The Forgotten Ways

Author: Alan Hirsch
Publisher: Brazos Presss, Grand Rapids, MI. 2007
288 pages


ON the weekend I cracked Alan's latest book, one that looks to have been in process since the publication of The Shaping of Things to Come.

It's not easy to release a solid followup to such an encompassing first work. Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch burst on the scene with a great deal of passion, imagination, focus, and clarity. They asked significant questions, and offered significant thoughts based on a wealth of experience in a post-Christendom context. Their first book remains on my short list for best reads in the past five years.

To my surprise and delight, Alan's second book is likely to make that same short list. All I propose to do today is to share first impressions.

Really, I couldn't be more pleased. I'm pleased both for personal reasons and for kingdom reasons. The personal reasons are that this book arrives just before I begin serious preparation to speak at a conference in Manitoba in February. The book has offered me another perspective and more raw material on which to build. I'm thinking both of the general sessions as well as a workshop on "evangelism." That word exists in a cultural framework that is far too narrow, and my intention will be to deconstruct it for the purpose of substituting a much larger vision.

Second, I'm pleased because Alan does a terrific job of clarifying some of the murky issues, and building on the first book. I'm excited about this, because clearly God is at work. Like many of you, I am immersed in the world of church and culture, gospel and kingdom, and sometimes I am too close to the trees to see the forest. At times I wonder if the emergent conversation is only that.. a conversation. What will be the impact? Is there hope for the church in the west? Are we wasting our time?

Then there are moments when I catch a glimpse of the telos, see the impact of the conversation, and suddenly have a sense of both movement and direction.. I see God's purpose more clearly, and I see others who have dedicated their lives to God and His kingdom, who are not boxing the wind but who are making an impact. I find myself encouraged to keep trying, to continue writing, and even.. to travel and speak. As an introvert, I'm not always excited about the latter. But greater clarity and hope leads to renewed vision and passion.. Ok, on to first impressions.

The book is divided into two broad sections. Section 1 is "the making of a missionary." Alan tells his own story, a journey from attractional-evangelistic models to incarnational-missional practice. This section contains a lengthy introduction and then two chapters Section 2 is "a journey to the heart of apostolic genius." In this section Alan works out what he calls missional DNA. There are many points of contact with Neil Cole and some with Howard Snyder, both of whom made use of the DNA analogy, but Alan is more intent on fleshing out a deeper missional ecclesiology than did Neil Cole, and his direction is both broader and more focused than Snyder's in "Decoding the Church." There is also some significant resonance with Alan Roxburgh's "The Sky is Falling," particularly with regard to the use of "liminality" and "communitas" vs "community."

Section two comprises 8 chapters and then a lengthy addendum and short glossary. All told the book is 288 pages in length.

I'll try to describe more than the territory as I work through the chapters. I resonate very deeply with the ecclesiology Alan is describing. It feels like we have been sharing the same conversations.. but more than that, perhaps sharing some of the same history also. His approach to "covenant" as part of the core of ekklesial life, for example, is a conviction I share with both Alans (Roxburgh and Hirsch). Well.. on to the content. Remember, this is only dipping the toes today, tomorrow or Wednesday we'll get wet.

Alan opens with the question you may have seen elsewhere:how did the early Christian movement go from roughly 25,000 members in AD 100 to roughly 20 million two hundred years later? more critically, how did they accomplish this without buildings, a coherent Scripture (other than the first testament), no professional leaders, no seeker sensitive services, youth groups, or worship bands.. and while the church was under persecution! (we probably wouldn't have even the membership we have today if that element was suddenly introduced).

Now, Alan doesn't anchor his reflection only in the early church. The church in China experienced nearly the same growth rate under similar conditions. Leaders killed or imprisoned, unable to use or build large meeting halls, no leadership training, almost no access to the bible etc. In his introduction Alan offers a foretaste of what is to come. He outlines six elements of mDNA.

* Jesus is Lord
* Disciple Making
* Missional-Incarnational Impulse
* Apostolic Environment
* Organic Systems
* Communitas instead of community

In chapter 1 Alan begins filling in the details. He notes, as he and Mike noted in the previous book, that great missionary movements begin on the margins. The story of the transformation of his own faith community from maintenance to missional is a great read. One of his notes along the way is that only about 12 percent of the typical populace in western contexts is attracted to the contemporary church growth model. Since almost all churches in typical western cities are working from this model, they are all competing for the same demographic. This leaves more than 85% of the population untouched. (Granted, some of these are de-churched Christians who are likewise uninterested in consumerist, passive gatherings). Reaching the other 87% of our populations is not going to happen with doing more of the same.

In Alan's own experience, tweaking the system had some effect. It enabled mobilization of some of the passive believers. This left two problems, however.... 1. how to reverse the numbers.. with 20% of members active and 80% passive. And 2. how to reach out to the 85% of the population who were interested in the typical church. Alan concluded that the fundamental issue was that they had been ineffective at making disciples, and so were failing at living missionally. At issue was consumption.. believers who were not being converted out of the market ethos into a kingdom ethos. For the most part, people came to church to be fed... not to be empowered and sent. Alan realized that "we cannot consume our way to discipleship."

Alan's reference to "practices" and "covenant" on page 46 brought a strong sense of resonance. I immediately felt he was on a solid and revolutionary track. The reimagining and reflective process of engagement took Alan and his community into a deep ecclesiology. They came up with this:

1. the would grow smaller so that passivity was more difficult to maintain .. they became a cell church

2. they would not develop a philosophy of ministry per se but rather a covenant and some core practices. They did not want to appeal to the head, but to the feet. They didn't want mere "motherhood" statements but an expression of shared life.

3. each group had to be engaged in healthy spiritual disciplines -- the only way to grow in Christlikeness. toward this end they came up with their own model: TEMPT..

Part II

This is my second foray into Alan's followup to his earlier work with Michael Frost, The Shaping of Things to Come. I had hoped to cover most of the book this week, but work and life have a way of interfering with my good intentions. If I spend too much time on reading or on my blog, my business suffers.. not good for the family budget.

In my first look I attempted to convey my excitement about the book. Now we'll move beyond the introduction and first chapter and begin to get at the heart of Alan's thesis. Chapter two opens with two quotes, the first from the notorious Machiavelli, and the second from David Bosch.

"Nothing is more difficult to carry out, nor more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to handle, than achieving a new order of things." Machiavelli

"Strictly speaking one ought to say that the church is always in a state of crisis and that its greatest shortcoming is that it is only occasionally aware of it..." D Bosch

For Alan, this translates into the recognition that "most efforts at change in the church fail to deal with the very assumptions on which Christendom is built and maintains itself." (51) In part, this is why we are "stuck in a moment and can't get out of it" (U2). The discussion here is on the Christendom compact, and Alan references both Stuart Murray and Douglas John Hall.

Alan uses an analogy from the computer world. Apple Computers is synonymous with innovation. In that world innovation translates into reworking three components: hardware, OS, and software. There isn't much point in developing new hardware unless a new operating system is also designed. And there isn't much use for a new OS unless new software is developed. Working at one level only without addressing the other two creates bottlenecks that restrict effectiveness.

In a similar manner, developing new programs without addressing the shifting cultural context, or addressing that context apart from also doing theological work only limits the work of God in the world. Reorienting the church around its mission is a huge and embracing task, and it requires systemic change. Alan calls us to become aware of the invisible assumptions that govern our interaction with the gospel and culture: in effect, he calls us in the same direction as Margaret Wheatley, Parker Palmer, Peter Senge and others, to "see our seeing." When we have done that work, true change becomes possible.

Alan reminds us that Ivan Illich suggested that to change the world one must tell an alternative story. What are the myths on which our systems are built? Are we aware of how our "operating systems" interface with the hardware and software? Like Brueggemann, we are going to have to appeal to an alternative scripting of reality, "the playful entertainment of [a script] that may subvert the old given text and its interpretation and lead to the embrace of an alternative text and its redescription of reality.” This process becomes more challenging as we recognize our own resistance to change, our investment in the "the politics of oppression and the economics of affluence." As McLaren and others are constantly reminding us, the Gospel is profoundly political.

Are we then "anti-institutional?" Alan comes across this way, as do many of us, but he prefers to reference "holy subversion." Holy rebellion directs us to a greater experience of God than we currently know. Alan maintains that this attitude and resulting action is our only hope for renewal.

The next section references the work of Ralph Winter and his idea of "cultural distance." This material has been used by many others, including Brian McLaren. In short, we set ourselves and others on a scale from m0 on the left to m4 on the right in order to "see" the gap we must cross in order to proclaim and authentically perform the Gospel.

Each movement along the scale from left to right indicates a barrier one must cross to bring the Gospel. The common example is language, a step from m0 to m1. The step from m1 to m2 would be from a "Christian" context to a context where there is popular awareness (perhaps having heard bad things about the church), or previous rejection. From m2 to m3 there is no real knowledge of Christianity at all.. this is an alternative culture or ethnic group. From m3 to m4 is the greatest distance and often active resistance.

The Edict of Milan and Constantine's deal with the church provided a uniform context in the western world for 1600 years. The church has largely conformed to that mode and is comfortable working with the m0 to m1 regions. Now, however, that region is vanishing and we are forced to move beyond those simple barriers to m2 and even m3, all in our own neighborhoods. In Christendom "outreach" often worked. In post-Christendom and the pluralistic environment, the cultural distance has increased and our local context has become missional.

Intriguing.. in missional settings the "attractional" mode becomes "extractional." We actually do more damage than good by evangelizing a few and bringing them into our isolated Christian subculture. We need to explore and find incarnational means of ekklesial life if we are going to survive as a dynamic movement. Alan moves on from here to discuss the emerging church movement and the many signs of dynamic spiritual life, mostly underground, and worldwide as he moves into the second section, titled "A Journey to the Heart of Apostolic Genius."

Part III

It's time to take on chapter 3, the first chapter in the section on the heart of apostolic genius. As I mentioned yesterday, this chapter is on the Lordship of Christ. Are we going to get something like Walsh and Keesmaat treatment of God's people living under the influence of Empire as in Colossians Remixed?

"The highest form of theology is when it blossoms into prayer." I think that was coined by Karl Barth, and it's a good reminder that the point of all this is God. We aren't learning for the sake of learning, we are learning for the purpose of growth in grace for God's glory and ongoing participation with Him in His work of redemption. In all things we pray, "Your kingdom come..." Frankly, it's difficult to appreciate the truth of a chapter like this one unless one has spent recent time in the closet. "Have you seen the one who my heart loves?" (S of Songs 3:3) When the journey becomes a romance a lot of things change.

This is where we take off our shoes and kneel.. it's holy ground. This is where pluralistic appreciation ends, and we announce to all who will listen that "Jesus is Lord!" This is a moment of surrender.. and there is no going forward to appreciate mere propositions.. we come into the Presence of Him without whom there would be no "movement," no "apostolic genius," in fact, there would be nothing at all because "From Him and to Him and through Him are all things."

Alan is right that it's easy to examine vital spiritual movements and find their characteristics and qualities. But it's not easy to know or imitate their faith except by putting ourselves in their place and reaching for the same personal knowledge of Christ. One of the by-products of persecution is that believers learn to "travel light." They learn what is really important, and their eyes become fixed on a "city they have not seen." In this process the true message is rediscovered, because a true Love is recovered. There is no holding back the message or the messengers any more. As one of the old Puritan divines was fond of saying, "you don't have to advertise a fire."

What is the message? The message is that "Jesus is Lord." Alan draws on his Jewish roots to remind us that this is a profoundly universal claim - profoundly narrow and monotheistic. The context of First Testament Judaism was pluralistic and polytheistic, not unlike the context that Jesus was born in, and not unlike our own context today. Part of the impact of the Jewish claim that "God is one and there is no other" was an integrating and unifying movement. No longer did one have to worry about the god of the water and the god of the fire, the god of fertility and the god of war.. all meaning and all power was found in one God. Yahweh's Lordship was complete. The process of conversion is to bring all of life under His direction. The Torah was designed as a guide to help this process along and it related all of life to God.

The Incarnation didn't alter this central truth, but made its claim more immediate and more personal. Moreoever, monotheism was modified into Trinitarian monotheism, and the Lordship that was associated with the Father is passed to Jesus. Alan relates this movement to a Messianic monotheism, part of whose task is to bring together the sacred and "secular." In a way similar to David Fitch in The Great Giveaway, Alan decries any worship practice that attempts to create sacred space apart from incarnational mission. Dualism continues to assert itself in our faith practices, but if "God is One" and "Jesus is Lord" this is simply not acceptable. Using the diagram that appeared in The Shaping of Things to Come, Alan decries dualistic spirituality that separates Sunday from Monday.

Alan closes the chapter with a consideration of how the central force of mDNA actually guides our missional activity. One of the questions he is often asked relates to contextualization: how far is too far? At what point do we become syncretists? He explores the apartheid system as an example of a theological legitimation for sin and a refusal to live under the claims of love and justice. A second example is the Rwandan genocide. Christianity finally served as a brand name but made little claim on most of the Rwandan Christians. It's at this point that we could proceed into a fruitful discussion of Colossians Remixed and the claims of Christ versus the claims of Empire. Related, Mark van Steenwyk recently penned this:

There is a fad in some quarters about a “theology of incarnation,”ť meaning that our task is to discern what God is doing in the world and to do it with him. But that is only half the truth, and the wrong half to start with. John’s theology of the Incarnation is about God’s Word coming as light into darkness, as a hammer that breaks the rock into pieces, as a fresh word of judgment and mercy. You might as well say that an incarnational missiology is about discovering what God is saying no to today and finding out how to say it with him. That was the lesson Barth and Bonhoeffer had to teach in Germany in the 1930s, and it’s all too relevant as today’s world becomes simultaneously more liberal and more totalitarian.

The next chapter is titled simply, "Disciple Making."

Part IV

If chapter 3 is the theological foundation for the book, chapter 4 is the strategic foundation set strongly in the context of a critique of culture. One famous writer on culture defines the western worldview as a "market worldview." Others have noted that the market has finally trumped even the nation state (Fukuyama). Hamilton and Dennis point out that while we have more than ever we are unhappier than ever (Affluenza).

In spite of all this, it is consumer culture that shapes and forms us, much more than the gospel. Some of this shaping is profoundly subversive. Alan points to shows like Extreme Makeover and even Extreme Home Makeover. These shows invite us to anchor our hope in a material deliverance. The thing that will complete us is... a new home, a new kitchen, a new car, a new.. church? We are invited to live for the moment rather than for the city we have not seen.

But I'm moving too quickly here. The chapter is on "discipleship," which some of us might reframe as "formation." What forms us, and to what end? Alan's argument is that discipleship and formation form the backbone of a dynamic movement. Apart from discipleship, we won't be the kind of people who can live in an alternative way and thus point to an alternative kingdom under a sovereign Lord. Apart from formation, we don't have leaders who model a different way of being and who live from a different center. Alan notes that we have lost the art of disciple making for three reasons:

* we reduced discipleship to the assimilation of ideas
* the impact of cultural Christianity (privatism, individualism, false gods)
* the phenomenon of consumerism (mammon, comfort, false gods)

Alan notes that the wild growth of Christianity occurred when it was precisely NOT seeker friendly, and he quotes Neil Cole of CMA: "we articulated this profound goal: we want to lower the bar of how church is done, and raise the bar of what it means to be a disciple."

Next Alan moves into a discussion of the cultural context of the consumerist worldview. He states categorically that the largest challenge to the recovery of a missional movement is not Buddhism, the New Age, or Islam.. but consumerism. "If the role of religion is to offer identity, purpose, meaning, community.. then consumerism meets all these criteria." (107) Most ads appeal to one or more of these religious dimensions. Douglas Rushkoff in his PBS documentary on consumerism, The Persuaders, (the full video is available online), noted that marketers have co-opted the language of religion because religion offers the ultimate object of desire.

Alan then does a brief historical review to demonstrate how religion was privatized and separated out from common life (108). As a result of secularization life itself became commodified, and finally Christian spirituality has come to reflect consumerization. Through the influence of church growth thinking and the market culture consumerism became the driving ideology of the church's ministry, and the medium has now overwhelmed the message. This section reminds me of similar reflections by David Fitch in The Great Giveaway (ch 4 page 95ff "The Production of Experience")

The conclusion? We cannot consume our way into discipleship. We have two options: attempt to redeem the rhythms of consumption, or offer a clear alternative. Alan argues that the latter must be attempted. I agree strongly. We have to embrace alternative practices.. not merely alternative thinking which would reinforce our Greek mindset and leave us .. and our world.. unchallenged and unchanged. Only by intention and attention to something else can we be formed in new ways. He notes that new monastic orders are a serious attempt to deal with our context and he references Rutba House.

Next Alan references the modus of this movement, which is "to be conformed to the image of Jesus." Formation has a telos.. a purpose and an end.. even in this it is counter cultural. Our means is really union with Christ, and the end is the same. As we embody Jesus by His Spirit we will make the Father known (my Trinitarian plug here). Embodiment mirrors incarnation theologically. We continue the incarnation in our flesh.. this is what it means to be the BODY of Christ in the world. Ultimately, and profoundly, the medium is the message. As Jim Wallis wrote, "the only way to propagate a message is to live it." And as Buber wrote, "we must become the teaching."

In the closing pages of this sweeping chapter, Alan holds the lamp to leadership. He argues for "inspirational leadership" and references Gandhi, Martin Luther King. In other places he mentions Mother Teresa. He could have added Vaclev Havel and Nelson Mandela. These men and women led not because they were skilled, or brilliant, though some were, but rather because of a passion that led them to make sacrifices for a dream that was larger than they were. Finally authority (Gr. exousia) is something that comes out of oneself. Alan notes that knowledge alone does not make leaders, unless they are maintenance leaders. What we need are missional leaders. We need more than a change of thinking. He quotes Rohr, "we can't think ourselves into a new way of living; we must live ourselves into a new way of thinking." Jesus own model for discipleship involved intention and action; it was built around mission.

Part V

Chapter 3 set the theological foundation, then chapter 4 set the strategic foundation. Now in the fifth chapter Alan looks at the missional-incarnational impulse, beginning with the missio Dei. Alan quotes Darrel Guder,

“We have come to see that mission is not merely an activity of the church. Rather, mission is the result of God’s initiative, rooted in God’s purpose to heal and restore creation. God’s mission began with the call of Israel.. and reached its revelatory climax in the incarnation. It continues today in the witness of churches in every culture to the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

We are reminded that Jesus did not come preaching the church, but the kingdom of God. Alan contrasts the attractional vs the missional impulse. Alan identifies four elements that frame our understanding of the incarnation: presence, proximity, powerlessness, and proclamation. Alan notes that the incarnation was organic: Jesus was so much like his neighbors, he was never even noticed until he began to do miracles. As a movement took shape, the gospel became embedded first in the Hebrew culture and then in the Greek. Alan compares this dynamic to seed and soil, and then new life growing and reseeding itself. Alan spelled out some of the differences between attractional and missional in his previous book (72).

Alan suggests that we have tended to place ecclesiology before missiology. He argues for a different order. Christology comes first, then missiology, then ecclesiology. The shape of the church is determined by Jesus and His mission. That mission comes first means the church is always embedded in a particular context, and that her shape is guided by her purpose.

On pages 145ff Alan looks at several different missional communities: TPC, (Re)Verb and Imagine Tasmania. He demonstrates that parties, pubs and third places are profound opportunities for missional engagement.

Part VI

"Purpose and principle, clearly understood and articulated, and commonly shared, are the genetic code of any healthy organization. To the degree that you hold purpose and principles in common among you , you can dispense with command and control. People will know how to behave in accordance with them, and they will do it in thousands of unimaginable, creative ways. The organization will become a vital, living set of beliefs."

This quote from Dee Hock is an intriguing way to open the 6th chapter. It smacks of Buber's "the wise man will become a teaching," as well as some fundamental emergence theory. It also recalls some fundamental ideas about leadership in a chaordic system.

What is the fundamental task of leaders? Some of us would argue that task is to create culture, or to shape environments. Alan quotes Max DePree, "The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality." I like the rest of the quote... "The last is to say thank you. In between, the leader must become a servant and a debtor."

The title of this chapter is "Apostolic Environment." It seems that Alan has a dual interest here: one is to talk about leadership, and the other is to talk about environments. Alan will connect both of these elements to his own thinking about apostolic ministry in the postmodern world.

Along with many of you, I consider the word "apostle" to be loaded with cultural bias, historical distortions and aberrations, abuse, and general theological ignorance. Alan and Mike, in their earlier book together, did some good work on unloading and de-gnosticizing the word. They worked at removing the over spiritualized connotations, and the various connections with authority and control, and set it back in the real world. Others have added their own brush strokes, like Alan Roxborough in his recent work "The Sky is Falling."

Alan opens with an echo of the earlier argument: it will take more than pastor-leader types to get us where we need to go. "God gave some apostles" for a good reason. These people tend to be creative, entrepreneurial, and living on the creative boundaries of the church and culture. They have a passion for the gospel, and a passion to see a vital church living in a missional mode. Alan is interested in describing function here, and not an office. Apostles are interested in the growth of the gospel both physically and theologically. Alan suggests three primary functions:

  • to embed mDNA through pioneering new ground for the gospel and the church
  • to guard mDNA through the application and integration of apostolic theology. Alan appears to include the "poetic" function here when he references maintaining the web of meaning.
  • to create the environment in which the other ministries emerge. Alan reacts specifically to authority conceptions when he says that the foundation setting work of apostles is to shape the environment and provide a reference point for the other gifts.

Alan points out that the APEPT ministires (Shaping, 165ff) provide for the maturing of the body, maintaining a healthy mDNA. A good word that references this dynamic at work is "empowerment." When command and control and top-down authority is at work God's people are restricted rather than empowered. Apostolic ministry releases freedom, growth, and health. Alan reaches for some good metaphors: farmer (gardener?), midwife and generally organic and ecological concepts. Alan notes that networks that are non-hierarchical need another organizing principle: meaning. Webs of meaning connect people who share a common dream and a common conception of their purpose. Networks grow up spontaneously, with leaders who embody and articulate the mDNA.

Next Alan shifts to a rehearsal of APEPT and some organizational theory. There are definable stages in organizational life. Young movements are full of prophets and visionaries, people with little vested interest in old forms and lots of energy for risk and experimentation. But as movements become organizations, the builders and synergists take over.. establishing relational connections, consolidating the group. The visionaries and questioners are marginalized. Next teachers and administrators standardize roles and functions and systematize a system of understanding and the builders and synergists are marginalized. As time passes the adminstrators rule, and as they manage the organization it shifts to maintenance mode. Finally, authority is encapsulated in an office and the bureaucrats rule with a rod of iron. Little change or growth is possible, and the organization dies.

So the apostles and prophets are always strongly in evidence in the birth of new movements, but then are thrust aside as the movement becomes established. Charism gives place to charisma.. pastors and teachers rule .. humanizers and systematizers. Movements become institutions in part because they push aside the innovators and visionaries, they lose touch with context and become frozen in time. Life and passion gives way to "hardening of the categories."

The way to recapture a missional movement from the perspective of APEPT is to find and empower those apostolic types. But that means destabilizing a system, disabling the homeostatic mechanisms, and that is inevitably an uncomfortable process. Alan relates his own experience at SMRC, where they restructured their leadership team on the APEPT principle. Leadership was adapted so that all five ministries were represented on the team. The apostolic team focued on translaocal, missional and strategic issues. The prophetic team focused on listening to God and discerning his will, social justice, and questioning the status quo of a middle class church. The evangelistic team focused on overseeing and developing outreach. The pastoral team worked at community, worship, counseling, etc. All this worked within an open learning model which allowed the team to "fit and split" and "contend and transcend" (175).

Part VII

Nothing is more difficult to carry out, nor more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to handle, than achieving a new order of things." Machiavelli

Remember that as I opened this review Alan offered six elements of mDNA.

* Jesus is Lord
* Disciple Making
* Missional-Incarnational Impulse
* Apostolic Environment
* Organic Systems
* Communitas instead of community

We have now covered four of the six elements. Chapter 7 now outlines "Organic Systems." Alan opens the chapter with a quote from Peter Drucker that reminds me of a similar line attributed to JP Getty: "In times of rapid change experience is our worst enemy." But the reasons for this are less an attribute of complex systems than of our embeddedness in them. We resist change because our personal sense of identity becomes tied up in organizations. Status, security, power.. we resist change because of the loss of these things we value. Inevitably we confront the paradox that nothing changes unless we ourselves are willing to change.

I begin this chapter with a strong sense of anchor in the work of Howard Snyder in Liberating the Church: the Ecology of Church and Kingdom. This seminal work was published in 1983 and began to give me a language for the discomfort I was experiencing in my own church. At the time I had recently been exposed to the work of Jacques Ellul. That powerful combination began to push me outside the boundaries of a system which was as much mechanized as organic.

Snyder reminds us that our word "ecology" is related to the Greek word "oikos" (house) and oikonomia (our word "economy.") The whole world is God's household, and his ordering of it is his economy. Snyder writes that, “Fundamentally, the Universe is not ordered logically,, psychologically, nor sociologically, but ecologically.” (50) Synder goes on to connect God’s rule to shalom, an embracing metaphor. He continues,

Will we opt for technology or ecology? This is not an either-or choice, but a question of dominant models. Will we view the world essentially as a machine or as a garden? Will we see the earth as a factory or as a home? Will we opt for technology or ecology? This is not an either-or choice but a question of dominant models… If the controlling reality is technosystem, mechanistic technology takes over and life suffers from being squeezed into the “clockwork orange” habitat for which it was never meant…. (43)

The clincher follows on the next page when Snyder writes that, “As men and women become like their gods, so they become like their models. A machine model (a technosystem) produces human robots; an organic model (an ecosystem) produces healthy persons.”

Some may argue that this is still too simple; we may relate more easily to the expression "we become what we worship." The role of the imagination in drawing us toward a vision is powerful. What most of us are getting at when we use the language of organic versus organized, or institutional versus unstructured, is the expression of dualism we see in most of the western church. We see an incarnation of the technological society, and a vision of the “good life” that is culturally bound, oppressive, and unsustainable. It is not coincidental that we pursue small as the new big. Some of us remember EF Schumacher. It’s true that some really are anti-structure; but most of us are pursuing simplicity without that dichotomy, and we are ready to embrace both design and emergence.

The images of the church in the second testament are universally organic. Similarly, the analogies and parables Jesus uses to describe the kingdom are images and stories from life. Alan argues that the richness of the metaphor is precisely because it is not mechanistic.

From here he moves into a discussion of systems theory. Systems theory itself came into being as a result of the biological studies of Murray Bowen and related work in attachment theory by Bowlby and Ainsworth. Eventually family systems theory led to systems of therapy, since diagnosis is fundamental to treatment. That's not a bad analogy to keep in mind as we think about the western church and Alan's use of systems theory here.

Alan references the work of Capra, Wheatley and Pascale as influential in his thought about emergent systems. The first two are well known to most readers of my blog, the latter, along with Milleman and Gioja, are the authors of Surfing the Edge of Chaos, a book which applies systems thinking to organizational change and leadership -- the book is well referenced all over the net.

Alan offers a summary of the insights of systems theory as relevant to this chapter on the organic component of mDNA.

1. all living things have innate intelligence.. sometimes called "distributed intelligence." The task of leadership is to unleash and harness (?) distributed intelligence by creating environments where it can manifest

2. Life is profoundly interconnected. The primary operative idea is that of relationships in a dynamic network-- a web of life and meaning. We are part of a larger system (ex. the butterfly effect)

3. information brings change: all living systems respond to information

4. adaptive challenges and emergence: by constantly interacting with the environment living systems catalyze a built in capacity to adapt to changing circumstances

Before continuing, note the (?) mark in point one. How does "harness" fit with "unleash?" The words connote opposites. I'm curious also about point 3: information does not always result in change, whether in living systems or in individual persons. In fact, one of the fundamentals of systems theory points in the opposite direction: systems seek equilibrium. This is called the "homeostatic mechanism." It works in macro physics also: disturb a stationary object and it will soon be stationary again. What we are really questioning here is entropy, in view of the discovery that on the quantum level energy seems almost limitless and laws of entropy don't always apply. Theologically, we know that the Spirit is given to the church and in this sense the church is not a closed system and is not limited to physical laws. Alan's first point in summary, that everything they need is given to God's people, is right. He argues that "the task of missional leadership is to unleash the mDNA that is dormant in the system."

Secondly, "the task of missional leadership is to bring the various elements in the system into meaningful interrelationship." The idea was expressed by Fritjof Capra like this, “The most powerful organizational learning and collective knowledge sharing grows through informal relationships and personal networks—via working conversations in communities of practice.” In order to adapt in an increasingly complex environment we have to harness the knowledge and good will of every individual in the system. Alan reminds us that in Ephesians 4 language, we have to connect every part of the body in a healthy way to the other parts so that the gifts can function appropriately to bring maturity. Looking through the leadership lens we could recall the words of Mort Ryerson, chairman of Perot Systems:

“we must realize that our task is to call people together often, so that everyone gains clarity about who we are, who we’ve just become, who we still want to be. If the organization can stay in a continuous conversation about who it is and who it is becoming, then leaders don’t have to undertake the impossible task of trying to hold it all together.”

Third, and this point was made strongly in the previous book (Shaping), "we have to move the system toward the edge of chaos; that is, it needs to become responsive to its environment." (184) When systems are controlled from the top-down they become essentially conservative and unresponsive. They lose flexibility. Good examples of over-control of organic systems abound in science text books, and usually there are good examples of poor ecological management near to home. Forest are overmanaged and smaller fires are extinguished too quickly, resulting in huge wildfires that are tremendously destructive. For management reasons, biological uniformity is preferred over diversity, and a simple disease spreads unchecked through an entire system. The lesson shouldn't be lost on the church. But Alan's point is not lost: we have to disturb the system. This is happening by virtue of our shifting culture and dwindling church memberships; but the response we make is critical.

Fourth, "because systems exist in a mass of disordered information, the task of leadership is to help select the [type] of information and focus the community around it." With the amount and complexity of information now available, the church needs help to make sense of cultural change, to rediscover the essential gospel narrative, and to reconnect in authentic ways with the culture.

The second major section of the seventh chapter builds on the foundation of the living systems perspective. Alan opens this section with a consideration of institutional dynamics.

Alan argues that we need to think of the early church as preinstitutional rather than non-institutional. He recognizes that all living systems are organized -- they need a structure in order to live and thrive in the real world. Life is a highly organized phenomenon. He quotes Neil Cole: "Structures are needed, but they must be simple, reproducible, and internal rather than external." (186) The key point: we need to allow God to structure .. and direct.. His body. Moreover, he argues for a kingdom centered dynamic rather than church centered (my interpretation) in order to recover the missional purpose.

Alan then summarizes the drift from movement to machine, from decentered to centralized, from permission to control. He references the constriction placed on the dynamic Celtic church by the Roman Church as an example of movement destruction, and he also references the power and fluidity of networks, which is going to dominate the discussion shortly. As I am reading this section I am thinking of Margaret Wheatley's discussion in A Simpler Way. She writes,

"The people who loved the purpose grow to disdain the institution that was created to fulfil it. Passion mutates into procedures, rules and roles. Instead of purpose, we have policies. Instead of being free to create, we impose constraints that squeeze the life out of us. The organization is frozen in time. We see its dead and bloated form and resent it for what it prevents us from doing."

Alan does not reference "the powers" (stoichea) in this section, but IIRC he did make mention of Paul's teaching in this area in the earlier book. The danger is that we give over authority and responsibility not merely to human figures, but to impersonal forces. What is a corporation? As Michael Frost writes in EXILES, "An ingenious device for obtaining individual profit without individual responsibility." He describes it thus:

"an anti-social personality. It is self-interested, inherently amoral, callous and deceitful; it breaches social and legal standards to get its way; it does not suffer from guilt, yet it can mimic the human qualities of caring, empathy and altruism. Four case studies, drawn from a universe of corporate activity, demonstrate harm to workers, human health, animals and the biosphere..." (211)

So what is "a movement ethos" and what differentiates it from an institution? "One is conservative, the other progressive; one is .. passive, the other actively.. influencing; one looks to the past, the other to the future; one is anxious, the other prepared to take risks; one guards boundaries, the other crosses them." (190) Alan then offers a working definition of movement:

"a group of people organized for, ideologically motivated by, and committed to a purpose which implements some form of personal or social change; who are actively engaged in the recruitment of others; and whose influence is spreading in opposition to the established order in which it originated."

On page 192 Alan offers a diagram similar to that in Shaping: the life cycle of movements This time the decline phase is focused on varieties of doubt. He summarizes Howard Snyder's work on signature characteristics of movements (from the book Signs of the Spirit):

  • a thirst for renewal
  • a new stress on the work of the Spirit
  • an institutional-charismatic tension
  • a concern for being a countercultural community
  • nontraditional or nonordained leadership
  • ministry to the poor
  • energy or dynamism

Alan offers two other typologies for comparison. David Hurst's (Crisis and Renewal) typology of movement from hunters to herders it the more interesting. That transition is from..

  • mission becomes strategy
  • roles become tasks
  • teams become structure
  • networks become organization
  • recognition becomes compensation

Alan writes that "Apostolic Genius expresses itself in a movement ethos [and] forms itself around a network structure" (196). So what do networks look like? Using some material from Pete Ward (Liquid Church) Alan describes networks. "Solid church" is built around buildings and isolation; "liquid church" is built around networks and infiltrates culture. Alan argues that the problem is that we like to be anchored and secure, and we identify too quickly with concrete and visible expressions. But liquids are characterized by flow. The New Testament concept of ekklesia is dynamic, adaptable, and responsive to change.

Alan refers repeatedly in this section to Apostolic Genius. It's important to keep the previous chapter in mind. On page 199 Alan offers an example of a movement that lost much of its dynamic as it expanded and centralized. They decided they needed to "give the church away" and become an apostolic movement. He writes, "Unlike a denomination or an association, which confers ordination and provides genearl accountability to church leaders through centralized structure, they conceived an "apostolic movement" as being a networked family of churches with a common focus, minus the restrictive structures of denominationalism." The helpful diagram on page 64 could easily have been repeated here, contrasting the "apostolic mode," "Christendom mode" and the "emerging missional mode" (with strong similarities between the first and the last).

The next section focuses on networks and uses the work of Dee Hock (The Birth of the Chaordic Age). Alan demonstrates that networks represent a fruitful paradigm for thinking about church and kingdom and for releasing and empowering ministry and mission. He references a number of apostolic networks that operate with mDNA as missional movements, including STADIA, CMA and Third Place Communities. He then references some organic growth models and the power of multiplication. Viruses and metabolic patterns (Milgram’s “six degrees of separation”) demonstrate that given the right conditions, growth can occur at an incredible pace. Alan is concerned to point out that reproducibility is fundamental to organic life and dynamic movements. “Reproducibility needs to be built into the initiating model through the embedding of a simple guiding system that ensures the organization will continue and evolve…” through sharing of new genetic material. He questions the church growth model in this light and the reproducibility .. and even fundamental organic health.. of a Saddleback system.


We are coming up quickly on the end of this tour through Alan Hirsch latest contribution to the recovering of a missional movement in the western Church. Today we look at the final chapter and the sixth major element of mDNA (missional DNA).

The chapter opens with three quotes, two of which you may have seen rotating through my own quote bot at top right. Here is the best one: "It is the unknown that defines our existence. We are constantly seeking, not just for answers to our questions, but for new questions. We are explorers..." Command Ben Sisko, Deep Space Nine

As we work through the chapter I'll point up some parallels to the work Alan Roxburgh did in The Sky is Falling. Roxburgh spent three chapters discussing various aspects of Communitas in relation to liminality, the church and cultural shift.

The title of this eighth chapter is Communitas, not Community. That's telling, of course, since Alan's agenda is partly to contrast what we have known in our settled, and generally attractional, Christendom mode as opposed to the incarnational-missional movement that Jesus is recovering in His Church. We might have known some elements of community, but here in the west we have rarely experienced communitas.

Alan understands the difference well. As his own faith community, South Melbourne Restoration Community, experienced growth they attracted a large group of middle class Christians. That group began to define their existence and their ethos, which became increasingly maintenance and attraction. But that heralded the loss of communitas and the death of a missional ethos. So what is communitas?
"Liminality and Communitas" was the title of the essay by Victor Turner (1969). Turner's concept denoted intense feelings of social togetherness and belonging, often in connection with rituals. In communitas, people stand together "outside" society, and society is strengthened by this otherness. The concept is in many ways the opposite of Marx's alienation and is closely related to Durkheim's ideas about the "sacred" (vs. the "profane").

"Communitas as a social form alternates with "normal" social structure, and is, according to Turner's theories, not limited to the liminal phase in rites de passage. Many social phenomena are difficult to place within the rites de passage model of separation, liminality and reintegration, [but] may more naturally be considered a form of "anti-structure", alternating with normal social structure. Turner detached the phenomena liminality and communitas from the model for transitional rituals (Turner 1969). The two social models exist simultaneously in a society, and no normal society can function adequately without this dialectic with communitas (Turner 1967:129). The alternation between the two states follows successively and is enforced naturally." (Definition quoted from: Eggen, Řyvind: Troens Bekjennere: Kontinuitet og endring i en lćstadiansk menighet, translated by Finn Sivert Nielsen.)

In The Sky is Falling Roxburgh talks about rites of passage, writing that, "Communitas describes a latter, potential phase of Liminality. Communitas is about what can happen to the relationships among a divergent group undergoing discontinuous change together." (102) Discontinuous change refers, in part, to loss of cultural stability. When the culture shifts rapidly and roles are disembedded, we are thrown into Liminality and anxiety and chaos ensue.
People or societies in a liminal phase are a "kind of institutional capsule or pocket which contains the germ of future social developments, of societal change" (Turner, 1982:45).

Turner describes five stages of liminality. Later in the liminal process the tension between anti-structure and structure becomes acute. One group will desperately seek to return the system to stability and equilibrium. Another will continue to fight against structure, thereby undermining the creative dynamic of liminality. Roxburgh argues that this is where dialogue is needed and has the potential to assist in the birth of something new.

"Communitas is a new kind of commons, an open space where we might discover and learn from one another in powerfully innovative ways… The commons is an archaic, unfamiliar idea.. [it] refers to those spaces (land, ideas, values, relationships) open to ordinary people. They are collectively owned." (Roxburgh, 109)

The difference between Roxburgh and Hirsch appears here. Where Hirsch appreciates this new common space and its importance for reimagining church, he sees it as a fixture in the life of a missional movement; not temporary, but a part of missional DNA. Roxburgh, with Turner, sees it as part of a transitional phase. On the other hand, Hirsch recognizes that liminality is virtually impossible to maintain. The history of Christianity is a movement through liminality to stability and back to liminality. That movement can be found cycling through the life of faith communities in a single generation. It's hard to remain on the edge. (And this would be a good place to recall the work of Niebuhr, The Social Sources of Denominationalism. Niebuhr demonstrated how affluence and upward mobility cause us to shy away from risk and generate conservativism).

Alan discusses the necessity of risk and adventure in a living and vital movement, and notes that Jesus "had nowhere to lay his head." It's not difficult to see that those interested in maintaining the status quo have too much invested to risk change, and that settled and institutionalized organizations prefer stable roles, professional managers over innovation and leadership, and work to minimize risk. In contrast, Alan quotes David Bosch,

“Strictly speaking one ought to say that the church is always in a state of crisis and that its greatest shortcoming is that it is only occasionally aware of it. This ought to be the case because of the abiding tension between the church's essential nature and its empirical condition... That there were so many centuries of crisis-free existence for the Church was therefore an abnormality... And if the atmosphere of crisislessness still lingers on in many parts of the West, this is simply the result of a dangerous delusion. Let us also know that to encounter crisis is to encounter the possibility of truly being the Church. (Transforming Mission, 2)

Alan moves from here to look at film and literature to try to get a handle on the nature of communitas. He looks at The Lord of the Rings and Finding Nemo. Nemo reminds us of the insights from biology. Stable systems inevitably decay, and organisms which manage to avoid all stress become weak and subject to disease. "Use it or lose it" is a good line to remember. Apart from an element of danger and challenge, we simply don't do well in this world. ALan writes,

"Without any real engagement from the outside world churches quickly become sheltered artificial environments, ecclesial fish tanks that are safeguarded from the danger of the surrounding environment. They become closed systems with their own peculiar cultures that have little relational, social and cultural associations to the world outside.... Want to test this? I heard recently that 80 percent of kids brought up in Christian youth groups who then go on to university lose their faith in the first year!" (230)

Alan reminds us that equilibrium precedes death, and that one of the roles of leadership is to destabilize the system to allow new life to emerge. One could almost wish for the eleventh and twelfth chapters from The Shaping of Things to Come to be tacked on here.. "Imagination and the Leadership Task," and "Organizing the Revolution."

Alan closes the chapter with a consideration of "organizing principles." These form the center around which a group structures its life: its mission and purpose. The "settled" community exists for itself; the missional community exists for others. Harking back again to "Shaping," Alan recalls the dualistic mindset that has prevailed; while the mindset is now largely understood, the practices which grow out of dualism are still common. The earlier diagram is now enhanced with the addition of "communitas" to the missional-incarnational center.

Alan references Karl Barth in the closing pages. Barth recognized the need for adaptation and change when he gave guidance to a pastor in Marxist Germany in the 1950s…

“No, the church’s existence does not always have to possess the same form in the future that it possessed in the past as though this were the only possible pattern.

“No, the continuance and victory of the cause of God which the Christian Church is to serve with her witness, is not unconditionally linked with the forms of existence which it has had until now.

“Yes, the hour may strike, and perhaps has already struck when God, to our discomfiture, but to his glory and for the salvation of mankind, will put an end to this mode of existence because it lacks integrity.

“Yes, it could be our duty to free ourselves inwardly from our dependency on that mode of existence even while it still lasts. Indeed, on the assumption that it may one day entirely disappear, we should look about us for new ventures in new directions.

“Yes, as the Church of God we may depend on it that if only we are attentive, God will show us such new ways as we can hardly anticipate now. And as the people who are bound to God, we may even now claim unconquerably security for ourselves through him. For his name is above all names…” Letter to a Pastor in the German Democratic Republic, in How to Serve God in a Marxist Land (New York: Association Press, 1959) 45-80

Related: This article by Andrew Perriman

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• © 2005-2007 Len Hjalmarson.• Last Updated on January 15, 2007