In The Forgotten Ways, Alan Hirsch lays out a paradigm for church leaders in the West to return to the missional strategy of the early church. Hirsch combines data from the Book of Acts with that from the house church movement in China to recover the “Apostolic genius” that drives successful missionary endeavors. He then describes how the Apostolic genius might apply to churches in the West.
Hirsch calls Part 1 of The Forgotten Ways “The Making of a Missionary.” In these early chapters, he recounts his experience as a missionary in Australia and outlines what he thinks is wrong with the dominant paradigm of “doing church” in America. In short, the Western obsession with the “seeker sensitive” movement has created a dichotomy between the professional Christians who do ministry (10% of the body) and the others who sit and watch (90% of the body). Emergent conversation-based models might increase the ratio to 20/80, but they still leave the majority of church members uninvolved. The medium, he argues, is the message—Christianity is about sitting and watching while the professionals do the work.
Ironically enough, with all the focus on church growth, most seeker sensitive churches fail to produce any real growth. (The few notable megachurch exceptions make it seem like the method works.) Further, most of the growth from seeker sensitive churches is from transfers from other churches. The problem, according to Hirsch, is the method itself. The whole notion of a seeker sensitive church is to cater the style of a church to target a specific demographic. Hirsch says that this does nothing but encourage consumerism—you can have church the way you want it. Again, the medium is the message. (He also cautions that Emergent-style churches can do the same thing for a different demographic. “Come to our church. We’re hip, trendy, artistic, and relevant.”) Further, all of the seeker sensitive churches compete over the same suburban middle class demographic so that only the fittest will survive. And, while the seeker sensitive churches compete over the suburban middle class, the majority of the population is ignored. Thus is any area you will have one or two “successful” churches (the ones with the best music and preaching) that draw the entire target demographic, and a large population of unchurched people.
In contrast to the Western seeker-sensitive model is that model espoused by the early church and by the persecuted church in China. These churches have been forced into limiting congregations to 15 people and they have been prohibited from having “professional” ministers. As a result, the church in China, like the early church, is flourishing. Hirsch asks, “What are they doing that we are not?” and concludes that the Chinese have recaptured the “Apostolic genius,” the church planting model of the Apostles that led to success in ministry. Hirsch pushes for a return to these forgotten ways.
In Part 2 of The Forgotten Ways, “A Journey to the Heart of the Apostolic Genius,” Hirsch describes how churches in the West can apply a successful missionary paradigm to their own ministries. The main tenets of the Apostolic genius are:
- The Lordship of Christ. This means that the message of the church is that Jesus is Lord. Christianity is not about praying a prayer, walking an aisle and joining the church, it’s about making Jesus Lord.
- Disciple-making. This refers to reproducing followers of Jesus within a church. The focus shouldn’t be on better music and more relevant preaching, but on making disciples of Jesus.
- Missional-Incarnational Impulse
- Apostolic Environment. This refers to leadership. Every church should have an Apostolic figure who focuses on starting new things—getting the ball rolling and bringing the focus back on mission. Underneath this Apostle are various teachers, pastors, evangelists and prophets who do the work of the ministry.
- Organic Systems. This approach is about abandoning the institutional framework and instead viewing the church as a growing organism.
- Communitas. This is community based on mission and liminal activities, not on getting together for coffee and Bible studies.
Despite the wealth of good information in The Forgotten Ways, there are some historical and methodological issues that diminish the value of Hirsch’s Apostolic genius. Hirsch makes the same error that a lot of missions-minded folks make—he glorifies the Book of Acts and the 20th century missionary movement to the detriment of the rest of the New Testament and church history. Hirsch is anti-institutional. This is the thesis of his book. However, the early church was not free from institutions. Most of the New Testament is letters from Paul to the churches that he founded, in which he is exercising a kind of authority over them. There were structures. There were leaders. I would even say there were institutions. Further, Acts could be called a work of propaganda, glorifying the early church to the Roman Empire. The rest of the New Testament isn’t so generous. Do we want a church like the ones in Galatia? What about Corinth? There were problems even in the romanticized early church. Further, the “institutionalized” church made a lot of progress for the kingdom of God in history. It had/has problems, but it also did some good.
The Forgotten Ways is a welcome reminder of the Apostolic genius. Even if we don’t adapt everything that Hirsch suggests, we need to acknowledge that something isn’t working. A return to mission and communitas seems like the proper prescription for the Western church. However, abandoning all of the institutions seems like throwing the baby out with the bathwater.