Book Review

The Shaping of Things to Come, Michael Frost & Alan Hirsch

    Frost and Hirsch lay out a carefully-prepared argument for what they believe will and should be the shape and look of the postmodern church. Throughout these first chapters, the authors are constantly contrasting what they consider two distinct church worldviews or modes: Institutional churches (most churches today, taking their form from the influence of Christendom) and Missional churches (the emerging churches, though not necessarily Emergent churches, using the mode the authors believe is more authentically early-church).

    Institutional and Missional churches are primarily contrasted in their dominant mode of relationship to non-believers, or not-yet-Christians. Institutional churches are attractional/extractional (p12,18-21). They encourage members to invite their friends, etc., to church (away from their context) to encounter God (outside their natural context). This is primarily where non-believers encounter the gospel. In these churches, there is a distinct division (Dualism) between the sacred and the profane in that when something sacred comes into contact with something profane, there is a real fear of the sacred becoming profane. The authors are familiar with the same concepts that Vincent Miller explicates in Consuming Religion: 1700 years (Christendom) of this Dualism has effectively disconnected “interior faith [from] external practice.” Those within this mode love, according to the authors, hearing the stories about people driving by the church and sensing that they just had to turn into the church. Institutional churches are generally hierarchical with the Pastor at the top (and possibly the denomination).

    Missional churches are Incarnational and sending (9, 19-30). They are holistic and Messianic instead of dualistic. They see the world, not divided by lines of sacred and profane, but rather as a web of relationships. Christians have a web that connects us with the Christian and the not-Christian, strangers and neighbors, business partners and loved-ones. These churches are incarnational in that they do not create specific holy spaces where people need to come out of their context to experience God and the gospel. Missional churches see their presence as God’s Presence redeeming the contexts and culture. In their eyes, and in the way of Jesus, when the sacred touches the profane, it is the profane that is changed. The holy makes the not-so-holy, holy. These postmodern churches are characterized by their meeting in neutral (not religious) spaces and their decentralized leadership. They function in the 5-fold leadership areas identified in Ephesians 4 (Apostles, Prophets, Evangelists, Pastors, Teachers).

    Hirsch and Frost make some great points, though I cannot agree on everything they put forward, especially regarding the major problems with the institutional church that are somehow solved in the missional.

    First, the priesthood of believers. I’m for this, but not in the way it seems to be presented. It is hard to justify giving equal say/leadership in certain things of the “church”. Yes, all are priests, but not all are called into leadership positions, as evidenced by their use of Eph.4:11, the 5-fold ministry leadership. Certainly these 5 are not to lord it over those entrusted to their care, but they are entrusted with leading their ‘sheep’.

    And what about orthodoxy and scripture interpretation? Are all equally qualified (almost a terrible word to use…) to determine the ‘meaning’ of the scriptures or the limits and depth of orthodoxy? True, the authors believe that we must seek out the difference between church traditions and Church Traditions (as Brian McLaren promotes), but just how do we determine the difference? Is it not by seeking the advice and wisdom of the Institutional Church? While I am very strongly for much in this book, I’m concerned that a church planter’s search for the ‘next best thing’ in ministry may easily disregard the usefulness of the Tradition that has been preserved through the generations (thank you, Hauerwas, Andrew Walker and other Deep Church thinkers).

    Also, after reading Unleashing the Scriptures, bells have been ringing in my head through the pages of this book. First off, I am loving this read. I’m seeing some incredibly insightful and important matters to be enacted or, at the very least, discussed in my church. I have 8 pages of positive things to say about this book in my Learning Log, but I cannot escape a need I perceive as lacking: wisdom-sharing between the Institutional and Missional churches. I agree that the Institutional church probably has much, much more learning to do than do Missional, but the Missional need to learn from centuries of Church authority on scripture interpretation, on leadership, on accountability. If this is not engaged before moving forward, the Missional churches run the risk of arrogance, and therefore run the risk of heresy (sometimes a very good risk to take, I’ll agree). I think Stanley Hauerwas would argue (and I’d agree) that if individuals and independent churches claim the right to interpret Scripture for themselves, we get the Paul and Jan Crouch’s and Kenneth Copeland’s, the Mormons and Jehovah Witnesses, the Fred Phelps’s and Jim Jones’s of today. Being under authority cannot be overlooked in these Missional churches. I’m interested to know how the authors propose seeking out that “Church Tradition.”

    There is so much in these 5 chapters, from meeting spaces, to interacting with the community, from having a missional go-to-them attitude rather than an institutionalized “come to church” attitude, that I don’t have the time or room to write. However, one final concept I found familiar and it’s worth explaining.

    Bounded/Centered Sets. Bounded sets are how churches generally characterize those in, and those out. Have you said a certain prayer, do you attend church, do you read the bible, etc. They are based on whether one is within the accepted boundaries. If you are, you can call yourself a Christian.

    Centered sets are not necessarily based on proximity as much as direction and can help counter arrogance and super-spirituality. Since one could theoretically be closer in proximity to the center (Christ) than another, one may consider one’s self more spiritual, better-off, more mature. However, the proximity to center is not the matter of importance: the direction one faces is. Take two people, one who has been a Christian or in church for 30 years and another who is just now beginning to take a look at this whole “Jesus thing.” One could be closer in proximity to Christ b/c of their 30 year history, yet b/c of their arrogance, better-than-you attitude (a most un-becoming attitude for Christians, of course…) be facing more away from than towards Jesus. Centered sets hold that the one who is far away in proximity to Christ is in fact closer to Him simply on the basis of the journey towards Him. I absolutely love this.

One response to “Book Review

  1. Glad you are reading and writing about this book. It is one that I have on my growing list. Your paragraph on the priesthood of believers caught my attention and something I have been giving a lot of thought to. In the book I am currently reading, The Missional Leader, the authors point to missional churches as a community in which each person makes an active contribution, both during worship and dispersed service. These churches are small, not purposely, but because they emphasize hospitality and are committed to their values such as community, accountability, reproducible, and service. They state that many church leaders are not equipped to lead such churches, because they tend to be rooted in a Christendom mind-set and therefore leaders can tend to ignore three other areas of ministry listed in Ephesians 4: gifts of apostle, prophet, and evangelist. They suggest entrepreneurial leaders who can birth out new faith communities, prophets who are learned in the discipline of listening to God to interpret vision and discern counsel, and evangelists who can equip local churches to communicated the Good News. As I read this book I am challenged to look at a new way of church leadership. In The Missional Leader, we are encouraged to value our leadership skills from our experiences in the Institutional Church, but more importantly to look to God’s Word and to look towards avenues of team leadership. I look forward to more of your learnings and will share more of my own. Thanks again Josh.

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