"Ouch!" - Reading Alan Hirsch's "The Forgotten Ways" was an uncomfortable experience. This is a rich and thought-provoking book which should be widely read by Christians in 'the West', because it so provocatively, and profoundly analyses the church of which we are a part. It hardly needs to be reiterated that we live in one of the few times and places in which the church of Christ is shrinking, (collapsing), and looks completely unable to handle the challenges it faces. Hirsch's book is about why that is the case, and where we should start to look for answers to this crisis.
Central to Hirsch's critique are a series of comparisons he draws between the first Christian churches of the New Testament (and immediate post-NT era) and the contemporary Chinese underground churches on one hand; and the Western church on the other. The comparisons - in which we do not come out favourably (!) are not simply growth-related either, as The Forgotten Ways is not merely about the quantity of disciples of Jesus but about the quality of our discipleship! In Hirsch's view, while we have become used to the settled, 'safe' and 'institutionalised' church; the Early and Chinese churches were apostolic people-movements. As such, they are hard-wired to grow and flourish, while were are almost structured to stagnate.
The canvas onto which Hirsch paints the many fine details of his argument is of the historical shift out of modernism, which has rendered our Constantinian ecclesiological heritage not just irrelevant but positively harmful. Specifically he argues that it was Constantine's endorsement of the Christian faith which lead the way to the stultifying institutionalism which subsequently crippled us. While Christianity held the cultural hegemony, or even just centrality, the churches were able to attract or compel worshippers to participate. This Constantinian shift meant that an elevated priesthood emerged, along with formalised training, structures, offices, roles, and of course special buildings. Christianity was no longer a people-movement, but an organisation dispensing spiritual goods, he argues. This prevailing mindset has meant that in the post-Christendom era, the church has primarily responded to the challenges of secularism, materialism, pluralism and the 'de-christianising' of society by seeking to re-vamp its' existing model in order to compete more effectively in the cultural market-place. Some of Hirsch's most robust critiques are reserved for the 'church-growth-movement', whose programmes, consultants and seeker-friendly presentations he sees as well-intentioned but ultimately disastrous responses to the situation. He pointedly describes the so-called mega-churches as making church feel like a shopping mall; not presenting a Christian alternative to it. Critical to all this is Hirsch's contention (which he argues at length) that if the church is stuck in a Constantian-Christendom mindset it will be fatally wedded to an 'attractional' view of outreach. The evidence presented in this book suggests that this is a largely unproductive approach, as for all but a very tiny group of people on the periphery of the Christian community, they will never be attracted to the institutional church no matter how good its programmes are.
In one stunning passage Hirsch goes as far as saying that the excellence of what is presented in so many church services is actually a problem for the growth of real disciples and reaching new folks for Christ! His reasoning is as follows: Firstly highly professionalised services create a culture of dependency on the institution for the provision of religious goods and services, provided in ever larger venues. This is the opposite of the outward-flow of the New Testament house-churches in which everyone was a participant as there were no religious-professionals running the show.
Secondly, while 'seeker-friendly' approaches make the services of an impossible standard to replicate (I know of one church who require Grade 8 minimum in music before gaining an audition to the worship-band); they also have made becoming a Christian far too easy! The early (and Chinese) churches require any new convert to be willing to give their lives for Christ as they are forged in persecution, and set the bar extremely high in discipleship terms - but have no fancy buildings, robes, musicians, inspirational speakers, or programmes. Instead they had Spirit-filled house churches, and one-to-one encounters which were easily and simply replicated. So while the church as it should be is High-Discipleship and Easy-Replication; we have in our intoxication with dragging the attractional model out for another generation, reversed this and gone for Low-demand-Discipleship, and hard to replicate churches.
What was perhaps hardest for me to read was Hirsch's critique that as a church we have embraced a middle-class fascination with safety and stability in contrast the radical risk-taking adventures of the new testament churches. We don't just work the failing attractional model to death because we have dated theology, but because we feel safe in church where our ideas won't be challenged or ridiculed. I have to plead guilty on this score. Discussing and debating theology with other Christians is endlessly enjoyable and 'safe' whereas engaging the world is more difficult. Hirsch shows that historically it has been when the church has emerged from its inward-focused institutional-maintenance mindset that it has re-captured its divinely appointed purpose of making disciples of Jesus.
Helpfully, Hirsch describes two ways in which this liberation of the church takes place. The first is the re-discovery of this Apostolic-genius through charismatic leadership. Hirsch is always careful to define the kinds of terms he uses in his books, and in this point he is talking not simply about leaders with human warmth or charm, nor about leaders identified with the "Charismatic Movement". Rather he is contrasting the type of Holy-Spirit inspired leaders of the New Testament (like Paul) and the contemporary Chinese apostolic leaders who spontaneously inspire a missionary movement around them; with the kind of 'appointed and employed office-bearer' with which we are familiar in the West.
The second liberating factor is crisis. In Hirsch's experience, research and considered opinion, the church when facing all kinds of crises actually dispenses with all unnecessary embellishments and becomes an apostolic people-movement! These crises have occurred when persecutions have broken out, or when the church has voluntarily extracted itself from its' slumber and lived sacrificially for those outside the kingdom, including the poorest and most vulnerable. In Hirsch's vision for church life, this is about rejecting Christian cultural ghetto-isation, and embracing incarnational missionary living. The book records an amusing (but yet profound) conversation between someone who had been involved in the Western-led Chinese church prior to Mao's persecutions, and the expulsions of 1950; and someone recently returned from visiting the Chinese churches and observing their wildfire growth. The first person expressed sorrow that the Chinese had been robbed of their denominations, theologians and books, western missionaries, and leaders - and were left to survive with just the Holy Spirit. The second replied, "I'm pleased to report that the Holy Spirit is doing just fine!"
There is much more that could be extracted from the book developing these lines of thought, but these snippets give enough of a flavour of Hirsch's perspective for the purposes of a short review. There are many books which claim to be a 'wake up call to the church', and many of these strike a belligerent or aggressive tone. This book however is a real 'wake-up call' - not to work harder or shout louder; but to re-imagine the church without the institutional baggage that anchors it in the past and weighs it down in the present. Instead, Hirsch calls us to re-embrace what he calls the Apostolic Genius of the grass-roots people movement, of Monotheistic Jesus followers, who love and serve this world as they fully participate in it, His critique of where we are in the Western Churches, is astute - and devastating. His suggestions about where we need to go are massively thought-provoking. The difficulty lies in one of Hirsch's closing sentences, (p244) where he rightly says, "For many of us this will feel like an almost impossible leap to get from where we now stand to even approximate the vitality of the Jesus movements we have studied." That perhaps is the only under-statement in the whole volume.