Alan Hirsch is one of the leading missional church guys. The Forgotten Ways: Reactivating the Missional Church came out in 2006, a few years after his collaboration with Michael Frost on the big splash The Shaping of Things to Come. I read it over furlough, and now I’m working back through it chapter by chapter.
In FW, Hirsch explores the essence of “missional DNA,” (mDNA) which he calls the “Apostolic Genius” of missional church movements. There is a sociological dimension to Hirsch’s approach, as he claims to be a student of social and religious movements (22) and therefore intends to discern “quintessential elements that combine to create Apostolic Genius and to simplify them to absolutely irreducible components” (24) by virtue of comparative analysis. The primary comparison he has selected, though, is that of the early church and the current Chinese church, which may seem limited to some readers in terms of a comparative exercise intended to discern truly essential elements of all missional movements:
The object of this book is to explore Apostolic Genius and to try to interpret it for our own missional context and situation for the West. These two key examples (the early church and the Chinese church) have been chosen not only because they are truly remarkable movements, but also because one is ancient and the other is contemporary, so we can observe Apostolic Genius in two radically different contexts (20).
Part of the methodological problem here is that Hirsch simply starts with the question “How did they do it?” (stated in various forms on pp. 18–19), referring to the exponential growth of the early church. He then labels the unspecified answer “Apostolic Genius” and subsequently presumes the same cause-and-effect for another movement that has grown exponentially—the Chinese church. So the problem is, rather than doing a study of these two radically different church movements in order to decide whether or not they are indeed comparable in the first place and, secondly, whether what they have in common deserves to be deemed “quintessential” church, Hirsch assumes that “similar growth patterns” (20) are enough to proceed calling their commonalities “their truest nature as an apostolic people” (20).
I don’t know that Hirsch is necessarily proceeding wrongly, and I do know that his subsequent observations are provocative and helpful, but I have to point out that the way he lets on about his “study” of movements does raise the bar for methodology at least a little. It seems to me that he is basically just saying, “Whatever these two groups of rapidly growing, persecuted Christians have in common is Apostolic Genius.” It’s a (possibly justified) leap. Hirsch says that he is writing non-academically for practitioners (26), but there is still a circularity issue here even for the person in the field: These two movements have Apostolic Genius. What is Apostolic Genius? Whatever these two movements have.
Leonard Sweet claims that Hirsch “cleans up the phrase ‘missional church’ from frequent mishandling” (12), but I think Hirsch is actually confusing the phrase more by starting with movements chosen for their numerical growth in order to define the DNA of a missional ecclesiology. He is, in fact, specifically concerned with “what David Garrison calls church planting movements” (22, fn. 8). His strong critique of the “evangelistic-attractional church growth model” (34–37) does not extend to its fundamental measure of success: fast, sustained numerical growth. This measure defines church growth ecclesiology, and it also, quite literally, defines Hirsch’s. Yet, I do not believe that is what missional ecclesiology is really about. (See this video for Hirsch on the church as an “advancing body” and “how churches grow exponentially”—this is undoubtedly his main concern in the book.)
Rather, I think missional ecclesiology is about “translating best practices in mission developed over the last century in the two-thirds world into that of the first world” (22). And what makes best practices truly best is not simply a head count. Missional ecclesiology is also about activating the whole people of God for participation in mission and critique of institutionalism (22–23). Furthermore, I think Hirsch’s (and Frost’s) fuller label, “missional-incarnational church” is appropriate, because missional church is about the shift from attractional “outreach and in-drag” (34) missionary methods to “embodying the culture and life of a target group in order to meaningfully reach that group of people from within their culture” and “going to a target people group as opposed to the invitation to come to our culture group in order to hear the gospel” (from “Incarnational,” glossary of key terms, 281).
Moreover, the nexus of biblical and contextual concerns is where missional ecclesiology is forged. Hirsch puts it well:
The fact that you have started reading this book will mean not only that you are interested in the search for a more authentic expression of ecclesia (the NT word for church), but you are in some sense aware of the dramatic changes in worldview that have been taking place in general culture over the last fifty years (16).
In other words, missional ecclesiology arises from the concern for both true, authentic, biblical ecclesiology (i.e, we can get this wrong) and culturally appropriate, contextual, effective mission (i.e., we can work ineffectual models and strategies). Missional church seeks to be “relevant to the subcultural context but faithful to the ancient gospel” (32). Authentic and contextual. Relevant and faithful.
I believe that the concerns for relevance, missiological acumen, and best practice all arise (and therefore missional ecclesiology arises) from a desire for effectiveness. That is the inclination, among all who want to seek and save the lost and advance the kingdom of God, that causes even missional church leaders like Hirsch to frame ecclesiology in terms of numerical growth. But all of those other facets of missional ecclesiology lead me to believe that numerical growth cannot be the measure of quintessential missional ecclesiology.
In fact, as the story of Hirsch’s fascinating and inspiring mission experience unfolds in chapter one, he comes to a moment of crisis that causes him to reflect: “How do we know we are being fruitful? With what measures will we as God’s people be weighed? How does God assess our effectiveness” (40)? As it turns out, his conclusion was that, “for us, the central failure lay primarily in our inability to ‘make disciples'” (42). And that is precisely the problem reportedly plaguing many (perhaps most?) of the exponentially growing church planting movements to which Hirsch looks (22, fn. 8). It is certainly the case among the fastest growing groups in my Latin American context.
So, it seems that Hirsch is somewhat at odds with himself, though the majority of what he says is right on target for me. Part of the problem may be that he proceeds on the assumption that “if one is willing to die for being a follower of Jesus, then in all likelihood that person is a real believer” (21; I’d have to agree) and then graciously assumes that sort of dedication among all church planting movements. But if we limit ourselves only to groups of persecuted yet faithful followers who are also growing exponentially, then I have far less to critique. In that case, growth still isn’t the litmus test, but it certainly makes such movements the most interesting to study.
Though I’ve offered a rather extended critique, I think the introduction and chapter one have far more that is positive and helpful than problematic. The case study of Hirsch’s own church’s transformation is extremely enlightening, especially his discussion of “Phase 3: From a Church to an Organic Movement.” It is noteworthy, to conclude, that Hirsch says “in terms of DNA,” they found that the small congregation needed to “covenant to multiply itself as soon as it is organically feasible and possible. This ensures healthy multiplication and embeds an ongoing sense of mission” (47–48). On the practical side of things, it is often a bit fuzzy in the literature how to actually “embed” the sense that the church is missionary in its very nature. It is refreshing to read Hirsch say that, aside from structure, it is a matter of covenanting—making a commitment as a community.