The Forgotten Ways (A Review)

Alan Hirsch recently posted on facebook this insightful review by David Mays of his book “The Forgotten Ways“. Not only is this a great book. This is a great review. For those of you who have not read the book, this gives you a great framework of it’s content. Enjoy (then go buy the book):


Alan Hirsch grew up in South Africa, from a Jewish background, was apparently part of the party scene, had a radical conversion, went to seminary, pastored a bunch of radical fringe Christians in the red light and drug district of South Melbourne, led this alternative style church into a consumerist model, reconfigured it for mission, worked for renewal in his denomination, started Forge Mission Training Network, and wrote The Shaping of Things to Come: Innovation and Mission for the 21st Century Church. Hirsch sees himself as a missionary to the West.

The church is on a massive, long-trended decline in the West. It is facing a major adaptive challenge but it is stuck in an institutional paradigm that does not work for most of the post-Christian world. It must adopt a missionary stance in relation to its cultural contexts or face increasing decline.

Section One. The Making of a Missionary (Background of His Experience)

The early church expanded from an estimated 24,000 Christians in 100 AD to perhaps 20 million Christians in 310 AD, even though they were illegal, had no buildings, no N.T. Scriptures, or professional leaders, and they made it hard to join the church. (18-19) Similar movements happened with the Methodists in the 1800s and the Pentecostal movement and the Chinese church in the 1900s. How did they do it?

Hirsch posits that God’s people carry within themselves the same potencies that energized the early Christian movement but we have simply forgotten how to access and trigger it. The book attempts to formulate a missional paradigm for the church, incorporating elements that could reignite a transformative Jesus movement in the West. (22, 26)

“All great missionary movements begin at the fringes of the church, among the poor and the marginalized, and seldom, if ever, at the center. It is vital that in pursuing missional modes of church, we get out of the stifling equilibrium of the center of our movements and denominations, move to the fringes, and engage in real mission there. … when the church engages at the fringes, it almost always brings life to the center.” (30)

“The church with the best programs and the ‘sexiest’ appeal tends to get more customers.” However, “We plainly cannot consume our way into discipleship. All of us must become much more active in the equation of becoming lifelong followers of Jesus.” (45)

“The movement that Jesus initiated was an organic people movement, not a religious institution. This must seep into our imaginations and reinform all our practices. (54)

Ralph Winter introduced the concept of cultural distance, the number of cultural barriers to a meaningful engagement with the gospel. Barriers could be race, history, religion/worldview, culture, language, etc. An increasingly small percentage of people are in the 0-1 range, that is, “our culture.” Almost all our attempts to communicate the gospel are now cross-cultural! (58) People now identify themselves less by … much less grand stories: interest groups, new religious movements, sexual identity, sports activities, class, conspicuous consumption, work types, etc. “Each of them takes their subcultural identity with utmost seriousness, and hence any missional response to them must as well.” However, the average church tends to be reasonably effective only within its own cultural reference. (61) The vast majority of people are more than one barrier removed and we must adopt a sending approach rather than an attractional one. “People will come to faith in small, intimate communities of friends but generally don’t want the organized-religion part of the deal.” (63)

The church needs a fundamental change, a major realignment, to become genuinely missional. “It is time to (re)discover a new story of the church and its mission.” (66)

Hirsch introduces mDNA (missional DNA), the central complex of guiding ideas, phenomena, structures, and experiences that made the phenomenal Jesus movements effective. The real future of Western Christianity resides in fledgling unorganized groups and movements that carry mDNA.

Section Two: A Journey to the Heart of Apostolic Genius

The remainder of the book describes the various aspects of Apostolic Genius, the primal energy, the spiritual current that thrusts its way through the tiny faith communities that transformed the world in the early church. Like the biological cell, every local church has latent Apostolic Genius, the aggregate of all the elements of mDNA. Organic missional movements organize through healthy mDNA coding vs. by external hierarchy.

Definition of missional church: “…a community of God’s people that defines itself, and organizes its life around, its real purpose of being an agent of God’s mission to the world. In other words, the church’s true and authentic organizing principle is mission.” (82)

According to Hirsch there are six foundational elements of mDNA: Jesus is Lord, Disciple Making, Missional-Incarnational Impulse, Apostolic Environment, Organic Systems, and Communitas (not community). He devotes one chapter to each.

3. The Heart of it All: Jesus is Lord

At the heart of all great movements is an essential conception of who Jesus is and what he does. They are literally Jesus movements. Jesus plays an absolutely central role. Our connection to God is through Jesus. This is what makes us distinctly Christ-ian. “At its very heart, Christianity is therefore a messianic movement, one that seeks to consistently embody the life, spirituality, and mission of its Founder.” (94) There can be no non-God areas in our lives. By committing all of our lives under Jesus, we live out true holiness. (97) “‘Jesus is Lord’ is a radical claim, one that is ultimately rooted in questions of allegiance, of ultimate authority, of the ultimate norm and standard for human life. Instead, Christianity has often sought to ally itself comfortably with allegiance to other authorities, be they political, economic, cultural, or ethnic.” (99) A very primitive, unencumbered Christology lies at the heart of the renewal of the church.

4. Disciple Making

The essential task of discipleship is to embody the message of Jesus because the purpose of the church is to draw people to Christ and make them like Christ. If we fail in this point we fail in all others. This is where Jesus invested his time and energy–the foundation of the whole Christian movement–in selecting and discipling his band of followers.

Neil Cole says of the early period of Church Multiplication Associates, “‘We want to lower the bar of how church is done and raise the bar of what it means to be a disciple.’ Their rationale was that if the experience of church was simple enough that just about anyone can do it, and is made up of people who have taken up their cross and follow Jesus at any cost, the result will be a movement that empowers the common Christian to do the uncommon works of God. ‘Churches will become healthy, fertile and reproductive.’ If this is right, then many of our current practices seem to be the wrong way around…we seem to make church complex and discipleship too easy.” (104)

The major threat to the viability of our faith is that of consumerism because in so many ways it infects each and every one of us. Consumerism is a very significant religious phenomenon because advertising offers a sense of identity, purpose, meaning, and community–which is what religion offers. “Marketers have now co-opted the language and symbolism of all the major religions…because they know that religion offers the ultimate object of desire and that people will do just about anything to get it.” (107) “In dealing with consumerism we are dealing with an exceedingly powerful enemy propagated by a very sophisticated media machine.” (109)

Until the Enlightenment, church played the dominant role in western culture. However, it was pushed out by the following forces:

  • • Capitalism and the free market emerged as the mediator of value.
  • • The nation-state emerged as the mediator of protection and provision.
  • • Science emerged as the mediator of truth and understanding. (108)

“…the church is forced into the role of being little more than a vendor of religious goods and services. … Church growth exponents have explicitly taught us how to market and tailor the product to suit target audiences. … In the end the medium has so easily overwhelmed the message. … Most people are profoundly susceptible to the idolatrous allure of money and things.” “…if we don’t disciple people, the culture sure will.” (110-11)

“The quality of the church’s leadership is directly proportional to the quality of discipleship.” “Discipleship is primary; leadership is always secondary. And leadership, to be genuinely Christian, must always reflect Christlikeness and therefore…discipleship.” (119) Jesus does discipleship in the context of mission. All great people movements engage the newest convert in mission from the start. (120)

5. Missional-Incarnational Impulse

“Mission means ‘sending,’ and it is the central biblical theme describing the purpose of God’s action in human history.” (129, quoting Darrell Guder). God is a missionary God and the church is a sent (missionary) people. The genuine missional impulse is sending rather than attracting. (129)

Incarnational, as in Jesus, includes presence, proximity, powerlessness, and proclamation. (132) Our way of reaching the world should likewise be incarnational, including a genuine identification and affinity with those we are attempting to reach. (133) This means fitting seamlessly into the ordinary rhythms of life, friendships, and community, thus becoming contextualized. (135) “What we then get are communities of faith that form an actual part of the culture they inhabit as well as are themselves missional.” (139)

“It is Christ who determines our purpose and mission in the world, and then it is our mission that must drive our search for modes of being-in-the-world.” (143) “Start with the Church and the mission will probably get lost. Start with mission and it is likely that the Church will be found.” (143, quoting Graham Cray). “The early Christians were not focused on the church but rather on following Jesus and doing His mission, and the church emerged from that.” (143, quoting Robinson and Smith, Invading Secular Space)

“Anywhere people gather for social reasons could be a good place for missional engagement.” (145)

6. Apostolic Environment

“Apostolic leadership…is always present in periods of significant missional extension.” (151) “Without apostolic ministry the church either forgets its high calling or fails to implement it successfully. … If we really want missional church, then we must have a missional leadership system to drive it–it’s that simple.” (152)

The apostle is the custodian of Apostolic Genius: that is, the person who imparts and embeds mDNA. (153) This person has three functions: 1) to embed mDNA through pioneering, 2) to guard the mDNA by application and integration, ensuring the churches remain true to the gospel, and 3) to create the environment, or provide the reference point, for other ministries. (155-57) “Apostolic ministry calls forth and develops the gifts and callings of all of God’s people. It does not create reliance but develops the capacities of the whole people of God based on the dynamics of the gospel.” (164)

7. Organic Systems

“All of life bears God’s creative fingerprints, and he has filled every aspect of it with intrinsic vitality and intelligence. The cosmos itself seems to operate in a profoundly intelligent way…. From atoms to stars, every aspect of creation points to an unbelievably intelligent and utterly powerful Being and looks to him for its ongoing reality and existence….” (180-81)

“A living systems approach seeks to structure the common life of an organization around the rhythms and structures that mirror life itself.” (182) “…church must structure itself around the natural ebb and flow of the believer’s life. Existing relationships with believers and nonbelievers alike become the very fabric of the church.” (185) “Structures are needed but they must be simple, reproducible and internal rather than external.” (Neil Cole) “The function of leadership is to grow structure, not impose it.” (186)

Established institutions resist a movement ethos. It’s just too chaotic and uncontrollable. Institutionalism keeps us from fully becoming ourselves as the people of God. (194-5) “We need to let go of a static model of church that is based primarily on congregation, programs, and buildings. In its place we need to develop a notion of Christian community…which…is more flexible, adaptive, and responsive to change.” (199)

“Organic multiplication begins a whole lot slower than addition, but in the end it is infinitely more effective.” (209) “In a sense the gospel, too, travels like a virus. It is ‘sneezed’ and then passed on through further sneezing from one person to the other. All that is needed are the right conditions and the appropriate relationships into which we can ‘sneeze.'” (211)

8. Communitas, not community

“Middle-class” generally involves a preoccupation with safety and security, especially for our children. Throw in consumerism and we get an obsession with comfort and convenience. This is not a good mix for spreading the gospel and missional church. (219) In Hirsch’s experience in South Melbourne the church moved from “me for the community and the community for the world,” (communitas) to the more consumer oriented “the community for me.” (220)

Christian community as we know it has become little more than a quiet and reflective soul-space for people. Communitas happens when we are pushed out of our normal safe zones and put in situations of disorientation, marginalization, and challenge, such as happens on a short-term mission trip. Hirsch claims this is to be the normative situation for God’s people.

Mission is the organizing principle. Only groups that start out to do mission actually do it. “If evangelizing and discipling the nations lie at the heart of the church’s purpose in the world, then it is mission [to outsiders], and not ministry [to insiders], that is the true organizing principle of the church.” (135)

“Experience tells us that a church that aims at ministry seldom gets to mission even if it sincerely intends to do so. But the church that aims at mission will have to do ministry, because ministry is the means to do mission. Our services, our ministries, need a greater cause to keep them alive and give them their broader meaning.” (236)

“One of the most missional things that a church community could do is simply to get out of their buildings and go to where the people are–and be God’s redeemed people in that place in a way that invites people into the equation!” (240) The journey itself is important; the risk and adventure is good for the soul. “We need to hit the road again. We are the people of the Way….” (241)

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About Brandon Hatmaker

Church Planter, Missional Strategist, Non-Profit Collaborator, and Author of "Barefoot Church: Serving the Least in a Consumer Culture". View all posts by Brandon Hatmaker

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