July 5, 2008 by

Following Up on "Pagan Christianity"


Categories: books, changing mindsets, church

As of the time of this writing, there haven’t been an abundance of comments to my recent review on Pagan Christianity? by Frank Viola and George Barna. (I recognize I’m a bit behind many other bloggers in my review, and many have already moved on from this conversation.) However, of the four comments I’ve had so far, three have sided in favor of the book. Their thoughtful remarks, and reading some of the follow-up content on Frank Viola’s website, have prompted me to follow up a bit as to why I reviewed the book the way I did, and where I was coming from.

I’d like to submit the following for your consideration.

I actually read the book. πŸ™‚
I say this because there is a sort of joke going around about how many people have sided against the book but have never read it. And in reading the authors’ replies to several of the challenges presented to them, there is a common thread that says, essentially, “That’s not what we said; if you actually read the book, you would know we didn’t say that.” Well, and good; but I did read the book, and can present quotes from it, if necessary, to back up my points.

I am a house church leader, and outside the institutional church. This is important to note because although the book did effectively challenge some of my existing ideas, I did not approach this book defensively, as having a particular church form or structure that I was trying to protect.

My initial bias when approaching the book was very positive.
I was not one of these folks who picked up the book with the intent of picking it apart. From the moment I read the title, I could not wait to get my hands on it. Plus, I had read Barna’s book Revolution, and another book he helped publish, Jim and Casper Go to Church, and I loved them both. I did not know who Viola was, but Barna’s name on the project was enough to convince me to read it. So you need to know that I went into this reading fully prepared to agree with it, and was disappointed on several fronts.

My review is of the book itself, not of the authors’ character or ministry, or of anything they have said before or after publishing the book.
No one has suggested otherwise, but just for clarity–I am not in judgment of either of the authors’ lives, character, or body of ministry. In fact, in my opinion, from what I know of them, both have a history and a sense of scholarship that is highly commendable, and deserves respect. However, on some of their conclusions I must respectfully disagree. Also, in following up on Viola’s website and in reading several interviews given after the book was published (such as on J.R. Miller’s blog), I have found a lot to agree with them about, and they have done a lot of clarifying of their intentions that have truly “softened the blow” as far as the book goes. I greatly appreciate, for example, that they have clarified that they do not believe there is one “right” method for church. However, I need to make this statement: If you have to do so much “clarifying” after you write something this provocative, you have to consider whether you communicated your points well enough in the first place. A well-written book, for the most part, should stand on its own without a lot of extra explanations. Hence, the negative review of the book–not of the authors themselves.

My primary complaint of the book is concerning the opinionated tone and apparent conclusions of the book, rather than the information presented.
Probably the best example of what I’m talking about is in the question of whether Viola and Barna have presented a narrow view of true Biblical Christianity in this book. In my review, I said that they had done so, despite their own claims in the book that they were not doing so. Some of the commentors have said that they don’t feel the authors intended this. But I’d like to submit the following passage from the book:

“What do we mean by a first-century-styled church? It is a group of people who know how to experience Jesus Christ and express Him in a meeting without any human officiation. Such a group of people can function organically together as a body when they are left on their own after the church planter leaves them. (This does not mean that church planters never return…but after planting a church, church planters should be absent more than they are present.)

“The one who plants a first-century-styled church leaves that church without a pastor, elders, a music leader, a Bible facilitator, or a Bible teacher. If that church is planted well, those believers will know how to sense and follow the living, breathing headship of Jesus Christ in a meeting. They will know how to let Him invisibly lead their gatherings….”

Now, there is nothing inherently un-Biblical about these statements, neither does it specifically state that a “first-century-styled church” is the only correct “style”. But how something is said is often more telling than what is said. When you take this and other statements in the context of the overall tone of the book, it is very easy to interpret it as suggesting that this is the right way, and all other forms are the wrong way. Some might not see it that way; but taking into account a lot of other reviews, it is apparent that I’m not the only one who took it this way. So if that is not what the authors intended, I must conclude that this could have been communicated much better than it was. Again–hence, the negative review.

My intent in giving a negative review was to help refine the conversation.
What I mean by this is that I definitely think books like this one are timely, and much of what they are saying needs to be said. All of this–the books like Pagan Christianity?, the many blogs like this one (and the comments left on them)–all of these are part of a very necessary conversation. Because of this, I think it’s important for us to refine and re-work and re-tool and re-think, to constantly be looking for the best ways to convey the truths we are learning. I honestly felt that this book had a lot of good things to say, but shot itself in the foot in the way it said them. And my hope in bringing this opinion to the table was that in doing so, we would all try to consider how we can “say it” better in the future.

I am looking forward to reading the sequel. πŸ™‚

And I’ll be changing the subject in my next post. πŸ™‚

ADDENDUM: For an additional perspective on this book, Ben Witherington has written a review recently as well. While I can’t say I agree on every point he makes, I particularly like his comments about how P.C. trivializes the theology of worship and the mystery of God. This was a point on which I also disagreed with the book.

Musician. Composer. Recovering perfectionist. Minister-in-transition. Lover of puns. Hijacker of rock song references. Questioner of the status quo. I'm not really a rebel. Just a sincere Christ-follower with a thirst for significance that gets me into trouble. My quest has taken me over the fence of institutional Christianity. Here are some of my random thoughts along the way. Read along, join in the conversation. Just be nice.

7 Responses to Following Up on "Pagan Christianity"

  1. J. R. Miller

    I am glad you got something good from the interview. I too went into the book with a positive feeling, but came away disappointed. The interview itself is so much better balanced than the book.

    God bless brother!

  2. J. R. Miller

    Hi, a quick question about your quote. Following the V&B quote you say you see nothing errant in it. How then do you see the vision for planting a church with no Elders in contrast to this passage about Paul during his first missionary journey?

    Acts 14:21 After they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, 22 strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying, β€œThrough many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.” 23 When they had appointed elders for them in every church, having prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed.

  3. James Goen


    Considering that it has been a while since I read Pagan Christianity, I can not comment on the tone of the book. But I agree with you 100% about the consideration of tone when having conversations about religion as an institution and our thoughts about re-thinking the church. The subject of church is near and dear to many peoples hearts and without conveying the message with absolute humility the point will get lost as soon as the audience gets defensive. In many cases this can not be avoided, but its a worthy goal to try to unveil the freedom that there is in the Lord to gather under his headship without the trappings of religion. I am encouraged to know that you and others like you exist and are seeking to know the Lord in a real and authentic way.


  4. Jeff McQ

    Regarding your first comment…thanks! πŸ™‚

    Regarding your question about the quote (which is on p. 234 of the book)…

    I think the operative word here is “RETURNED” to Lystra, Iconium and Antioch, at which time elders were appointed. If Paul appointed elders upon RETURNING, that means he did not appoint elders when the church was first planted–which means he left those churches without elders for a season.

    I’m not an expert on these passages, but this isn’t the first time I’ve heard this interpretation. The apostles would plant churches and leave them for a season, then come BACK to appoint elders. I am guessing the reasoning was to allow time for natural leadership to emerge within each fellowship, rather than simply appoint people into positions of authority. But that’s just a guess. πŸ™‚ Anyhow, that’s why I said I saw no inherent error in the quote…just took issue with the tone of it.

  5. J. R. Miller

    Thanks for that clarification. Interesting though, V&B say that the healthy church does not have any Elder… Thanks for the page number so I can check out the context.

  6. Chuck

    New here Jeff–interesting stuff–thank you.

    About your thoughts on Pagan Christianity. You seem most concerned about the confidence with which Barna/Viola make their case. You say, “When you take this and other statements in the context of the overall tone of the book, it is very easy to interpret it as suggesting that this is the right way, and all other forms are the wrong way.”

    Looking for an example on your site, I found (within the first couple of paragraphs) an entry that reads, “But with the shift that is occurring (for those of us who have already been affected by it), it can leave such ministers in an identity crisis, wondering what to do with themselves.”

    When you assert that a shift is occurring, aren’t you are doing the same thing–portraying your opinion as truth? To me, there is nothing wrong with claiming what you believe to be the truth. In fact, it would seem that something else would point to a relative answer.

  7. Jeff McQ

    Chuck…thanks for coming by, and thanks for chiming in.

    First…I don’t know if I would have called it “confidence.” That makes it sound like I didn’t like the book because it intimidated me or something. That is not the case. Someone can make a bold assertion here and there (provided they have the facts to back it up), and even offer a strong opinion now and then. But in the case of Barna/Viola, we are talking about how one is interpreting Scripture. I had no problem whatever with the facts they presented about history, or the confidence with which they presented them. But their picture of Biblical church, for example, is based on an *interpretation* of Scripture, and in my opinion, their presentation was such that it devalued any other possible interpretations. That is not confidence; that is arrogance. None of us–NONE of us–has the corner on the market of Biblical interpretation.

    Second…regarding the example you gave of my own blog, I honestly have a hard time seeing it as a comparable example. On most occasions in this blog, I actually refer to the “shift” as something I *believe* or I *think* is happening–it is how I am interpreting what I’m seeing around me. You just happened to pick out one instance where I alluded to it rather than stated it outright. And even if it is an opinion I am asserting as fact…in this example, I see nothing where I am insinuating that everyone needs to see it the way I see it. It’s a statement of opinion that you can freely disagree with.

    I’m not perfect by any means, so if you keep looking, you might find some strong statements here and there on my blog–and perhaps even some I shouldn’t have made. I honestly don’t see the example you gave as one of them. And you are right…there *is* nothing wrong with claiming what you believe to be the truth. The operative word here is “believe”. I guess the problem I had with the authors is not only did they boldly (arrogantly?) assert some things about how church should be, but I don’t even feel they gave a good argument for many of their claims. If you’re going to be so bold as to act like your interpretation is the only legitimate one–your case had better be airtight. Theirs was not, in my opinion; and that’s why it came off as a bit arrogant.

    All that said…thanks for the question. Your challenge was far more polite than others I’ve received in recent memory. πŸ™‚

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