Pagan Christianity

A number of people have asked what I make of Frank Viola and George Barna’s bestseller, Pagan Christianity (available here from and I’m afraid I’ve not read it. Indeed I have to confess I don’t generally read books on household church – even though I’m a practioner of it!

Why is that?

I’m not entirely sure. I think it’s because when I was first interested in household church I did read a range of material and I found most of it narrow, petty, reductionistic and reactionary. Either it defined itself in terms of what it was against. Or it was obsessed with debates over the minutiae of what may or may not have happened in New Testament churches. It all seemed a world away from the missiological engagement in which I was interested. (I can’t say whether any of this is true of Pagan Christianity having not read the book!) Most of the groups involved seemed insular – more concerned with creating the perfect church than reaching the lost. Obviously I want to be biblical, but I believe there were a variety of church practices and models in the New Testament so that we can be flexible. We can adapt to our context (1 Corinthians 9).

Back to the Pagan Christianity. I have read Ben Witherington’s negative review of the book. I have neither the time nor the ability to interact with all the detail of Witherington’s review. But here are some general observations.

I trust Witherington to be correct when he argues that purpose-built buildings and sermons pre-date Constantine. Nevertheless Witherington implicitly acknowledges that special buildings were later than apostolic Christianity. The same is true of sermons (in the sense of monologues delivered to the gathered church community). It is also true that special buildings and sermons were not widespread until after Constantine. Even when we get to Augustine his ‘sermons’ are in the form of a dialogue. (In fact ‘sermon’ is the Latin word for ‘dialogue’.)

But the crucial point is this. I’m not what I call a ‘reconstructionist’ – someone who wants to recreate what happened in the first century. I want to be more missiologically driven. So I point to the evidence of the apostolic period (and the second and third centuries AD) to show that participation and household are valid ways of operating as a church, not to show that sermons and buildings are invalid ways. I’m not against sermons and buildings – though I do want to question their privileged status. If people can show that sermons and buildings are early then my position still stands which is: that participation and household church are legitimate and were in fact the norm in the apostolic period. I want the freedom to operate in a way that is appropriate to the missiological context and true to the word. In our context we use a mix of discussion and monologue to ensure that as a community we wrestle together with the meaning and implications of the text while also having the truth driven home to our hearts.


11 thoughts on “Pagan Christianity

  1. Hi Tim,

    I’ve heard a ton about your book Total Church. and, i’ve heard a lot about Frank’s Pagan Christianity book too. Thanks for the insights. I havent read it either but I pray it and your book stir many to souled-out devotion to Jesus and reaching the culture. After being part of a 7K mega church in cali, i’m resistant to go back to that because of the reasons you stated…focus on the sermon and sunday, but you’re right that it shouldn’t be eliminated if it’s not the focus. My concern is that it fosters too many “sunday christians” and gives false understanding, especially when the focus is not discipleship. As long as local churches no matter the size go back to discipleship in Jesus and reaching the culture as he did.

    Keep pressing on.


  2. Here’s a response to Ben Witherington’s review by another scholar –
    There are also some more balanced reviews on the book at this site:
    One of the authors actually debated Mr. Witherington; you can read it here:
    The constructive sequel is out now, too. It’s called “Reimagining Church”. It picks up where “Pagan Christianity” left off and continues the conversation. (“Pagan Christianity” was never meant to be a stand alone book; it’s part one of the conversation.) “Reimagining Church” is endorsed by Leonard Sweet, Shane Claiborne, Alan Hirsch, and many others. You can read a sample chapter at
    It’s also available on

  3. I’ve always considered it a bit dangerous to have a debate or to advise others about a book I haven’t actually read. It always seems to inspire lots of generally unhelpful comments from others who also haven’t read the book, but are convinced they know what it says.
    I HAVE read two excellent books on ‘ecclesiology’. The first is ‘Reimagining Church’ by Frank Viola (which as Jill commented is the constructive follow up to ‘Pagan Christianity’). The second is ‘Total Church’ by Steve Timmis and Tim Chester, which obviously I cannot recommend too highly.
    Although this is only my opinion, I believe it would be hugely beneficial for everyone to go and read BOTH of these very helpful and challenging books and then come back to debate the issues they raise about how we ‘do church’.

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  5. Pingback: on the meaning of sermon at Part of the Story

  6. I’m with you for the most part but I want to challenge your statement about sermons. You said, “The same is true of sermons (in the sense of monologues delivered to the gathered church community).”

    What do you think they did with the epistles during their church gatherings? Were they able to dialogue with Paul when he was being read to them? And yet, I would say that it is a dialogue because Paul wrote with questions and reactions and comments in mind. “What shall we say then…?” He wrote dialogically. When I preach a sermon, can the people immediately respond? No, but if I preach effectively, I can anticipate some of the things people would say or ask. Besides, a sermon is interaction with the text that draws out the original meaning of the author. In order for me to preach a sermon on a specific text I have to dialogue with it.

    To me, then, there is a lot of dialogue going on when a sermon is preached:
    The dialogue between the original author and the reader.
    The dialogue between the modern communicator and the author.
    The dialogue between the modern communicator and the modern audience.
    The dialogue between the audience and the text itself.

    To say that no one ever stood up and addressed more people than could sit in a “living room” with a “monologue” in the early church is to say that no one ever had an exhortation or a prophecy or a testimony or a “spiritual word to spiritual people” (as Paul says to the Corinthians), etc. Should the “monologue” be weekly? Could it be monthly? Could there be more than one at any given gathering? Should it be done in a church building? Should it be three points and a poem? Should it be evangelistic? Should it be exhortational? Should it be to a large group? Should it be to a small group? Could it be to one person over a cup of coffee? My questions are driving home the point that we need to broaden our understanding of what a sermon is. To say that no one ever teaches or talks for more than 5 or 10 minutes about a topic or confronts a sin in the church or prophetically challenges the church to grow or change is limiting the power of the “monologue”.

    Sermons are powerful and necessary for the benefit of the church whether it meets in a home or in a large building. Preaching is a pastoral discipline that transforms the pastor before it transforms the congregation. I will be writing about this soon on my blog but, meanwhile, you can see what I wrote previously about “the sermon“.

  7. Hi Nathan. Most people use the term ‘sermon’ to describe a 30-40 minute, uninterpreted speech delivered in a Sunday gathering. You can say a sermon is all sorts of other things, but that’s how the term is used today. And this meaning of the word does not describe what took place in the NT churches.

    Sure, there should be exhortation, prophecy, testimony and so on. But that hardly amounts to saying we should have 45 minute sermons every Sunday.

    I’ve no doubt they read the epistles of Paul. But that doesn’t prove they had 45 minutes sermons as we understand them today! Sure, a contemporary sermon involves a form of dialogue in which other views are anticipated. The point is what? That we therefore don’t need discussion? Surely not.

    If I follow what you’re saying then your logic runs something like this. 1. Sermons are more than 45 minute monologues. They include exhortation, testimony, prophecy. 2. Exhortation, testimony, prophecy took place in NT churches. 3. Therefore 45 minute monologues are necessary today. That last move (which you appear to make between your penultimate and your ultimate paragraph) doesn’t bear any kind of scrutiny.

    Sure, exhortation, testimony, prophecy took place and should take place today. But that’s not an argument for the privileged status of the sermon as most people understand the term.

    Or perhaps I have misunderstood your argument completely.

  8. I appreciate the summary of my logic but my point had more to do with points one and two…you misrepresent my statements to say that I conclude we must have 45 minute sermons every week. My real point is that we need to rethink what a sermon is without throwing it out completely. I’m saying there is a wide variety of things we can do to teach and to proclaim and to discuss and we should do all of them but we can’t say that a 45 minute sermon isn’t necessary.

    All of the “should” or “could” questions I included in my previous comment, I thought were clear that those were given to help us broaden our understanding of what a sermon could or should be. I agree with you that a sermon is typically understood to be a 30 or 40 minute “lecture” “monologue” or “message”. I’m trying to challenge THAT notion without saying that we should never allow it to be a part of the discipling process of making disciples. Can it happen weekly? monthly? randomly? two or three times in one day? across a table from an individual? Sure! Why not? Can it happen weekly on a Sunday? That may not be your preference but some people are appreciative of that time in their weekly rhythm.

    I would say, that if a preacher preaches weekly but never teaches his community to read and study the Bible for themselves then the preacher does more harm than good. In this case, he is fostering dependence and not interdependence and in that case (which could be widespread in many churches today) the sermon does more harm than good.

    I refuse to throw something away, though, that has brought about transformation for thousands of years (including the prophets). I refuse to disregard my own call to preach that I have wrestled with violently for years. Does preaching need to be redefined? Yes. Discarded? No! The purpose of my comment is to redefine and change what a “preacher” does. Should we never stand in front of a group of fellow believers and deliver a thought out and prayed over message that we believe God has for the church that may happen to take 45 minutes?

    Though apparently my writing was unclear I think you and I agree on more than we disagree. We are just approaching it from different angles. You are reacting to the way sermons are…I’m trying to say what I believe a sermon should be.

  9. Let me be the first to say great review! Like you I can’t stand reading books, but I read somewhere that Frank Viola eats babies. That was enough for me to make up my mind and then share it with everyone else on the internet!

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