s service isn’t a good enough reason for me to leave. And a lot of the Dear Old Saints in our fellowship must feel the same, or they’d all have been gone long ago! (Contemporary Worship Alert)

    The trap that I’ve seen with establishing small, house-style churches (or small independent ones in a store front or wherever) is that, inevitably, they morph into an ingrown manifestation of the main leader’s opinions of a church. This usually is heavily colored by what he didn’t like about his prior experiences with churches. There’s little accountability, stability, or orthodoxy.

    Maybe my experience has been too limited, but I’ve just not seen this concept prove viable. If I had to speculate on the reasons why, I’d say that at the core, the fundamental raison d’etre for these churches is usually because of a rebellious or self-important attitude, often over relatively petty issues. I know I’m risking offending someone on this, so please understand that I’m generalizing. (I’m a Protestant myself– I understand about breaking off from the established institution!) I’m not saying that there aren’t valid reasons to leave a church, nor to start something independent, just that I haven’t personally observed one that was any better than what they left behind.

  11. Frank was looking for the heir to the church that produced the New Testament. He thought this church would be doctrinally pure, free of non-biblical tradition, full of people who loved to talk in depth about theological issues, exciting and engaging, full of power and authority, and Jesus-like in its charity and mission. Sorry, but that church does not exist.

    Frank’s house church began the same way most denominations/traditions began. Someone thought they had a better more purer Christianity and broke away to start their own church. In so doing, Frank is following the most universal of protestant traditions 🙂 .

    There’s nothing wrong with breaking away to find something closer to Jesus. But, I have an issue with the home church movement. When I look at the historical church, it was not just localized groups of energized charitable missionaries who gathered together for a bible study with a break for the Lord’s Supper.

    There’s something to be gained in the institution. Maybe not power, or binding authority, or perfect doctrine, or perfect charity. Maybe its about participating in something that will survive its participants. Something that will go forward and continue to present Jesus to the world after we are gone.

  12. Jim Bob: It’s the SBC’s Cooperative Program that keeps me in the denomination. Good point about networked ministry.

  13. Michael said:

    The greatest failure of the institutional church is the failure to be a community and to, instead, create an isolated, passive audience.

    Excellent point. Probably my biggest current beef with church is that it’s 85% Audience of Strangers, and 15% Pastor’s Personal Unpaid Staff. Writing from an A/G perspective here, where there’s a supposed chain of authority going upwards, but in reality each pastor rules a kingdom of his own…

    Which is another reason I’m so torn on this issue. I’m all for accountability, but have a hard time submitting to pastors who have essentially no functional accountability upwards. Authority gets abused, and I’ve been on the receiving end too many times to submit easily. What does that make me? Confused and stressed, that’s what.

    Can you see how this topic dovetails with the Church Membership theme?

    Looking back, the only truly good times in my Christian walk have been when we’ve been part of a community– not when we’ve been cogs in the machinery. And the sad thing is, I think many Christians have forgotten how to be a community.
    We’ve forgotten this.

  14. Memphis Aggie says

    I think this is ultimately about the failings and weaknesses inherent in fallen human nature rather than the mechanics of the Church Institution per se. There probably is an optimal Church size, structure etc, but the success or failure of any given Church depends on character of the leadership most of all and on that of the laity to a lesser degree.

  15. I think one of the problems I have with Frank’s article (like his book) is one I also have with some of his detractors in the comments at The Ooze and even here: the overly broad brush.

    Frank talks about “THE institutional church”. There isn’t “THE institutional church”, there are many churches, from small neighborhood store fronts to a variety of megachurches which may look similar at first glance but are driven by totally disparate values, and Frank’s criticisms cannot possibly apply to all of them.

    Someone here talks about “THE house church movement”, as if every house church in the US (or even worldwide) were the same and the same criticisms applied to it, and that just isn’t so, either.

    No doubt many of the criticisms Frank voices on the basis of comparing his experience with Scripture are accurate, cerainly of the churches and situations where he experienced this, and probably of many other churches, but not of “THE institutional church” because if it can be said to exist at all, it is incredibly varied and multi-faceted.

    And guess what: if the groups Frank and others like him fellowship with still exist in ten years, THEY will be called “the institutional church” …

  16. A few comments:

    “>Isn’t leaving the church taking the path of least resistance?

    I’d have to say that for many people, it’s quite the opposite. It’s the beginning of being labeled, ostracized and persecuted.”

    Michael, I agree. The path of least resistance is simply sitting in the pew. The fact that it is so easy is why the mega-churches are so full.

    From another commenter: “The trap that I’ve seen with establishing small, house-style churches (or small independent ones in a store front or wherever) is that, inevitably, they morph into an ingrown manifestation of the main leader’s opinions of a church.”

    That is a danger. But Frank’s concept of what a house church should be is radically different than that. Just one difference lies in the concept of “main leader”.

    It’s hard for those of us who have been raised in the institutional church to realize how incredibly passive we’ve become, and how dependent on “leaders”. Yes, I know many of you have been no doubt like me at times, overwhelmed with this committee meeting and that, this “ministry opportunity” and that — and it seems as if we were living the opposite of a passive life.

    But when is that last time you truly actively participated in the gathering of your church, other than leading from the platform or reciting the liturgy? When was the last time you stood up and brought a word of edification, for example? Who leads in your gatherings? Do all truly fully participate? Almost all? Or just a select few?

    Just moving the typical church into a house isn’t going to solve the problems with the institutional church. There’s nothing magical or mystical about houses, just as there is nothing magical or mystical about church buildings. (Sorry for the toes I’ve just stepped on. Your “sanctuary”, sorry to say, is just a big room. I used to not think so, either.)

    A couple years ago, I would have thought Frank Viola was either a nutcase, or dangerous, or both. But that’s because I was more content with the path of least resistance than I am now.

  17. Bob Sacamento says

    “The Testimony of the New Testament”

    I don’t mean to cast asperions on the guy’s sincerity or anything like that, but no matter how sincere you are, if you’re wrong, you’re wrong. And reading one chapter of “Pagan Christianity” was enough to convince me that Viola, though he may be as goodhearted as any of us, just simply does not know what he is talking about. I read the chapter on baptism. He had plenty of footnotes, but from only a few sources — sources who said what he wanted to say. He left out important information, i.e. facts, that could he could have found just purusing a few internet sites. If he didn’t know the stuff he was leaving out, he didn’t know the topic well enough to be publishing on it. If he did know what he was leaving out, he was being dishonest. Ben Witherington, who is like waaaay smarter than I can ever hope to be, read the book cover to cover and reached essentially the same conclusion on the whole book. Please read his four part review on his blog. So when Viola says that our church practices are based on human tradition instead of the Bible, I just have to say that I see little evidence that he understands the Biblical vision of church in the first place. Sorry to be so mean.

    “Deep Calls unto Deep”

    “the shallowness and superficiality of modern Christianity” — rather broad brush here, isn’t it? I mean, modern Christianity involves like, what, a couple of billion people the world over? If he wants to talk about “the shallowness and superficiality of modern American evangelicalism”, heck, I’ll talk about that even louder and longer than Viola. But the fact that this branch of the church has failed in this regard (and it didn’t always fail in this regard, by the way) is a slender reed on which to build an argument for saying good bye to all institutional churches. But even if shallowness can be shown to be an endemic problem with institutional churches, are we really going to “get deep” just by sitting around in each others’ living rooms and saying, “Well, what this passage says to me is ….” If you think that will help, you know people alot different that the ones I know. And, believe me, this won’t help with the boredom issue either.

    “Unforgettable Spiritual Experience”

    You’ve got me there. I am flabbergasted that pentecostal churches would turn that guy away.

    “Neglecting the Poor to Maintain … the Building”

    Yep. One of my big gripes too. But not a pervasive problem of all institutional churches. I visited a church just this past Sunday — a thoroughly institutional affair — that was little more than cinder blocks with a window air conditioning unit. Is that so bad? And, let’s face it, most of the people listening to Viola are suburban yuppie types who are going to start meeting in homes that also soak up alot of money for maintenance and enhancement that could go to the poor.

    And then Viola ignores the questions of what good things and institutional church does that will require extra effort in his “organic” setting. I mean, surely there will be at least a few things, right? I could propose some, but I have to go.

  18. I’m new. I have the same impulses to leave, but I stay because every book I read was by people who were outside the church. I think we need both. Insider critique and outsider, but it seems publishing-wise that outsider’s have the majority.

    I’m reminded of a quote by J. Pelikan that I’ll have to paraphrase: The choice isn’t between tradition or no tradition; but good tradition and bad tradition. The moment a house church begins to disciple those around you’ve created a tradition.

    I think church history shows that movements change all the time but retain their core. Fundamentalist’s were generally pacifists before WWI according to George Marsden.

    There are churches that are bad out there for sure. And I know there are good reasons to leave a church, but all my experience with churches has been that people leave with excuses that amount to consumerism, individualism, etc.

    As for boredom in church; what about the kid who fell out of the window in Acts? 🙂

  19. To be fair to Viola, some of the things he says are very good and ought to be changed. But the time to say them was 40 years ago. Today we have spontaneous singing in church. Today we have people in congregations writing new songs. Today, we have organic meetings where everyone brings a teaching or a prayer or a prophetic word. Has he not heard of the Emerging church or the Charismatic church or the Cell church or the Third Wave movements? Many of his proposals were being brought forward by Gene Getz, David Mains and Ray Stedman a quarter of a century ago. Ralph Neighbor talked about these weaknesses of the church eons ago. There is nothing new about his viewpoints on the Bible, preaching, worship or ministry.

    In short, I could give a dozen book recommendations on changing today’s church that would be more helpful and more accurate than this one.

  20. The question for me is why do I stay in the church? The answer is not easy.
    In my four-decade-old journey I’ve been heavily involved with the traditional church, then leaving the church, then starting a house church and then back to the traditional church.

    For now the answer is that the traditional church is the lessor of evils. The relationships that I experience within an Evangelical church are shallow (and I readily offend people if I attempt to take them deeper)outside the church they are virtually non-existent. So at this point I stay and press for truth.

    I have a kindred spirit with Frank on most of his views in his article except for his “Unforgettable Spiritual Experience.” My personal experiences have been almost the opposite of his. I’ve seem many people with legitimate mental illnesses (after all we DO live in a fallen world and our physical bodies are influenced by the fall as is our brains and emotions) taken to church and every one wants to address it as “Demonic” rather than a real mental illness (which is a disease of the brain). Everyone wants t spiritualize everything, a demon behind every bush, an angel in every mall parking space because they don’t appreciate this wonderful world, which God has made.

    During my years around the charismatics, I’ve seen so many wild and amazing . . . but seriously bogus experiences . . . that I find his story literally incredible. Our hearts are more deceitful than all else and we, including us Christians, tend to be very emotionally dishonest.

    How many times have I see decent Christian men or women do something, like a pretend healing, then they tell about it in church and it was deeply embellished. Sadly, I was doing the same at the time. But I wasn’t there with Frank and maybe those things with Derrick happened just as he said and I will give him the benefit of the doubt.

    But I find it also interesting that my God, the creator of the universe, would have to wrestle with the demons for 4 hours as if He were following the script of the next versions of The Exorcist.

  21. I share some similar experiences with him, but find the terms “institutional church” and “traditional church” to be a bit misleading. The church was “instituted” by Christ Himself and the apostles handed down “traditions.” Simply meeting every week is a tradition. But there are a great number of churches that have placed man’s tradition above God’s word and have built huge bureaucracies in place of biblical simplicity. In time, Viola’s ideas may take the same route.

    At the same time, nothing’s more frustrating than having church leaders not want to hear you because they know they have no answers and don’t want anybody to disagree, or have a few people cancel on a bible reading group because they fear that without the pastor’s “permission” it will look like a heretical cult, or somebody’s great deeds aren’t recognized by the church because they weren’t created, authorized or performed by an “official” church ministry.

    “Church” (i.e. ekklesia) means “assembly”, and where two or three are gathered He is in our midst. Any gathering of people (sinners) has the potential for great works of God or failures of men. Or both at the same time. Leave wisely, my friends.

  22. There is a place for house church, as long as the problems of institutional church just are not simply moved onto a smaller stage. I think what has been alluded to in some of the other posts is that authoritarianism can be a part of house church as easily as it can in an institutional church.

    Spiritual formation should happen in the home. That’s what I take away from Luther’s introduction to the Large Catechism. Our neighbors should experience Jesus in our homes, without having to call it “church”. There’s a dualism afoot here that I don’t think the house church movement resolves. We don’t know how to “be” Christians (or anything for that matter) without a whole bunch of props. A smaller venue won’t make a bunch of “Hollow Men” (Eliot) any more interesting. I think previous iMonk posts concerning transparency really fit into this discussion. Whether we gather in institutions or in the livingroom, we need to learn how to drop the facades and be the forgiven-by-grace children of God we claim to be.

  23. Hey everybody,

    When I said I thought leaving the church was taking the path of least resistance – Thought it was pretty harmless 🙂 …think it happened at the expense of trying to be brief.

    having spent so much time in independent churches, it seems a lot easier for men to say, “hey, i don’t like how you are doing church, so I’ll just go start my own” and they go start something from scratch doing things exactly the way they want, feeling like every little preference is God ordained. This seems to be a much easier path than to stick it out with your church and try and work through differences.

    Yes, I was always confused by “self-feeders” I thought God gave men to the church to feed the sheep. Eph. 4

  24. Great discussion here…I agree with JimBob, my A/G experience was too often unfortunately men building their own little kingdoms too…

    While Frank and I don’t read the NT and ecclesiology in the exact same way, I think he has some valuable insights to offer, particularly with his newest (more ‘constructive’) book, Reimagining Church. For anyone interested, I did a review of it on The Ooze that just posted today. It can be found here.

  25. I read Frank’s article this morning, then pondered it at work.

    As a critique of the church it hits the standard points-superficiality in relationships, shallow teaching, too wound up in buildings and programs, etc. These things are in some instances true, although he paints with an extremely broad brush.
    He talks alot about unanswered questions in his youth, then launches into a diatribe about boredom with the church. Really? All those pastors never preached well enough to have an impact on him? Even if the preaching sucked in the Liturgical churches, he surely heard and sang the Scriptures. “Bored to tears” he says.. with the Word of God and the praises of God’s people.. in ALL the churches that he visited? Despising preaching and the Word of God is a serious matter. I understand not being satisfied with the preaching and worship. It took me almost ten years to find my place in the Body. But to say its all a bunch of crap and you need to forsake the entirety of Christ’s Body on earth and reinvent it on your own to get it right sounds more like pride and immaturity to me.
    He also seems hung up on the “Church in the New Testament” and how it is a million miles from our experience. Maybe so.. but then he says,

    “What ended up happening, however, was the summary witness to me that the Lord Jesus Christ does not need a clergy or a professional ministry to manifest His power and to show principalities and powers that He is still Lord.”

    The NT also includes 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus, carefully delineating the qualifications for being in the ministry, and the bestowal of the office by a laying on of hands. Even when the apostles were looking for people to wait on tables, they set stringent standards and laid hands on them. While God uses all Christians in the priesthood of all believers, to do all sorts of things, the NT never teaches that all believers are pastors and teachers. To negate the “clergy or professional ministry” is to go against the NT teaching concerning the Church.

    Here is the core of the matter– Church doesn’t “work” It never has “worked”(even in the NT) in the way we think it should. It never will until the day we share the feast with Him in the Kingdom of Heaven. God has chosen to give us a priceless treasure in a broken, sinful, often times ugly vessel. We struggle and agonize, we rejoice and pray, praise and give thanks, we fight and disagree, we receive partial healing, and entire forgiveness, all through the church, which never on the outside looks like the treasure it contains on the inside.(Just like a dead Jesus on the cross doesn’t look like the salvation of the world.) Our sinful flesh tries to purify and perfect the church to fit what we think it should be. All of these efforts have failed. We like to think that the church during the time of the Apostles was pure and we pine for that supposed purity. Even a cursory reading of the NT should disabuse us of that crazy notion. Others of us like to idealize the Reformation, and think if we could only return to the “Golden age of Orthodoxy” thing would be good. Read the history-it was way more complicated and turbulent than our flights of imagination would have it be.
    I came to the conclusion a long time ago, that the best we can do is try to find our place in the Body of Christ, settle in, and cling to Jesus and His gifts. Anything else is frosting on the cake, and Jesus has plenty of that to go around in some pretty surprising places.

  26. We all at one time or another have been taught and in turn taught others that “the church is not a building, but a group of believers” and yet our words and actions seem to indicate that the church as an event, a place we go, a local institution, a thing we do (and some are doing it “right” and others “wrong”), etc.

    We seem infatuated with, and in my opinion blinded by the idea that church is something with a definite start and end time, on a particular day (and that includes home churches). As such, we miss opportunities in everyday life to experience the work of Christ and the joy of being with and around other believers in mundane, sometime fleeting moments that don’t follow a schedule or plan. Church is out there if you are open to seeing it and participating in it.

    There are plenty of ways to collectively support gospel missions and the needy without having to sit in a pew (folding metal chair to those of you in the more hip congregations) and have the plate passed in front of you. I wonder sometimes if our desire to get an annual IRS charitable giving statement from an organized religious institution tips the scales in our decision making. And if you think your institution is too wealthy, or wasting money when it could be helping the poor, look in your own closet first and start giving away those extra coats…..

  27. Bob Sacamento says

    A comment on the couple of comments on Willow Creek and the “self-feeder” thing: I can’t stand mega-churches. I could give you stories about them, not just from other people’s books on the subject, but from my own years sitting in a mega-church pew, er, stadium seat. But let’s be fair. Willow Creek, a couple of years ago, took a look at the state of their individual members and were shocked — shocked, I tell you — to find that the church had produced a bunch of spiritual babies, totally dependent on some guy standing on stage in front of a multi-media presentation to tell them what to do. I could have told them this myself, and saved them alot of trouble, time, and postage spent on mailing out surveys. But I digress. They then decided that they had to get their congregation actually studying the Bible and learning from it and discerning for themselves what it says and what it means for how they should live their lives. In short, they weren’t promoting rampant individualism. They were trying to do something about the very same “shallowness” problem that figured so largely in Viola’s article. I’m still no fan of the mega-church. But give credit where credit is due.

  28. Bob: Listen to the latest White Horse Inn on “Self Feeders.” It’s an in-depth response to REVEAL, and I think the cure is worse than the problem.

  29. Jeremiah Lawson says

    Much as there are problems with the “institutional church” it reminds me of claims some Christians have made that Jesus didn’t intend to start an organized religion. Some of my relatives hated even using the word “church” for years because they thought it wasn’t what Jesus intended. If there was no intent to start something with some leadership the pastoral epistles might as well not have gotten in the canon.

    “church in the new testament” concerns me, too, more because American spiritual movements seem obsessed with either the foundationalist impetus (we have to get back to the unsullied original thing Jesus intended) or a revivalist impetus (self explanatory). I’m not sure that either motive is necessarily where Frank Viola is really coming from but if it is Viola’s critique is based on a fairly mundane and problematic assessment of problems. IF that is the direction he’s coming from it might be like someone who wishes the marriage was just like the honeymoon stage rather than recognizing that maintaining an actual marriage involves other aspects of relationship building than sparkly-eyed ardor.

    Not saying the critiques are inaccurate, but Marx’s critiques of what he saw as late capitalism weren’t really wrong, either, it was his solutions that seem crazy. The big trouble with this is that I think we can all surmise that the solution depends on the work of the Spirit whose ways and workings cannot be predicted or readily measured or controlled. Saying churches need to be subject to the Spirit and not the traditions of men becomes a pretty meaningless statement of what the solution should be past a certain rather broad, vague, and in some ways permanently inscrutable point, doesn’t it?

  30. How many times have you heard the line about expensive buildings and programs that are wasting money that could be given to missions?

    How many missionaries do house churches actually send out? (Hint: They could all fit in a phone booth.)

  31. Chip Pierce says

    I have had many similar thoughts over the years and get a few head nods and some concerned looks when I bring them up. I think the idea that much of what we see in church is based mostly on tradition is a great point. It does not mean it is all bad, but it also does not mean we can’t blow it up and go in a different direction. I hope this kind of dialogue will continue and we will see change. I am guilty of accepting the status quo and allowing fear to hold me back

  32. Um, I am not impressed. About the path of least resistance, for those who like to do little pew warming is it. For someone who does things on their own, like Viola’s article makes him out to be, running is the easy way. Community sometimes means a long fight. At times, I think certain Mennonite churches which require consensus for action rather than simple majority foster more community, thought expediency would be rare. this is because all people must be worked into the community decision. Community requires commitment. As for Viola’s 13 year history, he has an impressive list of churches he has ran away from (He lists 12 denominations and notes for some the qualifier, many, this means he has spent less than a year per church!); I seriously wonder what kind of commitment he put into any of them. Only he can answer that question, but the evidence is questionable.

    On a more fundamental level I think he does not consider that the church is made up of sinful people in the process of being conformed to the image of Jesus. Unless he subscribes to some for of Christian perfectionism, which I deny, then the perfect church cannot exist. Moreover, the church will be constantly dealing with the effects of sin from the pew. After all, this is why most of the epistles were written.

    I could write more but this is too long already and these are the only new ideas.

  33. Some of the critiques are interesting, but they are largely the same critiques that drove nearly every Protestant sect in America. Two major movements that started with the exact same rhetoric are the Pietist (Lutheran) and Restoration movements…which are now crystallized in large denominations.

    The rhetoric is always the same, and the desire is always the same–somebody notices that communion or denomination or whatever they’re in has a lot of flaws, ugly baggage, hypocrites and broken politics, so they break away to start the church as Jesus meant it to be, one where everyone is passionate, there are no hypocrites, everyone always pays close attention to Scripture, and neither politics nor haggling over money ever get in the way of the kingdom of God.

    The fundamental problem is that these are human problems, not just American problems or even Western problems. They’re human problems, so when you break off the flawed church to create the true
    church of true believers, you’ll eventually wind up with the same exact thing you left. The only way you’ll avoid it is to simply not have any kind of “group” whatsoever. Be a completely isolated individual, because as soon as two or three start gathering together, you’ve got some collective humanity and things are going to get screwed up.

    The idea of a community without leaders doesn’t work because humans don’t work that way. There hav been plenty of anti-clericalist movements, and they all end up with de facto clergy if not de jure. Usually, the people who write the books and get the movement going end up being the leaders. So the question is never is “Will we have leaders?” but “What kind will we we have?”

    I was really unimpressed by his more than 12 churches in 13 years. If the Church in America exhibits the quintessentially American value of excess, he displays the equally American value of instant and complete gratification.

  34. Richard Hershberger says

    What struck me is that Viola, after studying church history, concludes that “many of our contemporary church practices are based on human tradition”. Then he goes on to perform an exorcism which “was like watching a movie.”

    The problem is not human tradition. Tradition is unavoidable, but in itself neither good nor bad. The key is to be able to examine each tradition with a critical eye: to understand that it is in fact a tradition to be judged, and kept if good and abandoned if bad. Part of this process is being aware of the source of any given tradition. And a note to the wise: Hollywood movies are unlikely to be the source of good ones.

  35. His critiques are, for the most part, accurate. His solutions are not quite there, I think.

    The church is not just for fellowship. It is there for correction. The idea of correction implies authority. If Jesus and Paul both gave leave to ask someone to seek religion elsewhere that means there is an authority structure that can do the asking. This seems to be lacking in home churches in America.

    One of the problems of the American church is that in many ways we view the ministry as a vocation; the same as the business world. We seem to elevate college, and yes, seminary degrees over a true walk with God. We look for the degrees first and then see if the prospective pastor/elder/etc. at least looks like he’s following our idea of Jesus: doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke, preaches the right things.

    The building thing has been a concern of mine as well. Conversely, we don’t live in 1st century Palestine anymore either. Needy folk don’t just congregate in easy to service areas. Yes, there is the homeless and there are countless ministries to them, but in general, the poor, the sick, the naked are spread out in America. Having a central location that they can come to for help is more efficient.

    Shallow relationships is another problem I have had. This comes from the top, though, and from within. The leadership sets the stage for what the church will be like. It is their duty to live out an example of community and require that of the members. It is also our job to create community. If no one in the church you belong to likes the things you do may I suggest you need to find a different church.

    As far as being bored with the preaching of the Word…yep been there. When you study on your own, or have been through a bible college or something similar, you cover a lot of the ground that are popular sermon topics. Sometimes you want to get past the milk and to the meat. A lot of churches I have been to never get past the milk. Sometimes they even get angry if meat is served. I still don’t think this is reason enough to start your own church. Leave the one you’re in, maybe.

    As a pentecostal, I am ashamed of Pentecostals turning away the man in need but I don’t think I’m all that surprised. Just because you sit in or pastor a Pentecostal church doesn’t mean you really believe (as opposed to intellectual assent) what you teach. That’s true in any church/denomination you see.

    Why did it take so long for the removal? Good question. I suggest that it did so because Frank and his friend had a mustard seed of faith, maybe, but not much more. Maybe it was because, by his own words, they weren’t in submission to God’s appointed authority or understand the authority given to them. Think of the Centurion. The sons of Sceva tries to use Jesus name without any belief in in it or Him or any understanding of delegated authority. I think Michael’s series on “Where is Jesus?” has a good point as well.

    Either way, do we really want to throw stones at someone for doing something we take as a matter of faith doesn’t happen anymore in a way that is different from the way we think it should be done if we were to do it?

    All in all, I’m enjoying this series quite a bit.


  36. Jeremiah Lawson says

    Yeah, that’s the big misgiving I still have about Frank’s whole approach. In a way it reminds me of another Frank (Schaeffer). It seems as though American Christians seem to forget in each generation that the church as it is is messed up. The impulse to figure out what the “real” church is and either make the church you’re at into that church, make a new on that fits it, or decide that somewhere else you haven’t joined yet must be the real church and you must joint it and tell everyone else to is just what happens in every generation. These impulses happen the world over but in the United States they do seem to take on a peculiar, uniquely American quality. I mean, at the risk of putting it too broadly we wouldn’t have the United States of America we have if people didn’t found the country on the twin impulses of wanting to renovate or replace the status quo.

    I think the two ways we keep seeing this impulse play itself out is in Americans who start yet another emerging/reforming/reformissionary/house church/real church movement on the one hand or crossing the Tiber/returning to Orthodoxy on the other. The impulse is fundamentally the same and in American spirituality more or less equally fundamentalist in its scope. Note that I’m not automatically saying it’s bad but that it does show a certain lack of historical context. You’d think people had no idea that anticlericalist movements have been going on since the apostolic era. 🙂

  37. Jeremiah,

    Regarding Frank Schaeffer, maybe in the beginning he may have had some idealism about finding the true (orthodox) church. The church itself may have embellished that a bit as they made him their poster boy.

    However, I think he now admits he likes the orthodox for more practical/pragmatic reasons. First of all, a deep sense of community he found there. He also likes the non-critical attitude. For example, he can choose not to go to his church for weeks or months and when he returns no one questions his decision. But as far as theological, liturgical or structural purity . . . I think he’s lost his idealism and his certainity.

  38. I think the best response to this article yet can be found in Josh S’s response:

    If the Church in America exhibits the quintessentially American value of excess, he displays the equally American value of instant and complete gratification.

    I’ve read Viola extensively (even the early stuff that most folks haven’t even heard of) and, for a time, I was won over completely. But as I began to really examine his arguments and his reasons for leaving, I began to believe that he lacked a sufficiently universal vision of the Church. If leaving the church is the only option, then where has good been for the past 2,000 years? And who is this one man to say that he’s now God the vision that God has failed to transmit for so long?

    While I admire his honesty, I don’t agree with his conclusions. It seems he’s done what so many of the pastors in his previous churches did: he’s created a personal following who are loyal to him even though the vision of the church he puts forth is narrowly conceived within his sphere of personal experience. When we focus on ourselves, we miss the point entirely.

  39. how can church be something you leave?

  40. Jeremiah Lawson says

    j Michael Jones, i read Crazy for God last year and he’s definitely mellowed on some things. I think in his earlier works he seemed to reveal the idealistic approach and he’s outgrown that.

  41. I just finished reading Viola’s new book “Reimagining Church” and it’s excellent. It makes his testimony much more understandable. Now I know where he’s coming from and I can appreciate it. I highly recommend the book. There’s a sample chapter at http://www.reimaginingchurch.org

  42. I agree William. Reimagining Church is a great book! Also liked Viola’s essay on the gifts of the Spirit. http://frankviola.wordpress.com/2008/08/06/stripping-down-to-christ-alone-rethinking-the-gifts-of-the-spirit/

  43. Hey, this is my first post.
    is there just a lot of spam here or is there some useful info shared?
    Leave me a post and introduce yourself

  44. I left institutional church about five years ago, and, along with a couple dozen other like-minded people, helped to form a network of simple/home-based churches in our area. Then again, one might say that this new thing arose from the rubble of a nondenominational church that disintegrated. Don’t worry, I didn’t do it. In fact, I nearly gave myself a nervous breakdown trying to hold that old, more traditional style church together. It might be most accurate to say that after having been left orphaned when the old church went belly up, simple church was the way that some of us found to continue our fellowship, minus the “church” building.
    And I have to be honest, for that first couple of years I missed what I had left behind. Heck, in that old church, I was one of the “stars” — an ordained elder, a member of the worship team, a youth minister, and someone who other church members patted on the back and praised for being such an inspiration.
    Looking back, I’d have to say that one of the main things that God has done in my life since I left institutional church has been to deal with me regarding my own religious ego. And I’ve learned to to take genuine joy (rather than secret envy) when the Spirit speaks or acts in a powerful way through someone besides me. I’m also starting gain some of the wisdom involved in knowing when I should speak, when I should listen, and when I need to back off (even as a leader) and keep my pie hole shut.
    Another thing I’ve learned is that loving people in Christ is more difficult when you actually know them (including the scary things they keep in their refrigerators) — but it’s more authentic. It’s amazing how much more I’ve gotten to know these people now that our relationships aren’t centered around (and limited to) Sunday morning services.
    In case you couldn’t tell, this simple/organic church thing has really started to grow on me. It just seems to sit better with my Spirit, and it really does seem to line up better with what I find in NT scripture.
    Now I’m not saying that it’s all sunshine and roses. Far from it. Relationships are messy, and a lot of time and effort is spent patching up friendships and dealing with the squabbles of young married couples (which we seem to have in great abundance). And sometimes trying to get things to move beyond the merely social into spiritual dimensions can be like stirring mud. But when we do press in and get down to our Lord’s business, it’s real and authentic and obviously Spirit-led on a level I’ve never witnessed or experienced in a more formal church setting.
    So, all in all, I guess I largely agree with Viola and strongly relate to much of what he has to say.
    To my brothers and sisters in institutional churches, I wish you the best and all of God’s blessings. And I’m not encouraging you to leave your church institutions, not unless the Spirit specifically tells you to. But I will say this — institutional church, for the most part, seems to have lost some of the most central and essential elements of that original first century church, at least as it is portrayed in scripture. And while some of us have started to rediscover some of those elements in an organic church context, we’re still light years away ourselves from what I think Christ ultimately intends for His church to become.
    I think Jesus is presently prodding and challenging His church, both of the institutional and noninstitutional varieties, to move forward from these comfortable swamps where we’ve gotten bogged down — and, most importantly, to relearn the largely lost art of corporately hearing His voice and then doing what He tells us, even if it means making difficult and painful changes.
    Large institutions, unfortunately, are by their very nature resistant to change, and when change comes, it usually comes very slowly. People, though often stubborn and set in their ways, are a lot easier to redirect, especially if you just take them a few at a time.