Radical Church Restoration–A Review of the Book Series Helping Others to Catch the Vision of Organic Church Life
Frank Viola says, “The church is a living organism.”
Many Christians would concur with Viola that the true nature of Christ’s church is born out of the soil of His finished work and moves forward in the power of the Holy Spirit.
However, as Viola has pointed out in his radical church restoration series, many believers have no problem speaking of the church as organism, but they are quite content to go on practicing the church as an organization.
The series begins with The Untold Story of the New Testament Church: An Extraordinary Guide to Understanding the New Testament Church. Viola relies on some of the best New Testament scholarship to vividly retell the story of the first-century church in Acts. The New Testament comes alive in one sweeping narrative to give us a clear picture of the life and nature of those first Christian communities.
Pagan Christianity? Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices is the second book in the series, but the first to really capture the attention of Christians across the country. Frank Viola and George Barna team up to give their readers a critical examination of the last 1700 years of church history.
Does the institutional church have any biblical and historical right to exist? Viola asks, “Are the practices of the institutional church God-approved developments to the church that the New Testament envisions? Or are they an unhealthy departure from it?”
As I stated in my review of PC in January 08, this book “may very well be the most important book written on the Christian church in the last two millennia.” I still stand by this statement as it speaks a great challenge to the organized church. I believe we have yet to see the full impact of this book. In the coming days, I think you can expect to see it nailed to the door of an organized church near you.
Reimagining Church: Pursuing the Dream of Organic Christianity is the follow-up to the controversial PC. It is in this book that Viola offers a new vision, which is truthfully an old vision, of the church as organism.
RC is a proposal that the church of Jesus Christ mirror the very image of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. If you agreed with PC and it left you clueless as to the alternative of the organized church, RC paints a new picture of a church that looks like the community of the Triune God and can truly be characterized as every-member functioning, familial, and organic.
It is in From Eternity to Here: Rediscovering the Ageless Purpose of God, the fourth book in the series, that Viola takes a step back to show us the bigger picture. It is in this book that he communicates the driving passion behind the work of planting organic churches.
Viola simplifies church life as an act of gathering around Jesus Christ. Yet, much of the Body of Christ has been forced into an institution and she has forgotten God’s eternal purpose. She has lost sight of the grand narrative and the great landscape of God’s love story. She has been preoccupied and polluted by an ecclesiology that leaves out the ageless purpose of God.
If you’re more right-brained and you just can’t seem to sit down to read a book on the church, then read From Eternity to Here and have your eyes opened to God’s eternal purpose. This book is bound to be a favorite among many readers.
Finding Organic Church: A Comprehensive Guide to Starting and Sustaining Authentic Christian Communities is the final book, and probably the most anticipated, in the radical church restoration series. It is in this book that Viola offers up a practical guide to understanding and implementing organic church life.
Viola writes this book for three different audiences. First, for those who desire to meet organically and would like some practical help. Second, it is written for all those already involved in alternatives to the traditional church (missional, emerging, house church movements, etc.). Third, it has been written for everyone interested in planting churches.
What is an organic church? Viola says…
“By organic church, I mean a church that is born out of spiritual life instead of being constructed by human institutions and held together by religious programs. Organic church life is a grassroots experience that is marked by face-to-face community, every-member functioning, open-participatory meetings (as opposed to pastor-to-pew services), nonhierarchical leadership, and the centrality and supremacy of Jesus Christ as the functional Leader and Head of the gathering” (p. 20).
There are four models of church planting in the New Testament. Viola begins by discussing these models and also addresses the spontaneous expressions of church life that spring up without the work of a church-planter. Viola thoroughly covers the New Testament pattern of church planting and church growth in the first half of the book.
There are four parts to this book. Throughout the first two parts of the book, Viola helps us to rediscover the purpose and function of the itinerant worker. He deals with questions concerning this largely discarded and often controversial role of the itinerant worker. He has even devoted a chapter to the book entitled “Wasn’t Paul the Last Apostle?”
He skillfully presents his case for the restoration of traveling church planters (i.e. apostles) and their task in empowering and equipping the church to function organically by the indwelling Christ. Can the New Testament model work today? Viola believes so. And he testifies to experiencing it personally over the last 20 years.
In the third part of the book, Viola discusses how to gather and gives practical steps for beginning to meet organically. Maybe you are presently meeting in an organized church but would like to begin meeting organically. It could be that you have left the institutional church and would like to begin meeting with others who are interested. And there are those who are already meeting in homes but are in need of some guidance. You will find this book a great help in moving forward.
How do you sing without a “leader” to direct you? What about teaching? What about giving? What about evangelism? What does it all look like in this new paradigm? And the most often asked question of all, “What about the children?” Viola addresses these concerns and so much more. He gives practical exercises and suggestions in getting started.
In the final part of the book, Viola discusses the seasons and stages of growth within organic church life. He also mentions the diseases and pitfalls of gathering around Christ. His descriptions of these periods no doubt come from his own personal experiences.
Finally, Viola gives a call out to his readers.
“I believe the need of the hour is for Christian who are called by God to raise up the church as a living, breathing experience. Christians who are broken and tested. Christians who refuse to take shortcuts but who have first lived in an organic expression of body life as brothers and sisters before they ever dare plant a church.”
“The need of the hour is for such a people to wait on God until they are properly prepared and then sent. And once sent, to plant the church in the same way that all first-century workers did: by equipping it and then abandoning it to the Holy Spirit” (p. 306).
And to those pastors who wish to make the transition, Viola writes…
“As I have said elsewhere, transitioning from an institutional church to an organic church is not cosmetic surgery. It’s a complete overhaul” (p. 311).
For pastors, he closes with three steps to take in moving your church to functioning organically. But you’re gonna have to get the book to see what those steps call for.
Are you satisfied with shoulder-to-shoulder religion or are you looking for face-to-face community? It’s not for those that aren’t willing to endure the cross. Are you ready to dive in to an exciting journey of experiencing the indwelling Christ in familial community?
Then take a bold step outside the walls of institutionalized religion and recline at the table with others who hunger for more of Jesus.
D.D. Flowers, 2009.
October 6th, 2009 at 6:42 pm
After establishing the supremecy of Christ, how about studying His life and teachings to get to know Him better and let Him change your life for the better? Getting To Know Jesus studies every event in the life and teachings of Jesus from the four Gospels to see how we can become more like Him. Studying His life has certainly changed my life!
October 6th, 2009 at 8:18 pm
GMC, I would say that “establishing” the supremacy of Christ is ongoing. And it is more than doing “studies” of his life and teachings. It is a living relationship that is shared and enjoyed with others in familial community (church life).
October 20th, 2009 at 11:04 pm
Great blog thank you for having it. I really appreciate what you have posted so far and look forward to reading more from you soon. We need more sites like this on the internet. Good, Christian sites proclaiming the word of the Lord. I have a Bible blog @ http://www.gottb.com that I hope you will check out and let me know what you think. God’s Peace!
January 29th, 2010 at 5:58 am
Many believers have no problem speaking of the church as organism
February 25th, 2010 at 9:11 pm
David, I recognize God doing a new thing in us as pastors and in the Chicagoland area. Neither my husband or myself feel like the ‘home church’ fits us…….although we want to birth ‘home church experiences’ through the ministry that God is birthing. We recognize the danger of ‘returning to what we know’ as what we are doing is not ‘what we’ve done’……I will probably have to read these two….although a bit fearfully…..
February 25th, 2010 at 11:42 pm
What do you mean by birthing “home church experiences”? What do you mean by “home church” and what about it doesn’t fit you?
February 25th, 2010 at 11:05 pm
I think my knee-jerk reaction to what the book reviews above seem to point to is an apprehension about the idea of “organic” church, and that somehow such a church is necessarily at odds or distinctly different in nature (organic vs inorganic aka forced or unauthentic) if it is part of the institution. The Viola quote at the end seems to be more on target, that we want Christians who live “in an organic expression of body life as brothers and sisters.”
There seems to be a given (apparently based on the research of Viola) that the church would be *better* (and more what it’s supposed to be) if we all did “alternative” forms of church that were inherently more organic, again a sort of buzzword that doesn’t mean much. But what does organic mean? Without effort? Hardly. Without music directors or designated pastors? Without form or reliable structure?
This is not to say I think the institution of the church is without fail or need for change. But organic has to do with the relationships of the people part of a community, not inherently the form of the church. My fear is that in the name of seeking authenticity or “organic” church experience, people will flee the “institutional church” instead of working to restore the Church.
The church may be a whore, but she’s my mother, as Augustine said.
Sorry for being long-winded, thought I’d share a bit…
February 25th, 2010 at 11:40 pm
Hey Brian, no… I appreciate you sharing.
Have you read any of these books? Your comments cause me to think you are not familiar with how Frank uses “organic” and what is actually being called for here.
Also, I really dislike Augustine’s comment about the church. I can’t help but think that Augustine simply couldn’t see Christ and the spotless Bride through the paganism that was officially married to Christianity by Constantine’s sword. The “whore church of the devil” (as Luther called it) is not Christ’s remnant. It’s that system, Roman Catholic or reformed-Catholic (Protestants), that we should seriously think about abandoning. But not for another form… but for Christ in simple community. Where the (organic) church that is born… grows out of the soil of Christ.
February 27th, 2010 at 4:12 pm
Hi David, ‘birthing home church experiences’…….I dont have the total vision yet, and I have yet to read all of Franks books but what I ‘think’ I mean is that we plan to plant home churches, however we are thinking that we will also have a weekly gathering that would include those from the home churches that wanted to connect and participate in teaching, music and prayer in a larger setting. We dont want to ‘do church as usual’ and God is speaking to us about that….what it means exactly, I have yet to know. In discussion this morning with my husband, he made an interesting comment…..’organic produce still ships in crates to markets’….in other words, the ‘crate’ may not change in structure, but to grow organic produce, we need to illiminate the additives…….so right now we are exploring…. Interesting, our team (mostly late 20’s) have moved our ‘home church’ out of the living room to a coffeehouse as their disconnected and unchurched friends are more comfortable starting there…..Still…..lovin the journey and excited about the times we are in……..I appreciate Brians comments very much. I also like your point about his quote…. I am beginning to see that this ‘neglected and brainwashed’ Bride is the object of His affections….. I have been guilty of speaking very negatively about her, as the ‘institution’ was abusive and I have some residule anger. But, the ‘church’ was never created for an ‘institution’….. Blessings everyone!
February 27th, 2010 at 5:38 pm
Thank you for your honesty and humility. I find that is rare these days. 🙂
I like how you are “exploring” and connecting with folks in coffee shops. I believe it’s a great place to talk to people about our Lord and His Bride set free.
As it is right now… what does planting “home churches” look like in function to you guys? What have you gained so far in your reading up on “organic” church life?
If I could give any advice, it would be to encourage those brave souls to move forward in experiencing worship, prayer, and teaching in familial community. When folks are really touchng the Lord together this way… I believe the desire for large church meetings will fade. They will find there is a huge disconnect and the Body is bound up when only a few are contributing. We have been conditioned to be passive receivers and we wonder why our growth seems so slow in the Lord.
I personally don’t see anything wrong with coming together in large settings with other believers. And I don’t think the Lord dislikes concerts and other corporate expressions of worship. But these events, compared to the New Testament ekklesias, should in no way be confused with “having church” or being a local church.
My experience is that folks will find deeper community and a greater edification when the church is being lived out as family in a local expression where there is open-participation and every member is giving and receiving Christ. The universal church is experienced and practiced locally… where believers are being built up together in natural relationships. That simply can’t happen in spectator Christianity. As far as I see it (and as Viola writes), this is God’s design: local groups of believers sharing life in Christ together and “church” coming out of Him in this organic way.
Keep lovin’ the journey!
February 27th, 2010 at 7:26 pm
but David, dont you think ‘home church’s’ could be birthed from a ‘spectator’ type service? The finished work of Jesus Christ is the living seed and takes on a life of its own, which too me is then explored and developed in small group, familial settings. Grace gives us permission to take the mask of. A small group with a mixed message is no more effective than ‘church as usual’…..believe me, I’ve been there! When His Name is exalted the people will be drawn……wherever! Didnt they start from a large meeting where Peter preached and 3000 were added? I really love Revolution, as the diversity of the body was given permission to come out of the closet so to speak, without the permission of their churchs governing body.
Anyway, I am not aruging for the sake of arguing….. We are really giving all of this serious consideration. I think what we are leaning towards is a corporate gathering with the emphasis on small group familial settings…. We want to simplify dramatically…..
But again, David, I am not finished with the books yet, so we will pick up this conversation then 🙂 Lets stay in touch! BTW – I think ‘humility’ is what has drawn me to your blogs and Franks writings…very refreshing – Blessings all along the way!
February 28th, 2010 at 11:13 pm
You’re right that I haven’t read his books, and now I’ll have a reason to pick one up, so thanks for the exposure. I take very seriously the need for church reform and I don’t discredit the vitality and importance of house churches and “organic” or “grassroots” expressions of the church.I am not an ardent defender of the so-called institution of the church so much as I am a cautious believer that the church in the form that most of us experience is not beyond hope or worth.
I think Augustine’s quote is perfectly valid whether or not what you said about his inability to see well what was really happening is true. I don’t think it’s possible to completely separate the form from the content (as a student of literature, I find the postmodern abandonment of content for the sake of experimental forms in literature to serve as an important caution to the church to beware that it isn’t just following cultural trends). You can’t say I’m part of the non-institutional church; whether or not it’s pleasant, we are part of the church throughout history in all the ways it has both sinned and glorified God.
These newer expressions of church have their part to play in the reform of the church, no doubt, but they are certainly not the only way of creating and experiencing organic Christian community. I’m forced to ask the honest question, how many black churches would complain that the community/church experience they are a part of doesn’t feel “organic” enough? The generally homogeneous make up of “grassroots” churches makes me skeptical that it might just be a bunch of white people running from church and in the process dividing themselves even further from the black folks in the church, who from my experience are pretty attached to the “institution” and mostly shy away from crazy white folks doing church differently. That’s not to say the crazy white folks don’t have some things to say and good reasons for doing it, but it must be considered that abandoning the institution is also abandoning a major demographic of the Church. Some have suggested, then, that the real option is to embrace and submit to that oft-neglected portion of the body of Christ, to join black churches and learn how to “do church” organically.
March 1st, 2010 at 3:34 pm
We may have a difficult time separating true believers from the religious institutions among us, but the Lord’s vision is perfect.
With a proper view of Christianity as it reflects Christ and the first-century New Testament… it is understandable how Augustine would look at the mess and say, “the church maybe a whore…” The Roman Church that Constantine built had become scales on his eyes and was clouding his vision. Also, the church is not “mother.” This type of language was born late in the second century by Cyprian. It was used to evoke a sense of loyalty to the Church that was organizing itself and attempting to weed out false teachers.
Yes, I do encourage you to take a look at Viola’s series or read more of my posts to get a better idea of where I’m coming from on the church. Thanks for taking the time. These things are largely going to be hashed out in personal study.
I also recommend reading “The Torch of the Testimony” by John Kennedy. I have reviewed this book here at my blog. For something quick… take a look at: http://www.searchingtogether.org/articles/4tragic.htm by Jon Zens at Searching Together.
May 14th, 2010 at 4:54 pm
One of the few good reasons for the church to meet in america is to collect money, and track those who give it. Don’t get in a knot but listen. How much different would the whole church scene look without money?
There are some brave men out there who take nothing for their service to the poor and afflicted, having paid nothing for their own salvation they charge nothing as they give back. The Church in this country is just another product of capitalism, it won’t or at least many think it won’t run without money. When unplanted trees and bushes grow they are called volunteer. When we come together as friends we should be volunteer before we are organic . Take a tip from Jesus, look at the birds. What makes your house church or my organic simple church different from the good ole church? We no longer live in the first century, so why would a loving caring living God want anyone to try to live like or apply first century christianity to the year 2010. God is speaking o those who are listening, He is not saying, first century is best what He is saying is come to me ,Just three words come to me.
As we are conformed to the image of Christ we are the many that the first born calls friends. This is real it is not programed or enforced it is the God and father of Jesus making us him not Him but enough Him to partake in the divine nature, and have the attitude of Jesus.
To repeat what Jesus is saying, Call no man teacher, leader, father, pastor, or anything else but brother. The church that Jesus builds is so supernatural that it cannot be tought it just is.
May 14th, 2010 at 5:56 pm
Bill, have you read any of these books?