Promoting Christ-centred Biblical Ministry

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Review: The Shaping Of Things To Come: innovation and mission for the twenty first century church
By Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch (Hendrickson 2003)

- reprinted from the Autumn 2004 edition of Essentials

   People will have very different reactions to this book depending on where they stand in their view of mission and church. The writers are really on about encouraging "the development of alternative, experimental, new communities of faith" (page x). To do this they heavily criticise virtually everything the ordinary church is doing. Even the currently popular Alpha gets the thumbs down initially, although later it is graciously redeemed. Neil Bach serves as Senior Minister at St.Mark's Forest Hill in Melbourne    
   There are four areas in the book: analysing where we are as a church, calling for an incarnational ecclesiology, a messianic spirituality and an apostolic leadership.
   A major assertion is that the church is wedded to a Christendom model which has now failed (and in their view wasn't effective for several hundred years). Rather, the church must become missional with all the pain and changes this will entail. There are highly critical comments of good work done to revitalise churches, because the authors see it as only variations of the Christendom model. They also assert that normal church planting is at a 'dead end' –my strong term but that's what they mean. They illustrate what they want by several examples, most notably the Millennia Co-op in Los Angeles that promotes various aspects of the arts and an attached indigenous faith community with three cell churches.
   For the writers the incarnational approach means a group of believers entering into the depths of the world. It is opposite to their attractional mode of church, which they categorise as part of the old model. It is to be a church of people living, eating and working closely with its surrounding community. By implication and directly they criticise most church endeavours, while ironically calling on an example of a church in England that they like.   
   The authors argue for missional churches where we listen and adhere to the heart-beat of the community and identify the 'man of peace' of the community to befriend. They opt for a community of leadership based on Ephesians 4:11-13 leading the community of believers. They seriously question church buildings and the messages most church architecture and worship configurations convey, reminding us that the early church buildings of the third century were still much like a big home, not a temple.   
   There is a call to be truly contextualised as a church. While accepting a traditional understanding of church, they challenge us towards a critical contextualisation of each incarnational community. They restate good missionary principles of cross-cultural contextualisation (Kraft, Hiebert), and argue that the all western churches need to work in this way now in the local context. One key observation is about the crucial contribution of younger converts.   
   A section on "whispering to the soul" contains an extraordinary attack on the average pastor who is depicted as an incompetent bumbler unable to assist the two people in the examples given in their pain and search. Following are a number of essential and godly skills to help us connect with a more hurting and experiential community. That is, a community that the previously referred to dumb pastors and their churches don't understand!   
   In developing ideas of a messianic spirituality, Jesus is our primary model of mission, so it is a messianic or Christological view but in a different sense to the normal use of the term Christological. A fresh look at Jesus and his attractive spirituality and our relationship to him and those around us is required. This is an argument for a much more life affirming, Hebraic-based Christianity: a much more accepting view of the pleasures of the body, rather than just affirming and concentrating on the soul, a much more active faith rather than an intellectual faith.   
   Then there is a portrayal of "contemporary people as searching for an inclusive community that is democratic, non patriarchal and compassionate." It is said we should move our spirituality from passive/ receptive to an actional mode. Use deeds to buy back some of the creation thus demonstrating grace. Develop intentional, well motivated missional activity .   
   Finally in this section we read of large church pastors who have often told the authors that the church isn't doing that badly after all. This worries the writers for they deduce that the church is blind to what they can see about the Christendom model. They illustrate that because we shape our tools (eg technology) and then they shape us (the medium is the message), that we should reconsider our ministries. So preaching has to be different. Will it be the end of the spoken word, they postulate. Buildings: again we shape our buildings and they shape us. The Seminary: there seems to be something in the way we are training leaders that makes the church dysfunctional. And what message are we ourselves conveying? We must embody our vision and our values in practical living. All the time let's move from the dualism of only church being the spiritual part.   
   The last major section argues for a fresh reading of the ministry passages in Ephesians 4 to allow a restructure of leadership/ministry in the light of their understanding of the passage. They want to see each of a five fold ministry expressed at a local missional level arguing that church maturity demands it. They see the APEPT matrix as organic, reproducible and self-sustaining. It needs to be implemented in their view and it will not be possible to do so without breaking "the power of clericalism". Indeed they warn their readers that the official leadership will persecute this new movement.   
   There is a call to use our imagination to have a go and reshape mission at a local level, or die. It is a call for a paradigm shift which they illustrate by reference to their FORGE ministry network in Melbourne. Then there is advice on how to effect change.   
   A long section deals with establishing a group or ministry where Jesus is central: a hard core of biblical faith but little prescription as to how that will be expressed (soft edges). Then organic growth is championed. This is a restatement of the Natural Church Development principles and reminds me too of evangelism by reproduction outlined by the Navigators in the 1950s. Final comments are a call to revolution and not evolution. "The ship is safest when it's in port ... but that's not what ships are made for".   
   I'm sure you can see my perspective in the analysis I've provided. I add the following:   
  • There are many helpful missional insights.
  • It is controversial in the claim they make that we need to virtually ditch all the western church is doing at present, yet how realistic is their approach?
  • There is little about the place of youth and children in churches in this book.
  • There is an inconsistency in the book in the willingness to heavily criticise the church yet draw attention to examples of the church reinventing missional ministry.
  • I am surprised by the heavy and relentless criticism of pastors (as opposed to valuable criticism) that is directly and indirectly woven into the book. It is ungracious and insensitive.
  • I support the call for special alternative ministries raised in the book but are these to replace or to complement other renewable existing church ministries?

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