I thought Viola's book was very thought provoking and helped me to think differently about how the church functions and why it needs to change. Viola makes a solid presentation about certain practices that would benefit the church if they were practiced as they were in the first century rather than through the traditions that we have grown up with. While it is a good book to read for anyone who loves the body of Christ, Viola hammers on the leadership structure in the church that he refers to as "hierarchical leadership". Much of this is based off of his own experience within churches and from those who have been burned by the traditional church. He constantly goes back to his belief that leadership within the church is a very bad thing. The book could have been about 100 pages shorter if he would have given his two cents about the issue and let the reader come to his/her own opinion. The "objections" section in the back of the book was somewhat helpful in seeing how Viola interprets those passages that we traditionally cite for church leadership. But many of the objections seemed very generic and was almost a repeat of much of his book.
One thing that also bothered me was that he spent very little (maybe once sentence in the whole book) about the problems that face house/organic churches. He made them out to be groups of people who have zero problems and are in eternal bliss. I would have appreciated a candid application of how organic churches have overcome those difficulties, but nothing was said. Apparently they are the bee's knee's. We all have sinful tendencies, and even in organic churches. He also harped on people in traditional churches, almost labeling them heretics because they were are apart of the "institutional church." I happen to know many pastors who genuinely want to "shepherd" the peple that they have been put in charge of and have no desire for personal gain or recognition. So his research was slightly flawed and seemed to only include churches that Viola did like and then lumped every "traditional church" along with it. All of that to say that the book was thought provoking and caused me to think differently about how the church can function better.
Traditions, customs, ceremonies, and rites all plague the conscience of most who currently hold to dissenting opinions of modern church practices. For those who indeed seek to reevaluate the data available, a fresh start to 'doing' church almost seems unfathomable. What would one do? What does the scripture suggest a Christian is to do about church practices? Frank Viola suggests that we start by Reimagining Church!
Frank Viola's writing has in part as the voice of the Organic Church movement. Following up his previous book Pagan Christianity, Viola takes this entry and attempts a more constructive dialog while providing answers to the question readers were left with in Pagan Christianity? Viola writes to describe a New Testament church in its infant state while gleaning the beauty that came from it. While conveying the narrative of the beauty Viola observes in his interpretations of the New Testament he believes he is able to discern how the earliest assemblies glorified Christ through their meeting habits.
The book is divided into two major sections. For pragmatic purposes, Viola breaks down Community and Gatherings first. Introducing readers to the various views of the 'Church' itself, he gives fairly accurate explanations of the various paradigms of meetings, mostly focusing on those in the 'organic' strain. With the view of the church itself as a living organism, the foundation Viola operates from is always quick to remind you that they all share a common DNA. With the establishment of the various kinds of meetings made, Viola gives practical advice for typical Church meetings, the Lord's Supper, Gathering Places, and even when and how to interact with believers outside of scheduled meetings. Overall, you are not likely to get a hermeneutic that produces high liturgy or fenced communion tables from the likes of Frank Viola. What you will get is a very different approach to the traditions that this books predecessor establishes as rooted in unbiblical practice. Some would call it a community or organic hermeneutic, but to those who are unfamiliar with it, it will be very challenging.
The second portion of the book is devoted to the ever troublesome topic of Leadership and Accountability. The organic church camp often draws criticism for being rebellious, non-submissive, and divisive. Unfortunately, I am not sure that Viola's work on these topics are going to vindicate those accusations anytime soon, but I do believe they will help formulate a more honest picture of what many see as a biblical approach to such a vital component of church life. Without giving in-depth details of each portion this section covers I will emphasize that leadership and accountability is not a possession of one singular pastor or bishop in Viola's lens. The transference of the previous sections community hermeneutic prevails here as well and we see a re-imagination of leadership, oversight, decision making, spiritual covering, authority and submission, denominational covering, and Apostolic traditions. Essentially, each venture of re-imagination brings with it the delight of seeing an organic community coming together as a church, a collection of believers who all see Christ as head, acknowledge each others vital roles, but establish no hierarchical preeminence amongst each other outside of Christ.
With predictive response to all the questions that will most certainly arise from those who read this book from the institutional camp, and thus decide they wish to pursue alternative trajectories, Frank Viola provides a short but useful chapter that lends insight on where do we go from here? The appendix is also helpful in providing some information in response to the heavily debatable topic of leadership, and he includes objections and responses for your perusal.
Frank Viola relies very heavily on his many years of experience in the organic church culture. His writing style is engaging and his intention if often very clear throughout this book. The question I often found myself asking was "did he really get all that from one verse?" This is not a systematic exposition of each ecclessiological topic ever known to seminarians, but it sure does touch on many hot buttons sure to rub any fundamentalist wrong. Whether you are seeking to learn more and implement organic church practices, or you are looking to read up on Frank Viola to prove those 'organic church' dissenters wrong, this is good place to start.
I personally enjoy listening and reading Frank Viola's materials and visit his website from time to time. I am still interested in purchasing a few of his other books for personal reading pleasure. Those include The Untold Story of the New Testament Church: An Extraordinary Guide to Understanding the New Testament and a new book recently co-authored with Leonard Sweet, Jesus Manifesto: Restoring the Supremacy and Sovereignty of Jesus Christ. This book itself was not a 'easy' read for me. That is likely due to the digging into the references and the mulling over the ideals Viola sets forth. This book is not similar to Pagan Christianity with all of its weighty footnotes and references, but I still dug deep on these topics. Frank remains consistent in his thesis and stands on his soapbox promoting what he calls his dream for the church. Embodied in his philosophy of the church, and in the print of this books cover, Frank Violas writing always screams his desire,
"I have a dream that Jesus Christ will one day be head of his church again. Not in pious rhetoric, but in reality."
Whether I disagree with Frank Viola or not, I enjoyed reading this book because he is always careful to ensure what he says emphasizes his belief of the above.
I believe the Holy Spirit is calling this generation to question what we've been doing for so long just because of tradition. This book describes how we can get to the next level of unity of the brethren. Finally, a book to support and articulate what I've been feeling for so long. I'm beginning to experience what this book is describing and I'm addicted!!