Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Thoughts on Finding Organic Church by Frank Viola

I first heard of Frank Viola when I read this review of Pagan Christianity at Brant Hansen's blog. I actually bought that book immediately and then let it sit on the shelf.

I was kind of scared to read it. I have very strong feelings and opinions on the church that are a result of being a pastor's kid, having studied church growth and church growth patterns in college, having professors in college that turned everything I thought about God inside out and upside down (in the best possible ways), reading blogs where other young Christians were wrestling with the same issues I was, and having attended small churches, cell churches, and mega churches.

I wasn't scared to read it because I thought I'd disagree, mind you. I was scared to read it because I thought it would stir inside of me a longing for a kind of church I've never been able to find.

But that didn't stop me from accepting a review copy of Finding Organic Church: A Comprehensive Guide to Starting and Sustaining Authentic Christian Communities

So far, and I'm only a few chapters in, there's nothing radically different. I do plan to bring a full review when I can. I am slightly irritated that I"m meant to have read 4 books prior to this one to get a full understanding but so far the book seems to stand fine on it's own.

Here's Viola's definition of Organic Church:

"a church that is born out of spiritual life instead of being constructed by human institutions and being held together by religious programs. Organic church life is a grassroots experience that is marked by face-to-face community, every-member functioning, open participatory meetings, nonhierarchical leadership, and the centrality and supremacy of Jesus Christ as the functional leader and Head of the gathering."

I plan to bring a full review later but I'd love to hear your thoughts on what you think about churches, Viola's definition of organic church, what kind of church you attend, or if you don't attend (and believe) why not?

First Chapter:



It is the depravity of institutions and movements that given in the beginning to express life, they often end in throttling that very life. Therefore, they need constant review, perpetual criticism and continuous bringing back to the original purposes and spirit. The Christian church is no exception. It is the chief illustration of the above.

--E. Stanley Jones

The purpose of this book is very simple: to present the biblical narrative for church planting and to reclaim that narrative for our day.

Origin Determines Destiny

The Bible puts a great deal of stress on origins. This is because in spiritual things, origin determines destiny. Therefore, the origin of a church will determine its destiny as well as its quality. Put another way, how a church is planted has a profound effect on the character, the effectiveness, and the future of that church. Consider Paul's words:

I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. The man who plants and the man who waters have one purpose, and each will be rewarded according to his own labor. For we are God's fellow workers; you are God's field, God's building. By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as an expert builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should be careful how he builds. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If any man builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man's work. (1 Cor. 3:6-13)

In this passage, Paul uses two metaphors to describe the work of church planting: planting a field and constructing a building. For Paul, church planters are farmers (they “plant” the church), and they are builders (they “build” the church).

It is from this passage that the term church planter is derived. A church planter is one who plants the seed, which is the gospel of Jesus Christ, out of which a church is born. On the term church planter, Charles Brock writes,

The term “church planter” is rather new to many people. A church planter is a person, national or foreigner, who sows the gospel seed in a way that a New Testament church comes to life and grows.1

Paul depicts the church as a field. But he also envisions it as a building. Yet it's a building that is alive. When Paul speaks of a field, he's not talking about an acre of dirt. He's speaking of a cultivated field such as a field of wheat.2 Consequently, both metaphors have in view the organic nature of the church. The church is a living organism.

Within this passage, Paul mentions three ingredients for planting healthy churches:

1. The competence of the one who plants/builds the church.

By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as an expert builder. (1 Cor. 3:10a)

1 Charles Brock, The Principles and Practice of Indigenous Church Planting (Nashville: Broadman,

1981), 12-13.
2 The Greek word used in this passage literally means “a cultivated field.” Interestingly, the New Testament
is consistent in portraying wheat as a depiction of Christ and His people (John 12:24; 4:35; Mark 4:29;
Luke 10:2).

2. The materials used for building.

If any man builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, his work will be shown for what it is.… It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man's work. (1 Cor. 3:12-13)

3. The way in which the church is built.

But each one should be careful how he builds. (1 Cor. 3:10b)

The Mechanical vs. the Organic

Tragically, many modern Christians have the benighted idea that starting a church is like assembling Lego blocks. One simply has to stick his nose in the Bible, extract from its pages the practices of the early church, imitate them, and voilĂ , a floatable “New Testament church” is created. I call this mechanical method of church formation “biblical blueprintism.”

Biblical blueprintism is built on a rather thin ecclesiology and a misunderstanding of the organic nature of church life. For this reason, it's profoundly flawed.

An authentic church cannot be started by the bare hands of human beings--no more than a woman can be constructed through human ingenuity or imitation. A woman must be given birth. And once born, she must be nurtured to the point where she develops on her own.

Forgive the crass illustration, but lashing together two female arms and legs onto a torso and propping a female head on top will never produce a girl. To the naked eye such a concoction may resemble a human being. But it will always lack the essential quality of humanness--which is life. And life is the product of birth. This principle holds true when we consider the matter of church planting.

Consequently, the “biblical blueprint” model is rooted in the notion that the New Testament is the new Leviticus. Advocates approach the Bible like an engineer approaches an engineering textbook. Study the structural principles and then apply them.

But church planting is not a form of engineering. And the New Testament isn't a rule book. It's a record of the DNA of the church at work. As T. Austin-Sparks says,

The fact is that, while certain things characterized the New Testament churches, the New Testament does not give us a complete pattern according to which churches are to be set up or formed! There is no blueprint for churches in the New Testament, and to try to form New Testament churches is only to create another system which may be as legal, sectarian, and dead as others. Churches, like the Church, are organisms which spring out of life, which life itself springs out of the Cross of Christ wrought into the very being of believers. Unless believers are crucified people, there can be no true expression of the Church.3

For us humans, the family is genetic to our species. There will always be a father, a mother, and children. This cannot be broken. It's written in the arteries of creation.

In the same way, organic church life--the experience of the body of Christ--is instinctive to our species as Christians. It's woven into the bloodstream of God's universe. Provided that certain raw ingredients are in place, body life will organically and spontaneously break forth in the midst of a group of believers.

The problem we face is in removing all the baggage so that body life can arise naturally and stay healthy. This puts us on a collision course with the biblical principles of church planting.

What Is an Organic Church?

As I have stated elsewhere, I've been using this term for over fifteen years now. Today it has become somewhat of a clay word, being molded and shaped to mean a variety of different things by a variety of different people.

By organic church, I mean a church that is born out of spiritual life instead of being constructed by human institutions and held together by religious programs. Organic church life is a grassroots experience that is marked by face-to-face community, every-member functioning, open-participatory meetings (as opposed to pastor-topew services), nonhierarchical leadership, and the centrality and

3 T. Austin-Sparks, Words of Wisdom and Revelation (Corrina: Three Brothers, 1971), 62.

supremacy of Jesus Christ as the functional Leader and Head of the gathering.

By contrast, whenever we sin-scarred mortals try to create a church the same way we would start a business, we are defying the organic nature of church life. An organic church is one that is naturally produced when a group of people has encountered Jesus Christ in reality (external ecclesiastical props being unnecessary) and the DNA of the church is free to work without hindrance. It's the difference between standing in front of a fan and standing outdoors on a windy day.

To summarize, an organic church is not a theater with a script. It's a lifestyle--an authentic journey with the Lord Jesus and His disciples.

The difference between organic churches and nonorganic churches is the difference between General Motors and a vegetable garden. One is founded by humans, the other is birthed by God. One is artificial, the other is living.

For this reason, church planters are like farmers and midwives.

©2009 Cook Communications Ministries. Finding Organic Church by Frank Viola. Used with permission. May not be further reproduced. All rights reserved.


Zibilee said...

I've also had a pretty complicated relationship with the church since I was young. I am eager to hear what your final thoughts on this book will be because I think Organic Church is a very interesting concept, and I'd love to find out more about it.

twiga92 said...

Amy, I grew up as a missionary kid and have some pretty strong opinions myself on the whole church issue. I read Pagan Christianity with already the thought in mind that a lot of what we currently do in church doesn't seem to necessarily stem from the Bible but from culture. I found the book quite interesting to see where a lot of our current practices originate from. But I came away with the idea that you can't throw the baby out with the bath water. We need to evaluate why we do what we do, but that doesn't necessarily mean that just because something isn't spelled out in the Bible that it is automatically wrong to do. If you read Pagan Christianity with a grain of salt (as the saying goes), it is a good overview of church history and where things have come from. I didn't necessarily come to the same conclusions as the author, but I found it interesting reading.

Jilliefl1 said...

Hi Amy:

I appreciate your post on Viola's books. I've read the whole series, and there's just too much information to cover in one or two books-the volume would be overwhelming. (The message wasn't split apart to sell more books.)

I'm part of an organic church that is based on the author's definition, and I have to say that after experiencing this kind of church life I've been ruined to anything else. This after 20+ years in the traditional system. Face-to-face community centered on the person of Christ-it doesn't get any better!

You might want to work through "Pagan Christianity" and its sequel, "Reimagining Church", when you have time. They're worth checking out, as you'll just get a bigger, richer picture. Unfortunately, it takes a lot of time and effort to "deconstruct" two centuries of error and unbiblical mindset.

I really like Viola's article "Why I Love the Church", which explains the motivation behind all three books.

Blessings on your journey with Him!

Jen - devourer of books said...

I so did not realize that you're a PK.

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