Pagan Preaching?

Their voices spoke through the dimly lit room, and the words were careful. I looked back down at my kindle, listening, praying that someone else might be brave. Perhaps speak words that would break down this barrier of caution. That’s when a man spoke and shared the deeper details of his issues and how God saved his marriage.

My head snapped up and my eyes widened. I listened and so did everyone in the room. No one interrupted. The pastor asked questions and the man answered them freely. I thought of that Sunday on Tuesday as I read Pagan Christianity? by Frank Viola and George Barna.


I am in Chapter 4. Frank Viola so far seems to be on a mission against church proper and yet not, as he breaks down what created our traditions like the camp town meetings or where preaching is rooted from. According to Viola preaching comes from the Greeks.

On page 89, Viola and Barna go into the origins of the Christian sermon. A group of wandering teachers called “sophists” in 5th century B.C. are credited for inventing rhetoric. Rhetoric is the art of persuasive speaking. Sophists knew how to debate well and were expert at using emotional appeals, physical appearance, and clever language to, “sell their arguments.” Sophists had little substance, but great form. They wore special clothing. A few sophists lived in special residences. Others traveled often to speak to great crowds.

A full century later, Aristotle instructed on the three-point speech. “It must have a beginning, middle and end,” he said. This formula influenced other Greek orators. Eventually, Viola and Barna says, “…the last of the traveling Christian workers who spoke out of a prophetic burden and spontaneous conviction left the pages of church history. To fill their absence, the clergy began to emerge. Open meetings began to die out, and church gatherings became more and more liturgical.” Is Christian preaching truly pagan? Viola and Barna say we borrowed today’s preaching method from the Greeks.

A friend once countered the arguments of those who are against Christian yoga that there are only so many positions a body can twist. Likewise, in writing or speaking there is always a formula of sorts. Maybe our formula comes from pagan roots. The Greeks were philosophers, writers, and artists. Preaching seems to  follow a similar Greek formula for speaking that orators used to use, but I believe, that’s just a logical way to speak a message. Viola’s problem is not with the preaching it seems, but with the lack of audience participation. He is still pushing for organic church or home churches.

Not everyone loves the idea of breaking out in song at a small group meeting. What he describes in his organic-house church meeting sounds uncomfortable and maybe a bit too feel-good for me. Like Lincoln, I, too, like a balanced approach to church. Abraham Lincoln grew up in the Camp-Town meetings where people jerked or did strange things in worship to God. Lincoln wanted intellectual stimulation, not just emotional highs. I go to church to reach out, worship, encourage, and to be encouraged and to grow. While testimonies and song are powerful, I want to hear the Word from someone educated in its Greek and Hebrew. Knowing the Word helps me to understand God’s many attributes.

Preaching also helps new converts understand how to read the Bible in context and how to apply what they’ve learned throughout the week. Viola states, “Clement of Alexandria lamented that sermons did so little to change Christians. Yet despite its recognized failure, the sermon became a standard practice among believers by the fourth century.”

Human nature hasn’t changed. We still want to sin and put our hands over our ears so as not to feel convicted. We just want to feel good about ourselves. Small groups are still an answer to Viola’s issue to a church letting the congregation become non-participatory pew-warmers with a preacher speaking rhetoric and not encouraging a dialogue. The example at the beginning of this blog shows that not all churches discourage congregation participation. With online communities congregation can, more than ever, take part by making comments on the sermon and speaking directly to the pastors.

Viola refers more to Catholic Churches and others who do a more formal worship environment. Our church environment does not discourage audience participation to some degree. We’ve had murmurings from the audience in reaction to the pastor’s words, a man who booms a deep amen when something said affects him, and a woman who used to verbally react to the pastor’s words. It’s been interesting reading Viola’s strong opinion on organic church and learning the history behind most of what we take for granted in church proper.

Viola says, “The New Testament is not silent with respect to how we Christians are to meet. Shall we, therefore, opt for man’s tradition when it clearly runs contrary to God’s thought for His church? Shall we continue to undermine the functioning headship of Christ for the sake of our sacrosanct liturgy? Is the church of Jesus Christ the pillar and ground of truth or the defender of man’s tradition (1 Timothy 3:15).”

Church allows us to be around people who challenge and sharpen our wits. Preaching is the iron that sharpens iron and moves us from seekers to strong Christians. I am still a skeptic of organic church, but I believe God uses everything to His purpose. So I leave mid-chapter with mixed feelings.

What do you think?