Book Review: The Forgotten Ways by Alan Hirsch

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I did not know anything about Alan Hirsch before reading this book. I participated in a study group that read both this book, “The Forgotten Ways” and the companion, “The Forgotten Ways Handbook“. We took 8 weeks to discuss any implications these ideas might have on our community. (To be clear, the handbook is meant to be a step by step guide to integrating these ideas in your local church community. While it does not offer any additional information, per se, it does help clarify the authors ideas.)

This book is meant to correct a problem. As such, it’s value lies in the three areas of: diagnosing the problem, contrasting an alternative or antidote, and offering a prescription for the future. Each area must be carefully weighed.

Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and page numbers are taken from the main book and not the handbook.

The Bottom Line

The Forgotten Way is a return to properly functioning apostolic ministry (as described in Ephesians 4:11-17) that restores the Church’s focus on God’s mission of redemption.
As a pastor of a congregation in Australia, Hirsch began to experiment with new forms of ministry in response to his church’s inability to create true disciples/Christ-followers. His journey began by trying to answer the question of how the early church was so successful or “How did they do this?”:

And delving into this question drove me to the discovery of what I will call Apostolic Genius–the inbuilt life force and guiding mechanism of God’s people–and the living components or elements that make it up. (The Forgotten Ways Handbook, p56)

This revelation stands in stark contrast to the current Western Church model led by the didactic and pastoral. The subtitle of the book “reactivating the missional church” is accomplished through the care and oversight of the apostle. Hirsch has dedicated his life to making sure this Emerging Missional Church establishes itself and begins to thrive (p71).

The Diagnosis

The western church is declining. To properly understand our predicament, we must analyze the form of our ministry or the way we do church. In “setting the scene part 1 and 2” Hirsch offers these observations.

(p34) A combination of recent research in Australia indicates that about 10-15% of that population is attracted to what we can call the contemporary church growth model … about 12% of our population … tend to be large, highly professionalized, and overwhelmingly middle class, and express themselves culturally using contemporary “seeker friendly” language and middle-of-the-road music forms. They structure themselves around “family ministry” and therefore offer multi-generational services.

And more here:

(p36) George Barna predicts that “by 2025 the local church [as we know it now] will lose roughly half of it’s current ‘market share’ … 95% of evangelical churches tussling with each other to reach 12% of the population.
(p37) …we can’t hope to reach the rest of the population with this model–they are simply alienated from it and don’t like it for a whole host of reasons.

That should make you stand up. We have a problem with the way we are doing church. Many of us have known it for years and have been asking questions and experimenting. We cannot escape these conclusions:

(p51) But seldom in these assessments do we hear a call for a radical rethink about the actual mode of the church’s engagement–the way it perceives and shapes itself around its core tasks.
(p52) Many efforts to revitalize the church aim at simply adding or developing new programs or sharpening the theology and doctrinal base of the church.
(p53) …unless the paradigm at the heart of the culture is changed, there can be no lasting change.

Our ineffectiveness in creating true Christ followers is systemic. Hirsch calls this false structure Christendom and uses that term to distinguish it from New Testament Christianity. Christendom is the inherited, organized and systemized structure plaguing today’s church body.

The problem is not the culture. We, the church, are the problem. Or more particularly, how we do our work as the church is amiss. We have lost our Apostolic Genius.

The Antidote

If the form of our Christianity is what is at fault, one would expect Hirsch to offer a new form. He does, but he is careful not to offer a panacea.

(p75) How we apply this material will differ depending on our situations. It will mean really grappling with the missional situation that we face … cultivating an active learning process in the context of chaos.

The antidote is found in rediscovering, and then living out, God’s mission as His agents.

(p80) The explicit ideas driving the church, and resulting in movement, are those of (1) simple, decentralized reproducible, organic systems and (2) disciple making
(p81) …mission oriented communities are fluid, adaptive, adventure based, and formed in the context of a common purpose…

One can begin to see his prescription taking shape here with descriptors like “decentralized” and “adventure based”. We must discard any trappings of Christendom that complicate and exist only to perpetuate the organization. There is a simpler form of Christianity that is more potent. The evidence for its superiority is the explosive growth of the early church and the Chinese church. He doesn’t belabor this point so it is easy to miss, but our anemic, Western church stands in pale comparison to these vibrant models. Indeed, if one cannot grok this point, then the rest of the book drifts aimlessly.

Another key point is the reinterpretation of Ephesians 4:11-17 or the five-fold ministry. Hirsch sees the Apostle, Prophet, Evangelist, Pastor, and Teacher (or APEPT) as operating in each believer and not as office gifts. He has created an online test where one can find out which APEPT gift is their strongest.

The Prescription

For obvious reasons this is the meat of the material. Movements operating with Apostolic Genius have similar characteristics. Hirsch has identified these as missional DNA (or mDNA). These are non-negotiables and must all be present to be a fully functioning, missional community. I’ll supply my own bullet point summaries of each of the six characteristics.

Jesus is Lord – the simple, uncluttered confession of faith impacting all areas of life. The foundational Christological viewpoint. Every aspect of our lives should “consistently embody the life, spirituality, and mission of [our] founder.” We must reject the dualism that some aspects of life are private and others sacred. All of life comes under the lordship of Christ.

Disciple Making – the primary task of the church. In the western church, we are failing at this responsibility. Partly because we have turned Christianity into an “intellectual assimilation of ideas”. As a people we are disciples of consumerism and not followers of Christ. To truly become “Christ-ian”, we must act our way into a new way of thinking.

Missional-Incarnational Impulse – both the desire and the ability to live Christ in the margins of society. Incarnation includes both identification (affinity with those we are trying to reach) and revelation (that they may come to know God through Jesus). This stands in contrast to the Attractional church model which demands that they become one of us. We become the church as we participate in God’s mission of redeeming the world. The mission comes first.

Apostolic Environment – a return to the Biblical leadership model found in the apostle. The western church has been too focused on the pastoral and didactic. It is the “task of the apostolic ministry to create environments wherein the apostolic imagination of God’s people can be evoked.” Our current CEO, hierarchical structure has “inadvertently blocked the power latent in the people of God.” The apostolic holds the key to revitalization and mDNA. That is their function.

Organic Systems – systems found in creation should be our models for structure (field, vine, etc). The natural rhythms of life. The church as a streamlined network. We should abandon command and control in favor of liquid church.

Communitas, not Community – cultural/adventure stress creates communitas – a tightly formed bond (think Band of Brothers). God’s power is revealed during times of deep crisis. Reject the “huddle and cuddle” temptation of our current ministries. We are missing communitas because we are missing the missional component that takes us “into risky engagement with the world.” Live in the tension of the now-but-not-yet community.

My Analysis

I cannot overstate the value I feel that this type of discussion offers us. We cannot ignore the crisis in the Western Church. Frankly, I’m tired of waiting for current leadership structures to convince themselves that the time is right (or whatever the hell it is their waiting for). And although it is not the purpose of this review, I cannot help thinking there is a generational issue at stake here between Baby Boomers, Gen Xers and Millennials, since a portion of the attractional structure and leadership movement that Hirsch is confronting seems to be the particular contribution that Boomers have made during their lap of the race. Alas, that discussion must be saved for another day.

My three biggest areas of concern with “The Forgotten Ways” are Hirsch’s disregard for the Holy Spirit, His prioritizing the apostolic, and His interpretation of APEPT.

Disregard for the Holy Spirit

Even when I asked my daughter what she thought I was describing when I read her Hirsch’s definition of Apostolic Genius (the in-built life force and guiding mechanism of God’s people), she immediately replied, “The Holy Spirit.” Indeed. It is the Holy Spirit who is the life force and guide of the church! To apply the role of the Holy Spirit to a function of an Apostle seems borderline heretical to my ears. Coupling that with Hirsch’s foundational confession of Jesus is Lord, puts a focus on Christ that all but completely ignores the Holy Spirit.

One cannot correctly talk about the Church without emphasizing the Holy Spirit. Part of returning to New Testament Christianity must be a return to a fully trinitarian view. Although I like Hirsch’s simple, yet all encompassing, confession of faith, we must connect that with an understanding that it is only through empowerment by the Spirit that we become effective to mission.

Prioritizing the Apostolic

It would be wrong to think Hirsch is arguing for a new form of CEO, top down leadership. Prioritizing the apostolic, for him, is a release of the latent leadership potential in all of God’s people. I wish he could have found a different term than “apostle” though I am not sure I can come up with anything better. The word is loaded with years of tradition and misuse. I struggled to get past it. He could have named Apostolic Genius anything he wanted (Spirit dynamism or Church maximization, for example). His choice of calling it Apostolic Genius is on purpose and we should not try to reengineer his words. He is emphasizing apostles.

Ephesians 4 contains one of the few NT discussions about leadership. I’m not ready to retranslate it so quickly to apply to all believers. There does seem to be a distinction of roles here. The leadership equips the people to do the ministry work. These are Christ’s gifts to the church and they operate as He did on earth. Just as Jesus was: sent to earth, spoke for God, shared the Good News of the Kingdom, is the Good Shepherd, and the patient Rabbi, so too His gifts to the church continue in His nature. The Apostle Paul is a great example of this: sent to the Gentiles, prophesying to the Ephesian Elders, speaking the Good News everywhere he goes, caring intimately for the flock, and we are still searching the depths of his teaching. A Christ-like ministry should have these five-fold Christological characteristics–perhaps in one person, but definitely in the leadership group. Through this five-fold approach, the church carries out the work of Christ.

I would contend for a simpler church leadership structure of Overseer/Elder and Deacon. I do not find evidence for Paul, or others, trying to establish the five-fold ministry at their churches. They did establish overseers and servants. These teams should equip God’s people with the Kingdom mission of redemption. I really think it’s that simple (and that difficult).

APEPT

For full disclosure, my own APEPT score is:

  • Apostle 41
  • Prophet 34
  • Evangelist 24
  • Pastor 9
  • Teacher 17

According to the test results, the Apostle is an innovator and pioneer; a strategist initiating change. My score makes perfect sense if you know my Myers-Briggs personality type. As an INTP, I am a curator of information and a problem solver. I often move to new challenges, both in my thinking world and in my actual life. I am not motivated to necessarily share information (teaching) or care for others (shepherding). INTPs are (on our good days) innovative, groundbreaking developers with a healthy sprinkling of rebellion. We are not naturally caretakers, nurturers, maintainers or communicators. This is true of all INTPs.

What does this have to do with continuing the work of Christ? Nothing! There is great value in knowing our personality type, motivational gifts, DiSC model and everything else. But that’s what it is. Let’s each bring our whole selves to God, using our strengths, and be faithful to the work without having to baptize our personalities in Christian terms.

Concluding Takeaways

I am a believer in reading books from the perspective of the author and trying to get in their world as much as possible. To that end, I usually suspend judgment until I have finished the book and really tried to grasp the author’s intention. Actually, I do not think there is another valid way to read. I hope I have done so here. I have a huge amount of respect for Alan Hirsch and “The Forgotten Ways” has challenged my thinking and encouraged me to stay focused on Kingdom work. Here are my final thoughts.

(p245) 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.

First, God knows what will reach this generation (and all generations). God knows how to get us from here to there. God has the specific answer for each local congregation. He will reveal what we need, but He will whisper. Will we make room to hear or fill our calendars with activities that exist to maintain our organizations? I have a huge amount of confidence in God’s ability to direct us and reveal what we need. I have less confidence in my ability to do the hard things and lay aside my agenda and the strategies that have brought success in the past.

(p71)…we must be willing to significantly realign resources, invest in the future, take a journey, and experiment like mad.

Second, we must be courageous in leading the church into new forms of ministry. A wise man once said, you cannot change, unless you change.

The form is not changing unless you realign resources. Staff turnover will occur as we adapt to new priorities. Church building programs will be abandoned as we find ways to move out into the community.
The form is not changing unless you invest in the future. The church budget will have new categories. We must have new ideas we are sowing into that we have never tried before. We must take a chance on new people.
The form is not changing unless you take a journey. Church programs must be cancelled to make way for the new. We must work hard at communicating so everyone stays on board, but we must not be afraid to move on if they resist.
The form is not changing unless you experiment like mad. New ministry must be attempted, not just talked about. There should be significant failures as we reach past our comfort zones.

We cannot completely know what the new form will look like because some of the people that God will use to bring the answers/perspective aren’t at the table yet.

(p166) …the idea of midwives is both a very biblical and humane image of leadership…

Finally, I want to also contend for a different expression of Christian leadership that is less Maxwell and more midwife. The CEO leader directs and manages and administrates THE VISION. The midwife assists in bringing new life into the world. A life that even has a different DNA. I know there is a great temptation to seize the reins and ride our opportunity chariot like a Ben Hur bat out of hell screaming, “It’s my turn now!” That is wrong. Christian leadership is always about serving others, investing in others, and birthing God’s work in others. That is very different than the current leadership movement material focused on maximizing and effectively implementing the vision for maximized results. We need the leadership style Jesus modeled–laying down His life for others, and John the Baptist–paving the way for another.

The role God has for us is to act as midwives to the Emerging Missional Church that He is birthing. We won’t be “in charge”. We won’t be able to maximize the return.
We will have to serve, assist, comfort, care, nurture and advise.
That is very different than lead, strategize, implement, quantify, and maximize.

I am choosing to heed the call of this book. To “grappl[e] with the missional situation that we face [and] cultivat[e] an active learning process in the context of chaos.”

[UPDATE: I updated Concluding Takeaways, particularly the second section, for greater clarity.]

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7 thoughts on “Book Review: The Forgotten Ways by Alan Hirsch

      1. The book and the discussion are still rattling around in my brain as well. Sometimes I think I’m having a spiritual midlife crisis. I’m a Maxwell and I know it, but I so want to be a midwife. The question for me is, can I become an effective midwife while surrounded by Maxwells? Or will my growing frustration with the Maxwells always threaten to dominate my own spiritual growth. My thinking needs to evolve to value the faithfulness and selflessness of the midwife, not the popularity and influence of the seemingly all-mighty Maxwell. That’s difficult for me when my “work” life and my spiritual life are so enmeshed. Alas, these are things sleepless nights are made of. : )

        Thanks for daring to put this out there.

  1. Good stuff about missing the Holy Spirit….in fairness he does mention the Holy Spirit 16 times in the book, or in about 6% of the total pages he mentions the Spirit.

    I do like his quote here…
    “Likewise, all the elements of Apostolic Genius are already there, latent in the very mDNA coding of the church; all that leadership needs to do is awaken it under the power of the Holy Spirit.”

    Hirsch, Alan (2009-04-01). Forgotten Ways, The (p. 165). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

    So he sees the Spirit’s role to empower the mDNA that is within the church, but I also have noted before to friends that I wish he had 7 components, including the Holy Spirit as the Divine Director of God’s mission through His Church.

    Like all apostolic guys, he needs a coupe good apostolic team to help refine his message and make it palatable to the churches he aims to resource?

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