Hirsch Represents Best Elements of Emerging Church
In The Forgotten Ways, a 2006 contribution to the growing body of literature on church planting, Alan Hirsch emerges as a pace-setter. Arguing for a return to the “forgotten ways” of easily-reproduced, decentralized, apostolic church, Hirsch sets a very high standard for biblical vision-casting and missiological insight into the West’s emerging urban-tribal landscape. He melds statistics, graphics and case studies with a creative, inspiring voice—and critiques the vagaries and excesses of “emerging church” thought in the process.
Hirsch’s purpose in writing The Forgotten Ways is to articulate the elements of what he calls “Apostolic Genius” (he refers to these elements as “missional DNA,” mDNA for short)—the characteristics of the early church that caused it to mushroom from a small group in AD 100 (as few as 25,000 Christians) to a sweeping spiritual movement that had up to 20,000,000 adherents in AD 310. Hirsch’s goal is not merely historical, though. He writes “largely with the missional practitioner in mind,” and Ways is more prescriptive than descriptive. This makes Hirsch’s objective very ambitious, and he does nothing to dilute the reader’s surging adrenalin as he describes his feeling of “peering over God’s shoulder into things remarkable and wonderful.”
The Forgotten Ways acts as a dictionary and best-practices manual for emerging church in general.
Fortunately, Hirsch’s writing is both imaginative and convincing. He builds his thesis with history, case studies and scripture, and one comes away from his book with a fresh look at century-old truths. Hirsch sets out to identify and tag the vital elements of church that lead to growth, and he accomplishes this, describing the components of a healthy, expanding gospel movement in terms of Christocentric Monotheism (Jesus is Lord), Organic Systems, Communitas (Not Community), Disciple Making, Missional-Incarnational Impulse, and Apostolic Environment. Hirsch defines these terms in a deliberately Christ-centered way, careful to maintain biblical fidelity. His thesis is that by recovering these “forgotten ways,” the church will once again be positioned to experience the blessings that God has built into the genes of biblical church; among these, exponential conversion growth.
However, Hirsch is also steeped in emerging church thought, as exemplified by the survey work, Emerging Churches (my review), by Eddie Gibbs and Ryan Bolger, and therefore his work has another, secondary function: The Forgotten Ways acts as a dictionary and best-practices manual for emerging church in general. Hirsch explains currents of thought that are often voiced, but left unexplained in books like A Generous Orthodoxy and Signs of Emergence (reviews). He also provides needed challenges to the emerging milieu, as he advises the church not to be overrun by the culture in its eagerness to identify, and to hold tightly to biblical moorings. Hirsch represents an erudite, theologically-deliberate side of emerging church thought; he urges the church to wake up and engage postmodern culture in biblical ways, while watching other, more liberal emerging church streams with interest, hoping for the best.
One of Hirsch’s central themes, Apostolic Environment, struck me with special force because I have not heard it discussed elsewhere. While many people argue that apostolic gifts no longer exist today, Hirsch states that apostolic ministry is an irreplaceable part of mDNA and that the church will not grow without it. He describes an apostle as someone God has gifted to advance Christianity both physically and theologically—a pioneer and sower of new churches and a guardian and sentinel over biblical theology. Thus, an apostle acts as a servant-inspirer; he guards truth, advances the gospel, and inspires risk-taking; he creates an atmosphere within which other ministries can thrive. Personally and ecclesiologically, these insights were fascinating.
I found very few points of contention in The Forgotten Ways. Occasionally, Hirsch raises questions which he fails to answer: Yes, leadership within a church should reflect a diverse mix of spiritual gifts—but what if the church is tiny and the leadership team is small? Would it be wise, or feasible, to push the Western church “underground?” Given that the American church is not being openly persecuted, can we really abandon buildings and public services for culturally legitimate reasons? If the church does, in fact, become a decentralized, growing, small-group-focused movement, in what context does authoritative (apostolic) Bible teaching take place?
Within the context of other literature I’ve been reading, I found Hirsch’s writing immeasurably useful and timely. In contrast to Kester Brewin, Hirsch goes beyond vague hints about church and culture to concrete dynamics, backing his points with the New Testament. As opposed to a writer like Ed Stetzer, who emphasizes nuts and bolts, Hirsch’s work stands out as visionary, creative, and still applicable. Within the canon of emerging church literature, he is a unique voice, willing to enter postmodern culture while also critiquing it, willing to critique the church while also expressing a Christ-like love for it. The Forgotten Ways is a book I will revisit many times to refresh my memory.
Strong A, highly recommended.
Saturday, November 10, 2007
Hirsch Represents Best Elements of Emerging Church