Interactive Thoughts For Frank Viola on the Development of Ekklesia


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.


The Importance of Friendship


I have spent a lot of time lately thinking about this post from three and 1/2 years ago.

It’s the issue that simply does not go away for me.

And I think we all have completely underestimated it’s importance.

Especially in the Church.

And without it, we should question whether we are the Church at all.

What am I talking about?


Real friendship.

Not the kind that simply recognizes and appreciates acquaintances. Not the kind that remains content to keep things at the level where we embrace when we happen to see each other, but live separate the rest of the time.

Being the Church is a lot more about who we are together than who we are individually. We love God with all our heart, soul, and strength and love our neighbors, love one another, as much as we love ourselves…but do our lives really reflect this? Do we make space in our lives for one another? Do we have deep, personal connections with even just a few others around us that we are determined to invest in, grow with, and deepen in knowing as we run together toward the Savior?

Too often, I think the need for deep, personal friendships among Christians gets overshadowed by the perceived need to guard one’s image as a “Christian.” For the most part, I don’t think this is necessarily an articulated thought, or intentional and deliberate, but nevertheless it happens. We relate to each other through the lens of our spiritual image rather than the reality of who we are and the real caring we’d like to share.

In a real, Christ-centered friendship, there is a desire for the other person to succeed and grow. There is the giving of oneself to that end. We encourage one another, laugh and cry together, share our hopes, share our fears, share our victories, share our struggles, share our understanding of truth and communicate the events, joys and sorrows of our lives…even as we listen to one another and make space in our lives for each other. This all happens without feeling like we are going to be exploited, judged, evaluated and/or compared. We simply are commited to one another in practical, demonstrable, and heartfelt ways that are held in tangent to our love and commitment to Christ.

Why don’t these kind of relationships develop more often? That’s a good question. I think the answers are many:

  • We allow our schedules to overwhelm our sensibilities. Stephen Covey calls it the “tyranny of the urgent.” Sometimes I’m not sure if schedule and “busy-ness” clouds our priorities or actually reveals them. Lately, I’ve been thinking it’s the latter. Often, we over-spiritualize this one and say it’s because of the ministry to which God has called us, believing that has to take priority over everything else.
  • Deep friendships, by definition, mandate vulnerability and disclosure. Our fear of rejection, coupled with the desire to maintain a certain image projection, are more ingrained than we readily admit.
  • Our experience of actual rejection keeps us leary and weary as we contemplate potential friendship opportunities.
  • Our preoccupation with self keeps us from making the time investment.
  • We’re not really convinced that we need friendships like this. Afterall, we’re doing just fine on our own…(aren’t we?).

I’m sure we could come up with many others with a bit more thought.

QUESTION: Would ministers like Ted Haggard end up in a different place if they had these kind of friendships in their lives, void of pretense, and full of real, vulnerable sharing? Just a thought.

So here I am…three and 1/2 years since my previous post…and despite efforts in the right direction, I’m not sure I’m much farther down the line in the development of real, deep, friendships.
I have that kind of friendship with my wife…and I treasure what I have with her. I know a lot of marriages where that kind of friendship doesn’t exist. But I’m not sure I have it anywhere else. There are numerous people with whom I am friendly, and many, many that I care for deeply. When it comes to listing those with whom I am actively, currently engaged in this kind of mutual friendship, though, I’m not sure that I have progressed. If anything…it might be more honest to say that I’ve regressed.

And that saddens me a bit.

Tomorrow, though, is a new day…and I will do my best to continue to be honest, open, vulnerable, transparent and real. Lord, help me where I am unduly guarded!

“A friend is always loyal, and a brother is born to help in time of need.Proverbs 17:17

My Story


I was blessed to grow up in a Christian home. During my grade school years, my family attended a small United Methodist Church in rural Michigan. My parents were very active in the church, and so I was as well. I was involved in Sunday School, summer Bible programs and even a children’s correspondence course that worked to impart Biblical knowledge. Because of my environment, I first gave my life to Jesus at a very early age. To the casual observer, my life seemed to be wonderful. However, the outside view covered a darker, more painful, hidden reality.

I have heard about Jesus ever since I can remember. One night, when I was about six years old, and while my parents were out for the evening, I prayed with a babysitter to give my life to Christ. A few days later, she brought me a Bible to have as my very own. From that time on, I worked to incorporate the Word of God into many of my daily activities. Often, when the neighborhood kids and I would gather to play in the field behind my home, I would make them incorporate time for “church,” and I would read scriptures and preach about the Lord. Today, I believe that the Lord was calling me to ministry even at that tender age and it was that sense of calling that helped sustain me through times of confusion and abuse that were yet to come.

Sometime during the next few years, ages six to eight, a pattern of molestation developed in my life. It started with a teenage girl who lived nearby. On occasion, she would be asked to baby-sit (she was not the one who had prayed with me). Around that same time frame, I also began to be sexually abused by a significant relative in my life. The situation with the neighbor girl soon stopped as she went on to other pursuits and no longer came over, but the situation with the family member continued for the next several years until my early teens.

Around age ten, God began to do a new work in my family. My parents’ relationship with the Lord was undergoing a radical transformation as they began to become involved in what was being called “The Charismatic Movement” in the mid to late 1970’s. They had both experienced something called “the baptism of the Holy Spirit.” We soon started attending a new church, just developing, that was meeting on Sunday afternoons. It was like nothing I had ever seen or experienced before. The people would sing lots of contemporary, upbeat songs and seemed to enjoy doing it. They would lift their hands to the Lord, and many of the songs seemed to be directed right to Him. They would speak in tongues and sometimes interpret back what was being said. Occasionally, somebody would share a “prophecy,” where it seemed like the Lord was talking right to us through them. The pastor uncovered truths I had never heard others preach. They would pray for people to be healed and it would happen. There was an expectation when we gathered together that Jesus was right in the midst of us. The pastor of the church seemed to have a vibrant relationship with God like I had never seen before. Though I already believed in Jesus and had asked Him to be the Lord of my life, I suddenly was confronted with the fact that He wanted me to know Him on a very personal level. I began to understand more than ever that He is a very real and active God who wanted to be involved in all of my life. I had this tremendous sense that He knew everything about me and still loved me anyway. By the fall of 1978, the church moved its meetings to Sunday mornings and our family made the full time switch to attend these services.

During the next several years, my hunger and desire for the things of God began to steadily grow. I wanted to see the Lord move in and through my life in powerful ways. For a few years in a row, our church hosted special “Holy Ghost meetings” with a traveling singing group called “Jubilation.” The members of the group would stay in our homes during the week and minister in nightly revival services. I was fascinated by the group leader, Steve Gray, whom God used to write numerous songs and perform mighty miracles. During one of these meetings, while the group was leading the congregation in worship, I asked Jesus to fill me with the Holy Spirit. I had come to understand that a key to living a supernatural life was living in the fullness of the Holy Spirit and I had begun to realize that I could have that kind of life, even as a young person. From that time on, I began to speak in tongues and was filled with an invigorated sense of boldness and purpose. I was thirteen years old.

Near the end of my freshman year of high school, I made a determination that I was going to live for Jesus with all that was within me. I decided that it did not matter what others thought of me, but I was going to be vocal about my belief in Jesus and would strive to be active in helping others experience the love of Christ. I wore Christian T-shirts to school to spark conversations about the Lord. I witnessed to friends by passing out “Jesus rock” cassettes for them to hear. I took part in a weekly before-school prayer time and an after-school Bible study. I became active in the church, serving on the worship team by playing the guitar and later, the drums. I was active in the youth ministry and even helped our group organize special services where the teens would lead the worship, perform skits, share testimonies and preach the Word of God. By the end of my sophomore year, I knew that God was calling me to be a pastor. I did my best to live in such a way that others would be drawn to Jesus. When I graduated high school, some of my classmates and even one of my teachers, had given their hearts over to the Lord.

While in high school, I also became very performance driven. The teenage years are awkward for all of us, but the abuse in my life left me feeling like I was “dirty” and therefore different from everybody else. I often dealt with great insecurities and constantly felt like I was a second-class citizen. Being abused by a relative is such a devastating thing because on one hand I desired and needed their love and care, but on the other, the demonstration and understanding of that love would get all twisted due to the sexual aspects of the relationship. Plus, I constantly felt the pressure of having a secret that could not be revealed to anyone. This contributed to a strong fear of rejection. If you are reading this and are carrying the guilt and shame of similar events, let me strongly encourage you to talk it through with a loving Christian. God wants to set you free! I compensated for all of this at the time by working to prove myself in every other area. I was an all “A” student, and became involved in many extracurricular activities where I excelled. I was first chair in the band percussion section, I took lead roles in school dramas, and I played a central role in our championship debate team. I enjoyed athletics, but I struggled more in that area, so I tended to avoid sports. If I couldn’t be the best at something, I didn’t want to participate. If others could see my accomplishments, I supposed they wouldn’t be able to see how “different” I was because of the abuse.

At eighteen years of age, I went off to college, attending Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, OK. I was pursing the call of God on my life to become a pastor and be in full time ministry. By this time, I thought that the negative experiences of my childhood where successfully buried and I was eager to get on with the future. Just because I hadn’t talked about my history, however, did not mean that it was really buried. I was affected in ways and in areas that I did not fully understand and therefore had not confronted. I still dealt with all kinds of internal conflict, having a heart for ministry and yet feeling tainted and unworthy. I also carried significant intimacy issues and struggled with areas of sexual temptation. During high school, I had dated just a few girls, but had done so over long periods of time (my shortest relationship was around 18 months). I didn’t know how to really share my heart with someone since I was so used to keeping secrets and emotional walls between myself and others. I was inclined to be physically affectionate, but emotionally distant with the girls that I liked. Because of the sexual abuse, I had a tendency to want to express affection in sexual terms but because of what the Lord had done in me, I also wanted to be holy and right before Him. I almost always felt conflicted and at war within myself. By the grace of God, I never fully gave in to the sexual temptations with those girls, but I struggled greatly with a fantasy mindset that left me wracked with guilt and times of self-loathing.

My college years began another real turning point for me. For the first time in my life, I struggled with the academic load. My habit had been to run from the things I could not excel in doing. This emerged in college as procrastination. Although I aced my tests and readily absorbed my classroom lectures, I began to lag behind in paperwork and writing. I would turn in papers days late. The work would be “A” quality, but often was graded down significantly because of being late. Sometimes, I never even got them finished. By my third year, I had lost my academic scholarship and even failed a few classes. I knew that I was at a “make it or break it” point in my life that would affect the ministry that God had for me and my walk with Him for years to come. That year, however, God did some amazing things to get me back on track.

First, I got involved in a church called Open Bible Fellowship. The pastor seemed so transparent in his preaching and so balanced. He definitely seemed to be passionate for the Lord and eager to pursue whatever God wanted to do. I began to look for ways to become active in the church and eventually got involved with the worship team and the kids’ ministry. Second, I met the woman who would become my wife in the fall of 1988. The more I got to know her, the more I was struck by her creativity, her genuine love for people and her passion for the Lord in addition to her natural beauty. During the Christmas break that year, I decided I was definitely going to ask her out when I got back to school. Our connection was almost instant, and in May, 1990, we were married.

I still had a year of school left because I had taken some extra classes outside the scope of my degree program and because I had a couple to make up from the earlier years. During the time that my wife and I dated, I became more focused and my grades once again began to climb. Now she worked, while I finished school (she graduated two weeks before we were married). That same summer, Open Bible Fellowship invited me to join their pastoral staff on a part-time basis to launch and oversee their youth ministry. I agreed, and both my wife and I felt that God had divinely placed us there not only to serve, but also to learn about all areas of ministry. The church had approximately 180 people in weekly attendance and we believed that the Lord told us to absorb all we could while we were there because He would use that training in our later years of ministry.

The next five and half years were like a whirlwind. I finished school, earning a B.A. in Pastor Studies, and eventually began full-time work as the youth pastor at the church while my wife worked full time in the customer service department of our local electric utility. Three years into our marriage, she gave birth to our first son. What a blessing! OBF grew rapidly, with around 900 people in regular attendance on a weekly basis. Life was busy and it seemed like we were always on the run. Then, in November of 1994, a powerful move of the Holy Spirit came to our church that began another work of transformation in my life. The Lord began to work in our lives (and in countless others throughout our church) in unexpected ways. We would experience long bouts of shaking, crying, laughing and more as we would invite the Holy Spirit to fill us with more of Him. We weren’t sure what all the outward manifestations were about, but began to recognize over time the wonderful results and inner healings taking place. All kinds of physical healings and salvations began to take place throughout the church as well. Our heart-cry was for holiness, for the lost and for more of the presence of God in our daily lives. Our Sunday night services began to last until midnight or later as people would stay at the altar, experiencing outpourings from the Lord. Though it was all good, accommodating this move of God called for an increased work load at the church. In addition, we were expecting our second child, which also raised the demand for time commitments, money needs and more. Similar to my mid-college years, the pressure began to get to me and I began to emotionally shut down, distancing myself from others, even from my spouse, so that they wouldn’t see my fears or inadequacies.

Looking back, I see the faithfulness of Father God reaching out to me. He could see my future, my fears and my frustrations. He was pouring out the Holy Spirit in greater measure to equip me for what was to come, but I didn’t understand that or perceive it until later. At the time, I was once again feeling overwhelmed, but I don’t think I could admit that to myself at the time. I could tell that I was becoming emotionally distant, but I couldn’t figure out how to stop it. Communication between my wife and I began to break down. Life became about going through the motions of work and getting through the day instead of the sharing of our dreams, goals, passions and more. Instead of sharing my heart with my wife, I held things inside, convincing myself that I had to be strong and handle my issues on my own. After all, I’m the man! It didn’t take too long until we were at a breaking point. She made an appointment with a Christian marriage counselor and told me that if I wanted things to work out, I had better meet her there. I was scared out of my mind, but I did not want to lose her. Those sessions with the counselor turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to me.

During the next several months, we met with the counselor, sometimes together, and sometimes just me. In the process of these meetings, I shared all of my history. The counselor helped me understand how my past had shaped me. He also helped me take responsibility for my own actions and behaviors. My wife and I learned to really share our thoughts, feelings, wants and more with one another. I learned to open up my heart and not keep secrets. Through this season, God did a work of restoration and unity for which I am eternally grateful. I came to truly understand the Father’s love for me and how He had been working in me throughout my life. Because of His acceptance, I was set free from my fear of rejection. God did a tremendous cleansing and healing work in me. Late that Spring, our daughter was born. Another blessing! During the months that followed, we continued to have powerful encounters with the Lord as He brought healing to my life and to our marriage. It would also prove to be a season of transition.

In late 1995, we both began to hear God call us to move to my home town in Michigan. The charismatic church that I had been part of during my childhood was in need of a youth minister. It was a hard decision. We left a growing, vibrant ministry to go to this much smaller church which had recently been through some difficult times. We believed that the Lord wanted to send us to this church for a season, three to four years, to help them regain some stability and some direction. I also felt that the Lord would move us into a place of pastoral leadership after this time. Compounding the decision was the fact that my childhood abuser was still involved in the family and lived there. Although I had reached a place of forgiveness in my heart toward this person, I could not risk the possibility that now my children could be potentially exposed to the same abuse. Yet, we distinctly felt the call of God to return home. We decided to obey God and recognized that I would have to confront this person and expose what had happened. We moved in January, 1996, and I took on the role of associate pastor, overseeing the youth ministry, the worship team and eventually the small-groups ministry. Shortly after arriving, however, I arranged for an appointment with my abuser in order to finally put things to rest.

I talked to this person about how their abuse had affected me over the years, how it had violated my innocence, adversely influenced my relationships and damaged my emotions. The abuser became incredibly contrite. While I had been away, God had also been doing a work in their heart. I talked about my fears concerning my own children being connected to this person, but also talked about how the Lord gives so much grace to the humble.

“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” 1 John 1:9

“Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.” James 5:16

My abuser was overwhelmed with remorse. We talked at length about why those things had happened. They agreed to expose their secret, and confessed to the local pastor, to their spouse, and to a few significant others. It was in some ways a devastating time for the family, and in other ways a real time of healing. They undertook sessions with their own counselor and finally came to terms with the issues that had shaped them. Today, my family and I have a healed and restored relationship with this person. Although I still have the memories of what happened, I no longer have the pain. Jesus is my healer!

My wife and I served that home church for four years. During that season, I got to experience new levels of ministry. I became a curriculum writer and regional conference speaker for Charismalife Publications (a division of Strang Communications in Orlando, Florida) from 1996 to 1999. In 1998, I led a youth missions team to Mexico for Teen Mania. In 1999, I got to take part in a medical missions trip to the mountains of Honduras with a local physician and a team of people he put together. We had come to Michigan to help a church family heal after a time of division and found that God was healing us, healing me, and launching us into greater ministry experience. Looking back, I recognize that the Lord was using this time to finalize His preparation for us to become senior pastors.

In February, 2000, I became the pastor of an Open Bible Church in Ohio. In 2002, He added to our family again with the birth of our third child. I continue to see His hand of blessing on our lives. Today, I believe that I am in the exact center of what God has for me at this time and I am poised for the future. Our marriage is strong and my life is healed. His character qualities continue to come to life in me as I live in submission to His Lordship. I walk in the power of the Holy Spirit and have seen many people come to Jesus and experience the life and healing that He brings. The time here in my current church has not always been easy, (life and ministry regularly bring difficult situations that stretch and grow us), but I am meeting the challenges head on by the grace of God, confident in the Lord’s calling and living proof of His restorative power. I live my life in the open and work to be transparent and real with each person I encounter. There is still a lot of growing to do, but I no longer have the same struggles and issues that once plagued me. The Lord has turned my weaknesses to strength and I am allowing Jesus to be my source as I depend on Him every day. I am not content, however, to rest on my heels and kick back. This is a time when God is looking to build His church and to push back the gates of hell in the lives of people. Each day is a new adventure!

“No, dear brothers and sisters, I am still not all I should be, but I am focusing all my energies on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I strain to reach the end of the race and receive the prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us up to heaven.” Philippians 3:13-14 NLT

“Thank you Lord for Your cleansing power. I look forward to many more years of walking in right relationship with You and seeing Your Kingdom come into the lives of all who call on Your name. Even so, come quickly Lord Jesus. My heart yearns for You.”