By Brian Mavis
Alan Hirsch is the founding director of Forge Mission Training Network. He also coleads Future Travelers, an innovative learning program helping megachurches become missional movements. Hirsch is known for his innovative approach to mission, and is considered to be a thought leader and key mission strategist for churches across the Western world. He is not only gifted in understanding the origin of movements, he is able to envision how to create new movements within Christianity.
Hirsch is the author of The Forgotten Ways, and is coauthor of The Shaping of Things to Come, ReJesus, and The Faith of Leap (with Michael Frost); Untamed (with Debra Hirsch); Right Here, Right Now (with Lance Ford); and On the Verge (with Dave Ferguson).
The purpose of this interview is to explore the future of the missional church movement. But before we do that, I want to look back. What has your personal experience with the church been like?
My experience at the church has always been excellent. I’ve loved every church I’ve been a part of. In Australia, I was with the Christian church. In the U.S. you have the churches of Christ, Disciples of Christ, and the Christian churches; it’s not like that over there [where] it remains one tradition. I’ve been a part of a little Pentecostal church. I also went into a kind of large church, and I loved that very much. Then we planted a church ourselves.
When and where did you plant the church?
That was in ’89 in Australia. That forms the basis of much of what I talk about. We did a whole lot of church planting experimentation. Then we quit to serve the denomination. I headed up The Department of Mission and Revitalization, which incorporated elements of leadership development and resources and materials. Kind of strategic mission, you know, guiding the organization. It was a significant job, but it wasn’t my cup of tea. But it shaped me deeply, and I’m glad I did it because it helped me think missionally on a strategic perspective.
Your first book, The Shaping of Things to Come, was published 10 years ago. You have a new edition now. What changes did you make to it?
Just some new stories and updates of stories from the first edition. Also, some of the language is moderated. The first chapter was revolutionary. It was written for church planters. We didn’t think anybody other than church planters would read it.
So it surprised you when the traditional church embraced it?
That was one of the things that surprised us. What we tried to do is help church planters think like missionaries in the Western context. Shaping was the curriculum for our ministry, Forge. But then we managed to get a publishing deal in America. It’s very hard to get published anyway, but two out-of-towners with no platform there . . . it’s a minor miracle. It was formulated in one of the most difficult years of my life in 2001. I was in five different major roles at one time, which about killed me. Then it was published two years later.
In The Shaping of Things to Come, you reference Ivan Illich: “What is the best way to change a society? Is it revolution or reformation? He says it’s neither, it’s to tell an alternative story.” So what has been the dominant story in Christendom, and what is the alternative story?
I think the dominant story, undoubtedly—the one which has caught eyes and imaginations and sort of the way we think about church—is the Christendom story in which the humans sit under the institution of the church; that the church exists somehow in the combination of its buildings and the clergy, the denominational placement and theological conditioning. Really, when I talk about institution, I don’t mean that in a nasty manner; it’s just how we’ve come to think of church.
And I think the alternative story is the story of church as apostolic movements, or missional movements. The phenomenon we see in the New Testament is not the same phenomenon we see 500-plus years later, and the one we take for granted now. They are different in the mode of expression.
I often play this game; imagine we can take a reasonably successful megachurch pastor and time travel him back to the second century, around 150 AD, and ask him, “So using what you know about the church, measure the church. Use the metrics you use to gauge success in the church. Go out and see what you can find. Come back and report what you saw there using your kind of measurement.”
My suggestion is that they will come back and say, “The church doesn’t exist, or it’s barely there and it’s dying.” This is because it doesn’t have the same signals of success we normally look for.
But the second-century church is actually thriving, but it exists in a different modality—that is the same with today’s church in China. Churches exist in apostolic movements, and that’s the alternative story. The stories are different, but the people are the same
Describe the recent history of the missional church, the past decade. What has surprised you?
Well, again, when we penned the first chapter of Shaping in 2001, we really felt at the time the church wasn’t going to respond, and we would have to call revolution, in a sense. I think the biggest surprise along the way, as I look at what has happened the last 10 years, is the adoption of the idea of missional church. So much so that, I think, our best, most progressive thinkers and leaders in the Evangelical world right across the board, have pretty much adopted the idea. We don’t have to argue anymore, which is quite remarkable actually. You know, 10 years ago it was a very disputed phenomenon.
Think of the diffusion of innovation model. In the population of the Evangelical church in America, all you need is 16 percent to tip it. And not just a random 16 percent across the board, it’s actually the innovators, the first adopters you’ve got to win. I think we are very close to 16 percent, if not beyond it.
Oh yeah, I think so; it’s my take on it. I would say if you took the most innovative, earliest adopter-type leaders across America, most would be in the missional conversation. There’s no question they’re for it. You don’t agree?
I think the ideas have won the day, but the application still needs figuring out.
Absolutely. No question about that. But the fundamental arguments have been won.
So on that point, what do you think is next for the missional church? Is it trying to figure out the application points?
I think that’s true. I think we need to get people who are willing to take an idea, who can take an idea, and redesign some things around it, because we still need to work with innovators. The innovators, the early adopters, will take someone else’s idea and improve on it. So it’s great we can come in and articulate the idea in the early stage; that is very critical. So we still need to think. Future Travelers continues to be very selective about the people who join. We’re really after the innovators and early adopters. In Future Travelers, we want to help people become mapmakers, [people who] can write maps that people can follow. So one challenge is to get some working models up and running. But the other challenge will be not to let the idea of missional simply be adopted as a name and have it lose its meaning.
You think that is the primary Achilles heel at the moment?
Yes, I think it’s a very big problem. And the concern would be, if we do lose the meaning of the term, when everything is missional, nothing is missional. So if we lose the meaning of the term, there’s nowhere else to go. There’s no plan B in the missional direction for the church in the West. There’s no way backward. What are the alternatives? If we don’t find our way to be missionaries in our own backyard, then the church in the West will continue to decline. So, it’s a huge problem.
You have people, like Frosty (Michael Frost), who have become prophetic voices to maintain the purity of the idea. I know it will be meliorated and filtered down a lot, and I accept that. But as long as we maintain an orientation toward the outside, I think the church will find its way forward.
So just for grins, give me a simple definition of what it means to be a missional church or a missional movement, in order to keep it from losing its meaning.
See, that’s the problem, because it’s a theological discussion before it’s ecclesiological. It’s not just a one-liner type thing. It’s very hard to do. I can do it, but then you have to explain what you mean by it because the paradigms work against us and how we normally think about things. One of my great concerns for America is Americans’ genius for taking an idea and packaging it. It’s ingenious. It’s a very pragmatic concept. The problem is, because of America’s pragmatism, it’s very impatient with ideas, particularly at the level of assumption. We just assume we understand the mythos and core ideas. And the problem is that unless we go down to the level of assumptions, which are invisible and intangible, unless we spend some time there, all we’re going to do is come out with what we came in with.
So there has to be a paradigm shift, and to look at paradigms requires attention. You can’t think you can get the idea in five minutes and then rush off. It actually requires a specific paradigm shift in the way you think about the church. So I’m always keen to slow people down.
But, if you’re forcing me, basically I would say, a missional church is one that allows the mission of God to determine how we express and how we focus our churches to become the determining, capitalizing, and organizing principles with the local church. Mission becomes how we shape and express ourselves as church. And again it’s very pragmatic, and it doesn’t deal with the fact that, first and foremost, mission is part of the doctrine of God, not the doctrine of the church.
I have a friend who was part of the Jesus Movement. He said the ultimate legacy of that movement was it brought blue jeans and guitars into the church. Would you say that the main difference between that movement and the missional movement is that the former was more about style and the missional movement is more about paradigm and theology? Or how would you distinguish it?
I think the missional movement is first and foremost a paradigm shift. There’s no way we can get by God. God is a sending God. He sent the Son as a missionary. The Spirit is sent by the Father and the Son
. . . to assist the church. In other words, mission precedes ecclesiology. That’s the paradigm shift. We normally sit together and say, “What are we going to do for God?” Actually, this kind of paradigm shift says, “No, actually this is who God is and we get to participate in what God is doing in the world.” That’s a huge shift from the way we normally think about things, isn’t it?
It’s a theological shift. You’re saying not so much that the church has a mission, but the mission has a church. And the church exists to extend the mission of God in the world. That’s one of its core purposes, to extend the purposes of God through the local church and through every believer. That takes a paradigm shift from the way we see the church.
Let’s suppose an innovative church leader agrees with your ideas, and he asks you, “What is the next step?” What would you tell him (keeping in mind your warnings about being patient and the importance of understanding the core ideas)?
My book with Dave Ferguson, On the Verge, is about how you process change in the context of organizations, along the missional paradigms. In it, we discuss four basic stages.
The first change is to imagine. You have that conceptualizing or reconceptualizing function. Using our imaginations, we need to go down and reframe our concepts. It’s very theological. The goal is to help the church see the mission as Jesus sees it.
The next stage is what we call shift. This is the paradigm shifting process, and it is comprised of three different moves. First, you decode the heart of the organization to change the paradigm. Then you create an ethos that is consistent to your paradigm. Then you create practices, things people do consistent with the ethos, and the ethos consistent with the paradigm.
The next thing is to innovate. You need to try new things, to try to do mission as Jesus would do it.
The final piece is what we call the movementum. It’s when you create movement by gaining momentum. Then it’s the little bit of idea of how you get momentum by continuously taking the church through the previous three stages.
So, those are the four stages. The main answer is: have a good change process. Begin with the end in mind, but end with the beginning in mind, as well.
Brian Mavis is executive director of the Externally Focused Network. He also serves as community transformation minister at LifeBridge Christian Church in Longmont, Colorado.