The Shaping Of Things To Come: Innovation And Mission For The 21st Century Church by Michael Frost
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I've been stalking the missional church for the past three years. My first exposure was somewhat accidental; someone put Mike Frost's Exiles on the free table at work, and I poached it and read it and loved it. It's ridiculously long, but his vision for the church was brilliant and the people he profiled were doing things, and calling it church, that I wanted to do and call church.
Eventually my pursuit of the missional church turned mercenary, as I thought perhaps I could compel some of these folks to write books for my book-publisher employer. I lived not far from the home base of Forge America, a training network for missional church issues, and from Wheaton College, where missional church guru Alan Hirsch was working to develop a master's degree program related to these topics. So I downloaded Hirsch's The Forgotten Ways onto my phone so I could be more conversant with the issues. I loved it; his ecology of the church and mapping of a missional DNA was intriguing and exciting and hopeful. My mercenary heart was strangely warmed, and I became a believer.
Finally I started reading The Shaping of Things to Come: Innovation and Mission for the 21st-Century Church . . . and then I put it down. Finally this week, three months into my Year of Overdue Books, I finished it. And it's really good and inspiring, just as all the other books I've read that touch on these themes are good and inspiring. It took me a while, but I'm glad I've read it.
In The Shaping of Things to Come, Hirsch and Frost work together to paint a picture of the kind of church that can survive the end of the Christendom era and reassert the centrality of Christ and the sovereignty of God. They argue for a Hebrew understanding of God and the world, as opposed to the Hellenistic worldview that dominated the church from the fourth century onward. A Hebrew perspective, according to Frost and Hirsch, is more earthy, more alert to the immanence of God, less preoccupied with theological abstractions and imperial hierarchies. God goes before his people, follows behind his people, oversees and understands his people, in the Hebrew theological mind. It's this mindset that is most conversant with the spirit of the contemporary age, which has grown weary of the scientific method and longs for a ground of being that speaks as effectively to the soul as it does to the left brain.
This Hebrew mindset allows for a more grassroots approach to the establishment and development of faith communities. Frost and Hirsch see missionaries, moreso than priests, as the appropriate template for a post-Christendom era. Priests serve in a church or cathedral, ministering to those who freely gather and transmitting the modes and mores of the past to the faithful of the next generation. This model is not a model for the expansion of the church; it's maintenance at best and managed marginalization at worst. It's fundamental to the idea of Christianity that the church is a base camp for the ongoing outreach and witness to the world around it. "How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard?" (Romans 10:14). Not to disparage priests, but they no longer carry the credibility they once did; they no longer preside over temples at the center of town and in the center of the people's imagination. The church is now on the periphery, a dangerous anachronism in the minds of many. The church, such as it is, is in trouble.
My boss likes to quote someone or other as saying, "There's nothing like the gallows to sharpen the mind." We think most creatively, we act most assertively, when we're in trouble. Our model can't be those who enjoy the favor of empires but must be those familiar with gallows. We have to look, in our era, to the martyrs for our model of being the church--the people of God.
The martyrs of the church have always been missionaries--loving the land of their sojourn but not bending the knee to it, reserving their praise and fidelity for God alone. Missionaries and martyrs learn to love the hard way, from a place of modesty and marginality. They form churches in the shape of the people they long to see in worship and fellowship. They see arbitrary hierarchy for what it is--occasionally helpful but always dangerous and sometimes inherently counterproductive--and they structure themselves in ways that most effectively serve their chosen mission. They don't settle for a ministry; they keep their eyes peeled for God's next movement.
It's this missionary impulse that drives the missional church that Shaping defines. Frost and Hirsch draw deeply from Martin Buber's writings to learn how Hebrew thinking interacts with the postmodern world; they draw on the work of Marshall McLuhan to understand how the habits and practices and shape of an organization such as the church can subvert the explicit and self-conscious message of the organization. Frost and Hirsch are able and nimble philosophers, and their theological work is rigorous and energizing.
But the particular genius of these two is their firm resistence to the gravitational pull of abstraction that attends to so much philosophy and theology. These two are storytellers as much as they are scholars, and they are fiercely committed to the notion that whatever the church is, it's people made in the image of God bearing the good news of Jesus Christ. As intricate as the book is, it's eminently practical and remarkably hopeful.
The type is too small; I think that's what killed my momentum on this book the first time around. I may also have hit a little "missional fatigue" somewhere along the way, maybe a sense of dissonance between the church of Frost and Hirsch's imaginations (and experiences) and the church in which I participate. I may have been too old when I started the book; I'm feeling a little younger now that I've finished it.
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