Not long ago, I reviewed Frank Viola’s latest book Reimagining Church (see my post “Reimagining Church“). Before I finished the book, and before I wrote the review, Frank prompted me several times to finish it and review it. He also answered some questions that I had about the book. Finally, I asked if I could interview him, and he agreed. While I was not able to sit down and talk with Frank, I did send him some questions via email, to which he graciously responded. Here are my questions and his responses:
1. Why did you decide to start writing, and why the topic of the church?
From the human point of view, it was purely accidental. But God has chosen to breathe on it.
When I was in my 20s, I met with a group of Christians in a home without a pastor. It was largely an unintentional experiment for us. I describe it a spontaneous burst of organic church life. We wanted to know if it was possible for Jesus Christ to lead His church in our day just as he did in Century One – without a human head (pastor, minister, priest, etc.). We wanted to know if it was possible for every member to function under Christ’s Leadership in a meeting without someone leading, directing, or even facilitating. We wanted to know if a church could make decisions together without someone telling us what to do.
We came to these questions gradually. And in time, we discovered that all of these things were not only possible, but they were built into the very DNA of the body of Christ. To quote Major Ian Thomas, the church’s DNA is the “Divine Nature from Above.” Jesus Christ lives in the church. The church contains His life, His Divine nature. Therefore, if a group of Christians learn to live by Christ together, by His life, the DNA of the church will begin operating. We realized that this concept (and experience) was so foreign to most Christians (let alone to us) that we had an awfully hard time explaining it to those who had inquired about what we were doing and why.
In the late 90s, I began hosting a bulletin board discussion (the nascent prelude to the Internet). The subject was Rethinking the Practice of the Early Church. Bi-weekly, I would post an article on a different aspect of the church’s practice. For instance, one week I’d post a piece on the first-century church meeting. Another week I’d write about how the early Christians had the Lord’s Supper. Another week I’d discuss the leadership of the church. I was writing about my experience of the church as well as what I understood the New Testament to teach about it.
People read the articles and then responded. The response was amazing. It showed me that there was a real hunger for looking at the church in a fresh light and re-examining Scripture on the subject. Not long afterwards, people would ask me for copies of the articles. So I would staple them together and mail them out. At the same time, many people were asking me and the others in our fellowship why we didn’t have a building, a pastor, a liturgy, etc. (Some of these people looked at us as if we were from Planet 10 when they found out that we didn’t have these things.) As a result, a friend suggested that I put all the articles I had written for the bulletin board into a book. This way we could give copies to people who asked us what in the cat’s hair we were doing!
The idea of writing a book had never occurred to me before that point. And publishers never crossed my mind. When I investigated how much it would cost to print a book myself, I was shocked to find that one had to print at least 1,000 copies in order to get a decent rate. My immediate reaction was, “You’ve got to be kidding me. What am I going to do with 950 copies of this book?” You see, I could only envision 50 people wanting to read it.
Well, I was wrong. Within months, the books were gone due to popular demand. (Word of mouth is one mighty phenomenon.)
In 2001, a particular publisher showed interest in publishing my books, but I declined. Then in 2004, another publisher showed interest. After much prayer and council from others, I felt that it would be wiser to have a publisher publish my work rather than continuing to self-publish. The reason being that the message would get out to a much wider audience. That has proven to be the case.
2. What is your favorite flavor of ice cream?
Oreo cookie, hands down and walking out. I particularly like it in a shake, the kind that Denny’s makes. Those are hard to resist.
3. What are some of the difficulties involved in “organic church”?
Everybody’s normal until you get to know them (as the title of one book puts it). Organic church life involves close-knit community.
We humans are all deeply marred souls. We routinely underestimate the damage that the Fall has inflicted on us. For this reason, a shared life in Christ is difficult. But therein lies the genius of God. It’s in such an environment that living stones are chiseled, cut, and shaped so they can be “built together” to form the Lord’s house.
Open up the New Testament epistles and you will see all the problems that God’s people encounter when they live in organic church life. The beautiful thing is that contained within those epistles, we have the remedies for those problems. As I’ve said many times, organic church life is a wedding of glory and gore. It’s much easier to sit in a pew once or twice a week, listen to a sermon, and go home to live an individual Christian life. But God’s best and highest is never the easiest route to take.
At this point, let me say a few words about the term “organic church.” The word is in vogue today. Thus it’s being used (and co-opted) to describe a number of different types of churches, many of which are vastly different in structure, expression, and mission. I’ve spoken about this here. In my book “Reimagining Church,” I present a theology of organic church life (to borrow Len Sweet’s description of the book). That theology is rooted in the Triune God, His eternal purpose, the teachings of Jesus and the apostles, and it’s exemplified by my experience over the last twenty-one years.
Because “organic church” – along with “missional church,” “house church,” “emerging church,” and “simple church” – are being used in an assortment of different ways today (with some folks lumping them all together!), it’s created massive confusion among Christians who are interested in God’s mission for the body of Christ.
Let me give you one recent example. Dan Kimball recently wrote a piece where he challenged the missional church movement (for lack of a better term). In it, he lumped together missional churches and house churches. In the brief exchanges I’ve had with Dan, he lumps organic churches with house churches (which I do not).
Another author responded to Dan’s piece, and he lumped together missional churches with organic churches (as if they were the same) but drew a distinction between missional/organic churches and house churches. Yet another author responded and redefined missional church from the way that Kimball was using it, and expressed concern at how the word “missional” is being misused and redefined by different people. Add to that, some authors are saying that missional church, house church, organic church, and simple church are all the same thing.
Are you confused yet?
Throw the word “emerging church” in the mix and you’ve got popcorn.
I think it would be helpful, therefore, if those who write and speak on these subjects would first define these terms clearly so that readers will understand how they’re using them. And then proceed. The simple reason is that there’s no universal definition or understanding of any of these terms. So using them without definition often confuses more than clarifies.
4. Do you have a prediction or a favorite in the Bowl Championship Series football Game between Oklahoma and Florida?
As for a prediction, I haven’t the foggiest idea. As for a favorite, I’m going to say Florida lest my Gainesville neighbors roast me over a slow spit.
5. If the church meets in a more open and participatory way where every believer is given an opportunity to serve through their spiritual gifts, how should the church deal with people who always have something to say and people who never have something to say?
This is the classic problem of the under-functioners vs. the over-functioners. When a similar problem was surfacing in the church in Corinth, the believers had an extra-local worker with experience to give them some direction and instruction about this. See Paul’s instructions to them in 1 Corinthians 14.
The organic churches that I’m in fellowship with have the input of extra-local workers who have experience in meeting under the headship of Christ. These workers understand the necessary dynamics that go along with equipping the over-participators to push back a bit and the under-participators to function more. My friend Milt Rodriguez recently wrote an excellent article on this very subject. Your readers can check it out here: http://frankviola.wordpress.com/2008/10/01/guest-article-lions-set-free/
6. When you offer someone a soft drink at your house, do you ask them if they want a soda, a pop, or a Coke?
Well, we don’t have soft drinks at the house. But I grew up in New York, and we called it soda.
7. Scripture often describes the church in family language. Do you think the church is a literal family or a figurative family? What are the implications?
I take it as a spiritual reality. Christians aren’t joined by blood. We are instead joined by Divine life. As Peter says, we are “partakers of the Divine nature.” God has become our Father (literally), and all of His children have become our brethren and sistren. That’s not “positional truth.” It’s quite real.
8. Do you prefer coffee or tea? How do you take it?
I love the smell of coffee, but I hate the taste. So if you were to hand me a cup of coffee, I would grab tons of creamer and sweeteners to kill the taste. I’ve always wished I could drink it black, but I just can’t.
I enjoy tea. The real stuff. A friend turned me on to organic teas and gave me a stainless steal strainer, a cast iron pot, and little cups that look like they came off the boat that Paul of Tarsus almost drowned in on his way to Rome. Drinking tea mixed with fellowship in Christ – there’s nothing quite like it. Ask my friend Alan Levine (props and shout-outs to Alan )!
9. What role do you think the university/seminary and scholar should play in the church?
Scholars should be tied to a chair with duct tape wrapped around their mouths during open-participatory church meetings.
That’s a joke, folks.
You must understand, I live a world that’s outside of mainstream Christianity. We meet in a very organic way. What many folks would call “laymen” are our leaders.
I’ll give you a few examples from real life. The seminary-trained folks that I know who have come into a healthy experience of organic church life admitted their lack of experience and knowledge (experiential) of Jesus Christ when they have encountered the churches of this type.
Thus what they did for a number of months was detox. (The same is true for clergymen who come into such expressions of the church.) After a while of learning how to be a normal human being . . . a brother among other brothers and sisters (the folks I’m thinking of have all been men), they began to learn to use their giftings (usually teaching) to minister LIFE instead of dead knowledge. But that typically takes some time and a lot of un-learning.
For a context to the above, see Chapter 10 of my book Pagan Christianity where I discuss what I believe to be some of the shortcomings of the typical seminary education and model, and the kind of fruit it produces, both good and not so good.
Keep in mind that the early Christian church which shook the Roman Empire to its foundations was a “lay led” movement (to use our modern vernacular). Consider the education of the twelve men that Jesus trained as well. It’s a very different way of looking at things.
Add to that, the people I’ve known in my life who knew the Lord the deepest were people who didn’t have a seminary education. The same is true for some of the greatest people in church history. Not that there’s anything wrong with a seminary education (to borrow from Jerry Seinfeld). But it’s largely overrated, I believe. One of the major flaws is that academic knowledge is often regarded as the equivalent of spiritual knowledge and experience.
10. What’s the last movie that you watched? Did you enjoy it? Why or why not?
The last film I saw is one of my favorites of all time. It’s called The Castle. It’s a first-class hoot. The comedy is brilliant. My favorite line from the film: “It’s the vibe of the thing.”
11. If you were to die tomorrow, what’s the one thing that you’d want your readers to take from your life and your books?
That the Lord Jesus Christ can be known deeply and profoundly, that He is alive enough to be the practical and functional Head of His own church (in local expression), that we can live by His indwelling life and express Him together in ways that most of us have never dreamed, and that God’s eternal purpose and grand mission is bound up with local Christian communities that express the headship of Jesus Christ in their cities. And that all of the above happens in community. It’s not an individual proposition or endeavor.
12. Can you tell my readers something about HouseChurchResource.org?
Yes, this is a site that offers many resources for people who are interested in organic church life. Note that organic church church and house church are not the same thing. Some house churches are organic, while others are not. And some organic churches use buildings. Nonetheless, those in the house church movement seem most interested in organic church life and most organic churches meet in homes for most of their gatherings, hence the name of the site.
Some of my friends created this site, and I understand that it generates enormous traffic. I believe it’s unique in that it offers the following:
- An ex-pastors’ page that is designed to help conflicted pastors leave the clergy and find life and employment outside of it.
- Testimonials of ex-pastors who left the clergy system and why.
- A form designed to connect those who are seeking organic church life.
- An opportunity to receive the help and input of extra-local workers who plant and equip organic churches.
- Free articles on body life, spiritual formation, and God’s mission.
- Free downloadable audios (which I understand is coming soon).
- A place to trade links with other similar sites.
- Information on upcoming events, conferences, and seminars.
- Useful books on God’s mission, spiritual formation, and organic church life.
- A free e-newsletter that goes out periodically with updates, etc.
Thank you, Frank, for allowing me to interview you! By the way, Frank blogs at “Reimagining Church: The Blog of Frank Viola“. I’ll post my response to Frank’s answers within a day or two.