Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Quakers and Church Planting -- Two Reviews

As part of my work for FGC's New Meetings Project, I've gathered a stack of books about how to start new churches.  I blogged a bit about some premises gathered from Ten Most Common Mistakes Made by New Church Starts by Jim Griffith and Bill Easum.  After reading that book, I moved on to The House Church Book: Rediscover the Dynamic, Organic, Relational, Viral Community Jesus Started by Wolfgang Simson.

I had great hopes for this book.  After all, I have had some experience in helping to start a "house church" (Friends in Fellowship that meets at Ploughshares Farm) and I think the house church model may be helpful to Quakers as we think about ways of seeding new meetings and worship groups.  That idea seems to me to be very much in keeping with how the early Friends did their "church planting" work. 

So I opened this book with great anticipation -- only to find that it's just horrid and unhelpful. Its scope is as small as its premise -- and is far from "dynamic, organic, relational, viral" and "Jesus" (to quote the cover). There's a mean-spirit about this book -- criticising and dismissive of all other expressions of what it means to be church. Disdainful that God might be at work in other forms.  And the author's "biblical" premises for his positions seem to me as if he's reading some other Bible than mine. I finally put it down in disgust without finishing it.  It will be one of the few books that gets literally recycled -- I don't want anybody I know to read it.  Or anybody I don't know -- so it's not going to Goodwill or Friends of the Library.

In some ways I feel I should have known better than to expect good things from this book.  It's forward is by George Barna and the book is published by his company.  I've long had a negative bias  against his church research (after all, I do hang around with social scientists of religion and American congregations and was once a member myself of the Religious Research Association and the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion) and my friends do not tend to have a high regard for his methodology.  Plus he always seems to have something to "sell" -- both figuratively and literally.  I should have avoided this book and I recommend you do, too.

Reading Finding Organic Church: A Comprehensive Guide to Starting and Sustaining Authentic Christian Communities by Frank Viola was time much better spent (at least I didn't find myself throwing the book down in disgust!). 

Viola offers a number of helpful thoughts (including practical arrangements for starting a new group -- where to meet, time, etc.), an detailed view of what he considers "apostolic" church planting based on his reading of the New Testament, and the idea that "organic" is the way to go. The organic, as he describes it, method of church planting seems to me to have much to commend it and indeed reminded me of early Quakers establishment of meetings and the way our meetings today (at their best) conduct worship (fully participatory by those attending) and business (striving toward a sense of the meeting -- though Viola used the term consensus, which is something close, but not equal to the sense of the meeting). Some of Viola's s suggestions could come straight from a "Quaker church playbook" were there such a thing. But, he seems not to have heard (or at least, studied) us at all.

Some things about this book were off-putting. The main one is his use of the male pronoun -- "he" this, "him" that. He says in the preface that he "has no problem with the idea that women can engage in apostolic work" but that "it's simpler to write 'he' than "he or she." Lame -- both as an excuse and for lazy writing.  So I think women who read this will find it tough going. 

Another thing is what I consider his tortured reading of the New Testament to make it conform to his "apostolic" method. I think that he makes a lot of assumptions about what scripture says and infers that are not laid out as clearly in the Bible as he implies they are.  Many of them are good thoughts -- it's just that it's more eisegesis than exegesis

Viola's also a bit repetitive -- especially when giving the biblical basis for his model, which he contends begins with how the Trinity interacts. A bit of a stretch there, too, I think.

Still, there's a good deal of helpful material here, much of which I hope to adapt for use by the New Meetings Project.  If you can read past his seeming gender and Biblical biases, I think you'll find it worth the read -- at the very least it will help you think about issues surrounding starting new Quaker groups (and maybe revitalizing some older ones) today.

-- Brent

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