I’m currently reading: Pagan Christianity, and I had mixed feelings before I ever started reading it. After the reviews I had read, I expected a light-weight treatment of the subject, sprinkled with unreasonable condemnation and with a touch of bitterness toward the “Institutional Church” or IC, as “insiders” refer to it. Having now read around half the book, I would describe it as accessible to the average reader. It’s not a college text. Maybe Viola could write a college text, but that’s not his target audience. I don’t see the occasional hints of condemnation as unreasonable and I can usually see the author’s point. And yes, he does sound just a touch bitter at times. Ain’t we all?
I’ll talk about the whole book later, but for now, just the intro and chapters 1 & 2. There’s a lot of intro, and for me, it wasn’t worth the time to read it. Nothing new in my experience, but not everyone has the same life experiences, so your opinion may differ. If you’re rushed for time, you can skip it and maybe come back later.
Chapter one starts with a “typical” family going to church. It didn’t relate with me, but it’s short, and this chapter serves as a “guide” to the book. The author will refer back to it, so skim over it.
Chapter two deals with church buildings and why they’re designed as they are. I found it fascinating, as there was a lot here I didn’t know. The authors stress that the church building is not the church. The church (which I will do in bold from here on out) is the people–followers of Christ–who form His body. I learned this as a young child, so it isn’t revolutionary knowledge. We understand that words can have several different shades of meaning, and some words even have contradictory meanings. Nevertheless, what we say with our mouths affects what we think with our minds. How often have you said things like, “They need to build a bigger church (building)” or “What a beautiful church” ?
When I say “I’m headed to church”, I usually mean that I’m going to some sort of church service or prayer meeting. I’m going to be with the church at the church and we’re going to have church (meaning a church function of some sort).
Now if I were going to meet with a group of believers at the park for a picnic, even though we are, collectively, the body of Christ, I admit I probably wouldn’t say, “I’m going to church” unless we planned to do something overtly spiritual like worship or do a Bible study or have a baptismal service, etc.
Christian churches didn’t own buildings until Constantine became the first “Christian” Caesar. Christian people did own real property and in many cases persecution would not have prevented them from having a dedicated meeting house, but they chose not to. But what about this makes it wrong to own a church building to house the church when we’re having church?”
I grew up in the United Methodist Church. We were always doing stuff together. People spent a lot of time our house. My dad was a builder, so we always had nice houses, and my mom was the consummate hostess. It was a wonderful church and a big part of the reason was that God used my mom’s hospitality to make it so. Everyone belonged. Everyone knew everyone else and felt (and was) welcome in the body. I don’t remember getting anything special out of the church services, and I have no particular fondness or distaste for the church building, but that wasn’t where the church became the body of Christ. We didn’t have “religious” stuff going on at our home most of the time. It was all social–people getting to know and love one another. That’s what happened all around me, and that’s what made St. John’s the church it was. That’s the church I’ve been searching for and never finding ever since. I came close in a little church in Custer, SD, which met in the pastor’s home. It’s a good church, but it lost a lot of its appeal when we moved to a “real” church building. Why? I begin to understand.
As long as we were meeting in our pastor’s home, we were very informal. Though we had the traditional order of service–music, prayer, sermon, prayer, offering, music–or some variation thereof, we felt free to interrupt the pastor with a question or comment. In the interludes, we might have a prayer request or members of the congregation might offer prayer or (as it was a charasmatic church) a message in tongues with an interpretation or a prophecy, etc. As a member of the worship team, I was also free to give any exhortation I might think appropriate as well as insert an extra song or change a song if we felt we should. So there was a lot of participation. This gradually changed when we bought a building from a dying church in town and merged with them. I think the authors are right. I think the architecture did it.
Sitting in an audience, looking up at the performers on the platform really discourages most people from yelling up to the preacher, “Hey, what did you mean by . . .?” or “Why do you think that verse says that? I’ve always thought it said this?” No. Audiences are expected to be politely quiet or to utter a hushed “Amen” or a lusty “Preach it, Brother!” as appropriate to the particular denomination. They are expected to take it all in–not to participate except to sing along with the worship leader’s choice of songs, repeating as directed.
In the new Roman basilica church, people were not permitted, nor would they have been inclined, to interrupt or carry on as we did in my Custer church. I’ve been wondering why we have so few people participating in volunteer work–ministry–in my current church and now I think I may understand that a little better. We’ve all been inadvertently trained by our own architecture to sit quietly, listen, sing along with the hymns, shake a few hands, and leave when the service is over. This is what “having church” entails. It doesn’t include sharing life together as in my childhood church, or sharing during the meeting as in my Custer church. It means come in, sing, sit down and listen, give an offering, follow the announcements, and go out to dinner (but not typically with other church members.)
So, is this book worth reading? I think it is. I’m still reading it with caution and I still expect to eventually run across things I can’t accept, but I can’t disagree with anything major in Pagan Christianity as of yet. I suspect this book will be, not only okay, but disturbingly on-the-mark. I’ll let you know my thoughts as I go along. By the by, lots of people do have opinions on this book, and I’d love to hear yours. (But only if you’ve read it, or at least read the part you’re commenting on). What do you think of the whole architecture (or form dictates function) idea? How do you propose it should be fixed (if it needs fixing) and if not, why not?