Frank Viola and Re-Imagining
I attended Frank Viola's "Re-Imagining the Church" conference held just outside Toronto, Ontario, Canada, in my hometown of Newmarket, last weekend. I took advantage of it being there and had the opportunity to visit my family. I want to thank Frank for personally inviting me. Even though I am not directly involved with the house-church movement which he espouses, he still thought it would be worth my while to attend. And it was. I'm glad I went. I want to try to articulate a few observations I made about the conference. Please forgive the fact that this is not a professionally written essay, but a quickly jotted observation I wish to share with you. It was sold out with 200 registered. It took place in a very comfortable, plush sanctuary with state-of-the-art audio-visual equipment. We were seated at large round tables with approximately 10 people per table. I didn't know anyone. It was a little awkward for me, but I sat at a table and introduced myself as best I could. I made an effort to say hi to Frank since he was so kind as to invite me. We'd never met except online. I've received some free copies of his books and reviewed one or two on this blog. He is very friendly, kind and has a warm sense of humor. Viola is obviously passionate about Jesus and his body, the church. There were a couple of times I felt like I was at a good ol' Pentecostal revival meeting. I admired his passion and his zeal for the church. I also admired... and I told him this... his team of several men who showed incredible comraderie with Frank. I told him it must be wonderful to have such a group of strong supporters with him at all times. He agreed. I think that shows wisdom. It also shows that he is a team player, and that is often a good thing. Something happened to me that was both uncomfortable and humorous. At one point we were to go around the table and introduce ourselves and talk about our own story with house-church. They started to my right and went around the table, so I was the last one. They talked about their negative experiences while in the institutional church and how they were either trying to find a house fellowship to be a part of, or trying to start a house fellowship, or being involved in one already. They talked of the benefits of not having authority figures, hierarchical leadership, brick and mortar buildings, paid staff, set meeting times, impersonal services, and all the rest. They had success stories of how things were going in their house-churches. Then it got to me. I said, "Well, I feel very much like a fish out of water here, but not only do I go to an institutional church... I pastor one!" "Oh!" some said, "They're okay. They're fine! In fact, I got saved in one!" Etc., etc. It was both cute and funny. (Just on a side note, I think I detected in the voice of many people the need for legitimization. That's one problem with the house-church movement. It is still in its early stages, and because of the lingering entrenchment of institutional Christianity, most house-churchers seem to struggle with feeling illegitimate, disconnected from the "real" church. Just a thought.) The truth is, I've been a part of house churches or house fellowships or whatever you want to call them, as well as the institutional church. In my opinion, you just need to pick which pan you want to fry in. The house-churches have their own peculiar problems just like institutional churches do. But, more importantly, I think both struggle with much of the same issues: power struggles, the prevalence of the principalities and powers, locale, time, relational conflict, authenticity, realness, commitment, money, etc., etc.. In fact, one gentleman gave a presentation of his desire to start a network of house-churches because there is strength, security and safety in numbers, which is just another word for movement or denomination or fellowship. He's right but, whether he likes it or not, he's talking denominationalism in its earliest stages. You see, the moment you have any expectations at all on others as a group, especially in the interest of that group, you have the inception of institutionalism. If you want no institution, then you can have no expectation at all on others. None at all!: not monetary, moral, missional, or anything. No expectations or desires whatsoever. And almost all of us find that impossible because of the style religion has morphed into today and which we have wholeheartedly adopted. I think true freelancing is excellent, but it is extremely rare. Extremely! I think institutions can be good. But the effort it takes to fight for an institution's continued liberation from the principalities and powers is so arduous that very, very few are willing to acquire it. Viola says that he has been outside of the institutional church for over 20 years. But the problems that he admits so beset the house-church movement sound remarkably similar to what, say, my denomination, the Vineyard movement, presently struggles with. The issues of theology, purity, passion, mission, power and authority, money, commitment, isolation versus networking and clustering, are identical. We are all talking about the same old solutions to the same old problems. So, if I were Frank Viola, this is what I would be struggling with: First of all, decide what you want to be: institution or not. Like there is no kinda pregnant, there is no kinda church. You either are or you aren't an institution. I'm married. Marriage is an institution. It can't be helped. Lisa's and my struggle is how to be in loving commitment without falling prey to horrid dangers of institutionalism. So, if they decide not to be institutional, then forget trying to organize, inspire, or motivate groups of people according to a particular vision or goal. I realize that all of Viola's fears would come rushing in: heresy or just plain theological silliness, power-struggles and abuses, drifting away from the biblical Jesus and faith, lone-rangering and maverick leadership, cultism, and a complete lack of control over what's going on in people's homes. However, if he's willing to become institutional (which I think he does if he wants his passions to bear fruit), then I would say this: I think Frank Viola and company just need to admit that they are a church-planting movement and get on with it. Now, from my observation, all of the people at my table were people who have left the institutional church with unsavory memories of it. I totally understand that and don't judge that at all. I believe them. Been there, got the scars! Given some too! But Viola should realize that his primary mission field is people who have left the institutional church and are looking for a way to fellowship with other believers in a safer, more authentic, and more biblical way. There was talk about saving the lost too, but this is obviously secondary because it is the found who finds them. I know many, many people who've left the institutional church, so the mission field is huge and the harvest is ripe! Some are ex-pastors too, so there are teachers out there looking for an audience. I suspect this will focus their efforts to accomplish their dreams and also give the people joining a feeling of legitimacy, that they are still somehow connected to the historic, holy, catholic church and not on some cosmic cult ride. Of course, having said this, it creates the problems Viola is trying to avoid, like structure, organization, hierarchy, trained and educated leadership, control, financial need, etc. These are just some of the things I would say. I like Frank and think he's on to something. I admire his zeal. Frank works hard to inspire others to find their original passion for Jesus again, their first love, or else it is all just a game. But many times I had the impression that they were fighting hard against being something that they already are... the church. They are just the church like it has always been since its birth. They are just the church in apparently new (some would say "biblical") clothes. No. They've just rearranged the furniture, but the house is the same. It's just a matter of style. My church works hard to be "organic", "authentic" and "biblical", and yet we are very institutional. Can't be helped.¬† Like Frank said, "There is just one church!" Exactly! We may look different, but we are brothers from the same mother.