Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Outside the Institutional Church: Frank Viola

      Like many American male youths, I was taught that grown men don’t cry. If that’s true, then I’m a royal failure. Several things make me weep. I weep when I see other human beings grieving because of tragedy (my eyes brim with tears whenever I’m at a funeral). I weep when my heart is broken. I weep when I watch romantic films, especially at the end. (I cried for a solid week after I saw The Titanic. Call me a “sentimental fool,” if you like.) And I weep whenever I see a Biblical story portrayed on film, including animated ones.

      I also break into tears when I sense the Lord’s presence. This often happens when I hear the pure simplicity of a simple group of Christians singing to their Lord from their hearts. I used to be embarrassed about shedding tears during such times (I also know how to hide it quite well). I guess I’m still learning to accept it. (I’ve learned that tears are a precious gift. They open up our hearts, wash away resentful feelings, and soften our wills.)

      At the age of seventeen, I moved to Tampa and enrolled in college. During my university years, I tasted something of the experience of the Body of Christ. I met a small group of Christians who had the same hungry heart for the Lord as I had. We spent a great deal of time together.

      Dorm-room prayer meetings were a common occurrence. Sometimes, we would pour out our hearts to the Lord all night. We shared our struggles, our victories, our discoveries, and our endless questions. Many a meeting we would sing till our throats were horse.

      And sometimes I would weep.

      At the time, I didn’t know what we were experiencing. But looking back, it was an organic experience of church life in techno-color.

      A few years later, we discovered that each of us had played the same disenchanting tape of traditional church experience. So we formed an on-campus organization where we attempted to fill in what was missing.

      Under the banner of a campus-approved Christian organization, we held a weekly Bible discussion group that drew people from a slew of distinct theological traditions.

      For some, these open discussions turned into an exercise in abstract Biblicism and arcane academic reflection. For others, they were no more than a religious free-for-all where others got roped into endless (and mostly fruitless) debates over a variety of theological minutia.

      To my mind, they represented a profitable learning experience. They taught me the immense benefit of having an “interpretive community” to provide a rich and nuanced understanding of the Biblical text.

      Some people have the idea that only Bible scholars and theological sophisticates are qualified to rightly understand the Bible. I certainly believe that Biblical scholarship and theological sophistication are important components for interpreting the Scripture, but they aren’t the only components. I learned back then that a diverse group of Christians who possessed the Spirit of God is another important component. As my friend Hal Miller once said, “Just as war is too destructive to be left to the generals, so the Bible is too rich to be left to the scholars.” It requires an interpretive community.

      The Bible discussion group taught me the tremendous need for “judging all things” by Scripture. It also helped me to value the insights of other Christians, most of whom stood outside of the safe parameters of my own theological comfort zone. (Seeing through our own biases is not a strong suit for most of us. So it does us well when we are stretched in this regard.) The group also showed me the utter fruitlessness of swapping “proof texts” in order to win an argument.

      But perhaps most important, the discussion group gave me a taste of the spiritual dynamics of mutual ministry and open gatherings. They also urged me to try and master the rudiments of politeness and tact—something that doesn’t get enough air-time in modern religious circles.

      Through our mutual study of Scripture, I discovered the problem of confusing bookish knowledge with being grasped by the Word of life. And I came to see the specific tragedy of substituting the vitality of God’s voice in Scripture with certain rhetorical forms of argumentation and pulpiteering.

      In effect, it was through my experience with on-campus ministry that the Lord began to reveal to me something of the oneness of His Body, the principle of mutual ministry, and the importance of studying/expounding Christ through the Scriptures in a group setting. In looking back, I can readily see that the Holy Spirit was planting the seeds of Body life into my heart.

      Some years later, I made the surprising discovery that the times when I was growing the most as a Christian was when I was outside traditional church services. The strides I made in the Lord all seemed to take place in home meetings, dorm-room meetings, park meetings, restaurant meetings, coffee shops, on-campus meetings—all of them occurring outside church buildings. And oddly enough, all of those meetings were void of the presence of a professional clergyman.


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