Being engaged in a few other books lately, I loaned my copy of Frank Viola’s Reimagining Church: Pursuing the Dream of Organic Christianity to my friend Grant, who is familiar with Frank’s other work. Grant has furnished a bit of a review, which I’ve edited only lightly to present here.
Frank has crafted a thorough yet readable book that, in comparison to Pagan Christianity, presents a gentle yet persuasive argument for a return to organic church. A reader can quite literally jump into any chapter that is of interest and discover a compelling description of what church could be. Frank states that the purpose of the book is: “to articulate a biblical, spiritual, theological, and practical answer to the question, ‘Is there a viable way of doing church outside the institutional church experience, and if so, what does it look like?'” (p.12). For the reader who has left what Frank calls the “institutional church” (IC) and is asking the question, “where do I go from here?” you may find Reimagining Church to be the oasis you seek in the desert.
Each chapter of Frank’s book describes one facet of a picture of what could be our normal church life experience. What is truly remarkable about this picture is how doable and sustainable it really is. In a time when our culture is increasingly concerned about the environmental impact of how we live, Frank, perhaps unintentionally, presents a much greener alternative to the gas-guzzling Cadillac we call institutional church.
The resources necessary to fuel the IC are a waste, producing few results by any standard we might apply. For those of us who have labored under the yoke of institutional church, Reimagining Church (RC) as Frank describes it, is truly no burden at all to carry into real life experience. RC points the reader in a direction towards experiencing life in Christ together that is not resource (i.e. money) intensive nor dependent on a select few experts (i.e. Clergy) taking care of us (i.e. Laity).
In contrast to Pagan Christianity, the focus in RC is descriptive, answering the question, “What does it look like?” While the book is not at all lengthy (just over 300 pages), Frank leaves no stone unturned. He breaks the book into two sections. In Part One, Frank explores how the early church lived its life and gathered together. For example, if you’re wondering about communion in an organic church, Frank draws the reader in and describes a wonderful “alternative” to your typical IC communion service with quiet reflective music and a somber taking of a tiny glass of grape juice and a small wafer. Frank writes, “Contrary to today’s practice, the early church took the Lord’s Supper in the context of a normal meal” (p. 75). He adds, “To the first-century Christians, the Lord’s Supper was just that — a supper. It was a banquet — a potluck dinner that included bread and wine. It was the table communion of the saints. A family festival. A fellowship meal.” Frank makes the point that shared meals are a great time to gather together and retell shared stories and shared memories, much like the Passover meal was a way to share the story of God’s faithfulness and deliverance of His people out of slavery. He explains, “Shared memories are part of what makes up a people. By sharing a set of memories, people groups get a sense of identity and belonging. One of the avenues by which a group revisits its shared memories is through a shared meal …thanksgiving is an example… family reunions, anniversaries and birthdays are others.” (p.76)
The second part of Frank’s book is devoted to the issue of Leadership and accountability. And for those of us who have left the charismatic branch of the institutional church, this section is a must-read. In a very straightforward manner, Frank breaks down the issues and provides a startling alternative to the currently popular hierarchical construct that so easily distracts us from the local church life and the priesthood of all believers. Once again, Frank is direct when he writes,
[L]eadership according to Jesus is a far cry from what it is in the institutional church. Our Lord dealt a deathblow to both Gentile/hierarchical and Jewish/positional leadership models. These ego-massaging models are incompatible with the primitive simplicity of the organic church and the upside-down kingdom of Jesus Christ. They impede the progress of God’s people. They suppress the free functioning of the believing priesthood. They rupture the image of the church as family. They do violence to the leadership that exists in the triune God. And they place severe limitations on the headship of Christ. (p.159)
In reading Frank’s book, I get the picture and the desire to experience a shared life together that is truly organic, free from unnecessary burdens and restraints.
I suppose this would be one of the hallmarks of a persuasive book on the church — it creates a desire to live into a new reality. In this case, a reimagined church.