“The Shaping of Things to Come”

A Few Points from…

“The Shaping of Things to Come”
by Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch

These two guys have been all over the world, in all denominations, doing consulting, educating, researching, and more. The diversity of churches to which they have been exposed gave their thoughts extra weight in my mind.


Before a page is read, the reader comes upon this quote from Hans Küng:

“A church which pitches its tents without constantly looking out for new horizons, which does not continually strike camp, is being untrue to its calling… We must play down our longing for certainty, accept what is risky, live by improvisation and experiment.”

Good way to start a book, I thought!

Much of what is being spoken about in this book is similar to the concept of “missional church”, though different language and terms are often used. In clarifying their terms, the writers make a comparison. Below are the twelve hallmarks of a missional church, as put forth in recent works by several writers:

1. The missional church proclaims the gospel.
2. The missional church is a community where all members are involved in learning to become disciples of Jesus.
3. The Bible is normative in this church’s life.
4. The church understands itself as different from the world because of its participation in the life, death, and resurrection of its Lord.
5. The church seeks to discern God’s specific missional vocation for the entire community and for all of its members.
6. A missional community is indicated by how Christians behave towards one another.
7. It is a community that practices reconciliation.
8. People within the community hold themselves accountable to one another in love.
9. The church practices hospitality.
10. Worship is the central act by which the community celebrates with joy and thanksgiving both God’s presence and God’s promised future.
11. This community has a vital public witness.
12. There is a recognition that the church itself is an incomplete expression of the reign of God.

In this book, Frost & Hirsch choose to propose three overarching principles to enhance what’s above. Though they use some unfamiliar language here, these are three powerful points that lead the thrust of their book:

1. The missional church is incarnational, not attractional, in its ecclesiology. By incarnational we mean it does not create sanctified spaces into which unbelievers must come to encounter the gospel. Rather, the missional church disassembles itself and seeps into the cracks and crevices of a society in order to be Christ to those who don’t yet know him.

2. The missional church is messianic, not dualistic, in its spirituality. That is, it adopts the worldview of Jesus the Messiah, rather than that of the Greco-Roman empire. Instead of seeing the world as divided between the sacred (religious) and profane (nonreligious), like Christ it sees the world and God’s place in it as more holistic and integrated.

3. The missional church adopts and apostolic, rather than a hierarchical, mode of leadership. By apostolic we mean a mode of leadership that recognized the fivefold model detailed by Paul in Ephesians 6. It abandons the triangular hierarchies of the traditional church and embraces a biblical, flat-leadership community that unleashes the gifts of evangelism, apostleship, and prophecy, as well as the currently popular pastoral and teaching gifts. This section won’t get nearly the attention it deserves in this summary. I’ll explain shortly.

Frost & Hirsch’s three ideas come at least partially from the observation of what they call the Christendom-mode that’s been in effect since 313 A.D., when Christianity was officially endorsed and accepted by Constantine and his empire. They note that the very nature of the Christendom-model of church is…

Attractional: The saying “If you build it, they will come” is in full effect here.

“How much of the traditional church’s energy goes into adjusting their programs and their public meetings to cater to an unseen constituency? If we get our seating, our parking, our children’s program, our preaching, and our music right, they will come. This assumes that we have a place in our society and that people don’t join our churches because, thought they want to be Christians, they’re unhappy with the product. The missional church recognizes that it does not hold a place of honour in its host community and that its missional imperative compels it to move out from itself into that host community as salt and light.”

Dualistic: “It separates the sacred from the profane, the holy from the unholy, the in from the out… we are convinced that the church has so fully embraced its attractional stance because of its dualistic spirituality. We talk routinely about the ‘world out there’. What else can that mean other than that we, the church people, are ‘in here’! This dualism has over 1700 years created Christians that cannot relate their interior faith to their exterior practice, and this affects their ethics, their lifestyles, and their capacity to share their faith meaningfully with others.”

In furthering their point, they cite a book called Redeeming the Routines in which Robert Banks identifies the gap between belief and everyday life, and how it’s showing itself in ten ways that he observed in churches.

1. Few of us know how to apply our belief to our work, or lack of work.
2. We only make minimal connections between our faith and our spare time activities.
3. We have little sense of a Christian approach to regular activities like domestic chores.
4. Our everyday attitudes are partly shaped by the dominant values of our society.
5. Many of our spiritual difficulties stem from the daily pressure we experience (lack of time, exhaustion, family pressures, etc.).
6. Our everyday concerns receive little attention in the church.
7. Only occasionally do professional theologians address routine activities.
8. When addressed, everyday issues tend to be approached too theoretically.
9. Only a minority of Christians read religious books or attend theological courses.
10. Most churchgoers reject the idea of a gap between their beliefs and their ways of life.

Hierarchical: The traditional church is “deeply indebted to what we see as an overly religious, bureaucratic, top-down model of leadership, as opposed to one that is more structured around grassroots agendas… for how much longer can the church ignore Paul’s radical dissolution of the traditional distinctions between priests and laity, between officials and ordinary members, between holy men and common people?”

**While Frost & Hirsch would likely hate this, I am limiting this summary to the first two of their three sections, simply because the first two concepts spoke strongly to where I find myself presently. The third section needs more thought and clarity within my own mind before I can appreciate it for all that it likely is.

If these guys are on to anything at all, then how do we, as Christians and people attempting to lead and influence others, respond?

A quote from a fellow named Tom Sine speaks strongly of the challenge and excitement of such times as these:

“Every denomination and religious organization I have worked with does long-term planning. Ironically, they do long-range planning as though the future will simply be an extension of the present… As a result, we are chronically surprised by change. In the future, we can no longer afford this luxury.”

In observing what some call the postmodern church, Bishop Gladwin believes the emerging church in all its forms will share the following four features:
1. Focus on the journey of faith and the experience of God.
2. Desire for less structure and more direct involvement by participants.
3. Sense of flexibility in order and a distinctly nonhierarchical culture.
4. Recognition that the experience of church is about the sustaining of discipleship.

He goes on to say: “So the church will focus on core faith, on minimum essential order, on people and their gifts, on flexible patterns of life held together in communion and on a shared sense of community.”

Missionaries who go across the seas to radically different cultures have long realized the need for the gospel to speak in a way relevant to the people being approached. In fact, anything less than this awareness would be an insult to the word “missionary”. A failure to practice mission incarnationally leads to the sin of cultural imperialism. Who doesn’t know tales of Western missionaries who imported their cultural forms of the gospel and imposed them upon others without any critical reflection on the process? Sure, conversions may have resulted short-term but the long-term cost is the loss of a genuinely local, indigenous culture.

“The Christians of that group appear to be more like wannabe westerners than genuine incarnational expressions of the Christian faith among their own people group. The ‘church’ thereby becomes an isolated, somewhat alien body in the midst of a people.”

In such a situation, the gospel is not given a chance to sustain itself organically and meaningfully among the people of that place. As a result, any genuine long-term community of Jesus Christ is almost an impossibility. Sadly, this costly mistake is not limited to work overseas. Right in North America, the Christian sub-culture is often substituted for the gospel.

“We so easily impose a cultural form on the people and the groups we hope to reach with the love of Jesus. We so often make the gospel synonymous with a bland middle-class conformity and thereby alienate countless people from encountering Christ. How often have we seen public opinion polls that reflect the attitude of ‘Jesus, Yes! Church, No!’”

Put bluntly, “It is necessary for the church to rethink its stance entirely and to become a missionary church within the West.” Churches do make changes aimed at attracting people in; the weakness might be this: “We often change things because we want the change, not because of a heart for cross-cultural mission in our own context.”

In this process of “rethinking our stance”, the tough work includes measuring our brand of Christianity to determine which portions are the Christ and which portions are the culture that we’re surrounded by. To deny that this reality is in play is to deny reality. Humankind bearing the image of God means that no culture lacks virtuous elements in which the gospel can be expressed. At the same time, the fall of humanity means that no culture is completely virtuous. That most certainly includes our own, dare I say, even our church culture.

Calling into question the attractional model of church, Frost & Hirsch observe that within any church that focuses on attracting outsiders into itself risks missing the call to genuine “out-reach”. Instead, it’s become something more like “in-drag”. An incarnational perspective forces us to focus more fully upon relationships, and this is great! Charles Ringma from the Philippines Theological Seminary makes a point about the emphasis that programs receive over relationships:

“A telling example is where a church committee develops a special plan for service and action by the church in the community and then tries to sell it to church members for their involvement and support… It is this plan that receives all the publicity, the prayers and the church’s money. This is the official project.

But no thought is given to establish what church members are already doing in their neighbourhoods and places of work. No attempt is made, for example, to identify the medical practitioner who has changed the approach to patients by providing counseling and practical support rather than just curative care. No attempt is made to identify the local [public official] in the congregation who is tackling certain important quality of life an social issues in the community. No attempt is made to support the lady who is conducting and informal neighbourhood Bible study group. No attempt is made to support prayerfully the teacher who has just started work in an inner-city school with many pupils from broken families. And no attempt it made to see one family’s care for their disabled child as a ministry worthy of the church’s support and prayers.”

If the fishing image helps, Frost & Hirsch are proposing that the web of relationships, friendships, and acquaintances that Christians normally have makes up the net into which not-yet-Christians will swim. A “missional-incarnational church will spend more time on building friendships than it will on developing religious programs.”

Let’s close this section with a couple last thoughts on the incarnational aspect. In the 1970’s, a fellow named Vincent Donovan was working among American youth. His idea:

“In working with young people in America, do not try to call them back to where they were, and do not try to call them to where you are, as beautiful as that place might seem to you. You must have the courage to go with them to a place that neither you nor they have ever been before.”

Embracing the simple idea that Christians can learn about God, life, faith, truth, honesty, and more from traveling the road with unbelievers… that could change a lot!

One more from someone named Tim Costello:

“Ivan Illich was once asked what is the most revolutionary way to change society. Is it violent revolution or is it gradual reform? He gave a careful answer. Neither. If you want to change society, then you must tell an alternative story, he concluded.”

Telling a different story sounds a lot like living out a different reality, and that sounds a lot like the word “incarnational”, if I didn’t know better!

As was earlier expressed, a dualistic view of the world was the perspective of the Greco-Roman empires. Sadly, many modern churches seem more influenced by this view than by the view of Jesus. This dualism is the reason why many Western mystics and spiritual writers have placed such emphasis on retreat and reflection. These things shouldn’t be discounted; however, an uncritical embracing of this dualistic concept leads to a view that God might actually be best served far away from people and things, which just get in the way. Retreat and reflection for the sake of what? That’s the question. If the answer is, “for the sake of better engaging and acting within our world”, then let’s go. But anything less than that is not the messianic spirituality displayed in Jesus himself.

This struggle between a Greco-Roman mindset and a more Hebraic mindset can be observed in the early creeds of the Christian church. Whereas Jesus (and all Jewish rabbis) spoke primarily of right living, the early church, under the influence of the empires in which it found itself, wrote creeds primarily concerned with right thinking (what we believe). The drawing of lines based upon stances held in regards to theological details is still prevalent today, one piece of proof that deep down, we believe that proper thinking will lead to proper living.

C.S. Lewis described this life as an “astonishing cataract of bears, babies, and bananas; this immoderate deluge of atoms, orchids, oranges, cancers, canaries, fleas, gases, tornadoes, and roads.” Then he pointed out that this is the place in which God chooses to reveal Himself to us. “When the biblical faith affirms that God actually uses history to reveal Himself to us, it is saying that God is to be found in that immoderate deluge. God is involved in the mess; and even more remarkable, the mess can actually constitute revelation.”

One might be wondering:

“What has this got to do with mission and the emergence of the missional-incarnational church? Everything. History is where we must do our work to advance the kingdom. If we assume that God is involved in the slums of India, then we should be as well. If God doesn’t shrink back from trying to redeem the horrors of Rwanda, then neither should we. If He is deeply involved in the mess of history and doesn’t shirk from a deep involvement in human affairs, then neither should we.”

This section also contains as excellent portion entitled “The Redemption of the Everyday”, which draws much on the traditional Hebraic view of life. But for now in this form, it’s simply more than can be summarized.

At its heart, this idea of messianic spirituality is built upon the fact that God changes us by changing our identity and our sense of self-definition. The writers would argue that it really is that simple.

“In Christ, we are new creatures; we are inheritors of the kingdom; we are God’s children; we are saints (holy ones). These are not just little tags used to describe the same reality we knew before we were saved. The are identities we take on when we are made alive with Christ. Having undergone union with Christ in regeneration, we are then called to live out our basic identity shifts that took place in that event. If we are made into saints by our relation with Jesus, then we are exhorted to live consistently with that identity. What do ‘holy ones’ do? They live holy lives… Who I am, or rather who I have become, in Jesus, must change the way I behave and determine to a great extent what I do.”

Frost & Hirsch go on to argue that we need to be aware that the tools we’ve chosen and shaped through the years have now become the shapers of many churches. Playing with the saying “the medium is the message”, they point out how even simple things like sermons (originally borrowed from the Greek and Roman philosophers) or church buildings (certainly not drawn from the NT text) have so shaped our views of church that one struggles to envision church without them. With that said, they push the need for missional focus with a quote like this from a church planter: “Any church that cannot get by without buildings, finances and paid experts is not fully being church.”

Aside from trying to make us squirm, their point is huge: “We need to design our tools, not let our tools design us.”

Instead of crafting our church culture so carefully, Frost & Hirsch refer to Kierkegaard’s concept of existence-communication: “Our lives-our very existence-is our communication. Your existence as an authentic human being communicates more than what you say or even what you think.” We all know this already, but somehow that doesn’t reduce the force of such a statement.

Frost & Hirsch then address leaders and all who aspire to be:

“It must begin with leadership. We must embody our visions and our values in such a way that people can ‘see’ the vision in and through our existence. It will take sacrifice on the part of the leader. It must, especially if he or she is asking for sacrifice!… Leaders, you cannot lead where you will not go; you cannot teach what you do not know.”

Here are two sections that spoke strongly to me, but I just didn’t know where to put them. So here they are, right before you finish…

Frost & Hirsch share that one of the most subversive questions they ask when they’re doing a church consultation with a local congregation is this one: “If you could start again from scratch, would you do it the same way?” They ask this question every time that they’re called to try helping a church seeking to rediscover its purpose. The answer was almost always, “No.” The next question pushed: “Then, why are not changing it now?”

If a hole is not in the right place, then digging it deeper or better won’t fix anything. Yet Frost & Hirsch observe people, and churches, doing it all the time. Hmmm…

One last section from their book speaks about the shock value of Christianity in its original context. I can’t help but wonder if we’ve lost something that wasn’t meant to be lost:

“For the Romans, Christianity was not at all a new religion. It was ‘antireligion’. What the first Christian generations were putting on trial was not just the imperial religion… but every religion in the known world.”

“Christianity is the antireligion, not just another religion competing with all other pretenders to the Way. Jesus and his earliest followers saw themselves as ushering in something much more radical than a new religion. Jesus called it the kingdom of God and referred to it in a manner than in no way resembles talk about a new institution or religion.”

Rob Warner adds:

“Christ in the new cornerstone, and in him we are the dwelling place of the Spirit and the spiritual temple, filled with the worship of God. There can be no good reason for us to ape the attitudes or building of other religious systems. Their dependence on holy buildings has been rendered obsolete. Their extravagant temples, whether sublime or grandiose, are surplus to requirements. We no longer have any good reason or need to conform to conventional religious instincts, for the living God established a rupture with religious conformity in bringing salvation to us. In the death of Christ, we are faced with the abolition of human religion.”

“And so even though Jesus and the early church completely revolutionized the idea of temple worship, the church has failed to sustain the revolution.”

I suppose the thrust there is… it’s time to pick up some torches that may have been dropped along the way. I’m very grateful to Frost & Hirsch for their lives and their eyes and their calls.

5 thoughts on ““The Shaping of Things to Come”

  1. some really good stuff in their Jay! i think the few things that jumped out at me were the bit about the “official project”, the quote by vincent donovan about youth, and the last bit by Rob Warner that says “In the death of Christ, we are faced with the abolition of human religion”.
    thanks for the summary!

  2. You are welcome, my friend. The fact that you even read enough of that beast of a summary to get that much… well, that says something. I’m looking forward to a visit sometime next week, Jer. Get south safely!

  3. sweet, i’m going to steal this post for a bood report. thanks for doing my work jason!

    seriously though, that is a cool post. i like the very first quote you put in their. it really made me think about the way we do our church and how we have made it so comfortable that we really don’t have to move anywhere or do anything. how do we change this, and where do we go? maybe this is not a blog question, but a ‘over coffee and cake’ question for some other time.

  4. Okay, now the “over coffee” thing I understood. But what’s with the “cake” thing? You going soft on me, Blair? Why not tea and crumpets? Perrier and pastries? Don’t get me wrong; I like cake as much as the next guy. But how can a fellow write a comment about breaking a horse’s legs and then follow it up with a slice of cake?! Blair, my friend. You are an intense and complicated individual. Right on!

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