The Forgotten Ways: Ch. 2

“The problem we face is that while as a sociopolitical-cultural force Christendom is dead, and we now live in what has been aptly called the post-Christendom era, the church still operates in exactly the same mode” (61).

In chapter two, Hirsch sketches the contours of Christendom and makes the case for its inadequacy. The emerging missional church (EMC) is, he contends, the hope for the future, which brings him to overview its observable characteristics as well. He ends the chapter with a challenge to these emerging ecclesiologies.

The big idea here is, in the tradition of Lesslie Newbigin, that “the church in the West had to change and adopt a missionary stance in relation to its cultural contexts or face increasing decline and possible extinction” (50). The Christendom model of church is not a missionary stance, and it is therefore “literally outmoded” (65) in the postmodern context. He appropriately undertakes this critique on the level of assumptions and worldview, though the goal is clearly to communicate the basic idea of this level’s role in ecclesiology rather than to deal with it thoroughly.

Hirsch employs a very interesting illustration, which I think is helpful enough to consider here and possibly improve. He compares (a) the relation of foundational ecclesiological assumptions to missions programs with (b) the relation of a computer’s hardware/basic language to its programs.

This is a useful metaphor with which to analyze our approaches to change and reform. Many efforts to revitalize the church aim at simply adding or developing new programs or sharpening the theology and doctrinal base of the church But seldom do we ever get to address the “hardware” or the “machine language” on which all this depends. This means that efforts to fundamentally reorient the church around its mission fail, because the foundational system, in this case the Christendom mode or understanding of church, cancels out what the “software” is requiring. Leadership must go deeper and develop the assumptions and configurations on which a more missional expression of ecclesia can be built (52).

The way this looks in Hirsch’s conception is:

interface with end user
operating system:
mediates between program and machine
maching language / hardware:
basic code of hardware
programs and ministry
theological ideas
ecclesial mode / system

This raises a major question for me, however. Is ecclesiology most foundational? Hirsch, like many missional church types, seems to think it is. But how can ecclesiology be the legitimate precursor to all other theology? To begin first with the doctrine of the church is a dubious move by itself. But the question is even sharper when we recognize that the missional church movement is, or should be, founded on the move away from an ecclesiocentric mode of existence (which is a chief characteristic of Christendom) to a theocentric mode of existence that begins with the missio Dei. But Hirsch himself said it in the last sentence quoted above: missional church is built on assumptions. These assumptions are theological in nature. As Hirsch goes on to talk about the “systems story” that needs to change, he is talking about a narrative theology of which ecclesiology is only one upshot. He is right to talk about paradigms and worldviews as he seeks to provoke the kind of assumption-level change that will allow the church to be effective in mission (53–54). The problem is that one’s worldview is not founded on one’s understanding of church. But the theological processes that must take place in order to provoke worldview change are not to be confused with merely “sharpening the theology and doctrinal base of the church.” That would indeed be inadequate.

Considering what Hirsch is trying to communicate with the computer comparison—namely, why efforts to reorient the church around mission fail—I still find it incredibly illustrative. I would just suggest switching the bottom two terms:

interface with end user
operating system:
mediates between program and machine
maching language / hardware:
basic code of hardware
programs and ministry:
specific “applications” compatible with our “operating system”
ecclesial mode / system:
our ways of living out a missional worldview in community
theological ideas:
basic assumptions about God’s mission

Every metaphor breaks down eventually, but this one has a lot going for it, especially given a cultural-linguistic (Lindbeckian) view of theology. The implicit narrative theology at the heart of our worldview is our basic language. What we do as a church, speaking and acting, must be compatible (cohere) with this language. Thus, our doctrine of the church, as well as our practice of church life, are the operating system compatible with the theological syntax coded into our hardware. This OS further determines how the church serves others. Only certain software will work on this OS, and those programs are the user interface, which provides the real service of the computer and makes its functions understandable. And . . . here’s where it breaks down, since users are people, not other computers.

Anyway, Hirsch’s diagnosis of the problem is still correct. Many attempts to be missional are like trying to run slick Mac software on the old IBM running Windows XP. It’s just not compatible. And the solution is not to try to load Mac OSX onto the IBM. It won’t take, because the language coded into the hardware is all wrong. Even valiant efforts at more thorough imitation of OSX (yeah, I’m talking about Vista) will fail, because they still assume the old IBM way of coding hardware. Okay, it’s breaking down again, but I couldn’t resist the pot shot.

The point is, we have to have some fundamental paradigm shifts in order for the church to become truly missional. From another angle, I suspect Hirsch may simply be advocating a “mission is the mother of theology” approach, presuming the church’s shift to a radically missionary posture (i.e., eschewing outmoded church structures) is the fundamental thing. I could agree with that in practice, meaning I see how starting there rather than with theory is best. But the sort of commitment that shift requires presumes some strong controlling assumptions regarding what God is and is not about. Furthermore, this order of operations is just an affirmation of the fact that acting on more surface levels of culture can effect deeper assumptive levels.

Moving on to other aspects of the chapter, Hirsch makes a number of thought-provoking observations. The section “Yeah, but What Would the Bible Say?” contends that “prophetically consistent Christianity means that we must remain committed to a constant critique of the structures and rituals we set up and maintain” (55). That is, he enlists the biblical prophetic tradition in the service of his anti-institutionalism. This may not be far from fair (I personally tend to agree), but there is no actual handling of the text to substantiate it, and the probability that he is reading in postmodern anti-institutionalism is fairly great.

The use of Ralph Winter’s cultural distance model is helpful. With it, Hirsch explains more missiologically why the church needs to take a missionary stance toward its own context. The distance is real. This section is where he outlines Christendom and then explains how postmodernism has led to “what sociologists call the heterogenization, or simply the tribalization, of Western culture” (61). The resulting subcultures further increase the cultural distance between the churched and the unchurched or dechurched. “Each of them takes their subcultural identity with utmost seriousness, and hence any missional response to them must as well” (61). Adopting a missionary stance, he says, “partly . . . will mean adopting a sending approach rather than an attractional one, and partly it will mean that we have to adopt best practices in cross-cultural missionary methodology” (62–63). I think that is among the best possible summaries of what missional church is all about.

His brief discussion of Alpha groups (a kind of small community evangelistic tool) is a powerful example of the point that a fundamental shift is necessary. For all the numerically impressive involvement of unchurched and dechurched people in United Kingdom Alpha groups (3 million people), there has been no noticeable impact on actual “church growth.” Why? It is still just an add-on to Christendom church; “church growth” still means Christendom growth. “[Alpha] has so many elements of Apostolic Genius latent in its structure but is hindered by a more institutional understanding of church” (63). Churches that think of adding such programs without more essential transformations need to take note.

Hirsch answers an important question about “the way we’ve always done it,” furthering his comparison between the Apostolic church’s genius and that of recent movements such as the Chinese church. There is a pre-Constantinian mode that was lost in the wake of Christendom. This is not a new assertion, but Hirsch does much to make the connection between the critique of Constantinian Christianity and the advocacy of the emerging-missional ecclesiology. As a Restorationist, I have to say that the EMC plea, if you will, is almost comically familiar. My fellow Churches of Christ folk may mistake the following as something from the memoirs of Alexander Campbell:

The leadership emerging in them tends to be imbued with a creative and pioneering spirit. And few of them are ordained—this is a genuine grassroots people movement. There is a rediscovery of Christology and the person of Jesus as the center point of faith, rather than all the highly stylized dogmas and creeds that have defined the Christendom mode. On the whole it is very much a fringe movement—there is no sense that they have a central role in society at large—and yet it seems to be committed to faith in the public sphere. And what is exciting is that all these churches tend to have a missional heart, the desire to reach others with the message of redemption in Jesus (68).

No clergy. Grassroots. “No creed but Christ.” A missional heart. And a keen sense that the church got badly off track when it climbed into bed with Rome. Campbell and Stone would be proud. Moreover, I think the Churches of Christ need to sit up and take note of these resonances. There are certainly important differences, not least because Churches of Christ have themselves crystalized and sold out to Christendom more than the Restoration Movement founders might have imagined, but also because there were some things we just never got right. But for that reason we may find a way out of our own ecclesial quagmire by engaging the EMC.

The above quote is not exhaustive, and the reader will gain much from Hirsch’s fuller description of the EMC. As a brief aside, I note that one of its primary values is creativity and innovation. I’m not sure how much this is Hirsch’s personality shining through or how much is careful analysis of the movement, but it is unmistakably part of his characterization. It strikes me that the way he talks about innovativeness suggests it is a sine qua non of Apostolic Genius, though it is not formally included in his proposal.

Finally, Hirsch’s challenge to emerging ecclesiologies deserves quoting in full:

The absolutely vital issue for newer emerging churches will be their capacity to become genuinely missional. If they fail to make this shift, then they too will be another readjustment of Christendom. A mere fad. As we will see throughout this book, new and emergent forms of church are the result of being missional, not the other way around. I therefore present the same challenge to my brothers and sisters in the emerging church as I do to the established church: if you don’t just want to be another church fad, don’t just make the service and spirituality suit a postmodern audience, start at another place—put the M in the equation first, and EC will follow (72).

I couldn’t agree more. Two observations: (1) Hirsch defines missional in stark contrast to Christendom. What is not missional is just more Christendom. Is, then, what is not Christendom missional? (2) Missional church is not a fad. He recognizes the problem of faddishness among emerging churches. That is not missional. Rather, Apostolic Genius is missional, more on which to come.

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