What are some ways that sermons can edify and build up the Body of Christ?

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?

@alison ,

I’m going to have to buy that book! I too love the no-holds-barred brutally (sometimes) honest discussions.

To your questions:

  • 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?

Yes, and No. To me, sermons are a necessity; I expect a pastor to know a lot more about the Bible and that he or she is able to present information in ways I might not have known about or understood. In ANY gathering where people attend for the purpose of hearing someone else, the crowd - by necessity - is going to be somewhat “passive”. When Jesus taught, His audience was also captive. People gathered to hear His teachings and to witness miracles. Afterward, they could ask questions. When we’re at the church building, we might say “amen” or “praise God”, but we gathered in order to HEAR the Word of God.

Think of it this way: children MUST attend school. They are captive to their teacher for the purpose of learning. If there’s something they need help understanding, they must ask for clarification or sometimes a tutor, but if students were given free reign to “participate” in that situation, they would NEVER learn enough about a subject to form an opinion. It’s the same with a church gathering. The pastor is the teacher; his/ her job is to give us an understanding of the Bible and how it pertains to us (the students). Only when we understand what they’re teaching us, can we begin to have our own experiences. Only after we have sat under the teachings of our “elder” (pastor, preacher, priest) can we go make more disciples (which is our GOD-GIVEN job).

  • Has the modern church done the right thing to combine a Sunday meeting of the whole church with midweek small groups?

Absolutely! Ideally, we would hear the sermon on Sunday and then, at our mid-week small group, we would be able to ask questions, hear a much more detailed explanation about what was taught, or even disagree - but if you do, you need to be able to explain why and demonstrate your view Biblically. There might also be other mid-week studies which focus on other parts of the Bible, but the whole point of these teachings is to get people reading the Bible, learning about Him and developing our RELATIONSHIP with Him.

  • 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?

In countries where Christians are actually hunted down and killed or put into prisons, house-style churches are the only way to go. In areas where people have to drive a very long way in order to reach a church, they either use the church website or Facebook (or some other platform) to watch sermons live, if that’s available, or they might do a home based church if it’s not. So do we NEED to? No, absolutely not; personally, I would prefer those home-based churches, but it must be led by someone with a strong enough calling to teach and it MUST, absolutely MUST be Biblically sound, and where would you find one? I think the large church buildings have naturally happened because, as the number of Christ- followers grew, we needed larger spaces to hold the number of people in attendance. Are we “failing” by not meeting in someone’s home? Again, no. How could we possibly be failing God if the whole purpose of gathering (“2 or more, gathered in His name” (Matt. 18:20)) is to hear His Word, learn how to see Him at work in our own lives, and deepen our relationships with Him?

Finally, I think it’s a mistake to think of a BUILDING as a “church”. CHRISTIANS are the Church, not the building.


Hi @cathi thank you for sharing some thoughts on this.

This is such a good point! Perhaps we can sometimes narrow our focus too much when trying to imitate Biblical practice. By limiting our view to just the book of Acts, we miss how Jesus might have taught God’s truth to crowds.

This is another good observation that sets apart 21st century Christianity to that of the 1st century. The practicalities are so vastly different now.

This is another issue they address in the book. On the use of the building, the authors write:

It can be rightly said that Christianity was the first non-temple based religion ever to emerge…Strikingly, nowhere in the New Testament do we find the terms church (ekklesia), temple, or house of God used to refer to a building…

The first recorded use of the word ekklesia to refer to a Christian meeting place was penned around AD 190 by Clement of Alexandria (150-215). Clement was also the first person to use the phrase “go to church” - which would have been a foreign thought to the first century believers. (You cannot go to something you are!). (Chapter Two The Church Building: Inheriting the edifice complex)


Hi @Alison,

I have been thinking about your question for a few days and wanted to take a little time to learn more about Frank Viola’s work and the kind of church he is advocating for so that I don’t make any assumptions and represent his intentions correctly. I haven’t read any of his books but listened to a few of his interviews and read a few articles on his blog.

Frank Viola defines organic church as “A community of people framed by a common life in Christ, not religious programs. A community whose foundation is birthed by God, not built by methods. A vibrant family of Jesus where genuine, authentic relationships are fostered”.

In his later posts and interviews, he has mentioned that Pagan Christianity must not be read as a stand-alone book as it’s an incomplete argument and it must be read along with his other works in the series such as Reimagining church, Finding Organic Church, From eternity to here. The intended audience for Pagan Christianity was for those who feel dissatisfied with their experience at institutionalized church and feel Christian life must have more to offer. He fully acknowledges that for some people a traditional church may be the right place. He does not advocate for the house church model necessarily and distinguishes it from the organic church model. He is more concerned about Christians enjoying authentic communities where everyone has an opportunity to develop their gifts and serve one another. Frank Viola’s approach to church is drastically different from the house churches that are based on Charismatic restorationism, with which he expresses concern here. For further understanding on Charismatic Restorationism, NG Wright’s article and Christianity today article are helpful.

Now coming to your concerns and questions spurred by his book-

That’s a great to question to ask. I know of some churches that think that biblical Christianity must look exactly as in the New Testament times and prohibit use of musical instruments and technology. I think this kind of thinking is not in line with scripture. Because of the descriptive (not prescriptive) nature of the biblical narratives, we need to be careful about what must be considered as binding on Christians today. I remember reading in Greg Allison’s book The Doctrine of the church, that we must take into account intent of the author, overall story, whether something is incidental, whether it applies everywhere at all times, whether it’s a repeated pattern or theme. The book of Acts can give authoritative instruction to follow with appropriate contextualization but not each and every detail is normative, as the narratives were written to churches in particular situations which may not apply to us today. I believe Frank Viola hosted virtual communities to help build organic churches, which he has moved away from recently to focus on other messages.

Jesus and the apostles gave sermons/lectures (Acts 2, 3, 7). Apostle Paul himself quotes pagan authors like Aratus in Acts 17:28 and Epimenides in Titus 1:12 in order to defend and spread the gospel. There is nothing unbiblical about sermons as such. But sermons can become unbiblical not only in content but also when the congregation is just expected to accept the sermons, no questions asked no matter what. In 1 Cor 14:29 we are called to weigh what is spoken in the church.

Sure! It’s certainly one option to consider for any questions and concerns raised by the sermon and to build community. However, they don’t always work well without proper guidance and preparation. Another way I have seen community being built is during Sunday school hour with a teaching pastor/elder.

I don’t think so. Clearly the church met together in a variety of places in biblical times such as the temple ( Acts 3:11), houses (Acts 2:46, 1 Cor 16:19), a hall (Acts 19:9) and a meeting room (Acts 20:8). The meeting space is only as important as whether it builds a genuine Christian fellowship. Even the house churches that met were not in small living rooms as we imagine. I have come across evidence on Dura-Europos church, one of the earliest identified Christian house churches from 2nd century. Below is a description of this house church:

During the conversion of the private house into a church, a wall between two small rooms was demolished to make space for the large assembly room. This signified the shift to “church houses”, which were more permanently adapted for religious use. As noted in The Oxford History of Christian Worship; “one of the larger rooms served as a baptistery, another for the celebration of the Eucharist, and a third possibly for the instruction of catechumens”. [Dura-Europos Church - Wikipedia]

Initially, I did not know what to think of Frank Viola but seeing endorsements by scholars like Craig Keener, Greg Boyd, I will probably approach his work with an open mind.


Hi @lakshmi
Thank you, I really appreciate you taking time to research the author a bit first. I think that’s so sensible, especially when their words could be taken as quite controversial.

Regarding this point, the authors do take time earlier on in the book to state that they’re not advocating dissension in the church, and that this particular book needs to be read with the right attitude:

At this moment, all the rebellious hearts are applauding and are plotting to wield the above paragraphs to wreak havoc in their churches. If that is you, dear rebellious heart, you have missed our point by a considerable distance…There is a vast gulf between rebellion and taking a stand for what is true. (Chapter 1: Have we really been doing it by the book?”)

I think this is a really important point to raise. There are some who advocate that the only authentic form of church is the house church and that unless we remodel our modern church’s to be more Acts-style, we’re failing in our obedience to Christ. This is touched on in the article that you shared ‘Rethinking the Fivefold Ministry’ by Viola.

This is a really valid point, thank you, and the archaeological evidence for houses used to host churches is very useful for dismantling our modern ideas of what it might have been like.

I appreciate your thoughts. The book raises many more aspects of church practice that could probably be answered in a very similar way.