Sunday, May 11, 2008

Book Review: The Forgotten Ways by Alan Hirsch

After too much time of toggling back and forth between several books, I have finally finished one. Alan Hirsch's book The Forgotten Ways: Reactivating the Missional Church is a remarkable book and worthwhile read for any follower of Jesus. After a stellar debut with The Shaping of Things to Come co-written with Michael Frost, I was skeptical that this book would have anything new to contribute. I was please to find out that my skepticism was misplaced.

Hirsch and Frost have travelled the world (particularly the post-Christian west) in search of Jesus movements that are actually connecting with those that do not yet know or follow the ways of Jesus. They combine their extensive travels and interviews with diverse reading in sociology, theology, and missiology. Their gleanings about the church in a post-Christian context became the stuff of The Shaping of Things to Come. In Forgotten Ways, Hirsch takes a step back at the macro-picture and looks at large-scale, dynamic movements of Jesus. Through the telling of his own experience with church planting in Melbourne, he indicates that a focus on starting a church is already a limiting/confining focus. He repeatedly references to two movements that created an impact for beyond what one church could do. The early church and the church in China during the last 50 years are the two movements that he points to as illustrating the dynamics of a movement. Hirsch argues that movements of these proportions have some characteristics that are vital in seeing a movement of Jesus happen.

Hirsch's overall analysis is spot-on, the church in the west (and most of the world) has lost its movement essence and has morphed into an institution that is remarkably similar to any other institution. "I have come to the unnerving conclusion that God's people are more potent by far when they have little of what we would recognize as church institution in their life together." (Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways, 23)

The traditional church (and many contemporary and even emerging churches) is stuck in an attractional posture. That is, the church has a "come to us" mentality, particularly centered around a service. There is a big effort to make the service appealing to its costumer base through music, preaching style, and programs. Evangelism is centered around trying to get non-believers to enter the doors of the church building so that they may hear the good news of Jesus expressed. This has been the dominant approach for the last seventeen centuries, even though there are many incredible and beautiful exceptions to this, it should be acknowledged as the default approach. In the past this approach has had some success in places where there was a spiritual vacuum or where institutional Christianity was highly honored and appreciated. It is rare to find contexts like those anymore. In fact, the failure of the church in reaching those who don't yet follow Jesus is clearly evident (for relevant statistical quotes see the appendix below).

This is contrasted with a missional posture, where the church proceeds outward to the world. This posture takes more literally the wording of the Great Commission to "go" and make disciples of Jesus all over the world. In other words, the church is going to people that don't know Jesus instead of waiting for them to come to their opulent, multi-functional church "campuses".

Hirsch retraces the story of his own efforts in Melbourne where a community of believers were introducing new people to Jesus in a post-Christian setting. Due to a more attractional and non-movement orientation, this church soon became latest, hippest spiritual hotspot. The outward motion morphed into an inward motion.

In The Forgotten Ways, Hirsch describes the features he sees as foundational to a Jesus movement. These features are chapter titles:

  • The Heart of It All: Jesus is Lord
  • Disciple Making
  • Missional-Incarnational Impulse
  • Apostolic Environment
  • Organic Systems
  • Communitas, not Community

In these chapters some rich material is explored and proffered. Hirsch's wide range of reading is impressive and helpful in offering well-rounded ideas. There are points when the idea sounds good, but one wonders if it is really possible. The early church and China each had unique characteristics which catalyzed these extraordinary movements. The soil in those two places were ready for lush growth, but not every context has the type of soil to sustain a movement. Another aspect that receives little attention is the local cultural context. The local cultural context may present obstacles to these different characteristics that may prove challenging. There is a tension in acknowledging the universal characteristics of a Jesus movement and allowing the good news to root itself deeply in each culture.

In essence, I don't challenge any of these characteristics, in fact, I applaud them. But I do sometimes feel like the language has a sense that if we just get the right ingredients together, we can sit back and watch incredible things grow. I get the same sense from a number of different people and groups (especially in the missional stream of the emerging church movement) that emphasize organic growth (for other examples see Neil Cole's Organic Church
or Christian Schwarz's Natural Church Development). Once again, I don't disagree with most of what is being stated. I am very much a proponent of understanding and practicing church more organically and less institutionally. It is mainly with that which is lacking in these books that I struggle. It is an amazing amount of continual work that is required in seeing this kind of incredible growth. At our house we just had grass put in our yard. I am no gardener (I am 100% city boy, hence the name of the blog), so when the grass sod was laid I thought, "awesome, I'll just watch that grass take root and grow." How foolish was I? As soon as the grass was put in, it stopped raining. I had to spend hours watering that grass. And then the weeds. The weeds were and are a constant menace that requires constant attention. It is oddly reminiscent of the gospels in Scripture, isn't it? Jesus told a parable about sowing seed and all that can go awry, including weeds sown by the enemy (Mt 13:24-30, 36-43). It was also evidenced in how much Jesus invested in the twelve and how many times they showed that they did not get it. Then we see the earliest churches having all kinds of problems in the earliest stages.

(For the record, I don't think that Neil Cole, Alan Hirsch, Paul Kaak, and others are trying to gloss over this or believe that it is not messy. Their focus is on empowering the average believer to become radically involved in a movement of Jesus. I simply think another volume needs to be written to help prepare those willing for the difficult road ahead, already foreseen by Jesus.)

The church is in desperate need to transition into a movement and cut away the institutional scaffolding. Hirsch has some terrific things to say in helping us move in that direction. But it is going to be messy and painful. We will need to go into this with a sound theology of suffering and endurance.


Church Growth Failure-

"75 percent of the churches in the United States today are declining, 24 percent are growing, but only because of 'transfer' Christians form other congregations; only 1 percent of the churches are growing as a result of reaching unchurched non-Christians." (Statistics from Leonard Sweet, "Leadership and the Church in Contemporary Culture," George Fox Evangelical Seminary, Portland, Oreg., May 16, 2002 cited in Gehring, House Church and Mission, 303)

How much do Americans love church? "Despite what we print in our own press releases, the numbers don't look good. According to 2003 actual attendance counts, adult church-going is at 18 percent nationally and dropping. Evangelical attendance (again, actual seat-numbers, not telephone responses) accounts for 9% of the population, down from 9.2% in 1990. Mainline attendance accounts for 3.4% of the national population, down from 3.9% the previous decade. And Catholics are down a full percentage point in the same ten-year period: 6:2% from 7.2% in 1990. Of the 3,098 counties in the United States, 2,303 declined in church attendance." (Sally Morgenthaler as quoted in Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways, 35)

"In a dialogue between Michael Frost, many members of the faculty of Fuller's School of World Mission, and me, it was generally acknowledged by all there that church growth theory had, by and large, failed to reverse the church's decline in America and was therefore something of a failed experiment. The fact remains that more than four decades of church growth principles and practice has not halted the decline of the church in Western contexts." (Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways, 45n10)

Disenfranchised Believers-

"Millions of devout followers of Jesus Christ are repudiating tepid systems and practices of the Christian faith and introducing a wholesale shift in how faith is understood, integrated, and influencing the world." (Barna, Revolution, 11)

"As someone who has been involved with young adults all my professional life, I venture to suggest that there are more people aged twenty to thirty-five who claim to be followers of Jesus who are outside the institution of the church than there are in the church at any given time." (Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways, 70n29)



brad brisco said...

Good review. I love this book and have led three different book discussions groups chapter by chapter through the book.

Toby D. said...

I agree with Brad. Too many church leaders and for that matter, believers, have their heads in the sand as to what is really happening right under their noses.

M Crane said...

Brad and Toby, thanks for your comments. It looks y'all are trying some good stuff in KC. I know it is frustrating to see the majority not really get it and move beyond institutional doldrums. Working in the area of development, there is a pretty consistent pattern that occurs when trying to introduce positive change. There is a small minority that are early adopters, they the risk takers. When the majority see the early adopters success (after some of the kinks are worked out), then they get on board. And the third group is the skeptics. They will always be around and are the ones that Jesus and John the Baptist saved their sharpest criticisms for.