Saturday, February 13, 2010

Radically Rethinking the Church

Written by Don Williams   
Wednesday, 23 January 2008

I have recently met a quiet, intense radical Christian, Alan Hirsch, who wants to dismantle 1600 years of church history by reconfiguring the church as mission rather than the church as community extending or promoting mission. While this doesn't sound dramatic and seems to follow a whole line of current thinking on the church as a missional community, I assure you that Hirsch will not support most of the hip thinking on this subject today. So here we go, reviewing his book The Forgotten Ways.  We may have more to say on as this conversation continues. Stay tuned and join in. First Response, January 2008

Radically Rethinking the Church with Alan Hirsch


I have recently met a quiet, intense radical Christian, Alan Hirsch, who wants to dismantle 1600 years of church history by reconfiguring the church as mission rather than the church as community extending or promoting mission. While this doesn't sound dramatic and seems to follow a whole line of current thinking on the church as a missional community, I assure you that Hirsch will not support most of the hip thinking on this subject today. So here we go, reviewing his book The Forgotten Ways.  We may have more to say on as this conversation continues. Stay tuned and join in.

Personal Context

Who is Alan Hirsch? He is Australian by birth, Jewish in background, a church planter and a major force in rethinking the nature of the Church and its missional purpose in the world. He begins by tracing some of his own journey. His conviction is that most of what the church does today, traditional and contemporary, is far from Jesus' intension and model.

Historical Context

The early church was Christocentric, missional, decentralized, networked and flexible, penetrating and transforming individuals and structures in the Roman Empire until the Constantinian Establishment in the early 4th Century. Up until then persecution kept the church simple and committed, it necessarily lived close to the cross and had “the feel of a movement.” With Constantine it was legitimized and politicized. As a result it became institutionalized with top-down leadership operating in an authority structure of “command and control.” Thus the church has lived out her life as an extension of Constantine's radical change from organism to organization, from networked, relational communities to legally connected institutions, from mission penetrating the world (a Jesus Movement) to ministry maintaining the flock, etc.

In so far as we see the church today with centralized authoritarian structures we are Constantinian rather than Apostolic. As we picture the church, Constantine continues to be “the emperor of our imaginations.” (66) This has led to its slow erosion in the West. No simple tweaking of the structure will reverse this. “Seeker friendly” and “Emerging, post-modern churches” are still Constantinian. They pursue mission from a central commitment to building the church on an attractional model: gaining new members through comfortable facilities, dynamic leaders, contemporary worship, cultural relevancy, programs for every age group, need responsive services, social concern and even convenient parking. The goal of this philosophy of ministry is to build a church. Mission becomes an extension of an authoritarian, centralized community where peoples' needs are addressed and satisfied. 

From a sheer statistical and sociological analysis, these churches have little impact beyond themselves and no impact across multicultural and multiethnic lines. Therefore, Hirsch calls us to a radical restructuring of our theology and ministry (dethroning Constantine) if we are going to touch today's un-churched masses. The shift from the modern to the post-modern world poses a “significant adaptive challenge” to the church. Current responses leave prevailing assumptions about the church's mission intact. These need to be challenged. We need a new story of the church and its mission. We need to replace Constantine with a “fundamentally alternative imagination.” We must go back to Jesus himself.

Contemporary Context

First, we are subject to a dualistic spirituality, which separates the sacred from the secular. Religion is privatized with a “church-based” deity. This results in practical polytheism with different gods over different spheres of life (Christ is not functionally Lord of all). Second, we live in a consumer culture where “much of that which goes by the name advertising is an explicit offer of a sense of identity, meaning, purpose and community,” (107) the very things the church once offered. Now capitalism and the free marked mediate value. The nation-state mediates protection and provision and science mediates truth and understanding.

In our consumer society “it's easy to see how 'church shopping,' ecstatic worship experiences, and even Christian spirituality can come to reflect the consumerization of faith.” (109) “...the church is forced into the role of being little more than a vendor of religious goods and services.” (110) “Christendom, operating as it does in the attractional mode and run by professionals, was already susceptible to consumerism, but under the influence of contemporary church growth practice, consumerism has actually become the driving ideology of the church's ministry.” “I have come to the dreaded conclusion that we simply cannot consume our way into discipleship.” (110) Hirsch warns, “Don't just make the service and spirituality suit a post-modern audience, start at another place – put the M (mission) in the equation first.” (72)


There must be a fundamental return to the New Testament church and a consequent change in priorities. This begins with the surrender of the traditional church model, which is: Christology produces ecclesiology, which produces missiology (Or Christ comes and builds his church which then moves out in mission.). The New Testament church model must replace this: Christology produces missiology, which produces ecclesiology (Or Christ comes and moves out in mission which then creates communities to serve that mission). This produces church structures, which are flexible, organic, relative and accommodating to the changing cultural context of mission. The missional church forms communities within the social fabric of those it is trying to reach, which are relative to that fabric.

The heart of the Christian faith is “Christocentric monotheism” realigning our loyalties “to God around the person and work of Jesus Christ.” (93) Jesus’ movement is a messianic movement. Discipleship, his central priority, means, “constantly embody(ing) the life, spirituality and mission of its Founder.”  “It will mean taking the (Four) Gospels seriously as the primary texts that define us.” We are to act like Jesus to those outside the faith. (94) Simple Christology has the capacity to rapidly transfer the message along relational lines. It makes the gospel “sneezable” (releasing a good infection). God always works at the fringes of society, which then brings life to the center. Christology defines all that we do: “Jesus Christ, friend of outcasts.”

Every Christian has “apostolic genius” implanted in him or her waiting to be released. Hirsch writes, “Apostolic Genius is the phrase I developed to try to conceive and articulate that unique energy and force that imbues phenomenal Jesus movements in history.” (274) He defines this as “the total phenomenon resulting from a complex of multiform and real experiences of God, types of expressions, organizational structures, leadership ethos, spiritual power, mode of belief, etc.” Like each human cell carrying our DNA, we all have direct access to the full missional apostolic coding, mDNA. We need to reach inside and find it. This includes five essentials for the New Testament church. 

First - disciple making. Here is our fundamental failure. The consumer, attractional church is unable to do this. [I might also add because it carries a large dose of codependency within its leadership.] The medium always becomes the message: the consumer church necessarily makes more passive consumers.   Consumerism and discipleship are at odds. “Both aim at the mastery over our lives.”(110) “Jesus’ [discipleship] strategy is to get a whole lot of little versions of him infiltrating every nook and cranny of society by reproducing himself in and through his people.” (113) The church is to provide “inspirational leadership.” “The quality of the church's leadership is directly proportional to the quality of discipleship.” (119) 

Second - missional-incarnational impulse. “Any church that adopts a missional-incarnational impulse has moved closer to being an authentic Jesus Movement.” (76) Jesus organizes discipleship around mission. “Straightway they [his disciples] are involved in proclaiming the kingdom of God, serving the poor, healing and casting out demons. It is active and direct disciple making in the context of mission.” “Jesus selects a band of disciples, lives his life with them, ministers with them and mentors them... We should not think that we could generate authentic disciples in any other way.” (120)

The evangelistic-attractional model of church obscures Mission. It blocks the outward-bound movement built into the gospel. Incarnational mission includes presence, proximity, powerlessness (servant-hood – love and humility) and proclamation. We are a “message tribe” which is thoroughly contextualized. We take the church to the people rather than bring people to church. “We must seek to develop genuine Jesus communities in the midst of people – an actual functioning part of the existing culture and life of that people group.” (140) “Because it respects the culture and the integrity of a people group, missional-incarnational practice enhances the relational fabric of a given host culture.” (141) “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) Groups that come together around a non-missional purpose never become missional. (233) “To forget mission is to forget ourselves.” (237) “One of the most missional things that a church community could do is simply to get out of their buildings and go to where people are.” (240)

Third - Apostolic environment. Apostolic leadership is measured by the effect it has on the social environment in which it operates as it extends the Christian faith. “The apostolic leader...embodies, symbolizes and re-presents the apostolic mission to the missional community. Furthermore, he or she calls forth and develops the gifts and callings of God's people.” (152) Apostolic leaders are “the custodian of apostolic genius.” They move the church from maintenance to mission. They pioneer new ground, guard apostolic theology, network churches, traversing between them, and create an environment in which other ministries emerge. Apostles inspire followers to become leaders in their own right. Their “greatness is to inspire greatness in others.” They provide inspirational leadership rather than transactional leadership (top-down management of staff and resources for an exchange of value). They invite others into a dance that is being choreographed as it is performed. This contrasts with institutional systems that confer social power and concentrate it at the top. “Besides, the servant/slave image of leadership (dis)qualifies all forms of top-down leadership and establishes the bottom-up servant approach.” (165)

Fourth - Organic Systems. Traditionally churches organize around static, mechanistic, institutional paradigm. Roles are managerial for those who “run a church.” But living systems have rhythms and structures, which mirror life itself. All living things have an aptitude for survival, adaptation and reproduction. Information brings change: all living systems respond to information. God's people have everything they need to adapt and thrive in any setting. Missional leadership brings various elements of the system into meaningful relationship, moves the system to deal with the real issues facing it, select the flow of information to help the community respond to the church's primary narrative in the Four Gospels and embrace its core tasks in its essential cultural and social contexts. “Existing relationships with believers and nonbelievers alike become the very fabric of the church.” 

The early church was “pre-institutional.”  “Structures are needed, but they must be simple, reproducible and internal rather than external.” Institutionalization takes on a life of its own. It fails to serve the mission. Centralized authority creates a culture of restraint and dependency where members fail to take responsibility for their own growth or reaching others. Reproducibility needs to be built into the initiating model, setting out to plant reproducing churches. The attractional church model is “simply not reproducible – at least not by the vast majority of average Christians.” (215)

Fifth - Communitas not Community. Communitas is the fellowship of the journey, the road, in the context of danger and a common purpose outside of itself. In China “The Spirit of Jesus activated it in the context of chaos and adaptive challenge.” (78) The middle class wants safety, security, comfort and convenience. It promotes the “gather and amuse” impulse of church growth. (220) But communitas and its companion “liminality” (African tribes taking their youth into adulthood through disorienting rites of passage) “describe the dynamics of the Christian community inspired to overcome their instincts to “huddle and cuddle.” (221) Communitas and liminality denote a dangerous journey, disorientation and marginalization into the unknown. “Liminality and communitas are more the normative situation and condition of the pilgrim people of God.” (222)


“The challenge is not to direct living systems, but to disturb them in a manner that approximates the desired outcome and then for leadership to try and focus the intention by the use of meaning and vision. This process of disturbing the system is a critical function of leadership. It is about creating conditions in which change, adaptation and innovation will take place.” (232-233) “The future is a means to alter behavior.” We are to “manage from the future.” This pulls us out of comfort into chaos, the “now and not yet tension” of the kingdom. 

For myself, I was converted through Young Life, which was (and is) missional at its core. I immediately became an evangelist to my friends because this was the way I understood the Christian life. Along the way I lost a good part of this replacing reaching the lost with pastoring the found. But during the Jesus Movement in the late 1960's reaching the lost again became my passion. I later found that this was John Wimber's heart as well. Now, in the latter days of my life, I am rethinking the whole thing once again. I will have more to share about this in the future as I and we live out the “now and not yet tension” of the kingdom together.


  1. Great summary dude. This book is def a must read.

  2. A very good summary of Hirsch's "The Forgotten Ways." I've read most of his work, have heard him speak, and this captures his basic message; but Hirsch, Michael Frost, are in a long line of leaders/thinkers who promote what some call the "Radical Reformation", such as Howard Snyder and Jim Rutz. I think we are living in an era of the maturing of our understanding of these matters. thanks for the good summary

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