I am reading Pagan Christianity by Frank Viola and George Barna (Tyndale House Publishers, 2012) which delivers a very hard hitting history of traditional church practices, including: the use of a building (imitating pagan temples by Constantine), the layout of the auditorium-style building (in the style of the Roman basilica), the order of service (in the style of pagan ceremonies), the origin of sermons (in the style of Greek rhetoric), the role of the clergy (imitating the age-old need for a human to represent us to God - see Exodus 20:19, 1 Samuel 8:19, 3 John 9-10) etc…
I actually don’t find the origins of these practices to be a reason in and of themselves to drop them. Just because the modern sermon has evolved from Greek sophistry doesn’t mean that I should stop enjoying sermons, or that God doesn’t choose to use sermons to reach people. Actually, I enjoy learning about the speeches of Greek and Roman orators, and Bible teachers, because I think there is still value in both of them. One of the reasons Augustine even began seeking after Truth was after reading Cicero’s orations which began him on a long spiritual journey to find God. I think God can use many formats and cultural styles for the body of believers to meet and grow spiritually.
However, some interesting points are raised. With an implied lament for the loss of Acts-style house-church meetings, the authors consider the use of a sermon being the main feature of most churches for the last 500 years, and they write:
First, the sermon makes the preacher the virtuoso performer of the regular church gathering. As a result, congregational participation is hampered at best and precluded at worst. The sermon turns the church into a preaching station. The congregation degenerates into a group of muted spectators who watch a performance. There is no room for interrupting or questioning the preacher while he is delivering his discourse. The sermon freezes and imprisons the functioning of the body of Christ. It fosters a docile priesthood by allowing pulpiteers to dominate the church gathering week after week.
Second, the sermon often stalemates spiritual growth. Because it is a one-way affair, it encourages passivity. The sermon prevents the church from functioning as intended. It suffocates mutual ministry. It smothers open participation. This causes the spiritual growth of God’s people to take a nosedive.
This book pulls no punches. A docile priesthood, muted spectators, an unfunctioning body of Christ… I suppose these issues are one reason why many churches encourage church members to meet in small groups midweek as well as coming together on a Sunday. Through these mixed styles and sizes of meetings, churches have kept the Greek rhetoric and made space for the New Testament small church meeting too.
I also see resources such as Uncommon Pursuit a practical opportunity for individual members of the body to be actively engaged, vocal, functioning in their spiritual gifts where they can discuss and ask questions and allow others to input into their own spiritual journeys. This is a resource that wasn’t available to the New Testament house churches in Acts, and therefore, can we even attempt to make a comparison of practices under the heading of Biblical Christianity?
To be fair, the authors distinguish between some churches who might have many different speakers each week to the church who has one clergyman who delivers an oration week after week. My church is very aware of bringing all members in to deliver sections of the church meeting each week such as a talk, a testimony, worship, and a Bible reading so I do think the authors are not addressing all modern style churches.
How do others see this issue?:
- Are sermons downright unbiblical because of its pagan origins in clever works of oratory designed to manipulate a passive crowd or is this just a genetic fallacy?
- Has the modern church done the right thing to combine a Sunday meeting of the whole church with midweek small groups?
- Also, do we need to imitate Acts-style house-churches and are we failing by not doing so, or has church cultural practice just naturally evolved in an acceptable way to reflect our day and age?