Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Re-imagining Church: A Book Review

For the last 8 years I have been a member of a house church, but it's not because of any inherent discontent with our original church family.  We didn't sit down and say to ourselves, "Hmm, we're tired of conventional in-a-building churches; let's try a living-room version instead!"  It's simply what's available where we live, so that's what we do.

So when I saw the book Reimagining Church and realized that it was a book about the theology of house church, I was intrigued.  Frank Viola left more traditional churches 30 years ago and writes a persuasive and compelling defense of the idea. He takes a radical stand that in-a-building churches are less pleasing to God and departure from his original plan and thus need to be discarded wholesale.  Even as a person who has long been a part of a house church, I couldn't agree with him.  Yet I found the book of immense value because he asks questions that demand and deserve answers even if the conclusion we come to is different. 

For instance, he brings up the troubling question of clergy vs. laity. There is no biblical example of any single, local man in authority over an entire congregation.  (The only exception is Paul, Titus or Timothy standing in authority over an infant church and they were not local men but apostles/church planters). I've worshiped in non-denominational churches my entire life; each and everyone of them reject the idea of "clergy," specially ordained men who are priestly representatives of the people. So I felt very comfortable with his point.  Yet Viola points out that even in churches where there are a plurality of elders who hire a preacher, practically speaking week after week he is the "professional" who leads the study and there is another "professional" who is in charge of singing.  Leaving us with a clergy in fact though not in name.  So here are some questions worth asking:  Is there Biblical authority for local ministers?  Does the New Testament envision a different scenario for the teaching ministry of the local church?  Does our church live out in fact not in name the priesthood of all believers?

Another question worth asking is about the budget.  Since we became part of a house church I have been powerfully uncomfortable with the amount of overhead most American churches have.  We have churches where the church utility bill exceeds the benevolence budget. Just as bad we have churches where they have a heart to give but their money is all tied up in a mortgage!  Another question worth considering: is God honored when more of our money is tied up in real estate and salaries rather than going to help the poor or spread the gospel?

Finally Viola hammered home the idea of the "audience" model.  If you're unfamiliar with the term, I want you to imagine your church's meeting place.  Are there pews?  Are they all facing the same basic direction?  Is there a screen or a podium or both in the front?  Are there microphones?  Do people speak one at a time and then only the person who has the mike?  The audience model is a model where worship services are similar to a lecture or a concert.  Viola argues that this model is not only supportive of the clergy/laity split he criticized but says it stifles the growth of young Christians.  In my experience "baby" Christians grow much better and much faster in house churches.  In a church of 15 no one is allowed to excuse themselves. "I've only been a Christian a few years" or "It's not my gift" ring hollow when everyone participates every week.  One more question: Can we replicate the growth that happens in a participatory church when we all sit in pews, face forward and listen to a handful of men week after week?  If so, how?

I've seen great benefits from our time in a house church.  It's been wonderful for our family whether we "decided" it or not.  Yet I would not go as far as Viola to say that the only road to having a church pleasing to God is to dissolve our larger groups, sell our buildings, and all go to meeting in homes.  However, I was disturbed by the issues and questions he brought up and I am still wrestling with the answers.  I would love to hear from those of you in different worship situations.  How do you think these questions should be answered?


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