Alan Hirsch Reshaped

One of the most influential books about the nature of church and mission in the last decade was The Shaping Of Things To Come by Alan Hirsch and Michael Frost. Seven years on I asked Alan Hirsch to reflect back on the legacy of the book, especially in terms of how, if at all it has affected the mainstream church. He provides some interesting insights about changes in his thinking and also an interesting claim about the future of missions to the West.

Alan kindly agreed to answer a few questions whilst home in Australia for a short while, and despite having a range of other pressing commitments.

The book The Shaping Of Things To Come was to some degree was polarizing. There was no shortage of critics who lined up to pan the book (which you can expect when you rattle the cage of the established church, but there were no shortage of fans who praised Hirsch and Frost for a well considered, watershed work which challenged the status quo. In some theological colleges the book is now a text book in Masters courses and so to some degree the book has become part of the mainstream, despite some of the radical calls for a ‘revolution’ rather than an evolution.  In between the poles there was a variety of different opinions about the book.  At the very least, even the most uncharitable of reviewers would have to concede that the book raised an important debate which needed to be had.  The mainstream church needed to be challenged on its missional impotence.  Sometimes you need a contribution that generates heat and light so that people can be drawn into the discussion. Frost and Hirsch certainly provided that.

Hirsch then made some more important contributions. His book ReJesus is a radical restatement about the role that Jesus plays in defining Christian movements. Untamed, his most recent book (with his wife Debra) is about missional discipleship for a missional church. The Forgotten Ways, another important contribution and has quickly become a key reference for missional thinking, particularly as it relates to missional movements. He has since relocated to the U.S.A. where he has entered a new phase of his contribution to the missional agenda of the church.

1. In 2003 you wrote (with Frost) The Shaping Of Things To Come. Amongst other things you wrote that the mainstream church needed to fundamentally reform its structures – revolution as opposed to evolution, and to ‘get over’ Christendom. 7 years on do you see any evidence of the mainstream church making any progress along these lines or is it still the same scenario as when you wrote the book?

There is definite progress in two ways. Firstly, I have moderated my own views in that introductory chapter calling for revolution. I can’t really speak for Mike Frost here, but I certainly have changed…mainly since my writing of The Forgotten Ways in which I came to the conclusion that every church, indeed every believer, has a massive amount of missional potential latent (what I called Apostolic Genius) latent in them. Also, partly because we wrote The Shaping of Things to Come to help church planters become missionaries-to-the-West: It was not written as a text about the renewal of the church, but rather about how we might engage in cross cultural, incarnational, mission in Western contexts. We never thought for a moment that it would be widely read by leaders in established churches.

But the fact that it was taken very seriously in most Western cultural contexts! It was, and still is, being widely read and in many ways changed the prevailing conversation. As to your second question…there are enormous changes taking place in the USA, UK, Australia and New Zealand.

For instance I am profoundly humbled to be leading a process in the US called Future Travelers; this involves twelve super-big, leading edge churches, comprising over 80,000 people in total: these churches are going on an intensive two year learning journey in learning how to become missional movements. And they are serious. I believe we are actually seeing the evolution of church growth theory being played out in forums like these.

Another example is that I am writing a book called On The Verge with Dave Ferguson, a leader the multi-site mega-church movement in the States, about applying the conclusions of The Forgotten Ways into established churches. This book will set the agenda for Exponential 2011: On the Verge, the biggest gathering of missional leaders and church planters in the world. This was inconceivable even three years ago. I am as excited as I am humbled. Missional thinking is beginning to inform the mega-church savvy. We are not entirely sure of the result, but it will be big, and if I can help it, it will be genuinely missional.

2. In recent times in Australia we have seen the closing down of Forge. Is this partly because there is a less polarised discussion and more evidence of the mainstream evolving into a more missional posture?

(By the way, we are not entirely closed down. Queensland is still operative and we might yet relaunch things in the future.) But yes, the team decided that in many ways it had done its job in raising awareness and commitment to missional leadership and practices in the Aussie church. We never did want to perpetuate ourselves as an organization. It was a brave and unusual decision to close operations in five states. I respect the decision of the majority of the team, but I tend to think there is still a job to be done. We’ll see.

What’s interesting is that we have now launched Forge Canada and Forge America. Canada already has 10 hubs and the US about 3. Some things close and some open up. Hopefully we will avoid our previous mistakes and transfer some of our learning and into these contexts.

3. Enough time has now passed for an evaluation of many of the new innovative expressions of church. What is your assessment of how new paradigms of church have fared?

In Australia it has been a mixed bag. There have been some wonderful experiments with some real impact. But many have had to close up. Sustainability has been very hard. As has been gaining genuine legitimacy from the church at large. But in the USA, its rocking on. They seem to have a much more entrepreneurial bent and are less risk averse.

4. Are there any good examples of ‘Apostolic Genius’ being displayed by mainstream churches that give you hope?

Yes, some early examples are those in the Future Travelers process mentioned above. But it really is early days for new apostolic movements in the West. But I find myself very hopeful indeed. But beyond that there is a new generation of missional leaders emerging. They less purist in tone and are moving beyond theoretical frameworks and new to practices. Again there is reason for hope.

5. Has Australia lost you forever?

Not sure. To be very honest, as much as I adore Australia (especially Melbourne) it is hard to see myself back there at the moment. But we have embarked on what we call our Abrahamic journey…we really don’t know where God is taking us. We are always asking “what next?” For now the US has our heart and attention. I believe that the future of missions to the West will be determined there.

Alan Hirsch is author of The Forgotten Ways and co-author of Untamed (with Debra Hirsch). He is founding director of Forge International, co-director of Shapevine.com (a partner ministry of Christianity Today International), leads Future Travelers, He also lectures at Fuller, George Fox, and Wheaton. Books coming out soon include Right Here, Right Now: Everyday Mission for Everyday People, The Permanent Revolution: Apostolic Imagination and Practice for the 21st Century Church, and On The Verge (on a process of becoming missional for established churches).

What do you think?

Alan wrote:

Missional thinking is beginning to inform the mega-church savvy. We are not entirely sure of the result, but it will be big, and if I can help it, it will be genuinely missional.

Do you agree with his perspective on how larger churches are changing their approach?

In relation to Forge Alan wrote:

Hopefully we will avoid our previous mistakes and transfer some of our learning and into these contexts.

What are your thoughts about this?

Alan wrote:

But beyond that there is a new generation of missional leaders emerging. They less purist in tone and are moving beyond theoretical frameworks and new to practices. Again there is reason for hope.

Do you see any evidence of this?  If so, we’re interested, drop us a line.

Alan wrote of the USA:

I believe that the future of missions to the West will be determined there.

Do you agree with this, if so why?  Does the USA always set the trend for the Western church?

Use the comment box below and have your say.