Before reading today’s post, I admit right at the outset that I have mixed feelings about Frank Viola’s blog post a few weeks ago called Why I’m No Longer Involved in “Organic Church” (For Now) & Why You Can’t Find One.
On the one hand, I wanted to write to him or post on my own blog here that he’s got it all wrong.
But when I went on to read the article carefully and then spent a few days processing it… I begrudgingly have to admit… he’s got quite a good point.
If we just look at reality and consider our experiences trying to find an organic church (whatever that is, exactly), it might actually be harder to find than we want to admit.
At least for right now.
At first, I wanted to be annoyed that Frank has seemingly changed his tune over the years, at least on the surface in the eyes of those not paying close attention or who just discovered him or one of his books. Even though he admits and states he still stands by his past books, I really am just annoyed that he’s probably right, not that he’s changed his perspective. Because he hasn’t, despite what people may say if they read his books for the first time this year, and then proceed to visit his blog posts from the years since he wrote those books.
In my most recent post, I share my thoughts on a few specific things he mentioned.
Oh, and in case you’re a visitor to my site and we don’t know one another, you need to take into account I’m writing this from the mission field in Peru. In a sense, I feel that gives me invaluable insight that I would not otherwise get if I were only comparing my experiences inside the Church in North America. That being said, I will not be referring to my experiences in missional community, organic church, or whatever term you like best by saying, “well, you’re wrong because here in Peru I’ve seen differently.”
But I’m mostly going to be agreeing with things from Viola’s post and adding some of my own thoughts that happen to be based on my experience living in Latin America. To keep this from getting longer than it will be, I’m going to be linking to relevant posts where I’ve elaborated more on my thoughts already. Please forgive me for this post having more links than a Polish sausage factory.
Lost Interest in All Things Organic
When I wrote my “organic church” books 8 years ago, there was massive interest in the organic expression of the church among people in their 20s, 30s, and 40s in North America.
So the season was ripe for written articulations on the subject.
Beginning in 2011, however, the tide of interest began to subside. Today, it has sharply eroded among that age-group.
Don’t misunderstand. There are people in that age-group who are not only interested, but they’re part of such communities (some of you reading this are, in fact). But as I’ve said numerous times before, organic expressions of the church – the way I’ve described in my books — are exotically rare today.
I’ve read the particular book he’s referring to a few years ago, and I’ve listened to the audio version more recently, and I left a review of Reimagining Church on my blog (you can check out my review here). To my pleasant surprise, Frank contacted me through Facebook in a very kind way, and also politely asked me to reword or remove some things I had said linking him to the house church movement, telling me he actually was against it and didn’t advocate for it.
I remember being grateful to hear from him, but scratching my head a little, wondering how I could have misinterpreted that from reading his book. Though it wasn’t a “house church” book, I thought, or at least at the time, that the two things overlap so much without being the exact same thing that it was harmless if I defined them both similarly.
The more time I spent on his website, the more I could see that where he’s at in his writing, or at least his blogging, was consistent with what he was telling me, after all. If you didn’t read his website, but just read one of those two books, and then went and read this post, you might be in for a bit of a shock. If you knew this was a gradual thing over the last several years (he says so many times in the comments on the post that 2011 was kind of a transition or pivot point), then last week’s post won’t have come as a surprise to you.
Either way, I had to read it carefully and process for a few days before reacting/responding to it in this fashion and now I’m finally publishing my own thoughts, for better or worse, but at least just to process out loud.
By the way Frank, if you read this, I’m trying super-hard to make sure I’m not getting anything wrong that you’d ask me to re-word or re-write again this time ;)
Facing the Reality
Few people I know personally had actually read Reimagining Church until or unless I recommended it to them, but many people have read Pagan Christianity which he co-wrote with Frank Barna. These friends would often tell me I needed to read that, telling me they felt Viola totally trashes the origins of where we get our modern-day idea of “church meetings” from. I found this confusing because I didn’t get that vibe from RC, but as Viola states in one of the two (I forget which at the moment), it’s important to not just read one of those two books but to read them both or you would get an imbalanced idea of his thoughts on ekklesia.
Well, that was for sure!
The two books are both the same in the sense that you can have opposite sides of the same coin. I am glad I read them both (my personal favorite is another one altogether called From Eternity to Here, though, which led to this episode of my podcast called Come Up Out of Babylon and Build God’s Temple).
In explaining his reasons for why he’s finding such expressions of organic church rare, he gives two reasons:
Reason 1: While the idea of Christ-centered community is appealing to many, the cost for securing such community is obscenely high. So much so that the masses of 20s, 30s, and 40s prefer to be found in four other places that are far more convenient:
* Neo-Reformed churches.
* Mega churches.
* Liturgical “high church” assemblies.
* No church of any kind. These represent the “Dones” who have washed their hands of any regular gatherings or community-life. It’s lonelier, but far safer.
My experience in Peru has been very similar. Very. We have had a small community of believers, and in recent years a ministry school as well where we try to live intentionally “missional” and in which discipleship and teaching others to make disciples is our core value (that and generosity). While we don’t consider ourselves organic or house church per se, it’s easy to think we are if you were to come and spend a few weeks with us or look at us from the outside looking in. We just simply don’t have our own building, and so we meet in homes.
We also have prayer meetings every morning of the week (except Saturday) and on any given day, groups of students, or members of the church eating together. We are an extremely tight-knit community, and that has its advantages (it’s harder to fall through the cracks) as well as its disadvantages (some have expressed to me they felt like they were only a part of the “family” if they threw themselves wholly in).
That being said, when counseling others who want to imitate or do something similar to what they perceive us to be doing in Peru, I always warn them that more people will be “interested” in it than committed to actually following through on it.
I discussed this in my interview with Chad Kidd, admitting that sometimes my wife and I feel that doing life-on-life discipleship as we are in Chorrillos is extremely hard work and maybe we should just go back to warming a pew in the back of the church where we can be left alone. In many ways and for many reasons, it would just be much easier to go be a part of the bigger institutional system.
But we would be unsatisfied and unfulfilled.
We’ve had too much enjoyment and benefit from what larger and “institutional” offer to be completely satisfied with what we’re doing in this smaller local setting in Peru. But yet have got too much of the smaller “organic” missional thing in us to really be satisfied or feeling like we’re fruitful in our calling if we just became pew warmers in something larger.
It’s like the question that comes up is…where do we fit then?
There isn’t really something in-between.
It feels like there’s only one or the other.
Continuing with Frank’s article,
Reason 2: The word “organic church” has been hijacked to mean 1,001 different things, all of which are radically different. For that reason, I stopped using the term altogether. It’s devolved into a clay word that’s been molded like silly putty into sheer meaninglessness. The fact that the term no longer has a monolithic meaning has added to the disinterest.
The majority of those who are interested in the organic expression of the church right now (whatever they think the term means) are people in their 50s, 60s, and 70s.
And most of them are having a horrible time finding others who are interested in meeting outside institutional lines who live in the same state, let alone the same city.
In addition, when they do contact a group that purports to be “organic,” it’s almost always a small-is-beautiful version of the institutional church. And some of them are highly-legalistic, highly-toxic groups.
Here’s What I Have to Admit (If I’m Being Honest)
That last paragraph is what I was getting at, but fortunately the “small is a beautiful version of the IC” is not a legitimate complaint I think people would make about our Oikos down here. I’ve seen over and over again over the last four years of being a part of Oikos that many people love what we’re doing… initially, until they realize how much it costs. That we don’t easily facilitate spectatorship or passive Christianity. That it’s not a spectator version of church. But that we build the very relationships some of us have said we felt like we couldn’t find in the institutional church. But we’re still not even doing what we’re doing out of a beef with the I.C (I repeat over and over again on my blog that we’re not dones, but we just don’t have our own building and houses work so far until we do).
We often times have had people start coming out on Sunday mornings or to some of our morning prayer meetings, or our weekly Bible study Lili and I were holding in our home, and they declare in front of everybody how committed they’re going to be to us and that this is what they’ve been looking for in a church.
And then a month later they’re gone and don’t answer their phone.
It’s gotten to the point that whenever someone says that to us we tell them “wait a month to make sure you know what you’re in for.”
I don’t go by a title, but it seems that whenever someone affectionately refers to me as ‘pastor’, they’re usually the ones who disappear after a few months.
Community is a crucible. A lot of people yearn for it until they get refined in it. I suspect that might be why many decide to back away from the fire once they find themselves in it, but that’s worth exploring in another post or maybe even a podcast.
We see a lot of neighbors and visitors dip their toes in the water but then that’s it. A few others over the years have let us invest a lot in them, and then eventually they go back to the very mega-churches or institution they claimed to appreciate that we weren’t. Small isn’t always big.
The more I explore this and seek after it, the more I’m finding certain patterns that keep emerging:
- Some give up and just go back to “institutional church”.
- Others try organic for a while, and for whatever reasons, whether similar as I’ve described above or otherwise, don’t find what they’re looking for and don’t go back to institutional church but become “a done“, or
- They become a done straight away without trying something more organic.
These three options of course aren’t the only outcomes, but numbers 2 and 3 probably define the people I hear the most from in emails and personal messages. The stories vary but have similar elements.
What Are Your Thoughts?
So what do you think?
Is it impossible to find Organic Church? Is it just a pipe dream?
Does your personal journey contradict or confirm what Frank Viola is saying? Are you in the same boat?