The Shaping of Things to Come, pt. 1 again

Frost and Hirsch conclude their assement of "The Shape We're In" by noting that church planting is on the decline (In evangelical circles? They don't specify.) Hoped-for results have not come, they conclude, because churches have planted "carbon copies of the already beleagured, failed Christendom-style church. " (18)

The failures of this style of church is due to the stance it takes in its community, which they describe as "attractional, dualistic and hierarchical." Attractional means that the church plants itself in the midst of a community and "expects that people will come to it to meet God and find fellowship with others." It's not the attractiveness to the community that they criticize; the early church in Acts was attractive. But when the church assumes it holds a privileged place in society and assumes that people don't become part of it because they "don't like the product" rather than taking seriously their deeper questions about the church, it assumes an us-them stance with the community. "By anticipating that if they get their internal features" (parking, children's ministry, style of worship) "right, people will flock to the services, the church betrays its belief in attractionalism." (19)

The authors aim special criticism at the strategy of planning worship services for unseen publics. "We believe the development of indigneous, contextualized worship occurs in partnership with new believers from one's host community." (19)

The dualism of separating sacred from secular, church from world, is part of the fault for this attractional stance, they argue. When we talk of the world "out there" and differently value church service (especially professional church service) from work and ministry in daily life, it naturally follows that we will seek to attract people to the church culture and extract them from "normal" life. This is acute in the "Christian subculture" but affects the mainline, as well, as churches either seek people "like us" or try to make them "like us."

Frost and Hirsch quote Lutheran William Diehl's book "Christianity and Real Life," in which he laments that over 30 years his church has had very little interest in accounting for his "on the job" ministry, in examining the ethical decisions he faces, or in providing skills or support in this ministry. "I must conclude that my church really doesn't have the least interest whether or how I minister in my daily work," Diehl concludes. This dualism creates a "credibility gap" between the church and the world that would-be believers have difficulty crossing. (20)

The church also suffers from an over-focus on hierarchy, seen in formal, "episcopal" structures as well as in the local layers of senior pastors, associate pastors, youth pastors, etc. that proliferate in the evangelical, free-church world. "For how much longer can the church ignore Paul's radical dissolution of the traditional distinctions between priest and laity, between officials and ordinary members, between holy men and common people?" they ask. (21)

The antidote to these excesses, they argue, is a church that is "incarnational, messianic and apostolic." (30) The future church "will look vastly varied in its many different contexts," they acknowledge. But there will be common themes:

"It will place a high value on communal life, more open leadership structures, and the contribution of all the people of God. It will be radical in its attempts to embrace biblical mandates for the life of locally based faith communities ... We believe the missional church will be adventurous, playful and surprising." (22)

The missional model they propose will create churches that embed in a community, living with the indigenous people to create "proximity spaces," places where Christians and not-yet-Christians can share the journey together. Missional churches will also partner with communities in existing efforts to meet community needs in shared projects, where Christians and not-yet-Christians can work toward meaningful goals together. There may also be "commercial enterprises" such as coffeehouses, cafes, bookstores, etc. that bring "intrinsic value" to communities that don't see themselves as needing another church. Out of these projects will emerge "indigenous worshipping communities."

"The Shaping of Things to Come" is a challenging book, as it forces the reader to stretch the comfortable conceptions of church and take a hard look at the disconnects between church and culture. Their assessment of the shape we're in is gloomy is you're married to the Christendom view of the attractional church. That Christendom died in the late 20th Century seems hard to refute; the increasing frustration and listlessness in the church is evidence of that. In ELCA circles locally, some churches are holding their own or growing slightly in areas that are seeing significant population increases (and in some cases they're shrinking). That means that people are saying "No, thanks" to our services and programs.

Frost and Hirsch's preferrence for new church plants and structures is plainly stated. The implications of their work for existing denominational churches isn't clear, and would be easy to ignore because they are so challenging.

What would it look for an existing church to stop trying to attract people into the church with religious goods and services and instead focus on sending its people and resources out into the community, to be with unbelievers? Would volunteers step up for altar guild and committees (much less church council) if their on-the-job, in-the-home or at-school ministries were affirmed and given the attention that Luther afforded them? Will Christendom-trained clergy and lay leaders steeped in the distinctions between the ordained and the rest of us be able to equip, value and empower apostles, prophets and evangelists equally with the now-central roles of pastor and teacher?

There is another way of looking at this. Existing churches have people resources, community contacts and (sometimes) fiscal resources that new plants don't. Simply tweaking delivery systems won't accomplish anything. But if these churches and their faithful leaders can accept that a missionary God calls them to be both structured for and passionate about being incarnate in the community, mission can happen. It won't be easy, and there will be a cost for leaders and parishoners alike. But the vision of missional, connected churches laid out by Frost and Hirsch could make the cost worth it.


Byron K. Borger said...


Really nicely done; a very good book and a good review. Like your stuff.

Did we meet at the State Pastor's conference? Meet some good folks and old friends, as usual, but didn't get to chat with many who really know or are a part of emergent conversations.

Thanks for promoting good books.

in peace,

Byron Borger
Hearts & Minds bookstore

Alan Hirsch said...

Hi Bob

Thanks for the really sharp review. Most-times people miss the main points we wish to make. You have not. Thanks again

Alan Hirsch

Todd Hiestand said...

Bob, great summary. i loved this book and it has shaped a ton of what we do. Looking forward to seeing you soon at a cohort soon. Also, looking forward to the time with Karen Ward. I met her at the gathering in princeton. she's good people :)

Bob said...


I bought some books from you but we didn't get a chance to chat. I've enjoyed your blog and really appreciated your recommendations. Now if only I had time to read all the books on my list...


Bob said...

Thanks, Alan. You've stimulated a lot of creative thought with your book.

Bob said...

Thanks, Todd. I hope to see you at January's gathering.