Talking to a Man from the Future: A Conversation With Michael Frost (Jan-Feb 2007)

By Matt Dabbs

by Fred Peatross
January – February, 2007

Michael Frost is the Founding Director of The Centre for Evangelism & Global Mission at Morling Theological College in Sydney.

He is one of Australia’s most widely recognized evangelists and conference speakers, having spoken at some of Australia’s largest conventions and events as well as at conferences in the United States and parts of Asia and Africa.

Michael is the author of six books:

· Jesus the Fool (1994)
· Longing for Love (1996)
· Eyes Wide Open (1999), which was voted Australian Christian Book of the Year in 1999 and published in the USA as Seeing God in the Ordinary (2000)
· Lessons From Reel Life (2001) co-authored with Robert Banks
· Freedom to Explore (2002)
· The Shaping of Things to Come (2003) co-authored with Alan Hirsch, and short-listed for Australian Christian Book of the Year 2004
· Exiles-Living Missionally in a Post-Christian Culture (2006)

He is strong committed to leadership development and has been the co-director in the establishment of Forge, a missional training network for young leaders based in Melbourne. He is on the board of the Australian Arrow Leadership Development Program. Michael has also recently planted a missional church on Sydney’s northern beaches called Small Boat Big Sea.

Michael lives in Sydney’s northern beaches area with his wife Carolyn (a marriage and family counselor) and their three daughters Courtney, Kendall and Fielding.

Last week Fred sat down for an email interview with Mike, and they talked about church, culture, secularism, and building a culture of incarnational (missional) Christians.

(We left in the British/Australian spellings of words such as secularisation and realise).

Fred: Mike, it’s awesome to be able to sit down with one of Australia’s best-known missiologists and ask the questions I’ve been mulling over for some time now. I’m very cognizant of a future path requiring a change in direction and essential for our being able to connect with a culture that’s becoming more and more disinterested in what we are offering. With that said, I must mention what an excellent read The Shaping of Things to Come was. Very challenging. But why should I purchase Exiles: Living Missionally in a Post-Christian Culture?

Michael Frost: Thanks for the kind words about Shaping. So, why read Exiles? Well, if Shaping was an introduction to a missiology for the First World, Exiles is more like a manifesto for Christians who want to live out that missiology in the 21st century. When I wrote Shaping with my friend, Alan Hirsch, we were conscious that we had taken the conceptual material of missiologists and academics like David Bosch, Lesslie Newbigin, Paul Hiebert and others, mixed it with stories about missional communities from around the world, and then developed a series of principles for incarnational mission, sustainable spirituality and pioneering leadership. But in my travels I regularly meet people who say they found Shaping a challenging read. Admittedly, it was pitched at a more academic, leadership level in the church, and rightly so. We were trying to introduce a new construct for a missional church movement. But I became conscious that many Christians want to live missionally and need a framework not just for missional leadership but for a missional life! That’s what Exiles is about. It explores an approach to living an authentic, generous, hospitable, Jesus-centred life in mission. If you found Shaping helpful, I see Exiles as a logical and natural next step.

Fred: Mike, correct me if I’m wrong to assume there are major cultural and traditional variations in the faith communities of Australia and the faith communities in the United States. So how do we in America extrapolate what’s in your mind and writings to the experiences we find in the Protestant church in America?

Michael Frost: Well, to be frank, the non-American world knows a lot more about you guys than you might realise. You dominate global culture. In Sydney we get all your televangelists, your books, your seminars and all the other American church-based paraphernalia. So we know a lot about the American church, and while there are certainly differences between the USA and Australia, because of my extensive travels around America I think I can make the translation for you. Besides, my books are published by a United States publisher (Hendrickson) and their editors tidy up anything I get culturally wrong.

More than that, one of the benefits of my being Australian is that while I come from a highly industrialised Western country not too dissimilar to the United States, my country, unlike the United States, is in an advanced state of secularisation. Only around two to three percent of the total population is evangelical. But you need to face the fact that the number of evangelicals in your country is beginning to slide too.

So in a sense, I come from your future. I know how much worse things can get for the American church. Your country has begun the same slide into secularisation that Australia has been experiencing. Our decline began earlier than yours and has advanced more quickly. As a result, Australian missional church leaders have had to discover incarnational principles as a matter of life or death. We think we’ve learned a thing or two that many American church leaders have been insulated from needing to know. But the day is coming for you.

Fred: How do leaders prepare, begin, and ultimately practice (missional) culture building in faith communities that have relied upon the attractional model for their growth?

Michael Frost: You want me to answer that in a few minutes!? It took me two whole books to answer that question!! Well, the attractional model relies on the old Field of Dreams mantra: “If you build it, they will come.” It assumes that there is a big constituency out there hankering to get back to church if only church was done to their taste. So attractional churches are turning themselves inside-out trying to find the right combination to get the crowds back to church. Dynamic preaching, comfortable seating, convenient parking, excellent children’s ministry, healing ministries, spirit-filled worship, classic hymns, contemporary music etc. etc. etc.

But the terrifying thought that besets us is this: what if people “out there” don’t care how you do church? What if they don’t want conventional church no matter whether it’s contemporary/classic/spirit-filled/Bible-centred/you name it? Well, in many parts of America that’s exactly the case. If all our eggs are in the attractional basket, we are preparing church services for a constituency that no longer exists, or at best is dwindling.

How do we inculcate a missional paradigm? We have to take committed followers of Jesus out into the world to model Christlikeness right under the noses of those who won’t come to our church services. And to do that, we need to free those committed Christians from the various church-based and church-focused ministries they’re currently doing. The opposite of the attractional mode is the incarnational one—that is, the sent mode. For me to live incarnationally I need the freedom and time to hang out with neighbours, join local affinity groups, and to build meaningful relationships with those not yet set free by Jesus. But I can’t do that if I’m in the church band or choir, on various committees, and attending three or four church meetings a week.

Church leaders have to teach their congregations the biblical principles of incarnational mission and then restructure the church programs in order to release people, not to hold on to them. Some churches are so thoroughly self-focused it seems hardly likely that they will be prepared to even take these simple first steps. We, as the church of Jesus Christ, do not exist for ourselves. But as Bonhoeffer says, “We are a church for others.” If we can’t manage this shift in our thinking and practice there will be little hope left in the decades of decline into secularisation that is coming.

Fred: What role does the Sunday morning sermon play in a missional church today?

Michael Frost: Can I put the question another way? If the question was, “What role does Bible teaching play in a missional church today?” the answer would be, “It is absolutely central!” How could we possibly fashion communities of incarnational (sent) Christians without a core-level commitment to effective biblical teaching? Mission is at the heart of the character of God. Teaching God’s Word effectively will lead people into an encounter with the heart of God, which in turn cannot help but inspire us into mission.

So, how do we explain the fact that millions of Americans are listening to sermons every Sunday without ever feeling sent, without ever engaging in local mission? Well maybe for some people the sermon is not the most effective way to learn the Bible. I know that’s a bitter pill for many preachers to swallow, but some people don’t learn by listening to monologues. And some teachers don’t teach most effectively using monologues. I say we must teach the Bible but teach it in the most effective way to lead people into an encounter with the missional heart of God.

Let’s face it, if you can preach like Erwin McManus or Mark Driscoll, and if your church is made up of people who are educated enough to be able to access ideas via lectures and sermons, use the sermon! But if you’re not like those preachers, or if your church is made up of people who learn best by group discussion or by action-and-reflection, I say the need to teach the Bible effectively is far more important than the need to maintain the Sunday sermon at all costs.

Fred: How important is creativity and imagination for the leader attempting to lead in this new era?

Michael Frost: It’s critical. The encroachment of secularisation and the breakdown of Christendom has meant that the tried-and-true modes of ‘doing church’ no longer have the same effect they once had. That’s not a critique of the past value of those tried-and-true modes as such. It’s simply a recognition of the cultural realities of our time.

Just as the sermon needs to be re-evaluated if it’s not the best mode for teaching the Bible, so do other ministry modes like the Sunday service, small group ministry, tithing, sanctuaries, etc. I’m not saying that we need to re-evaluate godly worship, meaningful community, generous giving and sacred spaces, but the ways we’ve done these things can be rethought. Think of it as the difference between means and ends. If Bible teaching is the end and the sermon is the means, I say we can renegotiate the means, but hold fast to the end.

For example, we need to renegotiate the way we do church services without ever abandoning a commitment to worship itself. In many churches it’s the means not the ends that are non-negotiable, which makes the leading of communities through this process both complex and risky. It demands a capacity for imagination and creativity. If you can’t imagine it, you can’t do it! If leaders are just as stuck with the old modes and unable to distinguish between means and ends, then they’ll never lead a community into new territory. Einstein once said, “I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.” Thanks to the freedom of his imagination there was a revolutionary paradigm shift in the scientific world. We need a similar paradigm shift in how we do church and it will be those who rely on their God-inspired imagination who will lead us forward.

Fred: How much has the past shaped our currents thoughts and models? And how stubborn do you anticipate we will be transitioning from what we are use to what is most effective?

Michael Frost: From the moment the Roman emperor Constantine declared the empire to be Christian 1700 years ago, the church has lived with the self-belief that it is a central pillar of Western society. We have become used to assuming that church attendance is a normal and conventional thing to do. We have assumed that our society should listen to us when we make moral pronouncements. In effect, we have believed that we “belong” in the centre of the city square and that the other pillars of our society—government, the legal system, the education system, the corporate sector, the artistic community etc. should listen to our perspective and respond accordingly. That no longer works in Western or Eastern Europe. It no longer works in Scandinavia or Great Britain or Australia and New Zealand. And it works less and less in the United States.

We live in a post-Christian age. The church is marginalised and ignored in many parts of the West and increasingly across America. We can no longer assume that a “come-to-us” approach will work. They are no longer coming to us. The breakdown of Christendom has forced us to rediscover ourselves as we were before Constantine: a marginalised, incarnational, missional community of faith. At least this will mean the embracing of a “go-to-them” approach. And yet isn’t that what we were intended to be in the first place?

Not many people like change, so of course there’s going to be resistance. But sooner or later the pain of being a shrinking, ignored community of faith within American culture will be greater than the pain of embracing the change necessary to get out there and engage missionally and generously with the unchurched.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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