Sunday, March 25, 2007

Review: Alan Hirsch, THE FORGOTTEN WAYS

Review: Alan Hirsch, 'The Forgotten Ways: Reactivating the Missional Church’. Michigan: Brazos Press, 2006.

Ivan Illich was asked what he thought was the most radical way to change society; was it through violent revolution or gradual reform? He gave a careful answer. Neither. Rather, he suggested that if one wanted to change society, then one must tell an alternative story.

And for Christians the alternative story has to do with the evils of institutionalism and clericalism. A quote from sociologist Robert Merton jumped out of a Masters’ degree I once did at the University of Sydney: ‘The evil in institutions is greater than the sum of the evil of the individuals within them.’

Martin Buber warns that ‘centralization and codification, undertaken in the interests of religion, are a danger to the core of religion.’ This is inevitably the case he says, unless there is a very vigorous life of faith embodied in the whole community, one that exerts an unrelenting pressure for renewal on the institution. C.S. Lewis observed that ‘there exists in every church something that sooner or later works against the very purpose for which it came into existence. So we must strive very hard, by the grace of God to keep the church focused on the mission that Christ originally gave to it.’

In this exciting, readable and provocative book, ‘emerging church’ missiologist Alan Hirsch tells an alternative story by unlocking the secrets of the primal ‘pre-Christendom’ apostolic church – and the church in modern China. Why were/are they so dynamic, whereas mainline churches over time suffer from what sociologists call ‘the routinisation of charisma’?

Historians have often accepted the claim that the conversion of Emperor Constantine (ca 285-337) resulted in the triumph of Christianity. To the contrary, he destroyed its most attractive and dynamic aspects, turning a high-intensity, grassroots movement into an arrogant institution controlled by an elite who often managed to be brutal and lax.

Hirsch suggests that the prevailing expression of church (Christendom) has become a major stumbling block to the spread of Christianity in the West. The ‘Christendom paradigm’ doesn’t work very well any more.

On the other hand the Chinese churches grew in spite of the following:

1. They were an illegal religion.
2. They didn’t have church buildings.
3. They didn’t have scriptures (the Chinese had underground, partial copies).
4. They didn’t have any central institutions or professional forms of leadership.
5. They didn’t have seeker-sensitive services, youth groups, worship bands, seminaries, or commentaries.
6. They made it hard to join the church.

One commentator has said that in this book Alan has challenged our thinking, our vocabulary, and ‘hopefully our way of doing church in this century’ – particularly with the ‘Jesus yes, Church no’ generations. Thus we have the phenomenon again where more people are coming to faith in small informal groups but don't want the organized part of the religion to be part of the deal.

Alan has several things going for him. He’s read and digested the thinking of great missiologists like David Bosch. He was a missionary pastor – of an ‘alternative’ church: the ‘South Melbourne Resoration Community’. I’ve spoken at this church (‘church?’), and spent a weekend away with them. It was truly one of the rare communities of faith and hope which I could recommend to those on the ‘margins’.

He was also, later, a ‘denominational officer’ who tried to plant these ideas into the thinking and praxis of established churches, with, he says, mixed success. And he is now the founding director of the Forge Mission Training Network.

How do we discover our missional DNA (mDNA)? What caused the early churches to grow from 25,000 to 20 million in 200 years? How did the Chinese underground church grow from 2 million to over 100 million in sixty years despite considerable opposition, and without professional leaders, training facilities, or buildings?

Hirsch identifies six elements of Missional DNA:

· Jesus is Lord

· Disciple Making

· Missional-Incarnational Impulse

· Apostolic Environment

· Organic Systems

. Communitas

Wonderful principles, which are very hard to apply in practice. Why? My contention would be that the radicalization of family-units which imbibe a Western consumer culture with their muesli every day is a very challenging and difficult task. Parents want a ‘safe place’ for their children – in ‘church’, as everywhere else. They want peer-reinforcement of Christian faith and values for their teenagers. They look to the weekly gatherings of the Christian community to provide spiritual food for the journey, which in terms of work-stress or family-stresses may be a real battle. So they bring expectations ‘to church’ as they do to every other facet of their privileged lives.

Christian communities come in four varieties (as do commercial retail enterprises) – megachurches (= shopping malls), boutiques, franchises, and ‘parish churches’ (= corner stores). Many ‘emerging church’ folks I meet despise the megachurch model, but they shop at supermarkets, for convenience and to save time. They’re at home with technology – they have lots of powerpoint presentations, and audio-visual effects – but are (healthily) wary of multiplying committees and programs. Above all, they know that re-jigging the ‘ministry mix’ won’t bring life and health and peace to their community-of-faith. But on the other hand, they too can easily form ‘clubs-for-people-like-us’ and forget their missional mandate.

Alan Hirsch writes: ‘We cannot consume our way to discipleship.’. (On this see also Ron Sider’s ‘The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience’ and Robert Webber ‘Ancient Future Evangelism’). The alternative? A covenantal approach to discipleship.

We have in Alan Hirsch an idealist, who is also a pragmatist. There are many diagrams, and excellent footnotes for further study.

Alan Hirsch is coauthor, with Michael Frost, of The Shaping of Things to Come: Innovation and Mission for the 21st-Century Church. Another good read.


Another review

Rowland Croucher March 26, 2007


Alan Hirsch said...


you left communitas out of the six elements. Thanks for the review.

Rowland Croucher said...



Stan said...

Well, thanks for this review. I'll look into the other sites when I get some time. God bless you brother. It is interesting how the Chinese Church has grown. The true church always grows under persecution. Thanks also to Alan hirsch for the write.


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