The Forgotten Ways

Alan Hirsch
The Forgotten Ways

Grand Rapids: Brazos Press. 2006.
Reviewed by Donald Goertz, Tyndale Seminary. September, 2007.

This book is a significant contribution to the whole discussion regarding the nature and practices of the missional church. Hirsch draws heavily from his own experiences as a pastor in Melbourne, Australia. But, he does not use that as his only lens for reflecting on missional practices. He also uses examples from the early church and the contemporary underground church in China. These latter two serve as case studies to reflect on the church and its development in a context where Christendom does not loom as the dominant shaping force.

For this genre, the book is strong in its depth of theological reflection. It is here that so many of the books discussing the missional church fall short. The focus turns too quickly to practices with the result that the theological foundations regarding the nature and mission of the church are lost. Hirsch does not make that mistake. He pulls together material on aspects of incarnation and missional ecclesiology which provide rich, yet concise discussions of the literature.

His sixth chapter, on Apostolic Environment, is particularly strong. Working with Ephesians, Hirsch combines text and graphics to make his point that for too long the church has moved key leadership gifts out to parachurch groups; in particular apostle, prophet and evangelist. Meanwhile, within the church we have built our leadership structures around people who possess gifts of teacher and pastor. While these are essential to the leadership mix, they are not the gifts which lead the church out in mission. This has been devastating to our capacity to live missionally. His recommendations are practical and simple.

The strongest sections of the book are the final two chapters, on Organic Systems and communitas. Here he draws heavily from chaos complexity theory. While the concept can be very difficult to explain, he does a commendable job of outlining it and explaining its importance. His examples, particularly from the Chinese church, illustrate how chaos theory can work on the ground. It is here that we come to the heart of the book. He is arguing for a restructuring of the church built on a networking model informed by chaos theory. To that he adds Victor Turner’s work on liminality and Al Roxburgh’s subsequent development of that concept.

The weakest element of the book lies in its instinct toward deconstructing the church. It would be helpful if more attention was given to application of these insights to existing churches. The greatest need facing the Church in Canada today is the revisioning of our current congregations in ways which engage their cultural context.

For those familiar with the literature, the ideas are not new. But, the structure of the book and Hirsch’s capacity to take the ideas and show how they work in a variety of contexts does move the whole missional conversation forward. There is a lot of literature coming out on the missional church. If you have to make a choice, be sure that this is one that you read.