Review of The Forgotten Ways by Alan Hirsch

Published by Brazos Press :: Purchase at or
294 Pages
: which also has an excellent weblog which is published by Alan Hirsch
Disclaimer: Publisher (Brazos Press) sent me a free review copy but I would have purchased the book regardless.

Before you start into the review, my initial thoughts on the book topped 9000 words which testifies to how good of book I thought it was but it was a little depressing to think that I needed to edit that long of a review (Wendy says that any review that long is not a review but a sequel). The book is divided into two sections so what I plan to do is review the first section now, take a week or so break from it and review the second section. I will put it all together for a single review when I am all done. As is the blog policy, all typos and spelling mistakes are mine and we will blame the spell checker in Google Docs and never speak of them again.

A couple of months ago now I started reading Alan Hirsch’s latest book, The Forgotten Ways. Along with Michael Frost, he wrote The Shaping of Things to Come, one of the most important books in the area of the church and missiology that many of us have ever read. Not only can they write good books together but they can write solo as well. Michael Frost’s book Exiles came out last year and Alan Hirsch’s book, The Forgotten Ways showed up in my mailbox in early 2007. For the last two months every free moment has been spent with the book or thinking about the consequences of what has been written. It’s a book that I will read more than once but here are some early thoughts that will do the book justice.

The book is divided into two sections. Section One is “The Making of a Missionary.” Hirsch tells his own story. It is a path that many of us would recognize that starts with him in the “come to us” attractional model of doing church that has defined evangelicalism since it became part of the establishment to moving towards a missional incarnation. Section Two is titled “A Journey to the Heart of Apostolic Genius.” There we explore what Hirsch calls Missional DNA. Methodists will recognize the work of Howard Snyder who has used the DNA analogy in the past. For us Canadians who read a lot of Alan Roxburgh, you will recognize the concepts of liminality and “communitas vs. community”.

Forward by Leonard Sweet.

Sweet opens up with a great forward that was quite helpful to me in dealing with the frustrations I have talking with those in traditional churches and especially those that have been schooled in church growth thinking. He uses the metaphor of occasionally having to defrag our computers and get all of the bits and pieces put in their proper places. Not only do we have to do it with our computers but also with our minds.

Sometimes our hard drives need fragmenting. Data entered on our hard drives isn’t always done neatly. The more files you have, and the more programs you download, the more your hard drive gets scrambled by confusing, scattered, random inputs that get sprayed over lots of space. Computer crashes, power outages, and stalled programs just add to the fragmentation.

The harder your hard drive has to work to retrieve the original information, the slower it becomes, the more blurred the pictures are, and the more resistant everything is. As a serial procrastinator, I tend to put off my defragging until the computer almost grinds to a halt. Defragging requires I dedicate the computer to doing nothing but cleaning up the confusion my messes and misses have caused. This housecleaning can take hours. But once I got through the defragging process, my hard drive recovers its speed, and my images once again snap, crackle, and pop with clarity and conviction.

Christianity has undergone untold crashes and clashes in the past two thousand years. In the last five hundred years its original hard drive has wiped out so many times, especially in the West, that it has almost ground to a halt.

I appreciated Len Sweet’s forward to the book as I can’t remember how many discussions I have had about the emerging church and people bring up the measuring points of Christendom. There is a desire for something different but we drag along all of this clutter from what where we have come from.

The discussion starts with a good question. How did the early Christian movement go from roughly 25,000 members in 100 AD to roughly 20 million by 300 AD? More importantly, it did it without all of the things that today’s church defines as vital for ministry. Buildings, a defined Scripture, professional clergy, John Maxwell seminars on leadership, Hillsong worship CDs, Christian radio or television (I may be embellishing his list but you get the point). Not only was the church “deprived” of the “essentials”, it was also under persecution. It isn’t just a discussion of the early church, the church in China had a similar growth rate under the same kind of persecution and also the Methodist revival in England is touched on. So how do they do it. Hirsch identifies six elements of what he calls Missional DNA or mDNA.

  • Jesus is Lord
  • Disciple Making
  • Missional-Incarnational Impulse
  • Apostolic Environment
  • Organic Systems
  • Communitas instead of community

Chapter One :: Setting the Scene

He notes the same thing that many of have been saying (probably because we read it in his first book) that great missionary movements begin on the margins.

In the study of the history of missions, one can even be formulaic about asserting that all great missionary movements begin at the fringes of the church, among the poor and the marginalized, and seldom if ever at the center. It is vital that in pursuing missional modes of church, we get out of the stifling equilibrium of the center of our movements and denominations, move to the fringes, and engage in real mission there. But there’s more to it then just mission; mist great movements of mission have inspirited significant and related movements of renewal in the life of the church. It seems that when the church engages at the fringes, it almost always brings life to the center. This says a whole lot about God and gospel, and the church will do well to heed it. (page 30)

For the longest time, I have been saying that churches can’t or won’t go through tremendous change. I gladly eat those words when I read about Hirsch’s community, the South Melbourne Restoration Community (now called Red). At some very frustrating times in my pastoral journey, I would have loved to have read there story of transformation from the holding pattern that most churches are in to becoming missional was worth the price of the book for me (disclaimer, I didn’t pay for the book, I got a review copy but you know what I mean). A particularly jarring part of the book is his mention that only 10-15% of Australian culture is attracted to the contemporary church growth model.

A combination of recent research in Australia indicates that about 10-15 percent of that population is attracted to what we call the contemporary church growth model. In other words, this model has significant “market appeal” to about 12 percent of our population. The more successful forms of this model tend to be large, highly professionalized, and overwhelmingly middle class, and express themselves culturally using contemporary, “seeker friendly” language and middle-of-the-road music forms. They structure themselves around “family ministry” and therefore offer multi-generational services. Demographically speaking, they tend to cater largely to what might be called the “family-values-segment”–good, solid, well-educated citizens who don’t abuse their kids, who pay their taxes, and who live largely, what can be called a suburban lifestyle.

Not only is this type of church largely made up of Christian people who fit this profile, the research indicates that these churches can also be very effective in reaching non-Christian people fitting the same demographic description–the people within their cultural reach. That is, the church does not have to cross any significant cultural barriers in order to communicate the gospel to that cultural context. (pg 35)

Since almost all churches in typical western cities are working from this model, they are all competing for the same demographic. I started flipping through Michael Adams book, Fire and Ice and I would say our percentage is 15 to 20% of is in that “family values segment” versus 35% for the United States. To make this simple for everyone, the way we do church in Canada manages to avoid 75-80% of the population. Not are the vast majority of churches competing for the same segment, according to George Barna, it is a shrinking segment which by 2025 is expected to decrease by half. Despite the fact that doing the same thing and expecting a different result is a definition of insanity, it is what we do. As Hirsch says on page 37

What is becoming increasingly clear is that if we are going to meaningfully reach this majority of people, we are not going to be able to do it by simply doing more of the same. And yet it seems that when faced with our problems of decline, we automatically reach for the latest church growth package to solve the problem–we seem to have nowhere else to go. But simply pumping up the programs, improving the music, and audiovisual effects, or jiggering the ministry mix won’t solve our missional crisis. Something far more fundamental is needed.

So what do we do about this? Well as Hirsch shares his experiences, changing the system does have some effect. As he diagrams out, on pages 43 and 33, moving from a pulpit ministry (5%) to a platform and programmed ministry (10% active in ministry) to a alternative worship gathering (20% of people involved). While 20% is a sizable improvement, it still leaves 80% as pew potatoes.

In his discussion about this on page 45 he offers up this interesting footnote.

In a dialog 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 therefor somewhat 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.

So how do we reach out to the remaining 80% of people who don’t have the church on their radar if church growth principles aren’t the answer? Hirsch draws a correlation that I don’t think I have read before but makes a lot of sense. Hirsch concluded that the fundamental issue was that they had been ineffective at making disciples, and so were failing at living missionally. This coincides with what Ron Sider wrote about in The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience and what Robert Webber writes in Ancient Future Evangelism, we don’t do a good job in making disciples which undermines everything else we try to do as a church.

The phrase, “we cannot consume our way to discipleship” hit me hard. For years I proposed that if we could give people enough opportunities to learn, they would. While I worked at Lakeview Church we tried to expand our offerings which overlooked the consumeristic nature of what we were trying to do. Christians come to church to be fed and we are just feeding the idea of a consumption based faith reinforces the church shopping ethos at the expense of undermining our efforts at discipleship before we can begin.

The alternative according to Hirsch is to move away from the idea of choices that come from consumerism and take a covenantal approach to discipleship which reminds me of some of what Stanley Hauerwas has written as a response to capitalism. How does that happen?

  1. Structural changes :: To address the problems of passivity, they became a cell church so it made it harder to be a pew potato.
  2. Instead of core values and statements, they adopted a covenant and some core practices. Most core values in churches are all the same anyways but what they wanted were something that would cause movement. So instead of appealing to the head, they appealed to the feet.
  3. Each cell group had to practice spiritual disciplines. The model they came up with is called TEMPT.

Chapter Two :: Setting the Scene

“Nothing is more difficult to carry out, nor more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to handle, than achieving a new order of things.” Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince

“Strictly speaking one ought to say that the church is always in a state of crisis and that its greatest shortcoming is that it is only occasionally aware of it… This ought to be the case because of the abiding tension between the church’s essential nature and its empirical condition…. that there were so many crisis centuries of crisis free existence for the church was therefore an abnormality… And if the atmosphere of crisislessness still lingers on in many parts of the West, this is simply the result of a dangerous delusion. Let us also know that to encounter crisis is to encounter the possibility of truly being the church.” David Bosch, Transforming Mission

Hirsch starts the second chapter with this from Edward de Bono.

…if there is a known and successful cure for an illness, patients generally prefer the doctor to use the known cure rather than seek to design a better one. Yet there may be better cures to be found. He rightly asks how we are to find a better cure at each critical moment we always opt for the traditional treatment. Think about this in relation to our usual ways of solving our problems. Do we not constantly default to previous patterns and ways of tackling issues of theology, spirituality and the church? To quote another Bono, this time from the band U2, it seems like we are “stuck in a moment and now [we[ can’t get out of it.”

The follow up thought to this is “most efforts at change in the church fail to deal with the very assumptions on which Christendom is built and maintains itself.” ( page 51) In part, this is why we are “stuck in a moment and can’t get out of it” (U2).

Hirsch then uses an analogy from the computer world. Apple Inc. is synonymous with innovation. In that world innovation translates into reworking three components: hardware, OS, and software. We saw that with the iPhone where Apple asked that Cingular change their wireless protocol to accommodate the innovation of the iPhone. To take advantage of new hardware, you need a new operating system. If you don’t have new and great software ready to go, what’s the need for a new operating system. Working at one and not the other doesn’t always make a lot of sense (somewhere Bill Gates is sitting on top of a pile of money disagreeing with Hirsch but we get the point) without the other.

As Hirsch continues on page 52 that many efforts to revitalize the church aim at simply adding or developing new programs (Alpha in many churches comes to mind) or sharpening the theology and doctrinal base of the church without changing the foundational understanding of Christendom or how the church operates. Leadership needs to develop new assumptions on which more missional expression of the church can be built.

How do we do that, Hirsch quotes refers to Ivan Illich on page 53

Ivan Illich was once asked what he thought was the most radical way to change society; was it through violent revolution of gradual reform? He gave a careful answer. Neither. Rather, he suggested that if one wanted to change society, then one must tell an alternative story. Illich is right; we need to reframe our understandings through a different lens, an alternative story, if we wish to move beyond the captivity of the predominantly institutional paradigm that clearly dominates our current approach to leadership and church.

He sees the system story at the center of who we are reaching out to affect everything else we do.

Church consultant Bill Easum is right when he notes that…“Following Jesus into the mission field is either impossible or extremely difficult for the vast majority of congregations in the Western world because of one thing: They have a systems story that will not allow them to take the first step out of the institution into the mission field, even though the mission field is just outside the door of the congregation.” (Unfreezing Moves, 31) He goes on to note that every organization is built upon on “an underlying systems story.” He points out that “…this is not a belief system. It is the continually repeated life story that determines how an organization feels, thinks, and thus acts. This systems story determines the way an organization behaves, no matter how the organizational chart is drawn. It’s the primary template which shapes all other things. Restructure the organization and leave the systems story in place and nothing changes within the organization. It’s futile trying to revitalize the church, or a denomination, without first changing the system.” Drilling down into this systems story, the paradigm, or mode of church, is he suggests one of the keys to change and constant innovation.

Easum notes that most theories about congregational life are flawed from the start because they are based on an institutional and mechanical worldview. Or what he calls the “Command and Control, Stifling Story.” This is particularly marked when you recognize how different the predominant forms of church are from the apostolic modes.

After a conversation with Scripture he concludes that “we realized that Bible sustains a thoroughly consistent warning against the centralization of power in a few individuals and concentration of it in inflexible and impersonal institutions (pg 55)

Reinforcing his view is Martin Buber and C.S. Lewis. (pg 55) .

…[Buber] warns us about the dangers of religious institutionalism when he notes that “centralization and codification, undertaken in the interests of religion, are a danger to the core of religion.” This is inevitably the case he says, unless there is a very vigorous life of faith embodied in the whole community, one that exerts an unrelenting pressure for renewal on the institution. It was C.S. Lewis who observed that “there exists in every church something that sooner or later works against the very purpose for which it came into existence. So we must strive very hard, by the grace of God to keep the church focused on the mission that Christ originally gave to it.”

For those of you who have read Brian McLaren, the name Ralph Winter may be familiar. Basically he gives us the concept of cultural distance. It is a good guide to help a church conceptualize the barriers it must cross in order to be effective missionally.

As one moves along the scale each step from left to right it indicates a barrier one must cross to demonstrate the Gospel.

  • m0-m1 Some concept of Christianity, same language, similar interests, same nationality, same socio-economic class to yours and your church’s. Most of your friends are in this bracket.
  • m1-m2 Stereotypical non-Christian. Little interest in Christianity and suspicious of the church or had a bad experience with Christians. Just go to the local pub to find these folks.
  • m2-m3 No idea about Christianity or antagonistic towards Christianity as they understand it.
  • m3-m4 The most distance and active resistance. Major cultural and/or worldview obstacles exist.

As Hirsch points out, the Edict of Milan and Constantine’s deal with the church provided a uniform context in the western world for about 1600 years. As Rodney Stark puts it on page 60.

Far too long, historians have accepted the claim that the conversion of Emperor Constantine (ca 285-337) caused the triumph of Christianity. To the contrary, he destroyed its most attractive and dynamic aspects, turning a high-intensity, grassroots movement into a arrogant institution controlled by an elite who often managed to be brutal and lax.

The church has largely conformed to that mode and is comfortable working with the m0 to m1 regions. The other regions were largely “missionary” concerns until the end of WWII. as Hirsch pointed out early, the m0 to m1 zone is vanishing (Perhaps 15% in Australia to 35% of people in the United States). We are surrounded by people in our neighborhoods that have m2 – m4 barriers up. In Christendom “outreach” often worked as the barriers to acceptance were much less. In post-Christendom and the pluralistic environment, the cultural distance has increased and our local context has become missional.

Hirsch breaks down the move from Christendom to now with this important thought on pg 60

With the breakup of the modern period and the subsequent postmodern period, things have begun to radically change. For one, the power of hegemonic ideologies has come to an end, and with that, the breakdown of the power of the state (e.g. the Soviet Union) and other forms of “grand stories” that bind societies and groups together in a grand vision. The net effect of that has been the resultant flourishing of sub cultures, and what sociologists call the heterogenization, or simply the tribalization, of western culture…

People now identify themselves less by grand ideologies, national identities, or political allegiances, and by much less grand stories: those of interest groups, new religious movements (New Age), sexual identity (gays, lesbians, transsexuals, etc), sports activities, competing ideologies (neo-Marxist, neofacist, eco-rats, etc.) class, conspicuous consumption (metrosexuals, urban grunge, etc), work types (computer geeks, hackers, designers, etc.), and so forth. On one occasion some youth ministry specialists I work with identified in an hour fifty easily discernible youth subcultures alone (computer nerds, skaters, homies, surfies, punks, etc.). Each of hem taks their subcultural identity with utmost seriousness, and hence any missional response to them must as well.

Hirsch uses Alpha as an example which while over three million people in the UK have participated, they have not been integrated into traditional churches. He points out that it is most successful with the dechurched and instead of being a missionary tool for the unchurched, pointed out that we often don’t reach very hard beyond our own walls (pg 63) Why don’t they want to go to church? It is the “Jesus yes, Church no.” phenomenon again where people come to faith in small informal groups but don’t want the organized part of the religion to be part of the deal. Hirsch suggests that the prevailing expression of church (Christendom) has become a major stumbling block to the spread of Christianity in the West.

So for those of you who are feeling uncomfortable, the good news is that it hasn’t always been done this way. Hirsch refers to Robert Webber and points out that we are probably closer to life in the early church than in Christendom (although being in a post-Christian society is radically different than being in a pre-Christian one of the early church). He quotes Loren Meed on page 66 who brings a healthy dose of reality to where we are at.

We are surrounded by the relics of the Christendom Paradigm, a paradigm that has largely ceased to exist to work. [These] relics hold us hostage to the past and make it difficult to create a new paradigm that can be as compelling for the next age as the Christendom paradigm has been for the past age.

From there is a discussion on the emerging church that has this great comment by Hirsch.

Another quite remarkable feature is that by and large this phenomenon flies under the radar of must church observers, because they are looking for the familiar features of the church as we know it through Christendom. As such it tends to be an underground movement. I have often had to field criticism of the EMC in the guise of pragmatic questions like, “Where is it working?” or dismissed in phrases like “When I can see some success, I might consider it”. But it is working. The answer is right there under our noses, but we can’t seem to see it because we are looking for the wrong things. If we look for certain features obvious in the Christendom paradigm (like buildings, programs, over leaders, church growth, organization, etc.), we will miss what is really happening.

That’s enough for the first section of the book which for me is worth the price of the book. If you haven’t read the book already, you need to purchase it. For leaders of Christian communities, the book is that good and that revolutionary. The second part of the book is even better and gets at the heart of what needs to happen in more theological and practical terms.

When is the next part of the review coming? I have a couple of days off this week and will have the second half of the book review online next Sunday. That way I won’t be too far being in my effort to review 52 books in 52 weeks.

For more on the book…

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8 thoughts on “Review of The Forgotten Ways by Alan Hirsch”

  1. Wow, that is exhausting Jordon! But a great summary of the first section of the book. I am genuinely honored that you are doing this and doing it so well.

  2. Alan, you did the hard job of writing a great book, I get the easy job of reviewing it. Plus for me it has been quite personally helpful as you have fleshed out and articulated some of the things that I have been thinking about for years.

  3. I hope to grab a copy of this book soon (Parable Bookstore sucks…). I wanted to ask you about 2 other books: Glocalization by Bob Roberts Jr. (hirsch blogged about this book) and Simply Christian by Wright. Have you read either of them?
    Maybe we could chat about them over another Starbucks (my treat this time!).
    Jason VanBinsberegn

  4. Outstanding review of an outstanding book. It’s interesting that the traditional church reaches 12 percent, it’s interesting that finally this concept is being universally recognized.

  5. I hear a desire similar to what I heard years before from the church growth folks…a desire to reach the world for Jesus by retooling Christianity. And they have had some success yet as Hirsch says, Christianity in the west continues a downward spiral. So now we have a new generation who also wants to retool Christianity. The thought is, if only we can be real and get down to where people really are… if only we can be free from the old baggage and have a new view, we can recover the declination. Yet, I believe this new analyses is just more of the same. It too will leave the church empty and void. So what is the answer to this intuitive since that something is wrong? Without sounding to simplistic, I do not believe it is a new view of relevance that is needed; I believe we simply need to be real Christians. What I mean by real Christian is not one who is a Christian in name or who attends church religiously. I mean one who is born of God and who is filled with the very Spirit of God. I mean one who is incarnating Christ. There is a problem, but it is not with how we relate to society. The problem is what we are. Much of Christianity is plastic and religious. Only a Christianity that is an expression of the Word of God in power will be a Christianity that changes the world. And when that kind of Church arises, there is always persecution. If the Church continues to try and find some new prescription that will make it fulfill its great calling, it will continue to go around the mountain. When the Apostle Peter came out of the upper room, he and his fellow brethren turned their world upside down within thirty years. When they preached, thousands were converted, when they prayed the place was shaken, when they laid hands on the sick they recovered. This is the kind of Christianity that is the source of the hunger that people are searching for but don’t know what it is. This is the missing link. And this is were risk and faith turn a dull Christianity into a living and breathing expression of God that is worth living and dying for. This kind of Church cannot be engineered by some new set of tools or paradigm. Only a Church filled with God will answer the need of the hour. This is the true Apostolic Genius given by God. Tom Griner

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