Apologies for the delay on this followup to my previous post. I was a bit sick this week and as a result haven’t had a chance to write again until now.
I mentioned previously that one of the things I’ve had a big focus on for years is this idea of getting back to the early Church. I think that it’s something that a lot of Protestants have a sense of… but that we don’t really know what that means or what it looks like.
For a brief period, I thought I had figured it out: House church. Back in the days of Borders (RIP), on one of my many explorations of their shelves, I came across a book called Pagan Christianity. It was written by a guy named Frank Viola (and co-written by George Barna, whom I generally paid less attention to). Now, it called into question a great many common church practices, citing pagan origins for them (hence the name of the book). I unfortunately seem to have the book stored away somewhere that makes it difficult to access it, so I can’t really reference it to cite the exact arguments he made. But, I can see on Amazon’s preview chapters such as “church building”, “order of worship”, “the sermon”, “the pastor”, etc. I do think it’s important to note that he didn’t come down on the position that these things are inherently bad – but he did, as I recall, have either strong criticisms regarding aspects of them, or otherwise note that it was not the best thing. At any rate, the position that you really land at when you get to the bottom of it and say, “OK, Frank, what’s your point? What should we be doing?”, is what he called “Organic Church”. Don’t know what that means? Read his books, and then you still probably won’t really know what it means – but you’ll kinda sorta have some vague idea.
So then I moved on to his next book, Reimagining Church, which was more specifically about this whole organic church thing. And he had a couple more books too, including Finding Organic Church. I sort of followed him for awhile, I definitely enjoyed the books at the time and found them helpful. Anyway, remember at the end of the last paragraph when I said to read his books if you don’t know what organic church means? Yeah, you probably shouldn’t bother. Spoiler alert, here’s what appears on his website’s FAQ these days:
I also stopped using term “organic church” because it’s meaningless today, and I’m not an advocate of “house church.” I’ve not written on the subject of “church” for many years, in fact. While I stand by every word of my earlier books from 2008 and 2009, I’ve moved on to focus on my broader ministry of the deeper journey, which is relevant for all believers regardless of their view of “church.”Frank Viola
You could also see this link if you’re interested where he “explains” the difference between house church and organic church: House Church vs. Organic Expression
You might think it’s a pretty poor explanation, so do I. And despite writing 2 entire books on the subject, he never really seemed to explain it well enough so that people could generally figure out what he meant by organic church, but the house church movement certainly did latch onto his writings. That said, that also was not a widely successful movement – depsite a lot of efforts on my part I was never able to track down a functioning house church that I could be a part of. It was very disappointing. And when Frank Viola stopped championing organic church, well, I have to feel like that was functionally the end for that.
At this point, I have to say, I think that Frank Viola’s real definition of organic church was really essentially house church as he happens to prefer house church to be, though I’m sure he’d tell you no, it’s all scriptural. But hey, Lutherans are going to tell you the way they do church is all scriptural. I bet Frank and the Lutherans can both cite Bible verses to back up their respective points. We’ll circle back to this point eventually… maybe not until the next post, we’ll see
I should also mention, when all this was going on I was sort of getting more and more distant from the church. Not in terms of beliefs or anything, just in terms of attendance. I think there were probably a lot of reasons for that, but it’d be off topic for the moment. I was primarily going to the young adults group that my church had, but within a few years of college ending, the things that I liked about that group were no more. So I quit going, and I guess you could at that point say I was in some sort of exile.
Then an interesting thing happened. I had this period where I started to feel like there was something wrong with the idea of Hell as a place of eternal torment. It bothered me, a lot, like, to the point where I was almost willing to say, “You know what? If that’s what God does, maybe I don’t want to serve this God.” One of the things that I came away from Pagan Christianity with though, is an idea that Rome had fundamentally changed the nature of Christianity (but don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying Viola has taken the position that Hell is not a place of eternal torment, so far as I know, he has not done that). The person who did write a book on that at about that time though, was Rob Bell.
Because I’ve been reaching for a video to work in here, check out this promotional video for the book:
It’s been awhile since I read it, but I feel like I recall the contents of this one a bit better than Viola’s works. If Hell is a struggle for you, I think it’s a good read. Really though, Rob Bell doesn’t tell you what to think in the book, he just asks a lot of questions. Now, that said, Rob Bell believes something about Hell, and while I don’t know specifically what he believes, it would be disingenuous to suggest that he believes in the eternal torment view. That just doesn’t seem likely to me from reading his book.
Interestingly, I saw this quote pop up on my Facebook feed today as something I had shared however many years ago back when this whole thing was very controversial:
“Many of the Christians who have been fussing over this subject have been uncharitable, uncivil, and ungracious in their discourse. This, to my mind, is an even greater issue than the actual controversy. How we treat those with whom we disagree speaks volumes. If we disagree with other Christians, let us disagree in Christ.”Frank Viola
Still very good advice today when dealing with anyone we disagree with.
Now this is where I’d say I entered my period of deconstruction. I started to seek out writings from folks in the Emergent Church movement – another thing that I always found to be kind of nebulously defined. This period isn’t totally disconnected from my wider long term goal of finding the early church.. but I think the thing is, I thought I’d find real Christianity by getting rid of the stuff that wasn’t supposed to be there. This was all sort of predicated on the idea that the early church had in fact been lost to humanity; that it could not be found by discovering it where it exists, but only by taking some piece of the church and cutting away at it until everything that wasn’t the “true church” was gone. Then of course there was that whole pesky thing where perhaps the Romans had fundamentally changed the nature of Christianity, and so I also became a bit interested in books about the very early church, and also with books that had not been canonized (after all if Rome corrupted Christianity, it had likely happened by the time the canon was established). I read some books about some early heretical groups as well, really nothing that I found to be particularly compelling – though I did think iut was interesting to read about.
During this time I was also going to a church near where I was living in Burbank, CA: Central Avenue Church. For a person in deconstruction it was kind of the place to be. I don’t know if that’s still true – maybe if you’re well along the path and are somewhere near the same space that they are, and also on board with leftist politics and/or generally mixing political messages with your church. Suffice to say, if I still lived in Burbank, I would not be attending there. I could say more on that, but, I feel like I’m getting off topic.
While I was attending there, I was exposed to some books by a guy named Pete Rollins. Some folks may recognize the name. I actually met him a few times as well as he did a couple things at the church there. I found some of his work pretty interesting, but ultimately I sort of concluded that his “pyrotheology” stuff is kind of just a lot of bluster. I mean look, he’s a smart guy, but I don’t think he’s onto anything here. Maybe what he does will be helpful to some folks – there are some interesting insights in the books I read.
The problem with deconstruction in general is that it sort of forces you eventually into this place where beliefs don’t matter. It’s not just that you don’t have to be certain about everything or have answers for everything, but that you can pretty much believe whatever it is that you want. It may not be what these types teach, but I do see that it’s where it seems to lead. For a brief period, I was starting to think of myself as sort of a Christian agnostic. What I meant by that was, I was interacting with God and spiriituality through the Christian tradition but that I wasn’t really sure what I meant by God, etc. I eventually realized I didn’t want to stay in that place, and I started reconstructing. And I think that’s where the other problem with deconstruction lies: Most people forget to reconstruct. They just stay in that nebulous state of “well, I don’t know…” Of course you cannot know everything, and you shouldn’t try to be certain of things you can’t be certain of, but you should absolutely make the effort to know the things that you can know.
In any case, I had moved away from Burbank and back to Maryland. I briefly attended the church Brian McLaren (of Emergent Church fame) had started in Spencerville, MD – Cedar Ridge Community Church. He was long gone by that point, but, I did enjoy sermons I heard – though, again, they struck me as a bit political. Ultimately though, I stopped going, because I was going by myself and not a single person (aside from the Pastor the very first time) ever so much as said hi to me or shook my hand. If I was an extroverted guy, perhaps it wouldn’t have been an issue, but, well, I’m not. So, I stopped going.
Then ultimately I ended up where I am now, Collective, which I already linked to in the last post, so… one and done. As it was explained to me, they are part of a group connected to the Restoration Movement (or Stone-Campbell Movement). The quote given me associated with that movement is “In essentials unity, in everything else liberty.” Sounds good right? I thought so too, and that combined with sort of seeing them just be really authentic and really be there for people and being willing to show brokenness, is why I started attending, and also serving there. It’s a good place.
However, here’s the problem with that quote: Who decides what is essential? I mean, we could probably pretty easily list off a few things everyone calling themselves a Christian would agree with, but we’d pretty rapidly run into problems I think. You don’t even need to look outside the movement to find the problem. The original movement, calling themselves “Christian Church” split into “Churches of Christ” and “Disciples of Christ”. It was over various things, but among them were congregatings beginning to use instruments (interestingly they were against instruments in church for the same reason Frank Viola is) as well as approaches to ministry. Are either of those things “essentials”? I don’t know, who gets to decide?
Originally, this post was going to be about something a bit different, but then I realized I had a lot to say about how I got to where I am now. Since we’re basically caught up, I’ll continue on with a bit of a focus on history next time. Specifically, I’m going to talk about the church in the first few centuries a little bit, and then the Great Schism – and why, if you’re a Protestant (and if you’re reading this you probably are), you’ve been seriously cut off from a huge portion of Christian history.