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The Problem with Church Renewal Movements
Frank Viola


A common peril in the Christian walk is to equate a mental understanding of truth with living it out in real life. There exists a subtle danger of having a truth lie sterile in your intellect—mentally grasped but not spiritually applied.

Our problem is that we are rather quick to catch things in our minds while our experience lags far behind. Russell Lipton writes,

What we must guard against (and this applies with heaviest force to readers who do agree with this material) is mere mental assent to the church as an ‘issue.’ We live in a day of issues. Paul referred to issue-followers as those with tingling ears. He did not treat them gently. This church, this Bride for whom Christ as a heavenly suitor bore the cross, is no mere ‘issue.’ Around her completion revolves issues of life, death, reward, shame, heaven, hell. (Does the Church Matter?)

Having a right perception of Divine things does not insure that we are holding them in our hands. With this thought in view, let us shift our focus to the challenging arena of practical application.

After you have made a fresh appraisal of the Biblical understanding of the church, you are no better off if you fail to flesh out the new light you have discovered. What you have read thus far has utterly dismantled your present understanding of the church. Now let me press the terse query: What shall you do?

Some have championed the idea of renewing the institutional church from the inside out. But those who have sought to revamp the established church have met serious resistance and frustration.

To be perfectly candid, unless the extra-biblical clergy/sectarian system is dismantled in a particular church, efforts to reach God’s highest desire will be handcuffed. The following disheartening results will occur: The pastor will feel threatened. The staff will resist the disruption of the status quo. The congregation will be thrown into a panic. Individual believers will be utterly confused.

So before we discuss the Lord’s answer to the problem of the contemporary church, let us take a brief look at some modern movements that have sought to renew it.

Shopping at a Supermall

The superstore megachurch trend is just one example of a failed attempt at renewing the church. These event-driven, shopping mall churches have created specialized boutiques for every sociological slice in America today. From single parents, twelve step recoverers, homebuilders, premarital couples, parents-of-adolescents, Generation Xers to working mothers, businessmen, actors, and dancers.

Advertised by extraordinarily gifted marketeers and driven by a formidable "growth-industry" mentality, megachurches attract thousands every Sunday into their enormous amphitheaters. They use the latest church growth strategies, organizational methods, and marketing techniques. It is no wonder that churches of this ilk are successful at swelling their ranks.

They provide flawless multimedia worship. They supply pep-rally like religious services. They offer high-tech visual effects. They possess tightly scripted gospel orations mingled with a heavy dose of comic relief.

They have seamless choreographed drama presentations. They attract frequent visits from featured celebrities whose clothes are always color-coordinated. They contain a zillion splinter interest groups designed to meet every consumer need.

To top it off, megachurches offer these mass-market religious resources to the public in exchange for minimal commitment, low visibility, and little cost. Stated simply, the megachurch movement is built on a corporate business paradigm that utilizes a market-driven approach to building the kingdom of God!

Unfortunately, those believers who are attracted to these large, flashy, organized Wal-Marts of the American religious world can hardly find a place in their hearts for a simple, unextravagant meeting centered around the person of Christ alone. To their minds, choosing between a lavish supermall church and a "house church" is like choosing between the flamboyant supercenter mall and the corner grocery store!

The weakness endemic to the superstore church is that it so emphasizes the "church scattered" dimension of the Body of Christ that the "church gathered" dimension suffers great loss. By focusing all attention on being "sensitive" to the comfort zones of "seeking" unbelievers, most megachurches have failed to adequately disciple their new converts into radical abandonment to Jesus Christ.

They have also failed to nurture close-knit communal relationships in the Body. What is more, the business machinery that drives these mammoth institutions obscures the organic nature of the church.

While it labors under the banner of "cultural relevancy," the supermall church bears too striking a resemblance to the shallow business structures of this age. It is for this reason that they do not have any profound or lasting impact on the culture.

Put plainly, the modern techniques the supermall church uses to communicate the gospel are as carnal as the system from which it is supposed to deliver people! In this way, the gospel has become trivialized, commercialized, and emptied of its power. It has been diluted as just another "product" in our consumer-obsessed culture.

In a word, the megamall church of modern pop-Christian culture bears little similarity to the simple, Spirit-dependent, Christ-centered, spiritually dynamic, mutually-ministering churches of the first century. And these were the churches that turned the world upside down (Acts 17:6)!

Pulled Under a Wave

The recent "third-wave movement" and its cousin, "the restoration movement," have been two highly influential players in the renewal game. (The Vineyard is the best noted denomination in the third-wave movement. MorningStar Ministries is well-noted in the restoration movement.)

Populated mostly by charismatics and Pentecostals, these movements stress the restoration of apostolic power. For brevity sake, I will call these related movements third-wave-restoration.

I have no quarrel with the pressing need for a genuine move of the Holy Spirit in and through the church today. But most third-wave-restoration churches have put the cart before the horse. Namely, they have sought to possess the power of the Spirit before they have gone under the flesh-severing knife of the cross.

Scripturally speaking, the cross is the exclusive ground for the Holy Spirit’s power. Calvary preceded Pentecost. Our Lord’s Jordan baptism preceded the arrival of the heavenly dove. The sacrificial altar preceded the heavenly fire. And the smitten rock preceded the flowing waters at Horeb.

So too the Holy Spirit only finds His resting place upon the altar of a crucified life. Recall the Lord’s command to Israel not to pour the sacred oil upon any flesh (Exod. 30:32). This command is an apt figure illustrating how the cross cancels out the old creation. In short, the Spirit cannot work through uncrucified flesh!

The dangers of beginning with the Spirit rather than with the cross are numerous. For one thing, it can easily lead a person into an unwholesome quest for power without character. Mystical experience without godliness. Unrestrained soulish excitement without sound discernment. And demonic counterfeits without spiritual reality.

Not a few Christians desperately seeking individual renewal are routinely packing their bags and flocking to the various "Christian Meccas" of revivalism sponsored by third-wave-restoration churches. These are folks who are desperate to be touched by God. So much so that they have become open targets for every new wind of doctrine or fad that blows through the doors of the church (Eph. 4:14).

(A new wind blows through the charismatic church about every five years. Christians eventually get burned out with it, and then look for another one to pick up. This is a never ending cycle.)

Many in the third-wave have developed an unhealthy dependence upon phenomenological experience. It is a dependence like that of an addict. They are driven to travel far and wide to acquire the next spiritual fix. Such dependence obscures the role of Scripture in the life of a believer. It equally fosters an unhealthy (and sometimes pathological) spiritual instability.

This is not to suggest that the third-wave-restoration movement has been without value to the Body of Christ. Indeed, the movement has contributed a number of helpful Biblical accents. Most significantly, it has fostered a genuine hunger for and openness to God’s moving. It has produced a sound blending of evangelical and charismatic theology. And it has created a vast collection of wonderfully anointed worship and praise music.

But its basic flaws lie in its overemphasis on mystical experience; its tendency to put power gifts on the throne rather than Christ the Giver; and its zealous support of the modern clergy system. Quite frankly, the pastor is king in the typical third-wave-restoration church. Congregants who have been renewed with the new wine of the Spirit find very little freedom to fully function in their gifts during a typical third-wave service.

While third-wave-restoration churches may boast about possessing "the new wine," they have confined it to an old, leaking wineskin. A wineskin that inhibits mutual ministry, relatedness, freedom, and vibrancy. The old wineskin that is employed merely reinforces the "sit-and-soak" mentality that plagues the Body of Christ today.

"Christian guruism" is also epidemic in third-wave-restoration churches. High-powered "teachers," "prophets," and "apostles" are copious in the movement. They are revered as spiritual icons, basking in the limelight of fan-club followings.

A typical renewal crusade is similar to a rock concert where the featured celebrity gives an encore performance and takes his bow in the Christian limelight. It is not uncommon for third-wavers to arrive hours early to secure a prime seat to hear the latest circuit teacher who has come to town.

In effect, the third-wave-restoration movement has so emphasized the so-called "five-fold ministry" that it has rivaled and obscured the priesthood of all believers! It has stressed the extra-local ministry at the expense of the local church. And it is the latter that God has established to be the normal environment for individual spiritual nourishment.

It’s no wonder that those who desire the fullness of God, but do not know first-century church life, are compelled to try anything that promises them a greater surge of renewal juice. Regrettably, many in the third-wave-restoration movement have rushed headlong toward spiritual ambiguity. They have wholeheartedly embraced a peculiar phenomenon that has little to no Biblical warrant. At the same time, they have shrugged their shoulders at a model for church life that has abundant Biblical merit.

Ironically, the very experience that multitudes in this movement are seeking to achieve can only be found in ekklesia life. When one tastes "Body life" as God has ordained it, they will be forever cured of the unbridled urge to travel "to and fro" to attend the latest "hot spot" of renewal. Instead, they will discover true and long-lasting refreshment and stability within the church. Those who wish to "chase God," therefore, will find Him in the ekklesia. For she is His highest passion.

To spin the metaphor, in seeking to ride the latest spiritual wave, many third-wave-restorationists have been caught in the undertow of a clergy-dominated ecclesiastical structure. As a result, some have been bitten by the sharks of counterfeit spiritual experience. They are now drowning in the murky waters of Christian mysticism and charismatic clericalism.

Sadly, CPR cannot be successfully administered within the institutional matrix of the third-wave-restoration movement. So the only hope for recovery lies in pulling the institutional plug to dispel the rising water.

Imprisoned in a Cell

Another attempt at renewal in recent years has been the emergence of the "cell church." Cell churches are based on a two-winged approach. They provide a weekly "cell group" meeting (set in a home) and a Sunday "celebration" meeting (set in a building).

The small cell meetings are designed for fellowship, ministry, prayer, and evangelism. The large group meetings are designed for preaching and corporate worship. There is much to be commended about the cell church movement. Namely, its emphasis on close-knit connectedness, one-anothering, and Body ministry. But its greatest weakness lies in its leadership style.

The cell church has left the unscriptural clergy system completely untouched! Native to cell churches is a top-heavy, hierarchical leadership structure that works against the community. Thus "the longer leash" is an apt metaphor to describe the cell church model!

The congregation is given a measure of church life as they meet together weekly at someone’s home. Yet through a highly organized hierarchy, the pastor controls the gatherings and steers them according to his own wishes. (It’s not uncommon for the "ministry time" in a cell meeting to be restricted to a discussion of the pastor’s latest sermon!)

Moreover, in the typical cell church, the Sunday basilica service is treated as the prominent meeting. Cell church literature calls the cell "the basic unit" of the church. However, this is not what is ordinarily modeled.

Typically, the smaller cell meetings act as mere appendages. They chiefly serve as entry points for making the larger basilica church (to which the cells belong) increase in number. The cell church model looks impressive on paper. Cell church manuals are replete with elaborate flow charts and catchy organizational graphs. But it is found wanting in real life experience.

The cell church deserves our applause for its denunciation of "program-based" churches that find themselves mired in bureaucratic structures. But it warrants our disapproval for its blithe espousal of a rigid, multi-layered, hierarchical leadership structure.

Not only does this structure undermine Biblical principle, it also makes each cell an extension of the pastor’s vision and burden! And it buries the believing priesthood under layers of human hierarchy.

Accordingly, the cell church model violates the very principle it claims to uphold: That the church is an organism made up of individual "spiritual cells." In stark contrast, each "cell group" is nothing more than a facsimile of the same Body part (the single pastor)!

Stated simply, the mere addition of home meetings (cells) to the clergy-dominated structure fails to go far enough in renewing the church. In a word, the cell church fails to express the full ministry of every believer and the functional Headship of Jesus Christ.

Adopting the Right Attitude

What I have said thus far is not meant to place judgment on any of God’s dear people. It is rather meant to strike a contrast between those structures that God has sanctioned and those that He has not.

It is a fact that God has used and is using the institutional church. Because of His mercy, the Lord will work through any structure as long as He can find hearts that are truly open to Him. So there is no question that God is using cell, mega, and third-wave-restoration churches alike. (He is using them more than some so-called "house churches" that have grown insular and exclusive.)

But this is not the question at hand. The Lord holds us responsible for following His Word insofar as we have heard it. Comparing ourselves with others is shaky ground for seeking His approval (2 Cor. 10:12). Anything less than what God has disclosed in Scripture concerning church practice falls short of His full purpose. I do not say this judgmentally, but soberly. The words of T. Austin-Sparks capture the tone of my spirit:

While the sects and denominations, missions, and institutions are a departure from the Holy Spirit’s original way and intention, God has undoubtedly blessed and used these in a very real way and has sovereignly done great work through faithful men and women. We thank God that it is so, and pray that every means possible of use may have His blessing upon it. This is not said in any patronizing or superior spirit: God forbid. Any reserve is only because we feel that there has been much delay, limitation, and weakness due to the departure from the first and full position of the first years of the church’s life, and because of a heart-burden for a return thereto. We cannot accept the present ‘disorder’ as all that the Lord would or could have. (Explanation by T. Austin-Sparks of the Nature and History of ‘This Ministry’)

The Symptom Masquerading as the Cause

Genuine church renewal requires that we distinguish between the symptom and the root of the problem. Elton Trueblood has rightly said, "The basic trouble [with the institutional church] is that the proposed cure has such a striking similarity to the disease" (The Company of the Committed).

Conferences for burned-out clergy, cross-denominational unity gatherings, support groups for pastors who suffer from "sheep bite," and workshops presenting the latest church growth strategies are vivid examples of Trueblood’s penetrating observation. All of these supposed "cures" merely coddle the system that is responsible for the church’s maladies. They simply treat the symptom while ignoring the real culprit. The result? The same drama continues to play out on a different stage.

It is the clergy/sectarian system that inhibits the rediscovery of face-to-face community, supplants the functional Headship of Christ, and stifles the full ministry of every believer. Consequently, all attempts at renewal will be short-sighted until the clergy structure and denominational system are dismantled in a local fellowship. At best, such attempts will bring limited change. At worst, they will invite open hostility.

To be blunt, the attempt to work for a recovery of the full testimony of Jesus from the inside of an institutional church is a worthless exercise. Such an attempt can be likened to the dismantling of a tower from the ground. If those disassembling the tower come close to compromising the structure, the tower will fall down on them! The only way to dismantle a tower is to proceed from the top down.

In like manner, modern churches will never reach God’s end if the clergy/denominational structure is not abandoned. For this reason, renewal movements that merely transplant Biblical principles into institutional soil will never succeed in realizing the full purpose of God. In the words of Arthur Wallis,

A church is not fully renewed if the structures are left untouched. To have within a traditional church a live group composed of those who have received the Spirit and are beginning to move in spiritual gifts; to introduce a freer and livelier spirit into the worship with renewal songs; to permit the clapping and the lifting up of the hands and even to dance; to split the weeknight meeting into home groups for the purpose of discipling; to replace ‘one-man leadership’ with a team of elders—all these measures, good though they are, will only prove to be a patching operation. Individuals will undoubtedly be blessed. There will be an initial quickening of the church. But if it ends there, the long-term results will be detrimental. There will be a quiet struggle going on between the new measures and the old structures, and you may be sure the old structures will win in the end . . . the new patch will never blend in with the old garment. It will always look incongruous. (The Radical Christian)

In sum, the modern church will never be renewed until it recognizes that the framework with which it operates is inadequate and self-defeating. Despite the good intentions of the persons that populate it, the interior design of the institutional church sets us up for defeat.

True renewal, therefore, must be radical. That means it must go to the root! Recovering the Lord’s testimony necessitates that we forsake our ecclesiastical patches and band-aids!

The Call to Leave Clergy-Dominated Christianity

I thank God for those Christians who have left their clerical professions, laid down their high-powered hierarchical positions, and abandoned their sects to become simple brethren in the Lord’s house. It is among such that the Lord has found a clear basis for His own building.

As would be expected, those who have left their salaried, clergy positions have paid a tremendous cost. Such a thought strikes a sensitive chord in the heart of the average religious professional. For this reason many violently resist such a notion.

They react in a way not dissimilar to the silversmiths of Ephesus who withstood Paul’s message because it "endangered their craft" (Acts 19:24-27). Unless those in clerical positions are ready to openly examine this issue before God, any discussion of the matter remains for them a highly flammable topic that can easily turn torrid.

Note that clerical leaders need not be despots in order to hinder mutual ministry. Most clergy are well-intentioned and gifted Christians who sincerely believe that God has called them to their profession. Some are highly stylized benevolent dictators. Others are spiritual tyrants with a Machiavellian quest for power. Such ones imprison and freeze the life of their congregations.

The point is that clergy need not use vicious forms of authority to be harmful to Body life. The mere presence of the one-up/one-down hierarchical mode of leadership suppresses mutual ministry. This is true regardless of how nonauthoritarian in temperament the clergyman may be.

The mere presence of clergy has the deadening effect of conditioning the congregation to be passive and perpetually dependent. Christian Smith makes the point perfectly:

The problem is that, regardless of what our theologies tell us about the purpose of clergy, the actual effect of the clergy profession is to make the Body of Christ lame. This happens not because clergy intend it (they usually intend the opposite) but because the objective nature of the profession inevitably turns the laity into passive receivers. The role of clergy is essentially the centralization and professionalization of the gifts of the whole Body into one person. In this way, the clergy represents Christianity’s capitulation to modern society’s tendency toward specialization; clergy are spiritual specialists, church specialists. Everyone else in the church are merely ‘ordinary’ believers who hold ‘secular’ jobs where they specialize in ‘non-spiritual’ activities such as plumbing, teaching, or marketing. So, in effect, what ought to be accomplished in an ordinary, decentralized, non-professional manner by all church members together is instead accomplished by a single, full-time professional—The Pastor. Since the pastor is paid to be the specialist in church operations and management, it is only logical and natural that the laity begin to assume a passive role in church. Rather than contributing their part to edify the church, they go to church as passive receivers to be edified. Rather than actively spending the time and energy to exercise their gift for the good of the Body, they sit back and let the pastor run the show. ("Church Without Clergy," Voices in the Wilderness, Nov/Dec ’88)

The average believer is probably unaware that his notion of leadership has been shaped by centuries of ecclesiastical history (about 1700 years worth!). In fact, the clergy concept is so embedded in our thinking that any attempt to deviate from it will meet fierce opposition.

For this reason most modern believers are just as resistant to the idea of dismantling the clergy as are clergy themselves. The words of Jeremiah have pertinent application: "The prophets prophesy falsely and the priests rule by their means; and my people love to have it so" (Jer. 5:31). "Clergy" and "non-clergy" alike are responsible for the ailments of the church.

Despising Not the Day of Small Things

Recall that in the history of Israel’s captivity, God called His people out of Babylon to return to Jerusalem to rebuild His house. While Israel was in captivity in a foreign land, she still assembled to worship God in the various synagogues spread throughout the empire.

Yet the high call of God to Israel was to leave the comfortable homes she had erected in Babylon and return to Jerusalem to rebuild the Lord’s true temple. Only a tiny remnant returned to the land (Ezra 9:7-8; Hag. 1:14). Most were unwilling to pay the price of leaving the convenient worship styles to which they had grown accustomed.

The call of God to Israel to leave Babylon foreshadows the present cry of the Spirit to His people today. Hear the burden of the prophet Haggai. His words reflect God’s present call:

Is it time for you, O ye, to dwell in your ceiled houses, and this house lie waste? Now therefore thus saith the Lord of hosts; Consider your ways. Ye have sown much, and bring in little; ye eat, but ye have not enough; ye drink, but ye are not filled with drink; ye clothe you, but there is none warm; and he that earneth wages earneth wages to put it into a bag with holes. Thus saith the Lord of hosts; Consider your ways. Go up to the mountain, and bring wood, and BUILD THE HOUSE; and I will take pleasure in it, and I will be glorified, saith the Lord. (Hag. 1:4-8)

In view of the fact that only a small, seemingly insignificant remnant returned to Jerusalem to rebuild God’s house, the prophet Zechariah issued this challenging rebuke: "Who has despised the day of small things?" Why did he issue such a word? Because despite the seemingly smallness of the endeavor, God was in it!

Despite the fact that most of Israel regarded the rebuilt temple "as nothing" in comparison to the surpassing splendor of the former temple, God was in it (Hag. 2:3)! Despite the fact that the elders of Israel wept in despair when they saw the tiny remnant lay down the unimpressive foundation, God was in it (Ezra 3:12)!

From Gideon’s army of 300 to Elijah’s 7,000 who had "not bowed the knee to Baal"—from the Levitical priests who first entered the promised land to the hidden Annas and Simeons of our Lord’s day who "looked for the consolation of Israel"—God’s most precious work has been accomplished through the small, the weak, and the unnoticed (1 Cor. 1:26-29; 1 Kings 19:11-13).

Success in the eyes of the world is tied to natural measurements. Numbers, extent, size, weight, etc. are all signs of success to the worldly minded. Yet the greatest things in God’s eyes are exceedingly small in the eyes of men. George Moreshead insightfully asks,

Is there another stream running even more deeply and more hiddenly these days among the members of the Body, a scattered people who are being taken into the depths of the revelation and experience of Christ in the most extreme measures of the Holy Spirit’s dealings, emptying, crucifying . . . a pioneer company which the Lord will need for the opening of the way for the remainder of the Body to follow—perhaps some ‘eleventh-hour laborers’ now in the process of His producing? (Excerpt from a personal letter to the author)

Along this same line, T. Austin-Sparks writes,

What is called ‘Christianity’—and what has come to be called ‘the church’—has become a tradition, an institution, and a system quite as fixed, rooted, and established as ever Judaism was, and it will be no less costly to change it fundamentally than was the case with Judaism. Superficial adjustments may be made—and are being made—but a very heavy price is attached to the change which is necessary to really solve the great problem. It may very well be, as in the time of the Lord, that the essential light will not be given to very many because God knows that they would never pay the price. It may only be a ‘remnant’—as of old—who will be led into God’s answer because they will meet the demands at all costs. (Quoted from an unpublished manuscript authored by George Moreshead)

Let it be clear. The call of God to recover the primitive simplicity of first-century church life requires that we begin on an entirely new ground. A ground different from the religious systems and customs that fallen men have constructed. And that ground is Jesus Christ!

But this does not answer our initial question of what we shall do. It simply clears away the brush so that we can see the field of God’s purpose more plainly. Scripture does not offer us any ready-made steps for the building of a first-century styled church. But it does supply us with several broad principles that are essential to any work that is seeking to recover God’s fullest thought. They are—

(1) A Fresh Revelation

Proverbs 29:18 says, "Where there is no revelation, the people cast off restraint" (NIV). Before any attempt can be made to gather according to God’s intention, it is imperative that we first receive a fresh vision of the church as God sees it.

This vision must spring from a new seeing of the Person of Jesus Christ. For the church is none other than Christ in corporate expression! Such a "heavenly vision," as Paul called it, is indispensable to building the Lord’s house (Acts 26:19). For the church is built upon the revelation of Jesus Himself (Matt. 16:15-18).

The revelation of Christ is the hub of everything in the spiritual path. And the whole NT is built upon it. It is through the revelation of the Lord Jesus that we are born again (Matt. 16:17); that we are transformed into His image (2 Cor. 3:18); that we are equipped for Christian work (Gal. 1:16); and that our bodies will be gloriously translated (1 John 3:2).

Our whole Christian life—from its inception to its consummation—rests upon a continuous, full-orbed vision of the Risen Christ to our hearts by the Holy Spirit. And it is only when our hearts are captivated by a revelation of Jesus in His splendor that we can receive a vision for His work.

As was the case with Moses, the tabernacle can only be built after we have been shown its pattern from above. That pattern is Christ. In short, we need a vision of the Lord before we can receive a vision for the Lord. Russell Lipton remarks,

Paul prayed that the Ephesians would receive a revelation in the knowledge of Christ and have the eyes of the heart opened. This is our great need . . . Why has the church that Christ longs for been so misunderstood, so perverted, so opposed? It is due entirely to the blindness of we His people. Without revelation, how can you act? With revelation, you will know what to do (Does the Church Matter?)

We desperately need a ground-breaking, Spirit-inspired, matchless revelation of Christ and His church. Such a vision given from the heavenly throne is the very springboard for God to raise up a testimony that reflects His fullest thought for His beloved children. It is the necessary precondition for true renewal in the Body of Christ.

(2) A Paradigm Shift

To borrow a term from scientific philosopher Thomas Kuhn, we need a "paradigm shift" regarding the church before we can properly build it. That is, we need a new world view regarding the meaning of the Body of Christ. A new model for understanding the ekklesia. A new framework for thinking about the church. Of course, the "new paradigm" that I am speaking of is not new at all. It is the paradigm that undergirds the entire NT.

Our day is not much different from that of Nehemiah’s. In that day, Israel had rediscovered the law of God. They had been without it for many years. Once discovered it had to be re-explained and re-interpreted. Nehemiah 8:8 says, "So they read in the book in the law of God distinctly, and gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading."

In the same way, 20th-century Christians must re-learn the language of Scripture with respect to the church. The original meaning of countless Biblical terms like "church," "minister," "pastor," "house of God," "ministry," and "fellowship" have been largely lost. Such misunderstandings have eroded the landscape of the church.

These words have been invested with institutional power. A power that was foreign to those who originally penned them. Therefore, a pressing need in the church today is the rediscovery of Biblical language. Joseph Higginbotham and Paul Patton ardently make the point:

Let’s face it: our language reflects our practice. It is hard to get people to occupy the ground of universal priesthood when we reserve the word ‘minister’ for people with seminary degrees and parchment paper ordination certificates . . . Linguistic gymnastics have changed the Christ who heads a whole and unified Body into the tribal god of a denomination or of a local church. It has to do with how we’ve been using the word ‘church.’ We seldom use it the way Christ used it. We speak of ‘building a church,’ when we should be saying that we are erecting a new building where Christ’s people can meet. We speak of ‘starting a church,’ when we should speak of affirming, in a given locale, the church which Christ is already building. ("The Battle for the Body," Searching Together, Vol. 13:2)

Most American Christians have learned to read their NTs through the modern lens of 20th-century institutionalism. Hence, there is an urgent need for us to rethink our entire concept of church and learn to see it afresh through the lens of the NT authors.

Because of common misteaching, we have many deeply buried assumptions that are in need of excavation and examination. We have been mistaught that "church" means a building, a denomination, or an organizational structure. And that a "minister" is a special class of Christian.

Since our contemporary notion of the church has been so entrenched in man’s thinking, it requires a conscious effort to view it in the way that all first-century Christians did. It demands that we rigorously plough through the thick and tangled weeds of human tradition until we unearth the virgin soil of spiritual reality.

Only the necessary task of rethinking the church in its Scriptural context will enable us to distinguish between the Biblical notion of church and those institutions that pose as churches. Let us briefly isolate some of those differences:

The Institutional Paradigm:

is sustained by a clergy system

seeks to energize the laity

renders the bulk of its congregants passive-in-their-pews

associates church with a building or a denomination that one "joins"

is rooted in unifying those who share a special set of customs or doctrines

thrusts "ordinary" Christians out of the holy of holies and chains them to a pew

places its priority on religious programs and keeps its congregants at arms-length, insulating them from one another

spends most of its resources on building expenditures and pastor-staff salaries

operates on the basis that the pastor/priest is the functional head (while Christ is the nominal head)

enshrines and protects the clergy-dominated, program-centered system that serves as the driving machine of the organized church

builds programs to fuel the church; views people as cogs in the machine

encourages believers to participate institutionally and hierarchically

separates church (ecclesiology) from personal salvation (soteriology); views the former as a mere appendage to the latter

The Biblical Paradigm:

knows nothing of a clergy system

doesn’t recognize a separate class called laity

makes all members functioning priests

affirms that people do not go to church nor join the church . . . affirms that they are the church

is rooted in unreserved fellowship with all Christians based on Christ alone

liberates all believers to serve as ministers in the context of a non-clerical, decentralized form of church leadership

places its priority on face-to-face, shared-life relationships, mutual submission, openness, freedom, mutual service, and spiritual reality—the very elements that were built into the fabric of the NT church

spends most of its resources on "the poor among you" and apostolic workers

operates on the basis that Christ is the functional Head through the invisible guidance of the Holy Spirit through the believing community

shows a revulsion for the clergy system because it quenches the sovereign exercise of the Holy Spirit (yet lovingly embraces every Christian within that system)

builds people together with Christ to provide the momentum for the church

invites believers to participate relationally and spiritually

forges no link between personal salvation and the church; sees the two as inextricably intertwined. (Scripture has it that when people were saved, they simultaneously became part of the church and immediately met together.)

To make the point better by someone else, the Biblical paradigm represents "the winning back to God of things ordinary and the desacralisation of things made sacred by human hands."

Because the traditional paradigm has been so entrenched in the minds of so many Christians, the mere notion of "coloring outside the lines" of this model is quite terrifying. The unfortunate result is that those who have not had a paradigm shift regarding the church will either ignore or oppose those churches that have.

In the eyes of those who see the world through institutional glasses, unless a church meets in the "right" place (a building), has the "proper" leadership (an ordained pastor or priest), and bears the "correct" name (one that indicates a "covering"), it is not an authentic church! Instead, it is dubbed with innovative terms like "para-church."

For those who have not yet grown weary of running on the program-driven treadmill of institutional "churchianity," that which is abnormal is considered normal. And that which is normal is regarded as abnormal. This is the unhappy result of not basing our faith and practice upon Scripture. In making this same point, Jon Zens shows a wealth of insight saying,

It seems to me that we have made normative that for which there is no Scriptural warrant (emphasis on one man’s ministry), and we have omitted that for which there is ample Scriptural support (emphasis on one another) . . . we have exalted that for which there is no evidence, and neglected that for which there is abundant evidence. ("Building Up the Body: One Man or One Another?," Searching Together, Vol. 10:2)

In like manner, Alexander Hay laments the dilemma of the contemporary church saying,

Tertullian found it necessary to say, ‘Custom without truth is error grown old.’ There is not a little in our modern church order and practice that has no Scriptural warrant. Yet because it has long been the custom, it is accepted without question as an essential part of Divine order. (NT Order for Church and Missionary)

Most Christians have given careless adherence to humanly-devised traditions and tightly-held paradigms regarding church structure. Hence, any fresh way of doing church is viewed with unreasonable suspicion. This is true even if that way has far more Biblical undergirding than the ill-fated traditional model.

In brief, nothing short of a paradigm shift regarding the church coupled with an impartation of fresh light from the Holy Spirit will produce enduring change. Readjustments to the old wineskin, no matter how radical, will only go so far.

In other words, the church does not need renewal. It needs replacement! The only way to renew the institutional church is to wholly disassemble it and build something far different! The brittle wineskin of church practice and the tattered garment of ecclesiastical forms need to be exchanged, not just modified.

What is needed is a new wineskin and a new garment (Luke 5:36-38)! What is needed is a paradigm shift (on a natural plane). What is needed is a fresh revelation of Christ and His church (on a spiritual plane).

May you be delivered from carelessly imposing your pattern of church organization upon the NT authors. And may you have the courage to discard our institutional baggage. Or at least be willing to open your bags and inspect the luggage!

(3) The Centrality and Supremacy of Christ

The birth of a first-century styled church requires the labor pains of a company of people who embrace the centrality and supremacy of Jesus Christ with utmost rigor. In order for God to fulfill His ultimate intention, He needs a people who are jealous for the exclusive Headship of His Son.

Christ Himself must be the foundation and the superstructure (1 Cor. 2:2; 3:11; Eph. 2:20). He must be the center of the church. The issue of Christ’s supremacy lies at the core of why the church is such a provocative and confusing issue today. Because the church is so inextricably intertwined with Christ’s sovereign Headship, the forces of darkness have waged a relentless onslaught against it. This warfare is centered on keeping our eyes blinded to the true meaning of the ekklesia.

When we see the Lord on His throne, we begin to see the church. For the two are inseparably interwoven. In a word, we cannot build the Body if we fail to embrace the Head!

By the same token, if we discover NT principle for church life without coming to grips with the demands of Christ’s Headship, we shall suffer great loss. Rather than meeting upon the basis of Jesus Christ, we will meet on something lesser.

(4) Counting the Cost

King David was a man who denied Himself so that God could obtain what He wanted. David writes,

I will not enter my house or go to my bed—I will allow no sleep to my eyes, no slumber to my eyelids, till I find a place for the Lord, a DWELLING for the Mighty One of Jacob. (Ps. 132:3-5, NIV)

The Lord will never birth a fresh expression of His Body if we are not willing to pay the price that is attached to it. Among other things, we must refuse to compare ourselves with other Christians and measure our success by their standards.

The peril of ancient Israel rested in its willingness to follow the multitudes that surrounded it. By contrast, we must learn to connect our obedience to what God has revealed to our own hearts through Scripture. (Not to what the rest of His people are doing.) In Exodus 23:2, the Lord warned Israel about the peril of following after the multitudes. This warning holds good for us today.

If God has shown us the church, He holds us responsible for responding to what we have seen. Nothing short of unreserved obedience to the heavenly vision will provide the necessary context for the Spirit to raise up a local expression of His Body.

Unfortunately, not a few Christians familiar with the NT have side-stepped the Lord on this issue. The following trite excuse reflects the common thinking on the subject: "God will sort out the problem of the church someday. I’m just going to support the institutional churches until something big happens."

Such a fatalistic mentality conceals our own rebellion. It is also a profound intellectual failure. It is easy to take refuge in the true but irrelevant conviction that "God will sort it all out in the end." It is much more difficult to do the hard work of discovering and responding to God’s will. Such an attitude is similar to saying, "I will not obey until I see others obeying." Truly, to hold such an attitude is to court the displeasure of the Lord.

Let it be clear. There is a price to pay in obeying the Lord’s prescribed way for His church. You will have to reckon with being misunderstood by those who have embraced institutional, spectator Christianity. You will bear the marks of the cross and die a thousand deaths in the process of being built together with other believers in a close-knit community.

You will have to endure the messiness that is part and parcel of relational Christianity—forever abandoning the artificial neatness afforded by the organized church. You will no longer share the comforts of being a passive spectator. Instead, you will learn the self-emptying lessons of becoming a responsible, serving member of a functioning Body.

In addition, you will have to go against the harsh grain of what one writer calls "the seven last words of the church" (we never did it that way before)! You will incur the disfavor of the religious majority for refusing to be influenced by the tyranny of the status quo. Finally, you will incite the severest assaults of the adversary in his attempt to snuff out that which represents a living testimony of Jesus. But regardless of the suffering that follows those who take the road less traveled, the glorious benefits of living in Body life far outweigh the costs.

Unless we are a crucified people, there can be no true expression of the church. It is a settled spiritual principle that the church issues from the cross. Just as the altar preceded the house in the Old Testament, the cross always precedes the church. So unless a people are willing to go under the cross corporately, they will never see the church restored.

It is for this reason that not a few groups that have left the institutional church have seen short lives. Whenever a company of believers makes something other than Christ the basis for their gathering, it loses the Headship of Christ. And it will find itself in the death throes of disintegration.

This is true for groups that make "NT order" the basis for their meeting. It is also true for groups that gather out of a negative reaction. A reaction that can be likened unto a group of religious malcontents waging a "holy" crusade against institutional Christianity. Such groups have succumbed to the false mentality that they are the only ones doing church correctly.

These groups end up becoming inverted communities. Elitist, cloistered, and ingrown. Poisoned with pride. Their meetings are characterized by the same chord of criticism against "the religious system." And they eventually die for lack of positive vision.

The essential elements that will hold a church together under severe testing are: 1) holding fast to the Headship of Jesus in a living way, and 2) a perpetual self-emptying for the Lord’s sake. Without the practical working of the cross in our lives, ekklesia life becomes no more than a far-reaching ideal.

The Lord builds on broken lives. His house is constituted out of conflict (1 Chron. 26:27). This being the case, "let us, then, go to Him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace He bore" (Heb. 13:13, NIV). For it is there that we may match the Savior’s heartbeat.

(5) Travailing Prayer

Finally, and most importantly, the church is restored among those who have learned to touch the throne of God with travailing prayer. The first church was born by a group of 120 disciples who devoted themselves to such prayer (Acts 1:13-15). NT expressions of the Body of Christ are formed the same way today.

We must never forget that the church is organic. It cannot be constructed by the hasty impulses of the natural man. The birthing of a church requires the kind of travailing prayer that marked the lives of Nehemiah and Daniel.

These men entered into prayerful travail over the present disorder in which they lived. As a result, God was faithful to bring others to stand by them. Only then did He fulfill the vision He deposited within their hearts (Neh. 1-2; Dan. 9-10).

Prayer, then, is critical for receiving the power of the Spirit. A power that is necessary for birthing and nurturing a local expression of the Body of Christ. Again, the church is not made with the hands of human clay. It is made by the breath of the Eternal Spirit.

Recall how the temple of old was built without the sound of earthly machinery (1 Kings 6:7). This incident establishes a crucial principle. Namely, that the church of Jesus Christ can never be formed by the toil and sweat of the natural man. It must be birthed from heaven. In the words of Russell Lipton,

It is only by the Holy Spirit that the church is built, not by the cleverness of our schemes and plans and committees and campaigns. We are often too clever to admit that we depend on our own strength rather than on the Holy Spirit . . . but we do. (Does the Church Matter?)

If we are willing to be deeply involved in the battle locally for those elements that reflect God’s end and God’s way, He will be faithful to respond. Paul’s prescription for church building sums it up rather nicely: "My little children, of whom I travail in birth again until Christ be formed in you" (Gal. 4:19). In this light, John W. Kennedy remarks,

The extent to which God can use us to the establishing of the church is the extent of our subjection to Him, and our freedom from the bonds of tradition and other human entanglements which would hinder His working. Then the church will not need to be cajoled into existence. The Spirit Himself will bring to birth the urge that brings an assembly into being . . . erecting a building, or establishing the observance of the Lord’s Table or a certain mode of gathering has never yet made a church. Without a burning vision of the Lord’s way, and the urge of the Spirit to obey, any pattern will remain but an empty sham. (The Secret of His Purpose)

Travailing prayer does not rule out the undisputable fact that God uses men to plant His church. That the first-century church was built through apostolic ministry is a consistent practice throughout the NT. Strikingly, every church mentioned in Scripture was either directly planted or immensely helped by a traveling worker. It is a Divine pattern.

Therefore, believers who enter into travailing prayer should seek the help of an apostolic worker (or "church planter") who will lay the foundation for the new church. Apostolic workers are God’s instrument for imparting a revelation of Jesus Christ to the hearts of men. They are the ones specially called and gifted by God to lay the foundation.

If we will be true to NT principle, then, we will accept the role of such people. For without apostolic ministry, we will never see a restoration of God’s house. (See So You Want to Start a House Church? for details on the role of itinerant workers.)

A Final Call

We live in an hour when the Spirit of God is beckoning His people to embrace His ultimate intention regarding His beloved church. This intention rests upon forming a people who are filled with the new wine of God’s Spirit for the single purpose of preparing them to be a glorious Bride for His Son. Within this context, He is summoning His people to re-examine the old wineskin of church practice.

Therefore, the need of the hour is for the Lord to raise up multitudes of those in the spirit of the sons of Issachar who "had understanding of the times and knew what Israel [God’s people] ought to do" (1 Chron. 12:32). George Moreshead explains,

In these times when doing (even if doing ‘for God’ and ‘for His glory’) has so largely eclipsed the Biblical emphasis on, and the priority of, being and becoming, it would seem to be equally necessary and important to have those with the spiritual understanding and discernment to know what the NT ‘Israel’ ought both to do and not to do! How then can there be anything to rival, as the primary need of the present time, the raising up of those who see from heaven—believers of exceptional spiritual stature and a Spirit-taught understanding of this time, for the building up of the Body of Christ to the measure of Christ’s fullness? How else can the ‘old men’ of the new ‘Israel’ join in with their younger brethren in the song of victory and the shout of success over God’s completed house? ("Understanding the Times," unpublished article—slightly paraphrased)

In closing, I trust that what I have attempted to set forth in this book will provoke you to no longer dilute the wine of spiritual life and confine it into old wineskins. But rather, that you will be ignited by a blinding vision of the ekklesia.

My closing prayer is that the sweet wine of the Spirit would pour so mightily that the wineskins of man’s making—which have obscured the Headship of Jesus and disarmed the believing priesthood—would burst beyond recovery! I pray that God would raise up countless local expressions of dynamic spiritual life all across the globe. Expressions that live simply and serve sacrificially for the realization of His eternal purpose. May you be counted faithful to be a part of this passing parade!

May the Lord help you to rethink the wineskin.

This article has been excerpted from Frank Viola's book Rethinking the Wineskin: The Practice of the New Testament Church. www.ptmin.org/rethink.htm