Decoding the “missional” DNA: A Review of Forgotten Ways

Posted: March 12, 2013 in Book Review, Church Growth, Church Planting, House Church, Leadership, Missions
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Hirsch, Alan. The Forgotten Ways: Reactivating the Missional Church. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press. 2006. 304 pp.

The Forgotten Ways is one of those books that simply destroys old paradigms and introduces completely new concepts. Hirsch attempts to describe the “apostolic genius” of the early church, and challenge the contemporary Western Church to recapture that “missional DNA.”

There’s a great little chart on page 64 that summarizes the church in the three modes he describes: the apostolic and post-apostolic, the christendom mode, and the emerging missional mode . However, the chart highlights my disagreements with the book. If I had two criticisms, they would be related to Hirsch’s history-telling.

1. I don’t think the picture Hirsch paints of the apostolic church was really quite so rosy in reality. Yes, the church grew very fast, and was characterized by a focus on mission. But there were some serous theological battles, that led to large portions of the Church separating from one another. In addition, although the “christendom” mode did see a consolidation and stagnation, there was still a strong focus on expansion, and significant Christian “missional” activity.

2. The “missional” mode, according to Hirsch, has been over the past 10 years. (Counting back from 2006). This unbelievably Western-centric viewpoint is actually uncharacteristic of Hirsch – it would be interesting to see if he changed this chart in the second edition. Hirsch himself refers to other “missional” movements, outside the West, that precede the recent wave of books with “missional” in their title or subtitle.  Seriously – I think he really may be dating the missional mode from the 1998 publication of Missional Church

Of course, we missionaries have frequently been guilty of exporting institutional church – but not always. And around the world, Hirsch’s missional DNA has been present in many places, throughout Christian history.

In spite of that criticism, I actually thought Hirsch did a better job of not gushing over American methods than most authors in this “missional” movement. He is Australian – which certainly helps – but he also focused on the theory behind practice, making this book easier to apply cross-culturally.

The missional DNA looks like this:

  1. Jesus Is Lord: A simple, but irreplaceable confession.
  2. Disciple Making: becoming like Jesus is at the core of the church.
  3. Missional-Incarnational Impulse: the gospel is lived out across cultures and people groups.
  4. Apostolic Environment: a certain type of leadership is necessary.
  5. Organic Systems: structures for growth.
  6. Communitas, not Community: We are sent, not gathered into a safe haven.

Brief digression – I loved the Paulo Coelho quote on p. 217, introducing the chapter on communitas: “The ship is safest when it is in port. But that’s not what ships were made for.”

I picked out 3 ideas that I thought were basic:

  1. Non-dualistic spirituality (p. 96). Hirsch’s diagram, contrasting dualistic and non-dualistic spirituality, i.e. integrating sacred and secular, really helped me to see and understand how I was doing that in my life, but also how to better communicate to others an integrated spirituality that includes God, church and world.
  2. The quality of the church’s leadership is directly proportional to the quality of discipleship (p. 119) Discipleship is primary, leadership is always secondary. This is a key concept – maybe even THE key concept. (It’s one of those “duh” ideas – of course leadership is dependent on discipleship – that has been simply ignored most of the time)
  3. Greek concept of knowledge contrasted with Hebrew concept of knowledge. (p. 124) The Greek concept is that right thinking leads to right action. Hebrew – right action leads to right thinking. Hirsch uses this in his chapter on disciple making, but the paradigm definitely applies for leadership training as well – but we very, very seldom apply this concept

A change toward missional thinking is really not just about following a new fad in church development. The spiritual concept Hirsch shares illustrates that it is about bringing all things, every sphere of our lives, under the lordship of Christ. We preach that, but we don’t always mean it, especially if it means significantly changing the church.

The last point resonates with a key factor in church planting movements around the world – obedience-based discipleship. In other words, doing what the Word says MUST go hand-in-hand with knowing what the Word says.

If you want to know a little more about the terms and history of the “missional” church movement – there’s a pretty good summary in J.R. Woodward’s blog here. If you’ve read and tried to apply Newbigin and Bosch – as most cross-cultural missionaries will have – Hirsch’s book will seem very basic in many areas.

However, if you love reading books that challenge your thinking about the church, or if you see that the church, as it is usually conceived, comes up short in reaching a culture that grows more “foreign” with every year – this is a great read.

You can buy Forgotten Ways at Amazon.

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