Book Club: The Forgotten Ways

You should buy this book.

Alan Hirsch sends a captivating message to the reader: the people of God carry the same potency of the gospel as early Christians but we have forgotten how to access it. This seemingly simple concept is brilliantly examined, unpacked, and supported in his book The Forgotten Ways (Brazos Press, 2006). Through this thickly-written text, Hirsch details the how’s, what’s, and why’s of a missional church. Early in the pages, he sets himself firmly against a modern, institutional form of church that deadens the vital organization of the church. His words are compelling and controversial.

As I read the first pages of The Forgotten Ways, I texted a friend insisting that he read the book immediately. I carried the book with me to a tiny conference this fall and friends there commented on the power of Hirsch’s words. Young church workers with whom I shared basic concepts of The Forgotten Ways immediately resonated with his call to the western church. I tell you these things so that you can understand that it isn’t just Hirsch and Kleinbeck making up crazy ideas on the crazy farm.

At least, I don’t think that’s what has happened.

For this month’s book club, we are going to dig into The Forgotten Ways and the thoughts shared in between its covers. Not everyone has time to read the book, but don’t let that stop you from the conversation. I talked a lot, a lot, a lot, about it before I finished it. So join us. Buy the book if you can squeeze it into your December budget. I’m looking forward to hearing from you.

What’s the background for this book?

Alan Hirsch explains his ministry background and worldview on which his ministry sets in two parts.The first part is a highly personal exploration of his ministry at an inner city church in Melbourne, Australia.The second is a sociological perspective of the changes in Western culture that have been ignored or poorly addressed by the Church.

Hirsch’s personal account of ministry provides the reader with some understanding of why he feels passionately about mission, Christ, and each person.Much of it reads like a personal retelling of many emerging church ministry strategies popular in hushed evangelical corners.

The second part was much more provocative.Hirsch takes a stab at evaluating Christendom, that is Christianity since the time of Constantine, from a missional perspective.At the time of Constantine, Christianity shifted into a centralized religion (in Rome), with formalized membership guidelines, hierarchy, and an established role in society and politics.However, Hirsch goes on to point out that the secularization of society since the Enlightment has not changed the way we “do” church.

Hirsch gives a concise history and sociological overview of current research on emerging church practices, such as attending house churches, focusing on missional lifestyles, and rejection of historical denominationalism.

Questions to ponder and to respond:

1. As a worker in the church (professional or volunteer), how have you seen your community change?Has your church adapted with the change?

 2. How do we respond to the growing numbers of believers who do not subscribe to any particular denomination?How do we discern faithful believers?How does that change the way we do ministry in our congregations?How can we be faithful to our Lutheran doctrine and adapt to this growing change?

 Simplify The Message

Alan Hirsch places Jesus at the center of his missional DNA (mDNA). You can’t get anywhere without the grace and mercy of Jesus. You can’t get anywhere without Jesus as your Lord.

In subsequent chapters, Hirsch unpacks each component of the mDNA: missional-incarnational impulse, disciple-making, communitas not community, organic systems, and apostolic environment. Each of these components are connected to the core teaching of Jesus is Lord. We’ll get to these later.

Hirsch makes clear his desire to simplify the message of Christianity, to distill it to the simple truth that Lutherans recognize as law and gospel: We are sinners in need of a Savior. We encounter the Savior in the person of Jesus Christ who died on our account and rose in His mighty power. Hirsch explains that in a mission field, there is not time enough to be spent on weighty theologies. As a student of the Word and theology, I felt a pinch in these words. I understand his meaning: we must ensure each person hears what is most important. Yet clarity in our simple message requires study and understanding.

Questions to ponder and to respond:

1. How do we balance a need for a Gospel message that “travels light” and the need to be clear in our teachings?

 2. On a personal level, how does the core teaching of Jesus is Lord change your daily life? How, then, do you see it changing your ministry and mission?

Disciple-Making:How do we train others to embody Jesus?

Alan Hirsch defines the essential task of discipleship as embodying the message of Jesus. Any youth worker knows that discipling youth in the church, teaching them to embody the message of Jesus, is challenging work.Hirsch’s model for discipleship is one of process not of results. Throughout chapter four, he gives a clear call to church leadership to eliminate the consumeristic tendencies of the Western church and to move people into lives of missional purpose.He argues that if we don’t disciple the people, culture will.

Hirsch details a discipleship model that runs contrary to most contemporary education models. Instead of a model that promotes a philosophy of learning that asks learners to think their way into a new way of acting, Hirsch’s mission training network asks learners to act their way into new ways of thinking.Leaders are developed through active ministry participation in conjunction with rigorous academic training.

For your pondering and responding:

1. In youth ministry, we are faced with a variety of cultural pressures: schedules, media, family situations, values contrary to our faith being promoted in popular society.How do we respond to the cultural pressures in a way that embodies Christ?

2. What would a youth ministry program that engages cognitive development and behavioral changes look like?How would it differ from the status quo in your ministry?

Missional-Incarnational Impulse: How does living like Christ serve God’s mission?

In order to understand Hirsch’s chapter on what mission in today’s world can be, one must acknowledge that the predominate culture in Western society is no longer culturally Christian. The majority of people in our world and our communities have significant cultural barriers impeding their understanding of the Gospel message as the Western church presents it. The mission strategy promoted in many contexts is one of evangelistic-attraction–bringing people into the community of the church through attractive worship, ministry programs, and so on.

Hirsch proposes instead a sneeze-like model of incarnational mission. Incarnational ministry, based on Christ’s incarnation, has four dimensions: presence (being fully present in the lives of others), proximity (living life amongst the broken and needy), powerlessness (taking on the form of a servant), and proclamation (calling people to repentance in view of God’s redemptive action). In Hirsch’s model, the people of the church follow Christ’s example in their local contexts and birth new churches–staying true to the gospel and interpreting it in culturally relevant ways. He provides a thorough example of how a ministry develops.

1. What are the primary challenges of developing a church culture based on the mission-incarnational impulse? How does one discern a ministry of cultural relevance from a ministry that has assimilated the culture?

2. How does a youth minister lead youth in living the four dimensions of the incarnation?

Apostolic Environment, Organic Systems, and Community

Establishing healthy systems for interaction in the church is one of the most important and challenging pieces of being the Church. Alan Hirsch unpacks the details of leadership, systems, and community as established by the apostles. Youth workers face a unique set of challenges. Their ministry is not independent of a larger church body, their primary disciples are embedded in a family system that holds its place as the primary faith contributor. And yet Hirsch’s concepts apply to the basic structure of how youth ministry is led, organized, and communicated. All Christians are called to the basic and primary role of apostle, that is one who follows Christ, from apostleship flows prophecy, evangelism, pastoring, and teaching. In our ministry to youth, we must surround ourselves with individuals who are gifted teachers, evangelizers, caregivers, listeners, and disciples so to fully bless the youth in our midst.

Working with youth is often an adventure in humility. Hirsch, in his last chapter, speaks to the experience of stepping out of one’s comfort zone and into the zones fertile for the gospel. When the leadership of the church models a lifestyle that sets community above personal preference, Hirsh states, the Church will experience an unleashing of the missional imagination of the people of God. Further, as we expose youth in thoughtful ways to those who are considered outsiders in the church, they are better equipped to respond in love to those who are different.

Questions for your consideration:

1. Have you considered the missional call of the Church as you have organized your youth ministry systems and leadership? Are you surrounded by individuals that are gifted in the different needed areas of leadership?

2. Have you developed a ministry that reaches outsiders in real and everyday ways? How can you begin to expose your youth to the concept of reaching beyond their comfort zone to share Christ?

About the author

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