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The Emerging View of the Church in Society: Alan Hirsch/Michael Frost and the Danger of De-Ecclesiologizing The Church in Mission

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This is my last of three treatments on the theology of the emerging/missional church. As I said on the three previous posts here, here and here,  I’m currently winding down my book project  The End of Evangelicalism? by writing an epilogue probing the possibility what a new faithfulness might look like to emerge “from the rubble” of evangelicalism. I applaud the emerging and/or missional church movements. But I contend they must avoid three dangers, three traps if they (we) are to elude the traps that evangelicalism has itself already fallen into.  That’s when I came up with these three clumsy terms, de incarnationalize, de-eschatologize and de-ecclesiologize. Today, I’m examining one of my favorite persons in the missional church movement – Alan Hirsch and his co-writer Michael Frost. I love these guys. I hope they take what I wrtite here as an act of love and appreciation for what they’re doing.  Here’s some of what I wrote (edited for a blog post with citations etc. deleted) on third of the 3 traps using Hirsch and Frost to illustrate what such a danger might look like.

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Emerging/Missional leaders have criticized evangelicalism’s practice of the church as too defensive and inward looking. The evangelical church, they say, has become an organization set off over against society as opposed to being a people in and among society in God’s Mission. Missiologists Alan Hirsch and Michael Frost,  two of the main leaders of the missional church movement in N America, have challenged evangelicals in this regard to embrace a “missional ecclesiology” in N America.

Early on in their writing, Frost and Hirsch chided the N. American church for its obsession with attracting people to come to its services and programs. In The Shaping of Things to Come, they labeled the N. American church as fundamentally “attractional.” It is structured primarily around a building which is to be the center of all its various services and programs. This “attractional” modus operandi has engulfed all of the church’s functions including evangelism. According to Hirsch and Frost, we even seek to reach the hurting and those seeking faith by inviting them to church to a program we built to meet their needs. For Frost and Hirsch, this notion of the church is fundamentally flawed. It depends upon the social orbit of Christendom society where the societal expectation is that the church would be the center for all things having to do with God. This Christendom world, however, is slowly passing away. Today, this attractional “indrag” works to close off the church from the hurting and the poor and the ever-increasing world of non-Christians.

For Frost and Hirsch, the N. American church is carrying on the bad habits of Christendom. We still believe we possess power and influence in our culture “to compel them to come to us.” We organize ourselves into hierarchical business like structures that centralize the church’s operations instead of dispersing it into the world. In order to preserve our own culture, we divide what is sacred (the church) from the secular (the world). It is a power play requiring those who believe to come to church to meet God.  As a result, the church is self-enclosed trying to defend its own view of the world. It has not only withdrawn from Mission, it has become antagonistic to it. In many ways then, Frost and Hirsch agree with just about everything I have written in The End of Evangelicalism? concerning evangelicalism’s practice of “the Christian Nation.”

In response to this state of affairs, Hirsch and Frost preach a dispersed notion of the church where it inhabits its neighborhoods and contexts of everyday life. Recounting some the core themes of missional thinkers, they unfurl how the church is to live missionally as an extension of the Mission of God in the world (not as a church that does missions as a program). We are to follow Christ and the incarnational model of God’s sending the Son into the very context, rhythms and language of everyday human life. We are to live inhabit the context and witness to the Kingdom. These are “the forgotten ways” of Jesus and His disciples, which bred the first mission into the world. It is only after we inhabit and identify with those we are with that the church can then take shape in terms of its programs and services. To do the reverse is to revert to the attractional ways of Christendom.

This brief summary does not do justice to the contributions of Hirsch and Frost to the burgeoning missional church movement in N. America. They have provoked the church, especially the evangelical church, to rethink its position in society and take up the posture of Christ in the world, who came humbly, vulnerably to serve, seek and save the lost. They offer us a practice of church that shapes us out of the dispassion and protectionism that has plagued so much of our churches. Their work is helping to shape among a politic of faithfulness for mission in our time.

Nonetheless, there is a potential ideological trap that lies within the missiological practices of Hirsch and Frost. It is the trap of de-ecclesiologizing the church’s relationship to society. By the word de-ecclesiologize, I am not referring merely to Frost/Hirsch’s resistance to the institutionizing of the church. Indeed some of that might be warranted. I refer instead to the separating of the practice of the church from any continuous work of the incarnate Christ in history as extended in the forms of the church by the Holy Spirit. If this happens, I contend that the church is set adrift from any determination in Christ and the work of Christ in the world. It becomes de-ecclesiologized.

This trap is not immediately apparent in Frost and Hirsch. On the contrary, they have written extensively in sympathy with theme of The End of Evangelicalism?: the restoring of Christ to the center of a politic of Mission in the world. The central task of their book ReJesus is to “reinstate the central role of Jesus … in the life and mission of God’s people.” They do not wish to separate the practice of the church from Christ, they seek to “reinstate” it. They often summarize their approach to this issue with the formula: “mission must precede ecclesiology and that Christology must precede missiology.” For Hirsch and Frost, this phrase requires that Christ must come first and be the source of the church’s formation in the world. It is Christology which drives Mission from which the church is birthed in the world.

It is this formula, however, and the assumptions behind it, that reveal the potential for the de-ecclesiologizing of the church in their ecclesiology. Implicit in this formula is that we (anyone) can know/encounter Christ determinately apart from the ongoing form of the church. The continuous forms of the church, including Eucharist, the preaching and interpretation of the canon of Scripture, the fellowship of the gifts, are therefore dispensable for Mission. Jesus forms the church directly in Mission and the church is de-ecclesiologized in Mission.

Hirsch and Frost of course are following the founding theological mantra of missional church theology, that “it is not the church that has a mission to bring God’s salvation to the world, it is the mission of the Son and the Spirit through the Father that includes the church.” That the church should be defined as an extension of God’s Mission in the sending of the Son should not be questioned. Yet for Hirsch and Frost, this doctrine means that the church carries no continuous form from context to context. According to Hirsch, first comes entering the cultural context, identifying with its people, getting know, understand and live among the context. Only then, after one’s life takes shape in the culture, after redemption has taken hold in the culture, can the church take on forms. The church, as Alan is fond of saying, “comes out the back of mission.” The forms in which the church takes shape in the world are all a matter of post facto development after “we” have inhabited a context. The questions however remain: who are the ones who engage the context prior to being the church? Does not this missiological engagment assume the prior existence of the church? And how does one know Christ in this context apart from the continuous forms of the church to carry on His presence in the world?

Hirsch and Frost imply in ReJesus that it is through “a direct and unmediated relationship” between the individual believer and Christ that He is known in the context (ReJesus 55). They go to great lengths to “debunk the many false images” of Jesus that have existed in the church down through the ages. They then seek to “go back to the daring, radical, strange, wonderful, inexplicable, unstoppable, marvelous, unsettling, disturbing, caring, powerful God-Man” (ReJesus 105,111). They recognize here that we must allow all the various images of Jesus in the gospels to drive our encounter with the world. There is a serious attention given to the texts of Scripture in defending the “wild Messiah” Jesus they advocate as the basis for Mission in the world. There remains the question however, how do we seek after this Jesus without ourselves becoming victums of another encultured view of Christ? this time the Wild Messiah as portrayed and argued for by Hirsch and Frost. For Frost and Hirsch it is a fresh encounter with the living Christ which over comes the forms of the church instead of being made manifest in these same forms as Christ has given them to the church. The danger here is that Christians are left without a basis for our very connection to the ongoing presence of Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit in the Triune history. We become a bunch of individuals seeking a personal mystical experience of Christ via our own interpretation of the gospels. We become individual worshipers of a self-described Jesus devoid of the means to be immersed in the work of the Triune God in the world.

The church however has been given practices from Christ and in continuity with Christ as the Sent One to embody Christ in the world by the Spirit. Within these practices of the Eucharist, the preaching of the Word, baptism, the fellowship of the “gifts” through mutual submission, ordination, service to the poor (Matt 25), the presence of Christ in mutual discernment (Matt 18:15-20) the body of Christ is materialized in the world. These various practices must be contextualized for each place we inhabit God’s Mission. Yet it is here in these practices that we learn that the incarnation is more than a principle to be applied as a missiological method – it is a reality extended in and thru the church. These practices should not separate us from the world, they should incarnate us as His body in the world. To somehow separate these practices from the extended work of Christ in history into the world via the Spirit is to risk setting up on high an ideological picture of Jesus as the possession of each individual. Instead through these simple ecclesial practices, we are enabled as individuals to submit to and participate in the full Trinitarian Mission of God of which the church has been sent and is a part. In these ways, missiology does not precede ecclesiology, missiology is ecclesiology and vice versa..

The danger in all of this is that the church falls into the trap of becoming ideologized. Without the forms of the church, we Christians are left without a source of political formation in the world. Without a practice to be formed “in Christ,” we as individuals instead gravitate around compelling causes, which often can be used and manipulated for ulterior purposes, whether it be the building of a large organization or the accumulation of power for purposes devoid of Christ. If the church has no stance from which to engage the world, discern the issues, and engage God’s work in the world, it is susceptible to disappearing as it is contextualized out of existence. It can then become an ideology or worse, the instrument of an ideology. Either way the church loses its faithfulness. “Mission” becomes an ideological banner because it too is undetermined by a concrete practice in the world. It in essence becomes a concept to be applied. We can be lured to put it to the service of the pragmatics of making the church more successful in terms and for purposes that have little to do with God’s Mission. In all these ways, de-ecclesiologizing the church’s place in the world makes the church susceptible to the trap of becoming the instrument of ideology, repeating (what I show in the End of Evangelicalism?) the evangelical mistake of “the Christian Nation.”

Hirsch and Frost rightly want to guard against the Western habit of imposing a form of imperialism on the host cultures we seek to inhabit. They want to guard against the church thinking its got it all figured out before it lands in a culture. They want to guard against the tendency for the church to think that the Holy Spirit is only working in the church and its practices. For all of this Hirsch and Frost are to be applauded. With Frost and Hirsch, we should understand that the practice of the church needs be contextualized although not discarded. The church has failed often in its history at this. We need to realize that God’s Mission is at work outside the church, that Jesus is Lord over all things, and the church exists to inhabit, discern and be responsive to His work, not our own pre agendas. The church has failed at this. We need to listen to Hirsch and Frost. Yet we must do so while taking heed to avoid the trap of de-ecclesiologizing the church stance in society.

There is no question in my mind that Hirsch and Frost are leading post evangelicalism towards a new faithfulness for Mission. They teach us how to be Christ’s body, His very incarnate reality in the world. They teach us the ways of compassion, of being among the poor and the needy, they teach us how to be an hospitable witness that embodies the justice of Christ in the world. These are truly the beginnings of a politic of faithfulness. If there is to be such a politic in our future however, we must avoid the trap of de-eccelesiologizing our belief and practice of the church in society.

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What do you think? Does Alan and Michael fall into the trap of de-ecclesiologizing the church? Have I fallen into the error of Catholicism (please describe what that might be for you eh?)? Does this matter?

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