Tom Gilson

Pagan Christianity?

Book Review

Frank VIola and George Barna say the post-apostolic Church Fathers, Augustine, John Calvin, Martin Luther, Jonathan Edwards, and John Wesley and others like them were desperately wrong. They were wrong, not in their doctrines, but in their church practice, which was far off track–and very harmfully so. That’s quite a serious list of leaders to stand against. “Quite so,” the authors might say; “but we are standing with Jesus Christ and the New Testament authors.”

Pagan Christianity? Book CoverWithout a doubt they would vigorously resist being compared to the above-named church leaders. Still, Viola and Barna are no lightweights on the present-day Christian scene. Frank Viola has authored numerous books on the house church movement and on church history, and George Barna is the founder of the highly respected Barna Research Group.

Their view of church practice is encapsulated in the title of their co-authored book, due to be released in January, Pagan Christianity? Exploring the Roots of our Church Practices. When they say “Pagan,” they really mean it. With numerous footnoted citations, they explain that our church buildings, our churches’ orders of worship, our emphasis on preaching, our distinctions between laity and clergy, and much more–all of this is derived primarily from pagan Greek and Roman religious and cultural practices, not from the Bible. It’s a strong and sweeping indictment not just of modern churches, but of church practice through the centuries.

Their critical tone comes through clearly in statements like this, on page 61:

To put it another way, the church fathers of this period [the 3rd through 6th centuries] represent nascent (early) Catholicism. And that is what Calvin took as his main model for establishing a new order of worship. It is no wonder that the so-called Reformation brought very little reform in the way of church practice. As with the case with Luther’s order of worship, the liturgy of the Reformed church “did not try to change the structures of the official [Catholic] liturgy but rather it tried to maintain the old liturgy while cultivating extra-liturgical devotions.”

(The embedded quotation is from Hughes Oliphant Old, 1970, The Patristic Roots of Reformed Worship). Again I would emphasize that this is about church practice; Viola and Barna have little beef with doctrines coming out of “the so-called Reformation.” But they are unafraid to attack that practice at its strongest points.

Consider preaching, for example, which they essay to dismantle in a chapter subtitled “Protestantism’s Most Sacred Cow.” It is their thesis (see also here) that preaching in the New Testament is sporadic, delivered on special occasions to deal with special problems, extemporaneous and without rhetorical structure, and most often dialogical rather than monological–it was two-way, not one-way. What we think of as the “Christian” sermon came out of Greek Sophist practice. Its entry into the church was “the arrival of a polluted stream.”

(Perhaps ironically, my first encounter with this view of New Testament preaching practice came less than a week before I read it in this book, on links from this page at Facing the Challenge blog.)

Viola and Barna think sermonizing positively harms the church; for example:

  • It makes the preacher the “virtuoso performer,” so that congregational participation is “hampered at best and precluded at worst.”
  • It often stalemates spiritual growth; because it is a one-way affair, it encourages passivity.
  • It preserves an unbiblical “clergy mentality,” discussed in a prior chapter.
  • Rather than equipping the saints, it de-skills them.
  • It is often impractical: “Countless preachers speak as experts on that which they have never experienced…. In this regard, the sermon mirrors its true father–Greco-Roman rhetoric…. bathed in abstraction.”

It would not do to react with a knee-jerk to this. Viola has elsewhere in the book described the sheer life, joy, beauty, and growth of free and spontaneous house-church worship. Taken from the perspective of learning theory, sermons follow a weak educational model. Adults and children both learn through participation, through interaction, even through evaluation. Sermons really do run a strong risk of fostering passivity. I have said this in churches for years; and I have on occasion (with little success) advocated follow-up discussion groups to let church members work through the meaning of sermons together.

In our church, in fact, we practice this in a men’s Tuesday morning Bible study. We gather for breakfast and a couple of songs, there is a short message presented from the Word, and then we discuss it around tables. I have no way of measuring this, but I would be willing to guess more actual growth happens in that relational, interactive setting than on Sunday mornings. (Many church Sunday Schools follow a similar, quite effective model.)

For all my questions about its educational validity, I’ve concluded that preaching remains vital for communicating the centrality (and even the authority) of God’s word to God’s people. Still, the more interactive learning that churches practice, the happier I will be about it.

So I think the authors may be onto something valid here, and in many other parts of the book. That is, we might disagree with many things they say, yet there are still important things to learn from this book. I would not rush to judge everything Viola and Barna have said here (or in other chapters) as wrong. This is hardly a full endorsement of their theses, however. Throughout the book I kept asking myself questions like these:

  • If some of our architectural (or other) preferences came from the Greeks or Romans instead of the New Testament, is that necessarily bad?
  • If some practice is not found in the New Testament, but is also not proscribed (prohibited) there, even in principle, should we judge it as harmful? What is our basis for that judgment?
  • The authors acknowledge that it is not unbiblical to sit on chairs that were built by non-Christians, using extra-biblical designs and methods. Yet they seem to think it’s unbiblical to use proven, effective rhetorical methods that were fashioned by non-Christians. Why? Is not all truth God’s truth?
  • Their book uses a definite rhetorical structure that could quite feasibly be traced to Aristotle. Is writing different from preaching? Why?
  • Church historians point to the Pax Romana and the Roman highway system as having had a strong positive effect on the early spread of the gospel–so positive, in fact, that many see them as having been providentially prepared by God partly for that purpose. Could Greco-Roman rhetoric also have been providentially prepared by God, from outside the church, for God’s purposes?
  • To rely on music’s emotion-inducing effect is criticized in the chapter on worship. But was not music prominent throughout the Bible? Should we (could we?) assume it had no emotional impact in those Biblical settings? To strip music of heart impact would violate its very character.
  • Viola and Barna advocate a complete de-layering of distinctions between clergy and laity, preacher and preached-to. They must know, though, that every grouping of people eventually generates leadership from its midst; and the larger and more complex the grouping, the more important that leadership becomes. God absolutely, definitely worked through leaders throughout Scripture. What do they propose for the development of leaders and what should their roles be?

The changes proposed in this book would rock Christianity as much as Luther and Calvin rocked it some 500 years ago. So my final question for the authors is, do they have it in mind, in a sense, to complete what was left unfinished in the “so-called Reformation”?

I expect this book’s effect will be to strongly encourage the growing house church movement in the Western world, and to stimulate some thought and perhaps some minor changes in traditionally established churches. My fear is that it will also promote house-church judgmentalism toward traditionally established churches.

There’s a fine line between that and constructive, loving criticism. I was not convinced the authors always remained on the healthy side of that line. That’s a shame, because even though we might disagree with many of the book’s conclusions, there is nevertheless a lot of good we could glean from it. Pagan Christianity’s critical tone, unfortunately, may prevent many Christians from looking.

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28 thoughts on “Pagan Christianity?

  1. Tom,

    I’ve not read this book yet. In your estimation, what is the level and quality of the research that Viola and Barna put into it? At first blush I wouldn’t consider either of them to be of such a scholarly standing that their work would stand up to the intense scrutiny of church historians. One concern I have with Barna over the years is his uber-pragmatism and I just wonder if that (along with perhaps his being accustomed to the lime-light) may taint his approach.

  2. Good question, Eric. I’m not enough of a church historian to answer that, and I’m certainly no classicist.

    They can easily make their case that certain things are not found in the Bible, like church buildings, vestments, incense, forward-facing pews, multi-tiered leadership hierarchies, the paid clergy, and so on. (On that last, though, we do have the 1 Tim. 5:18 admonition not to “muzzle the ox while he is threshing;” and “the laborer is worthy of his wages.” These may involve pay provided to elders, and even if not, they certainly seem to look forward to a paid clergy. And it appears that Paul lived off contributions from believers at least some of the time, and that Jesus did so as well.)

    So, they say, those things must have come from somewhere, and they say it is from the surrounding culture. That’s believable to one like me who does not have the background really to assess it.

    But that’s drawing conclusions apart from full knowledge. I would be eager to hear from reviewers who know more about it.

  3. Tom — I enjoyed reading your comments on Pagan Christianity! I would like to suggest a few areas where further thought is warranted, in light of some of your remarks.

    “For all my questions about its educational validity, I’ve concluded that preaching remains vital for communicating the centrality (and even the authority) of God’s word to God’s people.” My big question would be, If one reads through the New Testament, where is there any revelation about one person giving a sermon every Sunday? Where is the evidence in the NT that the traditional form of preaching is vital to God’s people? The forms of the verbs for “Preaching” most often refer to evangelistic activity outside of assembly meetings. Noah is called a “preacher,” but his ministry was to outsiders.

    1 Corinthians 14 provides the most light on early church gatherings. There is multiple participation, no up-front leadership, and the meeting certainly does not focus on one person’s sermon. My question is, why have we functionally discarded what is revealed in 1 Cor.14, and substituted that for which there is no evidence?

    It would seem of paramount importance to keep in mind the NT distinction between temporary, occasional meetings where gifted people would instruct God’s people, and the on-going gatherings of God’s people as described in 1 Cor.14. Church tradion has structured weekly meetings around that which was designed to be occasional, and in the process ceased practicing what was intended to be permanent.

    What happened in Troas is an example of an occasional meeting coming to pass in the context of a weekly meeting. Paul spoke (“dialogued”) for a long time in the meeting described in Acts 20. However, the Greek is very specific with an infinitive of purpose that they met “to break bread.” Why have we exalted the “centrality of preaching” and virtually eliminated the “breaking of bread” as our reason for assembling?

    You suggest that Viola/Barna “seem to think it’s unbiblical to use proven, effective rhetorical methods that were fashioned by non-Christians. Why? Is not all truth God’s truth?” This remark seems to miss a vital point. The real issue is what Christ teaches in the NT about how believers are to meet. If 1 Cor.14 is an important portion of Christ’s revelation, then Greek rhetorical methods are harmful and out of place. The truth of history is that the entry of “sermons” into the life of the visible church paralleled the entry of many other unbiblical Greek practices, as documented in Pagan Christianity.

    You concede that it is easy to make the case that church buildings, etc., are not found in the Bible. We claim to go by “sola Scriptura,” yet when it comes to church life it’s like we suddenly don’t pay close attention to what the NT actually teaches. As Pagan Christianity notes, there is good reason to question whether we do church “by the Book.”

    You assert that Pagan Christianity has a “critical tone.” I don’t think that is fair. It is certainly analytical, and interacts with history to show how church practices originated. It seems to me that the book is very gracious in spirit, and lets the facts speak for themselves. I’ve been studying these matters for 30 years, and my research has confirmed that the basic perspectives set forth in Pagan Christianity have been validated by church historians of all stripes. With one voice they affirm that the early church was simple and that post-apostolic developments resulted in a complicated ecclesiastical bureaucracy (cf., James D.G. Dunn, Unity & Diversity in the New Testament, Westminster Press, 1977, p.351).

    Thank you for considering my comments!
    Jon Zens

  4. Tom,

    Thanks for drawing our attention to this book. I’ve not read it yet, but I’ve seen some of Mr. Viola’s other work (and of course we’ve all seen Mr. Barna’s work).

    The Church is in dire need of exploring these subjects in a meaningful way. Our lack of impact in today’s culture speaks for itself. Perhaps it’s time that we take a serious look at any and everything that we’ve presumed was part of God’s plan for the ekklesia.

    You point out, for example, the authors’ championing of the notion that ‘clergy’ and ‘laity’ should be merged. While you certainly have a valid point that there will always be leadership within any group, it is fundamentally the heart of God (as expressed in Ephesians 4) that the ‘work of ministry’ belong to all the saints.

    With respect to the Reformation: we are long overdue to carry on the unfinished work. This generation needs its own Hus and Luther. In some ways, in the midst of the profoundly beneficial work they did, the reformers themselves aborted their mission and left us another legacy of tradition that must be undone. I look forward to reading what the authors have to say along these lines.

    I can also say that it requires a tremendous amount of maturity and discipline to not become judgmental and critical of the abuses and ineptitudes intrinsic in the way we “do church” today. At some point in time, 95 theses must be hammered to the cathedral door. No matter what the author of those theses may hope or intend, it will be perceived as judgmental by someone.

    May God help us.

    David G. Johnson, Founder
    Nourish The Dream – Christian Entrepreneurship Training
    VP, Center for Faith and Work, Inc

  5. It’s difficult to make comments in a concise and deliberate manner, but I am going to make my attempt to do just that in this response.

    First, I didn’t know that this book was out there. I have been rethinking much in terms of how we do church. I can see clearly that the home church movement in China preceded the coming persecution and suppression of religion and provided the seedbed from which the gospel has spread during this time of great trouble. There is the very real possibility that the Holy Spirit is moving us in that direction. Dr. J. Vernon McGee made mention of this possibility, that the church in America many have to go underground someday.

    The church is pragmatic today and cares little about doctrine. The emphasis seems to be too much on material prosperity.

    The separation of clergy and laity is unbearable.

    The phoniness of many preachers is an abomination.

    The lack of prayer and meditation on the word of God is empty and dissatisfying.

    The lack of the power of God in the ordinary believers’ lives is exhausting.

    The over-emphasis on signs and wonders is childish and immature.

    The cockiness and pride of the health and wealth teaching makes the ordinary believer want to vomit.

    I can see, however the great success of the Calvary Chapel movement and am afraid of the institutionalization of such a work.

    I have noticed how the Assemblies of God has moved into the mainstream and in doing so has forfeited its original prerogatives and aims which were to guard the great truths of scripture allowing for the pentecostal expression which led to the expansion of missions throughout the world.

    I have seen how Methodism has grown afraid of allowing God to move, a thing to which they owe their great success in the beginning.

    Lutheranism is no more alive than the Roman Catholicism from which they broke away.

    Our baptist brethren have wandered from the fundamental truths about the cross of Christ to which they seemed to be anchored in the early days.

    And so I wonder why we try to encapsulate the work of God in these movements as though God didn’t have a will of His own to move on as He pleases unhindered by the constraints of men?

    When you study church history you find that very early on, even during the period of the apostles there was this tendency of the sheep to wander away from the truth.

    The truth itself is not found in the form of worship, but is found in the word of God. The word of God is written down in the Torah, the complete old testament books, the gospels and the epistles etc. We have all that we need to know contained in the canon of scripture. I don’t think that by changing our forms we come into the truth.

    You see that Paul on Mars Hill sets forth a quick and definite proclamation of the gospel message and gained a couple of followers. He followed the pattern of the philosophers in his presentation. What would have happened if he had limited himself to the synagogues? What would have happened if he had not allowed himself to appeal to the poets of the Greeks?

    He wasn’t merely using worldly means to preach the gospel, but he was proving that there was a certain amount of light that even the pagans had on the subject.

    Even though the hearers are unaware of the promises made to Israel, they do understand the longing of the human heart for truth and for revelation and for satisfaction of this hunger and thirst for righteousness and that is where Paul goes with his message once he had directed the thoughts of the listener to the general revelation of this living God in “whom we live and move and have our being”.

    I don’t think that we should limit God therefore to a certain order of things. Jesus in addressing the woman at the well stated that God is Spirit and we must worship Him in Spirit and in truth.

    He didn’t wait for her to show up at synagogue before presenting the gospel to her, but He flows in the Spirit of His Father and is open to being used wherever the Father leads.

    I believe that we should not take for granted that any order of service is sacred in any way for God allows His servants to employ an infinite number of ways and methods to deliver the gospel and to build up the the body of Christ, His Ekklesia, the church.

    God is concerned with the growth and maturing of the individual more than the building up of the business of doing church.

    He has placed in the body, apostles and prophets, evangelists and Pastors and teachers for that purpose. We have the apostles when we read the epistles. In a minor sense the modern apostles, though they don’t have the authority of the thirteen of the New Testament.

    We have the prophets and I believe that men like A.W. Tozer, Chuck Smith and the likes are sent to bring the church back to the love of the scriptures and the reality of God’s Son Jesus Christ.

    We have evangelists, that seems apparent.

    There are many pastors and teachers, modern day Apolloses and we should allow them to move in the direction that God has specifically led them into and see just how effective God is in getting the message to each generation.

    Give these men latitude to accomplish what the Holy Spirit desires for our time.

    I have experienced a wonderful freshness though of the Holy Spirit when in fellowship of believers when we meet together at one another’s homes and so I would encourage everyone to get to know one another. Go out of your way to introduce yourself to a stranger and go out of your way to bring them into your home if they are a brother or sister or family or whatever and find out what it is like to be in fellowship in a more intimate way than the common greeting and “how do you do?” on Sunday mornings.

    I hope this makes sense. In a nutshell, I believe that it is important to question the order of things, but it is equally important not to discard a thing that has a certain level of effectiveness.


  6. If the book is anything like Barna’s “Revolution” book I can do without wasting my time reading it. “Revolution” was chock full of subjectivism, biases, accusatory generalizations -etc, and it was highly unresearched. His “personalized church of the individual” concept is so egregious it’s almost humorous. I initially wrote an extended response to it and decided it wasn’t worth my time sending it out. I am going to write something here, and let people digest it however God leads.

    What amazes me more than anything is – two items:
    #1) 15 years ago Barna was a key proponent of the mega-church “marketing” movement.

    Anyone still have the book “Marketing the Church” on their bookshelves? I do. I’m quoting from the introductory acknowledgments of that book:

    “If I had my way, there would be 100,000 Willow Creek churches in this country” -George Barna.

    Here’s another quote from the same book on p.33
    “…the point is indisputable: The Bible does not warn against the evils of marketing. In fact, the Scriptures provide clear examples of God’s chosen men using those principles. So it behooves us to not waste time bickering about techniques and processes, but to study methods by which we can glorify our King and comply with the Great Commission” -George Barna

    And yet another quote from p. 37 “Think of your church not as a religious meeting place, but as a service agency – an entity that exists to satisfy people’s needs” -George Barna

    Recommended “study” reading by Barna included several secular books on marketing (Philip Kotler’s “Principles of Marketing” 1986) -“Strategic Marketing for Non-Profit Organizatons” (1987) – etc.

    Since when is Barna convicted against copying secular methodologies? 15 years ago he was THE guru of MODERN, secular methodologies. Am I the only person who’s noticed this gross, oxy-moronic flip-flop? Are we next going to see a book by him combining the 80’s, 90’s and 00’s themes and read books on how to “market” our “house” churches? ; ). Are house-churches going to be able to pass the scrutiny as outlined by Barna in the “Market” book? Again, I quote (p. 158)
    “Suppose the sermon on Sunday morning is absolutely superb. Will that cause the church to grow like wildfire? Not in and of itself, although it will certainly be a key element to growth… …The worship experience should be of high quality. Parking and seating must be available” – etc.

    So… we’ve gone from the key elements/absolute necessities of superb sermons and high-tech/high quality worship experiences… to the absolute necessity of… no? … sermons or worship experiences? If anyone is “bathed in abstraction,” it’s Barna himself. As a pastor going back to the early ’90’s I’ve refused to drink Barna’s dogmatic, alarmist Cool-Aid, and I’m not going to drink it now either.

    #2) Barna still seems to have no problem accepting financial compensation for his work connected with these methodologically “pagan,” erroneous churches – such as exist within and support the SBC, among others.

    Here’s a little bite from Chuck Colson’s book “The Body”
    “…it is scandalous that so many believers today have such a low view of the church…” “that the church is held in such low esteem reflects not only the depths of our Biblical ignorance, but the alarming extent to which we have succumbed to the obsessive individualism of modern culture” (Charles Colson; The Body; Word Pub, 1992, p. 270).

    preach (Grk kerusso “proclaim aloud, announce, mention publicly” – Shorter Lexicon of the Greek New Testament – Gingrich / Danker 1983)

    Eric Hann
    2 Timothy 4:1-5;James 3:1;Hebrews 13:17;I Cor. 9:13-14

  7. I haven’t read the book, but I’m not a big fan of Viola. I once argued with someone who quoted him favorably as saying the Nicolaitans mentioned in Revelation were named for setting up clergy over the laity (from the Greek nikos, to conquer, and laos, people – which is in fact where we get our word “laity”). I have no idea if this book with Barna suggests similarly, but there is absolutely no evidence to support it and plenty of evidence by the early church fathers (Irenaeus, for one; he was one to be on top of heretical sects, after all) stating that the movement was named for its leader, Nicolaus.

    Another larger aspect of this whole suggestion of the “pagan” aspects of Christianity and “sticking” with Christ and the early church fathers is that a large part of what we have now is passed down from “pagan” sources (especially Greek), and much of our New Testament reflects Greek norms of thought and rhetoric. Ben Witherington has argued that most of our NT epistles are not really letters (even by Greek conventions) but instead homilies, and there are a number of other things that should suggest that if Christianity has been “tainted” by pagan influences, it happened in the very early creation of the church.

    Personally, I’ve thought about it, and it doesn’t matter to me at all whether or not Christianity has pagan influences. If the modern church does things that the early church didn’t, who cares? It’s not as though the early church didn’t have problems, and I see no reason to think them the paradigm that the church should necessarily look toward for answers about how to structure churches, worship, or really anything. It was a different time, and different methods may be necessary in a different type of culture with different issues to face.

  8. A very good point – most of the epistles definitely have a homiletical structure and force.
    I suppose this could warrant a new book about Paul entitled “Pagan Apostle” ; ). Of course, the New Testament being written originally in Greek (a language which came into being prior to/outside of Christianity) might justify a revolutionary new book entitled “Pagan New Testament” ;). Also, Jesus “preached” (Luke 4:44 – Grk kerusson) using not only rhetorical devices (Matt. 6:25-27 – asking questions with intended answers etc), but also Jesus was, of course, the master story-teller/illustrator. Perhaps this justifies the writing of a book entitled “Pagan Messiah.” Interestingly Witherington, among several others (Peter Jones etc), have defended Christianity against these very kinds of accusations regarding “pagan influences” from the Dan Brown and friends “Da Vinci” clan.

    However this fits into the mix, I’ll again let others digest it in the way God leads them. My understanding of the basic order/content of a Christian worship service is that it was derived from the worship order in the 1st century Jewish synogogue. Backing for this is not too difficult to find on the web. Do I see this as making the order mandated? No – but I do see it as refuting the premise that it was made up by either Catholicism or the Reformers – and also that if it was borrowed from “paganism” – it was borrowed first by Judaism, not Christianity. Here are a couple of bites from various authors:

    Commentary on Luke 4:16
    “Luke implied that the ruler of the synagogue (archisynagogos; cf. Acts 13:15) invited Jesus to read and comment on the Scriptures. This is the oldest account we possess of a synagogue service, which apparently contained the following: the singing of a psalm; the reading of the Shema (Deut 6:4-9; 11:13-21); the repetition of the Eighteen Blessings (the Shemoneh Esreh); a reading from the Prophets in Hebrew, followed by a translation in Aramaic from the targum; *a sermon on the Scripture*; and a concluding blessing by the ruler of the synagogue” -Robert H. Stein (Professor of New Testament at Bethel Theological Seminary in St. Paul; with degrees from Rutgers University; Fuller Theological Seminary; Andover Newton Theological Seminary, and Princeton Theological Seminary)

    Also commenting on Luke 4 and the content of the worship in a synagogue – one of those “pagan” former pastors – Warren Wiersbe ; )
    “It was our Lord’s custom to attend public worship, a custom His followers should imitate today (Hebrews 10:24-25). He might have argued that the “religious system” was corrupt, or that He didn’t need the instruction; but instead, He made His way on the Sabbath to the place of prayer. A typical synagogue service opened with an invocation for God’s blessing and then the recitation of the traditional Hebrew confession of faith (Deut.6:4-9; 11:13-21). This was followed by prayer and the prescribed readings from the Law and from the Prophets, with the reader paraphrasing the Hebrew Scriptures in Aramaic. *This was followed by a brief sermon* given by one of the men of the congregation or perhaps by a visiting rabbi. If the priest was present, the service closed with a benediction. Otherwise, one of the laymen prayed and the meeting was dismissed.”

    Although Christian churches today differ on the approach, there was from the beginning an effort made by Christians – even in local Christian assemblies, to set aside certain ones for certain areas of ministry (Acts 13:1-3; I Timothy 4:14). The church recognized their gifts, and as such, not everyone was appointed to do anything/everything (Acts 6:1-4; I Cor. 12:17-19). There were also specific qualifications (I Timothy 3:1-7). And, yes, there was compensation
    (I Cor. 9:13-14 sorry about that, everyone. I apologize for 7 years of higher learning and 16 years of experience at what I do being recognized by some of those aweful, “pagan” Christian churches as meriting, among other things, the possibility of getting my daughter through college ;). Does singing need to be justified against the accusation of pagan practice? (Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 4:16). “But… but… anywhere you go, no matter who’s there… that’s “church” as long as two or three are gathered… and… it can be any two people in your home… this is “church.” Are you sure? I certainly believe Jesus is there, but is that a NT description of “church” (ekklesia “assembly”). Why does the scripture make a distinction about being at “home” and coming together as a church? (see I Cor. 11:18, and 22). Is the difference a building? No. But I do believe the difference, over time during the 1st century, was the above issues. I’ve known of several “Bible studies” started by people who had little use for “the church” that ended up sliding into various cult teachings (panentheism – etc) because nobody in the group had enough grounding to stay away from tangents (James 3:1). “But like the REVOLUTION book says… we have commentaries just like any pastor… etc…” Yeah, I know. Who wrote those commentaries? Pastors, ex-pastors, professors – all of which are, or at least at one time… were… supported, educated at schools that are… supported… by those dastardly, pagan, *gasp* “churches.” 😉

    Most of this is likely obvious to the average Christian with a Bible, I just remain bewildered at the idictments being raised -in a generalized manner – against Christ’s (albeit imperfect) local churches. The “accuser” of the “brethren” is not someone I’d prefer to be in league with (Revelation 12:10). Among other bright notes, nonetheless, is the positive side “anti-revolutionary” perspective found in the little book by Joshua Harris entitled “Stop Dating the Church: Fall in Love with the Family of God.” Among the plethora of well-spoken points, Harris simply describes in his comments on Hebrews 13:17 “This passage reminds us that a pastor will give an account to God for how they cared for the people in their churches. It’s a reminder that no one will get away with heavy-handed authoritarianism or false teaching that leads people astray. But it also calls us to submit to leaders who are seeking to mature us in the faith. In fact, it tells us to be the type of church members that make our pastor’s jobs enjoyable” (p.71)

    I’ll admit I was even more surprised to find out on another site that, apparently, Frank Viola is a High School History teacher(?) I have no vendetta with High School teachers (my mother was one in Los Angelos County for 35+ years). At the same time… it’s pastors… who alone(?) are utilizing the… inept… lecturing captive audiences approach… while at the same time exibiting… authoritarianism… and expecting people to regurgitate their subjective, editorialized… um… hmmm ; )

    Finally – at the same time – I don’t personally know one pastor who doesn’t emphasize the need for small group intimacy in studying the Bible and discipling believers. Most pastors I know pour their, blood, sweat, tears, and prayers into it. I’m currently involved in leading two different small groups (one on the church property – and one in our home/others homes). I’m also trying to raise up leaders from these groups to take over the group eventually – like I have in every church I’ve been part of. None of the pastors I know function with the mindset of “it’s my sermons only – etc.” The pastors I know are also ones who, like me, borderline plead with people to have a daily devotion on their own. This being the case, isn’t this issue borderline… “moot” (unless this “revolution” is purely a revolution for revolution’s sake – down with all authority! – including school teachers… oops, I mean… oh… Yeah, like Ravi Zacharias points out, deconstructionists rarely are willing to apply deconstructionist principles to their own houses. Besides, when will the 60’s be over? ;)). On a related subject, in many churches, if a pastor were to suggest that “all the small groups WILL be discussing the content of MY sermons in your small groups…” well… this could easily incite the “authoritarianism” accusation (LET’S REVOLT! – lol ).

    By for Now
    -Eric Hann

    (something to think about)
    “The moment the Church of God shall despise the pulpit, God will despise her”
    Charles H. Spurgeon(pagan pastor #182769886); )

  9. This is a great discussion.

    A couple of thoughts came to mind, Eric, as I read your comments:

    First, I can’t recall anyone who hasn’t changed their thinking about something as time goes by and they have (hopefully) grown. Barna championing marketing may be an example of this.

    Secondly, it’s one thing to employ a “secular” method. It’s entirely another thing to pass it off (implicitly or explicitly) as divinely-inspired and teach people as though it’s the only way that’s acceptable to God. Barna and Viola, from what I’ve read (I downloaded the free sample chapter) are specifically attacking this very practice.

    We’ve been “doing church” in certain ways for centuries, and condemning as heretics those that call some of those practices into question. This is very reminiscent of the Catholic Church condemning Wycliffe for translating the Scriptures into English while claiming that the Latin was the only way they should be read. (And ironically, Jerome created the Vulgate — Latin for “vulgar” or “common” — because it was the language of the common people).

    Lord help us to weed through centuries of stupidity so that we can get to something that’s authentic.

  10. I do wonder how much of Viola and Barna’s book is about these “pagan” elements should be ejected from the church, as that would answer the question of whether or not they’re simply arguing that these elements should not be exclusively prescribed for churches (although I can’t remember ever hearing something like that, outside of perhaps Catholicism) and that the “true” methods of the early churches deserve reexamination – a position with which I could be genuinely sympathetic. I tend to agree with the undertones of Eric’s comments, which are that people are obsessed these days with “revolutions,” and appealing to a desire to revert back to a “better time” (and there’s the presumption I mentioned earlier) is a way to captivate one’s audience.

    By the way, I answered my own question: I found an interview with Viola about Pagan Christianity where Viola references the unsupported Nicolaitan interpretation that I mentioned in my last post. Of course, he’s more willing to believe a few select scholars who have suggested that interpretation than the early church fathers, and why not? After all, the early church fathers are the ones who messed everything up, right?

    This is good stuff; great discussion, everyone.

  11. Thanks for your insight, David. Those are good points. Let’s take a step back, though. The name of the book is:
    “Pagan Christianity”
    So… who’s denouncing… who… as heretics/pagans, whatever? ; ).

    As for the changing of one’s mind, it’s the extremism I see as being unhealthy. Like I said above, I’m not a huge proponent of the mega-church movement. I never have been. Much of what was said during that movement during the 90’s, etc. I considered to be extremism (you HAVE to have superstar sermons, you HAVE to have high-tech superstar music – etc). Now, it seems, we’re moving to the opposite extreme. It does especially concern me to see it coming from the same person. When I counsel people one on one, I often run into similar kinds of extremisms – even with particulars of beliefs:
    (First: “If you don’t believe in a rapture – or that it will happen soon – you’re not faithul, or you’re a complete idiot.” The whole thrust of the person’s Christian walk is to get other Christians to believe in the rapture. Then the same person makes a 100% about face and says “if you do believe in a rapture, you’re not faithful, disappointing to God – a complete idiot” – etc). Then the whole thrust of the person’s Christian walk is to get other Christians to REJECT the premise of the rapture).

    Someone once said something like “all error can be found in taking some elements of truth and running with it to the ultimate extreme.” I just can’t see the extreme approaches to this over the last 15 years as being healthy for the body of Christ. No, it’s not healthy to see pastors as elite superstars – but no, they’re not inherently the Devil incarnate either by virtue of their positions. Fortunately, it seems to me that for the most part the local church has been able to overcome these extremisms and and do their thing in God’s guidance and leadership.

    Seriously – do you really see being willing to sit under someone who has a couple of degrees in Biblical studies and has been appointed by a local fellowship of believers – for (*gasp* 30 whole minutes a week! ;)… as being… “stupidity?” That’s pretty extreme, imo. I read a number of years back that the average American watches 72 hours of television over the course of two weeks (I don’t know how accurate that is, but I’m certain it’s not too far off). For the most part, I don’t see someone willing to hear a committed preacher/teacher present a Biblical sermon for 30 minutes a week as being “stupid” or supporting a “stupid” practice. Especially when the same person is encouraging daily devotions and small groups. Also, numerous churches already have multiple speakers. Why not find a church that does it that way already instead of “paganizing” the baby with the bathwater?


  12. Something else I might add:
    The arguments about Wycliffe and Jerome are the exact… the exact… same arguments that were being made during the “market-driven” mega-church movement. I could pull the exact quotes off my shelf if it would be helpful:

    “Make the sermons relevant – speak the language of the people – play the music of the people – people like flash and visuals / no dead time – keep it teched up to engage people…


    don’t crucify those for implementing these changes as happened to those… poor, faithful, revolutionaries” (Wycliffe / Jerome etc) from the past.


  13. I agree 100% with Eric’s points about extremism; I think the stance of the book is intensely reactionary, down to the very premise (“The church is off-track, and we need to return to how the early church did things”). Then again, I don’t imagine we’d be talking about the book if it had had a reasonable rather than a controversial thesis.

    Anyway, I summed up my thoughts on the subject on my blog (see link in name). I would still like to read the book to see exactly what Viola and Barna say, even though I think their approach is quite wrongheaded.

  14. Playing off what “cynic” said:

    I run a risk saying this, but I hope people will people to think in terms of the ambiguities of these issues:

    Extremism… (along with controversial premises etc)

    … these sell books : )

    Of course… it’s only Pastors, never authors who would ever think of using rhetorical devices to…
    persuade… manipulate(?) ; )

    Here’s another tidbit – a quote from the previous book “Revolution” (after speaking about the predicted downfall of existing churches, denominations, etc, Barna says…)

    “The systems and structures that fostered the old Church will give way to new realities in the Revolution. New ministry ORGANIZATIONS will emerge. Different educational methods and TRAINING SYSTEMS will prosper” (REVOLUTION p.106)

    I can’t help but laugh at this. Maybe someone can help me with this, but I thought doing away with “organizations, systems” (which ultimately need… um… leaders… and… um… funding… etc) was… um… the whole… point… of the movement(?) How…in the projected long run… is this really that different than new church starts prompted by existing churches / denominations? (or “organizations” – *gasp* the “O” word! : )).

    In fact, a couple of the churches I’ve pastored were started in… um… homes. Progressively they went from being less organized to… more… (*gasp*) organized.

    I’m very interested in hearing a response to this. I admittedly might be completely missing it.


  15. This is one of the things that perplexes me most about this book. It derides organization, yet it is organized itself. Sure, there’s a category difference there. But the larger and more complex something becomes, the more organization is necessary to hold it together, for it to make sense, for it to work. Surely this is not news to Barna! And I have to believe Viola knows it too.

  16. Brethren —

    Eric H. mentioned that Barna had endorsed marketing techniques, etc., in the past. Don’t we allow space for people to change their viewpoint? In the interview with Gerorge several years ago in Christianity Today I could see that he was very frustrated with the leadership in the institutional churches. I sensed that he was about to “turn the corner” in some way, and he did. I heard him speak at the 2006 Denver House2House Conference on Leadership and it was riveting. I felt numb with God’s presence and several were openly weeping when he finished.

    It seems like the discussion about whether pagan influences are good or evil several perspectives need to be kept in mind. PC never says that all pagan influences are evil, but they are concerned about those which arose in the 2nd – 5th centuries that deflected people away from the simplicity of Christ into an increasingly complex ecclesiastical bureaucracy. Such ill-influence is documented, for example in Edwin Hatch, The Influence of Greek Ideas on Christianity, and in K.R. Hagenbach, A Text-Book on the History of Doctrines, Vol.1, 1864, pp.109,124.

    Many of the objections some of you folks are raising are actually answered in the book itself. Also, Frank is answering questions and responding to objections to the book. You can interact with him over at

    Jon Zens

  17. Again, having addressed that *already*, it’s the extremism that I don’t see as being healthy – especially coming from the same person. It’s bordeline schizophrenic (see response above).

    Also, the ambiguities are endless.

    Here we have yet another: People were moved to emotion when they heard Barna speak at an assembly experience? (lol) I thought that’s exactly the sort of thing we now undestand to be “pagan.” I had some people moved to emotion over the last couple of Sundays. They told me about it. In my case, however, it’s… of course… paganized… emotion ; )

    If Barna does it it’s Christian. If a pastor does it… it’s pagan. Tell me how this is consistent. Go Figure ; )

    Also, *again* Barna’s own book (REVOLUTION – p.106 – 2005) projects a future of “organizations” and “training systems” for his own movement. I’m going to go out on a limb and guess this will entail more bureaucracy than any local church I’ve served in, including my current church. Can… anyone… tell me how this is being consistent?

    I also documented the basic format from the life of a first century synagogue from a source I consider to be quite reputable, which I’ve yet to read on here anyone attempt to address. *Again* the 1st century predeced both the reformation and Catholicism (pre- 2nd to 5th centuries).

    I don’t have time to go to other websites. Does anyone really want to have a meaningful discussion here?


  18. In my interactions with the publisher on this, I’ve noticed them using 21st century marketing techniques. The book uses a nice classical rhetorical structure. Barna headed a large organization, which now has a different president but essentially the same structure.

    Is there a good reason that what Viola and Barna say about church would not apply to church-related enterprises? Just wondering…

  19. That’s just exactly it, Tom. As Ravi Zacharias (among many others) points out – Deconstructionism is self-defeating.

    “I call this meeting ‘against order’ to ‘order'”

    “We have a motion that we ‘appoint leaders’ in order to ‘oppose having leaders'”

    “These leaders will ‘plan’ and ‘organize’ in order to stand against ‘planning and organizing'”

    ; )


  20. Anyone?

    Beuhler? ; )

    I must say, referencing an emotional, experientialist experience while listening to Barna speak might be the most contradictory account given yet in “support” of this movement.


  21. Eric — It would seem that you discount my remarks about hearing Barna speak and forget the reason for my statements. You brought up past statements by Barna about marketing church. I pointed out that his thinking on church had changed drastically, which was evidenced, I thought,in a talk he gave in 2006. I wasn’t giving that example as “support” for anything, except as solid testimony that Geroge’s paradigm had shifted.

  22. Thanks for the response, Jon.

    Here’s the thing –

    Quoting from Tom’s book review above:
    “(Viola)/ Barna thinks sermonizing positively harms the church”

    Also, I know from the previous book Barna clearly considers these “mini-movement” type of events to be the equivalent of “church.”

    Just out of curiosity:

    How does someone who’s blatantly against sermonizing/”Greek rhetoric” – at the same time – justify his own usage and promotion of the apparent effectiveness of sermonizing/Greek rhetoric?

    That’s basically what I’m trying to figure out : )

    Also, the fact that his paradigm has shifted is a key point of my own dissent from being able to listen to Barna. If I can be this “frank” about it, I feel more than a bit betrayed by him, and I, again, quite frankly, just don’t trust him : )

    MUCH more than most of the rest of us (local pastors), Barna was a hands-on architect of the market-driven-mega-movement. From numerous peices of info I could present (if I had the time), Barna was basically the “Dr.” who built the “Frankenstein” he’s now trying to destroy. In his attempts to destroy it, however, I see no owning up to his own responsibility in what’s been created. Instead, like the “market” movement message he was part of, it’s “those clueless, unfaithful – etc- pastors” who are at fault : )

    This is mind-boggling to me.

    In spite of the fact that many of us back in the 90’s were warning people about putting too much stock in the “market-mega” thing (while Barna and friends exhorted church leaders to keep on marketing even when “people shout insults, claiming that (the market movement people) have turned their backs on the Holy Spirit and are failing to trust God” (from MARKETING THE CHURCH p. 151) – still, it was US(the local pastors in general) who were, of course at “fault” then… for not completely buying in to the “slick-market-mega approach” enough. Now WE, of course, are at fault, *again* for being “TOO slick-market” and not SIMPLE enough. And, of course, people are (literally) buying all this. Am I in the Twilight Zone? ; )

    Interestingly, as a pastor, I’m not that different in my approach than I was 16 years ago. Making disciples of Jesus Christ by means of witness / word / prayer / worship / assembly / small group – etc was… and is… the goal.

    At what point does Barna own up to his role in all this? In the REVOLUTION book I have, he owns up to nothing – there’s nothing confessional, repentant – or anything as such about it. Although the theme is the polar opposite from the 90’s theme, the message still remains that the churches – specifically the pastors, have “failed.” In the 90’s, we (pastors/churches) were dubbed “failures” at marketing since we weren’t producing slick, large churches – thus, we needed to go to Barna’s conferences, purchase Barna’s books, and do it Barna’s way – Thus saith Barna. Now (2005-2008), we’re *again* being dubbed “failures” because this time… by Barna’s estimate – we’ve “failed” to produce genuine, humble, knowledgeable, disciples (etc) – so now, we, everyone, again, need to attend Barna’s conferences, purchase Barna’s books, and do it Barna’s way. Thus saith Barna.

    How shalt I say this : )

    Give. Me. A. Break. : D

    Jon: Was the message you heard in 2006 repentant or confessional in any way? I’d be curious to know that.

    Even still, how many “streets” are leaders / others supposed to keep following Barna down?

    Here’s a quote from Christianity Today in a review of Barna’s REVOLUTION book (Jan. 2006):

    “Few people have made as many dramatic shifts in life as George Barna. He’s moved from Boston to southern California, from a daily-Mass Catholic to a spokesman for evangelicals, from political pollster to leader of a media empire. REVOLUTION signals another shift. Barna’s early books (he’s written more than 35) promoted Marketing the Church” and “The Power of Vision,” so many perceived him as an ally of the megachurch. But in REVOLUTION, his support for fluid movements and his direct challenge of a statement often used by Bill Hybels (“The local church is the hope of the world”) make him now seem a foe of the congregation.”

    If people want to seriously follow someone with this kind of track record – I mean this in a straightforward way:

    My prayers are with you : )


  23. I guess because I am a youth minister, I am really doing things the pagan way! I just have a couple of comments on this great discussion. I am not totally convinced yet that we should all abandon church buildings, sermons, paid clergy ( I hate this word), etc. I do have struggles with the fact that we pay millions of dollars on buildings when that money could go to better usage. I do have a problem with teenagers and adults having about a half inch depth of theology. I do have a problem with the “clergy and laity distinction”. I do have a problem with 20% of the church doing 100% of the church’s ministry. I do see the argument that if we didn’t have a building or salaries to pay, we could give so much more to missions. Yet, I am not ready to abandon all of it. I think we need a balance, a “tweak” in what we are doing. Intentional Discipleship Small Groups are desperately needed for growth. Buildings can be used for many good things. Pastor’s salaries can help in the equipping of the saint’s. There needs to be mentoring going on as well between the adults and children. This is one of the biggest reasons I once considered going strickly to the home church model. There is a lack of mentoring that exists in the church between adults and children. In Him, Nathan.

  24. Interesting points : )

    Having served previously as a volunteer youth minister for quite a few years myself, should this “tweakage” include not having paid youth workers anymore? : ). Does your senior pastor know how you feel about his/her receiving a salary? Was he/she instrumental in you being hired? Just curious : )

    Personally, I fail to see how more disorganization
    (no buildings / no paid staff etc) is going to result in more giving to missions. In my past experience, it’s the established churches (with buildings / paid staff etc) that are giving the most overall (and even percentage-wise)to missions. The old saying goes “the light that shines the farthest shines the brightest at home.”
    Also, in my understanding, one of the authors of the aforementioned books lives in Ventura County, California. Being a California native myself, I know that area fairly well. How shall I say this : ) – This is a place most “full-time” senior pastors I know could never afford to live : ). What if we all stopped purchasing books by inconsistent, parachurch authors and gave… that money… to missions? : ) : )

    As I alluded to above – these other issues (especially small groups) are at the heart and soul of every senior pastor I’ve ever known. When it comes to these typically voiced concerns, I fail to see how “location/geography/less organization” (homes instead of buildings) will inherently produce more mentoring, theological depth, etc, etc. There are numerous factors to consider. I know of one self-proclaimed “pastor” near Pittsburgh, PA who, without any schooling or formal ordination (etc), started a “revolutionary” new home church and gained a significant following of people who’d “had it” with “established” churches. With an exorbitant amount of serious mentoring going on, his followers definitely had a depth of knowledge regarding what they believed. Several years later, this group even started their own publications. This happened in the years 1876/1879 respectively, and the pastor’s name is Charles Taze Russell (Founder of the Jehovah’s Witnesses).

    This sounds like an extreme example, but I’ve personally had contact with several unchecked “home study” groups that were toying with numerous “cult” teachings (everything from New Age beliefs to numerous other “revolutionary” understandings of the scriptures).

    It seems like everyone aspires to be a “Luther.” How many Luthers does church history really need?(James 3:1). In my experience, many self-professed “Luthers” end up being merely yet another “Russell.”

    -Eric (whose current church meets in a former supermarket warehouse building : ) )

  25. After reading Pagan Christianity, it seems to me that the main thrust Viola and Barna are trying to make is that much of Christ’s original intent for His church (as revealed through Scripture) has been subjugated, occluded, or even outright erased by all the religious adornments that have been added to the mix since the first century. Looking at the bigger part of church history and at the state of the modern institutional church, I have to agree with that premise. But rather than any specific church adoption of some pagan practice, rite, or ritual, I think the most monumental error has been the departure from self-sacrificing, self-denying, Christlike love as both the center of church fellowship and the prime motivation for church activity. In his first letter to the Corinthian church, Paul admonishes them for getting away from that center and centering their gatherings around spiritual gifts, particularly the gift of tongues. Paul clearly identifies the true center in chapter 13 and goes so far as to say that any endeavor or attribute, even great faith, is rendered void and meaningless without love as the central motivation. I think Satan’s biggest successes against the church throughout history have involved getting us to put something else besides love into that central slot, be it correct doctrine, correct practice, good works, Bible study, evangelism, praise and worship, or supercharged faith. At some points in church history, such worldly pusuits as the acquistion of wealth and political power were placed at the center of the church’s focus. Today, that center seems to be a cross between catering to the self interest of the individual and running a prosperous, fine-tuned religious machine. And I believe that much of the Holy Spirit’s activity at various junctures of church history has involved trying to get us to refocus on God’s intended center. Love is the center of God’s character, and if love is no longer the center of His church’s character and focus, then can it really call itself His church? And while I agree with Viola and Barna that a simple church context is much more conducive toward fostering a loving environment, the bottom line of whether or not a church fellowship or institution is a legitimate expression of Christ’s body comes down to whether or not the love and the literal, real-time direction of Christ rules the relationships and activities of that fellowship or institution. Quite simply, I think the church as Christ designed it is group of people who know Him, hear His voice, follow His directions, and show real love to each other along the way. Anything else is just garden variety religion as far as I’m concerned.

  26. lol

    I ran across this while looking at some possible conference-type programs for our church (meaning this *gasp* “existing local” church).

    It’s breathtakingly amazing to me. So… I’m seriously being asked to consider having a satellite feed conference in this “existing local” church where I serve – featuring a person (George Barna) who is predicting, and even attempting to fan the flame of the… demise of existing local churches? How anyone can’t see the blatant contradiction/hypocrisy of this is beyond me:

    “Leave your local, pagan church and be a revolutionary”

    “Support me financially by having me as a guest speaker through hosting me at your local, pagan church”

    Sincerely, George B.

    Unbelievable. This is really a sad representation of para-churchianity, and I’m trying to prayerfully not lump other parachurch organizations in my heart with what’s exampled here.

    Broken in Christ

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