by The Table

Alan Hirsch, a native South African, is a prominent thought leader and conceptual architect for missional Christianity. He seeks to reimagine the church as a dynamic missionary force faithful to its first-century roots. His books, particularly The Forgotten Ways: Reactivating the Missional Church, unpack ideas and concepts that help congregations reach secular people with a life-altering gospel.

Hirsch has spoken at Olivet Nazarene University and was a keynote speaker at Mission 2015, a mission and evangelism event for Nazarenes in the United States and Canada. In that event, Hirsch, who is a short and bearded man, described himself as a hobbit, but he is really a wizard at knowing how the church needs to change in order to be more faithful to God’s mission in the world.

WHY DO WE NEED TO RETHINK OUR UNDERSTANDING OF CHURCH?  

During the Protestant Reformation, the church was central to society and stood in a privileged place. That has changed, especially in the West. What is needed is to recalibrate our understanding of the church as institution and become a missionary agency in society.

We have to be willing to take a hard look at what blocks our capacity to be missional—and get the church into the world. I believe the church is essential, but as a historical and cultural entity, the church ought to be adaptive. What we’ve failed to do in Europe or in the West is fundamentally alter the way we think of ourselves. We don’t even realize that the way we think of ourselves is not the original form. The original form was a movement, which is much more adaptive and fluid than what we experience now. The church ought always to be reforming, according to the will of God.

WHAT DO YOU SAY TO THOSE WHO ARE NEW TO THE MISSIONAL CONVERSATION?

One of the great rediscoveries of the last century is the doctrine of missio dei, which is the idea that God is a missionary God. If you think about it, the Father sending the Son demonstrates the word missio, right? The Father sends the Son, the Son himself is sent and is sending, and they both send the Spirit. The Spirit embodies a missionary spirit, which is intrinsic to who God is, and that Spirit empowers the church to extend that vision into the world. Our faithfulness to the local church, traditional or not, is measured by our capacity to extend the mission. If you receive the Christian message, that makes you a messenger—a person of good news. Being traditional or contemporary doesn’t matter as long as we align ourselves to the eternal purposes of God.

HOW DO WE KNOW WHEN WE ARE FAITHFUL TO THE MISSIONAL IDEAL?

The best way is to ask, “What is my effect on those outside the church?” What would the world be like if we lived consistent with God’s will? Some people who look at the church don’t see an alternative society that’s worth living for. Second, I would look at a church’s budget. The majority of money, even in healthy churches, is spent on the inside. Even though most churches want to do mission, they seldom get around to it because of their own self-dynamics. In every Western setting, the church is on the decline, not because people fail to believe in or love God, but because they no longer believe in the church. That’s the big issue. We need to allow the mission of God to determine our understanding of church. It’s not that we create the mission. God’s already in mission in the world. Our job is to join God.

WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO A PLATEAUED OR DECLINING CHURCH?

Look at the early church or modern China, both having few resources, yet every believer carried within them the potential for world transformation. If you were the last believer in the world, the only one, I assume God could create the church out of you alone. The Holy Spirit is capable of using you. Look at the metaphor of the seed: With a seed, we have the potential for a tree and then a forest. The only conclusion you can draw is that people with less capacity, less education, and fewer resources manage to pull it off. The answer is not more resources but empowering people to become who God intends them to be. Discipleship is the key, but it’s not a short-term solution.

WHAT ARE KEY PRACTICES NEEDED TO CREATE A MISSIONAL MOVEMENT?

First, get together with others who are in tune with the need for change. God is activating and awakening people across the Western world to the calling of the church. Find those people and compare notes. Get a good book, read and discuss it together, and get under the hood of the way we think about church. We’ve got to think differently about ourselves and give space to do that, Bible in hand. As leaders, we need to get new imaginations and develop good processes for change.

You can’t take a one-model-fits-all approach and then impose that on a big scale. We have to learn how to contextualize the church in different settings and be brave enough to unpack what that means and what it takes. Also, I would say we need the reintegration of a five-fold ministry (which is the development of apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds, teachers found in Ephesians 4) to save a missional ministry for a missional church.

All five expressions are needed to be the kind of church envisioned in Ephesians 4:12-16, which is a church that’s not tossed around by every wind of doctrine, not whimsical, not capricious. Rather, it is connected, mature, achieving the fullness of Christ, and connected to Christ overall. You can’t do it without the five-fold ministry of Ephesians 4, so we need to find our way back to that.

The church is a sign, symbol, and foretaste of the kingdom of God, and I think justice, mercy, evangelism, witness—all these things fit within that fabric. The gospel is the gospel of the King and the kingdom, and the two are bound together. The gospel is much bigger than we’ve made it. More than planting churches, we need to plant the gospel.

WHAT DO YOU CONSIDER THE MOST IMPORTANT TAKEAWAY FROM YOUR WORK?

The biggest secret weapon in God’s hands is God’s people. When everyone is in the game and gets to play, we can change the world. And we become a good people. We have to be willing to take the journey of what it means to be a movement again, to be the kind of church Jesus intended us to be. The church Jesus intended is for world transformation, and we have all the capacities Jesus has given us to get the job done. So let’s do whatever we can to activate God’s people into the equation, and then the magic can all happen again.

This interview is part of a series accompanying videos here.


ALAN HIRSCH is the founding director of Forge Mission Training Network and a prominent author and speaker on the missional church.


This interview, which was adapted and condensed, was previously published in the Winter 2015 issue of Grace and Peace Magazine. Used by permission.

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