I should point out first of all that this is not a proper book review. To be true to my word to the person who commented on my opinion of Pagan Christianity By Frank Viola and George Barna, I read the follow-up book, Reimagining Church. If I am to do the book justice, I need to carefully study all the scripture references it contains and see if they really back up what Mr. Viola is saying. What I’m writing down today are just first impressions. I’m intrigued enough to go back at some point and do that research, because much of what he says makes sense to me.
I’ve also waited too long to comment on what I’ve read, so that all I am left with are impressions that largely preceded the book and that it only strengthened. So why write? I don’t have a good answer for that, except that it’s on my list of things to do and I like doing it.
I’ve gone to church all my life. I’ve spent time in several types of services. I’ve been Baptist, Pentecostal, Assembly of God, and Charismatic. I’ve visited a Catholic service and even a synagogue. One thing is common to them all. They all engage in a set of ritual processes that vary little from week to week. They all put people in front of the congregation who conduct them through the rituals. The people may participate only to the extent they are permitted. They are all different in many ways, but I have not been to one yet where I didn’t eventually begin to wonder, “Why am I here?”
I’m sitting on a bench or chair for one to two hours while we go through the same motions each time we come. In some churches I may stand for a while. Some people may even dance around a bit or run up to the front for a little emotional stimulation if the venue permits such things. Occasionally if people get real excited the preacher might give up his sermon slot to let it continue, but most of the time I am not convinced that anything more than that occurred. It’s not that I think it can’t. I’ve seen God work in those situations. I’ve received ministry in those settings. Any time God’s truth is spoken He can use it. Any time He is truly worshiped He will respond.
I am coming to think there’s a better way, and yes, the book encouraged me in this thinking. The traditional church setting, whatever flavor you like, cannot provide for the needs of the people efficiently. Churches have recognized this. The small group movement has been one of the best answers to the problem, and I am not sold on the idea that small groups within a traditional church can’t still be an effective way to deal with it.
That still leaves some good questions unanswered. If the best ministry occurs in the small group setting, do we need the large corporate meeting? They can be enjoyable, and there are many gifted teachers out there with much good to say. It would be a shame to limit their reach, but what of the resources it takes to maintain them? How much of a typical congregation’s budget must go to maintain a large meeting facility? Would not that money be better spent addressing the needs of the poor, funding missionaries, etc?
Yesterday Linda and I attended our first public gathering in support of Mission Accessible, the non-profit she has just founded to promote the spread of disability related ministry. It was a small group, some of whom were in open opposition to some of Christianity’s core beliefs. Yet as the discussion progressed I felt that we achieved in that gathering something rarely managed in a traditional church setting. Each person got the opportunity to share, and some felt comfortable enough to reveal aspects of their lives we had not known before and that I feel fairly certain would never have come out in church. That meeting had within it the seeds of a real “organic” church experience. Because we did not set out to do this and had no real plans other than to get to know one another and investigate the possibilities, I would not characterize it as a church meeting, but who says it needs to be? In future I would be more purposeful in orienting the group toward the pursuit of Yahweh, but I was excited by the potential. Honestly I am a little frightened by the prospect of trying to build something on our little group. We don’t seem to have the foundation we need, but there is still and will always be opportunity to add more. That’s what we’re about.
After saying that I feel I may need to reassure some of the folks who may read this. We’re committed to Bartimaeus Baptist Temple. We believe that its ministry (our ministry) is vital and have the greatest respect for our pastor and church family. We love you and will be there until God makes it clear to all of us that it’s time to move on. It would not surprise me if that time never comes. We will operate within the framework and authority of the church. We will also be seeking the Lord for what else He may call us to do, and I highly doubt that it will look much at all like a church as most long-time Christians know it. It will be the first of many. Most will meet in some facility or other, not because we need the buildings to be a church, but because the people we mean to serve need an accessible place to meet. Most homes won’t qualify. We will go to where they are and bring them if they can come. If they can’t come we will meet them where they are. It is our vision not simply to minister to people with disabilities, but through them. Our message is that all, whether disabled or not, are created with a purpose in His kingdom. We exist to provide the opportunity for love, fellowship, and purpose in a segment of the population often overlooked or marginalized. This is how I reimagine church.