Correspondence on Pagan Christianity

By Dene McGriff


Thank you all for the wonderful and swift reaction to the article on “The Old Wineskin—Pagan Christianity  ”.  A number of people referred me to Frank Viola’s website and an article titled “Will the Emerging Church Fully Emerge?”   So the question is this, is Viola into the “emergent church” movement, especially since he features an article?  And isn’t Barna just another pollster? Very good questions, and worth a studied answer. 


I was skeptical when I saw the book was co-written by George Barna of Barna and Associates, a Christian Research firm.  Actually, I have subscribed to Barna’s monthly newsletter for a couple of years.  He added facts and figures.  I look at Barna as the modern day conscience of the church.  He keeps it honest and asks tough questions.  His research is no white wash of the church but usually quite an exposure of its true condition.


I am fully aware of the Emerging Church movement and have done a tremendous amount of research although I haven’t written much on the subject as yet.  In the last article, I recommended the Lighthouse Trails website as a good source of material.  Like many movements, it is not all black and white.  Some leaders are taking it down the New Age path with a form of Eastern Meditation they call “contemplative prayer”.  There are certainly connections to Robert Schuller, Brian McClarin, Rick Warren and many others with questionable practices.


Yet, it is a significant movement in Christian circles today.  To a certain extent, it is a reaction against what many consider to be a church that is so alienated from the “world” and out of touch with the “unbelievers”, they are merely “preaching to the choir” week after week.  Within the movement is a cry for a more relevant church, with a vibrant living message.  The interesting thing about the emerging church movement is that it is the cry, especially of the younger generation, for something real and relevant.


If you look at the articles in Frank Viola’s website, you will notice that, just like our website, many of the articles originate from readers questions.  Frank begins his response as I would looking at the good points in the movement – points of agreement.  So often Christians think the worst and go immediately into an attack mode.  Frank tries to build a bridge so people will listen to him later when he begins to contrast what he is saying with the emergent church movement.  You have to give the movement some credit for at least challenging the Christian establishment and conventional “evangelical” wisdom.  We shouldn’t be so quick to condemn but learn to ask questions and at least understand what they are saying. 


So after covering the pros to the emerging church movement, Viola goes on for quite a few pages with seven very detailed points on the flaws of the movement and where it has missed the point.  What he is saying is that the people in emergent church movement are asking the right questions but they haven’t gone nearly far enough.  Let’s look at some of his main points:


1.     The emerging church phenomenon has wonderfully articulated some of the major flaws of the modern church, yet like all of its predecessors, it has failed to identify and take dead aim at one of the chief roots of most of its ills.”


“Gods people can engage in high-talk about community life, Body functioning, and Body life, but unless the modern pastoral role is utterly abandoned in a given church, Gods people will never be unleashed to function in freedom under the Headship of Jesus Christ. I have had pastors vow to me that they were the exception. However, upon visiting their congregations, it was evident that the people did not know the first thing about functioning as a Body on their own. Neither were they given any practical tools on knowing the Lord intimately and living by His life. The reason is that the flaws of the modern pastoral role are actually built into the role itself.


“The pastor, by his mere presence, causes an unhealthy dependence upon himself for ministry, direction, and guidance. Thus, as long as he hangs around delivering sermons, the people in the church to which he belongs will never be fully set free to function on their own in a church meeting setting.”


2.     “The emerging church phenomenon has neglected the role of the itinerant church planter.“


Frank asks, “Is it possible that the emerging church phenomenon has neglected to look at the way churches were planted in the first century, and instead, has opted to follow the path of modern missionary movements and traditional pastoral systems?”


3.     The emerging church phenomenon has overlooked what Paul calls the eternal purpose (Eph. 3:11), which is Gods ultimate intention in creation and redemption.


“It has been my observation that the entire thrust of the emerging church phenomenon is rooted in how best to meet peoples needs.”  It’s all about us and little about God and what He wants.  Please see the rest of the article for his complete comments.

4.     In his next point, Frank observes that there is a lot of talk about “body functioning, community life, and equipping of the saints” but very little action.    “In my assessment, these churches have moved just a few inches forward on a very long road.”


5.     “ While the emerging church phenomenon has placed a much needed emphasis on the Jesus of the Gospels, it has focused on imitating His outward conduct instead of exploring His internal relationship with an indwelling God which was the source of His conduct.”  Viola points out that the secret of the Christian life is not imitating Jesus, but living as He did in fellowship with the father.  And that isn’t something just the “full-time” clergy does, but should be a part of the life of every believer.


6.     “While the emerging church phenomenon has done a stellar job in emphasizing narrative in the Gospel story, it has neglected to take seriously the value of the narrative of the entire first-century church as a necessary model for interpreting the New Testament.” 
In order to understand this point, you need to read his book “Pagan Christianity” and his full explanation in the article.  It has to do with taking a “holistic” rather a piecemeal “cut and paste” approach to the Bible.  It also has to do with understanding the corporate nature of the early church.


7.     His final point is that churches tend to specialize in little things: a doctrine, a way of worship, a practice or program(s) but miss the point that the church is the corporate expression of the living experience of the individual believers.  We tend to view the church as a bag of “tools” rather than a living organism.


Frank Viola finds a certain affinity to the “emerging church” movement mainly because they are at least starting to ask some of the right questions.  But just like the reformers, the puritans and everyone sense, they don’t go nearly far enough but continue to patch the old wineskin rather than abandon it altogether and let the Lord do something new.  As long as pastors continue to try and patch the old, they will never willingly abandon their honored position, income and aura of expertise for the simple body life of the New Testament.


Dene McGriff, Sacramento

July 2008