Frank Viola Author Answers Questions


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Frank’s ministry is called The Deeper Journey

Discovering that the Christian life really is more than you thought.

His mission is to help serious followers of Jesus know their Lord more deeply, gain fresh perspectives on old or ignored subjects, and make the Bible come alive.

Frank Viola author is a prolific writer, creating dozens of books, blogs, articles, podcast episodes, and interviews. Viola’s ministry concentrates on several areas: The deeper Christian life, Jesus studies, and radical church reform.

His earlier work focuses on radical ecclesiology, his recent work focuses on Jesus and the deeper life.

From Viola’s LinkedIn page,


Viola, Frank and Mary DeMuth (2015). The Day I Met Jesus. Baker Books.

Viola, Frank (2014). Jesus Now. David C. Cook.

Viola, Frank (2013). God’s Favorite Place on Earth. David C. Cook.

Viola, Frank and Leonard Sweet (2012). Jesus: A Theography. Thomas Nelson.

Viola, Frank (2011). Revise Us Again: Living from a Renewed Christian Script. David C. Cook.

Viola, Frank and Leonard Sweet (2010). Jesus Manifesto: Restoring the Supremacy and Sovereignty of Jesus Christ. Thomas Nelson.

Viola, Frank (2009). Finding Organic Church: A Comprehensive Guide to Starting & Sustaining Authentic Christian Communities. David C. Cook.

Viola, Frank (2009). From Eternity to Here: Rediscovering the Ageless Purpose of God. David C. Cook.

Viola, Frank (2008). Reimagining Church: Pursuing the Dream of Organic Christianity. David C. Cook.

Viola, Frank and George Barna (2008). Pagan Christianity: Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices. Tyndale.

Viola, Frank (2005). The Untold Story of the New Testament Church: An Extraordinary Guide to Understanding the New Testament. Destiny Image.

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TIME Magazine, Christianity Today, Relevant, Charisma, Ministry Today, Prism, Good News, CBN, Neue, Out of Ur, The Christian Post, Revive, ReThink, The Ooze, Next-Wave, ForMinistry, InSpirit, New Reformation, New Wineskins,The Pneuma Review, etc.

Specialties:* Conference / Seminar Speaking

* Audio Interviews.

* Print Interviews & Published Articles: Examples of past interview and/or article publications – TIME, Christianity Today, Charisma, Ministry Today, Relevant, Out of Ur, Life Today, The Christian Post, Prism, Good News,, etc.

Awakened in Bethany

Time crept by. There was still no sign of Jesus. I had fallen ill. The eastern fever raged through me, roasting my body from the inside out.

It had been two weeks since the onset of the disease. And my condition worsened by the day.

When I could no longer walk, my sisters sent word to Jesus through a messenger. They knew the Teacher was staying on the east side of the Jordan River in the region of Perea, and they sent the following word to Him:

“Teacher, the one whom You love is seriously ill.”

That same evening my fever worsened. My limbs refused to obey my feeble commands. I could scarcely sit up. The bed became a prison for my failing body.

My sisters were overwhelmed with the bitter prospect that I would not recover. Martha complained, “If the Teacher were here, Lazarus would be healed.”

I heard Mary mutter, “Jesus has to come.”

My father continued to encourage me. Jesus had healed him; surely He would heal me also.

Adapted from Frank Viola author’s book God’s Favorite Place on Earth.

Shattering a False Dichotomy

Beginning from the mid-third century onward, Christian writers have used Martha and Mary as models for the two main personalities in the church: the busy activists (the Marthas) and the quiet reflectives (the Marys).

As an observer of the passing parade, I don’t believe this caricature fits the biblical story. While I think it might describe Martha fairly well, it misses the mark when it comes to Mary.

Let me explain.

There is no question that Martha saw her service to Jesus as an act of love and worship. The fact that Jesus never belittled her service toward Him confirms this.

However, some Martha-types have a way of reducing a relationship with God to feverish activity. Such people obsess over how many lost people you’ve shared Christ with, what you’re doing to help the poor and oppressed, how involved you are in social justice and making the world a better place. In their minds, all of these things are the badges of being a “good Christian.”

But to my everlasting astonishment, most of the Marys I’ve met in my life used to be Marthas. They just burned out or bailed out.

Let’s talk about those who burned out. These former Marthas didn’t know how to say no when asked to participate in various church programs, activities, and ministries. They were constantly busy, serving every spare moment they had. In their eyes, serving at the church or staying busy with ministry activities was the equivalent of loving God.

Guilt, condemnation, religious duty, and obligation subtly motivated and governed their activities. They were trying to win brownie points with a God who stopped keeping score two thousand years ago.

There came a point, however, when the weight of Christian service simply crushed them. And burnout ensued.

Some Marthas went beyond burnout and bailed out. They felt they had served God with all they had. But when they observed others who were blessed by God, yet who weren’t as “faithful,” they grew bitter and abandoned the Lord.

“I’m doing all this for You, yet You’re blessing them instead,” was their bitter cry.

Some of these people later repented and returned to the Lord, acknowledging that their service to God was more about them instead of Him.

In both cases, these Marthas realized that they had confused service with a relationship with Jesus. They made the profound yet painful discovery that they had been serving the idol of “service” rather than God Himself.

They also discovered that the source of their service—the strength they relied upon to serve God—was not the life of Christ. The source was their own natural strength and energy.

What is more, they realized that their very identities and security were wrapped up in their service. That’s why they craved attention for their work. It’s also why they became a critic and a judge of the service (or non-service) of others.

The result: after slaving as Marthas for many years, they became Marys. That is, they learned to rest in Christ, hear His voice, and draw on His energy for ministry.

Again, Mary was not someone who lacked in service. Jesus had no word of rebuke or complaint for her. And as we’ve already seen, Mary helped Martha before Jesus moved into teaching mode.

The antidote, therefore, is not for Marys to move closer to being Marthas (to serve more). Nor is it for Marthas to move closer to being Marys (to worship more). This isn’t a question of balance. It’s a question of priority, orientation, and source.

All service must flow from communion with the Lord if it is to have lasting value. All service must find its source in the life of Christ so it won’t lead to burnout or bail-out.

Unless the LORD builds the house, its builders labor in vain.22

All service must flow out of a razor-sharp desire to please God rather than a desire to get noticed by others. If it does not, it will lead to either complaint or criticism.

When God created the world, He worked for six days and then rested. Adam was created on the sixth day. So God’s seventh day—the Sabbath—was Adam’s first full day.

God works before He rests. Humans, however, rest before they work. This principle undergirds all Christian service. We rest in Christ before we work for Christ. Or in the language of Ephesians, we sit before we stand or walk.23

For anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from his own work, just as God did from his.24

Mary is our example in all of these things. And she has the defense of Jesus to confirm it.

In short, it’s a dangerous thing to be so busy for the Lord that you don’t have time to seek Him and wait on His direction. Acting “religious” is the fallen soul’s way of trying to duplicate the job of the Holy Spirit.


There is room for all human temperaments in the body of Christ. The Lord uses the choleric, practical, outspoken, and assertive activists as well as the phlegmatic, calm, contemplative, timid, and docile pacifists.

But while God doesn’t do away with our unique temperaments and personalities, He wishes to adjust them so that they are in line with His character, directed by His will, and energized by His life.

Taken from God’s Favorite Place on Earth by Frank Viola Author

Mary, Martha, and Jesus

Now it happened as they went that He entered a certain village; and a certain woman named Martha welcomed Him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who also sat at Jesus’ feet and heard His word. But Martha was distracted with much serving, and she approached Him and said, “Lord, do You not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Therefore tell her to help me.” And Jesus answered and said to her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and troubled about many things. But one thing is needed, and Mary has chosen that good part, which will not be taken away from her.” Luke 10:38–42 NKJV

When Jesus finished His teaching, Martha signaled that the meal was ready. He then did something equally surprising. He asked us to all eat together—women and men—in the public room.

Mary and Martha hesitated. They looked at one another with raised eyebrows. Jesus’ followers weren’t fazed; they had seen Him break customs before. So all of us—Mary and Martha included—ate together.

My sisters had prepared a marvelous meal that day. Platters containing piles of flatbread, fish, goat cheese, olives, eggs, and dried figs, along with pitchers of goat milk, wine, and bowls of lentil stew filled the table.

I will never forget the Teacher’s words to Martha:

“One thing is needful … and I won’t take it away from Mary.”

These words stirred in my mind all evening.

Later that night, I asked Jesus to elaborate on them. And I recall Him saying the following in response:

“Hearing My word is more important than service. Following is more important than working. Martha tended to My physical needs, but Mary tended to that which is most important to Me: being My apprentice.”

“Mary received Me into her heart long before she received Me into Your home,” Jesus continued. “She laid all other things aside and gave heed to My words. And she made this her only task.”

“Martha has the heart of a servant, but all service for Me must flow from communion with Me. Martha absorbed herself with the bread that perishes; Mary was nourishing herself with the bread from heaven, which shall never perish.”

“To obey is better than sacrifice. The primary task of a disciple is to learn of Me. Worry not, Lazarus. Martha will learn this also.”

At that moment, it dawned on me that Jesus wasn’t just a teacher; He was a prophet: one who carried God’s Word.

Martha’s hospitality was important. But it was focused on the temporal. Mary’s hospitality was more important because the greatest way to welcome a prophet is to receive His words. And this was what Mary did.

In the days that followed, we all came to understand that Jesus was much more than a teacher and a prophet. He was the Messiah of God.

The Teacher and His disciples lodged with us that night. He talked with me for hours when the others retired to sleep. I am a reserved, unobtrusive person. I do not say much. But being with the Teacher made me feel at ease. I could ask Him whatever was on my mind without fear.

For reasons that I do not grasp, Jesus took a liking to me. I was honored and amazed at the same time. Never having a brother of my own, He felt close to one.

I would later learn that Jesus was in fact my elder brother … and a friend who sticks closer than any natural sibling. As it says in Proverbs,

A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.2

So that is what took place the first time Jesus stepped into our home. There would be many other occasions where we were graced with the calm majesty of His presence and heard the mighty and mysterious words that fell from His lips.

As often as He would climb the dust-paved road from Jericho and depart from the golden gates of the holy city of Jerusalem, He would visit us in Bethany.

In fact, Jesus would never spend a night in the holy city; He would lodge only with us.

Our house was always open to Him and His followers.

He was not just our Teacher, our Lord, and our Savior. He was an intimate and beloved friend—our friend.

It always seemed to delight His heart to gladden our home with His presence.

We were filled with an unutterable love for Him. And we knew that He loved us even more.

This became clear to all of us after I became ill …

From God’s Favorite Place on Earth by Frank Viola author

An Amazing Village

In every generation, Christians face the same challenges—namely doubt, discouragement, fear, guilt, division, rejection, and the struggle against consumerism and lukewarmness.

The Gospels narrate the incredible story of Jesus’ earthly life. Yet there is a story within this narrative that’s often missed. And to my mind, it’s the greatest story never told—a narrative within the narrative.

That narrative is the story of Jesus’ repeated visits to the little village of Bethany.

When we extract the story of Bethany from the four Gospels and trace the footsteps of our Lord there, a beautiful saga emerges. This saga speaks to the challenges of doubt, discouragement, fear, guilt, division, rejection, consumerism, and spiritual apathy. Challenges we all face as believers.

My object in this book is to tell the story of Bethany and bring its powerful message to life. The reason? Because that narrative changed my life. And I’m hopeful that it will change yours also.

This book is a work of biblical narrative. The Gospels give us the meat of the story of Bethany, but I’ve filled in the details by creating dialogue, action, and atmosphere. These details add color and texture to the story. They transform the story into vivid 3D Technicolor, unearthing uncommon insights from the biblical text.

Note that I’ve drawn the creative details from first-century history. As such, they are fully consistent with the biblical record and New Testament scholarship.

Even so, this isn’t a scholarly work. As a result, different possibilities derived from the biblical data are deliberately left out. My narration is according to what I consider to be the best research available.

According to the Gospels, four main characters lived in Bethany: Martha; her sister, Mary; and their brother, Lazarus. A person named “Simon the leper” also lived there.

In the pages that follow, Lazarus will tell the story in six parts. Following each frame of the story, a ““walking it out” section will practically apply some of the crucial points of the narrative that bear on our lives today. The book concludes with a “talking it over” section to help guide discussions for churches and small groups.

Some people may think that Jerusalem is God’s favorite place on earth. And in a sense they are correct. Jerusalem is central in the Bible. It is where God put His name and where He chose to presence Himself in the Temple.

When Jesus arrived on the scene, however, the holy city of Jerusalem became something that God never intended. And it rejected its Savior. So much so that it crucified Him. The tears of Jesus over Jerusalem, therefore, were not tears of satisfaction and joy. They were tears of sorrow for rejecting its Messiah. In the following pages I will demonstrate that the place where Jesus Christ – God incarnate – was happiest, the most satisfied, and felt most at home was Bethany. It is in this sense that I am using the phrase “favorite place.”

As you read the incomparable story of Jesus in Bethany, I expect the profound significance of what our Lord did in this village to come to life for you. And when you are finished, I hope you will discover the meaning of God’s favorite place on earth.

From the early draft of God’s Favorite Place on Earth by Frank Viola, author.

Will the Emerging Church Fully Emerge?

An Invitation for Serious Reflection and Open Dialogue

by Frank Viola Author

This article was written in 2005. Today, the so-called “emerging church” is dead according to many who were a key part of it. (Some say it died in 2010 – see


Original 2005 Article

I am writing this article to my sisters and brothers in Christ, both leaders and non-leaders, who belong to what has come to be called the emerging church conversation.

The influence of this conversation has been no less than incredible. So much so, that at least to my mind, it can be better described as a phenomenon. And it is picking up steam with each passing day.

I am a student of church history. My studies have led me to make the following observation: Every phenomenon and movement that has set out to reform or renew the church was born with profound shortcomings and weaknesses. And these shortcomings and weaknesses were never addressed until it was too late for them to be corrected. In my own lifetime, I have seen this to be true for the charismatic movement, the Jesus movement, the third-wave movement, and the house church movement . . . just to name a few.

Because the emerging church phenomenon is still in its infancy, its shortcomings and weaknesses can be addressed now. As Christians who have grown tired of the modern church, we have a brand new opportunity to change the course of church history. I realize that this may appear to be an outrageous statement. Nonetheless, it is true. We have been given a small window to see a complete overhaul of our Christian faith and to be faithful in honoring the heart of Jesus and the vision of the earliest apostles in our own time. This is why I write today.

Major Strengths of the Emerging Church Phenomenon

The following are themes within the emerging church phenomenon that I wholeheartedly applaud and am thankful for:

1. The emerging church phenomenon is exploring fresh ways to revamp and recontextualize the gospel message to postmodern people. Not only do I applaud this new emphasis, but I shamelessly admit that I have a great deal to glean in this area. Thus, I would like to learn more from those who have plowed further in this field.

2. The emerging church phenomenon has placed a long-awaited emphasis on community and relational faith.

3. The emerging church phenomenon has placed an emphasis on rethinking the modern church . . . its methods, its programs, its traditions, and its structure.

4. The emerging church phenomenon has placed a new emphasis on the Jesus of the Gospels opposed to the exclusive emphasis on the Jesus of Paul’s writings.

5. The emerging church phenomenon has placed a rightful emphasis on the importance of Body functioning.

6. The emerging church phenomenon has placed a new emphasis on the importance of narrative.

7. The emerging church phenomenon has dumped the modern penchant to always be certain in answering every spiritual question under the sun. Instead, it has rested content to embrace mystery and paradox in our God.

8. The emerging church phenomenon has re-ignited a healthy interest in the Christian mystics who emphasized spiritual encounter over against mere academic knowledge of God and the Bible.

I am absolutely thrilled to hear ordinary Christians, and even leaders talk about these themes openly and unashamedly. All of them point to crucial changes that the Body of Christ desperately needs today. Add to that, I become nearly euphoric whenever I hear of pastors leaving their entrenched positions to rethink the entire basis for their Christian existence. Such a courageous step is both impressive and worthy of deep respect.

Let me again repeat: We are in a season of church history where we face a small window of time for real and lasting change. A window for revolution in the modern Christian mindset and in the traditional practices of the modern church. A window that Christians 1,000 years from now (should Jesus tarry, of course) can turn their heads back to and behold the beginning of a drastic paradigm shift from an old leaking wineskin to a new wineskin hand-crafted by the Spirit of God.

But note . . . that window will eventually close. And it will close soon.

The emerging church phenomenon is promising, for it embodies many necessary contributions to a fuller embodiment of Christ and His church. At the same time, the weaknesses of the phenomenon, if not honestly and directly addressed, will reduce it to the status of all past renewal movements. Namely, it will end up spawning a new denomination or movement which simply puts a few Band-Aids on the church’s ills rather than excavating the root of its problems.

I would now like to list what I find to be the weaknesses of the phenomenon along with some bold questions that I hope will foster serious and open dialogue among leaders in the emerging church. Please note that this list betrays the essence and burden of my own ministry and the vision which drives me. Since I have written on these matters extensively elsewhere, I have cited where one can find these threads more fully unraveled.

Serious Weaknesses of the Emerging Church Phenomenon

By my lights, the weaknesses of the emerging church phenomenon are as follows:

1. The emerging church phenomenon has wonderfully articulated some of the major flaws of the modern church, yet like all of its predecessors, it has failed to identify and take dead aim at one of the chief roots of most of its ills.

I firmly believe that the taproot of most of the problems that plague the church in modernity is the clergy system. To put a finer point on it, Protestant Christians are addicted to the modern pastoral office. The pastor is the all-purpose religious professional in the modern Protestant church, both evangelical and mainline.

Please note that my critique is not an attack on pastors as people. Most pastors in the emerging church are gifted Christians who have a heart for the Lord and a genuine love for His people. It is the modern pastoral office and role that I believe is profoundly flawed, and few of us have ever questioned it.

Let me unpack that a bit. My experience in this country and overseas over the last seventeen years has yielded one immovable conclusion: God’s people can engage in high-talk about community life, Body functioning, and Body life, but unless the modern pastoral role is utterly abandoned in a given church, God’s people will never be unleashed to function in freedom under the Headship of Jesus Christ. I have had pastors vow to me that they were the exception. However, upon visiting their congregations, it was evident that the people did not know the first thing about functioning as a Body on their own. Neither were they given any practical tools on knowing the Lord intimately and living by His life. The reason is that the flaws of the modern pastoral role are actually built into the role itself.

The pastor, by his mere presence, causes an unhealthy dependence upon himself for ministry, direction, and guidance. Thus, as long as he hangs around delivering sermons, the people in the church to which he belongs will never be fully set free to function on their own in a church meeting setting. Further, the pastoral office typically destroys those who populate it. Jesus Christ never intended for anyone to shoulder that kind of enormous responsibility and power.

In the first-century church, there was no single pastor. The Protestant pastor (which includes the evangelical pastor, the mainline pastor, and the non-denominational pastor) evolved out of the Catholic priesthood. The pastor is essentially a reformed priest, and his role has no root in the original vision and story of the people of God.

In Century One, some of the churches had elders who played a shepherding role. But they did not dominate the ministry of the church, nor was the direction of the church exclusively placed into their hands (as is the case with many elder-led churches today like Presbyterians and the Plymouth Brethren). I believe that we are in desperate need to return to these first principles.

Time and space will not permit me to give historical and pragmatic evidence for the above statements, but I have addressed them elsewhere in great detail. I heartily invite my readers to explore both Scripture and church history for themselves and draw their own conclusions.

Pastors can wax eloquent all day about facilitating, mentoring, and equipping the saints. But here is the proof of the pudding: Let that pastor leave his congregation on its own without any stated leaders for six months to a year, and he will quickly learn how well he has equipped the church. Will that congregation be able to lead its own songs without a song leader or worship team? Will they be able to have gatherings that are under the Headship of Jesus Christ like the early church did? Will every member of the church be equipped to provide life-giving ministry to one another in those meetings? Will they be able to solve problems and make decisions together as a community?

Perhaps this thought has never occurred to you. But what I have just described is precisely what the church planters of the first century did routinely. They worked themselves out of a job. Not in pious rhetoric, but in reality.

Paul of Tarsus had a deliberate habit of spending anywhere from three months to three years with a church, equipping it to function in his absence. He would always then leave those churches on their own without a clergy. More on this later.

Question: Is it possible that in our efforts to bring renewal and change to the traditional church, we have never seriously taken a biblical, historical, and practical look at the legitimacy of the modern pastoral office? Can we at least experiment with another alternative . . . the ministry paradigm that we find in our New Testaments? For those of us who are inclined to delivering sermons and providing leadership, do we have the integrity to freshly examine if the modern pastoral role and the giving of sermons week after week is truly equipping God’s people to function as members of His Body in a coordinated way?

2. The emerging church phenomenon has neglected the role of the itinerant church planter.

Over the last few years, I have observed a number of laymen leave their present congregations to start new emerging churches. Strikingly, these laymen always become the pastors of these new churches. With a few minor exceptions, the wineskin proved identical to the old wineskin that they had left.

Let me enlarge this observation into a principle. The clergy-led institutional church is like a rubber band. No matter what it experiences in the way of renewal or reform, it will always bounce back to the same structure. It lives on fads and gimmicks. But when the smoke clears, it will always return to a pastor who preaches sermons to a passive congregation, a prescribed order of worship where God’s people are not free to function unhindered in the gatherings, and a building whose structural arrangement encourages people to be muted spectators.

With all of our emphasis on being faithful to incarnate the Kingdom of God in the world today, we have overlooked one important ingredient for having authentic church life that is clearly envisioned throughout the entire New Testament: The paradigm of how healthy churches were planted when the church was young, free, and pure.

I have addressed this matter in great detail in one of my books. To summarize very briefly, we discover the following compelling ideas given to us in the New Testament:

A. Church planters were men who had previously lived in an organic expression of church life as non-leaders before they were sent out to plant churches. One main reason: They needed to first experience that which they would pass on to others elsewhere.

B. Church planters were specially equipped to bring people into a living encounter with Jesus Christ, to teach them how to function in a church meeting, and to solve problems that the church would face in the future.

C. After the church planters had properly equipped the church to function under the Headship of Jesus Christ, they left those churches on their own without any stated leaders! (In some cases, the church planters would later return to acknowledge elders in the advent that God’s people would face a personal crisis, but elders never monopolized the ministry nor took the direction away from the church.)

Question: Is it possible that the emerging church phenomenon has neglected to look at the way churches were planted in the first century, and instead, has opted to follow the path of modern missionary movements and traditional pastoral systems? For those of us who are considered church leaders, are we confident enough in our ministries and in the ability of God’s people, as well as the Holy Spirit, to abandon our congregations without stated leaders like Paul of Tarsus did . . . and really test the effectiveness of our ministries? Can we, pray tell, at least begin to dialogue about this matter openly and seek to discover if in fact God has rooted some unchangeable principles of church planting in His Word? Principles that may be worth returning to in our time?

3. The emerging church phenomenon has overlooked what Paul calls the eternal purpose (Eph. 3:11), which is God’s ultimate intention in creation and redemption.

It has been my observation that the entire thrust of the emerging church phenomenon is rooted in how best to meet peoples needs. Consider the hot topics in the emerging church conversation today: How can we better evangelize the lost? How can we better live out the ideals of the gospel of Jesus, How should we treat the homosexual? How can we better articulate the gospel in a postmodern context? What is the place of artists in the church?

All of these questions have as their underlying root the meeting of human needs. I do not mean to demean this, for the gospel certainly addresses the needs of humanity. However, there is a need in God, too. That need does not correspond to a deficiency in Himself (for He is all-sufficient), but it rather flows out of the desire of His nature. Paul calls this need the eternal purpose or the purpose of the ages. And the church, as dreamt in the heart of God, stands at the heartbeat of this ultimate intention. I have read reams of emerging church articles, but never once have I seen an article (or a chapter from an emerging church book for that matter) that discusses or brings light to the eternal purpose of God.

Describing the eternal purpose of God is beyond the scope of this article, though I have addressed it elsewhere. But I wish to end this section with some searching questions:

God conceived a purpose in eternity past. And that purpose was the very motivation for the creation wherein we stand. Do you know what that purpose is?

God’s eternal purpose is His magnificent obsession . . . it is that which drives and consumes His very being. Can the emerging church emerge from emphasizing how to better meet the needs of humanity to a conversation on that all-governing purpose which stands at the center of the beating heart of God?

4. The emerging church phenomenon shares a common trait with most of Christendom in that it is largely built on theory with little practice. For instance, there is a great deal of high-talk about Body functioning, community life, and equipping the saints for ministry, yet I have seen little to no fleshing out of these spiritual realities in any form among those who carry on loudly about them. While I applaud the gains that some emerging churches have made in providing more freedom to their members during a church service than the garden-variety institutional church, in my assessment, these churches have moved just a few inches forward on a very long road.

Allow me to enlarge this point a bit. About two months ago, I received a phone call from a well-known leader in the emerging church. His words to me were, Frank, I’m really discouraged. There’s a lot of talk about community life, Body functioning, and Body ministry among us, but I have not been impressed with what I’ve seen along these lines.

I agreed with him totally. But then I responded, I believe this is a major weakness of the emerging church conversation. I certainly don’t claim to have all the answers, but I’ve been emerging from the institutional church for almost 20 years now. I’ve made a lot of mistakes and failures, but I have also made many wonderful discoveries along the way. This journey continues till this day. But I can say this without flinching: For the last seventeen years, I have been gathering with Christians outside the organized church. Without exception, all of the groups that I have gathered with or have worked with personally have known the pains and joys of community life in bed-rock reality, they have all had consistent meetings under the Lords Headship without a leader or facilitator, they have made decisions together, and they have solved their own problems . . . all without a pastor, or a group of selected men to rule them, and without a song leader or worship team.

The man never inquired further.

This leads me to a set of thorny questions: If we are humble enough to admit that a great deal of the emerging church conversation is arm-chair philosophy, can we be humble enough to sit with those who have had some practical experience in these matters and openly dialogue about them?

Is it possible for those churches that have traveled a few feet in the right direction in liberating the laity to not excuse themselves from examining the vast remaining tract of land to be traveled?

How will the church of Jesus Christ ever be visible on this earth in any wide measure if those whom God has called and gifted to help equip God’s people are never willing to learn from one another and seek to put into practice the vision that burns in their hearts? Are we each left to independently reinvent the wheel . . . every man for himself? Or does this really boil down to a blatant unwillingness to abandon the clerical system which continues to control God’s people? Are we blithely opting for more Band-Aids simply because it is convenient?

5. While the emerging church phenomenon has placed a much needed emphasis on the Jesus of the Gospels, it has focused on imitating His outward conduct instead of exploring His internal relationship with an indwelling God which was the source of His conduct.

Studying the earthly example of Jesus Christ and trying to imitate it is like trying to create an orange out of whole cloth by studying the composition of a natural orange in a laboratory. An orange is the fruit . . . the natural outcome . . . of the life of an orange tree. In the same way, Jesus earthly conduct was simply the fruit of a life lived in communion with an indwelling Father.

Jesus said clearly that He could not live the Christian life: Without my Father, I can do nothing (John 5:19). What, then, was the taproot of His selfless lifestyle? He gave us the answer in John 6:57, As the Father has sent me and I LIVE BY MY FATHER, so he that eats me shall live by me. Jesus Christ had an internal relationship with His Father who indwelt Him.

To expect humans to try to live the Christian life is like expecting a cat to set a dinner table, bake a cake, eat it with fork and knife, and wash dishes. The cat is the wrong life form to carry out these activities; hence, it is impossible for a cat to display human conduct. Jesus said as much when He told His followers, Without me you can do nothing (John 15:5).

The secret to Jesus extraordinary life on earth was in His partaking of His indwelling Father and living by His life. In the same way, the secret to imitating Jesus is no different. It is found in partaking of our indwelling Lord and living by His life.

Can we be honest enough to admit that trying to imitate Christ’s earthly life is a study in failure? Is it possible for us to take a fresh look at the Lords earthly life by examining His internal walk as the pattern for us to imitate? For what the Father was to Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ is to you and me. Note His words: As the Father has sent me, so I send you (John 20:21) . . . As I live by the Father, so he that eats me shall live by me. (John 6:57). It is my opinion that these words embody an entire world for Christians that has been virtually unexplored.

6. While the emerging church phenomenon has done a stellar job in emphasizing narrative in the Gospel story, it has neglected to take seriously the value of the narrative of the entire first-century church as a necessary model for interpreting the New Testament.

Most of us who are part of the emerging church phenomenon take the New Testament seriously. Nevertheless, we are all handling a New Testament whose letters are out of chronological order and whose books are divided up into chapters and verses. This makes understanding the social-historical context and setting of the New Testament writings virtually impossible to grasp. And it opens the door to such spiritual hazards as isolated proof-texting to prove doctrines and theological systems.

Since the Protestant Reformation, we Christians have been taught to be reductionists when it comes to Bible study and individualists when it comes to applying the words of Scripture. The emerging church phenomenon has not fully shed itself from these two misguided tendencies. Consider these two thoughts which are open to challenge and dialogue:

A. The New Testament must be approached holistically if it will be understood in its right context. That is, we must step back and see the whole picture before we can properly understand the frames which make it up.

B. The Christian faith is intensely corporate. For instance, the vast bulk of the Epistles in the New Testament are written to churches . . . corporate bodies of believers who knew a shared life together, and not to individuals. (Out of the 21 Epistles in the New Testament, only 5 were written to individuals. And 4 of those 5 were written to Christian workers.)

Point two opens up another universe altogether that I believe must become part of the emerging church conversation. That is, living the Christian life does not work except in a shared-life, face-to-face community of believers.

When a person understands the first-century narrative, they are keen to learn that all the passages in the New Testament on transformation are not addressed to followers of Jesus as individuals. They are instead addressed to communities, a la, churches in the first-century sense of the word. Consequently, warming a pew and listening to sermons does not transform us. Neither does standing near a pew or chair, with hands lifted, and singing praise songs led by a worship team or music director. Transformation occurs when a community of believers discovers how to behold the Lord together and live their lives in a shared way.

It seems to me that what is needed, then, is a brand new approach to the New Testament. A holistic approach wherein we understand the story . . . the narrative . . . that lies behind all of its writings. Unless we have a good grasp on how the story of Acts chronologically interacts with Paul’s letters and the other letters of the New Testament, we will continue to make the common mistake of taking verses out of their historical context and misapplying them in a misguided quest for relevance.

This leads me to some terse queries. Would it be worthwhile for those of us who are emerging to also emerge in the way we approach the New Testament? Is it possible that grasping the narrative of the story of the early church as a background to all the Epistles can revolutionize our understanding of God’s written Story and bring us further along in the church renewal/restoration effort? Is it possible that if we continue to take the individualistic, reductionist approach to the New Testament that has dominated the Christian landscape for centuries, that we will continue to make the same mistakes that our forefathers have made? Can we . . . and should we . . . utterly abandon the cut-and-paste-stitching-verses-together-proof-texting method of Bible study and sermonizing, and seek to embrace something better?

7. The emerging church phenomenon, like all preceding reform/renewal movements, has emphasized a bundle of Christian “its” and “things,” instead of the Person of Jesus Christ.

In my opinion, if we were to examine the broad canvas of Christian movements and denominations throughout church history, we would discover that each one paints with a very fine brush. For one movement, the brush is evangelism. For another, it is social justice and acts of mercy. For another, it is praise and worship. For another, it is Bible study and doctrinal/theological accuracy. For another, it is the power of God, the gifts of the Spirit, signs and wonders. For another, it is changing the political system. For another, it is spiritual warfare and intercessory prayer. For another, it is personal prophecy. For still another, it is end-time theology (eschatology). And on and on it goes.

All of these brushes represent Christian things. And they are just that . . . things. They are Christian its. Subjects about the Lord with which to become engaged, at best. Or with which to become obsessed, at worst.

But where are those who paint with the all-inclusive brush and talk about the Person of Jesus Christ? Where are those who are not talking about its, things, and subjects . . . but who are talking about HIM in depths little known and explored? And not just talking about Him, but who are presenting and ministering Him to His people?

Earlier I stated that I have read reams of emerging church articles. While many of them reveal fresh thinking on many subjects, I discovered something missing in virtually all of them:

The centrality of Jesus Christ.

I remember reading a few emerging church articles not too long ago, and I actually counted how many times the Lord was mentioned. In one article, which was quite lengthy, He was mentioned once. In another, He was never mentioned at all!

By contrast, if one were to read the letters of Paul with a careful eye, they would find his pen dripping with Christ. Take, for instance, his letter to Ephesians and Colossians. Try counting how often Paul mentions His Lord in a single chapter. It is mind-boggling!

What is my point? Paul had a living encounter with His Lord that shook him to his foundations. A ministry was born out of that encounter. And that ministry was a Person! Paul did not occupy himself with Christian things. His occupation was the Lord Himself. And this glorious Lord embodies all things spiritual.

May I venture a searching question to my fellow ministers in the emerging church? Is it possible that we have missed the main point of our faith? Are we simply passing on the worn out tools we have been given by our evangelical forefathers on how to know the Lord? (pray and study your Bible . . . pray more and study your Bible more!) Could there be new tools to know our Lord deeply and practically? If there are, are we open to discover them together? And are we willing to experience them before we preach them to God’s people?

Do our writings and messages betray an intimate familiarity with the One who indwells us, or are we merely engaging in subjects, issues, topics, things, and its? Are our ministries one of giving LIFE . . . which is Christ Himself, or do we betray a vague familiarity with this glorious Person? Are we educating God’s people on subjects about the faith, or are we bringing them into a living encounter with Him . . . the likes of which will consume and captivate their hearts for the rest of their lives?

Challenge and Invitation

In the mid-20th century, Swiss watchmakers had the corner on the world market share of watches. But that changed when one of their own countrymen came out with a revolutionary new idea: The quartz watch. He presented this idea to the Swiss manufacturers and they laughed at him. They concluded it could never work, so they refused to patent the idea. Seiko, on the other hand, took one look at the quartz watch and the rest is history.

The power of a paradigm had so influenced the Swiss watch manufacturers that they could not understand the new concept of the quartz watch. Because the quartz watch had no gears, no mainspring, and no bearings, they rejected it. Their present paradigm did not allow for the new innovation. The net effect was that they lost the leading edge on watch making and they were forced to lay off thousands of workers. It was all because the quartz watch did not fit into their world view. It did not fit within their paradigm. They did not appreciate the new way because they were blinded by the old way.

It is my strong conviction that a similar paradigm shift concerning the structure and practice of the church as well as church planting is absolutely crucial if the Body of Christ will reflect the dream in God’s heart and have any significant cultural impact. Or to put it another way, a serious rethinking of the modern pastoral role, the way that churches are planted, the centrality of Jesus Christ, the taproot of Christ’s earthly conduct, the narrative of the first-century story, and the eternal purpose of God are all necessary if the emerging church has any hope of fully emerging.

So consider this article as both a challenge and an invitation for patient dialogue and fellowship among leaders, authors, bloggers, and members of the emerging church community.

It would bring me great joy to have the opportunity to discuss these matters with those who have been captured with the call to emerge. For perhaps in doing so, we can learn from one another and take advantage of the present window of change that God has set before us.