10.10.2005

The Shaping of Things to Come, pt. 1



I'm digging into a seminal text on the "missional church," Frost and Hirsch's "The Shaping of Things to Come." I'm just getting into it, and I'll record some notes here as I go.

Frost and Hirsch write from Australia, which is in but not of the world of the UK and the US. Their analysis of the western church is fair but unflinching. They clearly have a bias toward new and innovative expressions of the church.

Chapter 1, "Evolution or Revolution?" skewers the Christendom approach to church, which they say is "fundamentally distorted," missionally speaking. In Christendom, the Church sees itself as a central institution of society focused on concrete expressions -- its distinctive buildings and clergy -- rather than being missionally incarnated in and with communities. The authors argue that this long-lived phase of the church's life ended in the late 20th century, though various parts of the church remain addicted to this worldview.

At the same time, the "postmodern yearnings" of the last 10 years have moved from a small subculture to much of the culture, Frost and Hirsch say.
...the advent of postmodernism has raised within the West many expectations for an experiential, activist form of religious, mystical experience. The Christian church has not met these expectations... The contemporary traditional church is increasingly seen as the least likely option for those seeking an artistic, politically subversive, activist community of mystical faith. (6)
To address this gap, experimental, radical mission outposts have arisen that share three key traits:
  1. They are incarnational, rather than attractional in their ecclesiology; i.e., they embed themselves in a particular community rather than trying to attract people out of a community into the congregation.
  2. They are messianic, rather than dualistic, in spirituality; as Christ did, they see the world and God's kingdom as holistic and integrated, rather than divided into sacred and profane.
  3. They have a flattened, apostolic leadership structure rather than the Christendom hierarchy; gifts of evangelists, apostles and prophets are recognized alongside pastors and teachers. (12)
Frost and Hirsch answer the title question by noting that the early Church was revolutionary, and calling the contemporary Church to adopt that stance as a missionary community rather than an institution. They observe that the 1700-year history of the Christendom Church show that it simply has not worked, and propose that the future of the Church lies in planting innovative expressions instead of tweaking the current formula.

It may be overstating the case to say that only radically different churches can thrive in postmodern culture, but the implication that our religious systems, such as the ELCA, need to "get over" (their term) Christendom and find expressions that can engage postmodern generations is right on. Insistance on sentimental attachment to what worked in Christendom and being stuck in a worldview that says people will naturally seek the Church is like purchasing a ticket on the train to complete irrelevance.

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