Pagan Christianity? Frank Viola and George Barna

Pagan Christianity?: Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices

by Frank Viola and George Barna

This book was very interesting due to being so different from the same old “Christian Book” written now. The concept was intriguing and I was so glad that it had its large number of footnotes at the bottom of the pages, flipping back and forth is so interrupting. The footnotes are worth reading despite the fine print. Many of my disagreements with the book’s author were found hidden in the footnotes. I probably agree with 80% or more of the book, but the few problems are important.

Chapter 1 Have We Really Been Doing It By The Book?

Contrary to Mr. Viola’s assessment, I do question why we do things the way we do in our Christian faith and life. As a homeschool parent, I have developed quite an ability to question the status quo. That translates into everything I do. In the church, I questioned the typical altar call and Vacation Bible School, these seem to me to be causing many people to think they are Christians when in fact they just did what they were told to do with no heart change.

We all look through glasses that are tinted due to our – tastes, culture, upbringing, and experiences. Mr. Viola does the same in his assessment of the modern day church but at least he looks at why he does things more than most people do.

Chapter 2 The Church Building

Church buildings are a sore subject to me. I have been through so many church building projects that I can’t remember the number. In the typical church, once a building project is completed another is begun. Even though I prefer air conditioning, comfortable seating and not walking a mile after parking the car, I admit that those desires are just my flesh talking. If I wouldn’t attend an open air church and sit on the ground after walking a mile maybe I need to reevaluate my faith (or lack thereof).

Way to much money is spent on our church buildings and on our comfort while more than half the world is starving! To coin a phrase – What Would Jesus Think!!!! Then we pay staff to take care of the buildings and grounds during the rest of the week when no one is there. There is no reason to not have some type of building so that larger groups can meet, but they don’t have to be multi-million dollar edifices.

Chapter 3 The Order of Worship

Having an order to the worship service is not a problem. God says to do all things “decently and in order”. However, adhering strictly to the order can be limiting, sometimes things happen that cause things to need to be changed. Today’s services are often so planned out that going over just a few minutes will ruin the “recording” or the TV broadcast.

Viola’s comments about “altar calls” are right. So many people go forward, say a little prayer and then are convinced they are saved. This is the same reason Vacation Bible School is disliked by me. Children will say the “Sinners Prayer” just to please others. I remember thinking when the pastor came to my house when I was a young child, “What will they do to me if I don’t want to pray the prayer?” Needless to say my heart wasn’t right.

On page 76, Viola says, “… for many Christians, the Sunday morning service is shamefully boring.” Church isn’t boring to a mature Christian just like reading the Bible isn’t boring to them either. Here Viola’s personal taste and values get in the way of an honest evaluation. Also in his examples of house churches he does not explain why the women are teaching and praying in contradiction to the command for “women to remain silent in the churches“. If churches should be following the first century churches we can not just pick and choose what suits our tastes.

Chapter 4 The Sermon

The distinction between spirit-inspired preaching and a sermon is forced. True many sermons are done with little prayer and thought and are not spirit led but not all of them. Viola is critical of “verse-by-verse expositions of scripture.” Many learn alot from such methods. Listening to a sermon does not have to be a passive affair. Looking up related verses, taking notes, checking for disagreements and seeing information through the eyes of another are all ways a church member interacts with a sermon. Footnote #79 on page 98 shows Viola’s personal taste versus actual scriptural basis – “For those of us who regard the sermon to be exotically boring, we understand the feeling of being “preached to death.“”

Just to show how “peculiar” I am, I love a good sermon. Not the pat-you-on-the-back kind but the stomp-on-your-toes kind. There are few preachers brave enough to preach like Edwards or Spurgeon today. John MacArthur is the closest to a Spurgeon I have heard. Paul Washer, from Heart Cry Missionary, is close to another Jonathon Edwards (although thankfully he doesn’t talk in a monotone while reading his notes!)

Chapter 5 The Pastor

Pastors do too much in the way of service for the members and spend not enough time teaching.  The members are to be studying and serving just as much or more than the pastor. The membership in a church often do expect the pastor to make new visits, hospital visits, homebound visits, preach three plus sermons a week, be at the birth, lead to salvation, baptize, marry, and bury all while having his own perfect family. The average Christian has abdicated their responsibilities to the church staff. Unintentionally the pastor is encouraging this by being all-to-all so that the members can ignore their Christian responsibility.

An important footnote #167 on page 132 says “… Protestant preaching was very doctrinaire, being obsessed with ‘correct and pure doctrine’.” Is doctrine not important? If not, what does it matter what we do? If you don’t study the Scriptures how can you discern false teaching?

Chapter 6 Sunday Morning Costumes

Dressing up for Sunday Morning doesn’t seem to be a problem. I don’t understand why we can’t dress nicely for worshiping the Lord yet people see no problem with dressing up for other events. If we were to be invited to eat with the President we would dress according to the honor he is due. The same should be done for the Lord, although true the Lord sees us at all times. Our spouse sees us at all times but when we go out to celebrate an anniversary or out on a date we dress up.

If the dressing up gets to be expensive clothes just to one-up others there is a heart problem. Many women today dress for others instead of for the Lord. The Lord wants His Christian women to be dressed modestly and not stylishly immodest. God does look at the heart but several verses refer to the “attire of a harlot” (Proverbs 7:10) and there are verses in the New Testament that discuss a woman’s dress and demeanor.

When a homeless poor person enters the church I am not offended by their attire or lack thereof. However, I am deeply offended for Christ’s sake when those that have nicer clothes intentionally dress down (torn, paint splattered jeans, flip-flops, t-shirts, etc.) when they would dress differently for some one “important”.  A few people would complain that they can’t afford more than jeans and t-shirts, but yet they have cable TV, video games, and unlimited cell phone usage – priorities, priorities….

Chapter 7 Ministers of Music

Choirs and special music are not inherently bad. Many people can enjoy and worship through music and singing that they can not actually perform. My daughter can play Silent Night on her violin and bring tears to every one’s eyes but most of us could not participate by playing a instrument or singing. Many don’t even want to hear themselves in the shower. However, many times soloist or “Praise Bands” can become so entertainment oriented or such a show that they are praised and worshiped more than the Lord we are supposed to be worshiping.  This is one reason I don’t clap after music in a worship service.  Clapping in my mind is praise for the performer.

Chapter 8 Tithing and Clergy Salaries

Tithing is always a sore subject in a church. Everyone should give freely as they so desire. The edifice complex and high salaries for some staff are poor uses of the tithes some hardworking member may give. Poorer members may tithe all they can to support a building that is nicer than anything they have and support staff so they have nice dependable cars and central heat and air while they themselves barely scrape by. For most Americans though we don’t give enough to help the poor in our churches and around the world. We are too busy with our vacation homes, boats, motorcycles, and big toys that we “Can’t afford to give any more.” Tithing may or may not be a biblical command but our problem is usually with the heart anyway. Passing an offering plate around may put undue pressure on some to put in money just to not be embarrassed. For others it could increase the pride issue, like when a large bill is placed such that all can see the denomination.  Another method of collecting offerings could be less obvious and pressuring.

Chapter 9 Baptism and the Lord’s Supper

Baptism should typically follow shortly after a person becomes a Christian but they should understand well what a Christian is and believes. Many times the sinner’s prayer is prayed and Jesus is tacked on to whatever other beliefs a person may have had before. Family and friends are often not around when a person professes faith in Jesus and scheduling Baptism later will allow the new convert to show their change in the picture of Baptism.

The Lord’s Supper is obviously very different now than in the first century. How could you possibly over eat or get drunk during it now? After years in Baptist churches I could not imagine the Lord’s Supper being any different way than it is now. We are such creatures of habit.

Chapter 10 Christian Education

Originally seminaries may have been very helpful to teach a Christian more in depth than would have been available locally. Today with all the books and the Internet, going away for years of training is becoming obsolete. For some strange reason college and seminary professors seem to be much different than the average Christian. The strange ideas that are being taught and are coming out of the seminaries today are frightening (for example: contemplative prayer, emergent beliefs, etc.).

Sunday School in a church can be both good and bad. Baptist literature produced by Lifeway is so insipid and lifeless that even Christians often find it useless. The children’s literature goes over the same stories over and over and over again every year. My children love to go to church but hate the same old lessons each year. My older ones have moved on to working and serving in the church during the Sunday School time. My husband teaches through the Bible in his Sunday School class verse by verse but he doesn’t use the Lifeway curriculum.

Children and Youth benefit from being around mature Christian adults. One of many, many reasons I homeschool is that children often are too influenced by others and peer pressure is always a potential. Family Sunday School classes could help eliminate some of the problems that are found with grouping children together with one adult which they know can’t do anything to discipline them.

Youth groups could keep me writing all day. By the time they are teens they should be starting to serve others but instead even our Christian Youth expect services to appeal to them. Pizza and parties are the norm while even mission trips have to have plenty of entertainment built in to get anyone to go. Youth have a what’s in it for me attitude and the church has encouraged it. We provide their own leader (who usually isn’t much older than them), their own building or meeting place, often they meet at different times than the rest of the church and then they have their own Bibles designed like a magazine. Is it any wonder that they graduate and don’t come back if the church doesn’t cater to them anymore?

Chapter 11 Reapproaching the New Testament

The next two chapters is where Viola lost me totally. The order of the books of the Bible in the New Testament is not such that it will change anything if we were to put them in Chronological order. I worry about what the hidden meaning is in Viola’s rearranging the books. What is going on here?

The “Joe Housechurch” portion is interesting. Essentially the book says throw out the church, the pastor, all authority, and the way we’ve done things for years because it is all wrong. Then instead of starting from scratch and developing a housechurch we must get a qualified “housechurch planter” to come and tell us how to do everything because we couldn’t possibly be led by the Holy Spirit ourselves and get it right. Sounds like we are to ignore all the critical remarks that Viola had about Christians being led by clergy and just rename them “Housechurch Planters“, then as long as we meet in a house we are fine.

Chapter 12 A Second Glance at the Savior

Viola encourages us to meet “a side of Jesus Christ they have never known before.” Something about this statement sends up red flags.


Here is another review I found after writing this

Pagan Christianity (by Frank Viola) Reviewed

Points out some of the same problems I had.



One thought on “Pagan Christianity? Frank Viola and George Barna

  1. Pingback: Pagan Christianity?: Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices « Revival & Reformation

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