Alan Hirsch, a native South African, is a prominent thought leader and conceptual architect for the missional church. His books, particularly The Forgotten Ways: Reactivating the Missional Church, published in 2006, and The Shaping of Things to Come: Innovation and Mission for the 21st-Century Church, originally published in 2003 and co-written with Michael Frost, but revised and updated in 2013, unpack ideas and concepts significant to the missional movement.
Len Sweet, who wrote the foreword to The Forgotten Ways, commented that Hirsch’s vision is to “restore Christianity’s original hard drive to its Apostolic Genius.” Much of Hirsch’s work focuses on missional ecclesiology, which he admits is a drab term but says is loaded with “dynamite” due to its ability to be the “most potent force for transformational change that the world has ever seen.” Hirsch mines the apostolic church for the missional DNA needed to move the church from institution back to movement, which he sees as the key to re-imagining the church for today. In late 2013, Hirsch spoke at Olivet Nazarene University for Pastor Appreciation Days. He was gracious enough to meet with Grace and Peace Magazine afterward and talk about his ideas. An edited* portion of the interview appears below. Video portions of this interview are available at www.graceandpeacemagazine.org. Those who value missional Christianity will be pleased to know that Hirsch has agreed to be a plenary speaker and workshop leader at Mission 2015 (M15) in Kansas City, Missouri, which takes place February 9-11, 2015.
This interview has accompanying videos. Please CLICK HERE to view the videos.
G&P: YOUR BOOK, THE FORGOTTEN WAYS, CALLS FOR REORIENTATION. HOW DID THE CHURCH GET SO FAR OFF TRACK?
HIRSCH: What I’m trying to do in The Forgotten Ways is look at the church in its form prior to Constantine (who was Roman Emperor in the fourth century), which fundamentally changed the way we think about ourselves. When you look at the movement prior to Constantine, it is a people movement with no real center or circumference. It’s expansive and growing—which is amazing for a persecuted movement. Later, Constantine marries spiritual power—or, the power of the church as it expanded—with the political power of the Roman Empire, which was beginning to wane at the time. By doing this, he turned the ship, so to speak. He institutionalized the church and gave it all the power it needed. Everyone in the empire was now formally Christian because, if you wanted to be anything in the Roman Empire, you had to be the same religion as the emperor. This reality fundamentally changed the way we think about ourselves. The church as institution reflects Constantine’s design, and he is still the emperor of our imaginations.
G&P: HOW DO WE NEED TO RETHINK OUR UNDERSTANDING OF CHURCH?
HIRSCH: What happened in the Reformation was a recalibration of our theology within the context of Christendom. The church was central to society and stood in a privileged place. New denominations were created—Lutherans, Calvinists, and others—but the Constantinian understanding of the church remained. What we need to do now is recalibrate our ecclesiology.
In a missional church discussion with key denominational leaders and theological educators in the Netherlands, I was asked to give a reflection on what they faced. I said, “In Europe, you’re on the edge of a precipice of the church’s demise.” Short of God’s intervention, within a generation, I think we’ll see biblical Christianity snuffed out in Europe as an effective force. It is already ineffective now. The leaders want the missional conversation to resolve their problems, but they are not willing to put their ecclesiology on the table. Why? Because, in this case, they are Reformed folks with deeply-scripted sixteenth-century codes on what constitutes the nature of the church. They are not willing to take a hard look at what blocks their capacity to be missional. I believe the church is essential, but as a historical and cultural entity, the church ought to be adaptive. The church, in every different time and place, ought to change. What we’ve failed to do in Europe or in the West is fundamentally alter the way we think of ourselves. We don’t even realize that the way we think of ourselves is not the original form. The original form was a movement, which is much more adaptive and fluid than what we experience now. The big recalibration in our day is with ecclesiology.
G&P: WHAT DO YOU SAY TO THOSE WHO ARE NEW TO THE MISSIONAL CONVERSATION, AND COME FROM A MORE TRADITIONAL BACKGROUND?
HIRSCH: One of the great rediscoveries of the last century is the doctrine of missio dei, which is the idea that God is a missionary God. If you think about it, the Father sending the Son demonstrates the word missio, right? The Father sends the Son, the Son himself is sent and is sending, and they both send the Spirit. The Spirit embodies a missionary spirit, which is intrinsic to who God is, and that Spirit empowers the church to extend that vision into the world. Our faithfulness to the local church, traditional or not, is measured by our capacity to extend the mission. If you receive the Christian message, that makes you a messenger—a person of good news. Being traditional or contemporary doesn’t matter as long as we align ourselves to the eternal purposes of God.
G&P: HOW DO WE KNOW WHEN WE ARE FAITHFUL TO THE MISSIONAL IDEAL?
HIRSCH: The best way is to ask, “What is my effect on those outside the church?” What would the world be like if we lived consistent with God’s will? Some people who look at the church don’t see an alternative society that’s worth living for. Second, I would look at a church’s budget. The majority of money, even in healthy churches, is spent on the inside. Even though most churches want to do mission, they seldom get around to it because of their own self-dynamics. It’s not about whether you’re traditional. You can be traditional and be missional. In every Western setting, the church is on the decline, not because people fail to believe in or love God, but because they no longer believe in the church. That’s the big issue. We need to allow the mission of God to determine our understanding of church. That’s missional ecclesiology. It’s not that we create the mission. God’s already in mission in the world. Our job is to join God.
G&P: WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO A WOULD-BE MISSIONAL PASTOR IN A PLATEAUED OR DECLINING CHURCH?
HIRSCH: Look at the early church or modern China, both having few resources, yet every believer carried within them a virtue of the gospel and the power of the Holy Spirit. They carried the potential for world transformation. If you were the last believer in the world, the only one, I assume God could create the church out of you alone. The Holy Spirit is capable of using you. Look at the metaphor of the seed: With a seed, we have the potential for a tree and then a forest. The only conclusion you can draw is that people with less capacity, less education, and fewer resources manage to pull it off. The answer is not more resources but empowering people to become who God intends them to be. Every congregation has innovative people who can take ideas and improve them. You just need to identify them and use their energies. The way to tip an organization toward change is to disciple such people because business as usual is not going to pull it off. Discipleship is the key, but it’s not a short-term solution.
G&P: WHAT ARE THE KEY PRACTICES TO IMPLEMENT TO CREATE A MISSIONAL MOVEMENT?
HIRSCH: First, get together with others who are in tune with the need for change. God is activating and awakening people across the Western world to the calling of the church. Find those people and compare notes. Get a good book, read and discuss it together, and get under the hood of the way we think about church. Decide how you’re going to come together and dethrone Constantine. We’ve got to think differently about ourselves and give space to do that, Bible in hand. As leaders, we need to get new imaginations and develop good processes for change. I tried to be sensitive to change processes in a book I wrote with Dave Ferguson— who is a kind of mega-church, multisite, church-planting guy—called On the Verge. I come at this as a kind of grassroots geek, trying to activate the church from the bottom up.
G&P: IN A MISSIONAL MOVEMENT, WHAT IS THE ROLE OF DENOMINATIONAL STRUCTURES?
HIRSCH: That’s a big question. Research says denominationalism is becoming less and less important to people. Denominations were formed in a different time, within a Christendom framework, when most Christians asked, “What kind of Christian are you?” The challenge for denominations today is to capture hearts and minds rather than coordinate people. Room must be made for innovators, and even mavericks. They provide needed energies and alternative capacities within a system. Their voices must be heard, and their loss—in any organization—can be devastating. Your church plants are your children. Your mission projects are your potentiality, and if you don’t have any, you don’t have a future.
Think of the Church of England’s failure to embrace John Wesley’s reforms. That was a disaster for the Anglicans, right? It would have meant renewal for the whole Church of England if he had been allowed to advance such reforms throughout the church. If denominations want life in the future, they have to invest in such renewal and reform. At the same time, an institution can provide stability, structure, and sustainability that is hard to reproduce on one’s own. As a man who’s lived mostly in maverick land, it’s not an easy place to be. If you can integrate the energies of the innovators and mavericks within an institution, that’s the best solution, but it’s never easy.
G&P: WHAT DO YOU SEE AS THE ROLE OF THE CHRISTIAN UNIVERSITY IN SHAPING THE FUTURE OF THE MISSIONAL CHURCH?
HIRSCH: I’m in a conversation now with an organization that helps universities digitize their material. Brick-andmortar buildings are expensive, so traditional education needs to be rethought, and one solution is to democratize content and develop online programs. People don’t want to pay $80,000 to get a degree and not get a job. Universities need to fundamentally rethink their systems. The idea of education is still viable, and there’s a global market out there, if you’re willing to rethink the way you do it. There’s no reason online programs couldn’t have the same outcomes, in terms of having a Christian identity and theology or Christian worldview reflected in the material. If people are doing it online to build cohorts that are regional, then you can add additional value. There’s a lot of ways to make education better, and we need to be willing to put that on the table in the same way as our ecclesiology and say, “semper reformanda.” In other words, the church ought always to be reforming, according to the will of God.
G&P: THE MISSIONAL MOVEMENT HAS BEEN AROUND FOR A WHILE. SHARE SOME NEW DEVELOPMENTS.
HIRSCH: Ten years ago, people like me were run out of town. But now the idea has been adopted, and the message has matured significantly. One of the big challenges is to bring substance to what we mean by missional, and to align our practices. Our theology must inform our methodology, and that’s been a challenge. We’ve been fundamentally shaped by how the church functions within the context of Christendom. Recalibrating takes work and a lot of reimagining. Even though we think missionally, our practice may not match. When this is the case, most Americans are going to say, “I’m not interested,” even if they are interested in God, Jesus, and spirituality. Despite helpful advances of the church-planting movement, we still don’t know how to do incarnational ministry. What does it mean to identify deeply with a people group and communicate in ways that connect and are meaningful? You can’t take a one-model-fits-all approach and then impose that on a big scale. We have to learn how to contextualize the church in different settings and be brave enough to unpack what that means and what it takes. Also, I would say we need the reintegration of a five-fold ministry (which is the development of apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds, teachers found in Ephesians 4) to save a missional ministry for a missional church. We still fundamentally operate on the idea of the pastor-and-teacher model. Now most people are willing to take the journey, but our system has not yet caught up with it. We train people to be pastors and teachers, but we need missionaries and prophets and people who can speak to other issues as well.
G&P: UNPACK WHAT YOU MEAN BY THE FIVE-FOLD MINISTRY MODEL. YOU’VE SAID ELSEWHERE THERE IS NO SILVER BULLET, BUT IF THERE WAS ONE, IS THIS IT?
HIRSCH: I think I said it’s a silver bullet because, actually, it is within the leverage of leadership to institute this. It must be done wisely, not overnight. We can get our theologians working on re-legitimizing this. So it’s clearly a part of the Scriptures, and all the arguments put forth against the idea of it carry no intellectual weight at all. They are fabrications. The Bible itself does not suggest that the apostolic or prophetic or evangelistic gifts will cease. Nowhere does it suggest that, yet we’ve held to that script for a long time. Because they’re nonstatus- quo ministries, they’ve been iced. They’ve been put out to pasture, or exiled. So to mature as a church and to be the church Jesus intended is directly related to the five-fold ministry of developing apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds, and teachers. Now, I take it out of the charismatic conversation, which inevitably leads to power and super leaders and the like. I don’t believe that’s what it’s about at all. It’s about the functions of the church.
Apostles are the “sent ones” who extend the gospel. They ensure that the faith is transmitted from one context to another and from generation to generation. The Greek word apostello is the same as the word mission or missional. One’s Latin; one’s Greek. Since when do we prefer Latin to Greek? Apostello, apostolic is the word we’re talking about, being a sent church and what it means to participate in the sent-ness. That’s the apostle’s function.
The prophet is really the person who calls the church to faithfulness—a covenant keeper, mainly concerned with our relationship with God—and makes sure the church remains faithful to God. How can we remain faithful as a church without prophetic voices? Now, they say uncomfortable things—hard things, at times—but without them, you can’t in the long term be a faithful people. We need them.
Evangelists recruit people to a cause, right? They are the infectious people. If you want to grow, you need evangelists. You’re not going to grow without them. Why wouldn’t you want them in your church?
You need shepherds because shepherds create harmony and reconciliation and wholeness and community. You need that. Otherwise, church is not a pleasant experience, right? We need shepherds to humanize us.
But you can’t just run on shepherds. You need teachers to help us understand and bring wisdom and understanding, to connect the dots and see what other people perceive, to hand over ideas across generations and people groups.
All five are needed to be the kind of church envisioned in Ephesians 4:12-16, which is a church that’s not tossed around by every wind of doctrine, not whimsical, not capricious. Rather, it is connected, mature, achieving the fullness of Christ, and connected to Christ overall. You can’t do it without the five-fold ministry of Ephesians 4, so we need to find our way back to that.
G&P: RICHARD STERNS, PRESIDENT OF WORLD VISION, WRITES IN HIS BOOK THE HOLE IN OUR GOSPEL THAT SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY IS A CORE ELEMENT OF OUR IDENTITY AS CHRISTIANS. HOW DOES THAT FIT WITH WHAT YOU’RE TALKING ABOUT?
HIRSCH: A lot of Protestant theology was about what we call soteriology—how are we saved and how we deal with our guilt before God. I believe that’s vital and true and still abides, of course, because it’s part of the gospel. But I think we’ve over-focused on that, and we’ve reduced the gospel simply to covenantal dynamics. We need to recover what it means to be part of a kingdom. Kingdom and covenant are the heartbeat, the warp and woof of Scripture, and they should be structured around the notion of the sovereignty of the kingship of God, particularly God’s rule in and through God’s people, as well as the covenant relationship that God has established with us. God has bonded himself to us in Jesus Christ, and we can trust that bond. But the loss of kingdom theology has caused us to lose our capacity to be a kingdom people. We don’t know what it looks like to be a people who live a different way. The notion of a just society under the final rule—this is Revelation 20, when God rules and it’s finally complete. There will be no more tears, no more brokenness; all things will be healed. That’s what we’re meant to live now. The church is a sign, symbol, and foretaste of the kingdom of God, and I think justice, mercy, evangelism, witness—all these things fit within that fabric. The fact that many Protestants have bound themselves only to covenant theology is a reduction of the gospel. The gospel is the gospel of the King and the kingdom, and the two are bound together. Ultimately Jesus will be all in all. In Colossians and Ephesians, it gives the picture of Jesus when he rules completely, and everything will be bound together in harmony. He heals our universe. That’s kingdom language, folks. I think we need to recover that mostly, and that would make some sense out of the hole in our gospel. The gospel is much bigger than we’ve made it.
G&P: WHAT DO YOU CONSIDER THE MOST IMPORTANT TAKEAWAY FROM YOUR WRITING AND SPEAKING?
HIRSCH: The biggest secret weapon in God’s hands is God’s people. When everyone is in the game and gets to play, we can change the world. And we become a good people. We have to be willing to take the journey of what it means to be a movement again, to be the kind of church Jesus intended us to be. The church Jesus intended is for world transformation, and we have all the capacities Jesus has given us to get the job done. So let’s do whatever we can to activate God’s people into the equation, and then the magic can all happen again.
This interview has accompanying videos. Please CLICK HERE to view the videos.