Frank Viola is the author of numerous books (Pagan Christianity, Reimagining Church, From Eternity to Here, Finding Organic Church, and others) and a champion for what he calls “Organic Church.” Though that phrase is loaded with all kinds of nuance and gets used to mean all sorts of things by all sorts of people, Viola’s use reflects his understanding and effort for more than 17 years to move the Church into a place of discovering, pursuing, maintaining and enjoying a living, vibrant relationship with God. For that to happen, he argues it can only be found in the context of true ekklesia (the biblical Greek word used to describe the followers of Christ who share their lives together as a way of discovering and accurately displaying Christ). This often stands in stark contrast to what is found in most institutional churches (whether they be full-fledged denominational institutions or simple, house gatherings) that all too often become centered on formats, hierarchy, and instead of deep, relational life-sharing. In that, his point is well taken!
I find Viola’s writings to be inspirational, challenging, and sometimes down-right bothersome. There are times when I think his criticisms are right on target and other moments when they are completely over-stated…but they always cause me to think and internally scrutinize. I have traded just a couple of brief emails with him over the past few years as I’ve attempted to process and apply some of what I’ve read. Where I most align with him concerns his hope for the ekklesia. What he describes, as I understand him, predominately resonates with me as well. Real discipleship is not merely about the formation and development of Biblical knowledge and the display of external behaviors. It is about the discovery and incorporation of the life of Jesus in a relational context through which we are transformed from the inside-out. I hope I’ve described Viola’s view accurately.
The above all serves as introduction and context for some thoughts that I want to address to Mr. Viola regarding his blog offering from last summer “Discipleship, Mission, and Church: A Plea to Learn Our History” (July, 2009). It’s a piece of which I’ve become aware through a link in his article, “What is Organic Church? A Plea for Clarity.” I had wanted to leave a simple comment on that blog entry, but found myself waxing long. Instead, I’m offering my interaction below.
Of course, I have no idea if Mr. Viola will respond (and I’m sure he has much else to occupy his time and focus), so feel free to add any of your thoughts to the mix as well!
Thanks for writing this clarification on “Organic Church,” Frank. Words mean so many things to different people, affecting both the speaker and the hearer. One of the criticisms of the “emerging” movement a few years back was that it seemed to consist of nothing more than continual haggling over definitions! And yet it is so easy to get caught up in momentary buzzwords.
In addition to this article (What is Organic Church?), the one linked to point 5, about the two streams of being “missional,” I also quite enjoyed. I missed it the first time around. Unfortunately, the comments on that post have now been closed…which is understandable considering the time frame since it was first published. Instead, I’ve opted to offer some interaction here.
Although I now serve within the framework of an institutional church, my heart and efforts have long been to move us in the direction of better being the ekklesia. I don’t believe that the two are necessarily mutually exclusive by definition. However, this pursuit of ekklesia has been difficult and costly, and is by no means complete. Over the years, our numbers have shrunk dramatically (affecting so much of what we used to do and the morale of many) but I believe that we are in many ways healthier than before. That’s not the same as saying we are healthy, that we have “arrived,” just that the final pages on our book have not yet been turned!
With that in mind, my interest in what you are writing here reflects my wish to internalize, evaluate, and compare outcomes and applications with my current situation. You describe two streams of thought in the missional world. The first, embraced by many, is that the church exists for the saving of souls. The second, the one that holds your heart, is that the church exists as part of the fulfillment of the eternal purpose of God: to live in vibrant, loving relationship with Him, reflecting and flowing in the fulness of who He is. In the former description, the church is the mechanism that serves the greater end of evangelism. In the latter, the cross is the mechanism that serves the greater end of eternal, divine, loving relationship…something which the church is meant to display and to which evangelism serves as an introduction. The words are mine, but am I accurately describing your perspective? Assuming I am, it is this latter view that greatly grips my heart. Though I am heavily invested and committed to evangelism, it is to this hope and embrace of relational living and interaction with God.
The contrast you describe becomes clear when we take a look at the way many institutional churches define their mission. It was during the late ’80’s/early ’90’s that I was first introduced to the idea of developing “vision statements” that could serve to better focus and streamline church programs and direction. At the time, I came across a common theme/statement that began to be utilized by a great number of ministries across the country: “our mission is to make fully devoted disciples of Jesus Christ.” My reaction to that pervasive view has always been mixed. There is a part of me that says, “Yes! Of course what matters is becoming true followers of Jesus!” There is another part of me that says the phrase is redundant. Can we be a disciple if we are not fully devoted? How then do we measure full devotion? The result then becomes a series of external programs, activities, or milestones that we use to evaluate an internal transformation. It becomes a process centered in checklists, classes, and faithful service attendance. Rarely is it occupied with relationship and encountering the living Christ.
Over the past several years, our local body has worked together to develop a defining acronym. We have come to reflect our mission in the following imperative: “In order to mature in Christ, we must develop our A.R.M.” The idea of maturity in Christ is meant to reflect this concept of a loving, relational vibrancy with God through which our lives put Him on display. The “A.R.M” stands for three areas of development: becoming increasingly “Adorational,” “Relational,” and “Missional.” Being “Adorational” has to do with loving God with all our heart, soul and strength. We obey Him because we love Him. We yield to Him as an act of worship. Being “Relational” has to do with loving others as we love ourselves. We are not meant to walk alone, but in loving community…sharing our strengths, weaknesses, joys, hopes, service and needs with one another. By this shall all people know we are His disciples: our love for one another. Being “Missional” recognizes that our perspective must be greater than self focus. We must wake up, look around, and see that the fields are ready for harvest. As Jesus went proclaiming the Kingdom and healing the sick, so too must we showcase Him in our neighborhoods, cities, regions and beyond. Though listed separately, these three aspects compose one “A.R.M.” They must grow together and are inseparable. Our development begins to plateau, or even regresses, unless there is embrace of all three aspects. Additionally, these aspects aren’t meant to tell us what to do as much as to describe how to be. They hopefully reflect attitude and mindset, not merely performance.
These thoughts developed long before I received the opportunity to read your books and discover your view on embracing “Organic Church.” I wonder if they strike you as being congruous with your perspective on being the ekklesia, or if they still seem like something quite set apart from that.
Regardless, thanks for the continual flow of resources, writings and more. I find them insightful and challenging.