Pagan Christianity Chapter Discussion – Introduction

This is the third installment of our series on the book Pagan Christianity (from now on PC). This post covers the Introduction written by George Barna. PC is an historical study, and the main focus of this chapter is church history: how we are at a turning point in church history today, and how knowledge of church history can protect us from embracing both old and new church practices that are unfruitful and even potentially harmful.

According to Barna, contemporary Christianity is undergoing a revolution of faith at the moment. Research shows that “millions of Christians throughout the world are leaving the old, accepted ways of doing church” (page xxiv). Although some will see this is a result of nominal Christians falling away, many of these people are apparently genuine Christians who are seeking a greater experience of God and deeper fellowship with other Christians. This growing portion of believers have not stopped meeting with other Christians, they are just meeting in non-traditional ways. Some of these ways are newer and more modern, but many are also older than traditional (such as gathering in homes). Barna’s explanation of this massive exodus of believers from mainline churches is that they are frustrated by their church experience – “They are tired of the institutions, denominations and routines getting in the way of a resonant connection with Him. They are worn out on the endless programs that fail to facilitate transformation. They are weary of being sent off to complete assignments, memorize facts and passages, and engage in simplistic processes which do not draw them into God’s presence” (page xxv). Β The problem, it seems, might be just as much with church systems as with sinful churchgoers.

There have been many attempts at planting more ‘modern’ churches to cater for people who aren’t interested in the “time-frozen” traditional variation. The emergent church and seeker-friendly movements are just two examples of revamped church models. However, Barna feels that all this change has actually been mere ‘window-dressing’; superficial adjustments to style rather than fundamental overhauls. They have changed the worship team style, the sermon style and the venue style, but they haven’t gone to the root and questioned worship teams, sermons and venues. They have changed their procedures, but kept the same old pagan principles. Barna seems to think that the reason for this is that most believers are quite ignorant of their roots. They don’t know the church’s history, and so they don’t know where their church practices come from, when they began or why. They also don’t know Scripture very well or in context, which means they do not realize that most of what they do on Sundays has no biblical warrant. Biblically illiterate believers read the Scriptures through the lens of their church experience, and easily accept the dubious assumptions and proof-texting that are used by others to justify pagan traditions.

The message of PC is that it is God Himself who is bringing this worldwide correction to His people and placing a new desire in their hearts for an organic expression and experience of the faith. We are living in a crucial era of church history. For Barna, “it’s time for the body of Christ to get in touch with Word of God and the history of the church to arrive at a better understanding of what we can and should do – as well as what we can’t and should not do”. The reader is encouraged to read PC with a healthy skepticism and a desire to find out for themselves, but also to be willing to “consider making more significant changes to the way we practice our faith” (page xxxi) than window-dressing if necessary.

Do you agree with Barna? Do Christians need to study more church history to avoid deception? Is God the one behind this global move away from ‘traditional’ church?


15 thoughts on “Pagan Christianity Chapter Discussion – Introduction

  1. Hi JC

    Thanks for the great summaries that you have been posting lately. I have found Pagan Christianity to be an eye-opening and challenging read! I hope we can do something similar for “Re-Imagining Church” πŸ™‚

    In paragraph 3, you mention the numerous attempts made at planting modern churches which can clearly be seen in most cities worldwide. I know of one seeker-friendly church that became emo to keep the vast number of attending emo youth happy. However, in addition to modern churches, there are also people that are looking backwards for a way forward. I have met a number of people who left the institutional church many moons ago and have joined house churches and other gatherings like the Hebrew Roots (HR) movement. Those in house churches wish to emulate the early church while those in the HR movement seem keen to return to Judaism and keeping the law of Moses. They seem to think that the law was God’s Plan A for the world and that Jesus was Plan B (as Eben Swart says) and so strive to return to Jewish orthodoxy. It also seems that if the Christians who leave the institutional church don’t find somewhere to worship corporately, they take many different paths. Some become anchor-less and wander about seeking fellowship, some turn to Judaism while others persevere in their walk with God and their continual growth and deepening relationship with God is evident.

    As for your three last questions, I’ll be brief. Having read PC, I think Viola and Barna have some great points but I cannot make an informed decision about their views because I have not read “Re-Imagining Church” which proposes solutions to the problems of PC. Secondly, I think that Christians should study church history, the same as someone might study their family tree and history. Thirdly, I believe that God is behind this movement. However, I think that He has children in all types of organizations – traditional churches, house churches etc. – and that each Christian must ask the Lord where He would like them as individuals to be. I don’t think that someone in an institutional church can criticize someone in a house church and vice versa if both feel right about their placements before God. Personally, the institutional church has been a source of pain and confusion for me. This does not give me liberty to leave but has encouraged me to seek God’s leading all the more as to where I should go.

    • You sum it up quite well when you say that some people are leaving the ‘old ways’ of doing church for ‘new ways’, while others are leaving the ‘old ways’ for ‘OLDER ways’. The question is, does God want us to RENEW the local church, or RESTORE it. I think Barna and Viola are saying that we have the freedom in Jesus to have new ‘forms’ of the local church, such as new musical instruments, but that we are called to maintain the New Testament ‘functions’ of the church, such as ministering to each other with our gifts. The challenge, I think, is managing the forms without discarding the functions. That is the primary message of the book.

      I am interested, why do you believe that God is behind the changes in the church? Some people might suggest that its actually just a cultural phenomenon, or that most of the people are just offended with their ‘traditional church’, or even that its the work of the enemy to break up the Body!

  2. I have not read all the various chapters, paragraphs and comments from those who have responded to this column, but from above “persevere in their walk with God and their continual growth and have a deepening relationship with God” is critical and “but has encouraged me to seek God’s leading all the more as to where I should go” are keys to the future of this “world” as The Lord is coming, and what are you going to say to Him – “I forgot to seek the Kingdom first and be directly obedient to God”? Tough decisions and not always what people want to hear. The Power of the Holy Spirit in all cases is what everyone needs in their lives and why do we not ask? Maybe it is time for you to “really fall on your knees and pray for His blessings and direction”.
    I will also say that when you break the church up, you are destroying the Body of Christ and sowing dissention [opposition, disagreement, discord, rebellion, conflict] which does more harm and causes even bigger chasms amongst the congregation. Bind us together with love that cannot be broken Lord is what we sing but do we believe this? So it is easy to fall prey to whatever blows your hairback. Greetings Bp

    • Hi T Bob! Thanks for joining the conversation, you are very welcome on the blog. I like what you said about how we shouldn’t divide over these issues. Like petaldear said, we shouldn’t think that we are better either because we are in a traditional church setup or because we are not. On the other hand, we should encourage one another to follow God and not just our own agenda or someone else’s opinion. I enjoy discussing these issues because we soon realize how different we are from others. I really hope we can all learn from one another rather than judge too quickly.

      I was wondering if you agree with the authors of the book Pagan Christianity that we are living in a new era of church history. Have you noticed a change in the way the Holy Spirit is building up the local church in your area? Are you seeing people moving away from traditional ways of doing things?

  3. I certainly think that Christians should have a better knowledge (in general terms at least) of church history.

    I will answer the second question more fully as you go through the book and it becomes clearer what exactly is meant by traditional church.
    But if traditional means sermons, teachers, structured services etc, then my answer would be a ‘No’ – I don’t see the movement away from these as biblically based.

    • Hi kenguy, I don’t think we could take the book seriously if it claimed that we shouldn’t have teachers or teaching. I know that Viola and Barna are all for instruction and teachers using their gifting in that regard. I think the question the book raises is more around the style and environment for teaching. One point that is raised (which we will deal with fully in the chapter on sermons), is that the way we think about Christian ‘learning’ and ‘growth in knowledge’ very much emphasizes lecturing above mentoring. It values the passing on of intellectual information in abstract terms through monologue outside of normal life, rather than the passing on of relational revelation in practical terms through example and dialogue within normal life settings. The meaning of word ‘teach’ is under question, not teaching itself. Similarly, they are not saying that structured/regulated services are wrong, but rather how they are regulated.

      By ‘not biblically based’, do you mean wrong? Have you had any fellowship with Christians who attend house churches or similar non-institutional gatherings, or perhaps attended such a meeting yourself?

  4. Hi guys

    A word that grabs my attention in most of your posts is the word “institution”. I have met a couple of people who are very put-off by the institutional-ism of church. Upon discussing with them what their real hang-up was, what surfaced was that they had become convinced that the church was man-made rather than an alive body of Christ. Or, put more metaphorically – God does not pitch at church – it’s just a bunch of pastors and eager beavers doing their thing.

    I’ve felt the same in some of the bigger churches that I went to. Maybe it can be summed up in: The people organizing the service, to them it is not really important whether or not you participate. They just want you to be there, and perhaps to listen, and definitely to tithe.

    Personally I’d love to study more of church history for the sake of lessons that can be learnt through it. To date, I’ve only listened to about a 10-hour series by David Pawson on church history. Can you point me towards another good knowledge source?

    Whether we should all study more of it – I’m always hesitant to finish a sentence that starts with “All Christians should…”
    I’ve noticed that a great deal of people are natural-born followers, rather than leaders. This may sound like a condescending thing to say, but I’ll challenge you right back: have you not met many people who show very little interest in thinking for themselves, but rather just latch onto some personality’s views? (Whether that personality is Opera, their pastor, their boyfriend, their parents or some artist or celebrity, or some combination of the above.)

    Perhaps it is OK if only those people who are interested in playing leadership roles in the church concern themselves with the matter. Yea, that’s quite a controversial statement I’m sure, but that’s my answer to your original question: I think that if you would like to take part in the discussion concerning “how we do church”, it would certainly be helpful to read up on church history.

    Is God the one behind the movement? Not so much, I think. I believe that the Church that Jesus was referring to when he said “Upon this rock I will build my Church” is in a glorious condition. I think a lot of what men have built and called “church” – God was never really involved in. (Looks like I am on a roll with controversial statements today πŸ˜‰ ) I also think that in some of it, He was involved initially, and then later left the building as people got stuck in a rut.

    What is behind the movement away from the traditional church in my opinion? Well, I think there are many facets driving the move.

    It has become socially very acceptable to not go to church. Also, western life has become very isolated. The majority of people living in cities know very few, if any, of their neighbors. Plainly put, when you don’t go to church, none of the people in your non-church life knows.

    Many people believe that if you really believe in science (i.e. you have become un-primitive), you can no longer be “religious”, since “science disproves religion”, or at least parts of it. [note: I’m only reporting, I believe that science and faith makes for good companions].

    Progress in mobility, technology and trade has brought many people in contact with other “good people” of other religions. This raises very pressing questions about the biblical message, questions that I still sometimes find very hard to answer myself. Unsatisfactory answers to the “all roads vs one road” dilemna may cause people to lose interest in church.

    Through the internet and the media, the acceptability of sex outside of marriage has become almost complete in the “Christian” world’s societies. Since this is in stark contradiction of the doctrines of traditional churches, I’m sure many people are starting to feel either hypocritical or guilty (or both) for going to church while being in a biblically immoral relationship.

    Distractions: there is simply more alternatives to going to church than there was 50 years ago. Internet, series, movies, chatting on cell phones…

    So, I suppose I can put forward many practical reasons why people are moving out of traditional churches. This fact is not a concern to me because I think that tradition is a thorn in faith’s side.

    I believe that God can surely be found, and Christians can surely grow, in many traditional churches. That being said, I also believe that we can edify one another way more if we “do church differently”, by practicing the Gifts in congregations.

    Your long-response-friend πŸ˜›

  5. Yes, there are many reasons why people are leaving church I guess, but the reasons you give here are describing a different group of people completely from Barna and Pagan Christianity. The book is actually focusing on the group of people that are hungering for more of Jesus and seeking better ways of living out their faith biblically. Was that the attitude of the people you mention that were ‘anti-institutional’, or were they more likely to be drifting away from the Lord? You really don’t like people making it sound like Jesus is failing to build His church, which I think is goods, but surely there is space for the Lord to bring correction – I am just thinking of the (critical?) messages Jesus had to the different churches in Revelations. Perhaps He is reviving\reforming us parallel to the disintegration of ‘cultural Christianity’? This is the claim of Pagan Christianity at least… The true church IS more glorious than ‘Christianity’ as a whole for sure, but I am sure you will agree that we are not beyond deception or the need of repentance. On another note, please don’t miss my request for a blog post on the previous post thread!)…

  6. Hi JC,
    I’m preaching as much to myself as to anyone else when I emphasize that Jesus is not failing at building his Church. One of my personal shortcomings is to find fault in people or is systems and spend too much time thinking about them and too little time enjoying the good that there is in the person or in the system.

    But I really believe in Jesus, and therefore, when I stop myself short when I want to start finding fault with the Church that He built.

    Perhaps that is why I keep referring to the “the way we do church” rather than to “the Church” in most of my posts. Because I really do believe that there is ample room for improvement in most churches – and a lot of it can come through a return to biblical principles to displace clerical inventions. So I am truly and honestly exciting about going through an re-evaluation of some of these things *with* you guys. I’m thankful also that it is already evident that we do not agree about everything. Different perspectives lead to more insight – just like when you’re looking at a complex physical object πŸ™‚

    I just don’t want us to confuse our fallible human efforts to “do church”, with The Church, against which the gates of Hades will not prevail.


  7. About the distinction that you make regarding the people leaving the church:

    I guess I am a person that is hungry for God that willfully left a traditional church (in my case, the NG church), because I felt there was no potency in that church. But it is very important to keep in mind that I pro-actively sought out a new fellowship of believers. And I found one.

    I am not easily persuaded that people are truly hungering for God would forsake the gathering of the saints altogether. Do you really mean that there is a movement of people hungering for God out of traditional churches, but not into alternative churches? That they from being in congregations to being on solo missions after spiritual satisfaction?

    The people that I spoke to (I think of two guys specifically): the one I think was not all that interested in being close to God. Nevertheless I did not find his criticism regarding church institutionalization to be either unfounded or unreasonable. The other guy I had much more sympathy for: he was quite involved in church and fell in love with one of the girls there. In short, it led to heartbreak for him that soon led into serious depression. He felt that the girls in the church were only interested in guys in leadership positions in the church (once again, I’ve witnessed some of this in my own experience). He also found it hard to abstain from sex and masturbation. Finally, when he wanted to go study in Stellenbosch his pastor told him that he should not, because the pastor felt that he should stay in the church. When the student insisted on going to Stellenbosch, the pastor told him that he is acting in rebellion to (the pastor’s) spiritual authority over his life. And that was the last straw.

    In his own admission, and by my testimony too, the guy is now much happier living the occasional drunken and fornicating life than he ever was while living a more “godly” life in the church. I’ll be the first to point out that the way of life that he chooses now, while being young, will lead to loneliness and emptiness by the time he is 40, but then, I can’t really prove that and besides, there’s no argument that returning to the Christian life that he knew would really lead anywhere else.

    So I feel for that guy.

    Other people that I’ve spoken to, I think are John 3:18 people. Living in darkness and therefore hating the light. They will look for anything to nail Christianity on, including the institutionalization thereof. The other day I was really upset about many people bad-mouthing Angus Buchan on Facebook, apparently because he teaches men to be women opressing machos.


    JC, I’ve now told a couple of stories from my experience about the church. I would like to hear what your personal experience was with the church. Did you feel that the church is lacking to the degree that you would want to go solo? Has there been disappointments or disillusionments for you? What are the stories of other people that you’ve met?

    • For sure I agree with you that we should be hesitant to follow a ‘move of God’ that leads people away from community and Body ministry. But just to clarify, Barna is not saying that people are leaving Christian fellowship. He is saying that they are leaving traditional ‘forms’ of it. A large number of these people are joining house churches, simple churches – whatever you want to call it. So the impulse to gather and share a corporate faith is there. This is a very crucial point, I hope the others read this. Barna is actually claiming that God is leading people TO community and AWAY from fellowship-suppressing church practices. Does that change your view about this group of people? This book does not support people going solo. It is not anti-church at all.

      And neither am I. I have experienced great joy and fellowship with other Christians. I love the church. But, in short, my ‘traditional church’ experience has always been secondary. I pretty much grew up spiritually reading books, listening to sermons and putting my faith into practice outside the church in natural relationships as well as formal nondenominational ministries. On the other hand, in the church structures I have taught at Bible school, led cell groups, attended prayer meetings, served tea on Sundays and gone on evangelism outings quite happily. The Lord has met me and ministered to me in many church services. Yet over the years I have encountered such wonderful things in the Lord that I long to experience in a corporate environment. Unfortunately, my main experience of the Body of Christ has always remained outside my particular local church. I think there is a lot we can change in how we ‘do church’ that can fulfil us and equip us much more fruitfully than the current paradigm. This gives me hope, especially if God is at work to bring that change, but at the moment I am also seeing many people disappointed and disillusioned and it saddens me. Perhaps my perspective is also changing with age: when you are young want to receive, but as you grow older you want to take responsibility and give. My desire is to make a difference. This book is helping me think through where that difference is and what it is. So no, going solo has never occurred to me as an option, but leaving the institutional form of church has. At the moment, however, I am still attending a traditional local church.

      PS. Let me know if you can do that blog post I asked you to…

  8. JC knows I’ve no time to get involved in the discussion, but I value everyone’s thoughts and will continue reading what you write, as well as all the comments (just read everything in the Pagan series, and more). Maybe I’ll have time later, it’s just a hectic year this.

    I’ll just write a shortish comment, as I think I’m the sort of person the book (and so JC) is talking about. My wife and I currently don’t attend church – we had grown extremely tired of it over the years here in SA, then there were none where we stayed in Thailand, and arriving back middle last year we went to different churches a couple of times (and some conferences) but just couldn’t continue. Find it a complete waste of time, and extremely frustrating.

    Have done the church rounds from a young age – NG, His People, Vineyard, Shofar, and many more -, facilitated courses, involved in ministries, interned, did years of Bible School at different churches, mentored a number of people, etc. I say that just so you know where I come from. I (we) love the Lord. We have many Christian friends, all attend (and some are leaders in) churches, and we have Christian families (in different towns). My family stopped attending church last year sometime too, though they’ve gone back a couple of times, but they’ve now stopped going completely as far as I know. They too love the Lord, devoted, seek Him daily, been in ministry, etc. We discuss this topic often – just last week my dad asked me to listen to some things which sound similar to PC ( But we feel (have felt for many, many years) that church as it currently is, is useless – don’t gain a thing, can hardly give, don’t encounter the Lord there much (whichever church), while we do encounter the Lord when spending time with each other, friends and family, or engaging people on relevant and valuable things. When we (us, and family) tried to bring change about ‘from the inside’, or at least discuss these things with other church members whether individually or at cell or as groups of friends who are in leadership positions where they can effect change, we found it impossible – people were either not interested in changing anything whatsoever so weren’t even interested in talking about it, very afraid to even have a positive discussion about it, felt they knew change was very necessary but did not know how to bring it about in a larger church and felt that it would be ‘sinful’ to not be in a local church, or angry (still don’t know why, but everywhere it looks like the angry people were just much too afraid, of change, of deception, and sometimes of losing ‘power’).

    So this book sounds very interesting, and everyone’s thoughts on it on this blog. I will pass the link on to the family as well, and possibly buy the book. I’m probably not going to write here again, or reply (though I’ll read most everything). My reason for posting was just to add myself as probably a typical example of the person the book is referring to (well that’s how I understand it anyway) – there really are people who love the Lord, who are not out to break apart any local churches, but for whom those local churches and the way they operate (or don’t) just isn’t nearly enough to make it worth going, for themselves or for others.

    • Hi brother, welcome! It saddens me to hear that your experience of ‘how we do church’ has been so negative. I really hope that something good comes from this season for you and your family. We appreciate the honest comment and we really hope you find the time soon to come back with more πŸ˜‰

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