A Conversation With Alan Hirsch (Mar-Apr 2008)

By Matt Dabbs

by Fred Peatross
March – April, 2008

Alan Hirsch is the founding director of Forge; an innovative Mission Training Agency dedicated to the identification, development and nurture of missional leaders, and to the cultivation of missional communities in Australia and beyond.

Hirsch’s current role in the network is as national director and coordinator. He lives in community in St Kilda (Australia) with Debra and others. He is co-author of The Shaping of Things to Come and The Forgotten Ways, dreamer, mission strategist, and local missionary. His experience in leadership includes leading a local church movement among the marginalized as well as heading up the Mission and Revitalization work of his denomination, the Church of Christ. He is adjunct professor at Fuller Seminary and lectures frequently throughout Australia. Alan and Debra are relocating to the United States until about 2010 to help develop leadership training systems as well as to begin a doctorate in mission and theology at Fuller.

Fred Peatross spoke with Hirsch about his latest and perhaps most important book, The Forgotten Ways.

The Forgotten WaysThe Forgotten Ways

Fred: Alan, I appreciate you taking time from your schedule to share with the readers of New Wineskins. Among those who are not familiar with your writings I pray the following conversation creates both a seriousness and a curiosity to dig deeper and learn about some important matters essential to the future influence of the western church.

Michael Frost and you made a huge contribution with The Shaping of Things to Come and now with your most recent book, The Forgotten Ways you have generated some vibrant activity among, not a few, but many voices within the emerging conversation. You have both defined and characterized the current church mode and given direction for the future. So before we begin, I want to thank you for the influence and direction you’re giving the church of the present and the future.

With that said, I’m curious to hear more about your history among the Churches of Christ. Can you tell the readers a little about this?

Alan Hirsch: Well, in some ways, I stumbled upon the Churches of Christ (not the Boston group thankfully!). I actually came to the Lord through the ministry of wild Pentecostals. I started going to Carlton Church of Christ in Melbourne through connecting with Debra (who was to become my wife) and many of her fellowship of freaks (as described in the book). They had found their way into this little conservative fellowship where the youth group was in their sixties, and had stuck around. But I have found that it has been as comfortable a denominational home as any. And I rather like its historic commitment to confessional simplicity around Jesus and a low ecclesiology. It suits my missional biases towards reproducible movements.

R is for RevolutionFred: Attractional churches and Missional churches—distinctions very difficult to distinguish for those ministering in the attractional church. How do you distinguish these? I don’t think I have ever left the impression that attractional/missional church is an either/or position, which may be part of the reason it is so difficult for those doing ministry in the attractional church to grasp the distinction. But I have yet to walk away from a discussion feeling as if I had clearly defined the differences. In the simplest way you know how, would you articulate the differences?

Alan Hirsch: I think the use of the term attractional is a tad ambiguous, but because I am partly responsible for introducing it into the broader conversation I have to stick with it. What I am trying to get at in using the term attractional is what I call the missionary mode or primary posture of the church in relation to its context. An attractional church is one whose primary stance towards those it seeks to reach is couched in the expectation of a come-to-us mentality. And this expectation as it plays out in the US, Europe, Australia, etc. was basically formed in a time in history where the church had a central position in the culture and people naturally came to church to be cared for, to hear the gospel, and to participate in the community life. The problem is that adopting such a mode is at the cost of fundamentally altering our understanding of ourselves as a ‘sent’ people. (Incidentally, the word missio, from which we get our word mission, comes from the Latin word meaning sent.) And this is further exacerbated by the fact that we live in what historians and theologians rightly call a post-Christendom era. In other words, an attractional church can work in a Christendom context, but in a missionary context it actually undermines our efforts to reach people meaningfully with the Gospel of Jesus. It is literally out-moded! A ‘sent people’ no matter how you configure it implies a going of sorts. And when combined with the other primary theological metaphor in the Bible of how God reaches the nations, namely the Incarnation, it clashes head-on with the primary expectation built into attractional forms of church. Hence the conflict—they are basically two different conceptions of church vying for our loyalty in our day.

But another ambiguity can be explained by saying that while a more missionally defined church moves from a come-to-us mentality to a go-to-them mentality, nonetheless all expressions of church should be attractive. That is, we should always be culturally compelling. Don’t mistake not being attractional for not being attractive.

Fred: If you were asked to steer a conventional, western church on a missional path and were given the freedom to utilize or reallocate all funds and resources in the best way you felt this could be accomplished, how and what would you do? Let’s say you have three staff members and a lien-free building. And the building is located in a neighborhood where few members actually live.

Alan Hirsch: Fred, you want to get me into trouble here! The issue of change and transition into missional forms of church is fraught with many complex problems. But again, at the heart of the problem is our ‘idea of church’—the conception we have of what it means to be God’s people as a community. Part of the problem is that we have so associated our idea of church with the institutional forms of it (including programs, services, professionalization of ministry, theologies, denominational templates, etc.) that we need to at least be given the chance to experience each other as Jesus’ church divorced from the predominance of the institution of the church.

Having said this, I do believe the building can present a real problem—for one, it staticizes our idea of church. I would certainly have the building in my sights. But that would be just one thing—the heart of my strategy would be to try to communicate a more primal and organic idea of church and mission because I think that is more who we truly are meant to be. You no doubt know that wonderful quote from Antoine de Saint Extupery: “If you want to build a ship, don’t summon people to buy wood, prepare tools, distribute jobs, and organize the work—rather, teach people the yearning for the wide, boundless ocean.”

The unfolding of Christianity as the means by which people are re-connected to God has nothing to do with the institutionalized idea of church in the first instance. We need to recover our most basic, and dangerous, forms of church—that of an apostolic movement. It’s the story of the church and her mission that I outline in The Forgotten Ways. I would tell and retell of that story and then let’s see what happens!

Fred: Can you talk a little about “third place communities?” How important are they to the missional mode?

Alan Hirsch:I think in the West these are absolutely vital to our mission. For those who don’t know the jargon, the first place is our homes, the second place is our work environments, and the third place is our preferred social environment. It is where you hang out when you have time to hang out. The problem for us in the West is that the first place (home) is primarily defined by our concepts of the nuclear family. The home is our fortress from the onslaughts of the world around about us. It can be a place of mission but in most cases it is severely limited because most of us do not see the family as an extended, or open, family as in ancient Mediterranean cultures of the Bible. The second place (work) is very formalized and guarded by roles you have to play if you are to get on with others and is also therefore very limited. The third place however, is a wonderful place where you can engage with people on their own turf. But as Neil Cole says, you have to be willing to sit in the smoking section if you want to do mission in our contexts. It’s a great way to get us out of our cloistered holy zones and take Jesus to where the people are. I actually think it should be our primary missional ground.

Fred: Can you explain to Wineskins readers how you think adopting a distinctly missional-incarnation approach will find a faith community emerging from mission, rather than mission emerging from a particular expression of church?

Alan Hirsch: Quite simply because when you adopt an missional-incarnational approach to engaging our world, then you are forced to a go-to-them, hang-out-with-them approach to mission before you ever get to ask the question, “What is church for this people group?” The problem is that we usually frontload our idea of church into the missional equation. And while the reality of the Church as God’s community is a vital, non-negotiable, part of the Christian faith, the forms that the church must take are almost entirely to be guided by the cultural context of the church. If this were not the case, the Paul’s argument in Galatians is flawed and we all should be adopting Jewish forms of church, including circumcision! Ouch! The church follows mission and not the other way around.New Wineskins

Fred PeatrossFred Peatross lives, works, romances his wife and exudes deep feelings of love, awe, and admiration for his Creator while living in the heart of Appalachia. For over two decades Fred has resided in Huntington, West Virginia where he has been a leader in the traditional church. He has been a deacon, a shepherd, and a pulpit minister. But his greatest love is Missio Dei.

Long before thousands of missionaries poured into the former Soviet Union Fred, in a combined effort with a Christ follower from Alabama planted a church in Dneprodzerhinsk, Ukraine. Today Fred lives as a missionary to America daily praying behind the back of his friends as he journeys and explores life alongside them. [Fred Peatross’ book Missio Dei - In the Crisis of ChristianityMissio Dei: In the Crisis of Christianity, reviewed in New Wineskins]. He blogs at [Abductive Columns].

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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