Alan Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways, and the future of the church in Europe

The ebullient Alan Hirsch was in Portugal recently with the Christian Associates leadership community, talking about what makes a missional church-planting movement, in his words, go ‘Kaboom!’ In his book The Forgotten Ways he faces squarely the fact that the church in the West is experiencing ‘massive, long-trended decline’ (16). For the most part, the techniques and strategies that are currently being proposed as remedies for this dilemma are no more than revisions of techniques and strategies that have already proved themselves ineffective. ‘As we anxiously gaze into the future and delve back into our history and traditions to retrieve missiological tools from the Christendom toolbox, many of us are left with the sinking feeling that this is simply not going to work’ (17). What is needed is a new paradigm: ‘a fundamental change in our thoughts, perceptions, and values, especially as they relate to our view of church and mission’.

Apostolic Genius

Hirsch thinks the answer is to be found in the innate ‘Apostolic Genius’ of the church. Drawing on the examples of the dramatic growth of the early church and in recent years of the church in China, he argues that every Jesus community – indeed every believer – has the ‘latent inbuilt missional potencies’ needed to initiate this sort of inflation. What effectively actuates these potencies is an external threat or ‘adaptive challenge’: the social constraints and sometimes outright persecution suffered by the pre-Christendom church and the Chinese church. This is significant because ‘the church in the West faces its own form of adaptive challenge as we negotiate the complexities of the twenty-first century – one that threatens our very survival’ (20).

There are six elements that make up the missional DNA (mDNA) of Apostolic Genius. Once all of these are in place, Apostolic Genius switches on, and exponential growth becomes a possibility.

1. Jesus is Lord. The first element is the core affirmation that ‘Jesus is Lord’. Hirsch has some very good things to say about the missional relevance of a ‘christocentric monotheism’ that challenges the reigning ideology. ‘I have become absolutely convinced,’ he writes, ‘it is Christology, and in particular the primitive, unencumbered Christology of the NT church, that lies at the heart of the renewal of the church at all times and in every age’ (99).

2. Disciple making. The missional movement will fail if churches do not make disciples. ‘It is interesting that when we really look at the dangerous stories of the phenomenal movements, at the most uncomplicated level, they appear to the observer simply as disciple-making systems’ (103). In the Western world this is to be interpreted particularly as the adoption of a stance of obstinate resistance to both secular and religious consumerism.

3. Missional-incarnational impulse. Hirsch allows that the evangelistic-attractional model of church growth has at times been very effective, but he has ‘come to believe it was not the way the early church operated, and neither is it present in other genuine expressions of Apostolic Genius’ (129). The alternative is a ‘missional-incarnational impulse’, which has, on the one hand, much greater reproductive potential and, on the other, the effect of embedding both the gospel and the church as organic elements of the ‘fabric of the host community’ (140).

4. Apostolic environment. A missional church-planting movement requires apostolic leadership. ‘As the apostolic role is responsible and gifted for the extension of Christianity, so too the missionary situation requires a pioneering and innovative mode of leadership to help the church negotiate the new territory in which it finds itself’ (151). Apostolic leadership is both entrepreneurial and theological in character. The apostle must i) ‘embed mDNA through pioneering new ground for the gospel and church’; ii) ‘guard mDNA through the application and integration of apostolic theology’; and iii) ‘create the environment in which the other ministries emerge’ (155-159). Hirsch argues that the Christendom church has effectively reduced the five leadership functions of Ephesians 4:11 to two, pastoring and teaching; and it is hardly surprising, as a result, that the church has lost its missional character.

5. Organic systems. Drawing extensively on current systems thinking, Hirsch argues that a missional movement needs to be structured organically rather than institutionally. The task of missional leadership, therefore, is i) to unleash the missional potential that is latent in all Christian community; ii) to ‘bring the various elements in the system into meaningful interrelationship’; iii) to move the system ‘toward the edge of chaos’, to the point where it ceases to be self-serving and instead becomes responsive to its environment; and iv) to manage the flow of information in order to give shape to the community (183-185).

6. Communitas, not community. Finally, Hirsch arues that the normative state of missional movements should be one of ‘liminality’ and that under these conditions the church will experience not merely ‘community’, which is bourgeois and safe, but communitas. The term ‘liminality’ is used by anthropologists to denote ‘that situation where people find themselves in an in-between, marginal state in relation to the surrounding society, a place that could involve significant danger and disorientation’ (220). Communitas is what happens ‘in situations where individuals are driven to find each other through a common experience of ordeal, humbling, transition, and marginalization’ (221). In other words, communitas is the product of liminality.

To liminality and beyond…

This is a magnificent, expertly conceived and challenging thesis; and it was great fun to engage with it on the westernmost edge of mainland Europe as the big waves rolled in from across the Atlantic. Christian Associates has for some years now thought of its core task as being ‘to initiate a chain reaction of church planting movements’ – as Hirsch characterizes it in this book (190). So as an organization we have to take this analysis very seriously: it purports to offer us what we have been looking for. I hope that what follows will be read not as an objection to Hirsch’s argument but as a ‘Where do we go from here?’ response. My personal problem is knowing how to integrate Hirsch’s insistence that the church needs to revert to a ‘radical Jesus movement’ model, overlayed with an APEPT ministry structure, with the argument of Re:Mission that our understanding of mission must take account of the whole biblical narrative. I should also say that there are nuances, qualifications, details, and ambiguities in The Forgotten Ways that are not going to be adequately reflected in this general appraisal.

Hirsch is absolutely right about the seriousness of the challenge that the Western church faces and the extent of the overhaul needed if it is to maintain a credible presence. He quotes Loren Mead to good effect: ‘We are surrounded by the relics of the Christendom Paradigm, a paradigm that has largely ceased 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’ (66). He has enough good stories and examples to suggest that the missional-incarnational approach is at least workable. I like the precision and coherence of his argument; I like the way he names things; and I think that by labelling and investigating the inherent Apostolic Genius of the church he has made an essential contribution to the task of reshaping the missional consciousness and praxis of the church at a critical moment in its history. But I also think that we need to initiate a constructive conversation with regard to how his thesis works biblically, historically, and missionally within the unique context of post-Christendom Europe.

A number of the issues raised here were addressed in an earlier post following Alan and Debra’s participation in Christian Associates’ 2006 summer staff conference.

1. Do the early church and the contemporary Chinese church provide appropriate models for the Western church?

It is an obvious objection to Hirsch’s argument that even if the model is intrinsically coherent, Western Europe lacks the critical environmental element of severe social opposition or persecution. I agree that we are going through a difficult transitional period, and it may be that the crisis is of sufficient intensity to generate a sense of liminality amongst marginalized Christian communities. But the fact remains that it is a very different type of crisis and a very different type of stress to that faced either by the early church or the modern Chinese church. What the church in Western Europe faces is not hostility but indifference; the stress that we experience is not social but essentially intellectual; and I’m not sure we can simply assume that the same response is needed or that the same outcome can be anticipated.

I think the question must be asked – at least in principle – whether a grassroots church planting movement really is the best way for the church to address the particular and peculiar problems that we face. Why not, for example, put the emphasis on developing the quality of new life in Christ as an alternative to the spiritual and moral bankruptcy of Western culture, rather than on a quantitative programme of church multiplication? Or why not explore what it means to be an effective prophetic community, of whatever size or shape? These are not necessarily incompatible objectives, but I do think that the actual context we face forces us to consider – and indeed implement – a broader range of missional responses than the structuring for church multiplication.

2. Can we make a movement happen?

The book rather proceeds on the assumption that a runaway missional movement can be made to happen – can almost be engineered – simply by assembling the six major components of Apostolic Genius. Is that really how the early church spread? Or the modern Chinese church? These are difficult historical questions, and Hirsch does not provide us with the data necessary to answer them. I also can’t help thinking that the sort of explosive movement envisaged happens not because of but despite the leadership; it should take us by surprise; we should be running to catch up, not engineer it.

The problem, I think, is that it is not fundamentally our faith but our imagination that is being challenged today. Hirsch likes to talk about sneezing Jesus or the gospel so that people simply catch the virus (214). That may have made sense in first century Asia Minor or twentieth century China, but most people in Europe have been innoculated against the Christian message, either by their cultural history or by personal experience. Normally under such conditions a virus would have to mutate before it becomes a highly communicable and dangerous pathogen again. The metaphor can be pushed too far, but it seems to me that Hirsch’s Apostolic Genius model seeks to produce the optimal social and ecclesial conditions under which people may become infected; but it does not address the question of whether the virus as we currently conceive it is potent enough to generate a movement of epidemic proportions. I think that we still have some way to go in collectively re-imagining the content of the ‘good news’ and its implications for the life of the people of God before we will see the re-emergence of a virulent strain of Christian faith to threaten the ‘health’ of postmodern Europe.

It seems to me that much of our missiological thinking too often fails to address the question of why postmodern people would want to join – let alone die for – a movement of Christian renewal. From a historical point of view what drove the expansion of the early church and accounted for its eventual victory over Greek-Roman paganism were concrete practices such as the faithful worship of one God, the routine moral integrity of believers, and the self-sacrificing compassion shown by Christians to plague victims. So there is another question – and in some ways a much more interesting question – to ask alongside Hirsch’s systems analysis: What are the convictions and practices that might inspire significant numbers of people to desert European secular-pluralism and become part of a missional church-planting movement? There is a place in Hirsch’s argument to pose and explore this question – particularly in the sections on the lordship of Jesus and discipleship as a counter-cultural way of life. But my concern is that these issues will get sidelined by a methodology that is for the most part focused on the socio-mechanics of making a movement happen.

3. Does the liminality argument really work?

I think I understand why Hirsch is pushing the liminality argument so hard. If the church in Western Europe is going to be effectively missional, it needs to get well outside its shrinking comfort zone. But I can’t help feeling that he’s overstated the case when he insists that liminality and communitas are ‘thoroughly biblical and… inextricably linked to Apostolic Genius’ (223) and ‘normative for the pilgrim people of God in the Bible’ (224).

In the anthropological model ‘liminality’ is defined as a temporary departure of adolescent males from the safety of the village in order to make their rite of passage to manhood. It refers, therefore, to exceptional periods in the life of a community. This is also what we see in Hirsch’s biblical examples. The exodus and exile are regarded in the Old Testament as transitional, problematic, and far from ideal episodes. Israel’s experience was very different under these circumstances and we see a different type of ‘faith’ being exercised. But the exodus was for the express purpose of the arrival in Canaan as the fulfilment of the seminal promise to Abraham; and the catastrophic judgment of the exile was always mitigated by the expectation of a much greater restoration to the land and renewal of the covenant. Yes, Samuel, Elijah, Samson and David experienced conditions of liminality (223), but always for the sake of the well-being and security of the settled community. David spent time on the run with his companions, no doubt enjoying a vigorous, manly communitas; but he also reigned for 40 years as king, first over Judea, then over the whole of Israel, establishing Jerusalem as the fixed and prosperous centre of his kingdom. Jesus and his followers lived in a very insecure state, and I wouldn’t hesitate to describe their fellowship as communitas. But we cannot make that experience normative for the church in Western Europe today without distorting either the Gospel stories or the circumstances of the church. We are simply not following him ‘on the road in the dangerous conditions of an occupied land and against a hostile and dodgy religious elite’. If we are going to make use of these categories, we need to make sure that we understand what they mean in relation to the particular historical and cultural situation of the church in post-Christendom Europe.

4. Is a radical Jesus movement the right way to go?

How far is it true, as a matter of biblical interpretation, that what Jesus initiated was an ‘organic people movement’, not a ‘religious institution’ (54)? The church undoubtedly began as a people movement – that was the form in which it spread out into the Greek-Roman world. But if the fundamental vocation of the people of God, going all the way back to Abraham and in anticipation of a final hope, is to be ‘new creation’, I would question whether the full scope of that missional calling can be encompassed within the imaginative frame of a Jesus movement. I think that we need to understand the ‘Jesus movement’ of the early centuries as historically transitional. It constitutes the dramatic and defining period in the story when, through the ‘faithfulness of Jesus’, God’s people overcame its inherent failing, its sinfulness, its inability to keep to the terms of the covenant, and re-emerged as ‘new creation’ in Christ, empowered by the Spirit, and dispersed throughout the world to announce that YHWH is indeed God of the whole earth. It may well be the case that the best response to the ‘adaptive challenge’ that we currently face is to revert to being a transitional and liminal Jesus movement again as we struggle towards the birth of a new paradigm. But the principle remains: the Jesus movement of the early centuries was restorative, and I think that what it produced was bigger than the movement itself.

But then we face a different type of question, because I have the strong impression that the emerging church is eager to follow NT Wright in shifting its eschatological orientation from the escape of the faithful to heaven to the renewal of the whole of creation and the coming of God from heaven to dwell in the midst of his remade world. There is a real tension here between, on the one hand, this expansive hope and the spectrum of missional activity that it inspires and, on the other, Hirsch’s overt reduction of mission to the multiplication of communities of Jesus followers. I understand his concerns about syncretism (98); and his insistence that it is Christology, and in particular the primitive, unencumbered Christology of the NT church, that lies at the heart of the renewal of the church at all times and in every age’ is compelling (99). But I’m not convinced that this in itself constitutes an adequate missional response to European post-Christendom, secular pluralism. I would argue, as NT Wright does, that in the final analysis mission should take its bearings not from christology but from eschatology – or at least, from a christology that, in keeping with passages such as John 1:1-3; 1 Cor. 8:6; Col. 1:15-16; Heb. 1:2; 2:10, embraces the full new creational (and trinitarian) shape of Christ. I want to encourage people to discover – practically, prophetically and proleptically – the fulness of the new creational blessing that has been recovered in Christ.

The other question I have about the ‘radical Jesus movement’ approach is: What about the rest of the story? As I have suggested already, Jesus does not start a new religion in a historical vacuum: he is the culmination of Israel’s story, and the story continues beyond the resurrection to include, most importantly, the expectation of vindication and victory over paganism. If disciple-making in the manner of Jesus is so critical for mission, why does Paul have nothing to say about ‘discipleship’ in his letters? He urges people to imitate Christ, but the central thought here, as for that matter in the Gospels, is that the church is called to follow Christ down a path of suffering (Phil. 3:10-17; 1 Thess. 1:6). This sort of discipleship may make a lot of sense in the context of the Chinese church, but it seems to me that the missional challenge that we face in the West, in the absence of persecution, is to demonstrate the fulness of God’s alternative way of being human. It may sound a bit alarming but I think that discipleship construed simply as following Jesus is too narrow.

In the first place, the biblical story is much bigger than that. At a certain juncture Jesus invested his life and embedded his teaching in his followers, ‘developing them into authentic disciples’ (102), but this venture cannot be extracted from the larger story that goes back to Abraham and looks forward first to the vindication of the faithful community and then to the final renewal of heaven and earth. Much as the emerging church may be attracted to the concrete, everyday, human model of following Jesus around Palestine, the fact is that the church now lives under the lordship of the Christ who reigns at the right hand of the Father. A missional movement must also make sense of that theological dynamic.

Secondly, if the church is to have a future in a post-Christendom world, it needs not merely Jesus but a viable belief system, a way of integrating not just core beliefs but the whole of our mental world. I would suggest, in fact, that the point historically we need to go back to is not the Gospel story but the moment when the early church began to emerge from the transitional period characterized by pagan oppression, from the story of the Son of man, and took upon itself the task of reconceiving the whole of life: in other words, the moment at which the Christendom paradigm began to take shape. We do not need to revisit the decisive conflict between the faithful, suffering community and the crushing power of Rome: that is not the situation in which we find ourselves. But we do need to ask what alternative ways of structuring our world, both internally and externally, are available to us now that the Christendom model has broken down. That must be approached as a highly creative, imaginative, intellectual task.

5. Are we sure that it’s a missional-incarnational movement that we need?

Hirsch argues that there is a ‘consistent biblical critique of the religious institutions that so easily develop over time’ (55). That’s true, and I agree that a ‘prophetically consistent Christianity means that we must remain committed to a constant critique of the structures and rituals we set up and maintain’. But when institutions such as the monarchy and the temple are condemned in scripture, it is not because they are institutions but because they are corrupt. Conversely, the people of God were not beyond censure in their more liminal periods. Israel was no more obedient, no more righteous, when it was wandering through the wilderness in a state of extreme liminality than it was as a settled and developed nation in the promised land. Biblical Israel finds its ideal expression not under Moses in the wilderness but under David as a successful kingdom. Paul has no difficulty finding fault with the radical Jesus movement in Corinth.

To be honest, I am strongly drawn to – indeed, committed to – to the principle of incarnational mission. The problem, however, with the whole attractional-incarnational debate is that it keeps us locked in a discussion of structures and forms and blinds us to the simple fact that we exist first as a people. A people may express itself in all manner of ways for all manner of purposes under all manner of circumstances. The early church was hardly in a position to gather in large numbers for worship; and the church in China stays house-bound only because it has to. The idea of a centralized place of worship to which the nations are attracted is central to Old Testament hopes, and I’m not sure this is altogether superseded in the New Testament. The megachurch is undoubtedly overworked in the US, but in Europe I can see real symbolic significance in large-scale attractive worship: it makes a statement missionally and prophetically about the worth of the Creator God. It may be that the larger churches in Western Europe have not expressed that symbolic potential very well, but that does not mean that size is now a missional handicap. Why shouldn’t believers collaborate institutionally in order to make a powerfully creative prophetic statement through the enthusiastic assembling of large numbers of people to worship God? Why should we not, even as we journey reluctantly through the post-Christendom wilderness, enact Isaiah’s powerful eschatological vision of the nations converging on restored Zion to pay tribute to the God of the whole earth?


An emerging theology always seeks to contextualize itself. Or to put it another way, an emerging theology is an incarnational theology. It understands its environment and the story that it finds itself in. It seems to me that the challenge Alan Hirsch has left us with is how do we make sense of his Apostolic Genius in a context that is very different to that of the two models of missional expansion that dominate the argument of The Forgotten Ways. Then we will have to ask whether the reversion to being a radical Jesus movement adequately embodies the sort of missional response demanded from us under these conditions. The church may always carry the missional DNA of Apostolic Genius within itself, and this may be the time to reactivate it. Hirsch has done a comprehensive and persuasive job of restating the missional responsibility of believing communities in apostolic terms, as an energetic, determined, adventurous, risk-taking engagement with the host culture. But I think that the deeper vocation of the church is to be God’s new creation, an alternative humanity, a world-within-a-world, and I’m not sure we can afford to lose sight of this expansive imaginative challenge as we make our way into this brave new post-Christendom world.